Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done

Maybe the greatest thing Opus Dei offers me is ongoing formation.

Formation is what Opus Dei “does”, in the same way that Dominicans do preaching, and Carmelites do contemplation, and Jesuits do teaching. All these groups do all these things, but each has its main charism and focus.

So Opus Dei does formation, which includes, in my case, a regular talk on some spiritual practice, and on one of the virtues. The topic of these talks is determined by a cycle — in other words, they aren’t tailored to a perceived need — but it’s funny how often the right talk comes at the right time. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit I guess.

A recent talk rehearsed the benefits and means of order, and good use of time. At about the same time, I was contemplating a job offer of sorts, which would require a commitment to write 800 words every three weeks. I ran it by my parish priest, who being older and wiser than me, often gives me good advice. His response? “If you take this up, what will you give up? You’ve only got finite time and energy, and you don’t want to burn out.”

I hadn’t considered this at all. It relates, of course, to order and good use of time. So the juxtaposition of that talk on order and that conversation on burnout gave rise to a resolution. Six months ago, I started reading a book called Getting Things Done. Ironically, I never got around to finishing it. But I picked it up again, and read it cover to cover.

Reading mediocre novels is like drinking bad wine. Life’s too short! So I have a rule about novels: unless it’s personally recommended to me by someone I trust, I only read classics and cultural phenomenons. In the case of classics, if a novel remains in print over several generations, it is obviously worth reading. In the case of contemporary novels, if it is storming public consciousness, it’s probably worth reading even if it’s bad, just for the sake of cultural awareness.

Without consciously deciding this, I’ve applied the same rule to self-help books. I’ve only read two in my life. Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936) basically founded the genre, and certainly meets the definition of a classic. I’m glad I read it, I occasionally re-read it, and I recommend it.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was published in 2001, so it can’t be called a classic yet, but maybe it will become one. It’s certainly a bestseller, translated into 28 languages and heralded by TIME Magazine as “the defining self-help business book of its time.” In any event, I’m committed to it now, and I must say it has already helped me foster order and be more productive.

One GTD principle is to get “stuff” out of your mind and onto paper or electronic files. That’s all stuff — be it professional or personal, urgent or optional, tasks for tomorrow or aspirations for 2020. The idea is to implement an organising system which gives your brain a break. It works. Many of the distractions that used to bother me as I was meditating before the tabernacle or praying the Rosary are now in a reliable system, so I can easily dismiss them, if they bother me at all.

Another principle is to make filing easy by dispensing with formal categories — use a simple A-Z system, and be prepared to introduce a new manilla folder with a new category name for only one item, if that’s what it takes to file everything. I’ve also constructed a “tickler file,” which is worth implementing even if you reject the larger GTD system.

Weird name, great idea. Here's a good explanation.

Tickler file: weird name, great idea. Here’s an explanation.

GTD is a system, intended to inform one’s entire life, not just professional work. It has attracted criticisms for being cult-like, too rigid, too systemic, suspiciously New Age. I’ll deal with criticisms of GTD, many of them valid, tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, in the interest of full disclosure, I recommend it. Its positives outweigh its negatives, and it has already had a positive impact on my time management and workflow. I hope and expect this will translate into more consistent blogging!

1 Comment

  1. Dan
    Mar 18, 2014

    If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this web-application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:


    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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