Books I Read: Getting Things Done


I would classify myself as being “highly productive” (or as someone once told me I’m a “worker bee”). The common question that I get from colleagues is something along the lines of “where do you find the time?” The simple answer is that the time is already there, I just might make more productive use of it than some other folks. I have a computer with me at all times during the workday, and I’m never far away from one at home, so my major working tool is a constant companion. On some level, I want to justify the expense to my district, who has seen fit to give me a pretty snazzy laptop to take with me everywhere. And I’m pretty good at keeping track of what has to be done when, and then actually doing it. But as productive as I appear externally, internally I know my system isn’t 100% leakproof, and is nowhere near as efficient as it could be. There are ways I want to live my life that my productivity systems were preventing by virtue of the time and attention that they demanded. Frequently my instinct is to “dial it back”, and take on less than I may currently be responsible for, but that’s not always an option when one is responsible for keeping a family healthy and functional. Ideally, whatever changes I was looking to make would enable me to maintain (or even increase) my productive output, while still giving me time to focus on family, health, and the various creative endeavors I look to accomplish. It was while I was looking around for ways to take my current system and improve it, that I came across “Getting Things Done”.

“Getting Things Done” is both a methodology and a book about that methodology. Anyone who is interested can find quite a bit of information about the method without having to read the book, but I imagine that if it appeals to you, you’ll probably get yourself a copy for the sake of completeness if nothing else. As a book, it’s a good one. Being the only book I have ever read on productivity, I can’t really rank it against its brethren, but I imagine it’s probably better than many and as good as most. It’s not going to win any literary prizes. But you’re not really reading it to savor David Allen’s literary chops, you’re reading it to adjust your production system.

As a system, “Getting Things Done” (or GTD, as it’s commonly referred to) is solid. Compared to my pre-GTD processes, I didn’t have to change a whole lot to implement GTD. I was already using tools and structures that worked in a functionally leak-proof manner 95% of the time. The major operating change for me was a rigorous movement to taking all of my To-Do’s and actionable steps out of my mental organizer (“psychic RAM” to use the GTD term) and bringing them in to external tools where I could convince myself that nothing was getting lost. This has had some major benefits on my productive life. Here are the major ones: - I’ve totally stopped using my e-mail inbox as a holding space for reminders of things that I need to do. I process several thousand emails a month, and a good bit of my working tasks first enter my cognitive space via email. Having lingering items in my inbox makes me uncomfortable, so it had become a natural way to remind myself of what I needed to do. But GTD suggests movement from these types of discomforting reminder processes to other, less annoying ones. I think there is tremendous merit to this approach. Following my implementation of appropriate structures, I’ve found that the typical state of my inbox following email processing is now the much-hallowed “inbox zero”. This alone is probably worth the price of GTD admission for me. - I don’t forget anything, as long as I process it correctly. I mean this in all seriousness. And like I said, I was pretty good at it before, but with my new system I’m essentially flawless. If you’re like me, typically you’d bring everything you needed to on a trip, except for one or two minor items that escaped your mental net. Or you would be almost ready to start a workday and realize that the one thing you need is somewhere else. This doesn’t happen anymore. Plus, the new way of doing business doesn’t require me to keep everything I have to do in my brain, which allows me to use my brain for more brain-centric things, like actually doing what I want to be doing when I need to be doing it.
- I have more space in my life to do stuff. This is the major winner for me. Since I don’t have to spend time remembering what I want to do when, I can use time to actually do things. There are a few things that I want to do in different areas of my life. Suddenly, I have found that I actually have good, solid spans of time to do those things. What’s even better is that when I am doing them, I’m not bothered by a nagging sense that I might need to be doing something else, or that I need to remember to do whatever it is I need to do later. This is particularly useful when one considers that one of the major things that I want to be able to do is to spend time with my family without getting pulled away by some stupid unremembered task or another.

If any of the above appeals to you, check out “Getting Things Done”. Depending on your current state of productivity, and the efficiencies of your systems, you may find the transition to be more or less demanding than I did, but I think it’s worth it, even if it requires major shifts on your part. Personally, I don’t imagine that my post-GTD system is perfect, but I know that it is miles above where it was before I started. It’s been a very useful transition for me. If you’re looking for similar things in your life, it might well be useful for you, too.

Post Script- One thing about “Getting Things Done” (the book): It was definitely written in an age where constant digital tools were still in their infancy (which is to say it was written about 10 years ago). Pretty much every physical tool that David Allen describes has been replaced in my own workflow with digital ones that didn’t exist when the book was written. Something to keep in mind, though I imagine it will be obvious to folks who relate to technology similarly to the way that I do. I’ll write more about the tools that I use to organize my life in another post, but I figured I should mention this, if only to prepare you for the glimpse into the past you’ll discover.