21 February 2010
This book comprises a densely packed 259 pages of advice on time management, aka, as I am sure David Allen would prefer, productivity management, and that might prove a major obstacle to anyone who feels that they have, as Allen writes in the first sentence, "an overwhelming number of things to do". Reading the book, however, is but the first step in what would, at the very least, be an administratively demanding approach to time management - one that starts with "capturing all the things that need to get done - now, later, someday, big, little or in between". And he means all - professional, personal, everything.
Allen uses the metaphor of "psychic RAM", and suggests that we should not burden our working minds with issues that should be safely stored elsewhere. His approach is based on the assumption that if any task is "on your mind" then "your mind isn't clear", and therefore any task that is "unfinished" must be captured or collected in a "trusted system outside your mind" - in short, written down, whether on paper or in an electronic system. This, I suggest, is quite questionable as a universal assumption: there may be many people who can order their most important thoughts, prioritising in their heads, so that they can safely write down only those things that need to be written down and worked on actively. For those who have poor memories, or are always worrying that they will forget one key thing that will drop them in the soup, then this all-encompassing system may be worth the effort.
While I do question the universality of Allen's initial assumption, however, I don't doubt that this system would work if you devoted enough time to setting it up and getting into the habit of doing it. (His company provides software and other materials to help you, although pen, paper, traditional filing systems and simple software like Outlook or Lotus Notes are all you need.)
The second thing to do, having written down all of your tasks and wishes, is to decide which the active ones are. (The others should be consigned to a "someday/maybe list".) You should then to be clear about - and write down - the next action on each of those active projects. Actions should be specific, measurable way time bounded in SMART fashion (although he doesn't use that acronym). While that makes a great deal of sense, he doesn't balance that working forward in time, action by action approach with a plan back through time from the desired completion date to make sure that you will be able to complete it on time. I was taught that invaluable technique a long time ago as "time appreciation".
Even if you decided not to try to collect all of your thoughts, all of the other methods, techniques and "tricks" that he recommends in the rest of the book seem eminently sensible. Allen provides us with lots of techniques around envisioning, maintaining focus, natural planning, team alignment, using your diary/calendar, etc. There are, in my mind, some significant omissions, however. Allen says about one fifth of the way into the book, "Let us assume that you're not resisting any of your "stuff" (i.e. tasks/projects) out of insecurity or procrastination". He doesn't really come back to address this problem directly - productivity is often impaired by a general lack of will or determination or plain bravery to do the difficult, uncomfortable task. There is, for example, no equivalent to "eating the frog", which I personally found to be a most useful new approach to productivity a few years ago - possibly because Allen believes such tricks would be unnecessary if everything is completely ordered.
David Allen ranges from detailed practical advice on one page, e.g. prefer a simple A-Z general filing system, make sure filing cabinet drawers are no more than ¾ full, to theoretical or broad overview on another, such as the "six level model for reviewing you own work. I found that this maintained my interest quite well, although some might not like that style and wonder whether it might have been structured differently.
So, to conclude: this is a great book if you are interested in how best to use your time and how to be more productive. Whether his all-encompassing idea collection system will be right for everyone I doubt, but I don't doubt that anyone who did manage to apply it systematically would gain great benefits. That probably depends on the type of person you are - and I think that I might be someone who would find it useful and I might give it a go. There is, however, a great deal of good material here whether you adopt the "full system" or not. One last thought - it is probably not a good book to make a start with if you are already in over your head, as it is just too dense and the recommended system has too great an overhead to be usable unless you do have some coaching support to get you through it. Allen refers several times to spending whole weekends coaching clients, in their offices, as they collect all their "stuff"!