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Getting Things Done

Getting Things DoneGetting Things Done has improved my management in one significant way, and for that I am truly grateful. For years I have been an email slob. Though I automatically file list discussions into sub-folders, my main folder for both personal and work mail has always been a tragedy of the email commons, with so many messages competing for attention that I wasted precious time every day sorting through messages to find the ones I need to take action on (whether action meant acting, delegating, or deferring).

From earlier management training, I had acquired some other skills that GTD simply endorsed, and it’s always nice to get a pat on the head. If a job can be handled right away, I do it; if it needs to be on a list, I write it down; if it needs a paper home, I file it (if I can’t get to it earlier, then once a week, on Friday afternoon). People marveled at that at my last several places of work, but from thirty years in the full-time workforce I’ve learned that task management is its own overhead, and the task you no longer have to manage reduces that overhead to an absolute minimum. I just hadn’t fully ported my analog practices to the actual environment where most of my stuff-to-be-done resided, though now that I’m weeding my inbox, I find that a lot of email is just pleasant chatter that can be deleted or filed, and just like weeding a library of stale and unused books, when I have finished tending the incidental messages, the important stuff stands out far more clearly.

From previous management training (in the military, of course; based on observation, I suspect most library “management” classes are thin on practice), I also knew to write stuff down. I use Outlook tasks, I use written lists, I use post-its for absolutely crucial stuff that may already be in a list but needs attention first thing. As a writer, I am never without a notebook anyway; even on the way to the gym I will return home for my notebook, because those minutes after I get off the treadmill are often flush with ideas, some great and some terrible, all worth noting. Yep, good idea: write stuff down.

I’ve seen several new managers get all shiny-eyed at the concepts in GTD, just as when I was first learning management, back in the 1980s, we all toted around The One-Minute Manager or any of the tomes on Total Quality Management. I don’t subscribe to the cultic following GTD has acquired (including a fawningly uncritical Wikipedia entry and an even sillier review by Ben Hammersley), but GTD is a nice, sensible book, with an accessible style. Also, management reading tends to be such a hard sell, and it’s easier to get people to read a book that is wildly popular; for that, all of us who have mentored new managers can be forever grateful.

My guess is that GTD is so very popular among the technically savvy because this is a group that is typically not offered management training or mentoring. Allen’s management tips are astonishingly basic: write stuff down! Stay organized! File stuff! Paper can be your friend! But if no one ever gave you that advice, and if your work culture has been “code til you bleed, then go play,” fundamental tips for managing the overhead of any job above the level of code monkey might seem revolutionary.

The limitation with GTD is that it works best if your time is yours to manage. GTD isn’t all that much help if your day is largely controlled by others, such as if your organization is built around the endless-meeting paradigm, where actual work production is coincidental to organizational processes, and your role requires that you swim glub-glub-glub in the river of endless discussion. Similarly, if you work in an organization driven at least in part by what I think of as “the novelty crisis” — where nearly every day features a newly-manufactured, ostensibly regime-toppling issue that realigns your priorities and blows your short- and long-range planning out of the water — GTD seems almost endearingly quaint, like a small child giving you a bandaid for a “booboo.” It won’t hurt; at least your life will be better-organized around the edges. But for many managers, its value is largely palliative.

Nevertheless, GTD convinced me to archive my embarrassingly huge email inbox and pledge to myself that before I turned off the computer each evening I would have fewer than ten unresolved email messages in my inbox. The vast majority of my tasks originate through email, so this is no small commitment. Most nights that has meant 9 messages left in my inbox, and it has never been empty (for one thing, I can’t decide whether to file or trash a 10%-off coupon for sugar-free margarita mix), but yes, I do feel as if I’m Getting Things Done. For a little over eight bucks on Amazon, GTD was a good buy. It just didn’t change my life.

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