The Getting Things Done Book
The book Getting Things Done by David Allen can easily be seen as one of the bibles of personal productivity. It is a business book, initially released in 2001 and raised up to be a bestseller in its field.
It covers a combination of time management and stress management, but gives these disciplines a different name: Attention management. It is a guideline on the mindset to approach thought processes and ideas, and how to deal with them. With that, it gives a way to implement task management – to organize how to approach projects and ideas.
In this article, we will take a look on the book, have a brief overview on the methodology itself and what makes it different from other methodologies. Many applications are built upon this concept, but does it hold up to its fad?
First, some words on the author. David Allen claims to have had 35 professions before the age 35. He grew interested in business consulting – especially towards productivity – which he started in the 1980s.
He created a methodology called Getting Things Done (GTD), which quickly grew very popular in both business and personal productivity. GTD is the base concept for three productivity books he published between 2001 and 2009. The books are worldwide bestsellers and have been translated into dozens of languages.
Based on the methodology discussed in the books, he founded the David Allen Company. It is a coaching firm dedicated to the mindset of Getting Things Done. They consult the method discussed in the book and how to implement it via training, coaching, and so on.
David Allen first wrote his book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity in 2001.
There is a newer updated revision from 2015. That being said, most of his ideas are timeless. It does not focus on certain apps or tools. All approaches he advises are of a theoretic kind. His methods can be implemented by using digital tools and apps as discussed in so many articles on this website. His methods, however, also work on paper – with a pen, boring and analog, but still as effective.
He describes his approach to work and productivity, which aims at freeing one’s head to be vacant for new ideas. The major pillar of GTD is attention management. It discusses how to focus on relevant tasks, but more importantly on how to organize future things: When to give attention to them, what to do so your mind won’t be distracted all the time.
“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
His system is designed to helping you to do your work organized, but also to be a collection of uncompleted thoughts and tasks – without the constant fear of losing thoughts and ideas, or missing the one thing a colleague asked about two days ago.
The book starts with examples of situations where many people tend to be overwhelmed. Often in hand with forgetting important things or deadlines. It proceeds with explaining ways to avoid this, which is the heart of the GTD system.
The main methodology of GTD can be summarized in five steps:
- Capturing ideas
- Clarifying them
- Organizing tasks and projects
- Reviewing and planning
- Doing it
The process is summarized with this flowchart, which can be found on the English wikipedia:
So, the concept is simple. It is about how to capture and manage thoughts. After writing them down, they are due to be organized and structured. Then, regular reviewing will help to keep the system tidy. Last, the work is to be done.
There, now you skipped 267 pages of the book. But, the book delivers so much more. The main concept is easy to convey, but it is more about the why than the how. There is a mindset behind Getting Things Done, which helps to integrate it into personal workflows.
Getting Things Done comes with dozens of real life examples. Situations where people struggle, maybe even without realizing the struggle. The book shows, how to approach these situations stress-free. But before approaching it, it is about acknowledging and analyzing the problem. And the book does a great job with that.
Often, it is hard to start a new habit, and it is even harder without a reason. The same is true for workflows – workflows are a habit to follow, in daily life, while tackling work. Each of these five steps needs to be internalized, to be understood. More than internalizing the step itself, it is good to know why to do them.
When understanding the reasoning for why to apply these steps, it is easier to follow them. The book does a great job on that. It delivers all kinds of small hints, situations to think about and tiny steps to follow.
This makes Getting Things Done one of the major books in personal productivity as well as one of the major business books in general. It describes a methodology which is simple in its essence, almost trivial, but thought-provoking when starting to understand.
GTD as a fad
Getting Things Done is the base of a variety of products. Many tools and services are directly, or indirectly built upon the methodology taught in this book.
Many tools, including the one reviewed on this website, include GTD in some parts. The service GTDNext goes as far as including it in its name as it is fully built upon the methods explained in this book. Other apps, like OmniFocus, discuss GTD in their tutorials and websites.
The term is also very present in the web, with 43 million Google results on the full phrase and 15 million on the abbreviation. As a matter of fact, there are thousands of guides, blog articles, discussions, and more. For any productivity app in existence, one would probably be able to find a forum thread or guide discussing how to use it in combination with the GTD mindset.
This can be both good and bad. For once, it is possible to find feedback and discussions on the matter. Unfortunately, the methodology often gets dumped down to the simple 5 step plan discussed above. While the main pillars of GTD are these steps, the full mindset around why to use this methodology is often largely ignored.
For anybody using GTD in apps without ever touching the book itself, we would highly encourage reading it, if just to broaden the horizon and get a view on the full picture.
Using a single methodology
As anything, things are best if consumed in moderation. Getting Things Done is a great method, especially with the mindset behind it. There are a lot of tools and services sprouting from it, and one can fully invest all its trust in it. But is that advisable?
It is always good to compare. Methods, as well as apps or services. Even if happy with a single workflow, comparing it to others might even shed a light on why these workflows are so great.
Also, nothing is perfect, and nothing works for everybody. Be open to adjustments. It is great to copy ideas from the book into one’s individual thought processes, and stop at the point where you feel ideas are too complicated, or not compatible to your way of thinking.
The best workflows often come with a combination of multiple ideas and setups. Getting Things Done is not written to be a full replacement of everything. A main indication for that is why has never a single app recommendation directly by the David Allen company. It is a method, not an implementation. How it gets implemented is very individual, and not everything written in the book needs to be followed strictly. It is a guidance, not cut in stone.
Getting Things Done has two successors. Both books built upon the ideas in Getting Things Done in different ways. Compared to the first edition of GTD, published in 2001, both books cover a complementary view on the method. Keep in mind, that the newest edition of GTD has been released in 2015, so it is newer than both other books. They will still give a broader view on the ideas conveyed in the main book.
Productivity and workflows are a very individual, a very private thing. Nobody can solely copy workflows, and they are not supposed to be copied. Seeing, how other people approach work, however, can be an inspiration. An inspiration in evaluating own workflows and seeing holes in them.
The first successor called Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Getting Things Done was written with this mindset. It was published in 2004 and does not cover methodology by David Allen, but is rather a collection of stories around applying them.
It discusses how different people apply the GTD method to their own workflows. This way, it helps to understand how to apply previously discussed methods, and how different people will modify it to fit their own individual needs – to be exact: 52 stories on how people use GTD. It’s the example-based approach all over again.
The other book is called Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life, and has been released in 2009. In this title, it goes back to Allen explaining his views on how to get things done. While the previous books focus on the structure and organization of the projects and thoughts themselves, this third one looks at the actual process of tackling work.
We will cover both these books in future reviews, but meanwhile encourage everyone interested in Getting Things Done to go ahead and read these titles themselves.
Getting Things Done by David Allen is one of the standard works in personal productivity. Some say, it is the Bible of this genre, and a must-read for any entrepreneur, academic, and so on.
The book and all methods derived from it are the base of a large variety of productivity apps. Therefore, you will find the tiny letters GTD on almost every product page, setup guide or blog discussing the usage of task management apps.
While the full picture might not suit everybody, it is one of the major works in this field and should not be skipped by anyone even slightly interested in personal productivity.
A book review and the Wiki page can only cover so much, so we encourage to read the book yourself. This helps both to grasp all methods discussed in the book, but also to honor the author.
There are vast amounts of sources on GTD, and the main concept can be understood without ever opening the book, but the book will give a more thorough view: Not only on how GTD works, but also why it is a good idea to change the mindset.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you make a purchase.
Dr. Marc A. Kastner
I am an assistant professor working on computer vision and multimodal understanding. I am interested in task- and knowledge management. In my free time, I blog on productivity workflows and apps.
For my professional portfolio, please visit: marc-kastner.com
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