Sunday, May 3, 2009

Getting Things Done + A Perfect Mess

Recently, I read a couple of books that look at the idea of order and
lack of it from opposing angles.  My struggle to do all the things
that I wanted and/or needed to do prompted me to read the first,
"Getting Things Done".  The second book, "A Perfect Mess", was a timely
reminder that there's nothing wrong with a little disorder.  In fact,
as long as your ability to work is not impaired, a bit of mess can
actually be beneficial.

1. "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity"
   by David Allen

"Getting Things Done", or GTD for short, is a an approach to task
management.  According to the author, one of the obstacles to doing
stuff is the knowledge of having a lot of other tasks to do.  So the
idea is to move these "open loops" out of your mind and onto a list
(actually several lists).  This allows you to concentrate fully on the
task at hand, knowing that the other tasks have been safely captured

Some basic principles underlie GTD: collection, processing, organising,
reviewing and doing.  More detailed information about GTD is
available on Wikipedia:
Also, a chapter-by-chapter summary is at:

As I mentioned, there are usually many lists: "today", projects, next
actions (for each project), "some day", etc.  Your tasks gather in an
"inbox", which you check through regularly.  If it's a two-minute job,
you might decide to do it right now (e.g. arrange an appointment).  Or
you could delegate it to someone else.  All other tasks get added to the
appropriate list to be done later.

There's a lot of common-sense advice in GTD.  Many people keep lists to
track their tasks.  I have in the past, but not to the extent proposed
in the book.  The two-minute rule can help you deal with a lot of
incoming request.  And the act of ticking or crossing off a completed
task gives you a sense of accomplishment.

But there's also a risk of obsessing too much about getting your life
tightly organised.  If you plan each minute of the day, for example, you
will not only spend a lot of time organising rather than doing, you can
also pack your day with so many "tasks" that there's little room for
spontaneity.  It's a bit like having such a busy itinerary on a holiday
that you can't actually relax and enjoy yourself.

GTD has its critics.  Some say it's too paper-centric with its lists,
folders and filing cabinets.  Others say "GTD is more focused on doing
whatever comes at you rather than doing what you should be doing -- the
important stuff".  Some critics go so far as to suggest that it has the
characteristics of a "cult".  You can read about these and other
criticisms in: "What Is Wrong with GTD?":

Overall, I've found many of the basic ideas of GTD useful.  However, I'm
not a busy executive, so I found the full GTD approach a bit over the
top.  Where applicable, I've tried to apply some of the techniques to my
situation.  "Just enough" or pragmatic GTD has helped me organise the
drudgery of my mundane tasks, freeing up time to concentrate on the
things I'd rather be doing.  As long as I regularly check and prioritise
my handful of lists, I won't get any nasty surprises when things
suddenly fall due.

2. "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder"
   by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman

In some ways, this book is an antidote to the obsession with
organisation and neatness that systems like GTD risk promoting.  The
authors argue that far from being a problem, a "mess" can provide many

The mere fact that I even found this book is the result of a bit of
messiness.  While in the library looking through the shelves for
something else, I noticed the book sticking out.  Had it been neatly
arranged in it's proper place, I probably wouldn't even have noticed it!

The immediate benefits of accepting mess in our lives are the time and
effort saved not making everything neat and tidy.  But the authors go
further, suggesting other, less obvious benefits.  For example, a little
bit of desk clutter can lead to chance associations.  Serendipity and
creativity can result when two or more seemingly unrelated items in a
pile come to hand.  In the home, a little mess can provide warmth and a
lived-in feel.

The authors provide other specific examples to back up their case.
Apparently, penicillin was discovered thanks to a messy laboratory.
Alexander Fleming had left some old, contaminated specimens lying around
which later lead to the discovery that mould could act as an antibiotic.
Then there's a quip attributed to Albert Einstein: in response to the
criticism that "a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind", he's
reported to have said: "then what are we to think of an empty desk?".

But the authors do not advocate total chaos.  If things are so
disorganised that you can't even move around or use your desk, then
you've got a problem.  Rather, they argue that everyone has an "optimal"
level of mess.  They suggest a stepwise approach to finding the "right"
level of mess: try introducing a little mess (or tidiness) to see if it
improves your situation.  If it does, try a little more.  Stop when no
further improvements can be made.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this sometimes tongue-in-cheek book.  The
only major criticism I have is that the references section is not as
comprehensive as it could be to back up the arguments.