'Getting Things Done' Guru David Allen on Organizing Your Life

David Allen
Author and Productivity Consultant
Wednesday, March 25, 2009; 3:00 PM

David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" and "Making It All Work," took your questions about his philosophy and system, and how to apply it to help set goals and get organized.

The transcript follows.


David Allen: Hi everyone! Delighted to be here... happy to be a resource as best I can for the next little while...



Harrisburg, Pa.: I have a co-worker who seems not be suffer from stress but is a carrier. How does one cope with someone who reacts in a dramatic frantic manner to every project and sees to it that everyone realizes how dire any situation appears to be?

David Allen: Not to oversimplify relationship management, but one key if you're interacting with that person is to coach them - "So, sounds awful. What would you like to have true about that? Cool... and what would the next action be?" Those are the key questions in GTD executive thinking, and it's hard to be in complaining or freak-out mode if your brain focuses on those outcome/action focus points instead.


Bethesda, Md.: Good afternoon! Thanks for the chat today. I tend to run about 15 minutes late to work every morning. I don't -have- to be at work at any particular time, but would like to aim to be there about 15 minutes earlier. No matter when I wake up, I always fill up my time so that I leave the house at the same exact time - 15 minutes later than I'd like. Do you have any advice for switching around my routine so I can make myself more on time? This extends to being late for other things as well - and I would appreciate some advice on being more organized so I can be punctual. Thanks!

David Allen: It's strange but I think we often do that last-minute thing becuase of our perfectionism - i.e. do I have everything I need, is it all exactly right, etc. The last minute means that you finally have to decide it's OK, and because you didn't have more time, it's OK it's not perfect. We're a weird race...


Arlington, Va.: A problem a few friends and I have run into: how do we factor looking for new jobs into our already busy, everyday lives? We're busy at work, we come home and pay bills (or do schoolwork, as a part time student) and need some downtime before going nuts.

Plus, it has to be done secretively -- no real way to do it while at work.

Any suggestions?

David Allen: You might want to give yourself permission to just take one action a night - web surf, email to send, or whatever, that moves you in that direction.


Washington, DC: I feel like I'm a pretty smart guy, well educated, many friends, but I feel like in my personal life, I have a tough time making decisions. I end up following the path of least resistance, going along with what others suggest, and not making relatively simple choices that should seem straightforward.

Just a couple of examples -- I've seen this in who to spend time with on a long weekend; whether to repair or replace a car with obvious problems.

In each of these cases, I don't make a decision until I'm confronted at a later time, and usually the result is worse that if I'd made the decision earlier. What steps would you suggest to make decisions earlier, and to keep myself from second-guessing them after the fact? Thanks.

David Allen: Decision-making when things show up instead of when they blow up is actually a habit that can be developed and enhanced. The trick is to get used the the clean feeling of having decided, instead of sitting on a fence. Believe it or not, getting used to capturing your projects, defining actions on them, and cleaning up email and inboxes to zero regularly, all train you into that new habit. Fine to decide not to decide - just be adult enough to put it on a "someday/maybe" list and make that OK with yourself.


San Francisco: David --

I was lucky enough to find GTD back in 2002 and have attended two of your seminars in Tyson's Corner -- I used to work with Jeff Irby. I wont be able to attend today's session, but wanted to take a moment to thank you -- "GTD" has changed my life (yes, for the better). I wish you all the best, take care.

David Allen: Thanks for the nice feedback. It is still inspiring to hear how something as simple as GTD actually can be life-changing...


Reston, Va.: Hi David,

I'm currently 2/3 through reading "Getting Things Done," and I'm excited to try your process. What are 2 or 3 things you would recommend to someone to try first if they find implementing the entire method a little overwhelming?

David Allen: When first getting started with GTD, decide if you can set aside some time to invest (half day, a weekend, etc.) Then just follow directions in Part II of the book, which is specfically our coaching process. If you can't set aside that time, just start working with your in-basket, and offloading things out of your head, and making next-action decisions...


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for taking our questions, and for designing a system that's hugely helped so many of us.

My question is really basic. You advocate having a single "in box" to gather all incoming tasks or time demands before one initially deals with them. But I have trouble doing that. There are just too many incoming channels in my life: e-mail, phone calls, things that occur to me when I can jot them down (my preferred method), things that occur to me when all I can do is tape record them (e.g., when driving), and so forth.

What do you advise? If you can help, thanks again.

David Allen: I've never said "one in-box" - just "as few as possible" so it's not spread all over your universe. I have a recorder, email, a mailbox at home, an in-box at home, one at work, and a plastic folder IN that I move around with...


Easton, Md.: What is your take on using index cards as a low-tech organizer? Thank you for your help.

David Allen: Index cards work fine. Anything that you trust will feed back what you want to be reminded of, and when, will work. It's not the tool, but the contents and how appropriately you engage with it. I.e. if you just put "mom" on an index card, you may procrastinate about handling her birthday as you would with that as a task in Outlook. "Call Rebecca about mom's party" on an index card, that you can organize with other cards with calls you need to make, can work great.


Rockville, Md.: Do you know much about us professional organizers (as in the National Association of Professional Organizers) --we tend to know a lot about you. And if so, is there a dramatic difference (and what is it) between what we do and what you do?

David Allen: I do know about professional organizers and the Association. Not sure what anyone/everyone "does" so I couldn't answer. I'm actually more in the disorganization business...


Seattle: I'm a software guy, and one of my GTD struggles is finding appropriate contexts for my actions -- practically all of my work contexts are "Office:Computer." What type of contexts do you recommend so that they all don't end up in one bucket (which defeats the purpose of contexts)?

David Allen: You need as many contexts as make it simple but not too much work to have to think about. I split "computer" and "online" because when I'm not on line, I don't want to have to keep re-filtering the list in my mind. It's another one of those infuriating coachings I do: have as many as you need and as few as you can get by with!


Washington, D.C.: An interesting discussion to do -- in the middle of the day when I should be doing something else! :)

What is the single best advice you have for those who want to better organize their lives?

Now back to work!

David Allen: Keep track of all your commitments with yourself in a place you can and do review regularly.


San Francisco: What reason do you hear most often from people who are resistant to trying some type of organizational system, and how do you overcome it?

David Allen: Probably the most common reason for resistance is "I just don't have the time to spend time doing that." Understandable, because most everything historically that has pretended to work as a system or tool seems to take more effort than the payoff. The only cure is to get into so much stress and pain, you have to change; or get around somebody or something that inspires you and gives you the confidence that you could actually succeed at it.


Takoma Park: I understand that GTD has its origins in New Age spiritualism. Can you explain the link?

David Allen: GTD more had its origins in the work about the nature of making and keeping agreements with yourself and others. My meditative work (and even more my training in the martial arts) gave me a reference point of the strategic value of having a clear head. GTD simply was the accumulated set of best practices I synthesized that achieved that.


Washington: Mr. Allen,

I just read an article about GTD in "Wired." That article refers to the "life-hacking movement." What is that?


washingtonpost.com: Getting Things Done Guru David Allen and His Cult of Hyperefficiency (Wired, Sept. 25, 2007)

David Allen: I actually don't know what the definition of life-hacking is - you could ask those folks (lots of them). I think it's simply a geek-inspired way to say "shortcuts".


Los Angeles: Do you think the Obama administration could use GTD and if so how?

David Allen: Sure sounds like Obama et al could use GTD - needing to "get things done" with multiple major projects, all seemingly a priority...


Frederick, Md.: Can you summarize the GTD philosophy? I am not familiar with it?

David Allen: GTD is not a philosophy as much as it is simply a set of best practices for achieving desired results with as little effort as possible. It does address the subtleties of an organized way of thinking that most effectively gets stuff off your mind and actually done.


Leeds, UK: Hi David, I really love your system. It has helped so much whilst starting a new job in software development. One thing I'm finding though is that I have a constant nagging feeling that I'm missing something. It remains even after reviewing my lists. Do you have one or two recommendations for me to get over this? I'm not sure if it's because my system isn't quite tight enough or that I don't have enough trust in it yet.

David Allen: The Weekly Review that I write and coach about is the answer. At least every seven days, get your inventory current and complete; and keep engaging in that way for a few weeks (it does seem to take a little while for some part of us to relax, that nothing critical is missing.) There are also more and more subtle levels or horizons that we often avoid examining (what do I really want to be doing with my life? etc.) that could also be a source of that feeling. You can still tackle that a la GTD, though...


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Allen -

I'm a college student and big fan of your books. Any tips to transition the GTD system from the corporate environment to the academic?

David Allen: Academic simply has different kinds of "projects"... The principles will be the same - i.e. what do you need to do, to get that class, report, thesis, professor, project off your mind? Deciding next actions, parking reminders of those as well as the final outcomes in places you'll see appropriately.


Washington, D.C.: Hi. I'm an executive director of a nonprofit and a single parent of three elementary age kids. I keep a working notebook on my work desk in which I maintain "to do" lists and notes on conversations, work, etc. Question: how to organize my "to do" list over several days so that as the Monday March 23 list is created, I carry forward items from last week (or the week before) that didn't get done?

I can't do the four quadrant coding -- my brain doesn't work that way. I keep a separate notebook for family/personal items -- same organizational prob. Thank you!

David Allen: I recommend that you only calendar "hard landscape" stuff - things that have to get done on that day or time. Everything else should be maintained on on-going lists, to get to "as soon as you kind" in and around the calendared items. I don't rewrite anything.


Washington, D.C.: Hi David, thanks for answering questions today. I was wondering -- How long did it take you to really refine your system down to the form you explain in "Getting Things Done." And how did you know it was ready to share, that you didn't need to keep tweaking it? Or are you constantly looking for new efficiencies to add to it?

David Allen: It took a couple of years to really create the fundamentals of the GTD system, back in the early 80's. Then another fifteen years to refine and keep testing it with the thousands of people I was training and coaching. By the time I decided to write GTD, around 1998 (published 2001) I had worked it enough, in enough intense environments with the most demanding of executives, to trust it was pretty bulletproof. I still keep tweeking it, but basically it looks pretty much like it did five years ago.


Washington, DC: Thanks for chatting with us today. I am just starting to read your book for a leadership development program I am in, so unfortunately, I can't ask a question specifically on the book. However, my overall issue seems to be getting started - I am a bit of a procrastinator - I have my list of things I know I need to do, but have trouble motivating to tackle it. Then, naturally, I get stressed as I end up having to accomplish alot in short periods of time...Any advice?

David Allen: The big key is "next action." What's the very next physical, visible activity, and where does it happen? Studies have proven that abstract commitments ("car problem" are avoided much more than concrete tasks ("call car repair for app't."


Reston, Va.: How can your system help deal me with the constant feeling of being overwhelmed by the demands of work, family and household maintenance?

David Allen: GTD may not totally alleviate the feeling of overcommitment, but by capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing the totality of those commitments, it becomes much easier to get off your own back about them. You can only feel good about what you're not doing, when you know what you're not doing. If you are keeping track of all that in your psyche instead of a system, it's virtually impossible to get clear and free.


Santa Monica, Calif.: How do you get things done when you notice that you are developmentally delayed in comparison to your peers? For example, it takes me twice as long to read through an article or process information and insights do not come as frequently to me as others. Any suggestions you can offer are greatly appreciated.

David Allen: I'm not an expert in learning style differences, but I've met experts in that field that are discovering new things daily about how what may appear to be a disability is simply a different way that people process information, that may not be supported by the particular environment. Some people have to move, physically, to "get" something. But if you're stuck in a chair, that's not your limitation - it's simply not an optimal condition for you. I'd surf the web about learning styles...


Washington: Mr. Allen,

What is meant by the term "life-hacking" sometimes used to describe GTD and similar programs?

David Allen: Shortcuts.


Bethesda, Md.: How do you adapt your GTD philosophy for clients struggling with ADHD or similar focus/processing issues, so as not to overwhelm them with so much process? I work with clients in a similar vein, and appreciate your work, but it's not for everyone, as much as it excites some of us!

David Allen: People indeed have different styles for dealing with new behaviors. We've learned over the years to ensure that we find the parts of GTD that people can "win" at, quickly, and build from there, step by step.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: I'm having trouble with "soft" deadlines. When I put them on my calendar they don't get reviewed after the date passes, but I'd rather not see them on my next actions list if I don't need to address something for a month (or a year). Any suggestions?

David Allen: That's why I use a tickler file. Gets things off my radar until I want them back on again.


Manchester, UK: Hi David, I enjoy your work and am an avid follower of you on Twitter. I am currently studying a Interactive Media Degree at the University of Manchester. My question is, what advise would you have for creating a "happy medium" between, attaining my optimum productivity level coupled with a heavy amount of stress and performing at an average level with little or no stress involved?

Thank You

David Allen: Stress such as you experience in exercise is what creates builds focus, strength, and the capability for expanded expression; and the same is true for any kind of performance. But we feel good after exercising, not burnt out. I'd examine how you can make "work" work in the same way...


Alexandria, Va.: Good Afternoon, Mr. Allen:

As someone has been lauded for helping people with business processing reengineering and organization, I was thinking about starting a business as a professional organizer. However I am intrigued to find out more about what your organization does.

Can you state briefly how the two are different?

Thank you

David Allen: We are not professional organizers, as much as we are educators about a methodology for achieving control and perspective, in case you lose either. Organizing is a component of gaining control, but at the appropriate stage and with the appropriate content. Most people's "organization" are simply incomplete piles (or lists) of still unclear stuff.


about making lists: I know you suggest a variety of lists which I find great for helping to focus and analyze. problem for me is I'm an INTP (Myers Briggs) and I make the lists but I usually end up losing track of them!

Thanks for your work and taking the time out.

David Allen: You need to get so used to your lists serving their optimal function, that you actually HAVE to look at them, in order to know who to call, what to buy, etc. If you're still trusting your mind, no need to trust the lists. (Hey, INTP's unite!...I'm one too.)


Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Are there any particular best practices for effectively turning my sights higher than being a black belt at the runway/10K level, but chronically keep putting off bigger more rewarding outcomes, such as writing a book?

David Allen: Yeah - apply the 10k ft rigor to those big ones. Make "R&D publish book" a project, and get a next action. It'll be as easy to do as any others. And, on the other hand, you'll tend to procrastinate about the things that are closest to having you experience your real self. (Read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art.)


Sydney, Australia: How do you handle waiting for items for people you have @Agenda lists for as well? Do you put the items on both lists or just one of those? Also, do you put both projects and individual tasks within some projects on your Someday/Maybe list?

David Allen: Waiting-for items are kept separate. Agenda items are things I want to talk to them about. Nice to have software that I can easily drag from one to the other... Someday's are almost all projects, not actions, though that's not a rule.


Rockville, Md.: Over time, have there been people who have stayed on your mind as gtd items that haven't been won over, that you have turned into "projects" in some sense?

David Allen: Well, I would actually create a project..."Clarify relationship with X..." in those cases; and keep moving it to resolution in some way (which could be to simply give up the expectation.)


David Allen: Have to unhook, folks... hopefully this was useful for you. Have a great rest of your life! - David


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