Book Report: Getting Things Done

I have been assimilated.

Lots and lots of people have recommended David Allen’s productivity bible, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity to me over the years, but I kept thinking, “I’m already pretty productive, I don’t need that.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the past several months, Allen’s techniques have made a noticeable impact on my day to day life that I didn’t think was possible. Instead of doing a traditional review of his material, I thought I’d walk through what I’ve done with it over the past few months that has changed the way I approach my job.

I ended up adopting Allen’s processes in two waves (with another one still to go) and reaped huge benefits from both. Almost all of my work life comes to me in email. Prior to reading GTD, I’d let my Outlook inbox run to several thousand items and clean it out once a quarter or so. The list would be cluttered with things I just had to know about, things that I had to remember to do at a later date, things that could be deleted, and things that were reminders to do something. I found I was able to keep track of the really important things in my head and was pretty good about responding to people within 24 hours on various topics, but it was an organizational mess.

For Wave 1, all I did was follow some GTD basic rules about inbox processing. I read each item immediately as it came in and did one of 3 things with it:

1. Filed it in the set of topic-oriented reference folders I already had in Outlook if it was something I just had to know was happening.

2. Deleted it if it was something I didn’t care about.

3. Left it in my inbox if it was something I had to do or was a reminder that I was waiting for someone else to respond.

Just that slight change in process made a huge difference for me. An inbox list that previously had a tendency to grow out of control until my quarterly cleanup activity never got larger than one screen full of messages. It stayed that way for 6 weeks before I proceeded on to Wave 2, but just this step let me see my whole world worth of worries in one screen, which made a big difference in my peace of mind and in my productivity. Everything I had to be concerned with was on one page, not hiding in cracks on multiple scroll downs.

Wave 2 led me to adopting the GTD system more strictly. In addition to the “reference” folder I already had, I added “actions”, “waiting”, and “some day” folders.

What that allowed me to do was take that 1 page full of inbox items and further sort them into actionable categories. Now, when I get a new message it gets read immediately and either replied to, deleted, or filed into one of those 4 places. My favorite message to see staring at me several times a day is “there are no items to show in this view”.

Now, different aspects of my work life are easy to display. I have 15 minutes between meetings, is there something I can get done in that amount of time? Check the “actions” folder. Who owes me a response on that new data center move? Check the “waiting” folder. What was that thing I was talking to Sam about that we might do next year when we get funding? Check the “some day” folder.

I end up spending a lot less time figuring out what to do next and a lot more time actually doing it. That has been the productivity leap I’ve been able to make with the suggestions of this book. The one aspect I haven’t adopted yet has to do with breaking apart projects into different actionable tasks, but I’m giddy over what the book has already given me.

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9 Responses to “Book Report: Getting Things Done”

  1. Wendee Says:

    Ohhhhhh, cool. I like that you’re posting what you did, rather than what the book’s about; would be happy to read other specific success stories. The procrastinator in me hasn’t gotten past the “get everything out of your head” and getting rid of all the piles part.

    [sigh]

  2. Jonathan Says:

    Great ideas. I did the same thing a few years by using an email organizer product and it has made a tremendous difference.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Good article … The key is to start with broad high level categories and then if you notice one category is getting too big then sub categorize it. If you try to micro categorize the system fails. I mark the items ‘unread’ in the folders because MS Outlook displays a count of unread messages – this makes it easy for me to see how many items need my attention.

    - Your dotted line report

  4. Pete Johnson Says:

    @wendee and jonathan, thanks for the kind words.

    @anon, great tip. I never thought of using unread that way before. Based on this suggestion, I marked everything in “@ACTIONS” and “@WAITING” as unread and it does give a nice one glance view of how many things are in there. Thanks!

  5. David Daly Says:

    I heard about Getting Things Done from someone who happened to be on the same training course as me. Like you I was initially sceptical but soon I was converted. I have not yet added the “wave 2” folders but I have become ruthless about deleting messages! It looks like I may have to read Getting Things Done and see what other wisdom it contains!

  6. Pete Johnson Says:

    @anon again. A better approach to that tip that someone told me about is to set the properties on your Outlook folders so that it shows the number of items in the folder as opposed to the default of showing the number of unread items in that folder. I switched to that recently and it’s working better for me.

    —Pete

  7. Neel Banerjee Says:

    Great tips! I have started to implement my list of items in Google Notebook. My first idea was to use OneNote, but scrapped that idea since I want something that is portable and easier to access. I have a google account an accessing my action list is a breeze now. Although the notebook has the ability to add labels, its search feature is a bit tricky. I choose to add a label of “not done” to every actionable task (along with other helpful labels). Then I search for label:{work, not done} and I have a list of all the work related tasks. I can then refine the search further.

    I know Outlook has categories that you can label you messages with, but it was very difficult for me to use since I already had a folder system to organize mail. The category approach calls for keeping all mail in one big folder and applying categories to each message. Then you can run searchs or populate search folders with items that match the category.

  8. Managing meeting cancellations | Nerd Guru Says:

    [...] get one of these cancellations two meetings from now and I’ll remember it in my head (a GTD no-no) and erroneously assume we aren’t meeting that [...]

  9. Book Review: Getting Things Done « Outside of the Triangle Says:

    [...] up from David Allan’s renowned book Getting Things Done. Based on some feedback I received and a post from Pete Johnson I resolved back then to buy and read the book for myself. I have just finished it and can honestly [...]

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