David Allen’s #1 Key to Productivity
The undisputed champion of Getting Things Done (GTD), writer, speaker, and author David Allen is something of an accidental productivity guru. While his early life was, by his own admission, wayward, he stumbled across something that the world had not experienced: a method for managing the clutter in the mind.
Now an international icon, David is furthering his work by building routines, systems, workshops, and practices based on his Getting Things Done path. We had the opportunity to chat with David about how he conceived this new methodology, what remains a challenge for him in day-to-day life, and why his productivity principles are not only universal, but unhindered by our ever-changing times.
Before we dig in to GTD, tell me a little bit about your back story—upbringing, education, life goals, etc.
I spent first my six years in Palestine, Texas. My dad worked for an oil company. In fact, I remember sitting in the car as we drove down sandy roads into the thick woods of East Texas heading for Wildcat oil rigs.
Sadly, my dad died when I was only nine years old. We then picked up and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. That’s where I spent the rest of my youth through age 19.
But, unlike a lot of my peers, I decided I needed to get out. I wound up as an exchange student in Switzerland for a time, and you can just imagine the culture shock. I went from bayou to Swiss mountains. [Laughs] Plus, I had to learn German quickly. That was eye-opening.
Not long after, someone recruited me from a small college in Florida called New College. It was one of those places that lets you design your own education. I did just that and got my BA in history.
A degree you never really put to use, I’m guessing.
Oh I did—just not in a formal job or academia. You see, history was the start of my fascination with Americana. Keep in mind that this was the ‘60s when everyone was ragging on hippies and such. But I was enthralled with the American psyche, so I moved into a program for American Intellectual History at UC Berkeley.
It was during this time that I really began to discover my love of models. I studied philosophy in college, but was far more interested in the hypotheses that philosophers used than I was in their arguments. It was the hypotheses—or models—that changed my perception.
Fast-forward a few years. I began exploring personal development, meditation, spirituality, self-discipline, martial arts—all kinds of internally focused things. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I was interested in internal truths.
What were you doing for work?
To pay the rent, I helped out friends who were focused on traditional things like careers and making money. They needed guidance getting businesses off the ground—restaurants, landscape companies, you name it—so I helped develop processes and systems to make that happen efficiently. Honestly, I was just Mr. Lazy and wanted to make things easy. But the systems I came up with worked.
Sounds like this was a business in the making.
Sure, but it took me a while before I realized I could be any kind of a consultant. Once I did, I decided to start slowly—project by project. In a way, I’m a still kind of doing that.
My approach during this consultant work was the same as it had always been—using systems that worked and not reinventing the wheel with each project. Naturally, I was interested in models that worked across the board. I understood the value of clear space, too—to be free of pressure and mind clutter. These two things came together. Plus, I had mentors at the time who helped me get much more control focus, space, and focus. I turned their methods around and used them with my clients. Not surprisingly, it worked for them, too.
Ask yourself: Are you appropriately engaged with your dog, your job, with your task in this moment? If you’re not, is it of value to you? Or is your mind so cluttered your can’t focus?
What was your specialty exactly?
It really became how to create more space in the mind and get rid of distractions. That was just an informal approach, but an HR rep showed up to one of my workshops at one point and flat out said we need more of my methods in society. Not long after, I did a presentation for Lockheed with these methods and it hit a nerve. That’s when I knew I had something unique.
The foundation for Getting Things Done?
In a sense, but I was still formulating it. The next 20 years were spent figuring out what I had figured out—that my approach was unique and that people needed it. I ended up becoming a standard-bearer and buying out consultants to help me share my message. In 1995, I created the David Allen Co. as part of my continued growth. But it was still all about consulting and workshopping.
Then, in the late ‘90s, I was advised to write a book. That seemed crazy to me, but at the same time, I knew my methods had gone viral and I knew they had traction. That’s what ultimately gave me confidence to write “Getting Things Done.” It took a full four years to complete.
Was this a pivotal moment in your career—the moment when you moved from professional consultancy to global inspiration?
It was certainly a new chapter. GTD became a best-seller and, eventually, was translated into multiple languages so people around the world could read it. It was then that we (my business partners and I) had to make a decision about keeping things boutique or scaling the business. We decided to scale. That started a whole new adventure in the early 2000s. I’m not good at scaling. I’m not even a very good manager. But I had help, and we hoed the road. We eventually decided to expand using a combination of technology and partnerships.
Let’s talk about your methods and the culture at the time they were being shared. When you were consulting, what other productivity methods were out there?
If folks had any savvy at all, they were using a calendar and a to-do list. That was pretty much it. The whole idea of time management was relatively new to business in the ‘80s. So, I rode that game.
But while “time management” are great buzzwords, the truth is you can’t manage time. You need to manage yourself and your focus. It just so happens that I was able to use “time management” to sell workshops—and corporate trainers used it to check that requirement off their to-do lists.
You famously say, “The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Where did this fit in with your productivity scheme?
I knew it experientially for 30 years. One of my mentors, Dean Acheson, taught me that in order to change—in other words, to progress—you need to clear your head. This kind of mind sweep is incredibly powerful. How do you do it? You externalize, you write things down as soon as they come into your head.
Cognitive scientists have made it clear that your head is a crappy office. It recognizes things in the present and makes momentary decisions quite well—better than a computer, in fact. But if you try to juggle more than four things in your head at one time, your decision-making power is denigrated.
By creating lists of thoughts and ideas, you take the first step in “cleaning house.” But creating lists is not the only step. You also need to examine what you write, interpret it, and take action. That’s the GTD path in a nutshell.
The truth is, this is a huge adult behavioral change. A lot of people are letting their thoughts run their decisions. Their minds have been unmanaged for years.
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What about the emotional influences on the mind? Don’t these affect the way the mind processes information?
No. In my 72 years, I’ve seen many more cases of emotions driven by thoughts than the reverse. People can bypass emotional blocks by defining what’s in their heads. Then we’re back to writing things down, interpreting, and taking action.
You’re also keen on a work/life balance—a notoriously hard thing to achieve in today’s go-go-go world. How do you achieve it?
There’s not really work/life balance, there’s just balance. I mean, work is anything you want to get done, right? It doesn’t have to be pejorative. Having a good vacation can be work. Just think of the affirmation: Wow, this really works! Is that a bad thing?
There’s a lot of stuff we have to do that’s not glamorous. What you should be after, instead of some arbitrary boundary between work and home life, is a balance that you define for yourself. And that starts with values. Why do you have the things you have? Why are these important? When you ask these questions, the end game is in focus and the rest of your thoughts—work or otherwise—serve that end. But you need to be in the moment and you need to write down your thoughts as they hit you.
A lot of folks suffer from what I call the “latest and loudest.” These are the distractions that seem so important in the moment, but that don’t really serve your values or further your end game. Write what you think your values are so you can interpret them and take appropriate action. Ask yourself: Do I feel comfortable with the actions I’m taking in the moment? Or are they driven by external influences?
Is this what people struggle with the most—the biggest obstacle to productivity?
To a large extent. You need to control YOU. The secret of getting things done is about being appropriately engaged. Are you appropriately engaged with your dog, your job, with your task in this moment? If you’re not, is it of value to you? Or is your mind so cluttered your can’t focus? These are all questions you should be asking on a regular basis.
No system is perfect. Where do you think the GTD method still needs work?
I’ll say this: In my life, I have never seen any argument against the GTD method that holds up. If you keep stuff in your head, it’s in the wrong place. Period.
Now, how you decided to follow the GTD path is up to you. Use paper, use a digital implement, or use a phone app. The tools you use are dependent upon your age and the context of your upbringing. But you NEED to do something with your thoughts after they leave your mind. That’s true now, and it will be true in a 100 years when we land on Jupiter.
What about a system for accountability? Does that figure in to GTD?
GTD is about individuals. But sure, it helps to have people around you who follow the GTD method. They help keep track of your to-dos. And they hold you accountable. On the positive side, if people surround you who are inspired and inspiring, they will push you to act in the same way.
What’s your personal goal with GTD?
My mission is to make this a world a place where there are no problems, only projects. In a strange way, it’s all the personal growth stuff we keep hearing about—stop blaming others, stop being a victim. Take action. Do something about the parts of your life that need work.
Here’s the beauty of it—all I have to do is improve one life, and the intersections of that life will pay the experience and the GTD wisdom forward. I feel blessed by that.
Clearly, you have been living the GTD method most of your life—and serve as a role model for others. But do you still have stumbling blocks to productivity?
Not stumbling blocks. I would say I have challenges. Put another way, I don’t think you end this until you end this. As individuals and communities, we are always growing and expanding. Until you totally show up on the planet, you need to think about how you will continue to grow. What’s the next big game? How much more can you relax? It’s not about finishing. It’s about defining the game. It’s about paying attention. It’s about being present. I’m faced with that challenge daily.
I like to use an analogy to describe it: You often see really good surfers on big waves, but even though they’re good, they fall off the waves sometimes. Because they’re tethered to their boards, though, they can easily get back on—and ride even bigger—waves. The more you trust (and strengthen) that tether, the bigger the waves you can surf.
For more information on David Allen and his Getting Things Done program, visit gettingthingsdone.com.