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Review of "How to get things done without trying too hard" by


20 March 2012

This book was an impulse buy at a motorway service station, as part of a "buy one, get the second one half price" deal. I have never been able to resist self-improvement books since I first encountered "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie when I was a teenager.

After purchase, the book languished unread amongst many others but when I finally picked it up I found it remarkably easy to read. It is 200 small pages with large print and large amounts of whitespace. Furthermore about 100 pages are effectively blank as they are used for the many section headings the book contains; each recommendation is a separate section.

An overview of the book

The book contains about 100 separate recommendations, each of which can be read independently of the others. I was gratified to find that I already use most of them. While I would never claim to be a paragon of virtue, at PricewaterhouseCoopers most of the partners who knew me regarded me as being highly organised!

I have picked a few sections to give a flavour of the book.

Have a packing list

The experience of turning up for a conference at an Oxford college without a toothbrush or toothpaste made me realise just how inconvenient the absence of such items can be. Unlike business hotels, Oxford colleges do not keep such items for the benefit of absent-minded guests!

Afterwards I started keeping a comprehensive packing list as a Microsoft Word document on my computer, printing it every time I was leaving on a trip. It is much easier to exclude from a list items that you don't need (for example I almost never needed to take my dinner jacket with me) than it is to think about what items you might have forgotten.

Use a two-bin system

My computer printer has cartridges containing toner. I do not purchase replacement toner when I have run out or when the printer is telling me that toner is running low.

Instead I keep an unopened box of each colour of toner. As soon as I use that box of toner by replacing the cartridge in the printer, I immediately reorder the toner.

Toss a coin

In many cases you may consider all of the information that is relevant to a decision and still be genuinely undecided. Quite often the absence of a decision has greater long-term negative consequences than making the wrong decision; especially if you were considering two alternatives each of which looked reasonably attractive.

Accordingly if you genuinely cannot decide between two alternatives, it is often better to toss a coin to crystallise a decision rather than to continue to temporise.

Say what you mean

I have never been consciously deceitful. However, like many other non-assertive people, I have often said "Yes" to avoid upsetting the other party to the conversation when I really wanted to say “No”. The end result was usually to make me feel unhappy and to reduce my personal effectiveness, for example by making me become overcommitted.

As the years went by I learned that an immediate and clear "No" is much better. Furthermore it is essential that your negative answer is clear, since the worst possible outcome is for the other party to the conversation to hear a "Yes" when you were trying to say "No" but were too polite to make that clear.

Don't do things twice

The most efficient way of dealing with incoming correspondence is to deal with it immediately. You receive an email or letter, read it, immediately compose a reply and send the reply.

Realistically it is often not possible to do that. If so then decide when you are going to deal with it and then deal with it in one session.

My worst examples of inefficiency have arisen when I have had things within a pile of undone tasks and regularly shuffled through them without dealing with any of them. The author quotes a statistic that in the average office each piece of paper on someone's desk gets handled an average of seven times. I can well believe that.

Organise your space

It is much easier to work if your workspace is clear with only one task on the desk.

I have known colleagues whose desks were buried underneath unrelated items of paper who claimed that they were able to work perfectly effectively. In most cases such a claim is self-delusion and that person would have been more productive if they had cleared their workspace, and kept it clear.

Make sure the boomerang comes back

When you delegate a task, in many cases the delegatee will fail to deliver what was needed on the specified date. It is essential to have a follow-up system which reminds you when such pieces of work are due to be returned.

Keep your meetings on time

It is an essential duty of the chairman to start the meeting at the scheduled time, even if some of the participants are not yet present. Once you developed a reputation for starting on time, people will learn to come on time. Equally it is important to manage the meeting so that you can finish on time.

Ditch the ping

The very first thing I do with any new email system is to turn off the notification of new emails. Many years ago when email was relatively new within PwC, I recall visiting another partner's office and while we were talking I kept hearing occasional pings from his computer. It was his computer telling him that new emails had arrived. Such distractions are clearly not good for your concentration.

I try to discipline myself to deal with incoming email only at specified times of the day such as first thing, immediately after lunch, and last thing. However I have to confess that I generally backslide on this.

Concluding comments

Everything in the book is common sense. However as the saying goes "Common sense is not very common." Almost everyone who reads this book will find some simple efficiency improving ideas that they are not currently applying.

It is extremely easy to read and I recommend it to everyone.



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