My rewritten review of the updated edition of David Allan’s bestseller GTD - supposedly it ‘can be hazardous to your old habits of procrastination’.
I heard about it for quite some time before reading the book. I was searching for a way to increase my productivity, and when I asked what ‘system’ others employed, basically the only answer I received was ‘GTD, but with the variation that …’.
A couple of weeks later I went to a talk with the topic being ‘how to be productive’. After this talk, the presenter saw it as part of his legacy to gift us multiple versions of the books ‘getting things done’ and ‘Die Zettelkastenmethode’ (a general knowledge organizing system). They were the main content of his talk, after all.
I wrote a massive amount of notes. It’s an important topic and I really wanted to understand the book. While I wouldn’t mind sharing them, they are incredibly detailed, with close to 40k characters over more than 6k words. And they are not in a format where I can just ‘share’ them - most of them are more or less my stream of consciousness while reading the book. I don’t think they would really be understandable.
In the past, notably in the No Asshole Rule and Zero to One I just wrote them out. I wanted to do this here as well, initially. But I can’t seem to get myself to do it productively, so I won’t. If you’re really interested in my stream-of-conscious notes, take a look at the HTML source (they are there as a long comment).
GTD is a ‘system’ to manage all of what you promised to do (to yourself or to others), and eventually doing or dropping it - as far as I understand it. The core is the weekly review, in which all open tasks, projects and goals get inspected. A review and preview of the calendar (looking at the past and next week) is useful to notice small things you promised or still need to do before meetings.
The smallest unit in a GTD system is a ‘next action’, it is a clearly defined
and described physical action to be done to bring you closer to one of your
goals. Projects can contain multiple such ‘next actions’, and have a
timeframe of up to one year. They each have their own ‘next action’-list. If
you finished an item, you cross it off. Items can be sorted in more than just
one way, giving way to multiple more lists. Such a list could be based on
@home if can only be done at home or
@pc if a computer is
required) or projects (
+gtd if it is related to the implementation of your
One really critical part of GTD is the processing of ‘in’-boxes, both digital and physical. The core question to be asked for every item: Is it actionable? If yes, do it if it takes less than 2 minutes to do, delegate it if someone else is better suited to executing it, and defer it by putting the detailed description in your ‘next-action’ list or schedule an event for it in your calendar where you will resolve it.
Items that cannot be acted upon, either get thrown away or stored in a ‘general reference system’. It kind of does not matter how exactly it is structured, as long as you can file something new within one minute (preferably less), and retrieve something you vaguely remember in a structured manner, e.g. by not searching through everything but only certain folder categories.
I read the book twice. The first time I did not take notes, the second time I did extensively. I was under the impression I ‘knew’ what GTD was before reading the book, turns out I was somewhat wrong about that. He gave a couple of examples on how not to organize your life, and I was surprised that compared to most of them, I was doing considerably well - with a lot of things I could still improve.
This is where it gets interesting though, since I have only then been made aware of a lot of the inner workings, on the subtleties of these techniques. It was kind of really eye-opening to read it, since I don’t think I would have gotten that degree of understanding for some time otherwise. Knowing when and why something works really makes a difference in applying and using it, as I’ve realized.
I also noticed that I was mixing levels considerably. And I was unsure on how
to handle items that are supposed to be on multiple lists (e.g.
@home) without a massive organizational overhead - keeping both lists in sync
and such. Until I migrated to my current system, but more about that later.
My system is only somewhat battle-tested, but helped me through considerably demanding weeks already. I make small changes continuously, and I think GTD is a system that evolves with the demands placed upon it.
I’m not entirely sure how to apply it for teams, but it certainly is incredibly effective for personal productivity. If someone were to suggest a new system to me - GTD is the benchmark. On the other hand, I’m not aware of a ‘competing’ personal productivity systems in the first place.
Honestly, I have nothing but praise for the book. The one thing others could complain about is that it is too dense, content-wise. All the subtle details are really important - you will notice new details when rereading it. It’s not that all details are really important when starting out. They become more and more important when mastering GTD more and more. A re-read every other year or so might be a good idea. At least of the notes I took.
But, I prefer it to be dense. I prefer it to be one book, and not three different ones. And even though it’s dense, the important parts are explained thoroughly, some are repeated in three different chapters. Once you understand the core principles, you can adapt the system any way you want or need to. And that is really awesome.
I can only recommend you to read it, if you haven’t done so already.
It’s interesting to note that the people who need this methodology the least are usually the ones who engage with it the quickest and the most.
My current GTD system
Before reading the book, I was using a combination of a calendar and multiple Google-Keep lists to stay organized. I also started a somewhat useable digital general reference system, and barely even required a physical one to notice that it’s missing.
Both of these evolved significantly over the course of the last year. It’s been close to half a year since I finished GTD for the second time.
I switched to todo.txt with the todo.sh cli about three
months ago, and certainly haven’t regretted doing so. Synchronization of
todo.txt-files happens through a private git repository, cloned on each of my
computers. I’m considering a switch to a nextcloud instance, but I haven’t
thought that through yet. Seeing when an item has been added or last modified
git blame) is a feature I use, after all. Using the vanilla
version up until a few days ago, I just realized there is a number of useful
extensions out there. I was looking for a specific one. Of course, it didn’t
exist, so I’ll write it sometime soon.
My analog reference file system is a collection of (differently colored) folders, and pretty boring overall. Digitally, it’s a bigger collection of text files, also synced via git, and searched through with the fuzzy search tool broot.
Since there are one or more quotes on each (!) page (up to three, actually), here is a collection of quotes I found the most intriguing or noteworthy. Those that are only quoted from other people are noted as such, the others I assume are ‘said’ from David Allen himself.
The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators. - Edward Gibbon
Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought. - Henri Bergson
Rule your mind or it will rule you. - Horace
Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability! A biotech-manager about her to-do-list after one of his seminars.
There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.
have you envisioned wild success about anything lately?