An Interview with David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done
David Allen is the creator of the Getting Things Done system and the author of the book by the same name. Through the David Allen Co., he consults with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and universities to improve their performance and capacity and align execution. In 2007, Time magazine called Getting Things Done the defining self-help business book of the decade.
Michael Lawyer (ML): Getting Things Done is often described as a system for personal productivity, but productivity is really a byproduct of a system designed to do something else. What’s the real goal of GTD?
David Allen (DA): The way I describe it these days is that it allows you to access the strategic value of clear space. The one thing the world is doing wrong is trying to use your head to collect and avoid decision-making about stuff. What you need to do is clear that space so that you have much more room to think, to be creative and to optimize your creative intuitive intelligence.
ML: You’ve been developing GTD for a long time. What first got you started down this path?
DA: After all my professions, by the time I was 35, I realized I had to be a consultant because that was the only thing I could do. When you walk in as a consultant, you never know what you’re going to find. You have to trust that, no matter what, you have some staple data you can bring to the table, and it will improve the situation.
A lot of the techniques that ultimately became GTD were just great techniques that worked. I could take anybody and have them empty their head and they felt more in control, more focused. As lazy as I am, I loved finding stuff I never had to change when I changed people. I’ll do the same thing with a CEO of a global company that I’ll do with a 10-year-old kid. How lazy is that?
ML: I’ve got a 4-year-old and I can’t get him to do much.
DA: Trying to tell a kid to clean their room is like telling you, “Hey, go handle everything in your life in the next 15 minutes.” You just blow a fuse. You think he’s wasting time and avoiding, but you just overwhelmed him with a whole lot more stuff than he knows how to swallow in one chew. If you then say, “Let’s gather up all this stuff that’s not where it belongs,” then one at a time say, “Where does this go? Where does that go?” they get it. That principle will be true for you as well as for him.
ML: Can you give us a short walk through of the GTD method?
DA: First of all, make sure that nothing potentially meaningful is kept in your head. Have good capture tools everywhere—for the little things, big things, things that you’re not sure what they mean, capture it all. Put it in your in-basket. That is the first absolute key. Second, don’t leave that capture in miscellaneous garbage piles. You need to empty the in-basket that you dumped that stuff into. Make action decisions about the stuff that you have captured: What is it, and what does it mean to me? What exactly am I going to do?
Then you organize the results of that thinking. If you don’t write it down somewhere that you trust you’ll see when you need to, it sucks back up into your psyche. Then your psyche is junked up with “remember and remind,” which your psyche doesn’t do very well.
You have to do those three things: Identify stuff that has your attention, clarify exactly what it means and what you’re going to do about it, then park the results somewhere that matches what the stuff means so that your brain doesn’t have to keep thinking, “What does this mean?”
If you look at most people’s to-do lists all you see is incomplete lists of unclear stuff. That is why they don’t like to look at them. You’ll see stuff like, “Mom” on a to-do list. It’s good historical data, but why did you write, “Mom”? Maybe it’s because it is her birthday. What are you going to do about her birthday? You don’t know, and that’s why you don’t look at a list with “Mom” on it: There’s still thinking you haven’t finished. The reason things will hold your attention hostage is because you haven’t put the appropriate attention toward them yet.
What GTD did was define the algorithm of appropriate attention that needs to be put toward something that’s on your mind. It’s “What’s the outcome I’m committed to about this, and what’s the next step that would move this forward?” You clarify those things and park the results someplace you trust. You don’t have to take the action to get your head clear; you just have to define what it is and trust that it is parked where you will look at it at the appropriate time.
ML: GTD is often described as a very “nuts and bolts” system. But a lot of your writing talks about managing how you feel about your work. What do your emotions have to do with your to-do list?
DA: I’ve found primarily GTD is more of a cognitive and physical model than an emotional one. A lot of emotions get stirred up about it, and a lot of emotions are sitting there resident that prevent people from doing GTD. If this were easy emotionally, I’d have to look for another job. The only reason you’ve got emails still stacked in the inbox or the papers still stacked on your desk is because part of you doesn’t feel comfortable making a decision about them.
I think we need to move on to mental intelligence, not just emotional intelligence. Quite frankly, your mind will change how you feel. If you pick up something and say, “I don’t want to deal with that,” it creates one feeling. If you pick it up and say, “What’s my next step on that?” you just changed a whole lot.
ML: Your focus on the “next physical action” is one of the hallmarks of GTD. Where does that focus come from?
DA: If some part of you has a commitment to have something different in the world, there is some activity or movement that’s going to be required to make that happen. You need to decide what stuff means to you. The problem is not information overload; it’s potential meaning overload. If information overload was the problem, you’d walk into a library and blow up.
The world doesn’t show up in pretty pink packages and say, “Here are the projects you’ve committed to, and here are the actions that will achieve your goals and fulfill your life purpose.” It’d be nice if that’s what showed up, but you’re stepping into 300 emails a day flying at you, and you still have to try and thread through and find the projects, actions, goals and things that are meaningful to you. That requires thinking. The biggest challenge for knowledge workers is to define your work. I just figured out the algorithm of how you define your work. Basically, it’s “What are all the commitments that you have?”
You’ve got those at a lot of levels. You’ve got a commitment to fulfill why you’re here as a human being. You’ve got the level of what kind of career or lifestyle vision is pulling on you. You’ve got the commitments about where you need to be 12 to 18 months from now to make that vision happen. You’ve got the commitments about all the things you need to maintain.
The first floor is all the projects you’ve got to finish. You’ve got 30 to 100 of those. You’ve got 150 to 220 next actions right now in terms of real stuff that you have some level of commitment with yourself to move forward. There’s no way on God’s green earth that you can tackle 2 percent of that in your head. You’ll try and you’ll kid yourself that you’re just following intuitive hunches, but you’re just letting yourself be beat up by the latest and the loudest that pops into your psyche.
ML: In your experience, what’s the hardest part of GTD for lawyers?
DA: You could be a fabulous attorney if you just wiped everything else out. Just take your desk and throw it all on the floor. Shout, “I’m going to win this case!” Then you’re into it and you’re brilliant and creative and you win. But you’re going to have to eat all of what you just threw away. You’ve just reinforced the fact that you need pain in order to be creative, which is a very interesting syndrome to transcend. How about just getting clear and totally relaxed to get creative?
The biggest barrier to implementing GTD is your addiction to stress. You’re willing to tolerate that gnawing sense of anxiety that there’s stuff out there you’re not dealing with that you should, but you just don’t want to look. Your willingness to tolerate that experience will prevent you from doing what you have to do to get rid of it.
ML: Can a firm use GTD as well as an individual lawyer?
DA: First of all, the together part—if people don’t do it individually, it’s not going to work together. The two beasts that need to be tamed are meetings and email. A lot of meetings wouldn’t need to happen if people used email well, and a lot of email wouldn’t need to happen if people used meetings well.
GTD helps a team be very rigorous with how it tracks its communications and its agreements with each other. There are so many bigger problems to put your creative energy on than trying to follow up on, “Jim, did you get my email?” If you’re not emptying out your inbox every 24 to 48 hours and I have something important you need to know, I’m going to have to get in your face and raise the noise level. Once you’ve worked in a GTD environment, it’s a little hard to go back to that noise level, because GTD works very quickly and very quietly.
ML: What’s the best way to get started with GTD?
DA: You can do it immediately. The nice thing about it is this isn’t offline stuff. If you actually implement it, you’ll start doing a lot of your work. Everyone has all the tools they need and the behaviors they need; it’s just arranging them appropriately.
The critical thing is to get stuff out of your head. Have an in-basket so you can coordinate all the things that still need decisions made about them. Start practicing, “What’s the next action?” Get a list manager. Don’t try and find the perfect tool—use anything. If you’re not sure what to use, just get a paper notebook. Also, don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by huge backlogs you think you’re going to need to tackle to make it all work. Start with where you are.