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Productivity expert David Allen on getting things done in a digital world


David Allen can sound something like a guru. The author of the productivity bible Getting Things Done likes to talk about "mismanaged inputs," the things that "pull on your psyche" and the nirvana people experience when they fully empty their email inbox.

"Have you ever tasted what it was like to have one?" He asked when we spoke recently over the phone. (I haven't.)

But around the world, plenty of devotees of "GTD" — shorthand used by both Allen and his followers to describe the Getting Things Done method — have tasted it. The first edition of his book, published in 2001, has been translated into more than 30 languages, and he just published a revised edition this year. The fans are numerous and varied, including Atlantic magazine writer James Fallows (who wrote the foreword to Allen's recently updated version) and "Hot Tub Time Machine" star Rob Corddry.

Because much has changed since Allen first published his system, most notably the proliferation of social media as well new apps to help manage our to-do lists, we checked in with the productivity master about how he manages the daily digital onslaught. The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

[Listen to the podcast conversation with David Allen]

For the uninitiated, how would you summarize the "GTD" system?

A key element is a five-step process for how you get things under control, whether it’s your kitchen or your head or your company. The first stage is “capture,” which means identifying the things that are not on cruise control. What’s bugging me? What’s nagging me? What’s incomplete? What’s something that might pop into my head at three in the morning? Get it out of your head.

Now, everybody has made lists. You write down “mom” because her birthday is coming up or “bank” because you need to extend your credit line, but most to-do lists are still very incomplete. So step two is to clarify. What’s the very next action you need to take about “bank” and “credit line”? Do you need to organize some of your financial data? Do you need to call the bank and make an appointment? Get things down to that level of granularity, and there’s no tool that can do that other than your forebrain.

The next step is to organize the results of that. If you don’t park it someplace where you trust you’ll see it at the right time—that is, when you might have time to call the bank—then it crawls back up in your head and becomes part of the nagging. Finally, step four is to reflect on the inventory of all the stuff you’ve defined already, and step five is to engage: Where do I put my attention and resources right now?


It is.

I’m joking a bit, it sounds overwhelming. If someone doesn’t want to adopt your system in full, what are the one or two best pieces of advice you have for getting more organized?

Deciding on the next action [for an item on your list]. That is, if I were going to move on this right now, what would be the very next thing I would do? Making that kind of operational decision, as mundane as it sounds, actually makes a huge difference.

One of the things I uncovered after all these years is the two-minute rule. Once you decide the next action, if it can be done in two minutes or less, you should go ahead and do it, if you’re going to do it at all. It’ll take you longer to stack it, track it and look at it again than to just do it.

Let’s talk more about this two-minute rule. Say I’m a manager and I remember something at 11 p.m., and it’s just going to take two minutes to fire off that email. Should I send it then, even if it could stress an employee to get that email before bed?

Why is the employee looking at it before they go to bed?

But we all do it, right?

No. A lot of people do, but new brain research shows you better not be doing email an hour and a half before you go to sleep, otherwise you’re going to sub-optimize your brain’s ability to knit things together.

I understand what you’re getting at, though. A lot of the implicit protocols are that everyone’s expected to be at the end of the yank of the chain if the boss decides to send an email whenever. But come on, that expectation has a lot to do with your maturity as a professional, both your boss’s as well as yours.

By the way, if you emptied your email out, which is a best practice to do every 24 to 48 hours, you wouldn't need to look at email that often. Everyone’s in emergency scan mode, and there’s no light at the end of that tunnel.

One of the ideas in Getting Things Done is achieving an empty inbox. This has taken on a life of its own, the holy grail goal of “inbox zero.”  Why do you think that has caught on so much?

If you’re dealing with change, the smaller your backlog of unprocessed stuff, the easier it will be to deal with surprises. You can’t deal with new things appropriately if you feel bugged by and bothered by other stuff that’s lying fallow and pulling on your psyche. It doesn’t mean you’ve finished all the work in there, just that you’ve defined what the work is and organized it appropriately. For anybody who starts to taste that, it’s not surprising it’s taken off.

I have 3,200 unopened emails in my work inbox and 5,100 in my personal one, and it doesn’t bother me at all. What do you say to folks like me who don’t feel the need for an empty inbox?

A lot of this methodology is like the noise in the room you don’t hear until somebody shuts it off. You’re just numb to it. But anytime you’re having to reread emails to re-decide whether it’s something you should do something about, it’s a huge waste of your cognitive energy.

So what do I do?

You have to get rid of your addiction to that stress. You’re willing to tolerate that, I’m not. If the good fairy showed up and made everybody’s emails disappear, in about three weeks we’d be back to what we had before.

It’s not about volume, it’s about your tolerance for how much unprocessed stuff you feel okay having. Mine is zero, for somebody else it will be 300, for somebody else it will be 3,000. There’s no right or wrong. But if you want a really clear head, you better have an empty inbox.

Well I don’t know that the good fairy is going to be showing up at my desk anytime soon.

You can always do “email bankruptcy.” Just hit control-A, control-X and pray. That’s another option.

You recently moved to Amsterdam. In the process of doing so, you tried to reduce your physical possessions as well to a bare minimum.

We pretty much gave away and sold everything that we could that we didn’t feel were total critical necessities. We still have a small 12 x 12 air-conditioned storage place in Santa Barbara, but we pretty much unhooked. It’s always nice to lighten your footprint if you can afford to do that, and shift gears and throw yourself out of your comfort zone and rethink all your systems.

Do you think the increasing amount of things we own contributes to that feeling of being overwhelmed?

I think it can. I used to call it Allen’s Law: You'll fill up with crap every inch of space you give yourself. The problem is, everything in the center drawer of your desk actually belonged there once. But over time, things change their meaning. A lot of that stuff becomes not so important or useful to you, and if you haven’t rethought it, I think there’s at least a subtle or subliminal nagging that grows.

A lot of talk today is about when people do their best work, or how to keep your mind sharp. Do you address any of these ideas that focus more on time management, rather than productivity?

I don’t really. There are people much more expert than me in that field. There are two brand new books out, The Organized Mind by Dan Levitin and Brain Chains by Theo Compernolle. They're both brilliant books that aggregate a lot of the cognitive-science research about the need for the brain to relax and rest. Where that crosses over with GTD is that “getting things done” is really about getting things off your mind, so you’re free, essentially, whenever you need to do creative thinking.

Have you introduced any of those time-management habits into your own way of working?

About the only thing I do consistently is wake up. But one habit I’ve started to install is: The thing that I most hate doing, I do it as early as I can in the day while I've got a good bit of fresh energy, so that the rest of my day is more of a reward.

One of biggest changes over the last 15 years is just the onslaught and omnipresence of digital alerts and information. Is a system like yours still able to manage and process all that?

There’s always more to do than you can do, and always more to read than you can read. That’s always been true. It’s more the ubiquity of it and the variety of it and the omnipresence of it that makes these little bright baubles, like games and email, so easily addictive.

There's a fascinating study that, even if you’ve got your smartphone in your purse or pocket, just thinking about what might be on there creates a dopamine rush. When you let yourself get attracted and distracted and addicted to that stuff, are you doing real thinking?

There’s nothing wrong with trying to entertain yourself, but be careful. Most people are living in a constant emergency-scan modality. That's made this methodology that much more critical, because it keeps you focused on what you need to be doing.

Listen to the podcast:

On Leadership podcast: David Allen shares his advice

Read also:

Dan Ariely wants to help manage your time

What neuroscience tells us about getting organized

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