Getting Things Done

Author: David Allen
Pages: 267
Published: Penguin Books (January 1, 2003)
ISBN: 0142000280


A lot has been written about David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system, and with good reason. It's an elegant, yet powerful methodology for achieving "stress-free productivity". Its key principles are relatively simple, and the entire system is very flexible.

The Key Ideas

The Next Action

The "next action" is probably the most useful aspect of GTD. If you've ever had a list of things to do, and have resisted looking at it, you could benefit from the power of the next action. David Allen suggests that the resistance is caused because most to-do lists aren't well defined tasks, but are just "stuff" that needs to be done, and we still have to figure out what needs to be done before we can actually do it.

The next action captures the next, physical action that can be taken to move a project toward completion. These actions are then placed on contextual to-do lists, and the project they relate to is placed on a separate list of projects.

Contextual To-Do Lists

Instead of sticking every single next action on a single list, lists are divided into contexts or locations. For example, you may have a list for phone calls, computer based work and jobs to be done whilst out at the shops. It's a simple idea, but it makes sense.

The Mind Dump

Throughout the book, the concept of "Mind like water" is often mentioned. If you've studied the martial arts, you may have heard of this. David Allen suggests that by storing everything in our heads in a trusted system, we can have a mind like water – i.e. one free of distractions.

The mind dump is a technique used to capture everything that is floating around inside the brain, and storing it in your GTD system. The mind dump is usually part of a weekly review, and it's simply a case of writing down any "open loops" that happen to be on your mind and putting them in your inbox. These notes can then be processed separately, and the appropriate next actions generated.

The Weekly Review

The weekly review is possibly the most overlooked part of GTD, but it's also the most important activity for making sure your system doesn't fall apart. The weekly review involves a "mind dump", the review of calendar information, current project and actions lists, and the relevant processing. It sounds like a big task, but it generally takes around an hour to fully complete. It's a good way of making sure nothing gets forgotten, and that everything is up to date.

The good bits…

GTD is flexible. There are plenty of "hacks" scattered over the internet, and it's really up to the individual as to how they wish to implement the system. The important part about GTD is that processing is done before something is added to the next action list, which takes away the anxiety of seeing a huge list of tasks and trying to sort out what to do.

The not so good bits…

GTD is flexible. If you like structure, you may be in a shock. However, because it is flexible, you can quite easily tweak it to your personality. Even if you don't fully implement the system, using something like contextual to-do lists can make an improvement to your productivity.

One particular sticking point for people is the "Weekly Review", which is not covered in much detail in the book. The main reason for this is that it's a relatively simple task that doesn't really need pages of explanation. I showed my own weekly review checklist on the Sodaware blog, which may help anyone who is not so sure about it.

Quick Summary

If you're seriously interested in organising yourself, and you find most productivity methodologies to be too rigid, then I highly recommend Getting Things Done. It takes a while to get in the habit of performing a weekly review, but it's worth it.

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