08 April 2015

Guest Post - Getting Things Done by David Allen – a review of the second edition - David Popely

Thank you to David for this review, I've only just started reading this myself. I never got to read the original!




This a review I really didn’t expect to be writing, not because of the subject matter but because of my experience of GTD as ‘boiled down’ and encapsulated by the revised edition of the book, which as many of you will know, was published last month.

If you wanted to read a 100% and unreservedly positive review of the book, you can find one at
http://alifeofproductivity.com/david-allens-revised-getting-things-done-book-comes-out-today/
…and there are many others. This is both a review of the new (second) edition of the book, and also a review of GTD as well, written by someone who has used it for 2-3 years.

First, a word about the book itself. I downloaded a copy to my Kindle on the morning of publication (the paper copy not being available until some days later, for unknown reasons), immediately prior to departure for London by train, and looking forward to making a start on reading it during the 5 hours of train time these return trips give me.

Unfortunately, publishers Piatkus have done a really bad job on the book. The dreadful inset text boxes, which exist only to break up the flow of the main text and add nothing to the main message, are still in place from the first edition, but because the book has basically been ‘dumped’ into ebook format, they often extend off the bottom of the Kindle screen, while the main text continues to do so as well, making comprehension difficult at best, and mostly just impossible. I gave up on the Kindle edition after about half an hour and decided to go looking for the (at that stage non-existent) paper edition.

Secondly, a well-known publisher like Piatkus really ought to have had the book properly proof-read before publication. There are important changes to the GTD process stage names in the second edition which just aren’t reflected in the accompanying diagrams and graphics, which are retained in their first edition form.

So far, so bad. 2/10 and ‘must try harder’ for the publishers.

Eventually I managed to get hold of a hard copy of the book via Amazon, all attempts to get one from a bookshop, local or otherwise, having failed.

Turning to the text of the book itself, it has billed as a complete rewrite of the original, yet it’s more of a re-type than a rewrite, which is how David Allen describes the process he used to produce the second edition. Yes, there are changes to the core process terms used (although the core process remains unchanged), and the book has if anything, been revised to make it even more what David Allen refers to as ‘platform agnostic’, reinforcing the central idea that GTD is more a set of organising processes than advocating a specific set of software, apps or organising equipment. This is probably a very canny idea as technology continues to drive change in practice, but Filofax fans will take heart from this, as did I.

Yes, you can run GTD using anything from a tablet/phone/laptop or any combination of the three, down to a notepad and pen. Allen is very generous towards paper system users, and freely admits (in the book and elsewhere) that many of the most committed GTD users are also paper users – this despite the fact that GTD forums everywhere have been almost entirely commandeered and taken over by the ‘which app is best?’ brigade.

There are two brand new chapters at the end of the book, one on GTD and neuroscience, which I found fascinating (although it rather reads as a justification for using any system of planning rather than none, as opposed to a compliment to GTD itself), and another pointing towards potential ‘higher levels’ of expertise in the GTD methodology….pointer to a new book to come, maybe?

So why, having been a GTD user for a few years, am I left feeling that I now want to move away, back towards other ‘organisational methods’?

From the very beginning of my GTD experience I’ve been convinced that GTD is a great system – possibly the best ever system yet, for capturing and dealing with ‘stuff’ as it comes towards us in our daily lives. However, I’ve always been dissatisfied with the lack of emphasis on proactive planning as opposed to reactive coping. I have always suspected that Allen’s later book, Making it All Work, is on some ways a tacit attempt to address this, and there is far more in the later book about what Allen refers to as ‘Horizons of Focus’. Personally I find the whole ‘Horizons of Focus’ concept too ethereal and ‘hard to pin done’ to be of much use.

Also, the GTD ‘method’ of keeping tasks off daily plans is something which just doesn’t work for me. Like many people I have spoken to, I found that I have to be able ‘see’ my whole day at a view (appointments, calls, tasks, ticklers), otherwise things don’t get done. If tasks are hidden on lists at the ‘back’ of the system, they don’t come to mind.

GTD presents itself as a deliberately ‘bottom’ up’ system, and the rationale Allen presents for that is that it’s impossible to focus on our own agendas when we are still being chaotically bombarded by ‘stuff’ coming from outside. However, as someone who has always thought that planning is the art and science of capturing time, in advance, for our own goals and priorities, I don’t find the approach of deciding what to do ‘in the moment’ very helpful….it leads to my time being away by others, in the direction of *their* agendas, rather than being used first for my priorities and secondly for those of people around me. I’m all for having a list of ‘small tasks’ which can be done in odd moments of time (the sort of odd moments I often find myself with between meetings when I’m travelling), but most of my tasks need to be allocated to specific days, some (following James Noon’s excellent system) to specific time slots, way in advance of their due date, if last minute panic is going to be avoided. To me, GTD is a great way of organising, but as a method of planning it doesn’t work.
I was really hoping this would be addressed in the second edition of the book, but not only is any balance lacking, there is yet more justification for the ‘bottom up’ approach.

Many people find GTD a very helpful approach, and I think they will enjoy this updated, modernised re-issue greatly. However, GTD isn’t for everyone, and on further reflection I feel that it probably isn’t for me – at least not in its unmodified, ‘out of the box’ state. Despite the obvious neglect shown by the publishers in the actual publishing process, I don’t think this is a bad book. Rather, I think it’s a good book about a world-renowned system of organisation (I now hesitate to use the word ‘planning’), which many will find helpful. If you enjoyed the first edition of the book, the second edition is well worth reading to update yourself. If you didn’t read the first edition, the second edition is still worth reading, but please – read the book, not just the reviews! If, like me, you had reservations about the system expounded in the first edition, I’m afraid the second edition isn’t going to offer you any encouragement that they have been, or even are likely to be, addressed any time soon.


28 comments:

  1. David - re: last week's Q from you about binders - check eBay:
    http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/filofax-Personal-Cavendish-deluxe-leather-organiser-in-black-large-30mm-rings-/231526008782?

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    1. Thanks Amanda! I think life may have moved on slightly, but I really appreciate the thought!

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  3. Great review, David. Thank you. I entirely agree that GTD is great for capturing and recording 'stuff'. As with your experience of GTD in practice, I find it less helpful in terms of translating that into planning and action. Thank goodness for my planner as my 'front end' system to translate a 'back end' GTD-inspired / TMI approach into action.

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    1. Hi Darren. I'd be really interested to hear the 'nuts and bolts' of how you do that. I too was raised on TMI and have been a customer for about 25 years until last year, when I sold the lot to a lady in Denmark, who, so far as I know, is putting it to good use.

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  4. I entirely agree with you, David. I have been modifying my processes over the past several years, combining a variety of tricks from GTD, Zen To Done, Franklin Covey and other places. Your point about balancing the various horizons (which I agree I also didn't find an intuitive/useful label/buzzword at first) was absolutely my experience as well. I personally find it works better if I just treat them as over-arching, long-term projects. And yes I also need all my appointments, tasks, etc in one place so I can see them at a glance For a while I was using the DIYFish Life Mapping inserts for this but this year I've switched to a Hobonichi. One thing that I'm finding really interesting about the way my use of GTD and similar have evolved over time, is that I'm now much happier with just a piece of blank paper to start with, whereas a few years ago that would have paralysed me. Oh, the Productive Flourishing planners were useful to me for a while as well. I'd highly recommend Zen To Done (http://zenhabits.net/zen-to-done-ztd-the-ultimate-simple-productivity-system/) for anyone who needs motivators for actually *doing* stuff, rather than just recording what needs doing. Also this list from PF: http://www.productiveflourishing.com/50-better-questions-to-ask-than-how-to-be-more-productive/

    Thanks for reviewing the book, I had been wondering if I should buy it but I think I'll stick with the previous edition!!

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    1. Hi Gail. I agree that ZTD is a good book.....I still feel the need to plan more closely than Babauta allows for, but I think for certain temperaments it's a good system. Like you, I don't mind a sheet of blank paper at the start of the day, whereas, like you, I would have found that quite a challenge a few years ago.

      I don't think you'll miss much by sticking with the first edition!

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  5. I've considered using this system and even played around with it, but I can't get it to work for the very reason you mentioned - not having a to-do list. I need a list so I can see my day.

    Thank you for this review. It was very helpful.

    As a Kindle reader, have you noticed how sloppy the Kindle versions are? I notice typos in almost every book I read and I read a lot!

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    1. I think typos have become more prevalent in Kindle *and* in print versions......spelling is rapidly becoming a casualty of the internet and 'text-speak' is ruining the language we once referred to as English. I get really riled by the poor spelling, grammar and punctuation that blights much of what is published these days. Self-publishing does nothign to help....for God's sake, if you insist on doing it, at least pay for a proof-reader!

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  6. This is a great review, and I love the point you make about organisation vs planning. I am very good at ticking stuff off a list, but whether it is the stuff I should really be doing, or indeed want to do to reach my goals is another matter...

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    1. Hi Nellie

      It only occurred to me in the course of writing the review that this is actually a system of organising and *not* a system of planning, planning being, as I have said, capturing time, in advance, and deliberately, for one's own agenda. Knowing that makes it much easier for me to be generous towards the system, because I know what it is setting out to do, and what it is *not* doing. That explains the lack of attention to the 'vertical' aspects.

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  7. I really appreciate this review. I feel the same frustration with GTD - great overview to actually do stuff, but all reactive. Drives me crazy!

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  8. I really appreciate this review. I feel the same frustration with GTD - great overview to actually do stuff, but all reactive. Drives me crazy!

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  9. I too bought the kindle edition, and I'm about halfway through it. I agree that the layout is not great - the inset text blocks really disrupt the reading experience and derail the train of thought. I haven't bought a copy of the print edition - I still have a print copy of the original. To be honest, I find 'Making it all Work' to be a better book from a number of viewpoints.

    I think David Allen can be credited with formalising some extremely useful concepts, but in some ways I think GTD is showing its age as a methodology - which is why many people have combined elements of it with so many other methods in efforts to overcome its shortcomings.

    Aside from the handwaving around horizons of focus, and the near total abdication of the concept of higher level planning and scheduling to which you quite rightly draw attention, one of the major issues I have with GTD is with its concept of Context as a driver. The old divisions between contexts, in the original GTD sense, have been heavily, if not yet completely, eroded by modern technology and changes in working practices. For instance, I work from home 95% of the time; my @work context is mostly the same as my @home context, particularly since I work in IT and given the appropriate software any PC can be my work PC. If I'm @work, I'm also @home. If I'm @online, I can also be @work. My work telephone number (a landline in London) is forwarded to my personal mobile phone, which is almost invariably in my pocket - and also hosts skype and lync IM/VOIP apps, as does my iPad which is rarely far away. So if I'm in a position to do @calls I am also @online (given 3G connectivity). Give me an internet connection and a laptop or iPad and I can be @home, @work, @pc, @office, @online, @calls SIMULTANEOUSLY! This is where the context division breaks down, in my view, because the only way to avoid the thundering herds problem (of being in every context simultaneously and having to try to work out which thing to do next from multitudes of options, which is what the context divisions are supposed to help solve!) involves having to contextualise by role (which I seem to recall being heavily discouraged) and e.g. scheduling blocks of time during which one is, notionally, @work - wherever that might be... and that requires the higher level planning and scheduling which Allen more or less ignores.

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    1. Hi Paul. I agree that Making It All Work is a better book,and I still suspect that it's a tacit attempt to give the vertical aspects of planning a more prominent place in the system as a whole.

      I do fully agree that contexts are almost redundant in thesse days of ubiquitous technology. I will, however, advance the idea that if anyone wanted to limit their internet access to certain 'windows' in the day (say, for example, because they had read Nicholas Carr's excellent book, The Shallows), having a list of things to be done *next time* the internet is available would be invaluable!

      Like you, I work mostly from home, so I don't need the sort of delineation Allen makes. I think this area could maybe have got more attention than it has in the update process!

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    2. Hi David. I seem to recall an exchange with you several years ago where we disagreed on the value of 'top down' planning, where I think my point was that life is reactive and many people don't have the luxury of being able to do the deep thinking because they're drowning in stuff. Over the last few years, I've spent huge amounts of my time in reactive mode due to force of circumstance and pressure of work - and the main impact, frankly, has been a dawning realisation along similar lines to your own point in the review that unless you take charge, everything and everyone else takes over. In my case, that's resulted in coming up for air after a couple of nasty bouts of depression with a new appreciation for the idea of planning as a way of exercising some control over one's own life...

      I agree with you that GTD is a great way, within its limits, of organising stuff, but it doesn't address the bigger picture of motivation, goals, scheduling, etc. I've come to the conclusion through painful experience, that life purpose as an emergent property of the endless reactive rush of stuff is something which - for me at least - is never going to happen. What I'm still looking for is a method of putting in place the superstructure which is as clear and pragmatic in its way as GTD is about handling the details and acknowledges the issues without requiring superhuman efforts of will to achieve. Covey et al still seem too 'away with the fairies' to me, but I haven't found anything to fill that gap satisfactorily yet. I had hoped that the new edition of GTD (which I haven't yet finished reading) might have something more useful in that direction but it sounds as if that's a vain hope. Suggestions on a postcard!

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    3. Hi Paul. I think I remember the conversation, and if you have changed your view of the place of planning (as opposed to just organisation), then I have definitely come to see that top-down planning isn't possible when you're already drowning in other peoples' 'stuff'. I think what is really needed is some form of 'GTD and...', but like you, I don't feel able to define exactly what the extra factor is. I think it's a great shame that GTD doesn't encompass the planning phase which ought to follow the gaining control phase (let's call it GTD1). There ought to be a GTD2 which deals with what follows, using the space created by good order to take control of one's own agenda - and without the hippy-trippy Californian 'horizons of focus' stuff. I don't think it takes massive willpower to institute this, but I *do* think it takes adherence to some basic routines. The TMI system is one of the bext I've been introduced to, and it works on the foundation of very small non-time-consuming routines of planning (like the GTD weekly review, only vertically rather than horizontally oriented). Maybe I'll give this some more thought.......

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  10. Hi David, I enjoyed your review and concur. I'm not a regular planner I have to say, though I did at the beginning of the year create perhaps 12-15 goals I wanted to achieve this year, some were financial, some domestic, others relating to adventure and enjoyment. What I've concluded is that if if I don't plan, I don't change. I've become very good at reacting to incoming tasks, but often fail to establish clear boundaries to ensure my goals are of equal importance.

    My system has blurred lines between GTD and FC and works in either a paper planner or in one of the 'which app brigades' (Things btw) but only tends to deal with tasks.

    I will be eager to see which direction your planning goes and see how this can help me too.

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    1. Thanks Lewis.....I know from our private communications that we share aspirations as well as frustrations in this direction! That's a great line....."If we don't plan, we don't change"! Here's to the journey! :)

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  11. Hi David, Thanks for that, great read. You mention James Noon. I know the old Filofax Time Management inserts were based on his system and would be interested to hear more about his system. Can you enlighten us?

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    1. Hi Micha. I'm afraid that would take a book in itself, and would then constitute theft of IP! James was very helpful to me when I contacted him a few months back, and sent me a copy of the book he wrote to undergird the FF Time Management seminars when they first started, called Start Tine Forward. Only ever internally published by Filofax, it's a book written by a business and management speaker and writer, for people in executive and management positions in business in the 1980s and 90s, and it's very technical and complicated in its content, as well as being (in my opinion alone) slightly stilted and in need of a rewrite, which of course never came since FF changed direction on the Time Management side of their business almost immediately the book was written. It is, however, a fascinating read, and has much to say to those of us who appreciate proactivity in planning and running our lives, as opposed to just reacting to outside pressure, no matter how efficiently.

      If I had to summarise the book in a paragraph, it would be to always set aside time in advance for work on major projects, even before you know what projects will be needing attention, using a time frame of 3-5 week ahead as the time horizon for this. There are a number of formulae and techniques for elaborating on this basic practice, but I'm afraid they don't lend themselves to precis very well!

      James is also the author of 'A Time', another very popular book around that time which *was* published for general readership, and is available via sources such as eBay and Amazon second hand, plus probably via ABE. Unfortunately the content of A Time is *very* dated, and I heard on the grapevine that a rewrite is in the pipeline - although I can't verify this.

      Sorry I can't be more helpful, but you are welcome to contact me off-list if you'd like to have a dialogue about Noon and his work, which I still believe has great value for the present time.

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  12. Hi David, Thanks for your reply. Sounds in line with a lot of the productivity articles out there today that say you should block chunks of time (in the morning) for ' deep work' or ' creative work' as they call it. The idea of scheduling 3-5 weeks in advance and without knowing for which projects exactly are new ideas (at least to me) and I would like to hear more about that. How can I contact you off list?

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    1. Hi Micha

      davidcpopely (at) gmail (dot) com !!!

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    2. Trying to implement this system again, but there are too many steps and decisions to go through. By the time I'd gone through the workflow diagram, I could already have the task or "stuff" taken care of. Honestly gave it a try, but it's not for me.

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    3. Carla one of the 'rules' of GTD is that if it can be done right now and it will take less than 2 minutes, then just go ahead and do it. Don't put it on any list, just get it done. This was actually had a big impact on my own planning routines as I would previously write *everything* on the list and then get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of little bits of cr*p filling up my lists. If all I have to do is dash off an email saying "hey, are we meeting for lunch", these days I'll just do it right then rather than put it on a list.

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  13. Just an 'afterword', firstly to thank everyone who has commented for your thoughts - they are greatly appreciated.

    Secondly, as I have tried to respond to the comments honestly, it has occurred to me again that GTD isn't a bad system of *organisation* at all - in fact it's a very good system. It just falls down on the 'vertical' aspect.

    I'm going to try and address this in my own planning without giving up the 'horizontal' benefits GTD offers, and wonder if anyone would like to join me in thinking this through. If you would, please could you contact me off-list, and I'll maybe set up some kind of Yahoo group for this purpose alone, which can be closed off when it has run its course. Maybe together we can find a way of 'plugging the gap, in GTD?

    As ever, I'm on davidcpopely (at) gmail (dot) com, or you can leave a comment here and I'll get it. Then we'll take the matter off this list as it will be well-off-topic by then.

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  14. David - a very thoughtful and cogent review of the GTD system. I've read the first edition and Making Things Work. I found GTD very helpful in 2005, when I first discovered it, as I was in a transitional role at work, and we were just starting our family.

    I think GTD particularly shines in helping to organize work that you don't fully understand yet. Contexts help break down complex projects that are overwhelming, and if you do use them carefully, can help you build work-home balance.

    I fully agree that the vertical planning (Runways, 10,000 feet etc) is lacking. And Making Things Work veered so far off into a spiritual screed that it made me dump GTD altogether for awhile.

    But I went back to the Context sorting twice more when my role changed at work again, and I used it again this fall while I dealt with a major change in our family schedule.

    So I find GTD a useful took in the planning toolbox, and is particularly brilliant at bringing swift order when there is complete chaos, but as a system it lacks for the long haul.

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    1. Thanks Bree - I would agree with that assessment. I've read MIAW and didn't really pick up on the increased 'spiritual' nature of the writing, but I'm much more aware of David Allen's MSIA involvement than I used to be, and I tend to explain the rather 'Californian' tone of both books in terms of that particular perspective which he has. Personally I've been experimenting with 'top down' systems again since writing this review, and Time/System in particular, but what I'm finding is that there is an almost complete lack of available instruction on how the setup is expected to 'work', whereas of course GTD, as a 'current' system in terms of popularity, has plenty - although to be fair, a lot of it is techies arguing over which app is best. there seems to be a feeling among techies that if it can't be done using an app, then it can't be done, which I find absolutely bizarre given that those of us who are of a certain age have been getting all *kinds* of stuff done without the aid of technology for the hole of our lives.

      I think that ultimately addressing the lack of 'vertical' in GTD is probably going to be a better way forward than reverting to older systems. We live in a much more reactive, and therefore horizontally-oriented world than we did 20-30 years ago, and GTD is very good at dealing with the horizontal - it just doesn't deliver on the vertical. I think if that can be addressed, we would have a very good 'tool' indeed.

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