Gettings Things Done – a review by Drew

Late January found me wandering the San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to Toronto. We had just finished a tour of Silicon Valley and I was feeling overwhelmed by the vast amount of new projects I’d received. Casting about for something to do during the five hour flight, I absentmindedly wandered through the bookstore near my gate.

Such were the depths of my ennui, that for the first time in my life I stopped to consider the “Business” shelf.

Immediately, one cover in particular caught my eye: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

2nd edition cover

The analytical part of my mind feebly coughed and sputtered into life:

I have a lot of things that need to get done…

I am not as good at getting things done as I’d like to be…

I too would like to be more productive with less stress…

In my overwhelmed mental state, casting about as I was for anything that might help me shoulder the burden of expectations that had been placed upon me, the cover’s promise was enough: stress-free productivity. I was in.

Twenty minutes later, copy in hand, I boarded my flight to Toronto, nestled down in my seat, and began reading.

It was, without hyperbole, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

The foundation of the Getting Things Done approach (hereafter “GTD”) is absolute commitment to the rule that the brain, the mind, is for analyzing, creating, thinking and NOT for tracking. Walking around with dozens or hundreds of mental “to-dos” is exhausting, even paralyzing. The GTD system provides a framework for stripping all of these tasks OUT of your consciousness and into a highly efficient, manageable, and most importantly actionable record. Thereby, your mental energies can be devoted to productive activities (problem solving, speculation, etc.) rather than to repeatedly reminding yourself about unfinished tasks.

During that plane flight to Toronto I read the first half of the book, enough to understand the initial “brain download” step, and then began emptying my consciousness into digital post-it notes on my tablet. By wheels-down in Toronto there were more than 200 goddamn notes. I had been carrying more than 200 to-dos around in my head! That night, for the first time in a long time, I slept soundly and deeply.

But GTD is not simply writing down a bunch of to-do lists. Rather, activities are organized into Projects and Tasks. Each project can have n tasks, which are almost always going to have some sort of sequential nature. What sets GTD apart from other time-management systems in my mind is its approach to tasks.

A person typically defines a task with nouns. My list of today’s to-dos might include “July tradeshow” – it’s a reminder to myself to allocate some time to further preparations for the tradeshow in July. In reality though, this is a nebulous task without milestones — pile a few like tasks on someone and watch them drown.

Within GTD, my “July tradeshow” task becomes a project, and within the project I create a task for every action I can possibly think of that needs to be done in order to complete that project. And the word “complete” is key – you are forced to think through each project to the very end in order to discover weaknesses or unclear areas before they blow up in your face later. Here is what my GTD July Tradeshow project might contain:

  • request floorspace pricing and space availability from organizer
  • receive floorspace pricing and space availability from organizer
  • request booth design bid from vendor A
  • request booth design bid from vendor B
  • request booth design bid from vendor C
  • discuss products to exhibit with local dealer
  • finalize exhibition project list
  • etc.

Normally, you’re walking around all day with that list and fifty more crammed into your head all clamoring for attention – it wears you down! Also, note the second task above: hearing back from the organizer. In the GTD system you make tasks concerning responses from others. This was a bit of a watershed moment for me, as I’ve often been guilty of forgetting that someone was supposed to get back to me and thereby letting them off the hook.

There are a great many more facets to the GTD system, but you must forgive me for not reproducing the entire book for you here!

The last part of GTD I’d like to introduce is the aspect I so far have used the least. Each task can, and should, be tagged with one or more contexts. A context can be thought of as a prerequisite for undertaking that task. It might be geographic (“@office”) or related to accessibility (“when online”) or temporal (“before bed”) or whatever else is appropriate.

Through the use of contexts, you are able to quickly call up a list of possible tasks to accomplish whenever you have time. Waiting to board a flight? Flip over to your “to call” context task list and knock out a phone call or two while you wait. Sitting in a coffee shop waiting for someone else to show up? Time to load up the “to email” context task list and quickly knock a few off. At this point you’re really maximizing your time. (This sentence makes me cringe, but it’s the reality of modern business life, isn’t it?)

The second and current edition of Getting Things Done mentions the proliferation of internet support tools for implementing the GTD approach in your life, but avoids making any direct recommendations as to particular software or sites.

I can say that I am really happy with Chaos Control (link). It’s not free, but it is also not terribly expensive. You can sync your projects and tasks across all of your devices and computers automatically. Note that this IS a data privacy compromise – your data is on their servers – so if you want to implement GTD for sensitive topics you should look elsewhere. I’ve yet to find an open-source, self-hosted solution that can rival Chaos Control but when I do I’ll be sure to do a write-up and also update this journal. Some screenshots of their Android application follow:

Chaos Control – main menu view – Android
Chaos Control – daily plan view – Android
Chaos Control – task creation view – Android
Chaos Control – project view – Android
Chaos Control – context list view – Android
Chaos Control – all projects view – Android

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that your life is never so busy as to really, truly need something like GTD. But for those of you who do, I can assure you that you won’t regret integrating it into your life. Every day, both professionally and personally, I’m glad I did. Someday I hope my life pace slows enough that I no longer need it, but for now it brings method to my madness.

Thank you, David Allen!

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