Getting Things Done: The Theory

· life ·

I have a real problem with self-help books. The buzz-word laden jargon, excessive capitalisation to Make Ordinary Ideas Seem Great, and the utter tosh that often appears on their pages makes me want to set fire to the entire shelf in the bookshop. But I've just succumbed and bought what is my very first self-help book. I'd been hearing a lot of geek love for the book Getting Things Done (usually abbreviated to GTD) by David Allen. Then I came across Merlin's excellent 43 folders blog, and his praise of the system intrigued me enough to get me to brave the dreaded self-help aisle in the bookshop and buy a copy. I also had a hunch that it would be a bit of a treat for my inner megapode, which turned out to be correct.

Nothing about the system is particularly revolutionary; most people probably incorporate one or more parts of it into their work flow without knowing it, but if you put it all together, it's quite powerful. You can read a good summary of GTD here, but the basic idea is that you need to download every idea, task or thing that you think of, and get it out of your brain and onto some kind of external storage device as soon as possible. That way all those things aren't subconsciously nagging away at your attention, and you don't lose any of the tasks you need to do. Second, you need to process this 'inbox' of stuff, doing things that take less than two minutes immediately, and sorting other tasks into organised actions. These actions are the very next physical actions that you need to take to progress with something, so you're not allowed to write down something like, 'write paper', which I've been guilty of putting on to-do lists many times. Again, it sounds trivially simple and obvious, but it's amazing how much difference it makes if you do it consistently. If you don't identify exactly what you need to do next, it's all too easy to resist doing it at all.

You can organise your actions into context-specific categories like 'Calls', 'Email' or 'At shops' so that in any given situation, you can identify what would be most appropriate thing to do right now. The Life Balance system uses a very similar approach, and it's quite an effective one for making sure that you focus on what you can and should be doing at any given moment. Although GTD is a fairly 'bottom-up' system, it gives you ways to identify projects and objectives too, while making sure that you always know what you need to do next on a project.

I haven't even finished the book yet, but I'm using the system (I'll give more detail on the practicalities in a later post) and finding that it's making a huge difference to how harassed I feel and also to how much I achieve in a day. The real test will be to see how well it's working for me several months down the line. It's easy to feel enthusiastic about something when you first try it, but quite another to feel the same way once the novelty has worn off. I do have a good feeling about it though; it is quite a simple system, and it seems to work with the frailties of human nature rather than against them, which is always a good thing. Call me a convert if you like, but I still wouldn't read 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' if you paid me.