19 July 2004

IBM and GTD

Today is my 5th anniversary at IBM. I don’t get anything exciting like more vacation, but I got congratulations from my manager.

Work had been starting to get out of control, and home wasn’t much better. I’m moderately well organized, but I decided I needed to do better. So, I’m trying to implement the suggestions David Allen writes about in Getting Things Done.

There are, of course, thousands of self-help personal organization gurus in the US. sara has been flirting with the Franklin Covey cult for some time, and there are specialists in clutter control, dealing with procrastination, improving your memory skills, negotiation techniques, and so on. So, why did I pick David Allen’s book?

GTD (as the fans refer to it) is quite heavily focused on stress reduction and returning the feeling of being in control, rather than just productivity enhancement. It’s about making sure you can empty your head of work and not worry about it. It’s also “low ceremony”, to use a term from the UML/RUP community. Allen favors reviewing ‘next action’ lists and intuitively selecting appropriate actions, which I suspect would lead Richard to give the book a very low score. However, as a fairly intuitive person with no major issues around actual productivity levels, GTD seemed like an approach which would work for _me_—and that, ultimately, is what matters. Just don’t expect a book on formal project management!

It’s also true that many of Allen’s recommendations are ‘obvious’, in the sense that when you see them written down, you think “Well, of course!” The same is true of the categorizations he suggests for information, and he says so himself in the book. As he points out, though, there’s value in having a succinct list of obvious productivity tricks and a good initial set of categories.

Interestingly, the book is politely scathing about the Franklin Covey system. Allen firmly believes that a person’s calendar should be sacred territory, used only for things which have to occur at a specific time. Cluttering it with to-do items that could be done any time is unhelpful. Also, making a plan for the day is great if you’re a senior executive with an assistant and can stick to the plan, but 99% of us have to work around constant interruptions—so in building elaborate daily plans is really setting ourselves up for failure, and the fact that we never manage to keep to the plan leads to stress.

GTD has no special planners, no elaborate stationery. All you need is a way to make lists and to categorize items into something like a folder. You can apply it to paperwork, e-mail, and general tasks. Although there are some great pieces of software out there that can make things easier, all Allen himself uses is a Palm handheld with the standard Palm software.

So, would I recommend it? It depends. If you’re the kind of person who needs heavily imposed structure and someone or something to crack the whip and motivate you, I don’t think GTD is gonna work. Similarly, if you are an intellectual decision maker, GTD is not going to provide enough of the answers you need around how to evaluate priorities (though the book does include a few chapters on the issue). If you’re someone who dislikes formality, is strongly self-motivated and can make intuitive decisions, it might be just what you’re looking for.

Of course, it’s too early for me to say whether it really works in the long run, but at least my inbox is clear…

© mathew 2017