April 30, 2004

Getting Things Done by David Allen

book coverI got this from the library after reading about it in Seedlings & Sprouts. The book describes a methodology for keeping all your commitments outside your head where you can keep an eye on them and don't have to think about them all the time.

Eight or nine years ago, my then-boss got bitten by the Franklin Planner system (back before they became Franklin Covey) and sent everyone in his group to their seminar on how to use that system. The Franklin system consists of a binder with daily pages and reference pages in which you keep all your appointments and lists and notes and contact info. The seminar was pretty inspiring and I used the binder for a number of years. It was helpful to me to have all my stuff in one place even though I hardly ever used the calendar part or the daily record of events. The todo list eventually deteriorated into a constant dance of forwarding incomplete tasks off the days when I thought I might be able to do them onto future days (repeatedly... This may have had more to do with the state of my brain chemistry than any failings in the system per se ;-). But even when I was using the system semi-religiously it felt like kind of a coarse approximation of my perfect personal productivity system.

The system Allen describes in Getting Things Done feels like it might be a closer approximation.

I have a few comments about the book itself, then I'll put a bunch of detail about how the system actually works. I haven't done much in response to the book yet except reorganize my todo lists into new categories associated with contexts (where they weren't already... I was on my way to discovering this one independently)

For a book about organization, I didn't find it very organized. I had to read through the sections describing the system multiple times to get a clear picture in my head of what the system looks like and how it works.

The physical layout of the book bugged the heck out of me. It's got all these pull-quotes that overlap the margin such that the text has to wrap around them. Only they're not pull-quotes. There's two kinds of them. Some are paraphrases of the nearby text set in a sans serif font, while the rest are attributed quotations set in italics. Neither of the flavors fits into the flow of the main text so you either have to break the flow to read them or ignore them. I chose the latter.

Finally, the book could have used a good copyedit. I kept finding places where it was obvious that a sentence had been rephrased, but part of it was missed. It's not a major biggie, but that kind of thing does pull me out of the flow of the text while I read the sentence three times to figure out whether I just don't understand or if it really is wrong.

Okay, on to the system. First you need some buckets and lists:

  • An inbox
  • A trash can
  • A someday/maybe list (and/or tickler file)
  • A reference file system (ordered folders in drawers)
  • A project list
  • Files for project support information
  • A list of next actions (organized by context (calls, computer tasks, in office, at home, out and about, etc.))
  • A calendar
  • A list of things you're waiting for
  • A stack of things you need to read and review

To get started in the system you take all of your stuff out of all the places you're keeping it (stacks, closets, drawers, your head, etc.) and drop it in the inbox.

Then you go through your inbox item by item. For each item you decide which of the buckets it goes into: trash, someday/maybe file, reference file, or things I could be working on.

If it's a thing you could be working on then you have to decide whether it's a project or not (where a project is defined as something that takes more than one action to accomplish). If it is a project then you define what it is (what completion looks like) and put it on your project list, then figure out what the next possible action is towards that end and stick that in your next actions list.

If it's not a project then it's an action. If an action will take less than two minutes, you just do it. If it takes more than two minutes then either delegate it to someone else or defer it by putting it either on your calendar if it's a time-specific action, or in your next actions list if not.

When that process is complete you've got everything in the system. Then it's just a matter of working on next actions when you have time and processing new incoming stuff in the same way periodically to get it into the system, and reviewing the various lists periodically to determine if there are any new actions hiding there.

Allen gives a bunch of tricks for how to decide what to work on next and how to structure projects and such, but that's really just implementation details. The core of the system is just what I put here.

The thing that I expect is really going to help me is the concept of managing projects by "next action". I tend to get all obsessive about mapping out the entire process ahead of time, and I think working on the next action that leads toward the vision of the completed project will be a powerful focusing tool for me.

There's all kinds of other info on Allen's website, including his very own blog and an active discussion forum.

There's also a couple of mailing lists dedicated to discussion of how best to follow the methods in the book.

I'm in the process of working my way into the system for all my stuff at work. I'll post an update here with how it's going once I've gotten on a roll.

Posted by jeffy at April 30, 2004 12:06 AM

Great book -- I have been using this system since last year after coming across James Fallows' recommendation in the Atlantic. It really works when I actually look at the day folder on the right day!

Posted by: Mark McWiggins at April 20, 2005 12:38 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?