Thinking about “Getting Things Done”

On the way back from Will’s and my recent trip to Alabama, I finally managed to finish reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I am aware of the irony that it has taken me months of off and on reading to finish this book. Why was I reading it in the first place, you may ask? Well, I picked up this book and, my next read on productivity, Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, vaguely thinking that there might be a scholarly project of some sort in there.

Based on flipping through both books and reading their back covers, my initial impression was that these books take opposite views on the notion of “productivity.” Allen’s book, I presumed, was about how to get more things done, while Ferriss’ book was about how to recognize what you don’t need to do so you have more time to do thing things you want to do. I thought (and still do think) that dichotomy is potentially interesting, though don’t ask me now what that paper/presentation/article/web site/book looks like.

And besides that, I thought I might actually learn something about being more productive.

My initial impression of Allen’s book has proven to be largely correct, though what I think is interesting (and what I suspect will be similar in Ferriss’ book) is that Allen’s approach to productivity is to essentially get “stuff” out of your head and onto various kinds of lists. The theory here is that if you have a reliable and external system for keeping track of all of the “things” that need to be “done,” then you can have “stress-free” productivity since you a) always know what to do next, and b) don’t have all of that stuff bottled up in your head and causing various psychic damage, e.g., stress.

In terms of just its advice, Allen’s book strikes me as being an interesting mix of “really good ideas” and “common sense” I already knew, recognizing that sometimes sense is far less than common. The system that Allen has is fairly well articulated in this image/flowchart:

GTD Flowchart

First, you need to gather all of your “stuff.”  What’s “stuff,” you ask?  Basically, everything.  Here’s how Allen defines it on page 17:

Here’s how I define “stuff”: anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step. The reason most organizing systems haven’t worked for most people is that they haven’t yet transformed all of the “stuff” they’re trying to organize.  As long as it’s still “stuff,” it’s not controllable.

So “stuff” is pretty much anything and everything– more on that in a bit.

Now, the idea of taking your “stuff” and doing some very specific things– make it part of a project, throw it away, file it (for reference or “for someday”), or simply “do it”– is pretty good advice.  And of course, “GTD” is more than a cottage industry, with devotees and software and spin-offs galore. While I was reading Allen’s book, I came across this post on ProfHacker using a software called “Things” to manage the whole GTD, um, “thing” for academia. I was inspired and attracted to the fact that I could get a version of this that would sink to my iPhone, so I’ve been playing around with GTD in my own life. Any of these productivity/efficiency systems have to be tailored and altered by the user of course, and I’m still trying to figure out how this can work for me.  So far, so good.

But beyond the advice, I think it’s a kind of curious book. First off, the main audience that Allen appears to have in mind is some sort of executive-type, one who has assistants and underlings– e.g., not me. Routinely, he makes reference to “your assistant” or how to “properly delegate” projects to people who report to you. To negotiate this, I have to make some complicated interpretive moves to make the advice work for the likes of me.

Second, I was struck by the large number of anecdotes that Allen tells from his experiences as an “executive/life coach.” I suppose that makes sense, but you know those professors/teachers who relate each and every thing in a class back to some sort of personal anecdote, even when it doesn’t always apply? It’s a little like that at times. But besides that, it seems to me the personal anecdote is itself an interesting rhetorical strategy for a book like this, one I expect will be repeated in Ferriss book.

The other interesting thing to me rhetorically/critically is the definitive boundaries that Allen sets up between things, though at the same time, there is an element of multitasking here. GTD’s projects and lists and other strategies are always about both context and fixed boundaries: the projects/”stuff” are distinct lists that draw clear distinctions between home and work, and tied to specific contexts like “at the computer” or “traveling.” I don’t know but my own work and interpretation of the world is not often that black and white. But like I said, there is an element of multitasking: for example, Allen suggests keeping track of phone calls you need to make for when you are in some other situation but able to make those calls.

I think my biggest problem/question/concern to explore eventually is Allen’s definition of “stuff.”  Allen makes it clear that you have to parse this out a bit. It isn’t enough to put “get car fixed” on a list as an example of stuff; the good GTD-er will list stuff like “make phone call to mechanic,” “schedule/put on calendar time to get car fixed,” “drive car to garage,” etc. I suppose that’s a good idea, but how just how deeply can you parse these things?

Ultimately, the limit that this book has (and I think that Ferris will be similarly limited) is this whole “get it out of your head and you will be free” philosophy. I’m all for getting stuff down on lists, but I’m not sure that actually means that it is getting out of my head, and detailed to-do lists divided up into different categories/projects and the like doesn’t make me feel necessarily free; actually, it makes me feel just the opposite.

And making lists doesn’t mean “getting things done.” I know lots of people who are really good at organizing things and making lists, but when it comes to actually “doing it,” well, not so much.

Allen says at the end of his book to come back to it in three or six months; I probably will do that after reading about the four hour work week.

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