The Billfold Book Club: David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’

It’s hard to write about a book that literally changed your life.

What can I write about Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity besides “it changed the way in which I interact with the world?”

Still, I’ve got “write BBC GTD” on my list for today, so I had better see what I can come up with.

The Productivity System

On the surface, Getting Things Done is a system of tracking responsibilities. That’s the part of GTD that tends to attract the most readers, as well as inspire productivity blogs like Merlin Mann’s (late, lamented) 43 Folders.

I’m guessing that some of you read the book and thought “wow, I can just write everything down!” and others read it and thought “wow, I really have to write everything down?”

For me, learning that I could just write everything down, and that I could make tasks easier to accomplish by chopping them up into tangible, achievable Next Actions, was revelatory. I think differently now that I’ve spent years cataloging and completing tasks like “Mind-map article for Client X” or “Waiting For: Ester re: scheduling Billfold chat.”

But some of us are naturally predisposed to lists and planning. Some of us really like knowing in advance that we’re going to solve this tricky work problem by mind-mapping; that we don’t have to wake up the next morning and face a blank piece of paper.

Other people love the blank piece of paper. They love the unscheduledness and freedom of making decisions in the moment, instead of pre-deciding.

And that’s probably the tipping point that determines whether or not you are going to enjoy GTD. So I’m curious to start a discussion of how you reacted to David Allen’s system. Were you excited? Overwhelmed? Put off? Did anyone go out and process all their inboxes into a single list of actions?

The Six Levels of Altitude

And then there’s the other part of GTD. The part that even the productivity gurus tend to leave out.

On page 51 of my 2001 paperback edition, David Allen drops this idea of every life having six levels of altitude:

50,000+ feet: Life

40,000 feet: Three- to five-year vision

30,000 feet: One- to two-year goals

20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility

10,000 feet: Current projects

Runway: Current actions

We’re supposed to check in with each of those levels of altitude regularly, but few people do, I suspect. It’s scary.

People like me who really get a kick out of writing down tasks and ticking off boxes love spending time on that runway. We’re even cool with 10,000 feet. Flying above that makes us nervous.

Asking me what I’d like to be responsible for? Ha! “Can’t you see that I have an enormous list of tasks to accomplish?” she says nervously, trying to turn the focus away from the larger question.

So I’m also curious how you felt about David Allen’s Six Levels of Altitude. Did the idea of configuring your Next Actions to direct you towards your larger life goals make you feel excited and invigorated, or did you feel like you’d really just like to hang out on the runway and churn out tasks? Did it inspire you to do any serious thinking about your two-year goals and five-year visions?

And, as always, feel free to discuss any other parts of the book that caught your attention.

One last question: now that we’ve Book Clubbed together for a summer, would you like to continue? Does the Billfold Book Club still fit into your Areas of Responsibility?

Photo: Chris Eason

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