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Getting Things Done

Thanks to a comment submitted by Brian for my article Working Smarter, Not Harder, I have recently worked through the book Getting Things Done : The Art Of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I already considered myself well-organized, yet I found the book extremely helpful. The author takes a bottom-up approach, focusing on presenting an organizational system for handling the many daily activities that arise in all facets of your life (i.e. professional as well as personal). The system presented by the author is based on many years of experience (20+), both in teaching it to others and using it himself.

Things that I really liked from the book:

  • The concept of the 'next action' runs throughout the book. For any project / task / meeting, it is extremely helpful to ask the question 'What is the next action'. A next action must be something physical - something tangible and concrete. A typical example: you have a task to hold a meeting on some topic. But that's not an action. A next action would be to create the agenda, or to create a list of attendees. Determining the explicit action and writing it done is often mentioned as a key ingredient in achieving your goals and visions, so it was interesting to see it presented as a key component of the book's organizational system.
  • Everything in your head is written down, even items not worth doing now (if ever). This clears your mind from worrying about these items, since they are recorded in the system.
  • Actions are organized primarily by context - the environment available to you. For example, an action to discuss something with your manager requires the presence of that person, while an action to purchase new office supplies requires you to go to the appropriate store.
  • The weekly review is a key aspect of the overall system. Once a week you systematically review everything recorded in the system and make sure nothing is being neglected. I've tried before certain techniques from the book's system like maintaining a waiting for / delegated task list, but it didn't work because I didn't systematically review it.
  • The book's recommendations for organizing the filing system worked great. It seems like such a low-level, mundane issue, but it really does make a difference in terms of the overall system.
  • The book did a great job explaining the reasons behind the different pieces of the system, most of which are based in human psychology.

I've implemented the book's organizational system and it has been working quite well so far. I did encounter a few issues:

  • It took a few days to fully implement the system, during which time I wasn't getting much of anything done. However, this included cleaning up all sorts of old files & papers and a re-organization of my office area, both of which were long overdue.
  • The book did a decent job of discussing different approaches for actually storing / managing the recorded information - i.e. paper in folders, paper lists, electronic - but naturally left the choice up to the reader. It was a little tricky to try and figure out the approach that would work best for me without yet having used the system. There are one or two things I may still tweak.
  • I'm still trying to determine how to coordinate my paper-based actions with my email-based actions. For example, I record an action in my paper system which results in me sending an email and waiting for a response. Do I keep the action in my paper system? Probably not, but what if after the email response, there is a follow-up action that is offline?
  • The new system requires a higher level of discipline than my old, less-organized system. I think I'll be able to maintain the new system (I consider myself fairly disciplined), but certain personality types may have greater difficulty. The book never addressed this issue, and in fact implicitly makes the point that to survive in today's information age, particularly as an executive, requires you to have a highly disciplined system for managing the information & tasks that come your way.

I recently came across the following quote: "Time can't be managed, only activities can.", by Earl Nightingale. I think that's a good summary of what Getting Things Done is all about. I highly recommend reading this book and try adopting the organizational system it presents. You owe it to yourself and to those who are depending on you.

What's your next action?

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4 Comments on “Getting Things Done”

  1. Javagirl says:

    Hi Basil

    You may find this site interesting: http://www.diyplanner.com/templates/official/classic a collection of document templates one may use to help put into practice some of the concepts you and the book you recommend utilize.

  2. Thanks. I checked it out, and found the 1-page summary of the entire process a good reminder to print out and put on my office wall.

  3. Justin Gamble says:

    Hi Basil,

    I am glad you recommended the Getting Things Done book, it has been very helpful for me.

    The book leaves it to the reader to decide the best medium to keep action lists (whether it be on paper, on palm, or on computer, ..). Which has left me trying to figure out what is the most effective for me.

    I found the following free online tool for keeping track of action lists: http://www.toodledo.com/

    I’ve been using this tool for about a week now, and rather like it so far. Once you create an account, and click on the learning link, you can see a link to the following article:
    (which, if nothing else, indicates that the folks at toodledo.com are aware of the “Getting Things Done” principles)

    Within toodledo.com I like the you can specify tasks with a context, and then filter your action list based on those contexts. Some of my contexts include.. {In Car, With Computer, At Home, On Phone, At Work}. So before stepping out of the house I can filter on “In Car” and then print the list of things that I’d like to do while I am driving around.

    I am curious which other tools people are finding useful for implementing the Gettings Things Done principles ?

  4. Thanks for the comment, Justin. I myself use a primarily paper-based system at home and primarily Outlook at work to track tasks.

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