Friday, May 19, 2006

David Allen: Getting Things Done

David Allen's how-to book Getting Things Done addresses what might reasonably be called the key problem of our age. This problem goes by a variety of names: stress, pressure, overload; and it is, essentially, a general feeling of panic, dread, and loss of control which arises from the belief that we have too much to do and too little time to do it.

The sense of all-pervading pressure is something which these days is experienced from schooldays onwards. And I can testify, oddly enough, that it does not disappear even when you retire. Its effects are extremely damaging, and most of us will be able to think of someone whose health, mental or physical or both, has deteriorated under the strain. And so anyone who can offer a means of reducing that sense of stress is both providing a valuable social service and, potentially, is in possession of a valuable source of income.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Getting Things Done has sold well. First published (in the UK) in 2001, it has been reprinted nine times, which demonstrates that there are people out there who are desperate for help in organising their lives and in reducing that sense of pressure. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the book is not itself as well organised and helpful as it might be. Judging by the comments of those he has helped, on a personal basis, David Allen is something of a dab hand at seminars and one-to-one sessions. But he is not the world's best writer.

Briefly put, Allen's recipe for achieving peace of mind and a restored sense of control involves reviewing your entire life, both personal and professional, and writing down everything that you feel you need to do or hope to do. You then process these notes: in particular you decide on the desired outcome of any particular 'job to do', and on the next action that is needed to achieve whatever it is you need to do. And then you proceed from there. Allen claims that regular reference to these notes, plus the use of such obvious devices as a calendar (which in England we normally call a diary), a 'tickler' file, and so forth, will restore at least a semblance of calm; in many instances, he claims, his system greatly increases productivity.

Obviously my summary is a gross oversimplification of a 258-page book, but that's the gist of it. Allen argues that what is really destructive of mental and physical health is the dread that something has been overlooked and forgotten. And he believes that if everything that needs to be done is written down in the control system somewhere, where it can be regularly reviewed and, if necessary, action taken, then that dread is abated. The average individual, he believes, will find that they have 300 to 500 hours' worth of things to do even if the world stopped right now and nothing new was added. So obviously everything cannot be done at once. The trick is to dump some ideas, delegate or defer others, and pick out the priorities in what remains.

Well, I agree with the overall prescription. Such a system works. As it happens, I was doing 95% of what Allen recommends already, having developed my own system of control over the years. I have to say that my system -- which is very similar to my namesake's (though he is no relation) -- enabled me to complete (when I look back on it) a vast amount of work during my lifetime as an employee. On top of that, it enabled me to commit a small but regular amount of time to writing (see my essay on productivity). Furthermore, I still use the system today, in retirement, and Allen's book gave me some useful tips on how to refine my own arrangements.

I am unconvinced, however, that a panic-stricken middle manager, trying and failing to juggle commuting, family life, and ever-increasing demands on his time and energies from his employer, is going to find this book immediately helpful. He would have to read it twice, I feel, to get the hang of what Allen is on about. And even then I doubt whether everything would be entirely clear.

In my experience, few individuals are more in need of a good time-management and self-organisation system than those who are trying to write a book on top of everything else. And that is why I have stated, on this blog and elsewhere, over and over again, that writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health -- not to mention your relationships, your bank account, and your career prospects. It is not a burden to be taken on lightly, though many people plunge into it with cheerful abandon.

In dealing with that problem, Allen's book can certainly help. But in my view Getting Things Done would benefit from a complete rewrite, from the ground up. It should be shorter, crisper, clearer, and, curiously enough, more prescriptive. As it stands, Allen gives you leeway to decide for yourself, for example, whether your system should be paper-based or computer-based. And in the early stages that is not very helpful. The book is five years old now anyway, so a new version is overdue.

One book that Allen (or his new ghost writer) could study with advantage is Jean Marie Stine's Writing Successful Self-Help and How-To Books. Stine has edited over 50 self-help titles, including some big sellers such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and Women Who Love Too Much, so she knows whereof she speaks. And just one glance at the mere layout of Stine's book will give one clue as to how Getting Things Done could be improved.

David Allen has a web site, which offers a variety of free stuff and also (naturally) stuff that you can buy. I'm afraid I didn't take to it at all.

Everything that Allen has to offer, in the book and on the web site, is potentially enormously valuable. And clearly he has converts and enthusiasts. But in my opinion he hasn't yet found the best way of getting his message across.


Debi said...

Hi, Grumps. It's seemed for ages that every blog I go to mentions you and/or links to you. I was beginning to feel quite left out!
So I'm just checking in and wanted to thank you for providing such a good resource. Lots of stimulating and useful stuff there to get the creative juices going ...
Once I work out how to do it, I'll definitely put a link to you on my blog!

Anonymous said...

Can I just vent for a second... Rejection today from an editor who pointed out all my mistakes too. Thanks for the heads up I thought, but then I noticed his email contained loads of errors...

just venting....

Anonymous said...

I came to this site from Technorati for the review, but I really connected with your comment about writing a book destroying your health, etc. I have recently had to take some time off due to stress-induced illness. I keep telling my kids they're not allowed to grow up and become writers.

Maybe that could be a country and western song...naah!

ivan said...

David Allen seem to be unconsciously describing the process of writing an actual novel, notes-to-self be hanged.
The same process, the same set of anxieties . And will we ever get it right?
What is missed,I feel, is that a work situation is much like a love affair. It may involve a triangle and a triangle, more often than not, has a fourth corner, the invisible person who is "out to get you."
Doesn't matter how many copious notes you make to yourself for your self-improvement, somebody is still out there to get you, notes and all. We are not always the masters of our own diary destinies.

Captain Queeg and his strawberries?


But in years of newspapering, I have found that the guy all choked up over Harp seals will find a misplaced comma or clause somewhere in your copy, may even see you as an animal who has no rights, and as a pro, will take years to knock you out of the loop.

We are anxious because of the pteradactyl, who, in recent years, has been found to be still very dangerous and very much out there.

A diary is fine, but a novel is better.
That way, you can send up a Stinger rocket and scorch the one-eyed-one-horned flying purple people eater. These abound on Fleet Street and in the corridors of publishing.
After writing my own novel, I found many of my pteradactyls scorched and many of my anxieties vanished, but it't probably because I've outlived the bastards.

Lovely, well-crafted essay all the same, Grumpy.

Oscar Wildebeest said...

Basically, I should make a To Do list? OK. Thanks for saving me from having to buy the book.

Anonymous said...

And you can use to help you keep track of that to-do list for free. Give it a try today at

Solomon Folks
My Tickler File Team

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