It’s hard to visualize the overwhelming size of the cottage industry of self-help books promising the secrets to productivity. In an earlier era, the shelves of book stores would have been lined with the countless promises of the secrets to productivity. Instead, we have hundreds of pages of search results on Google and Amazon.
But whether they’re books, ebooks, or blogs, they continue to be published en masse because their authors hope to accomplish what David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, accomplished: write what Wired called “a holy book for the information age.”
After a scattered career that Allen says included 35 jobs in 35 years, he began working as a productivity consultant for companies like Lockheed in the 1980s. Allen applied New Age philosophies to the corporate structure to develop what became a contagious process for eliminating the extra noise in employees’ lives. “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them,” he now says.
In 2001, Allen published the productivity bible Getting Things Done (GTD), which has sold more than 1.6 million copies since its 2001 release date. We talked with him about the GTD process and its role in enhancing leadership skills.
So just to start off, for someone who’s not familiar with the Getting Things Done methodology, how would you define it?
David: It’s a set of best practices that people can individually employ that creates more mental space, more cognitive room and allows you to be a lot more present without being distracted. It’s not something we’re born doing, but it’s not hard to do.
So I just really identified a 5 step process about how you get your head clear and get your situation stable and under control.
And can you talk briefly through what the 5 steps are?
David: Sure! First thing, you have to do is capture anything that’s not on cruise control. In other words, what’s on your mind, what’s grabbing your attention, what’s pulling or pushing on you. You need to capture that, by writing it down and getting it out of your head.
And then, sooner rather than later, you need to then clarify and organize what you wrote down. Cat food - what do I need to do? Buy cat food. The bank, what do I need to do about the bank? I need to assess whether I can increase my credit line or not. And so identifying first of all what’s pulling on you, and then getting more specific about what exactly does it mean to you. And if you’re going to do something about it, what does “doing” look like and what does “done” mean? In other words, what’s the action step you need to take and what are the outcomes that you're committed to complete about that. Identifying your work, if you will.
In the third step, you need to impart that in some appropriate place that you trust. So a list of all your projects, a list of all the calls you need to make, a list of all the things you need to pick up at the store. Not rocket science, but very few people actually have captured and clarified and organized that total inventory, so they’re still using their head for a lot of that.
Step 4 is once you’ve done that, you have to engage with that appropriately, otherwise it will crawl back up into your head if you’re not looking at your list. Then essentially you’ll be using your head as your system again, and your head is a terrible system.
So step 5 is engaging. How do I engage once I’ve captured, clarified and organized my stuff? How do I review and reflect on all of this so I can see it and then make a good choice intuitively about what I do? So it’s really about being appropriately engaged about your stuff. I make trusted choices about what I’m doing, as opposed to choices driven by the latest and loudest.
And what inspired you to start looking at productivity in this way?
David: My love of clear space. In experiencing the martial arts, the lifelong practice of meditation and just loving the freedom of not having something pulling on me or distracting me. So I don’t particularly like to worry and I don’t particularly like to do any more work than I have to, so my ultimate laziness sort of had me uncover how do I get things done and get stuff off my mind and get to clarity with as little effort as possible.
And so I know since you developed this system and started writing about it, you’ve really built a whole enterprise around GTD movement. How did you transform your initial concept to a big, trademarked system and widespread business?
David: Well, the book Getting Things Done helped a lot, and that’s certainly a great business card, and that’s actually what created the brand. There wasn’t much of a conscious process of creating a brand.
I had no idea how successful it would be, because at the time there was kind of a noisy market out there in time management and personal organization and all those kinds of things since the early to mid 80’s, and at the time I wasn’t particularly entrepreneurially driven or I didn’t really have big aspirations to go take over the world with this. I just realized that nobody else had come up with this model, and it was bulletproof. Anybody who started to implement it this would feel more in control and more focused, no matter what.
So I said, “Well, let me just hand it to the planet as best I can and sort of create a business card for myself.” So when I wrote the book, it kind of took off as this “little brand that could”. GTD kind of spread around the world, it was a perfect storm of several factors.
One is when my book went in paperback in 2003, that was also very much married to the blog world that showed up then, and the Getting Things Done methodology really was the first nontechnical meme that spread through the tech world. And it was also probably the start of the whole “life hacker” movement, and all the “how do you get things done with less effort” and tips and tricks and a lot of things like that. So I had no expectations about whether it would take off, whether anybody would recognize it, and whether or not somebody could read the book and get it.
After the publication of that book in ‘01, I started to get feedback. Somebody picked up the book off the shelf and implemented it over a weekend and changed their life. So there was a possibility that we could put this into virtual forms for a lot more people on the planet that could use it. So that was a pivotal point - it wasn’t any one particular point - it was just putting one foot in front of the other and see what works next and it worked pretty well.
The success of the book from the beginning sort of improved my brand. I didn’t really intend to put my name on the masthead of all of this, but it just turned out that my personality was a lot easier to sell than a process.
You’ve done a lot of corporate training and development seminars. Why do you think your approach resonates so deeply with that sort of executive audience, and what does it teach them about leadership and effective management?
David: Well, a lot of it is about agreements. What are your agreements with yourself? As you know in leadership a prime element is trust. But if you break agreements with people - if you don’t show up at appointments when you say you’re going to, if you tell somebody, “hey, I need x, y & z”, and you don’t do that, they won’t trust you further than they can throw you. So a lot of this is really about all of your agreements, ultimately, when it comes down to it.
Advocacy and your ability to be confident and step forward and follow your own vision and follow your own advice, what your core elements of leadership and congruence essentially, has a lot to do with your own self trust. How much do you trust yourself? How much are you coming from a place of confidence about what you’re doing?
So that said, my stuff can seem fairly practical and mundane, and in a way it is. And to a large degree - most leaders and most executives and most senior professionals - what they need more than anything is space. They need room, they need room in their head, they need room to think, they need room to be strategic, they need room to reflect, they need room to step back and look at the bigger picture as opposed to driven by whatever is latest and loudest.
So you don't actually need time. I mean, how much time does it take to have a good idea? Zero. But if you’re distracted in your head getting pulled in by 3,000 emails numbing you out in your inbox, you don't have a whole lot of room to be strategic. My methodology helps them clear out that space in their head.