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Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Getting Things Done

One Sentence Summary of “Getting Things Done” : To be efficient, your mind must be crystal clear, like spring water; to get to that point you need to get rid of all the parasitic thoughts that permanently distract you, which you can accomplish by putting  everything that you want to, or must do into an external automated system, thus relieving your brain of the need to think – which it does badly, without directed prioritization and without consciously choosing the right moment.

By David Allen, 272 pages, published in 2001, updated in 2015.

Summary and Book Report of Getting Things Done :

Let’s get right to the point: the Getting Things Done method is famous in the United States, it is a best seller for close to 16 years now with an updated version of his book re-published in 2015 (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity). Whilst I originally reviewed this book around 2008, I wanted to revisit it and see if his techniques are aging or still very valid compared to when I first used it.

The author, who has been a business management and productivity consultant for 20 years, begins by showing that the working world has evolved and that managers often have to multi-task to get several things done at once, and even if they could dedicate their whole life to it,  no doubt they would not have enough time to do things as well as they would prefer. What’s more, numerous organizations have had their internal boundaries eroded, and their effectiveness rest on endless collaboration and communications using different services – and you can no longer avoid any of the many mail services in use. Executives therefore generally need to multitask more than before. This evolution by organizations must necessarily come with new tools and new work approaches.

Imagine if you could do, if you could choose to focus completely on your tasks, without any interruptions, parasitic thoughts, daydreams and other sources of distraction while remaining alert and in full possession of your faculties. Sound like a dream? It’s possible. David Allen recommends with his method something that martial arts practitioners call “mind like water,” or athletes call “in the zone”, a state of mind that is free from worry and totally focused on the goal you want to reach. You have no doubt already experienced it at times. Were you able to perform better, feel more satisfied with yourself and your accomplishments at that moment? David Allen recommends a system to make those moments the norm. Let’s see how.

Part I: The Art of Doing Things Well

Chapter 1: A New Practice for a New Reality

“Mind Like Water” is then the ideal state of mind for quiet and performance. But this state of mind is rare and we are more often stressed and distracted by multiple things that break our concentration and scatter our efforts. Stress therefore comes from the many commitments that are given to us, and which we have not fulfilled, from “I must tidy up the garage” to “I must call Mike” to “I must finish the new marketing plan” to “I would like to visit Rome” to “I would like to spend more time with my family.” You probably have many more commitments than you think, as well as all the unresolved questions from the most important to the least important, constantly nagging at your mind and the source of much frustration and guilt.

Here is an exercise to see it more clearly: take a sheet of paper and write down the situation or project that you are thinking about the most at this moment. Then, describe in a single sentence how you would like the business to be completed. These can be very simple sentences like “Take a vacation in Spain” or “solve the situation with such and such a supplier.” Then, describe the first physical action necessary to move the situation forward. Quite simply. Do it now.

This could go something like the following:

  • Spain. Take a vacation in Spain. Turn on the computer and research to find a destination town.

or

  • Car. Get the car serviced. Call the garage to make an appointment.

Have you done it? Great. How do you feel? If you are like most people, you will be feeling a little more confident, relaxed and focused, and you should be more motivated to go after the situation that you can barely think about right now.

Now, if this little exercise has incited a positive reaction in you, ask yourself: What changed? What has made my outlook more positive? In effect, from a concrete point of view, the situation has scarcely improved. But you have defined the most favorable outcome for the situation and the first action necessary to get there. All this from just two minutes’ thought. It is sufficient for you to clarify your commitments, and that is the source and the method of Getting Things Done to free the mind and become more effective. Actually, the mind becomes occupied with all things you would like to be different and how they are today if:

  • You have not clarified your desired result
  • You have not decided on the first action to take
  • You have not made a note of the desired result and the required action using a trustworthy system.

As long as you haven’t done that, you are leaving your brain to worry about continuously attacking the problems that are worrying you, as long as you have neither organized nor abandoned them. Now, the brain is not really our most judicious friend when it comes to remembering what we have to do: it reminds us in general that we need to change the batteries in the flashlight when they are dead, but not when we are in the supermarket in the battery aisle! And it constantly prompts us with reminders about our commitments when we are busy with something else and can’t do anything about them. Isn’t this a huge waste of time and energy?

The GTD method allows us to free our brain from the need to think (inefficiently) about all our commitments. To do this we just have to:

  1. Identify all the tasks we have to accomplish– now or later in the day – and integrate them into a coherent and reliable system.
  2. Make decisions right now about every new task that comes up.

With a clear and unencumbered mind, you can work more efficiently and free of stress.

Chapter 2: Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow 

There are five steps to take to manage our workload:

1. Collect the subjects that grab your attention.

To rid your mind of all the little worries which it is clinging to, you must be sure that you have identified them all, and you must be certain that you can review the list whenever you need to.

This is a long, but necessary, step. You must identify all the incomplete tasks and put them in an inbox. That’s it. The inbox can take different shapes according to your preference, and it must accept thereafter all new tasks. It is of paramount importance, and as its name implies, it is the entry point into the whole system. It can be as simple as this:

Inbox

Or it could be electronic. It doesn’t really matter as long as it automatically collects all the new tasks, whatever they are, mail, email, thoughts, projects…

2. Process the subjects of the content and determine what actions are required.
3. Organize concrete actions to be taken action

David Allen recommends a simple action flowchart to deal with and organize all the tasks in your inbox (dealing actions in blue, organization actions in green)

 GTD - Operational Flowchart

This operational flowchart will allow you to deal with any new task immediately by integrating it into your system. One rule which alone can multiply your efficiency: if a task needs less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately.

4. Review the actions and evaluate the options

Making a note on your calendar that you need to buy milk is a good thing, remembering that when you are at the store, is even better. That’s why it’s important to regularly review all your projects at once. David Allen recommends doing a systematic weekly review which allows you to step back and see what’s next.

5. Act in keeping with the options you select

It’s about taking the steps you mapped out keeping in mind 1) the context in which you find yourself, 2) your availability, 3) your energy level (how do you rate it out of 10? What level of energy does the task require), and 4) the priorities.

Chapter 3: Getting Projects Creatively Underway: The Five Phases of Project Planning

To sum up, in order to reach the state of “mind like water,” you must count on some key elements:

  1. Clearly defined results, and the initial steps to get there.
  2. Reminders (memory-joggers) integrated into a dependable system that is regularly reviewed.

This is a horizontal approach, which does wonders once it is applied. Sometimes we need a more targeted and rigorous approach to get a project on track and find a solution: that’s a vertical approach.

Rather than using complex management systems for a project like a Gantt chart, or software that only a handful of specialists can use properly, the author advocates a natural planning method that is simply what we use every day without thinking and which, according to him, is more effective. It’s what you would use, for example, to organize an outing to a restaurant with friends – a project which can be broken down into hundreds of simple actions which must be done in a certain order and which you do without thinking.

Natural planning can be broken down into five steps:

  1. Define the reasons and principles. The question of “why” must not be avoided. Why do it? What is the end goal?
  2. Represent the results. It is important to visualize the objective so that you can more easily focus on and be motivated to accomplish it.
  3. Brainstorm. Once you know what result you are trying to achieve and why you are trying to achieve it, you must figure out the “how.” Brainstorming this, using a mind map as a guide, for example, allows you to calmly consider all the possible options.
  4. Get organized. Once you have found ideas and actions, you must sort them, give them an order of importance and a chronological order, and develop the details.
  5. Determine which steps to take first. The rule we discussed above means that you never have to worry about getting tasks accomplished.

Part 2: Practicing Productivity Without Stress

Chapter 4: Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space and Tools

Putting any method into action is a question of tricks. Even if you don’t completely apply the GTD method, you can glean many useful tricks from it. Tricks allow you to put certain actions on automatic pilot, by moving them from the intelligent part of you to the unintelligent part of you. For example, if you have brought some files home that you absolutely must take back to the office tomorrow before you go to sleep put them at the front door because you know that tomorrow morning you will not be completely awake and your mind will be in a daze. Using this trick, you will never have to remember the files, even if you are not completely awake.

David Allen gives us numerous tricks in this chapter related to managing time and space. In particular, he never treats his desk as an inbox – as is too often the case with desks that all but disappear under the piles of documents – and he tidies up his workspace in an efficient and organized way.

Chapter 5 : Collection: Corralling Your “Stuff”

Chapter 6 : Processing: Getting “In” to Empty

Chapter 7 : Organizing: Setting Up The Right Buckets

Chapter 8 : Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional

Chapter 9 : Doing: Making The Best Action Choices

Chapter 10: Getting Projects Under Control

In these six chapters, David Allen details the five steps in chapter 2 and the vertical approach. I will not list them here, just know that he truly lists in depth each stage and recommends numerous tools, tricks, and methods to help us integrate Getting Things Done.

Part 3: Fundamental Principles and Their Power

Chapter 11: The Power of the Collection Habit

Applying the Getting Things Done method allows you not only to free your mind and be more efficient but also has numerous positive repercussions in the long term, that the author has been able to observe in his 25 years of experience.

If the people around you notice that you systematically and efficiently honor the commitments that you undertake with them, they will have a special trust in you. Improving your efficiency therefore also improves the quality of your personal and professional relationships.

How do negative emotions get started, the ones that drain you of energy and allow you to sink into a state of anxiety or depression? Is it because you are working too much? No, you always have too much work and you know it. Think of everything that is in your inbox or your drawers? What is it about? Commitments that you made to yourself. Negative feelings that you experience are born of the simple fact that you do not respect these commitments. Even if you tuck this commitment into a corner of your mind, and you forget about it, your subconscious won’t forget, and will not let you be proud of yourself. These are the symptoms of a disintegrating self-esteem. To fix it, you must make a conscious effort to choose one of three solutions, for every one of your commitments:

  1. Don’t accept the commitment.
  2. Respect the commitment.
  3. Renegotiate the commitment.

Ah yes! You must know when to refuse or abandon commitments. You will be happier if you are less demanding of yourself. And less overwhelmed if you don’t have so many personal or professional obligations. Even if you don’t subscribe to this logic, stop accepting, as David Allen did a long time ago, an unimaginable amount of commitments for the sole reason of getting the approval of others. Think before you take on new ones. Here is an article to help you reflect on your current commitments and decide which of them you should give up.

Also, think about what a team would be like if everyone depended entirely on the others for organization and management.

When a boat is full of holes and you are spending time bailing out the water, you forget to steer it.

Getting Things Done allows you to plug the holes in organizations and teams so that you can direct them better.

Chapter 12: The Power of the Next Action Decision

“What is the first action?”

This question, when it is fundamental and systematic, incites new energy and productivity at the individual level and at the organizational level.

Whatever the task, the project to be accomplished, the idea to be formulated, ask yourself every day what is the first action to accomplish and define it. This forces you to think – often just a few minutes or less – and you can do wonders.

Chapter 13: The Power of Outcome Focusing

According to Stephen Snyder, holistic approach specialist, there are only two problems in life:

  1. You know what you want, but you don’t know how to get it.
  2. You don’t know what you want.

There are only two solutions:

  1. Realize it
  2. Imagine it

Visualizing the outcome you wish for in a positive manner and focusing on it is an excellent way to stay motivated and of concentrating your efforts on the objective.

Book Critique of “Getting Things Done” :

Getting Things Done is still, 10 years later, an excellent system that is complete and coherent, to deal with absolutely everything with a calm mind free from every parasitic thought. In theory at least.

Interestingly, GTD is still a valid book for people who work in offices, but for digital nomads like myself (I have no desk, just a laptop!), it isn’t something I would recommend you read if you are in my situation.

But the techniques are still very valid if you work from home in your ‘home office’ – I can only imagine what some of your home offices look like lol. 😉 So I recommend it like The Effective Executive. This book will surely help you get the right things done.

Strong Points:

  • Complete and coherent method
  • Presented in a simple manner
  • Intelligent and how-to friendly

Weak Points:

  • In spite of the levels of altitude defined by the author, this method will not make you more intelligent or more conscious of what you really want: you could become more efficient at something that you hate doing.
  • Not valid for most of us who now work as digital nomads.

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