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Getting Things Done: What I’m Learning

January 11, 2008   

Yes, like everyone else 25-45 years old, I have been reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. It lays out a very straight-forward, even — dare I say it — trivial system of dealing with the things/tasks that come into your life. The thing I’ve found about every new learning experience is that honestly, the best lesson are straight-forward and trivial. It just takes having been exposed to the idea and trying it out to see how “obvious” it seems. For example, the two main things I’ve learned about personal finance are:

  1. Spend less than you earn – duh!
  2. Do something smart with the difference – duh!

But honestly? Those two perfectly obvious things are great lessons to implement. I was already doing 1, but not enough of it. And I wasn’t being very smart with 2. So I learned to be better at both.

So being straight-forward and trivial is not a diss on GTD; it’s a bonus. 🙂

The other thing I’ve learned about life is this: Things happen when you do them.

Ok, now I sound like a jerk. 🙂 But here it is again:

Things happen when you do them.

That is probably the most profound thing I learned in the last ten years. That makes me sound like an idiot. Or an asshat. Or something. But I guess what I’m saying is that I really internalized it and have seen it to be true in my own life, as opposed to have thought about how obvious it is.

It’s the single biggest thing that NaNoWriMo has done for me: to make me understand that writing doesn’t happen in bursts of inspiration and that waiting until I felt like it is not the right thing for me, but that writing happens when you sit your butt down and write.

Getting Things Done is fundamentally about sitting your butt down (or getting up and about, as the case may be) and getting things done, off your checklist, out of your life, off your mind. The big tools the GTD system provides appears to me to be the following:

  1. Giving you a concrete idea of where to physically (or electronically) file your stuff.
  2. Making you dump out every single thing on your mind (from big work projects to watering the plants) into a single location, so that you know it’s written down somewhere so you don’t have to remember it yourself.
  3. Forcing you to define the very next physical action you have to take in order to accomplish something.

The first thing is nice because you need to know where to put “stuff”, whether it’s pending emails responses or a list of phone calls you need to make or reading material that you need to get through. I never know where to put stuff, which is why my life is so cluttered. Having someone say concretely that these are the things you need makes it easier, but this hasn’t been the best thing about GTD.

The second thing, however, has been absolutely awesome for me. I dumped out everything that is even slightly, remotely on my mind as a thing to get done, either now or in the next year or in the vague “someday” timeframe. I don’t have to remember anything, so I’ve been feeling really relaxed in the last three days as far as feeling that vague poking in the back of the mind. When something comes to mind, I just write it down. I don’t have to worry I won’t remember it.

Even sorting through the mess is nice.

The third thing is really great too. “Get house fixed up” is a good thing to think about, but it seems like an unapproachably large project. Well, what’s the very next physical action I need to take? It might be “Search through Berkeley Parents Network to read about locals who have recently renovated.” The next item might be “Call 3 of the contractors they recommended.” At any given moment, thinking about the house in general can be really stressful. However, thinking about doing some Googling and reading is really easy. Just one step at a time.

Things get done when you do them, and doing them becomes much, much easier when you can list all the things you want done, and having a system where you can sit down at any given moment and know what “next actions” you can take. When I’m sitting at a desk, I might have 5 different phone calls I need to make. If you took the time to “process” your list correctly according to the GTD system, then you don’t have to waste any time figuring out who you need to call and for what. There should be one single clean list in front of you, even if they are for 5 different areas or projects in your life.

My next post will review four different GTD Mac implementations that I am looking into.

1 Comment
Andre Alforque
January 14, 2008 at 2:54 pm

A poster has been hanging around the offices of another department which I pass each day on the way to the gym with these simple words: They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. –Andy Warhol This post just reminded me of that.

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