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Getting Thing Done Book Summary
When I first heard of Getting Things Done, I was skeptical. How could it possibly live up to the fanaticism of its cult following? But once I saw the power of the “next action,” of “someday/maybes,” and of organizing tasks by “context,” I knew there was a good reason for the hype: “GTD” works.
More than fifteen years later, GTD still helps me stay productive and in control of all of the things going on in life and work. GTD has helped me write three books, build a business, and move to South America. I regularly re-read it, and I always find new ways to apply its principles and techniques.
Here’s my Getting Things Done book summary – in my own words – after many years of practice and two podcast interviews with author David Allen.
The principles that make GTD work These are not “principles” as expressed in the Getting Things Done book, but this is my summary of its most important ideas.
1. Trusted System: GTD is your “trusted system” The most important idea behind GTD is to get everything out of your head and into a “trusted system.”
What is a trusted system? A “trusted” system is a system in which you can “trust” that you will engage appropriately with everything in the system.
2. Appropriate Engagement: Your trusted system helps you “engage appropriately” GTD handles a wider breadth of things than your typical to-do list/calendar combination. Because GTD helps you “engage appropriately” with everything.
What does it mean to “engage appropriately?” That means you’re doing no more and no less than is necessary to achieve your goal.
You can trust your system will remind you to buy cat food only when you’re physically capable of buying cat food, and before you run out of cat food.
You can also trust your system to hold ideas that you may or may not act upon. If you daydream about moving abroad, you can trust your system to hold that idea and remind you periodically, so you won’t forget to do whatever you do or don’t want to do about it.
So GTD handles everything from important tasks that must get done to fleeting thoughts that you merely might want to do something about.
3. Close Open Loops: GTD keeps your mind free of “open loops” Build a trusted system that helps you engage appropriately with everything, and your mental energy will be free to handle whatever is going on in the moment.
This is because your trusted system keeps your mind free of open loops. If you can’t trust that you’ll buy cat food before you run out, you’ll be thinking about it. If you can’t trust that you’ll revisit that idea about moving abroad, you’ll be thinking about it. You’ll have open loops in your mind.
These open loops use mental energy that you could use on other things.
These open loops also make you feel like a victim of the things you have to do. It’s demoralizing to keep reminding yourself something needs to get done because you’re also reminding yourself that you haven’t followed through. If you trust it will get done, you don’t have to remind yourself.
As David Allen says, ”Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.”
4. Bottom-Up: GTD is a “bottom-up” approach to personal organization By getting control of the ground-level things in your life, you have more energy to think about the higher-level things. By trusting that you’ll buy cat food, you have more energy to think about how your idea to move abroad fits into your long-term goals and your life purpose.
One quick exercise to get a taste of GTD One quick way to get a taste of GTD: Write down every single thing that’s on your mind that either needs to get done, or that may need to get done. Don’t worry about doing those things, just get them out of your head.
You may feel a little overwhelmed from writing all of those things down, but you probably also feel a l
In the game of golf, there’s an expression: “Drive for show, putt for dough.” What it means is: If you want to win tournaments, practice putting.
It makes sense. In a standard even-par round of golf, putts make up half of all strokes. You’ll use your driver less than half the number of times you’ll use your putter. There’s more strokes to get rid of in the putting part of the game.
“Drive for show, putt for dough” makes sense – but it’s wrong. Why? It can tell us a lot about other places in life and work with “raised floors.”
Golf is a reality-distortion field First, a little background on the game of golf, for those unfamiliar. You’ve got a roughly one-and-a-half-inch ball, you’re trying to hit into a roughly four-inch hole. That hole is anywhere from one-hundred yards away to five-hundred yards away.
A one-hundred yard hole is a short par 3. A five-hundred yard hole is a long par 5. Meaning you have three strokes to get the ball in the hole for the par 3, and you have five strokes to get the ball in the hole on the par 5 – that is, to shoot even par. In between these distances are the more-common par 4s.
So you’re hitting a tiny ball with a chunk of metal on the end of a long stick, and you’re trying to get it into a tiny hole a few football fields away.
It’s insanely difficult, and trying to accomplish this will challenge your perception of reality. So no wonder the common wisdom in golf is wrong: It’s hard enough to make solid contact with the ball. It’s even harder to look back on a round, or even a hole, and have a clear picture of what the hell happened and how you could do it better.
Golf is essentially a reality-distortion field. It’s endlessly multivariate. It’s full of hidden risks and difficult decisions. It’s also frustrating and emotionally challenging, which makes it even harder to see reality and improve.
So, yes, golf is a good analog to life.
Seeing reality in Golf Mark Broadie of Columbia University wanted to make it easier to see reality in the game of golf. So, he collected a ton of data. He got detailed data of more than 100,000 shots from 200 men and women of all ages and skill levels. He knew where each shot started, where each shot ended, whether the shot was from the sand or the fairway or tall grass – he even knew whether each putt was uphill or downhill, left-breaking or right-breaking.
This is a lot of data. At the time, if you were a stats-minded golfer, you were counting how many fairways you hit in your drives, how many greens you hit in regulation (A “green in regulation” is par minus-two, because the goal is to average only two putts on each hole.) Since you believed you were “putting for dough,” you were also counting how many putts you had.
But this information stats-minded golfers were collecting didn’t really help. Maybe you had only 28 putts instead of the standard 36 putts, but the reason you had so few putts was because you didn’t hit any greens, so you were hitting the green from a shorter distance and thus your putts were shorter and easier to make.
It didn’t help you see reality. If anything, it made reality harder to see.
The “strokes-gained” method of seeing reality But Mark Broadie revolutionized golf stats. He developed a system called “strokes gained.” Basically, for your skill level, where on the course are you gaining strokes and losing strokes?
Your average PGA Tour golfer hitting from the tee on a 400-yard hole – a par 4 – averages 3.99 strokes. From 8 feet, he averages 1.5 strokes.
So imagine a golfer who is better than other pros from 8 feet. Instead of 1.5 strokes on average, he takes 1.3 strokes. Yet this golfer still averages 3.99 strokes from 400 yards off the tee. He’s better than other pros from 8 feet, but somehow just as good as other pros from 400 yards. That means somewher
Welcome to the Creative Age
Each November, writers around the world make a commitment. They commit to writing a novel within a month. It’s called NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writer’s Month.
Since 2013, software developers have also been making a commitment. They’ve committed to generating a novel within a month. It’s called NaNoGenMo – National Novel Generation Month.
The novels these programmers create – if you can call them novels – can tell us a lot about the future of work.
How well can AI write a novel? (Not at all, really.) The novels that programmers generate are all over the board. One “novel” was just Moby Dick, written backwards. Another “novel” was called Paradissssse Lossssst. It was a reproduction of John Milton’s epic poem, but with each “s” in the poem replaced with a varying number of other s’s.
But, some programmers take the task a little more seriously. They train AI models and see what they come up with. One such model is called GPT-2. GPT-2 was once considered too dangerous to release to the public, because you could supposedly generate subversive content en-masse, and do some pretty nefarious things. Kind of like [Russia did with a farm of human-generated content around the 2016 election].
And what is this advanced AI model able to generate? So far, nothing impressive. Programmer and author of [aiweirdness.com] Janelle Shane tweeted, “Struggling with crafting the first sentence of your novel? Be comforted by the fact that AI is struggling even more.”
The sentence this AI model generated for Janelle: “I was playing with my dog, Mark the brown Labrador, and I had forgotten that I was also playing with a dead man.” Not exactly Tolstoy.
The follow up to GPT-2 is now out, so we’ll see this year what kind of novel GPT-3 can generate, but if Janelle Shane’s experiments so far are any indication, humans will still have the edge. She asked GPT-3 how many eyes a horse had. It kept telling her: [four].
Your edge as a human lies in your creativity According to Kai-Fu Lee, author of AI Superpowers, forty- to fifty-percent of jobs will be replaced by AI and automation within the next couple of decades. But humans won’t be replaced across the board. It’s the creativity- and strategy-based jobs that will be the most secure.
If your job is an “optimization-based” job, you might want to start reinventing yourself. If your primary work is maximizing a tax refund, calculating an insurance premium, or even diagnosing an illness, your job involves so-called “narrow tasks.” These tasks are already being automated, or soon will be automated.
You could type out 50,000 nonsense words in about a day. A computer can generate 50,000 words faster than you can blink. But, you could write a novel in a month. A computer can’t write a novel at all.
Which means your edge as a human is not in typing the words faster. Your edge as a human is in thinking the thoughts behind the words.
This doesn’t just apply to writing novels. If you’re an entrepreneur building a world-changing startup or a social worker helping a family navigate taking care of a sick loved-one, your creativity matters. No AI will be able to do what you do for a very long time – if ever.
So when a computer can do in the blink of an eye something that would take us all day, and when our creativity is the one thing keeping us relevant, that has powerful implications on how we get things done.
Time management isn’t built for creative work Remember from episode 226 when we learned about [Frederick Taylor]? How he stood next to a worker with a stopwatch and timed every action and broke down all of those actions into a series of steps? He optimized time as a “production unit.”
But creativity doesn’t work like stacking bricks or moving chunks of iron. Remember there are three big realities about creativity that make it incomp
Week of Want
Subject: “IMMEDIATE Action Reqeusted [sic]”
They misspelled “requested,” which had the unintended effect of highlighting that this email was urgent.
There were some documents attached to the email. They wanted me to review the documents and sign them. Then, I would get a wire of money to my bank account – from Google, Inc.
I had no idea this email was coming. It was a nice surprise, since it was my birthday. It was all thanks to a decision I made three years prior.
Three years prior, I cleared my schedule and declared what I call a “Week of Want.” I gave myself an entire week to work on whatever I wanted. I had no plan at the time – that was the point of my Week of Want. Three years later, here I was getting a surprise paycheck, thanks to that Week of Want.
Creative work happens in “Extremistan” What was happening was a [Black Swan]. A rare and unpredictable event – in this case, a positive one. If you made several copies of the universe, and repeated my decision from three years prior, in most of those parallel universes, I probably wouldn’t end up getting money wired to my bank account from Google.
That’s because creative work happens in Extremistan. Nassim Taleb introduced Extremistan in his book, [The Black Swan]. Extremistan is a world of Black Swans – rare and unpredictable events.
Creative work does not happen in “Mediocristan” Other kinds of work happens in the opposite of Extremistan – what Taleb calls Mediocristan. Mediocristan is a world that’s stable and predictable.
Serving coffee is a good example of work that happens Mediocristan. There’s a steady supply of coffee, and a steady demand for coffee. If you get a job at Starbucks, they can more or less predict that supply and demand, as well as their overhead costs. So, they can pay you by the hour.
When your line of work is thinking of ideas and bringing those ideas into the world, you can’t get paid by the hour. Beyoncé does not get paid by the hour to make her music, even though she’s Beyoncé, and her next record is guaranteed to sell.
Much less is the world’s next Beyoncé getting paid by the hour. Nobody knows she’s the next Beyoncé. If you made copies of the universe, in many of those parallel universes, she wouldn’t even become the next Beyoncé.
You need clear priorities in Extremistan When you’re working in a pure Mediocristan, you don’t even need priorities. You know exactly what needs to be done, and you do it.
When you’re working in Extremistan, you do need clear priorities. There are a million things you could do – a million things that might work – so you have to be ruthless with your priorities.
You have to be ruthless in what you say yes to and what you say no to, and in trying to find some way to objectively see what the results are so you can make better decisions in the future.
Clear priorities have a dark side But clear priorities have a dark side. It’s that when you have clear priorities, you only put your money on the sure bets.
And when all of your money is on sure bets, you aren’t even gambling anymore. You’ve moved yourself from Extremistan to Mediocristan. You can keep steady paychecks coming, but you’ll never hit the jackpot.
So employ the Barbell Strategy So how do you give yourself the opportunity to hit it big, without going bust? You need to spend some time in Extremistan.
Taleb calls it “The Barbell Strategy”: Imagine a barbell, with fat weights on the ends, and a thin bar in the middle. On one end of the barbell is your sure bets. If you’re investing, that’s treasury bills. On the other end of the barbell is your risky bets. If you’re investing, that might be options, or cryptocurrencies.
What you’re avoiding is the stuff in the middle. Don’t make big bets where you can lose your shirt, and avoid the seemingly-conservative investment
Shun the Unearned
In New York City, sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century, a young art student sat for a portrait.
The artist who painted this portrait won a prestigious award for that portrait. The young woman who sat for the portrait suddenly became a sought-after model. She could actually earn money sitting for portraits.
She needed that money. Her family was poor, and art school -- especially art school in New York City -- was expensive.
But she decided to never model again.
The tough decision that made a good artist a great artist This young artist later recalled the moment she decided to stop sitting for portraits. She drew a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, so that there were now two columns.
At the top of one column, she wrote “yes.” At the top of the other column, she wrote “no.” She said, “The essential question was always, if you do this, can you do that?”
Here’s one thing that probably focused her attention on the question of whether or not she could keep modeling: She had skipped class to sit for that prize-winning portrait.
So, if she was going to model, could she go to class? If she was going to model, could she put in the work necessary to achieve her dream of becoming a great artist?
Her answer was, “no,” she could not keep modeling. And art history should thank her for it. Her name was Georgia O’Keeffe, and she lived on to become one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. One of her paintings was sold at auction several years ago for more than forty million dollars.
The unearned can hurt more than it helps I don’t want to assume that because O’Keeffe is one of my favorite artists -- not just for her work but also for her contrarian personality -- that you, too know who I’m talking about. You’ve seen her work: abstract close-ups of flowers and cattle skulls, paintings of the desert landscape surrounding the New Mexico estate where she spent most of her time.
This story about quitting modeling has one good lesson in it: That if you want to be great at something, you sometimes have to quit something else that you’re merely good at.
That’s a valuable lesson. It’s the obvious one. It’s not the lesson I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the unearned. That when you accept something you didn’t earn, it often hurts you more than it helps you.
Money you didn’t earn will make you foolish with finances. Flattery you didn’t earn will make you settle for mediocrity. Power you didn’t earn will disconnect you from reality.
If you want to become great at what you do, you have to be on the lookout for the unearned. You have to shun the unearned.
The unearned is an easy path to mediocrity When I tweeted about the dangers of the unearned, most people agreed. Some people were suspicious. “What about Universal Basic Income?,” they’d say.
I don’t have an opinion on Universal Basic Income. I haven’t thought about it enough. But this is not about Universal Basic Income. As I understand it UBI would be about getting your basic needs met. Do you have a roof over your head, and food in your stomach?
Having a roof over your head and food in your stomach is a good thing, especially if you don’t have to work for it. But beyond that, the unearned becomes dangerous.
When I’m talking about the dangers of the unearned, I’m not talking about the basics. When you have your basic needs met, it’s an easy path to mediocrity. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I happen to think it would be nice if we lived in a society where more people could get by being mediocre. That competition wouldn’t be so fierce that you need to be the very best in your field to have a chance at survival.
But, this isn’t about basic needs. This isn’t about mediocrity. The unearned is an easy path to mediocrity, and that’s fine. But if you want to be great, you
Complexity Creep & The Birthday Problem
Here’s a brain teaser for you: Imagine we’ve got a room full of people. We’re trying to figure if any two people in the room have the same birthday.
For us to reach a fifty-percent probability that there are two people in the room with the exact same birthday, how many people need to be in the room?
I told you this was a brain teaser, so suffice to say that the answer -- to how many people need to be in a room for there to be a fifty-percent probability that two people have the exact same birthday -- is not what you would intuitively expect.
The “birthday problem” tells a lot about how we fail to see hidden complexity For the sake of this puzzle, let’s assume there are no twins, no leap year birthdays, and there are no seasonal variations. No spike in birthdays nine months after Christmas or some big snowstorm.
Most people start with a rough calculation like this: There’s 365 days in a year, so for there to be two people in the room with the same birthday, take 365, divide it by two -- you’ve got about 180, give or take. With 180 people in a room it seems you’d have about a fifty-percent chance that two of them have the same birthday.
This intuitive calculation is wrong. It’s very wrong. If you had 180 people in a room, the chances that two of them will have the same birthday is damn close to 100%. Even if there were only 100 people in the room, rather than 180, the chances that two of them would have the same birthday would be 99.99997%.
The actual answer is fun to know, but it also tells us a lot about our minds. It tells us a lot about how bad we are at understanding complexity. It tells us a lot about how complexity tends to get out of hand, and weigh us down, and cause us to stagnate. Complexity creep.
If we know the answer to what is known as the birthday problem, maybe -- just maybe -- we can fight against complexity creep: That insidious tendency for us to make things more complex and more complex and more complex, until we find ourselves paralyzed.
And there’s a flip side. If you can understand complexity creep -- if you can understand how things that seem simple are actually complex, you can also use that to your advantage.
Each “one thing” interacts with every other thing So how do you actually find the answer to the birthday problem? Let me start by saying that if you have trouble following the next minute or so, don’t worry about it. That’s the point. Our brains aren’t wired to intuitively understand this.
On a basic level, you wouldn’t just calculate based upon the total number of people in the room and the total number of potential birthdays.
In actuality, you would calculate based upon potential interactions amongst the birthdays of every person within the room.
Like this: If there’s only one person in the room, there’s a 365 out of 365 -- 100% -- chance that person does not share a birthday with another person in the room. There are no other people in the room, after all.
Add a second person, and there’s a 364 out of 365 chance that person does not share a birthday with the first person in the room.
With each person you add, you take away one from the numerator of that fraction. With the third person, instead of 364, it’s a 363 out of 365 chance that person does not share a birthday with either of the first two people in the room.
So on and on, that numerator gets lower -- from 363 to 362 to 361 -- with each additional person in the room. So far, there’s five people in the room, and a 361 out of 365 chance that fifth person does not share a birthday with any of the other four people in that room.
That’s a 98.9% chance of no match. A merely 1.1% chance that this fifth person shares a birthday with one of the other four people in the room.
But wait. If there are five people in a room, the chances that any two of them share the same birthday is not