Getting Things Done

I finally sat down with David Allen’s famous productivity guide, Getting Things Done.

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The book is so famous and has so many acolytes that I don’t really want to duplicate the effort in summarizing and praising his method.  If you’re curious, the best place to start might be the overview at 43-folders.  I just wanted to briefly mention how I’ve applied the book to my own life, noting its strengths and weaknesses.

How it helped: Breaking “Stuff” down into Actions.

The most helpful part of GTD for me was its first, most simple step: Dump your Stuff.  As Allen emphasizes, most “Self Help” books problematically push people to identify macro-level values and then funnel downwards into your goals, projects, and daily To Dos.  But, most people can’t manage that because there is so many piles of STUFF already weighing them down.

What is Stuff?

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. (17)

Stuff can be physical stuff (stacks of paper), or e-junk (pages of unread email), but mostly so many amorphous ideas (that recipe you wanted to try, those things you have to get done, call Mom back, check on the project after meeting).  When you sit down to capture all that Stuff, you’ll realize how much of it is clogging up your mind and time. It’s a sticky morass of Stuff! A soppy bog of unfinished thoughts, vague feelings of obligation, unclear tasks, and just tons of physical crap. It stresses you out. It confuses you and gets in the way.

So dump it into a physical tray/ box/ or paper list.  Dump every single possible thing on your mind, concerning work, family, personal development, hobbies, and so on.  EVERYTHING. Allen notes that he gave a client about 6 hours just to compile the Stuff!   And when you’re done, start processing the Stuff and decide what to do with it.  This is an elaborated version of the diagram he includes in the book:

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This diagram might be a little confusing at first.  Maybe a simpler way to process the Stuff is to ask:

  1. Can I take action on it?
  • No: Trash it.  Or, file it if you can turn it into an action later.
  • Yes: Do it (if it will take 2 min or less). Or, delegate it to someone else.  Or, put it on your calendar to do at a SPECIFIC day/time.  Now you can forget about it until your calendar reminds you to do it.

2. Review

  • Each individual action is probably building to a long term goal/project you have. Track these together so that you can see yourself making progress towards that project.
  • Check your calendar and update whenever necessary

While David Allen is primarily writing to office workers who are overwhelmed with projects and emails and paperwork, his message also appealed to me.  I have long believed that you must empty your mind before you can address tasks properly and that single-tasking is the most productive way to finish that task.  Also, making Actions out of vague ideas is such a solid, core concept and gives you that satisfying feeling when you can check it off your list. 

How it didn’t help:  Not all Actions are created equal.

The method is not really conducive to creative or conceptual work.  This is something Cal Newport wrote about on his blog Study Hacks (another favorite of mine).  While the book is really great at helping people wade through the minutiae clogging up their mind, it can very easily be reduced to checking off “To Do” boxes without helping you go deeper into a novel, a theory, and so on.

For example, in my Stuff Dump, I noted a book on cosmetics that I still didn’t finish reading.  When I processed it through the diagram, I was able to get it off my mind and into the calendar for Monday.  When turning “That Makeup book I didn’t finish” into clear Actions, I wrote down this To Do list and how I’d rate their difficulty level in terms of time, energy, and mental work.

  1. -go to campus to work in the library; pack lunch and prepare bag for going out [Easy]
  2. -read/translate up to 110 [Medium]
  3. -transfer older notes to Scrivener [Easy]
  4. -when finished, identify the author’s framework and write it down [Medium]
  5. -analyze the author’s framework by answering these preliminary questions- does it unnecessarily rely on overdetermined historical trajectories or binaries? What connections does the author make that would normally be overlooked?  What does this author share with other scholars who write on the same topic? [Hard]
  6. -Pick out critical historical shifts by using the timeline.  Analyze these changes vis-a-vis Foucault’s concept of biopower and write up a summary. [Damn Hard]

Well, I’m grateful that GTD has helped me finally get that book out of my hair.  I’ve also been able to plot out my engagement with the book in a clear, definable way.  But, I don’t really know how to anticipate how well I can “analyze” or how long that will take me.  I don’t know what I’ll do when I inevitably freak out and write, rewrite, and rewrite little sections over and over.

In other words, GTD is great for clearing minutiae out of my head.  It is not useful for me in managing intellectual or creative work to a degree of satisfaction.

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