Book Review: Getting Things Done

by Erin Dennehy
Class of 2015

I’ll be honest—I haven’t read a book in a while. My excuse is usually something along the lines of “I’ve been busy,” citing my Advanced Placement classes, sports, clubs, college essays, and cashiering job for proof. I think we’ve all been guilty of this crime—blaming our hobbies or career for not being productive, for not doing what we love, for not getting things done. What’s the point? In the end, what do we have to show for it?

It’s frustrating, not being able to do what you enjoy. You swear this year you’ll change, you’ll plan out your week, you’ll organize your life. But in the end, it’s always the same thing. Summer to do lists go unchecked. Your novel stays unwritten. Books gather dust on the shelf. Piles of homework, sports matches, and work hours fill the spaces once designated as “free time,” as “do whatever you want” time. Whether it be pursuing a new hobby, teaching yourself a new language, cooking a new meal—all of the things we enjoy but don’t label as important get shoved under the rug until next week, next month, next year. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to fulfill all of your requirements and do what you love at the same time. Until now.

I was procrastinating when I learned about David Allen’s Getting Things Done. To avoid writing a college essay, I delved into the bottomless pit known as Youtube and somehow found myself watching a video about some stranger’s list of favorite books that year. He was a college intellectual, so most of them were about economics or medicine or political philosophies, but there was one that caught my eye: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. At first it seemed like one of those cheap scams—those “better living” books that don’t really tell you anything worthwhile. But this one seemed different. The reviews raved about it—Allen’s TedTalk summarizing his book was one of the most viewed on the site. Why not give it a go? I had nothing to lose.

Getting Things Done

As expected, it took me quite a while to finish this book. Senior year was hectic, and I constantly found myself too stressed or overwhelmed to read it (ironic, since finishing the book probably would have helped me with this problem.) Each month I found myself rereading bits and pieces that described how to deal with stress, and each time, I was shocked at how much sense Allen made.
The idea of the book is that things are on your mind because you haven’t yet determined an outcome. Whether it be what major to pursue or what meal to order, these thoughts, or “open loops”, take up valuable, limited space in your short term memory. This prevents you from focusing on the matter at hand, for these incomplete ideas will continually resurface in your mind until a solution is reached. But how can we effectively deal with these open loops? The answer, according to Allen, is a five step process involving three different types of categorization. Rather than randomly listing words on paper or scribbling in an assignment notebook, we really should be collecting this information and processing what it means. Finally, we should organize these commitments and review the information regularly to prevent any open loops from resurfacing.
A summarized version of this process is as follows: Firs ask yourself: what is it? What’s on your mind? Jot it down. Then, is it actionable? If so, what is the first thing you need to do to complete this action? Write that down as well. Lastly, determine a time frame for this action. Will it take less than two minutes? Do it now. If not, write down when you will complete this action and mark it on your calendar. It may seem easy enough, but training yourself to regularly follows these steps will take practice. The result, though—a stress free, clear mind—will be worth the extra effort.

I used to deal with unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety on a daily basis. The smallest things would bother me—would constantly bombard me, prevent me from completing the task at hand. I would find myself worrying about my upcoming calculus test during Spanish class, or contemplating that night’s schedule during an important cross country meet. It kept me from devoting myself to my commitment. As a result, I spent more time than I should have trying to get them done, and, inadvertently, I would have no time left in the day to pursue my other interests. It was all interconnected. By adopting Allen’s method, I can honestly say that my life has developed a bit more stability. I’m still not a master at time management—I’ve only recently finished the book, after all—but I can see this being a valuable resource for me in college, coaching me on the keys to stress free productivity and success.
There’s so much more to this book than Allen’s five step method. Which types of materials to use, how to create a “mind like water”—or a mind free of open loops—, and how to productively adopt these methods in your day to day life are just some of the topics covered in this guide to better living. This is a must have for any high schooler who constantly struggles to keep up, to complete their agenda, to find the time to do what they need as well as what they love. As Allen says, “Control your mind or it will control you,” and this book will definitely help you win that battle.

Erin Dennehy is a student in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition