David Allen wrote the book Getting Things Done in 2002 and in the time since has gathered what some might call a cult following and scores of websites, services, and popular blogs, such as 43folders, surrounding his simple, yet powerful approach to planning and, well, getting things done, called GTD.
Recently I spent some time chatting with David about GTD and share his answers to five questions I posed in the article below.
John: Is it easy to briefly describe the components of the GTD system?
David: Sure, I can do it in 20 seconds. Ready? Get everything out of your head that represents any commitment you can't finish when you think of it. Sooner than later make a real discrete decision about what exactly those things mean to you, meaning what outcomes you're committed to, what action steps you need to take. Park the results of that thinking into appropriate categories in a systematic way, so that you can, stage four, go back and look at all of that inventory at any point in time so you can recalibrate. So stage five, you then engage your resources or take an action based upon a trusted choice out of all that, plus your intuition, as opposed to being driven by latest and loudest, and hope it's right.
John: Wow, theoretically that sounds nice, but what are the tools that allow me to do that?
David: There are different tools for those different stages. First of all, the tool for stage one is collect stuff. So, you need all of the tools that collect things into good, solid buckets that have no leaks.
I carry pen and paper in my pocket, I also have got little pads everywhere I have a phone, and I've got an in-basket for all of the physical things that show up, all of the notes that I take that need to get thrown into there if I don't process them right away. Your email is a bucket itself, your voicemail is too, but your answering machine is too, so you can call your own answering machine and leave stuff out of your head.
This is not organizing or analyzing, it's just capturing. So, the capture tools are very different than organizational tools. People often make that mistake.
Now, stage two means thinking. There isn't any tool that you have to use your brain for, sorry. There is no tool that's really going to help you think, except if you start to get used to an empty in-basket, it will force you to make the thinking that you need to on the stuff that's in there. So, if you get used to it and change your standards about that, then you'll need to start to get it emptied.
But, that then moves to stage three, once you make decisions about the actions you need to take about what's in your in-basket, if you don't do those actions right then, which is the two-minute rule, you need a place to park them.
That's where your list manager shows up. A list manager can range from the most low-tech version of that would be file folders that have actionable items within the folder.
A loose leaf notebook or a binder or planner is a very, very effective way to keep lists. And then of course the high tech way would be to use the task function or some sort of a list manager function inside of software applications; everything from Outlook to Lotus Notes to OmniFocus for the Mac, you know, anything that makes - and there's probably hundreds now out there - various apps that have been created just to manage lists.
Stage four is just the review of what's in the tools, so the tool needs to be good enough that you can then, on some regular basis, you're at a phone and have time, you better be able to quickly see all of the phone calls you need to make.
John: For the business owner, how do you suggest bringing GTD into an organization?
David: Well, I think the people fall into a couple of categories and I'll oversimplify this to make a point, but they are either people who are hungry for this, that when they get the information about how to, they'll use it and grab it and use it to good advantage. And then there's people who could give a you know what about whether they do this or not, because they're happy, don't bother them, and don't require me to produce anything more than I'm producing, and I'm absolutely fine. So, if you're trying to change the first group, that's pretty easy. Give them my book.
If people fall into the second category that either think they need it, so they're not open for it. Usually, anybody who is resistant to this is scared of it. They're scared of the responsibility it will then demand of them. But, you can't legislate system. What you start to do is hold people accountable to an outcome for which they better do this system to produce that outcome. In other words, "Hi. Gee, Bill, would you please bring me your project list in half an hour? I want to see every single thing that you're committed to right now to do in the company that takes more than one step, that you can finish within a few weeks or months, but let's see it."
John: You suggest that one of the best reasons to get clutter in control is that it allows you to then look out a little farther at what you might want out of life.
David: Well, John, all I did was just raise clutter up to a more sophisticated and very subtle level.So it is true. Look, if your vision about where you want to be lifestyle, career wise, and company wise is clear, there's not clutter there. If it's not, you've got clutter at that level. So, it's all really about gathering what is not yet formed or formulated perhaps as appropriately as it needs to be. And I just discovered that there really are six very unique horizons that have very different content, but everybody has got them. And either more or less consciously, and the more aligned they are, the more you'll feel on about what you're doing. And there's always one or two or three that are weaker than the others that you could probably have the improvement opportunity to focus on.
Some people need to focus on the bigger picture and get that clear, and a lot of people have a fire in their belly and have a bigger picture of stuff, they need to get down more on the runway and handle the projects and actions about them to make all of the stuff happen. I'm equally respective and irreverent of all of those.
If you want to find God, great.If you need cat food, fabulous. It's all stuff to do.
John: I think a lot of times people try so hard to have balance that they miss opportunities. And, the flipside of that, a lot of people chase every opportunity in and get really pretty easily out of balance. So, how in the real world does someone make it all work?
David: I think it's a false challenge. I hear what you're saying, but I think it's balance, period; that's what you are after. And frankly, I am not even after balance, but I have a very clear boundary and that's between talking to you and everything else. It's very clear. If I have decided talking to you, John, right now in this interview, it's exactly the thing I need to, there is nothing else I would, could, should, ought to be doing with my focus, my conscience or my energy right now other than this. I am my zone. And, I don't care about other personal or professional, but it's my distinction. My distinction is, 'Am I on? Can I be present? What do I need to do so that I am wholly engaged in whatever I am engaged in?'
And that could be running a four-minute mile; it could be trying to run 16 businesses or it could be walking through your rose garden staring at your neighbor. So, it's all these things really. So, what are the things to be doing right now and what is in the way of being fully engaged in my life in the way I want it at this moment.
Image credit: mandiberg