Updated best seller does what it says on tin

Review: Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen

Getting things done, the art of stress free productivity
Author: David Allen
ISBN-13: 9780349408941
Publisher: Little Brown
Guideline Price: €16.99

A revolution has taken place in the workplace since Allen wrote the first edition of this book in 2001. Hailed at the time as a seminal work on productivity, there’s plenty of classic advice here for a new generation of managers to benefit from and equally a whole new set of solutions for the challenges brought about by the technology revolution.

The author tells us in his introduction that he retyped the original manuscript with the goal of identifying and revising content that was incomplete or outdated, but many of the core principles remain.

One of Allen’s central ideas is that you can train yourself, in the manner of an athlete, to be faster, more responsive, more proactive and more focused in dealing with all that you need to deal with.

Follow his advice and he promises that you will be able to think more effectively and minimise the loose ends across the spectrum of your work life and personal life and get a lot more done with less effort.


The secret, it appears, is to keep nothing on your mind and to manage your actions.

Allen advises a bottom-up approach, starting with organising the most mundane, ground floor level of current activity and commitment. This may be counter-intuitive as it may seem more important to focus on the big issues and visions. The problem with that is that most people are so embroiled with commitments on a day-to-day basis that their ability to focus on a larger horizon is seriously diminished, meaning a bottom-up approach is more effective.

That means getting on top of what’s in your in-tray right now. Doing so will release energy, drive and inspiration, unsticking the workflow.

You need to control commitments both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal thinking is about taking a wide sweep, scanning the environment for the wide range of business and personal issues that you need to deal with. Vertical control, by contrast, groups thinking around topics and projects. It’s about focusing on a single endeavour, situation or person and fleshing out whatever ideas, details, priorities and sequences of events that you need to think about. In both cases, the goal is the same. You need to get things out of your head so that they don’t fester.

Allen notes that recent research in the cognitive sciences has now validated the fact that our mental processes are hampered by the burden on the mind to keep track of the things we’re committed to finish, without having a plan or system in place to handle them. Your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them and has no sense of past or future. Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, it thinks you should be doing right now. When processing information, the “do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it” rule should be applied.

The second part of the book focuses on the practical tools and methodologies required for productive work. Allen stresses the importance of a clean physical space to work in and advocates a home office as a satellite to a conventional office set-up. This space should be clearly demarcated as an individual’s work zone and work stations should not be shared with partners or family members.

However, the concept of “hotel-ing” with mobile workstation capabilities is one the author has reservations about. Experiments in these schemes have failed as they disrupt the stable work station, he notes.

Allen believes that an old-fashioned filing system is vital for personal efficiency and presents a checklist of the tools and ingredients individuals need to organise their work. Random, not actionable but potentially relevant material, unprocessed and unorganised, produces a debilitating noise and a block in the workflow. Putting basic filing systems in place, with a filing cabinet, a stack of folders and a labeller, transforms clarity and focus with a dramatic impact on productivity.

The same principles apply to digital files. All too often, executives use their email in-box as an amorphous collection area for communication. This also needs to be broken down into topic-based files. Software is available that facilitates this but Allen says his own personal experience is that it takes months to perfect an optimal system.

He also recommends a weekly review, which involves capturing, clarifying and reviewing all of your outstanding commitments, intentions and inclinations.

The mantra used here is “get clear, get current and get creative” with the creative part flowing from the first two actions.

There’s lots more in this vein in a book that should prove especially useful to those of us who are less organised and disciplined in our working patterns.