A Method Out Of Madness

Overwhelmed by to-do lists? David Allen has a solution


It's a new year, and you're resolved to get organized. David Allen may be able to help.

David Allen is the author of a self-help book entitled Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 2001; Penguin Books, 2003). Following the publication of the paperback edition, Allen became a geek icon, as enthusiastic techie readers set up Getting Things Done (GTD) Web sites and began comparing notes on the best software and gadgets to use with the book's eponymous system for organizing their personal and professional lives. But Allen's loyal following now extends well beyond geeks, with a client list that includes Deutsche Bank AG and the U.S. Air Force, among others.

IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Stephen Cass talked with Allen to find out how to get things done.

In a nutshell, how does Getting Things Done work?

Your mind is for having ideas--not holding them. So a lot of what GTD is about is creating a system outside your head for collecting and defining the inventory of what your commitments are. Without such a system, your brain has to maintain and manage the inventory, and it'll drag you down. Say you know you need to bring milk home for dinner and that you have to buy a company. Your brain will remind you about buying the milk more than buying the company, because you're afraid of the emotional consequences if you forget the milk. See photo, " ."

If you want to really focus on one thing, you have to get the other stuff off your mind by parking it in a system where you know it won't get lost, and where it will automatically pop up again at the appropriate time.

Beyond that, you have to define what "done" means. With knowledge work, "done" isn't always obvious. You have to define your projects and desired outcomes. Then you have to define what "doing" actually means; what's the next action you need to take for each project?

All I did was figure that out and reduce things to the ultimate engineering critical path for getting things off your mind and getting them done.

What is this critical path?

As you run through life, you have ideas that you think you should do something about. You've now made an agreement with yourself--this is called opening a loop. The creative part of us opens loops all over the place. But in order to manage that, you have to come back at some point and deal with that loop. You need to have a thought process where you examine what things really mean to you.

The first stage in my process is to collect all your open loops, making sure you haven't missed anything. Most people are all over the place in terms of making commitments that they haven't captured, and so they're never truly comfortable in what they're doing, because they know they've made commitments they haven't tracked.

For the second stage, you need to go back around and say, "Okay, I made a note about this; now I need to decide what this means and what I'm really committing to do about it." Is it a creative idea I want to park and reassess every week? Is it an idea that might be useful a year from now, so I want to get it out of my face, but I want to make sure there's a trigger to review it 12 months from now?

Is it something I need to figure out right now so I can get moving on it? Stage three: organize the results of your thinking. Say you've decided you need to call José about a project, but you're not going to call him right that second. You need to track that action by adding it to your "to-call" list.

Then, in stage four, you look at your to-do lists and decide what to do next, based on how much time and energy you have, whether you're at home or in the office, and so on. Then you do the action.

You commit a to-do list heresy in that, unlike the authors of many systems, you recommend against assigning priorities to tasks.

We've all got commitments at multiple levels of importance and timescales. Life is complicated, and interruptions and other things happen all the time. Are you really going to pretend you can create an A, B, C priority code about, say, which calls to make? Give me a break. I don't use priority codes because I'm not going to lie to people. Thinking priorities is something you should be doing all the time, but the only priority that should be structured into your system is if you identify leverageable tasks--tasks that are the linchpin of a whole lot of other stuff.

Can you implement parts of GTD without having to commit to the entire system?

Yes. That's why I started giving a one-day seminar, to give people the overview of this whole model, because if you do any piece of it, you'll be more focused. If you just sit down and take anything that you're avoiding or procrastinating about because you haven't decided what to do, if you decide what's the next action, it's going to improve your life. You track any of your stuff in any sort of trusted system and your brain will say, "Wow, you know, I don't have to worry about that because it's over there," and you're going to feel better.

Why have techies embraced GTD?

It's been fascinating to see the rise of my star in the geek world. One of the reasons geeks love GTD is because it's a closed system. It tells you what to do with everything: it's really a knowledge management model. And geeks are lazy, just like me, so they're into how automated they can make the system. And geeks are early adopters. They're willing to give up whatever they're doing to find a better thing to do.

A lot of people have suggested various hardware and software tools to use with GTD. What would the ideal GTD software system look like?

Ninety-eight percent of what the digital world has done is just offer more and more sophisticated ways to slice and dice information in a passive way--that is, taking information and working out how to present and access it in different ways. But almost nobody has thought, "How do we support the thinking process?"

In 1994, I drew up 14 pages describing what software would need to do to help you empty your head and facilitate thinking through the processing stages I described earlier. Turned out the plan was ahead of its time, and perhaps still is.

But an important aspect of what was involved was that you'd dump something into your computer, and the system would figure out, based on the words you used and so on, that you're, say, making a note about calling someone. So it would automatically add an entry to your "to-call" list.

Does GTD have any greater significance, beyond, say, just having an organized office?

The big "aha!" for me was when I realized that people who are already sophisticated and productive are the ones most interested in the GTD model, because they're the ones most sensitive to drag on their system and, therefore, most sensitive to anything that eliminates that drag. I think we're moving to a stage where people are being challenged to be responsible for where they put their creative energy.

In my vision, 25 years from now, every 12-year-old will ask: "Granddad, Grandma, why did you ever keep stuff in your head? Don't you know your head's for having ideas, not for holding them?" Everybody reading or listening to this has at some point in their life been so pressured that they had to sit down and make a list--and then felt better.

Well, why not start earlier? That's when you actually start to experience the goodies of what this is all about. Consider GTD an example of distributed cognition, understanding your commitments, whatever. If you really want to free yourself to be where you want to be and focus on what you want to focus on, that's what you need to be doing.