Taking A Look at Getting Things Done

I have finally read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done…yay! I’m impressed by the simplicity and clarity with which he’s addressed the psychology of being productive in a working system…it’s just awesome!

I have to admit that my reading was motivated not by the desire to be more productive, but to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently retreading the same ideas in The Printable CEO™. While I creep on some of the same ideas that David Allen defined 20 years ago in his corporate training programs, it looks like my emphasis is compatible but different. That’s a huge relief. And since discovering GTD through other blogs referring to my original articles, I’ve been delighted by the tremendous sense of community that’s formed around the very idea of being more productive. That fits very nicely with my own goals of being around empowered, happy people. ROCK ON!

Having now read “The Book”, I can finally make some informed observations about how The Printable CEO™ relates to GTD. But that will come in a later post; first, I’ll summarize my impressions.

The Prerequisite “AWESOME”

First of all, I was impressed by Allen’s writing style. It’s to-the-point and confident without being overbearing, refreshingly free of those “poignant true stories” that pad the other books in the self-help section. Don’t get me wrong—I love those kind of stories, just not when they’re used primarily as testimonials. Anyway, GTD is such a lean book that, upon finishing it, I felt the sort of satisfaction that I normally get from eating a big green salad and drinking lots of water. This is different from the feeling I get from reading, say, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which delivers two good bits of advice leavened with ingredients of dubious nutritional value. But I digress.

Since there are already great summaries and commentary sites out there, I’ll just summarize the ideas I found particularly interesting.

Martial Arts and Productivity

There’s a couple places where Allen makes a comparison to martial arts mastery. As untrained noobs we have a tendency to overreact or underreact to any given stimuli, and are thus easily exhausted and overwhelmed by the uncategorized senses that bombard us daily; and thus, we are easily defeated. By adopting the ready state of the martial artist, we can learn to condition our reactions and stay loose…he talks about this at some length in the introduction. I really started to pay attention when I read the following (page 199):

When you become elegant at dispatching what’s coming in and are organized enough to take advantage of the “weird time” windows that show up, you can switch between one task and the other rapidly.

I envisioned myself dodging bullets in a ballet of Chow Yun Fat-style productivity, gunning down To-Do lists with an endless stream of next actions. Now that’s an image worth living up to…wha-cha! And intuitively, I know it’s possible. It just takes training.

On the other hand, Joel Spolsky is onto something too when he talks about task switching being harmful, or when Kathy Sierra mentions similar ideas regarding the false hope of multi-tasking. Now, Allen isn’t specifically talking about multi-tasking; he’s talking about being able to adapt what task one does to the available time, which is more about out of order instruction scheduling than multi-tasking. They’re related only in that they’re both methods for achieving time-efficiency in task completion. It is tempting to take the analogy too far; I started looking at RISC versus CISC design philosophies as a source for similar ideas, but I eventually realized that Allen’s other methodologies address this very issue; in this case, I’m thinking about the 4 Criteria Model for Choosing Actions of the Moment. This is a good reminder that I should really “live” the GTD system before I can really evaluate it.

Stress Comes from Uncertainty

When I had first read the back of the GTD book, I misinterpreted what was meant by the following phrase: Our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax. I thought this was one of those “take a deep breath” bits of advice that were ultimately useless in the face of real adversity, but Allen actually delivers the insight behind it: when we’re uncertain about anything that could possibly have a negative impact on ourselves, we get stressed. And when you’re stressed, you’re not loose. And when you’re not loose, moving fluidly and rapidly is pretty much impossible. You burn more energy while getting less done. Controlling the levels of anxiety is absolutely key.

Bluntly stated, most of us don’t know what we’re supposed to do beyond a vague sense that yes, there are things that have to happen, and we’re being held responsible for them. Sometimes we’re holding ourselves responsible; I love that section he has about treating all commitments equally, because a broken commitment feels bad no matter what it is. In either case, all those little bits of “not knowing” have an anxiety cost associated with them, each a fatty little bon-bon of self-hate. It goes right to your hips, and soon you’ll find yourself waddling around, wheezing and sweating from the sheer effort of merely not keeling over.

If not knowing is the cause of anxiety, then create the ultimate personal knowledge management system. That’s GTD: situational awareness and logistical support rolled up in one system. Not having tried it yet, I imagine that the feeling might be like when I was like 5 years old, when I believed that Mom and Dad knew everything. If I needed to know something, they would give me the answer. They reminded me when to do things, looked both ways before crossing the street, anticipated the downside of not getting my nap, and so forth. GTD, I’m thinking, might be like having that again, except this time by my own hand. I’m optimistic, but as Mom would have said, “We’ll see.”

Reserve Your Brain for Thinking About, Not Thinking Of

When we’re constantly having to remember what to do, we spend less time doing actual work. When we doubt that we’re remembering everything we have to do, or suspect that there’s something else we are supposed to do first, then that’s even worse. GTD addresses this by emphasizing the “front-end” decision making to reduce the number of tasks, and by using what he labels as distributed cognition: the offloading as much crap out of your brain into physical systems that are easily accessible and reliable. A side benefit, he notes, is that viewing your thoughts from the “outside your head” context often leads to new insights. It’s an idea I have stumbled upon also in the context of drawing and in un-tapping my brain…I didn’t know what it was called until reading it in GTD. Cool! Our brains are really good at problem solving, but we have to keep it clear of distractions to work efficiently. Since a lot of the tasks we have to do today have complex state, evolving efficient strategies for managing all that information is absolutely critical.

One odd line of inquiry comes to mind, which is why we have the anxiety response in the first place. I imagine that people who were really good at worrying also, somehow, managed to unblock themselves long enough to actually do something proactive about it; scared into action! The other thought, which is a little unkind, is that “worrying without taking action” may have selectively evolved in certain societies, as those people who gave up their control out of fear were the ones who tended not to get beheaded and therefore reproduced. To some extent, we’re also conditioned by unprogressive educational institutions to think in a similar way. We can feel rejected and grouch about it, letting ourselves get disenfranchised by the system, or we can self-empower. The underlying message of empowerment is something I like very much about GTD, particularly toward the later chapters…and it’s backed by a solid systems approach to getting there. That is incredibly rare to find anywhere, and it’s quietly revolutionary. Fight the power!

The Natural Planning Model

I have often wondered why people just never asked WHY whenever they were presented with a task. From the looks I would get, I used to assume that everyone else knew what they were doing. I figured out that this wasn’t the case eventually, and that contributed to a greater confidence in my own process. That was a very important moment.

Despite my personal breakthrough, I found the process of asking WHY is still foreign to most people; I’m feeling a sense of relief that Allen also appears to believe this. Even so, I tend to keep the full-strength process to myself unless I’m actively spec’ing out a project with other people. Even then I tend not to push it too hard…people can be very sensitive to the WHY question, as they sometimes perceive it as a kind of challenge to their competence. To help reframe it, I now use guiding principles like “finding intent, expectation, motivation, assumptions, resources, metrics”; this is a little more accessible because the scope is more limited, and it places the locus of control back with the person who needs the work done. Instead of asking “WHY WHY WHY”, I can ask “What is the reason you’re making this website right now?” and “What does your business expect as a result of doing this project?” These questions are much easier for someone to answer, because they’re expressed from their point of view. The wrong questions to ask would be “Why do you want this implemented in PHP instead of static HTML?”, “How many pages do you want on your website?”, and “What is the budget?”, as these questions are actually dissociated from the client’s perspective. Yes, even the budget one, if you ask it TOO SOON. But again, I digress.

I am not so sold on Allen’s explanation of writing an outline is unnatural planning (pg. 58), though I agree with the underlying assumption: people tend to want to jump right to the action, and shortcut the process in a mistaken belief that it’s what you’re supposed to do. The failure of his fourth grade teacher, perhaps, was the failure to teach the agile thinking/brainstorming techniques that lead up to the outlining process. When you emphasize just the final product, the creative process gets shortchanged and you end up with junk, unless you’ve already done the creative and are just executing steps by rote. I think a lot of us have the expectation that following steps that “guarantee” results is the ideal situation, and therefore act accordingly in situations out of wishful thinking. But this is a minor digression…I heartily endorse the Natural Planning Model!

General Design Principles

I am also really impressed by the GTD system’s underlying design principles. If I were to extract my perception of what they are for general use in any workflow-oriented system, they’d look like this:

  • Create a Trusted Reference System — Not only does your filing need to be quick-to-access, you have to also dilligently practice maintenance of the system to ensure it remains trustworthy and reliable. This is actually probably more difficult than people imagine, because there are many sources of mistrust that can be injected into the daily workflow. I happen to be very strongly in the “trust but verify” camp, assuming information corruption and mismatch between intention and action as the natural order of things. Therefore, I tend to re-check everything coming in and going out. Because of this mentality, my processes sometimes seem very slow, but I’ve come to realize that I tend to converge the reliable solution faster…and indeed, this causes me less stress. However, my system is rather ad-hoc; seeing how Allen systemized the process into something more efficient is very encouraging.

  • The System Must Have Very Low Cost to Access — You need to get stuff into and out of the system very easily, otherwise you will tend to shortcut the process. “Cost”, in my mind, means time to access, number of steps, and amount of thinking/recall required to accomplish the fundamental act of reliably completing a informationally-meaningful transaction. In other words: the fewer moving parts, the more naturally part of your workflow, within hand’s reach and eye’s glance, the better. I suspect software solutions to GTD are more difficult to implement, IMHO, because application designers mistake dynamism of the display for ease-of-access. Clicking something to see it, even if it’s just OneClick®, is one click too many if that information is critically part of your workflow. Paper, by comparison, is “on” all the time, and you can tape the information you need to the wall next to your monitor. It’s faster for pure information lookup than clicking on windows and buttons.

  • Write Information Once, In The Right Place — If information capture is complex, requires multiple steps, involves copying information from one place to another or synchronizing multiple sources, you’re creating friction in the system. You create opportunities for mistakes, conflict, and misunderstanding. You increase the time it takes to access data. You also lose trust in your system, which defeats the whole point of practicing GTD. Allen’s point about not using support systems to keep track of reminders in GTD comes to mind also; lists and actions in your system are the reminders. Don’t do the work twice! People hate doing things twice if it brings them no measurable gain.

  • Put Information In Context to How You Work and Think — Anything that forces you to stop and remember what you’re supposed to be doing is going to slow you down and create opportunities for distraction. The Tickler File is genius…I can’t believe I’m just finding out about it. Also, the idea of tagging tasks by “location” is fantastic, though in my case I need to single-task my locations. The computer itself doesn’t make for a good location, because it’s a source of way too many contextual tasks.

  • Don’t Create Opportunities to Disappoint Yourself — I’m thinking of the section where Allen describes making commitments. Disappointment sucks no matter how you slice it. The front-end processing of “stuff” is the right time to be real about what you can and can not do.

  • Objectifying Results — My insistence on identifying tangible results is very similar. If you can’t measure it, see it, visualize it, or identify the next immediate step to do something…it’s just not something that needs doing. It’s just, as he says, “stuff”. To catalyze stuff into something productive, you need to have that next action item that is actionable. Amen!

  • Use Phased Thinking To Reduce Cognitive Load — Sometimes you need to do a lot of thinking, and sometimes you just need to know what to do. Knowing how to estimate the time and energy requirements for either type of task is a really important insight. While unburdening our minds of the “remember everything” requirement frees up more mental horsepower, the thinking process still burns a lot of energy. If you have to switch between thinking and doing, you will burn out your “mental clutch”. What I like about the “collect, process, organize, review, do” workflow is the clear purpose of each mental state, each with a clear tangible result. Masterfully done.

  • Recognizing the Power of Tricks — I love tricks, because they are high-yield moments of productive pleasure. Every time you apply a trick, you feel like you’re getting more than you paid for, and that’s a good feeling. In the design of video games (games in general, actually), making sure that there is some unbalance is important to keep things feeling “alive”. One subjective example is the difference in individual weapons balance in Quake 3 versus whatever version of Unreal Tournament was out at the time. While the weapons type themselves were pretty similar in each game, UT’s weapon mix seemed balanced to do approximately the same amount of damage no matter which one you used. Some of them had tactical advantages based on range or mode of fire, but they all delivered roughly the same amount of firepower per second. As a result, no gun seemed overly powerful. Sounds very fair, doesn’t it? Well, I hated it…all the weapons felt exactly the same. Quake 3, by comparison, had more limited firing modes, but the weapon damage potential varied hugely! As a result, people had very strong feelings about the “unfair” advantages of one weapon versus another. In UT, skill made the difference. In Quake 3, picking up the BFG (the game’s ultimate weapon) would, in the hands of even a novice player, wreak havok against veteran players. And that gave us something to talk about. The strategy drastically changed…anyone seen going for the BFG would be picked-on and destroyed, which made getting the BFG all the more sweet if you could grab it…good times!

In Closing


p>I’m glad I finally read the book and got some framing thoughts around the system. I can now review The Printable CEO™ in context, and adapt it slightly to be a little more compatible with GTD’s guiding principles. The PCEO falls into the Trick category, I think, but maybe experienced GTDers have more informed opinions on this matter.