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The Difference Between Doing Things and Getting Things Done

Photography: hawkexpress

For David Allen life is full of “stuff.” For people who have never heard of David Allen, never tried to read his geek productivity bible Getting Things Done, never wondered how to label a file or categorize their lives, that’s as unhelpful a truism as declaring that work is difficult. But for the followers of GTD, people who have been accused of regarding Allen as a kind of cultic leader (the same kind of leader he himself once saw in John-Roger, leader of the New Age Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness in which Allen remains a minister), it’s an eye-opening revelation. Employ a process that pushes that “stuff” out of the way and what remains will be only the most important elements. Instead of wasting their hours on life’s minutiae, they’ll be able to devote their time to the big things. They’ll get things done.

Mostly though what they’ll be getting done is the process of doing things – and that’s if they can figure out the process. Allen doesn’t just earn revenue from his best-selling book and its sequels. His seminars cost $695 per person, a sign not just that his followers consider his techniques valuable but that they’re so complex they have to fork out almost 700 bucks to figure out how to use them. Allen’s system requires multiple levels of categorization and treatment for every aspect of life from going to the dry cleaners and vaccinating the dog to launching a website and changing jobs. Every task has its moment, sometimes timed to the minute. Every chore receives attention according to its apparent level of importance, but only after you’ve put it through a system that awards it an appropriate priority level.

Getting Things Done, a System Dedicated to Geeks?

43Folders.com, a site dedicated to GTD, has argued that the system is ideal for geeks – people, it says, who tend to be disorganized but “love assessing, classifying, and defining the objects in their world,” who “crave actionable items” but “have too many projects and lots and lots of stuff.” But that’s a narrow definition of a geek. “Geeks” today are more than bespectacled programmers with ponytails, beards and an unhealthy knowledge of Apple mouse designs. They’re specialists, experts in one particular field whether that field is Java programming, gardening or marketing coffee beans. They’re not interested in creating order in their day; they’re interested in seeing the results of their creation.

For followers of GTD, nirvana lies in the process of organization. For geeks, process is the means to an end and nirvana for them is in having nothing left to organize at all.

The difference lies in two key ingredients missing among the files, folders and labels of GTD: creativity and vision.

Every successful business begins with an idea. But ideas are common, successful businesses relatively rare. Between the concept and the IPO, the buy-out and the private Caribbean island lie years of small achievements: websites built and tested, products designed and prototypes checked, clients won, satisfied and retained. Those small steps are the sorts of things that GTD was designed to deal with, organize and prioritize, but while plenty of corporations have invited David Allen to put on his seminars to organize their workforce, it’s hard to identify a list of entrepreneurs who have relied on GTD to build their path to success.

GTD Gets Things Done, Outsourcing Gets Results

That’s because a successful entrepreneur develops a vision of his end goal and is able to maintain it all the way through the process of building success. The same creativity that gives them a picture of what they’re trying to achieve also enables them to see the obstacles that can prevent them from achieving it and the force to push those obstructions out of the way. David Allen has described his system as helping users to find their way through a thick forest in which the trees are “stuff” hiding the items of real value.

“Any email could be either a snake in the grass or a berry,” he explained once in interview with Wired Magazine.

But successful entrepreneurs don’t become successful by picking berries. They build success by having a vision of what lies through the forest to the meadow at the end. There may be “stuff” in the way in the form of emails that need to be answered or dogs that need to be vaccinated but the smart, successful types don’t waste their time writing those tasks down, giving them labels and filing them in special folders. They trust in their ability to achieve success, make an investment — and pay someone else to do it for them.

That’s perhaps the biggest difference between people who focus on getting things done and those who manage to achieve great things. David Allen might be the guru for the type of geek who wants an uncluttered life but a more appropriate guru for a geekpreneur who wants to turn their commercial vision into a functioning business might well be Tim Ferriss. His book The 4-Hour Workweek might have had a misleading title, and outsourcing your dating life to Indian underlings is taking things a little too far, but his approach of only doing the most important and valuable tasks yourself and leaving everything else to paid helpers is a system followed by more successful types than those who use GTD. In fact, it’s a system followed by just about every successful type who has ever turned a one-man concept into a thriving company. The system – if outsourcing can be called a system – requires an investment of time in the form of training, and money in the form of payments to freelancers, but if it means you don’t have to waste time on “stuff” or on organizing “stuff” then it’s more likely to free up the time to not just get things done but to actually do things. And that, after all, should be the result any productivity system.

One Comment

  1. manny Says:

    good suggestions.

    GTD is not a bad system, until you get obsessed with it.

    At least sometime in life you need to take a GTD approach to "truly" organize yourself and your work, specially freelancers.

    Then we need to evolve from that system into what you have suggested: expansion and outsourcing.

    Of course, before you can really organize others, you need to be an organized and productive individual yourself.

    I've seen so many startups and businesses fail, because of this.

    So before you look into others, look deeply into yourself.

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