Getting Things Done by David Allen

David Allen has a system for organizing “stuff”. The system begins with collection, where you collect every single thing that requires work and put that in your inbox. Once inside, you decide whether that something is actionable. If it isn’t you either trash it, put it in the someday/maybe list, or store it in a reference system. If it is actionable, does it take less than 2 minutes? If so, do it. If not, either delegate it or defer it. When you delegate it, you put it in a “waiting for” folder. When you defer something, you put it in a to-do list. There is also a projects list, which is a list of all the projects you have on your plate. Anything that requires more than one action is a project. The projects list gives a high level view of the tasks that you have to do.

This is the system in a nutshell. Anything unfinished weighs on the mind and creates negative energy. I’m talking about the feeling you get when there are a lot of loose ends in your life, and you feel like putting everything on a to do list and striking them through one by one. This negative energy hurts productivity. When we have a bunch of stuff to do, we do not know where to start. We need to have processed stuff into actionable items so that we know where to start. Imagine being stressed in the middle of a hectic workday and having a 15 minute block of time till the next meeting. A list of “stuff” is much more intimidating to process than a list of actionable items. With the actionable items, we can productively use the 15 minute block by working on the easy items.

Work can be classified into agreements with ourselves and agreements with others. We can either do them, renegotiate these agreements, or lower our standards. The system forces us to immediately deal with it. Will we do them (by putting it into the next actions folder) or defer them (put them in the someday maybe list). The system helps us keep track of our agreements, so we do not forget any. Break an agreement (forgotten agreements count as well) and we lower our self esteem. Follow through and we build it up. The self esteem that we build by following through on our agreements can flow into other areas of our lives.

The core of the system is on the transformation of stuff into actionable items. The key question to ask is, “What is the next action?” This is an active approach to life. It clarifies direction. If something can be changed, there is an action to change it. If it cannot be changed, it is part of the landscape to be incorporated in strategy. The passive step is to complain. Complaining is the trait of a person not willing to act, or who will not consider the immutable circumstance.

I was listening to the BBC and they were talking about how people who had been told to eat more healthily explained their success or failures to a doctor. The success stories usually spoke in an active sense, about what they did right. The failures spoke passively, about the circumstances that caused them to fail. We should learn to be active if we want to succeed.

At heart, the system is a glorified to-do list of actionable items. The system forces us to maintain this list at all times, so that it is up-to date. A normal to do list is usually not kept up to date. But the difference is crucial. With a clear idea of the commitments we have, we are free to decide on agreements we make. We can choose to say no if asked and feel perfectly justified. It gives us another option when before, we might have agreed to everyone’s requests.

There are only two problems in life.

1. Knowing what you want and not knowing how to get it.

2. Not knowing what you want. If you don’t know, make it up and make it happen.

This book is not about creating a vision. The system is about the everyday details of implementing actionable items. But I can see how it can be used with a vision. Imagine a vision for every important category of your life, e.g. relationships, finance, health, career, spiritual, creative, etc. Imagine what you would like to achieve in each of these areas, and break them down into different horizons, e.g life, 3 to 5 years, 1 to 2 years, area of responsibilities, current projects, and finally actions. Imagine your vision cascading down each horizon into an actionable item that you are doing today, and how that would feel. It would feel pretty amazing, I’d bet. I imagine a sense of purpose that gets you off your bed and puts a smile on your face. This is value-based happiness.

I was inspired so much by the book I decided to implement the system in my office immediately.

Some problems I have encountered:

1. I have trouble finding emails. They got lost in the many folders I have set up. For example, my next actions folder is further subdivided into folders named after my colleagues, for items which are related to them. I just have to get into the habit of putting emails where they belong. Hard edges are important so that I know immediately where to go to find an email.

2. There is duplication of emails when I put both an email and the reply to that email into my next actions folder. I suppose I have to get used to clearing the old emails.

3. I do not use the projects list. There seems to be duplication of effort between the next actions list and the projects list. I’m not sold on this point yet.

4. My next actions list still consists of “stuff”. The next actions lists should consist of actionable items. However, it is not clear sometimes what the next action is just from the title of the email. I need some method of appending notes to the email to indicate what the next action is.

I recommend this book because it offers an easy system that can be implemented immediately in the office. I have been trying this for a few weeks and I like how organized my desktop has become. Use this system as a tool for implementing your vision and reap the rewards of purposeful living.


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