Getting Things Done

Book cover image

If you are as prone to distraction as I am, you can use any tip that would save you a couple of hours here in there, no matter in what format it is packed. This is the expectation with which I came to this book, which screams “This is a corporate self-help book” on the cover. Surpisingly, it started off with a pretty decent assessment of how work has changed in the recent decades to become “edgeless”, meaning that it is inherently vaguely defined, and tending to spill out, causing ever more work. I think the author is also very much in the right in his diagnosis of why and how unfinished work causes stress. Due to the vagueness in the commitments we make to ourselves and to others, there exist “open loops” in our lives, conditions where we are putting not only effort, but also attention to track the state of things. It is this situation where we have to divide our attention between many distinct things that causes stress and tardiness, and that which we need to eliminate. Your aim is to reach a state where you are not leading an internal conversation on what you need to do, because “Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, it thinks you should be doing right now”.

Here is how process touted by the author works. You need to regularly do the following: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do. Collect means that instead of spending mental energy on what you should do, you jot it down somewhere. Process means that you go through these, getting rid of those that require little time to accomplish, and turning the rest into actionable items. Organize means that you keep a system in which you organize these items according to project and date due. Review means that you should go through what you have accomplished and what is left to do in multiple regular intervals, e.g. daily and weekly. And the last bit, Do, refers to picking the right things to do using certain criteria such as context, time available, and priority.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much it. Apart from various bits of pretty sensible and actionable advice on these five steps, the rest of the books is a very detailed exposition on which kinds of paper, post-its, filers and cabinets to buy, how to take notes on them, and how to organize them. There is absolutely no discussion (or very little, and towards the end, as I’ve quit reading at some point) of software tools for organizing your life, which is a complete industry of its own by now. This is a huge omission, and diminishes the relevance of the book considerably. Another issue with the style, and I intend this as advice to all writers of self-help books out there, is that the content density varies considerably from one section to the next, making it very difficult to concentrate and pick out the most relevant pieces of advice. This is the case, for example, going from the discussion of Organize in Chapter 2, which has an extended and very boring treatise on different kind of projects, to the discussion of Review, which is much more interesting. When there are differences in depth and length between subsequent sections, it’s difficult to switch gears.

These shortcomings mean that it is just not worth spending your time on this book. I’m sure there are better guidebooks on how to make the best of your time, including not reading books full of outdated and overblown advice.