Review: Getting Things Done, by David Allen - The Objective Standard

New York: Viking Publishers, 2001. 288 pp. $24.95 (cloth), $15.00 (paperback).

You strive to be as productive as possible in your career. You have relationships with friends and family you want to enjoy and nurture. You have hobbies or other interests you want to pursue. You have a car, a home, or other physical things that command your attention. You have a body to maintain. Your life is full and, at least at times, you feel overwhelmed by all the commitments you have made to yourself and others. At those times you find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to “live in the moment”—to focus on whatever you are or need to be doing right now, and thereby make the most of your time and life.

If you have explored other strategies for managing your time and life, then you might be skeptical of David Allen’s claim at the beginning of Getting Things Done (GTD): “It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control” (p. 3). You may be even more doubtful when Allen tells you that, although he will incorporate “many of the things you’ve been doing instinctively and intuitively all along” into “a new behavior set,” the results will nonetheless “blow your mind” (p. xiv).

The promise to “blow your mind” is not representative of Allen’s style in GTD, however. The book is a logically structured presentation of an approach to time and life management that is grounded in good epistemology and designed to facilitate productivity in light of certain features and limitations of the human mind. The problem, Allen says, is that all the commitments you have made are “on your mind,” which overwhelms you to the point that you cannot think clearly and be productive. The question becomes, why are all these things on your mind? “[T]he reason something is ‘on your mind,’” Allen writes, “is that you want it to be different than it currently is” (p. 15). Allen’s formulation is deliberate. Many people have not really thought about the commitments they have made, and therefore have neither “clarified exactly what the intended outcome is” nor “decided what the very next physical action step is” (p. 15). And yet, inherent in allowing a commitment into one’s life, Allen says, is a further commitment: a “commitment to . . . define and clarify its meaning” (p. 17).

Allen explains that, in order for your mind to let go of this corollary commitment so it can be clear and ready to focus on the task at hand, you must envision the outcome you desire and decide what is the very next physical action you must take in order to move the current state of affairs toward that outcome. Thus arises one of two main prongs of the GTD approach, “disciplining yourself to make front-end decisions about all the ‘inputs’ you let into your life so that you will always have a plan for ‘next actions’ that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment” (pp. 3–4).

You must do whatever thinking is necessary to define outcomes and requisite actions for each of your commitments, from the simplest to the most complex. Allen facilitates this thinking by introducing an intentionally broad definition of “project”: “any desired result that requires more than one action step” (p. 37). Some things that Allen calls “projects” are so simple—for instance, “make guacamole for party”—that one can immediately call to mind not just the next action, but all actions required to complete them. More-complex projects may require the use of a more elaborate project-planning model, which Allen provides (chaps. 3, 10). Such a model is needed because, insofar as the next actions are not yet identified, a complex project on a “to-do” list will seem vague, in need of clarification, and thus in need of your attention. The goal is to see all projects as a sequence of discrete actions because, as Allen puts it, “You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it” (p. 38).

Still more work is needed, however, to clear your mind of the commitments you have made. “Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve a problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look” (p. 16). Allen points to facts about the human mind and psychology to explain why this is true. First, he notes, the human mind can hold only so many items in conscious awareness at one time:

The short-term memory part of your mind—the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff”—functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much “stuff” you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload (p. 22).

In other words, if your mind is aware of a commitment you have made, and it knows of no place external to it where you are reliably tracking that commitment, then it will continue to assume the responsibility for doing so. It will remind you of your commitment at various times not of your choosing, regardless of whether you are in a position to do anything about it. That is problematic enough; but, Allen says, it gets worse: A part of your mind will think you should be working, all the time, twenty-four hours a day, on any unprocessed commitment of which it is aware. If you have at least two such commitments, you will necessarily believe you are to some extent failing, because you cannot work on both at the same time. The result is “an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pin-pointed” (p. 23).

Allen’s approach in GTD is designed to free your mind from having to track all your commitments, first by helping you to decide concretely what they are (including next actions required); and second, by helping you to “put reminders of the outcome and action required in a system you trust” (p. 15), which you will review regularly and can access at a moment’s notice, as needed.

Chapters 4–8 provide step-by-step instructions for implementing that system from scratch. Allen advises you to set aside “two whole days, back to back” (p. 87) just to perform the initial setup. During this setup, you “(1) collect things that command [y]our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; (3) organize the results” (p. 24). Allen describes each task in detail, even recommending the types of tools (most are basic office supplies) you could use to implement the system, depending on such factors as how high-tech you want to go, your budget, space available, and your lifestyle. The most challenging phase is the processing phase, during which you divide all the things you have collected into actionable and nonactionable items. The nonactionable items are either thrown in the trash, filed as reference materials, or staged in a tickler file. The actionable items are identified either as “projects” requiring multiple action steps or as “next actions” that can be completed in one step. For both, you need to do whatever thinking is required to arrive at a set of concrete, physical “next actions.” During this setup phase, Allen says, all next actions one thinks will take less than two minutes should be performed immediately. All those that will take longer should either be delegated (to a “waiting for” list) or deferred (to your calendar or a “next actions” list).

The results of this process need to be organized so they can be consulted, as appropriate, and thus guide you in the efficient and effective pursuit of your goals. You consult your calendar and next actions list daily, perhaps several times a day, to decide what to work on next. In addition, you regularly perform a review of your system, updating it to include any new items you have accumulated. This must be done as often as necessary to keep your commitments off your mind; Allen recommends once a week, because reviewing your system less frequently will cause your mind to distrust your system and thus reclaim the responsibility of keeping track of all that “stuff.” The habit of regular review can be difficult to establish, Allen says, but it is the key to gaining the full benefit of GTD. He warns the reader not to cut corners, either in the initial implementation or in the weekly reviews and updates. “You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind” (p. 16).

Assuming you have collected, processed, and organized all your commitments, and you are current with your weekly reviews, your mind needs one more thing in order to operate at peak performance: It needs to know you have made a conscious choice to do whatever it is you are doing right now, rather than anything else you could be doing. To this end, Allen recommends that, when you decide what to do in the moment, you consider, in order, your context (location and tools available), the time and energy you have available, and the relative importance of the various actions, given your priorities. He also discusses longer-range perspectives you might adopt in order to review and evaluate your work. Allen recommends that you survey all of your active projects as part of your weekly review, and that you occasionally review your goals more broadly at the following levels: “areas of responsibility,” “one- to two-year goals,” “three- to five-year vision,” and “life” (pp. 51–53).

The promise of GTD is that, properly implemented, it will help you track your commitments in an organized, trusted system; free your mind to focus on whatever activity you have set for yourself, without worrying that you might be forgetting something else that, all things considered, you would gain more value from doing; and thus make better use of your time so you get more enjoyment from life.

What distinguishes GTD from other popular approaches to time and life management are (1) that GTD requires you to concretize your commitments so you know the next physical action that is required to move you closer to attaining your desired outcome; and (2) that it uses a “bottom-up” approach—you start by collecting, processing, and organizing whatever commitments you have already made, and only later engage in “top-down” thinking (e.g., mission statement formulation and values clarification) with which other systems typically start.

Allen writes that “the best description [he’d] ever heard of what passes for organizing lists in most personal systems” is one a woman gave of the to-do lists she brought with her to his seminar. She called them “an amorphous blob of undoability!” (p. 17). “The vast majority of people,” Allen writes, “have been trying to get organized by rearranging incomplete lists of unclear things” (pp. 17–18).

Defending his bottom-up approach, Allen writes that, although “[i]ntellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down, first uncovering personal and corporate missions, then defining critical objectives, and finally focusing on details of implementation” (p. 19), it is nonetheless true that most people, before implementing GTD, are not able to engage profitably in top-down thinking, because “their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired” (p. 20). The usual argument for the top-down approach is that you do not want to waste time and effort “organizing” activities that, had you taken the time to consider the big picture, you would regard as relatively unimportant. But Allen contends that you cannot see what is most important until you have collected, processed, and organized the various aspects of your life as it is. After implementing GTD, Allen says, you can more clearly assess the quality of life you have with your current set of commitments, and then, using that information, decide which ones are truly priorities.

This point is bolstered by the fact that simply in the process of implementing the program, GTD requires you to rethink your commitments. Observe, Allen says, that asking, “What’s the next action here?” in a business or organizational meeting “often compels discussion at deeper levels than people are comfortable with. ‘Are we serious about this?’ ‘Do we really know what we’re doing here?’ ‘Are we really ready to allocate precious time and resources to this?’” (p. 245). The same is true of an individual’s commitments: “Processing all the things in your world will make you more conscious of what you are going to do and what you should not be doing” (p. 125). If you ask yourself to name the very next physical action you need to take in order to complete a task or project, and you find you are not motivated to take that action, perhaps you do not value that particular outcome as much as you thought you did. Of course, the project or commitment may simply need to be put on hold until a later date. If so, you can put it on a “Someday/Maybe” list or in a tickler file.

Getting Things Done is organized to facilitate the reader’s absorption of its content. Part 1 of the book presents the reasons for adopting GTD, then gives a brief overview of the approach, including an introduction to Allen’s system of project planning. Part 2 offers detailed, step-by-step instructions for implementation, including advice on project planning that the reader might find useful at this stage. Part 3 revisits some of the key principles behind GTD, offering further explanation as to why the approach works and elaborating on its benefits.

Getting Things Done is one of the best supported, most logically presented, most concretized (in terms of directions for implementation) time management books I have read. The prospect of implementing the GTD approach, once one appreciates the exacting nature of the process, is intimidating. But if Allen is right, then the results, even if they do not “blow your mind,” may prevent you from blowing your top.

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