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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Getting Things Done: A Cult You Should Join

This is a blog about religion, spirituality, theology, and such like. Well, you need to hear about the cult I joined a few years ago and that I advocate–in good proselytizer fashion–to anyone who will listen to me.

It’s the cult built around, yes, a sacred text: Getting Things Done (Penguin, 2002), authored by the (unlikely-looking) guru David Allen. Yep, there’s a book title and author’s name guaranteed to disappear from your memory as soon as you read them! Nonetheless, Allen’s book has changed my life–given me clearer, more focused concentration, made me more attentive to my loved ones, eased my mind of anxiety, and increased my productivity. You can understand, therefore, my enthusiasm! You should join up, and join now!!!

Okay, I’m kidding about all this “cult” bit–a trope I borrow from the first article I read on the subject, by The Atlantic Monthly‘s tech wizard, James Fallows. There’s no actual cult. It’s just a book–with now, to be sure, the predictable spin-off goods and sequels.

But it’s a wonderful book. It differs from the usual, and helpful, “time management” books with their top-down approach (“Decide what you really want to get done and then give it priority”–you know, “The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing” and such)–by moving from the bottom up. There’s your desk, strewn with paper. Worse, here’s your mind, littered with all kinds of stuff you care about and are trying not to forget, from the meeting in an hour, to the argument you had with your beloved this morning, to the errands you have to run on the way home, to…. Getting Things Done is all about organizing your life in order to let you be truly, fully present in this moment–with confidence that everything else is in order and will be dealt with in due course.

Simple? Of course, as most wisdom is. But GTD (as aficionados term it) offers a great deal of intensely practical advice about just how to organize your life in this way. And, beyond the price of the book, all I had to buy was a Palm (which I was going to buy anyhow) and a label maker (I’m not kidding)–I already owned files and a filing cabinet. And that’s it!

Allen has at least one other diamond to offer, the sharp-edged, crystal-clear advice to make sure that you never leave off dealing with an issue before you decide, “What is the next action-step? What is the next particular thing I must do?”

Most of us write crummy memos to ourselves such as “Plan trip” or “Get car fixed” or “Clean the garage.” And then we wonder why nothing gets done. Instead, says Allen, you have to envision and articulate the actual next thing to be done: “Look up telephone number for travel agent” or “Check calendar for days open to bring in the car” or “Buy work gloves for cleaning the garage.” Once that task is accomplished, articulate exactly what the next thing is to do.

(This is also excellent advice, by the way, for dealing with procrastination–not that any readers of this blog ever wrestle with such a problem….)

This procedure also works wonders for groups. No committee, Allen says, should ever leave an item of business, let alone adjourn a meeting, without agreeing on exactly what should be done next–by the group and by each member of it.

There’s lots more to it, and I know it sounds pretty basic. But this book was published five years ago and when I checked today, it was still #32. So it’s a pretty big cult and well worth joining.

Wouldn’t you like to be more peaceful, attentive, and effective? And if you don’t have the time or money to invest in it–then you need it bad.

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