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Getting Things Done

That famous book by David Allen…

I read this book long time ago, say 2009. I found it very useful. It helped me become better organized, at a time when my job was flooding me with lots of little requests and I was having to push myself not to forget—or ignore—tasks. I stopped reading half way through, as I found the writing as dry as cardboard.

Recently I lent my copy to a young colleague at work who was interested in productivity methods. He read it quickly, and told me that the second half of the book was totally worth it, so I decided it was time to revisit.

I had not been mistaken the first time: the book is as dry as dust, and I had to skim to get through the second half. Since I’ve done the work now, here’s a summary, so I can save myself the effort in another 10 years.

At a very high level, the book’s thesis is: you have lots of things going on in your life. Tasks that need to be done, projects under way, expectations. You need a system to capture all those things, or your mind will cycle through them constantly, and ineffectively, in urgency mode.

The book holds that you should write all those tasks and projects down, in a system that is always at hand and that you review often. A notebook, a piece of software, a combination. And it proposes a set of categories to put things under.

The categories:

  • Next actions
  • Someday / maybe
  • Projects (things that require many actions to complete)
  • Calendar
  • Waiting (things that are being done by someone else)

Two extra “categories” that hold non-actionable stuff:

  • Trash
  • Reference

But just writing things down is not enough. You should review your system periodically. The book suggests frequent perusal, and a weekly review of the whole system.
The idea is that you should do anything that takes less than two minutes on the spot, and for longer tasks you should determine what the next action is, and classify that into the system as appropriate, say by making appointments that you put on the calendar, or delegating to someone else and putting an entry in Waiting.

Reviewing the book after 10 years, I found it nice that the system is simple and requires no more categories. I realized that the Waiting category is a very good place to remind myself of books I have lent, or money that is owed to me. And that Someday is a good kind of category for concerts I want to go to or trips I want to make, and a much better storage area for them than web bookmarks.

I have to say, I like this simplicity. I find that overly complex filing systems become a sure way to lose things.

The first section of the book presents the system. The second section, the largest, mostly spells things out, giving very detailed examples. Many examples. Too many. Everything from where to classify an example task, to how the author sets up his work-space, what kind of a filing cabinet to buy, the importance of labelers (each team member should have one, it’s revolutionary), an anecdote that happened to a client, a trick to set up an on-the-go office for people who move a lot. This section does not really add much, and I found it tiresome.
However, my colleague told me he found it extremely useful. The problem he had was knowing which category to put tasks in, and the second section had been immensely helpful for him.
The third and last section is a bit of a summary, which is welcome after the example-fest.

On this second reading, I took a few things out that I did not remember:

  • Don’t pollute your calendar with things you’d like to get done on a day, but which may be done at a different time. As he says “You need to trust your calendar as sacred territory.”
  • Once you have all your commitments tracked, you find it easier to say No: “One of the best things about this whole method is that when you really take the responsibility to capture and track what’s on your mind, you’ll think twice about commitments internally that you don’t really need or want to make.”
  • The importance of the Weekly Review: “Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you go on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and negotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.”