What David Allen Can Teach Us About Getting Things Done

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David Allen is the best selling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

He’s been a productivity guru for 30 years, helping the best and the brightest across the world.

In this interview, you’ll discover how to:

  • have a fluid mind like water;
  • find your purpose in life;
  • leverage the “getting things done” methodology;
  • understand the key limitation to achieving your goals;
  • create the optimal performance state; and
  • slow down to truly live in the moment.

David Allen’s Interview Notes

QUESTION: David, I’ve given a quick background about you, but if you could tell our audience a bit more about yourself, that would be great.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up so I decided to be a consultant after recalling all of the job experiences I had had in my life and bringing them together. I realized I was a really good number-two guy.

I had a lot of friends who knew what they wanted to do, so I would go in and look around and see how I could help them with what they were doing, help them improve their business processes. I then realized that organizations actually paid people to do that and they call them something. So, I became a consultant and started my own consulting practice back in 1981.

I also had an attraction to what I refer to as the ‘value of clear space’ with my own personal development and explorations. I was interested in my inner-life and the inner-worlds and spirituality, martial arts included, and a lot of that had to do with finding a clear space and mind, finding internal peace. So that was an attraction to me.

As I got involved in the professional world, I discovered it was pretty easy to disturb that space. So, I started looking for techniques that allowed me to maintain a clear mind while I had a more complex life. It turned out that those techniques I had discovered were very valuable for everyone I worked with as clients to help them gain more control and focus.

I began to put all of what I had learned together. I was then invited by a big corporation to take what I had come up with and put it in a seminar format back in 1983/1984. That is when I began to create this methodology that helped me write my book 25 years later.

Getting Things Done is essentially a set of best practices that you’re not born doing. They’re easy to do, but you have to actually apply cognitive focus on them. When you place these best practices in your life, you’ll actually find your head is much more clear and it’s easier to focus on the meaningful things you want to focus on. I had uncovered a very useful algorithm and decided to write the manual on it.

QUESTION: You mentioned your background in martial arts. I’ve always appreciated your discussion around the idea of having a ‘mind like water’. Could you elaborate on that?

If you’re at work but you’re thinking about your personal life and you’re at home thinking about your work life, that is not ‘mind like water,’ so maybe it’s easier to describe what it’s not. Your head isn’t clear; you can’t tuck your kids in bed or watch them play soccer while you’re on your iPhone. At that point, you’re not present.

It’s really another way to describe the idea of being present with whatever you want to put your attention on. The methodology I uncovered doesn’t coach you on what the content of your life needs to be; it instead gives you space internally to focus.

You don’t need time, you need room. It doesn’t take any time to have a good idea, to be present or loving with your kids, or to be innovative or creative. What these things do require is room in your psyche. If you’re hung up about things that you’re not appropriately engaged with yet, then you’re not going to have room to be creative, innovative, loving, or present.

It’s really a methodology about how to stop the noise without having to finish all of the things you’re worried or thinking about. The most creative aspect of what I had discovered is that you don’t have to finish something to get it off of your mind, but you do have to go through a very specific process in order to clear your mind.

QUESTION: Speaking of the methodology, a lot of our listeners and readers are interested in finding their purpose in life and achieving their goals. Can you tell me how one can leverage the Getting Things Done methodology to find your purpose in life?

It’s hard to focus on the higher horizons if you need cat food. A lot of people should not be focused on their life purpose; they need to spend time cleaning the toilet. The truth is, all of the aspects of your life, even the most mundane, still have a connection and resonance with what you’re all about in terms of your bigger game.

Think, why do I have a cat, why do I think cleaning my toilet is important?

You’ll start to learn about yourself. It’s because you care, because you’re a sensitive human being, because you’re a loving person. Being clear about all of those aspects of yourself and the things that disturb your clarity and your ability to relax, let go, and listen to the more natural, obvious things in terms of who you really are is going to help.

Your way of getting to this place could be having a glass of wine, meditating, or running. Anything that helps you relax can essentially eliminate the static and allow you to focus on the bigger picture. Interestingly, people naturally know what they’re about if they’re willing to quiet their life enough to listen to their inner-voice.

It’s the ability to pay attention to your inner-voice and distinguish between intuition and indigestion that makes the difference. This is something that must be consistently focused on throughout your entire life and is a lot easier to do when you have control of the noise and static in your life.

This doesn’t automatically put you on a purposeful, spiritual path, but if that is something you care about, this is an extremely valuable tool.

QUESTION: Why is lack of space — instead of lack of time — the key limitation to achieving your goals?

It doesn’t take time to come up with good ideas or to access your intuition, but you do need space — you need the ability to be able to do that. Now, time is an important factor; you need to know how long things take so you don’t overcommit, you need to keep your appointments and agreements with yourself relative to material world we’re in. So, of course you have to take time into consideration.

But, finding clearer space is a different equation. In clear space, in 5-10 seconds on the elevator you could tap through your intuition and have a heart-felt conversation with someone in the elevator — something you may not be able to do in an hours time with that same person if your head is wrapped around quite a few other things.

The methodology is about teaching you how to free up your attention to have the ability to place it on what you want to focus on at a specific time.

QUESTION: How do you create the optimal performance state so that you can spend your attention on what you feel is more valuable?

I hone it down to 5 steps on how to get clear space. I like to use the example of your kitchen. If you’ve ever felt your kitchen was out of control, you went through 5 stages of how do you do that.

First, you capture the things that are out of control in your kitchen and you clarify what they mean and/or where they should be so you can organize them. With organization you find clear place to reflect on what you want to cook and when people are coming over so you can engage appropriately.

So those 5 steps — capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage — are the steps any person can take to get anything under control. That optimal state is when you’re present, when there is nothing pulling on your mind. This state is the best state to hit a golf ball from, fire somebody from, have difficult conversations from, and cook spaghetti from.

Most people haven’t realized how much static they’ve allowed themselves to create because of inappropriate engagement of personal commitments. Getting appropriately engaged with all of the levels of commitments you have by using these 5 steps makes it a lot easier to clear the static and find your optimal state.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example and walk us through all 5 steps, starting with capture?

Well, let’s take the kitchen. You get home at 5:30 PM, and you have friends coming over for dinner at 7:00 PM. You find somebody has attacked your kitchen. What’s the first thing you do?

  1. Capture: ask yourself is ‘what is not where it needs to be’; in other words what has your attention in and around the kitchen. Basically identify the things that are not in control.
  2. Clarify: look at those things that aren’t where they need to be or what they need to be and clarify exactly what those things are that aren’t where or the way they need to be — for example, dirty dishes.
  3. Organize: put the things that are out of place where they need to be in your trusted system.
  4. Reflect: step back to reflect on your current situation. Think about the time you have before your friends arrive and the recipe you need to pull out.
  5. Engage: open up the refrigerator, pull out the butter, and melt it.

That’s a simple example, but that’s how you get your conscious under control. If I were to set down and coach you, I would first ask what’s got your attention. This would usually take me and a client one to six hours to find all of the things that are bothering them internally.

Anytime you’re thinking you need to clarify your life purpose is because you’re not actually functioning within your life’s purpose (at least not consciously). Anything that’s on your mind represents something that you are not yet appropriately engaged with. So, you don’t have to go far to find out where to apply these 5 steps to make action and outcome decisions.

The most important step for most people to clear their mind is step two — clarify. Most everybody has some version of a to-do list in place but do not see the next action that they need to take about what’s on their to-do list, nor will they see a specific defined outcome about why something is on their list.

Outcomes and actions — that are usually not included on your to-do list — are the 0s and 1s of productivity. Ask yourself, what are you trying to produce and how do you need to allocate resources to make it happen? You need to put cognitive horsepower and focus into your thinking process for clarification. Decision making takes time and energy.

QUESTION: We know that the 5th step of your methodology is engage. Is this the end result of your methodology —to take the action at the appropriate time — or is there a different goal or end result that people should be looking for?

The end result is the inner-peace and satisfaction that you get from doing what you think you should be doing.

QUESTION: How do you optimize personal systems for getting the most meaningful work done?

You want to make sure you have the right maps to orient yourself wherever you are whenever you are. Anybody who is keeping a calendar is already doing this by using that map to organize oneself in space and time. You need to have some external system like this to optimize your system so that you can stay focused on what you actually want to accomplish.

There are multiple levels of orienting yourself. For example, if you’re interested in life purpose, how often should you reevaluate and access?

This gets back to the six horizons that I identify in my book. There’s the big picture called purpose and your principles, the vision of you performing your purpose successfully, the shorter-term goals you need to accomplish to make your vision happen, all of the things you need to maintain like your health and finances, and then all of the actions you need to take for these things.

Having a system that lets you know what those things are allows you to clear your mind as much as possible to build orienting maps about yourself so you can review what you need to review when you need to review it. It’s really about externalizing all of the things you are engaged with, refining them, and building in a reflection process as appropriate.

QUESTION: What commonly held belief about productivity do you disagree with most, and why?

I think the most common thought about productivity is that is means hard work; the word productivity has a lot of baggage around it in terms of business/busyness. But, if you go on vacation to relax and you don’t relax, that’s an unproductive vacation.

Productivity simply means experiencing desired results. It doesn’t mean work harder. That’s the most commonly held belief about productivity — that you have more you need to do. You may actually need to slow down if this is how you feel. Try training yourself to slow down when you think you need to speed up. You may find things happen much faster and much more elegantly with much less stress if you do this.

QUESTION: Could you elaborate on what you mean by slowing down?

Literally slowing down.

  • Stop what you’re doing
  • Take a breathe
  • Sit down
  • Do nothing for two minutes

These things will allow you to access deeper levels of awareness and intelligence about what you’re doing so you make better choices, you’re more strategic, and your priorities become clearer.

The biggest human addiction is control; letting go allows you to relax and let things emerge and unfold. Getting Things Done (GTD) is not about adding more to your life; it’s about relaxing and getting appropriately engaged with all of the things you’re engaged with so that you can relax and let life unfold for you.

QUESTION: How has the need for stress-free productivity changed over the past 25 years?

For any individual it hasn’t changed. What’s changed is how many individuals now need it. The world is now always on; there’s no distinction between home and work. It’s what the digital world has produced for everyone.

The next version of GTD is probably going to be for high school students. Once they leave high school, mom has now disappeared as a trusted system. We need to make sure these young adults are ready to walk into a world where they haven’t been trained to handle all of the possibilities that are coming at them.

So that’s what changed — how many people need this behavior-set.

QUESTION: As far as how technology has evolved, do you feel that it’s helped people’s productivity?

Of course technology has increased productivity.

  • Microsoft Word
  • Excel
  • GoToMeeting
  • Snagit

If I was the only one in the world with access to all of these productivity tools that are available to use, I could rule the world. But, the reality is, because of relativity, you need all of these things to keep up with everyone else.

QUESTION: Are there any specific tools you’d recommend to someone who is looking to increase their productivity?

Pen and paper. And an in-basket to place them to use notes when you’re ready for them. You can’t beat it! Digital is not the only answer; it’s about understanding the methodology. At that point, you can make any list manager work. Use whatever is comfortable for you.

QUESTION: If you only had one hour to work with someone, what would you do to help them achieve their dreams?

I would ask the following:

  • What are your dreams?
  • How would you want to spend a Sunday afternoon 5/10 years from now?
  • What are your fantasies?
  • What would you get out of those fantasies?

Maybe your fantasies such as being a rockstar or president, for example, may make you more recognized. Your fantasies may make it easier to make friends or give you the opportunity to express something you don’t feel like you can in your current life.

Think about what you can do now that would give you the ability to experience similar things in your life that your fantasies would allow you to experience.

QUESTION:What has been your greatest adventure, and why?

I think my greatest adventure is the one I’m on. I keep re-understanding it at new levels as I get older. I’ve created a world for myself where there are no problems, there are just projects.

QUESTION: Do you have any closing thoughts for our audience?

Your head is for having ideas not for holding them. Do anything you can to externalize what’s in your head and build your orientation maps so that more of who you are shows up in the world.

To learn more about David Allen:

Thank you David Allen for participating in this interview and sharing your story.

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Quincy Seale

Quincy is KIM's lead editor and content writer, and has invested in online properties since 2009. Quincy holds an MBA from the University of Dundee and an MSc from the University of Edinburgh, and lives in San Antonio with his wife Natalie, son Alex, and his dog Oban.