Getting Things Done

by David Allen

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2001
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 0-14-200028-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 259

Buy at Powell's Books

I read this book at the recommendation of Thomas Limoncelli at Time Management for System Administrators. He recommended it as a good general follow-on for readers who wanted to learn more about general time management skills not specific to system administrators. Where Time Management was an O'Reilly book, targetted directly at a technical audience, this is a general-audience book with a bit of a self-help approach, lots of marketing language on the back cover, and some of that gung-ho attitude that was so blessedly missing from Time Management. It's coming from a much different concept of audience.

This marketing style is rather off-putting at first, and after the first chapter I was worried I'd have to apply very heavy filters. Allen is writing to the sort of people he coaches, mostly corporate executives and high-level managers who have personal secretaries and whose life is mostly built around meetings, paper, proposals, and sales opportunities. The book is full of systems in the places Limoncelli avoided them: the five stages of project planning, the five stages of mastering workflow, the four-criteria model for choosing actions, and so on. All the management speak almost drove me away.

Underneath that, though, is quite solid advice and a book that, if you mentally rewrite it slightly to retarget the advice (or if you're more in its audience than in Limoncelli's audience), forms an excellent compliment to Time Management. Getting Things Done deals directly with the largest problem I felt Time Management left uncovered, namely how to organize one's larger long-term to-do list and set of projects. Allen sets up a tracking system with an explicit project system, a way of reducing projects to specific next actions that go into three different next action systems, and a way of storing and tracking potential later projects. This was exactly what you needed, and in fact shortly after finishing the book I implemented the basics of the task management system in Roundup and started using it.

Allen mostly agrees with Limoncelli or approaches problems from a different angle, but the one place that he disagrees directly is on the utility of both prioritization and daily to-do lists. His problem with daily to-do lists is exactly the problem that I had with them (everything doesn't get done, and the motion of things to the next day is discouraging), and I still think they're useful in conjunction with a larger task management system as a way of planning each day. On prioritization, he has some interesting comments about the multiple axes that one should use when choosing what to do, and I've already found his advice true when watching for other factors (amount of time available, energy level, etc.) when choosing tasks. On the other hand, I have so many tasks that without the basic sorting of a simple three-category priority system, the lists are overwhelming to deal with.

Limoncelli's book is full of specific advice and concrete tips and tricks. Allen has a few of those as well, but they're not as useful for me as most of them are aimed at a much different job and work style than I have. I instead found Getting Things Done useful primarily for the high-level view, for another perspective on the big picture of time management that reinforced many of the things Limoncelli said while coming from a different direction. Allen has an excellent starting point: going through one's entire life, taking everything that isn't done or should be changed and putting it into an inbox, and then processing that inbox using his techniques. I did something like this when putting Limoncelli's advice into practice, even though he didn't mention it explicitly. After reading Allen, I did it again, more explicitly, and it's a very useful way of getting a clean start. It does take quite a bit of time, and finding the time to do it requires a large up-front committment, but Allen correctly emphasizes the importance of getting everything into the system in order to trust it. Also, explaining how to do this, even if one doesn't actually do it, provides a great insight into how the system works.

There are a few other parts of this book that I particularly liked besides the organizational scheme. Allen spends quite a bit of time discussing how to turn projects into actions and how to keep moving forward on something that one wants to do. His concept of always asking for the concrete next action and his definitions around what a next action is have already been valuable for me. Somewhat less uniquely but still usefully, he also talks about the importance of envisioning what outcome one wants to have at the end of the project and points out how one can detect projects that are not fully baked by the inability to envision what the end result will look like. I think he's a bit too fond of the idea of brainstorming, or at least it's rarely as helpful in practice for me personally as he portrays it, but other than that his model of project planning is simple, intuitive, and one that I think I can apply.

I think that, in the long run, I may make more philosophical changes in my work style due to Getting Things Done than due to Time Management for System Administrators. Allen tackles larger problems, discusses ways to improve meetings and project planning, builds a complete organizational system for everything that enters one's life that one has to act on, and has some good mantras and guidelines for how to evaluate ideas and turn desire or dissatisfaction into action. It's not, on the other hand, the book I would have wanted to read first. I think I needed Limoncelli to put me in the right frame of mind and to introduce me to the concept before I would have gotten much out of Allen's book.

If, like me, you're a system administrator or working in a closely related technical field, I wouldn't start here. For one thing, the language is, at least initially, going to sound like the worst of your corporate vision statements and HR feel-good initiatives. For another, I think one has to have established some basic control and order over one's work life in order to have enough time and perspective to appreciate what Allen is getting at. However, if you read Time Management and wanted more, or felt that there wasn't quite enough of an organizational system to deal with everything, this is an excellent follow-on.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-04-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21