A Guide to Getting Things Done

If you thought your time-management skills were up to scratch, think again. David Allen’s personal-productivity guidebook Getting Things Done has become a call to arms for webheads who want to accomplish more tasks in less time.

But who is the author followers call “the guru,” and what do you need to join his merry band? Here are a few pointers to get you started.

What is Getting Things Done and what’s the big idea?

Depending on your politics, Getting Things Done is either a how-to for drones to perform harder and faster, or the book that will help you wipe out anxiety through streamlining your approach to work. According to the back cover, “our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax; only when our minds are clear and our thoughts are organized can we achieve results and unleash our creative potential.”

Sounds a bit Zen. Who is this guy?

Funny you should say that. As a teenager, the author studied Zen Buddhism and Beat poetry, and later put a master’s university program on hold to study black-belt karate. This path to spiritual enlightenment led him down the road of personal-growth consultancy, in which he uses his books and seminars to teach others how to simplify their thoughts and increase efficiency by achieving a state of “mind like water.” Today, Ojai, California-based Allen’s star is rising as CEO of a company that bears his name and a leading coach and speaker on the international personal-development seminar circuit.

So what’s the Getting Things Done approach?

Like all the best self-help schemes, GTD followers must submit to a five-step plan. First, empty the thoughts and ideas swirling around your overtaxed brain into what Allen calls a “collection bucket” — this can be any trusted place, from a writing pad to Microsoft Project, as long as those memes live somewhere other than your head.

Next, decide what you need to do, if anything, to act on those ideas. Then organize and review your actions routinely to ensure your new to-do system stays in shape. “The single most important discipline that is essential if you are going to be successful at integrating GTD principles into your life is review,” according to GTD practitioner Marc Orchant. “If you review your action lists, your commitments, your inboxes on a regular basis, the system works.”

So project management is a cult? You mean, like Waco?

Not exactly — David Allen is no David Koresh. Merlin Mann, proprietor of a weblog inspired by GTD, said the reality is “far less glamorous or menacing than this cult label.” Still, with over 350,000 copies sold, Getting Things Done is pitched as a code by which to lead a tranquil, organized life, and many who realize the book’s promise end up spreading the word to others online.

What’s the best productivity tech?

Allen’s company sells its own Microsoft Outlook plug-in to bring GTD to your inbox, but followers find all kinds of applications and devices to run their “life hacks.” Mac users, for example, can use NoteBook as an outliner tool that replicates the look and feel of a ruled writing pad, while Life Balance even processes all of your tasks and to-do lists to generate pie charts depicting work time versus downtime. The 43 Folders wiki carries a good list of software recommendations for rookie time-management worshippers.

Luddites can play, too. GTD followers cobble together project-management solutions compatible with the book’s philosophy using simple index cardsPost-It notes and even scraps of paperMoleskine notebooks, too, are a favorite dead-tree palmtop for many fans. “The tactile experience of writing in a journal is very gratifying for many of us,” said Marc Orchant of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a GTD practitioner. “The cool factor of having a life hack like the Hipster PDA is a Luddite indulgence practiced by people who have too much technology in their lives already.”