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Mini Book Review – Getting Things Done (Allen)

Posted by Mark Harrison on April 2, 2007

A couple of months ago, I reviewed “A Perfect Mess”, which I highly recommended. The authors were relatively critical of the excesses of the “planning industry”, and gave a number of examples of planning consultants and authors. One author they particularly commented on was David Allen.The name rang a bell, because my friend Nik Butler had suggested a couple of David’s techniques to me a while ago, which I’d found useful on a particular project.

Anyway, armed with a book I’d like, being critical of another book, I did the only decent thing, and bought it anyway – however, I’ve deliberately left it 8 weeks to write this review, because I wanted not just just read the book, but try out some of the techniques.

Mr. Allen has an interesting view of life, and I’m beginning to come round to his viewpoint now – he contends that most of us keep a big jumble of “things to do” in our heads, and accordingly suffer from two problems:

  • We can’t find out the detail for the stuff we want to do now
  • We keep getting mentally interrupted by our brains reminding us of all the things that we were meant to do as well

He then goes on to suggest that, at the simplest level, it is worth making up some lists of things that need doing, in a coherent manner, so that both of these problems are solved. I could understand why making lists would fix the first problem, but wasn’t convinced that having the info on paper would stop my mind jumping things on me… but I thought I’d give it a go.

Now, the “process” paperwork in my life is well-organised. I wrote quite a long article called “Administration, Administration, Administration” back in July 05 for my newsletter subscribers. The article is available here at

However, the “project” paperwork had never been that carefully organised. I had ended up with about 6 filing trays, marked things like “to do”, and “Dona to chase me”, and never really found a satisfactory answer.

Starting on page 173 of Getting Things Done, there are several pages of description (and diagram) of something called a “tickler file”. This is a fairly complex set up involving 43 suspension files, and therefore a new really useful company crate to hold them in. (Back in December, I wrote about how good those crates are – though for this requirement I had to go up to 64 litres away from the 35 litre crates I normally get.)

The tickler file was, frankly, a faff to set up, and it took about an hour to get the files labelled, and everything piled round my desk sorted into the appropriate files for future action…

… but I’ve been using it as my prime organisation tool for about six weeks now…

… and let me tell you, it’s fantastic! I have, genuinely, got more projects pushed forward in those six weeks than the previous twelve, and quite often now, by about 2pm, I’ve done “everything I needed to” and can push forward one of the long term projects (like the next book.)

Now, I could spend the next thousand words describing the tickler file, and how to use it, but I suspect it’s one of those tools that works much better if you understand the “why” as well as the “how.” So on that basis, I’m definitely recommending you get the book…

… note that this doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned the “Perfect Mess” view that there are some big advantages to having SOME disorganisation in my life… but in those items where I’ve decided I want some discipline, it seemed to make sense to use the best tools!

Buy “Getting Things Done” from


3 Responses to “Mini Book Review – Getting Things Done (Allen)”

  1. Alex said

    Thank You

  2. […] all my appointments live in a paper diary, and all my critical “to dos” live in a paper tickler file (thanks […]

  3. […] Mark Harrison (04/07) Review […]

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