For a conversation on productivity, there’s no better place to start than Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. Dubbed “The personal productivity guru” by Fast Company, Mr. Allen has sold over a million copies of his book in over 30 languages. His iconic status can be seen in the fact that he has over 1.4 million twitter followers (@GTDGuy).
The Life Management Problem
Perhaps the reason Mr. Allen has attracted so many followers is how well he describes the challenges of managing life. He refers to his specialty as answering the questions “what to do, when to do it, and how to do it”. The book is established as “a guide to maximizing input and minimizing input… in a world in which work is increasingly voluminous and ambiguous”.
He focuses on two basic methods. First, “capturing all the things that need to get done… into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind” (to achieve what he calls “mind like water”). Second, “Disciplining yourself”. This is where things get much more complicated.
His recommendation is clear:
There has been a missing piece in our new culture of knowledge work: a system with a coherent set of behaviors and tools that functions effectively at the level at which work really happens. It must incorporate the results of big-picture thinking as well as the smallest of open details. It must manage hundreds of new inputs daily. It must save a lot more time and effort than are needed to maintain it. It must make it easier to get things done.
The GTD Workflow
It all begins with “Stuff”. Stuff is what overwhelms and causes stress. The goal is to process stuff into an organized system which allows you to take it off your mind:
Begin with an in-basket. From there, ask the question Is is actionable?.
If it’s not actionable:
1) trash it; or
2) file it under “someday”; or
3) file it for future reference.
If it is actionable:
1) If it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it.
2) Delegate it (and add to a ‘waiting for’ list); or
3) Defer it (put it on a calendar for a specific time, or add it to your next actions list to be completed ASAP).
For the visual learner, a process diagram from the book is available here.
As you can see, the process results in several lists. A critical component of the system is a weekly review. To truly clear your mind, you must review all of your lists and open items each week to prevent “remembering and reminding”.
- identify all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place (close all open loops)
- get rid of the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now
- create a right place that you trust and that supports your working style and values
- put your stuff in the right place, consistently
- do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment
- iterate and refactor mercilessly
So, basically, you make your stuff into real, actionable items or things you can just get rid of. Everything you keep has a clear reason for being in your life at any given moment—both now and well into the future. This gives you an amazing kind of conﬁdence that a) nothing gets lost and b) you always understand what’s on or off your plate.
“Getting” Getting Things Done
While Getting Things Done is a great read, practicing it is challenging. We lost interest somewhere in the middle of the book when it started talking about electronic labelers and file cabinets. With most information in digital format today, we couldn’t help but feel the system is out of date.
Ellen Joan Pollock, the executive director of BusinessWeek, wrote a two part series about the system. In the first, How I Got a Grip on my Workweek, she receives private coaching from David Allen Co. ($6,000 for 2 days). This includes setting up the various lists to manage the process, including a custom outlook tasks plugin and a labeled filing system. As her coach leaves, Ellen appears overwhelmed by a system that is supposed to provide relief:
Without her, would I know what went into an “action support” folder? How was it that writing this article wasn’t on my “next action” list? At home would I be able to reconfigure Outlook on my laptop? I glanced warily at the 43-page GTD and Outlook 2003 manual.
In the second article published 7 months later, Time for a Checkup, things aren’t going well. She speaks with David Allen, who says her problem is that she is not performing weekly reviews. He also says that the GTD methodology takes 2 years to learn completely. The article ends with subtle criticism:
So maybe I’ll crack open David Allen Co.’s three-CD set on weekly reviews that has been gathering dust in my living room for the past six months. Or check out the “tweekly review” seminar that a David Allen coach recently tweeted on Twitter. I might even buy one of the “mind like water” T-shirts now 25% off on the official GTD site. “If you do enough weekly reviews,” Allen says, “you can’t stand not doing them.”
A Better Solution
Here’s the problem: David Allen is selling a system that “must save a lot more time and effort than are needed to maintain it.” But it takes 2 years to learn the full system. That means during those two years, it is requiring active time investment, and probably decreasing your productivity.
If an executive director of BusinessWeek struggles with the system after a 2-day $6,000 training session, what hope does that give for the average individual that can only afford the book? Where is the system for the average Joe without a corporate training expense account?
One thing that’s not out of date is the need to solve the problem of life management. It’s still true that “there is a great need for new methods, technologies, and work habits to help us get on top of our world.” At LazyMeter, we think it’s time that technology solves this problem. We completely agree with Mr. Allen that items need to be taken off individuals’ minds and placed into a trusted system. We think that can be achieved with the right user-friendly software solution, removing the need for learning complex workarounds through books and lectures. Getting Things Done is also corporate in nature and not available to everyone – we are building a more natural and attainable solution for overwhelmed consumers.
What do you think? Let us know your experiences with Getting Things Done and other task management solutions in the comments.