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Book Review: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

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It’s so easy for motivational speakers to advise people to set long-term goals, isn’t it? In practice, it’s tough to keep a razor-sharp focus on your long-term objectives when future horizons are obscured by a desk full of “here and now” crap.

And so, to manage the day-to-day demands on our lives we turn to time-management systems. Unfortunately, all too often, we purchase the all-leather time-management planner and the ridiculously expensive calendar refills (and the custom hole punch for the non-standard rings inside the aforementioned planner) only to find it’s woefully inadequate.

We label and color code our entire work space, and yet still can’t lay our hand on that crucial piece of paper (or digital file) when we actually need it.

Then we discover we can’t trust our memory-joggers to jog our memory. And so to-do lists rub our brain circuits raw as we keep each task top-of-mind. Work thoughts start intruding into our down time, right up until the moment they actually become relevant. Then, distracted by something else, we forget them! Sound familiar?

Neither do we have anywhere to file material that might be useful (such as an idea scribbled on the back of a napkin) or will be useful at some (yet to be defined) future date. And, in the absence of a definite place to put them, these items generally get “filed” on our desk right next to other scribbled Post-It notes and ripped-out magazine articles. Furthermore, this “maybe someday” stuff not only litters our desk, it weighs heavily on our mind.

Fed up with constantly rewriting to-do lists to meet shifting priorities and your fluctuations in energy and enthusiasm? Then listen closely: imagine a time-management system that could capture each and every one of your projects, associated resources and next action steps. A simple, flexible approach able to accommodate the realities of the modern workday (riddled with interruptions and data overload). In this idealized future you could let it all go, totally confident that your time-management system will pop the next item into view at the appropriate time.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity stands head and shoulders above the gaggle of “only touch each piece of paper once” time-management systems. Here are some of the components of David Allen’s system that have made the most difference to my work life:

The Workflow Diagram: a rock-solid, yet super-flexible system for dealing with every outstanding item on your to-do list.

Email Management: a really effective method for managing emails so you can keep your inbox clear (while ensuring nothing drops through the cracks).

The Tickler File: a simple system of reminders that’s out of sight, out of mind… but set to jump back into view when required. (A way of setting to-dos, that’s light years beyond an inflexible, prioritized list.)

A Commonsense Filing System: manage all your free-floating bits of paper. (And quickly and easily find them when required.)

FYI: It’s cool that you can implement any one of these strategies and enjoy immediate results. You don’t have to use the entire system or wait until you’ve read the entire book to start enjoying the benefits.

A word of warning: you need to read beyond the first 80 pages to appreciate this amazing book. It begins with a broad strategic overview and contains tremendous insights that certainly tapped into the reality of my life. I found myself nodding along… and then, after a while, nodding off.

To be clear, David Allen absolutely delivers on the nuts and bolts; he just takes a little too long to get there. The irony here is that his audience is extremely busy, stressed people who feel pushed for time, go figure!

As a motivational speaker I appreciate that getting “big picture” buy-in from an audience (in person or in print) is vital before providing a tactical, step-by-step way to dig yourself out of a hole. That said, there is a balance to be had. The goal is to create credibility and then start checking the tactical boxes. Here are the broad strokes, followed closely by the nitty-gritty. I get it. Now, how do I get out of it?

Bottom line: if you’re looking for an organic approach to more productivity with less stress, I highly recommend Getting Things Done. It will clear your desk, clear your mind and help you take back control of your life.

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  • Hey, nice review. I absolutely loved this book but, I have to admit, I haven’t buckled down and started implementing anything yet. You?

  • Hey Michelle,

    Thanks for the compliment (especially from someone with as much reviewing experience as yourself).

    I’ve implemented all the things I talked about in the review. That’s the cool thing, each of the ideas I tried made an immediate, substantial impact.

    For example, the simple idea of adding the four folders – @action, @project, @someday/maybe and @waiting for – to my list of email folders and then assigning each email as soon as it arrives in my inbox, increased my email efficiency overnight…amazing stuff!


  • Hurm.

    Well, you’ve convinced me (especially with the email stuff. My email situation is quickly approaching apocalyptic proportions). I’ll start this weekend…if I can locate the book under all these stacks….


  • Hey Michelle,

    Did you try the email management technique? And, if so, did it work?

    I would love to hear how you got on,