Reflecting on Getting Things Done by David Allen


I discovered the work of David Allen around 2010. Getting Things Done was one of the first self-help books I’d ever read. Further, it was definitely the first one that stuck. Finally, I would probably say it helped me realize what I wanted to do for a living.

Part of me wonders what would have happened if I would have read it when it was first published. Of course, such idle thoughts are a fool’s errand and not productive. From my early-to-mid-twenties I was heavy in the mindset of learning while doing; self-realization as opposed to instruction. So, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to hear what was being said in this book.

I was always looking for ways to be more productive at work. Then, when I went to college from around 2002, as a fine arts major working just under full-time, I needed to be better at getting shit done. I took two or three studio courses every quarter along with one lecture course. I needed to create artwork that could survive critiques and research and write papers.

After graduating university I became a full-time freelancer from 2007 to 2010. During that time I needed to improve my productivity in order to scale what I could do. The mistake, if you will, at that time was charging by the hour. So, being more productive meant less hours were required, which meant I got paid less per project, and needed to find more clients or projects. It became a vicious cycle and, when the bottom fell out, it fell out hard.

I don’t remember how the book found its way into my hands; I’m pretty sure Merlin Mann had something to do with it. I do remember I was very excited.

I had discovered a way of being productivity for myself and clients that was insane and I wanted to share it with the world. I found myself looking through the self-help and productivity space; wondering how I could become a coach or consultant.

I had just made it though Getting Things Done when I moved into an apartment in Virginia and was starting my first white-collar consulting gig. I remember hitting the exercises in the book and thinking to myself: There’s no way this will be helpful for me; I have enough stuff to fit in the truck of my car and am kind of in a reset period.

But, I did it anyway. I grabbed all my shit and threw it onto the island in the kitchen; a hack to keep me motivated to finish. This became my in-basket; some of it spilled onto the floor.

As I went through the process I could feel myself building momentum and getting into flow; or, what Allen describes as “the zone.” It took me all weekend and I ended up throwing away at least two and a half regular kitchen garbage bags full of crap.

I only owned enough crap to fill the trunk of a sedan; maybe large enough to hold six to eight garbage bags of stuff.

I really appreciated Allen’s use of lists and backlogs over the calendar. I’m not a time-oriented human and the calendar, for me, was more about time journals than scheduling appointments.

We might call this the beginning of my confirmation bias period.

I wanted to introduce myself to folks who had come to similar conclusions as I was working with and who had been doing longer and for more people than I had. By doing this I could fortify my own my thinking and cut down on the time it would take to do so.

Getting Things Done was the gateway into The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

With that said, like many business books, I feel like some of the content is filler in nature; at least for someone who’s not coming in blind. As a standalone piece and on its own merit, Getting Things Done is a wonderful book. When it comes to recommending other peoples’ work in the productivity space, Getting Things Done is part of the holy trinity for me.

I divide the holy trinity of productivity and self-management into three levels:

  1. The region.
  2. The forrest.
  3. The undergrowth.

Getting Things Done is that forrest level, which can lead into the other two. A keystone, if you will.