Some notes on Getting Things Done

This is part 1 of a two-part series discussing productivty books -- for artists and not.

Last year, after reading about it via Merlin Mann's 43 Folders website and his Life Hacking column in Make Magazine, I decided to explore David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Even with my aversion to self-help literature and motivational speakers, Getting Things Done -- or GTD, as it's called by its disciples -- was alluring. The attraction for me could be found in the book's subtitle. Productivity? Sounds great -- I'd like to be more productive. Stress free productivity? Wow - sign me up.

It's been about a year since I read the book, so I thought I'd do some reflecting on what worked, what didn't, and why. Maybe it will be useful for you. If not, move along.

GTD in theory.

For me, the premise of GTD basically boils down to keeping your mind clear of distractions so that you can concentrate on accomplishing the meaningful tasks. On a philosophical level, that's great for creative types since distractions are probably our number one enemy. At least, I know they are for me. I also know that the moments of truly inspired creativity, especially writing and editing, are devoid of multitasking -- they're moments of deep, loss-of-all-sense-of-time concentration.

Beyond this, most of GTD deals with how to sort physical stuff. Paul, do you mean, like, it's all about sorting things? Yeah. Some of the GTD ideas are pretty straightforward and common sense. And sometimes the ideas sound like they were inspired by a George Carlin routine. But that doesn't make them any less useful.

Anyway, everything boils down to stuff. You've got stuff on your desk. Stuff you've not done. Stuff in your inbox (email, literal, or proverbial). And so on. To "get things done" you act on the stuff -- you can't just push it around, but really act on it. David Allen says anything that comes across your desk will need to be: collected, processed, organized, reviewed, and acted upon.

On a practical level, here's how it works. Something comes across your desk. What now?

First, you process it:

If you can't act on it, you trash it, file it away for later, or you save it for reference. Examples: junk mail, an newspaper article you might want to adapt into a short film someday, or a new phone book, respectively.

If you can act on it then:

1) You can act on it immediately if you can accomplish the task in 2 minutes or less. (Great for email.) 2) You can delegate someone to do something about it. 3) You defer it to be acted upon later, preferably by putting it on your calendar or by assigning a "next action" to it.

#1 is the most immediately satisfying, in the sense that you're dealing with stuff very quickly. #2 is useful if you have someone to whom you can reliably delegate. #3 is for the important (or at least time consuming) stuff.

I won't go into details about the actions (this is most of the book), but Allen stresses that you must define what the next actionable step is. Failure to do this means you've just pushed it aside and you're going to end up spinning wheels. But (theoretically, at least) if you follow the system, you're going to figure out a meaningful action that you can take and then you'll do it.

GTD: My experiences.

After taking a few days to get set up (basically, sorting through all my junk, classifying it, and so on) I found that some of the concepts it describes were, in fact, useful for me. For example, GTD's system of relying on file folders for organization did help me gain a sense of control over my stuff. And, when I was vigilant about following its system, it also helped me keep my email inbox down to zero.

I also found that its orientation towards specific, actionable tasks was immensely helpful. It's not enough to say "I swear I'm going to finish editing my documentary." And it's even worse to say, "I'm going to figure that problem scene out." Figuring something out isn't an action. You have to say, "I'm going to try to cut it from character X's perspective and see if that solves the problem I'm having with the pacing." That's action, which, um, gets things done. Again, as I said, some of this is straightforward, common sense stuff, but even applying the slightest bit of theory to your productivity can help you become aware of what is and isn't working for you.

That's the good stuff.

How's it hold up after a year? I can only speak for myself: Beyond some of the most basic concepts (like the ones outlined above) I've largely abandoned the GTD system. In fact, some of the more advanced concepts in the book -- like the fabled 43 folders -- I tried for only a few days before dropping. At times I felt like I was pushing paper and not getting much done. At other times I stressed more about the system than the actual tasks I was using the system to accomplish. Wasn't this supposed to be stress-free productivity?

I could also find fault with some of the productivity-speak mantras (e.g., "mind like water") that are repeated throughout the book. I don't care if it is a Buddhist concept -- saying things like "mind like water" over and over in service of file folders seems downright corny if not outright hilarious.

I'm sure there are GTD acolytes out there that will tell me that I'm lazy and if I were to keep up with the system, that I would find it's actually useful. It's possible that's true (and it's definitely true that I can be lazy on occasion), but there's a fundamental part of me that rebels against systems like this. It could be my contrarian side, or it could be sheer pragmatism: Am I living to geek, or am I geeking to live? If forced to choose, I'd much prefer the latter.

Finally, I wonder if some of my reluctance to stick with the GTD plan had to do with the fact that with the work I do (or am trying to do) doesn't always parallel the work of what I take to be GTD's intended audience (i.e., suits).

Creative work, for many of us, is often done without any oversight (especially during the most formative stages of an idea), the work rarely follows a routine 9-to-5 schedule and, even for those with a studio, one's workspace doesn't have such clearly defined boundaries as, say, the Office.

Either way, in sum, Getting Things Done was a worthwhile read and it's been somewhat useful for me. Is it my new religion? Hardly. Should you try it out? Dunno. All I can be sure of is that your mileage may very.

My next post will discuss a second "productivity" book, which is written by and for artists.

ADDENDUM: Forgot to link to Merlin's outstanding Getting Started With Getting Things Done. If your interest has been piqued, reading this is a good (to use the parlance) next action.