Getting Things Done: A Review on How to Maximize Productivity
Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them – David Allen
- Book Title: Getting Things Done – the Art of Stress-Free Productivity
- Author: David Allen
- Publisher: Penguin Books
- Pages: 352
- Price: $13.60 on Amazon.com
16 years have passed since its first edition, and the book Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is still considered a masterpiece for any person who wants to do and achieve more while being less stressed during the process. With a precise and highly actionable guide, David Allen gives us a great framework which leads to almost immediate, incredible results. Not only that, but the framework presented by the author is supported by several insights into how to best allocate your tasks within the time you have in order to increase your productivity and efficiency. So without further ado, let me present you David Allen and his book.
Meet the Author: David Allen
David Allen has a very peculiar history. In fact, the author’s life is far from being a fairytale full of positive moments that led to his huge success. He became a heroin user right after college, left his marriage, and became close to going to the streets as anyone can be. If it wasn’t for his friends and their active intervention, the author would never become the star he is today. After leaving the drugs and reestablishing himself, David worked in more jobs than you can ever imagine. His Curriculum-Vitae include, among other unique activities, professions such as vitamin distributor, travel agent, gas station manager, restaurant cook, karate teacher, and, my favorite, magician.
Meet the Book: Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
His most important contribution to society lies within less than 400 pages, in his book called Getting Things Done. In fact, Getting Things Done (in short, GTD) is a time management technique invented by the author, and his book works as a manual to teach us how to get the most out of it.
His basic premise can be summarized in one sentence: it’s not what you do that makes you stressed, it’s what you don’t do. Those thoughts lingering on the back of your head, constantly reminding you of tasks and responsibilities, are what hinder the rest needed for your brain to be productive. Therefore, GTD focuses on removing those thoughts from your head and putting them somewhere else: a paper list, a mobile application, a productivity website, you choose. By removing them from your mind, you free space for concentration and focus, and you start to notice a sensible, almost immediate, increase in productivity.
Getting Rid of these Obstacles
The author names these distracting thoughts as “open loops” or “incompletes”, and he offers a quick starting point to work towards accomplishing them instead of just feeling overwhelmed by them:
- To start with, choose the thought or concern that most annoys you.
- Write down the successful scenario that will be achieved by completing this thought or concern.
- Now write down the practical steps involved in realizing it.
- Look at the practical steps you just wrote down and notice how they make you feel. Do you feel better by having fewer concerns and better-defined processes?
This is the author’s proposed method by which you externalize a thought. There is, however, something missing, isn’t it? While you might master thought externalization, you still need a system to organize your tasks and help you to successfully complete them. This is where the highly practical 5-Steps Framework for Getting Things Done comes into play.
The 5-Step GTD Framework
By using his 5-steps framework, you are able to categorize and prioritize tasks in a very efficient way. The five steps are:
- Capture: This is the process of immediately writing down the ideas and tasks when they cross your mind. Not later, not earlier. When a thought pops up, write it down. Take it outside your brain and keep your mind free to focus on productivity.
- Clarify: This is when you actually filter and clarify your tasks by asking a few sequential questions to better understand the nature of your thoughts. Have a look at the diagram we present below: It explains these sequential steps very intuitively.
- Organize: The next step is to organize the outcome of the clarification process and to classify it in different projects, calendars, and categories. You might also want to set a deadline for some tasks.
- Reflect: The reflection moment is that of looking forward, understanding why the task is important, and realizing how it affects your future states.
- Engage: Finally, it’s time to Get Things Done. Engage in the task and finish it before moving to the next one on your list.
Here is the logic diagram you should use to clarify your tasks:
Everything that comes to your mind goes to your To-Do Bucket. If you can’t act on it, you have to decide to whether throw the idea away or to save it for later reference. If, however, there is something to be done, you should decide whether you will do it now, delegate to someone else, or put it in your “Next Actions” list or calendar. The most important takeaway, however, is this: break your tasks into small steps to identify what actually needs to be done to achieve your goals, and then work on it.
This quick explanation barely scratches the surface of the framework introduced by David Allen. The book provides a vast number of insights, including the idea of “contexts” and several criteria for organizing your list of priorities. The only way to fully benefit from the book is by fully reading it!
The technique presented in the book has a tremendous upside: it brings real, sensible benefits. But it also requires discipline and consistency. You will not get the perfect list overnight, and it might take a few days to achieve an acceptable state of order and efficiency. From my own experience, all I can do is advise you to stick to it and not give up. The author also understands this internal need for motivation, and that’s why he introduces the practice of weekly reviewing your progress and accomplishments. David Allen calls this regular review a “critical factor for success”, and he is right: as any human being, you will start being careless, forgetting some tasks, ignoring others, and so on. The weekly review works like a meditating bell: it brings your attention back to the moment and resets your concentration.
Leveraging GTD for Personal Development
The 5-Steps GTD Framework is incredibly useful for boosting your productivity and getting rid of the “there are not enough hours in the day” excuse, but it is very easy to fall into the trap of constantly filling your “Next Actions” with tasks that provide little long-term positive impact.
Aware of this issue, David Allen introduces what he calls as the 6 Levels or Horizons of Focus:
- The Ground is composed of your Current Actions, the list of everything you need to do immediately in order to avoid losing track of things.
- The Horizon 1 is defined as your Current Projects, or the short-term goals and projects you want to accomplish.
- The Horizon 2 encompasses your Areas of Focus and Accountability, the areas of your life that you hold important and want to maintain certain standards.
- The Horizon 3 is composed of your 1-2 Year Goals, or the medium-term projects you want to have accomplished and the life state you want to have one or two years from now.
- The Horizon 4 is about your Long-term Visions, or bigger realization categories such as quality of life, family, lifestyle, among others.
- Finally, the Horizon 5 is concerned with Life itself, the ultimate purpose of your life and the core reason for why you do what you do.
By conducting a personal assessment of all these six levels, you are able to identify which tasks impact your short, medium, and long-term goals, and to prioritize them accordingly. Avoid being lost in the immediate chaos by either reducing the number of tasks you currently manage, optimizing them, or simply saying no to some projects that are not so relevant to your future aspirations.
The Benefits of the GTD Method
As I write this review, I cannot avoid including a dedicated section on all the benefits I’ve been experiencing since I adopted the technique. By having fewer concerns in my mind, I am able to better focus on my current tasks, finish them faster, and produce more within the same time period. My brain is more creative, and it is easier to translate this creativity into actionable ideas. All those great ideas that previously got lost in my brain’s chaos are now written down and on the list for being actually implemented. If applied correctly and diligently, GTD is a framework with both short and long-term immense benefits!
Getting Things Done is Just the Beginning
While I was reading the book and subsequent reviews, I noticed one small but very important piece of information missing. It is the skill and the habit of taking a closer look at the process you use to complete your tasks. Take, for example, answering a sensitive email. Almost everyone postpones answering delicate messages, and while the GTD method helps you actually do it, it doesn’t say much about how you can improve the process itself. The technique takes you from “postponing” to “doing”, but it doesn’t focus so much on the “optimizing” part.
Still in our example, how much time do you take to answer to such emails? I don’t know you, but I used to take at least 3 or 4 times more than I take for normal messages, and most of this time went to unnecessary re-reading the text and looking for errors that I know are not there. In fact, most of the time was spent imagining the recipients’ reactions and imagining arguments that, honestly, never took place. Once I observed this pattern, I was able to act on it and eliminate such inefficiencies. Today I spend much less time on emails and much more time doing more important activities.
The Getting Things Done methodology is just the beginning. It offers you an excellent framework for classifying your tasks, prioritizing them, and systematizing their execution. Its insights are life-changing, and I highly recommend you read the work and start practicing it as soon as possible. But I also recommend you don’t stop there. By allying this productivity practice with a Continuous Improvement Mindset, you will be able to leverage the GTD tool and obtain even better results!
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