BOOK REVIEW: Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen (Penguin, 2002)

David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity, provides a comprehensive organizational approach to managing daily tasks. The goal of the system is to get all the ‘stuff’ out of your head and then record it in an organized manner that is readily available and regularly reviewed. This ‘downloading’ of ideas and information will free up your mind to work more effectively and efficiently. Many of the examples given in the book are in the framework of corporate and business executives, but this book is useful for anyone who wants to get more out of life by maximizing productivity while minimizing effort and stress. The specific techniques and strategies presented will be of particular interest to educators interested in assisting their students in maximizing productivity, and ultimately in achieving college success.

The techniques in Allen’s system are “immensely practical and based on common sense [but] most people will have some major work habits that must be modified before they can implement this system” (p. 3). He asserts that there is no one perfect solution to being organized and productive, but there are ways to facilitate organization and productivity so that one can get more done with much less stress. Allen’s system is built horizontally around the five phases of mastering workflow (collect, process, organize, review, and do). Most people currently use this workflow, but typically do not do it well (e.g., not capturing ALL things that need to get done). Each of the stages, from collecting to doing, is expanded in detail and Allen provides helpful examples of how to effectively implement each stage.

For the vertical component of this system, Allen uses an aerospace analogy to demonstrate the need to evaluate and examine life from a variety of perspectives: 50,000 feet is an entire lifetime; 40,000 feet is a three to five year vision; 30,000 feet is 1- 2 year goals; 20,000 feet represents areas of responsibility; 10,000 feet is current projects; and the runway is current actions. He asserts that working from the bottom up clears the mind and allows for focus on “more meaningful and elusive visions” (p.203).

Even if you may not be ready for an entire organizational system overhaul, many of the techniques can be used and applied instantly. His reframing of traditional “to do” lists to “next actions” lists is empowering and transformational. For example, instead of writing ‘get ready for daughter’s birthday party’ on a “to do” list he recommends that you evaluate the task and then write down the next physical action required to move this project forward. In this example, you might think the next action is to check on prices and availability of birthday party venues. However, Allen would further point out that even this may not be the next action if you do not have the phone numbers at hand. Rather, the next action might be to look for the phone numbers of birthday party venues. He further expands this concept: if actionable, do it, delegate or defer it. Allen’s two minute rule states that if the next action will take less than two minutes – do it now. This is an incredibly powerful and effective technique. Following this criterion has made a noticeable difference to my work productivity. Another important concept in the book was Allen’s suggestion for a non-actionable item – store it for reference, toss it, or put in a someday/maybe file. The concept of a someday/maybe file was personally freeing for me. Documenting ideas, plans, and designs not currently actionable has definitely quieted my mind. I now review the list regularly, but the list items are not dominating my thoughts. Since putting these items on my someday/maybe list, they rarely enter my mind, freeing me to deal with current actionable items. I have elected to use the tasks section in Microsoft Outlook to keep this list, but this list can be kept electronically or on paper. The format can vary, but the list must be easily accessible for frequent review.

Overall, Allen’s system appears to be very effective and efficient. Implementing Allen’s entire system would take time and commitment. I have implemented several tools and techniques from his book and have found them to be empowering and freeing. I plan to revisit this book in the future when I can devote the time necessary to incorporate more, if not all of Allen’s system for planning and organization. I give the book five stars because there is something valuable to be gained from reading the book in its entirety regardless of whether you want to use his complete system or only specific aspects. 

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

–Reviewed by Allison Lomond, Counselor, College of the North Atlantic-Qatar, Qatar

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