Staff Picks

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Revised)

April 07, 2015


How much GTD is enough when you want a "mind like water"?

"Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them."
-David Allen

My mom likes to organize things. Recently she's been sorting through her entire house, thanks to Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Throughout the long, cold North Dakota winter, she's been holding objects in her hands and trying to feel a "spark of joy." (Of course, if there is no spark, no joy, Kondo directs you to thank the object and discard it.) A firm believer in libraries and sharing books, Mom has been taking notes, having my Dad transcribe them, and emailing them to my brothers and me so we can tidy up as well. We've been talking about the merits of keeping clothes for nostalgia's sake and the dangers of getting rid of any books at all (I have regretted 99% of the books I've let go). It's also led to lots of conversations about how far to go with this methodology—any methodology, really. If you don't do the whole thing to the letter, does it really "work?" Will you still feel the magic? Will the promised calmness still envelop your life?

This is precisely the struggle I have had with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system (known as GTD to its followers) over the years. How much is enough? How little is too little? It was my mom who discovered the original edition many years ago and shared it with our family. My younger brother and I were the most enthusiastic (after Mom; there is no beating my mom at enthusiasm) about the system and over the years have gone back and forth over which tools, tweaks, and tips were the most helpful. And while my brother has been a much more dedicated disciple than his sister, I still hold out hope that I can one day get it together and Get Things Done.

My ongoing struggles and stumbles with GTD were what made me so excited to see Allen's revised 2015 edition of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity cross my desk. I had read the 2001 edition several times, but this new one filled me with hope that I could finally master the system and experience the much-promised "mind like water."

For those of you unfamiliar with GTD, it is a basically a system for dealing with every "to-do" in your life grounded in the fact that your brain is for thinking, not reminding. Apparently there's a pretty small, finite number of separate things your brain can remember at one time, and if we try to make it remember everything we need to do, well, things go awry. So the key, according to Allen, is to get all of it out of your brain and down on paper in a "trusted system" that you review on a regular basis. It sounds simple, right? I'm here to tell you: Ha.

Over the years, my adherence to GTD has waxed and waned like the seasons. I have done the "full mind sweep" more than once, organized every to-do in proper order in my newly-favored system, and then chugged along for a few months. But the next thing I know, I start skipping weekly reviews, the system springs a leak, and I'm back to outdated lists and an untrusted system. Useless.

Not that I am a complete failure here. Some things have indeed become natural parts of my thinking and working (checklists, file cabinets, agenda lists), and none is greater than the concept of the "project" ("any multistep outcome that can be completed within one year") and it's corollary, the "next action" ("The next physical, visible activity that progresses something toward completion"). Those two concepts alone completely altered how I approach my daily and weekly to-do lists for many years now. I used to write down things like "find a job" or "make a new film"—only to cause immediate paralysis because I can't get up one day and just make a new film. But what I can do is (#1) brainstorm a list of ideas for film topics, and (#2) research a new camera within my budget, and (#3) watch a bunch of short films for inspiration. Turns out much of what we think of as to-dos are actually projects. And the most critical question you can ask about any project you have decided you want to do is "What can I actually do next?" Sounds simple, but I'm telling you, it has power to unstick the most unstuck idea you have.

I'm sure everyone has their Achilles' heel in their implementation of Allen's process, and the biggest one for me has been deciding on the tools to organize my lists. Over the years, I have tried a myriad of paper and digital tools, hoping the next one would be the one that will work forever: 3-ring binder, Moleskine notebooks, Wunderlist, Google Tasks & Docs, OmniFocus, iPhone Notes... And let's not forget the plethora of yet-to-be-used productivity apps on my phone: Asana, Evernote, Trello, Catch, IF, 30/30, Things...  I'm always searching for the one system that will be perfect and change my habits.

Much of the information in the book is timeless—and the basics of Allen's system have not changed. What the new edition does is further ground GTD in the real world and the real people who practice it. While the first edition was squarely geared toward the CEO/corporate world, Allen now writes with an expanded understanding that GTD devotees span all industries, all career levels, all ages. He also addresses navigating the printed and screen worlds, grappling with the 24-7 nature of today's life, and the global reach of his work.

Most importantly, the revised edition also includes two all-new chapters: "GTD and Cognitive Science" and "The Path of GTD Mastery." And while the former is fascinating in its science-based research on the effectiveness of GTD (Positive psychology, Distributed cognition, Flow theory, Psychological capital), the latter is the one that pays for the new edition for me. It covers everything from (re)mastering the basics, getting off track (and back on again), and a vision for higher levels of GTD ninja-ness. Exactly what I needed! It also reassures me that any level of changes I make will provide stress-relieving benefits to my overloaded brain—it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. For all of us that are making progress towards our ideal selves on a less-than-ideal timeline, this is great news.

I'm looking forward to digging through Allen's revised edition--perhaps more slowly this go around, giving myself the time needed to fully integrate each process before moving on. (A girl can dream, right?) So now I have a new project (on my theoretical project list, in my hypothetical trusted system) called "Better implement GTD in my life." Next action? Read the revised edition.

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