Get Everything Done

by Mark Forster

Cover image

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 0-340-74620-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 190

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Mark Forster is the author of my (current) favorite time management book, Do It Tomorrow, and several excellent blog posts. I've therefore been rather curious about some of his earlier books, and finally decided to order this one. It appears to only have been published in the UK, so it can be a bit expensive in the US unless you can find it used.

The main reason why I like Forster's writing so much is that he's a theory and neat trick sort of author instead of a single system author. A lot of time management writing (such as Getting Things Done) presents a single system that's supposedly universal. If that system happens to work for you, great. If it doesn't, the usefulness of the book drops off rapidly. You have to work through the basic principles, which are often sidelined in the book, and come up with variations on your own.

Forster is the other sort of time management author: he throws out a flurry of tricks and tactics and lets you see which ones stick. He doesn't have a single system; indeed, one of the most entertaining parts of Get Everything Done is a parable about following many of the common time management systems and having one's life get worse and worse. Instead, he talks about the underlying theory, about the different approaches he's tried and their tradeoffs, and about lots of little tricks that he's found help in one situation or another. It's more of a toolkit than a system.

This is, of course, only as good as the clarity of presentation. In both Do It Tomorrow and here, the clarity is excellent. For example, one of the most eye-opening ideas he explores in this book is that time management is a horrible name for the field. Time continues on no matter what you do; you can't increase it, and you can't save it. Rather, what you're actually doing is attention management: for each moment, you're deciding where to direct your attention. Things to which you turn your attention will change; things that you don't pay attention to will not change (except possibly for the worse). I'm quite fond of this reframing of the problem.

Forster's thinking about time, or, rather, attention management is not as fully-developed here as in the later Do It Tomorrow. Much of the latter book is about the theory and practice of to-do lists. The techniques presented here were, at least for me, less immediately inspiring, although still thought-provoking. Much of the book focuses on internal resistance and procrastination, on the concept of self-control and decision-making as a mental "muscle" that has to be exercised, and on a philosophy of attention management that slowly builds up to doing whatever one is resisting the most at the moment. I haven't had a chance to work through the exercises that he offers (Forster's books tend to be full of illuminating exercises), so I don't have a fully-formed opinion on their efficacy. I was able to put Do It Tomorrow into practice more immediately.

However, one thing this book does do is tackle directly the problem of trying to do too many things. Since this, more than organization, is the heart of my personal attention management problems, I was delighted to see this. Most attention management books at least give lip service to the problem, but they provide little useful guidance. David Allen's Getting Things Done effectively rules it out of scope: the goal of the system is to free you to act on your decisions, but there's little or no attention paid to the practical problem of making those decisions. As a result, I had serious trouble with GTD when I tried to use it. My project and next action lists would simply grow without bound, and GTD offered no useful assistance with culling them.

Deciding what to do is, of course, a hard problem, but Forster here offers some specific and useful techniques and spends some time on the necessity of culling one's backlog. He also states directly the problem that everyone else seems to dance around: if you don't cull your committments, no attention management system will actually help you. It will just enable you to do trivia more efficiently, and therefore allow you to fill your life with even more of it, while still feeling just as overwhelmed as before. The bluntness is refreshing, and the exercises in cataloging commitments with time values and then forcing yourself to reduce the commitment list to the doable look quite helpful.

I would still start with Do It Tomorrow rather than this book, since I think some practical approaches to to-do list management are one of the best places to start with attention management. But I'm glad I picked up this book as well, despite the cost of the UK import, and I plan on working through the exercises in it. Unlike David Allen, who has one basic system and whose other book was interesting but not as helpful, Forster's toolkit approach means that more books mean more ideas and more possible tools. He doesn't stick with one concept and polish it; he tries a lot of different ideas and then analyzes their strengths and weaknesses. If Do It Tomorrow spoke to you, I recommend grabbing this one as well.

(Yes, it's somewhat amusing for me to read and review this book immediately after The Making of the Indebted Man, since to an extent attention management is part of the remaking of the self that's the obligation of the debtor in Lazzarato's construction of the nature of debt. It was something that occurred to me while reading this book. But I think Forster does a good job of showing attention management as a tool to direct one's efforts towards an internal goal rather than externally-imposed goals.)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-05-29

Last modified and spun 2015-09-17