Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done by David Allen is one of those books that I feel like I have read, in that I have heard second hand a lot about the principles and methods applied, but not actually read! Ironically compared to the last book I read, Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text, Getting Things Done is completely light on the theory and heavy on the advice. To be fair, Allen does say that he bases this on work with thousands of coaching clients so….

The premise of Getting Things Done is that we all have too much to do, we will always have too much to and if we don’t have a system for organising our “to dos” our brains will be constantly fretting about all these open loops of pending things and we will feel stressed out, unhappy, unfocused and fed up. Allen outlines his system for being calm, controlled and stress free which is the power of identifying the next action. For every single “project” (which is something that takes more than 1 action to complete as defined by Allen), we need to identify the single next action and record it, then do it. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Ok however, Allen suggests we have about 300-500 hundred (YES HUNDRED) hours worth of current actions. Yikes. And probably around 30-100 projects, which could be anything from book dentists (which could be a project as it has multiple steps ie check with partner when he can take kids to dentist, check work diary, book dentist) to moving house (which of course has zillions of actions). I am reminded of Caitlin Moran’s More than a Woman where she talks about the endless to do lists rolling around in her head. That is my head! And its not just all my to do lists, its those of my family too. Anyway, Allen advises taking 2 clear days to get all your stuff (ie your projects/actions/things you need to do) together. Literally in one place. This terrified me, I have to admit. So the book was first published in 2001 some of the references are more physical file and folder based. I have this image of this kind of huge teetering pile of STUFF from unrepaired trousers, to old disposable cameras never developed, to broken toys etc etc. surrounded by a zillion post-its. Although this makes me want to run and hide, I can actually see the benefit of capturing EVERYTHING you have to do in one place, even if some of it is written down. Its a bit like that TV programme where they go and unpack your house into a warehouse so you can really see the full extent of the s**t you have and wondered why you needed 10 staplers. I digress. Once you have ALL the things in front of you, literally, you can then sort them through Allen’s model – the key question being does it have an action? If so, what is the tangible next action? And it not, can you bin it, put it in your “someday” file or reference. And if it does have an action, is it a project or can you do it in less than 2 minutes (ie now) or do you need to delegate it or capture it on your next actions list. You can also categorise things thematically. Allen advises doing this not necessarily by “traditional” categorises ie work/home but by “phone calls” etc so that you can group similar actions together.

Although at times I admit to feeling a little overwhelmed at the idea of trying to capture my whole life on a sheet of a4 paper, there was something really compelling about the “what is the next action” question and the specificity of that. Like so many of us my weekly “to do” list might consist of something that has “photo frame” on it. Which is actually way too big and just silly, so it rolls on from week to week. What my next action really should be is “log into freeprints and print off photos saved there” or something like that. Or “find post office near work to send school letter” etc etc. So many meetings also do not have actions or clear next actions and from training to be a coach I have noticed this. Its something that I try to do when I am chairing meetings although have not been so good at it recently and this has inspired me to commit to this.

One of the other powerful concepts explored in Getting Things Done is how what is on your immediate “to do” list or “runway” as Allen calls it, relates to your overall values and approach to life. Allen uses a 6 level model for reviewing your actions so “the runway” ie immediate next actions, 10,000 feet – projects, 20,000 feet – areas of responsibility (there are around 10-15 categories of these from those defined in your professional role to health, family etc), 30,000 feet – 1-3 year goals; 40,000 feet 3-5 year goals; 50,000 feet = life! Whilst this can sound slightly daunting, I could see the logic of it and there is something hugely empowering about relating that 1 email you sent to move a project forward relates to your life purpose. I meant that sounds a bit OTT, so here is an example, I want to develop my coaching practice and have 30,000 ft plan, but I have tried to commit to one action every week that contributes to that. And then I guess if you find you are doing stuff that doesn’t relate upwards, then there is an opportunity to think about alignment and what you want to be doing.

I took a lot from Getting Things Done. I’m a planner and love thinking about time and how I spend, particularly following the wise advice of Laura Vanderkam so this approach does appeal to me. From reading Vanderkam, Sarah Hart-Unger and others I do already do weekly, quarterly and annual plans so this felt like second nature. And I do a weekly review which Allen recommends, although not for 2 hours! I’m not always as specific as my actions should be though and I hadn’t really consciously related planning to this sense of freedom. I appreciate that some might find Getting Things Done overwhelming but I think you can interpret in many ways – like anything, take what works, leave the rest. You might want to be less stressed by sitting outside watching the clouds and actually sometimes you just need to make that a tangible action. So perhaps the subtitle could also be Getting things done to do nothing 😉

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