Many years ago, at the suggestion of my friend and coworker, Stan McFarland, I picked up a copy of “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. This book is an excellent primer on getting yourself organized. David Allen does an excellent job of showing you how to get a handle on managing your time and attention well. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Mr. Allen’s book starts off by explaining why getting and remaining organized without a solid system is a fool’s errand. His premise, which I strongly agree with, is that the purpose of a system of organization is to get the information out of your head and into some other medium so that you can focus on your work at a higher level. He suggests that the mind continues working on things that are not resolved or otherwise handled and that it distracts from the task at hand. My personal experience bears this out.
Next, he gets into the meat of setting up a system and getting a handle on all your “stuff”. He starts first with the phases of dealing with incoming information and tasks and gives a rough outline of how it’s done before getting into the meat of the process.
First, he shows you how to collect your information and discusses various ways to ensure that you are able to quickly capture information as you receive it in a way that allows you to process it later. He talks about the importance of having a single place for information so that you can effectively sort it. In this first step, you don’t actually sort the information, as that is a separate step. It’s critically important that you be able to capture information, no matter where you are. Thankfully, smart phones and other devices make this much simpler these days, but they also require more organization and discipline to help you do so.
Next, he shows you how to process or triage your information so that it is easily searchable and sorted in such a way that items are correctly prioritized. The goal here is to get your inbox (where you collected the information) to the point where nothing is in it and all the items are sorted by priority. This can take some getting used to, and he offers a lot of tips for how to get better about it. Later, he gets into how to set up “buckets” for your stuff that enable quick sorting of information you get into appropriate, clearly defined sets. Effectively, these are folders for reference material, lists for items that need completion, and reminders for things that need completion on particular dates.
Next, he talks about the process of regular reviews to keep your system functional (an area that I frequently slack in). You’ll periodically need to go over everything to make sure that you are being effective. This includes both looking at your system carefully to make sure all of your tasks are in the system, rather than simply stuck in your head, and to get items into the system that you’ve invariably forgotten. You need to do this regularly to make sure that your system of getting things done accurately reflects your reality, as once the two start to differ, you’ll tend to be stuck dealing with things at a lower level than you had been before.
Finally, he gets around to dealing with the realities of actually completing tasks. He talks about a four-fold model for determining which tasks to complete next, based on time, context, energy available, and priority. He further talks about different levels of control of your to do list that you will ultimately reach. Initially, you start out just triaging tasks in the moment, but you want to get to a higher level so that you can make longer term plans and take action towards those plans. I honestly believe this is the core of the book – the tips on getting organized are means to this end. The whole thing is about creating a productive alignment in your life and getting control over the smaller things so that you can take control over the bigger ones and David Allen’s method helps with that considerably. With this discussion done, he goes into the steps you need to take to get a project under control. In particular , he stresses the importance of getting to a “Next Action” right now on a project instead of letting it sit out there, which is critical if you are actually going to move a project forward. It’s also important here to set up tools and processes to support projects and he gets into how to set those up here.
He ends the book with three chapters describing the interesting effects of applying his system over a longer period of time. As you get these things worked out, you’ll find that it is much easier to get things done, but it also drastically improves your interactions with others, as you drop the ball less often and are better prepared for surprises.
Anyway, I would give this book five stars, provided that you actually follow the advice therein. You can’t simply read this book and be better off – you have to actually implement what it suggests. But it’s been hugely helpful to me over the course of my career, even though I’m a bit of a slacker at times about staying to the plan.