Review: Getting Things Done, by David Allen

Amy Peikoff reviews Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen.


New York: Viking Publishers, 2001. 288 pp. $24.95 (cloth), $15.00 (paperback).

You strive to be as productive as possible in your career. You have relationships with friends and family you want to enjoy and nurture. You have hobbies or other interests you want to pursue. You have a car, a home, or other physical things that command your attention. You have a body to maintain. Your life is full and, at least at times, you feel overwhelmed by all the commitments you have made to yourself and others. At those times you find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to “live in the moment”—to focus on whatever you are or need to be doing right now, and thereby make the most of your time and life.

If you have explored other strategies for managing your time and life, then you might be skeptical of David Allen’s claim at the beginning of Getting Things Done (GTD): “It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control” (p. 3). You may be even more doubtful when Allen tells you that, although he will incorporate “many of the things you’ve been doing instinctively and intuitively all along” into “a new behavior set,” the results will nonetheless “blow your mind” (p. xiv).

The promise to “blow your mind” is not representative of Allen’s style in GTD, however. The book is a logically structured presentation of an approach to time and life management that is grounded in good epistemology and designed to facilitate productivity in light of certain features and limitations of the human mind. The problem, Allen says, is that all the commitments you have made are “on your mind,” which overwhelms you to the point that you cannot think clearly and be productive. The question becomes, why are all these things on your mind? “[T]he reason something is ‘on your mind,’” Allen writes, “is that you want it to be different than it currently is” (p. 15). Allen’s formulation is deliberate. Many people have not really thought about the commitments they have made, and therefore have neither “clarified exactly what the intended outcome is” nor “decided what the very next physical action step is” (p. 15). And yet, inherent in allowing a commitment into one’s life, Allen says, is a further commitment: a “commitment to . . . define and clarify its meaning” (p. 17).

Allen explains that, in order for your mind to let go of this corollary commitment so it can be clear and ready to focus on the task at hand, you must envision the outcome you desire and decide what is the very next physical action you must take in order to move the current state of affairs toward that outcome. Thus arises one of two main prongs of the GTD approach, “disciplining yourself to make front-end decisions about all the ‘inputs’ you let into your life so that you will always have a plan for ‘next actions’ that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment” (pp. 3–4).

You must do whatever thinking is necessary to define outcomes and requisite actions for each of your commitments, from the simplest to the most complex. Allen facilitates this thinking by introducing an intentionally broad definition of “project”: “any desired result that requires more than one action step” (p. 37). Some things that Allen calls “projects” are so simple—for instance, “make guacamole for party”—that one can immediately call to mind not just the next action, but all actions required to complete them. More-complex projects may require the use of a more elaborate project-planning model, which Allen provides (chaps. 3, 10). Such a model is needed because, insofar as the next actions are not yet identified, a complex project on a “to-do” list will seem vague, in need of clarification, and thus in need of your attention. The goal is to see all projects as a sequence of discrete actions because, as Allen puts it, “You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it” (p. 38). . . .

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