Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes, 29s. But it’s pretty skimmable.
About a decade ago, I picked up a copy of David Allen’s canonical Getting Things Done book, and almost immediately after I started reading I was bit by the productivity bug. I’ve been into productivity ever since.
While 10 years later it’s still my favorite productivity book, at the same time it was beginning to look a bit long in the tooth; most notably the book still referenced technologies like the Palm Pilot, and didn’t take into account the explosion of technologies that have come out since 2002— including a ton of apps that are based on the GTD system. (A quick app store search of “GTD” nets 765 results.) While that’s okay—and the GTD system is insanely powerful regardless of how you implement it—at the same time the book was starting to look a bit long in the tooth. Thankfully, that’s changing today.
I recently had the chance to sit down with David to interview him for my book, and during our chat I also had the chance to bounce a few questions off of him about this completely rewritten edition of his book, which hits stores everywhere today.
From our chat, I’ve pulled out the nuggets you need to know about—including what GTD is, why it’s so powerful it, and exactly what’s new in this book. Trust me on this one: David’s new book is one of the best productivity books out there, and you should pick it up.
What is GTD?
You’re probably familiar with how great it feels to get your task list out of your head and into some external system—whether that’s a to-do list, whiteboard, or a sheet of paper in front of you. The entire GTD methodology is centered around that feeling: that the more tasks and ideas you get out of your head, the more attentional space and mental clarity you’ll have throughout the day. Particularly after you break down your big, ugly tasks and projects into their logical next steps.
Speaking from experience, the effects of externalizing everything you have to get done are profound, and will clear your mind like almost nothing else (except maybe for meditation). That’s the power of the GTD system, and also why it became so popular: the calmer your mind is, the more productive you will be.
What’s so great about it?
My favorite part of GTD is that when you use it to externalize and break down what you have to get done into simple, actionable next steps, it’s easier to level up and actually get more done, as opposed to organizing what you have to do mentally. That clears up a ton of stress and attention to focus on bigger, better things throughout the day, and as David put it in our chat, “be appropriately engaged with your life.”
According to David, research shows that your brain is “not designed to hang on to more than four meaningful things at a time,” and as soon as you try to remember more, you “sub-optimize your brain’s functioning,” and become less productive.
On a basic level, having a clear head is all about space. I like how David put it: “How much does it take to have a good idea? Zero. How much time does it take to be creative? Zero. How much time does it take to be loving and caring? Zero. These things don’t require time; they require space. If you don’t have space in your head, it is very hard to be creative or strategic or even loving.”
From my experience, GTD helps you get there.
While the nature of our work has completely changed since the book’s introduction, at the same time, as David put it, “in the bigger picture, nothing has changed.” That powerful central tenet behind GTD hasn’t changed one bit—that the more tasks and projects you get out of your head the calmer you’ll feel—but a lot around the implementation of that idea has changed since 2002. That’s what had made this rewritten version of the book so essential.
In particular, three huge things have changed: technology, the research that’s been done about our brains, and the fact that principles behind GTD work well for pretty much everybody.
- The Technology. When it comes to productivity, technology is probably the biggest thing that has changed since 2002. We no longer capture tasks and ideas in Palm Pilots; we instead carry around a tiny supercomputer in our pocket that can be loaded up with a bajillion apps. In this edition, David took out all of the references to specific tools, and instead talks about how we can use and evaluate the tools we use every day. This book is designed to stand the test of time. We’re also more connected 24/7, which the book takes into account.
- The Research. As David put it, the “cognitive science in the last 20 years has now essentially proven that your head is for having ideas and not for holding them.” The revised edition of this book takes the fascinating research that has been conducted since his original version into account as well.
- Everyone Needs It. One of the biggest things David has discovered over the last decade has been how well the principles of GTD work for pretty much everyone—and as long as we continue to feel overwhelmed, it’s likely to useful for years to come. David: “In 2190 when we land on Jupiter they are still going to need some version of an in-basket and somebody is still going to have to make next action decisions in order to get off the damn planet.” This book also takes into account the reality of how difficult the system can be in practice.
The original version of Getting Things Done was a game changer. Before there was any cognitive research to back up the system, it introduced the idea that externalizing what you have to get done will give you more mental clarity to do work, instead of simply remembering what you have to do throughout the day—which your brain isn’t built for. That idea has stood the test of time, and this new edition of the book—which takes into account how technology, research, and the nature of our work has changed over the last decade—makes the methodology more relevant than it’s ever been before. While the basic methodology of the GTD hasn’t changed, the world around it has, which in my opinion has made the system all the more important.
My original copy of Getting Things Done sits proudly on my bookshelf; tilted to face outwards while only the spines of my other books are exposed. If you’re looking for a way to calm down while you get more done over the course of the day, this is the book for you.
It’s one of my favorites, and I highly recommend it.