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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7 Responses to Thinking about “Getting Things Done”

  1. TJSonntag says:

    Prof. Krause – thanks so much for this! The Hub is absolutely atrocious at GTD, and I’ve been in the market for a system that will work for his ‘creative-genius-and-highly-ADD’ brain. This might just help.


  2. annette says:

    bleh. just thinking about being stressed about the stuff I have to do stresses me out. flow charts stress me out too. and lists. not sure how helpful his advice is. bleh.

  3. Steph says:

    I’m currently reading Allen’s follow-up, _Making It All Work_. While I don’t implement his entire system, I do find some of his thoughts to be useful reminders–“Support material [should not be]…a reminder of action.” Just establishing a simple and reliable filing system (without the awkward hanging folders) has made a huge difference for me. And his system of reminders has helped me feel confident that what I’m doing at any one moment is really what I should be doing. Just don’t ask me how often I actually do my “weekly” review….

    I do think this 2nd book tries to address some of what you point out (e.g. lists do not = action).

    I’m fascinated by some of this productivity lit and have read Ferris, too. I’ll be interested to hear what you think. I was turned off by the way he tends to present himself and by his idea of outsourcing. At first I thought he was joking about sending your work to India. Alas….

  4. Steve Krause says:

    I’ve only read about 40 or 50 pages of Ferris, but so far, three things strike me:

    * This dude reminds me of the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” character: if half of the anecdotes he’s telling about his life are true, man, he’s out there.

    * I’m really REALLY the wrong audience for this book because Ferris seems to be trying to write to/for people who are workaholics who hate their job but feel like they have to work just for the sake of work and/or money. Not me. In fact, I almost kinda feel like I already have a 4 hour work week some times….

    * He seems kind of cynical and sleazy to me. I had heard the outsourcing thing before, but he also seems to be talking about “getting ahead” by finding loopholes and ways to sorta break rules. Alas indeed.

  5. Steph says:

    Dos Equis dude–that’s the perfect comparison for this tango champion. “When I do work, I work 4 hours” = “When I do drink beer, I drink Dos Equis.”

    I’m hoping that what appeals to folks about Ferris’ book is the larger idea of radically re-imagining your work (or perhaps rethinking a time/money budget so that you can do more of what you love), rather than any of the steps he outlines.

  6. Christopher Weuve says:

    A bunch of disjointed thoughts:

    1) I’ve read GTD, and have two of Allen’s other books. I can’t claim I *do* GTD, though. Caveats out of the way, let me say the thing I like about Allen is that it’s bottom up — Covey wants you to start with your place in the universe. Allen says “you know that stuff, start with what you need to do today.” Personally, I like reading COvey to get myself asking questions, and Allen for time management etc.

    2) Steve’s issues about Allen’s target audience have been discussed elsewhere. If you poke around the ‘tubes for a while, you’ll find plenty of people who have customized the system for their own situation, which as one commentator points out, is both an indicator of it’s usefulness/flexibility AND its out-of-the-box inapplicability for most people.

    3) There’s a whole movement of do-it-yourself productivity stuff focused on a handful of websites:

    D*I*Y Planner:

    43 Folders:


    4) One of the articles on D*I*Y Planner is an attempt to marry Covey and Allen. It’s called the Middle Way method, and looks interesting.

    5) A system I am trying (sort of) is Martin Ternouth’s system, which isn’t about planning so much as keeping your desk from looking like Berlin in mid 1945: (It’s an extended discussion — keep reading)



    Stay thirsty, my friends.

  7. Pingback: » “The Four Hour Work Week” and “The Happy Academic”

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