Sunday, February 25, 2007

Getting Things Done - David Allen - Reviewed by a busy person

I have recently been reading a number of personal productivity and project management books (in typical ADD parallel fashion). If you are a very busy person, you might scroll to the commentary at the bottom of this article, as I am a busy person as well, and I have a few points to make to you.

Summary: Getting Things Done. David Allen. Good productivity tricks. Buy it.


GTD - Getting Things Done - Method for identifying and managing actionable stuff.

Stuff - anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't determined the desired outcome and the next action step. Stuff clouds your mind until you identify and track it.

Workflow - everything in the book revolves around this list.

1) collect things that command our attention
2) process what they mean and what to do about them
3) organize the results, which we
4) review as options for what we choose to
5) do

Incompletes - categorized stuff not done

Collecting - You are always collecting (work flow 1) stuff by identifying and tracking it.

Collection devices - capture stuff - notepad, pda, email inbox, physical inbox., etc.

Processing triage (workflow 2, 3, and 4) -

1) If it's not actionable, trash it.
2) If it's actionable and will take less than two minutes, do it.
3) If it's actionable and will take more than two minutes, delegate or defer to calendar or "next actions"

Projects - special case incompletes - they are a list of actions that needs to be made and triaged separately.

Next Actions / Next Action - prioritized list of things that need to be done and cannot be put on the calendar because they don't have an associated time that is not "ASAP", next action is at the top. You MAY divide your Next Actions list by category - phone calls, support requests, etc.

Waiting Actions - actions that are blocked on other people.

Lists required for David Allens Method -

* Projects
* Next Actions
* Calendar
* Waiting For

Daily Review - Calendar and Processing Triage

Weekly Review - Everything : gather, process, update all lists.

Decision making criteria:

1) context - where, how can this be done
2) time available - when is there time for this
3) energy available - how much of your available energy would this take
4) priority - which action that can be done has the highest payoff

Purging and getting started:

1) Block out a day or two
2) Buy the office gear he recommends
3) Collect every piece of stuff of every kind and put it in a single inbox
4) Process stuff as usual

Also in this book:

Project planning - not particularly interesting if you are comfortable with your project management skills.

Decision making - very reasonable but not inspiring or particularly specialized section.

Part 2 is implementation ideas for this system - probably a must-read if you decide you want to integrate part of this system into yours - these are all productivity "tricks", similar to those you would find in any personal productivity book, although there are a few unique ones. I will definitely come back to this section in my "organization time".

Part 3 is an analysis of the value of the system. I skipped it at first, but came back to it this morning, and he's got some good points. Worth reading.


This book is a huge geek-cult hit, so google might be your best bet, but here is what I found useful:

Wikipedia summary of GTD

GTD Tiddly Wiki - a very cool javascript-only wiki that supposedly lends itself to these lists. - in any case, any wiki will do as a list manager, but TiddlyWiki is a single javascript / html file with everything in it, so it's great for offline use. Sync is always a problem, even with this method. You won't always use the same PC. Once solution is to put your tiddly wiki on a thumb drive, in the hopes that you will always be able to plug it in. I tried it and liked it, but will abandon it due to sync/speed concerns and merge back into an svn managed wiki.

Location of a blank GTD TiddlyWiki

Implementation Details:

I did make several purchases based on David Allens advice. I also got buy-in to spend a couple days doing a purge from a few other folk before starting - an excellent recommendation as it turns out.

During my purge I found that the layout of my desk and filing system needed to be optimized right up front for this activity specifically. One thing that doesn't get emphasised in the book is setting up your filing system completely before starting your purge. It's important. You should do that, and set your inbox and trash can right next to the filing system, then begin by bringing your paperwork in. You will need a lot of space. You will probably have to purge your entire filing system if you are really following the book closely.

Oh, and if you are a normal person, you will have to do your purge over the course of many days. The better part of two days got me most of the way there, but I had a lot of work to do over the next couple weeks. Expect 10-20 hours work at least, not including purchasing gear he suggests, if you choose to do that.


Continuous Work Flow Management:

There are some adjustments that I would make to his program for very busy people. Weekly or daily triage is not an option for busy people. For busy people, it is constant, just like the collecting phase, and it has to be treated as a constant if you want to stay on top of it.

As a support manager, when I get in in the morning I might have dozens of new tickets (hundreds already triaged), plus ringing phones, a full calendar, and it just keeps coming. It's like managing a busy restaurant kitchen. I only have the luxuries assumed in this book late at night, on weekends and holidays.

After 12 busy hours at work, the last thing you want are huge lists to triage. So you have to work it constantly - collecting, consolidating and triaging. Yes, you still have to make concerted efforts to triage as completely as possible during the slow times, but infrequent triage won't keep you sane. The drive to organize is more powerful and more urgent for busy people.

There are limits to continuous work flow management. It is easier to rework constantly if you have a reasonable percentage of simple tasks, because you can multitask simple jobs. (i.e. phone call plus monitor a few things plus work down a list of support tickets is do-able, while coding plus work down a list of tickets is nigh impossible). Continuous management is sub-optimal in terms of peace of mind. At some point you have to accept that you are resource starved, and can't fix the problem by shoving management into the gaps.

The Drive to Organize:

There is one profound insight here. The drive to obtain the peace of mind that only a complete and properly prioritized task list can provide is irresistible. He covers this right up front and it's so damn true. Without this peace of mind, life sucks and productivity suffers.

I would add that denial of responsibility is an insidious temptation.

There is a relationship between The Drive To Organize and Neuroticism. I could write an entire paper on Neurotic Time Management. Man, I have been there. If you can do something, it's a good thing to do, and you know you are competent and maybe even the best person to do it...AND you are Neurotic, then you will accept responsibility for it. If you are Neurotic enough, your task list is effectively infinite.

The discipline to "just say no" is covered in a section called "How do you prevent broken agreements with yourself", which for my money is the best section in the book. There is probably nothing there you don't intuitively know, but surely some things you need reminders of: Either don't accept the task, renegotiate the agreement to do it, or do it. Not rocket science, but words to live by.

The Problem with Meetings:

"I envision a world in which no meeting or discussion will end, and no interaction cease, without a clear determination of whether or not some action is needed- and if it is, what it will be, or at least who has responsibility for it." - David Allen (Part 3 of Getting Things Done)

How many business meetings end without the coordinator requesting: "List your action items." I hope that I never run another meeting without making that statement, and never leave a meeting where that request is not made without asking why.

Glad I came back to section 3.

What other busy people think:

I bought two copies of this book which I have loaned to two other busy, organized people. They both said the same thing - yeah, he's got some good tricks. Neither could adopt his system to do their day to day work any more than a kitchen manager at a busy restaurant could, but they both got a good trick or two out of it.