David Allen

Getting Things Done (GTD) is probably the world's most popular time management methodology – and it's particularly popular among technologists. Founder David Allen says he gets five or six messages a day from people around the world saying how much the system has changed their lives.

Since time management is on the minds of all IT directors, I got in touch with David Allen and asked him for some tips that might help CIOs in the UK.

Pat Brans: Can you start by giving me an overview of Getting Things Done (GTD)?
David Allen: Sure thing. You know, I just spent 30 years basically honing the best practices for time management. I identified the practices that make a difference between good days and bad days - the difference between surfing on top of your world or being overwhelmed by it.

A half a beat ahead and half a beat behind is only one beat difference, but man, it's a light year difference in terms of how it feels. There are very specific kinds of behaviors that I identified and researched and tested and I morphed together this methodology called "Getting Things Done", which is really just a set of those best practices.

Most people who think about time management, personal productivity, organisation, or stress management attempt to address the same thing, which is: how do I achieve or maintain or regain control, how do I achieve, maintain, or regain focus?

I just discovered the algorithm that actually produces that.

Pat Brans: Can you describe the algorithm?
David Allen: Quite simply there is a five-step process to getting something under control. You need to capture the stuff that's not on cruise control, you need to clarify exactly what those things are, what they mean, what you're going to do about them if anything. You need to organise the results in appropriate categories. You don't have to keep rethinking what these things mean and then you do step back and reflect and review on the inventory of all those commitments and multiple horizons.

Then you make good trusted intuitive choices about how you engage and focus your attention and your resources as opposed to being driven by the latest and loudest, and hope that what you're doing is right.

Now that's actually how you get your kitchen under control, it is how you get a country under control, and it is how you get your company under control.  

I just identified the steps - and all of those five steps are quite different steps. It's not just about going out to get organised or going out and setting priorities. That's way too simplistic, and your system will implode if you just try to do that. But each one of those steps we have identified has a specific pattern of behaviour or things to do with specific techniques that are different from each other. In other words, capturing thoughts and ideas and potentially meaningful items is very different from organizing the results or thinking through those things.

Pat Brans: The book Getting Things Done was published in 2001, and it has had quite a big take up. Can you describe the typical user of GTD? Is there a typical age?
David Allen: No, there is no typical age. It ranges all over the place. The one common denominator we've seen over all these years is the people who are most attracted to it are the people who need it the least.

The most productive people are the most interested in the uptake. They are usually the people, who - at least subliminally - assume that their life is going to be better in some way 18 months from now. It's really interesting to people that are on a productivity track already as opposed to people who don't even know things are out of control.

It used to puzzle me why the most productive people were the most interested in this and then one day I had the big aha. It's the most productive people who get the most value out of reducing drag on their systems, and that's what GTD does. It eliminates drag.

You're not moving if you're in your comfort zone. Getting rid of drag is a drag, because you have to change some habits and behaviors to make the system work. But it's kind of like fine-tuning or refining somebody who is already high.

And those people could be 12-year-olds. They could be CEOs. They could be new hire receptionists. They could be homemakers. We work with all of them.

Pat Brans: What are people looking to achieve specifically through GTD?
David Allen: They want help in getting more or less of something, and that something might be leaving work sooner, spending more time with the kids, watching more football, making more money, or producing more at work. It's really about people who have some level of investment in increasing quality of life, quality of output, or quality of experience.

Pat Brans: So they have to have identified that they need help in the first place, right?
David Allen:
Yeah, yeah.  Once people catch this, they want everybody around them to get it because life would be a whole lot easier if all of your intersections kind of moved up the food chain using these best practice principles. But you can't really legislate this system to anybody. What you can do is hold them accountable to deliverables because GTD is really is nothing but just good business practices.

You make a commitment with me and keep track of it. I'll keep track of it too, so we both make sure the thing happens. If it matters to us that it happens, we need to make sure we have the integrity to make it happen.

So that's all it is. It's making sure to use the techniques and the tools to really build the external brain and that's a lot of what GTD did was recognize the value of building an external brain instead of trying to use your psyche to do it. Your psyche is a terrible office.

If you're handling yourself, everybody around you is going to know that, and is going to feel it - especially if they report to you or somehow look up to you or need your approval. You can hold them to the kind of standards you're holding yourself to, and you don't even have to say GTD. You just say hey, I gave you these six things last week. How are they doing? You've got a list. I guarantee you if you're the boss, they're going to get their list.

Pat Brans: What if you're the underling and your boss is not using it? Do you have an advice there?
David Allen: Well the more out of control people are around you, the more you better use the system, so you know what's yours and what's theirs, as opposed to having them bleed all over you. You need to know where you stop and where they start, or what your boss committed to, or what you committed to. Where are those edges?

By the way, if you're the last person on the planet you don't need this.

But if you start to implement these practices, all of your intersections move up the food chain to some degree. So even if just one person in a culture begins to do these practices it affects the whole culture.

Pat Brans: I know you've worked with a lot of executives around the world. Can you tell me specifically what you've notice about CIOs and how GTD applies to them?
David Allen: GTD was probably the first non-tech meme that just went virally through the tech world. GTD hit paperback in about 2003, and that's when the blog world just started - and there were just a number of significant people in that world who wrote good things about.

I'm not a tech guy - I'm just sort of an end user tech guy. But all the tech folks just love GTD because it lines up well with their thinking. Just as importantly, it's a model that works with their cool tech tools - and actually makes those tools a lot more powerful.

But GTD doesn't require technology. I mean in 2090 if you land on Jupiter there's still an in basket to capture random stuff and you still to have make next action decision about what to do to move it forward. It's nothing new. I mean the methodology is old as dirt. It's just its like gravity. It's there.

In the big organisations we work with, IT is usually the place that takes up GTD first. People in IT have a lot of projects and a lot of plates to keep spinning in the air and keep track of. I think one of the reasons IT people love it is because there are a lot of details and being able to put all those details in the appropriate places is natural for IT people.

I've worked with quite a number of senior IT folks. But really, it's all the same. Everybody is dealing with the same issues. It will just take it's own spin in different jobs. But there's probably as much difference between one IT executive and the executive sitting right next to them as there is anywhere, because it really is more the individual interest and uptake on this.

Pat Brans: You moved to Amsterdam in May. What can you say in general about the difference between the European and the US in terms of work rhythms, work-life balance, and things like that?
David Allen: This is a gross generalisation. But generally speaking, there is probably more of the sense of time with family, quality of work-life, and so on in Europe. We have a franchise in Scandinavia and I was just up in Norway. That's a culture that's very focused on family, very focused on quality of life, very focused on having a vacation cottage that they go to in the summer. That seems to be the attitude all over Europe.

I have to say however a lot of the Europeans are starting to catch the American bug. They're finding out that because they're dealing in global companies and everybody else is cranking away, and they're not, and if they want to keep up, sometimes that's just the name of the game. I'm not saying right or wrong about that.

But if you love what you're doing, who cares? As long as you can keep it sustainable, so that you're not burning out and turning to toast; or even if you are, you don't mind because you're making enough money. There could be a lot of reasons for working hard.

The US sort of inherited this thing called the Puritan ethic or the Protestant ethic that if you're not sitting there feeling at least slightly guilty about how much harder you should be working, you're going to hell. That's built into the American culture.

The world is becoming so global and so virtual that Europeans have the same issues as anybody else. That's why there's a good bit of interest and uptake in Europe – and it's one of the reasons I'm there. One of the promises of GTD is that it's going to allow you to increase your output without having to increase the stress level or the amount of time you have to spend there. The idea of getting more with less is highly attractive.

Pat Brans: What's the uptake like in the UK?
David Allen: Let's just say that, when taken in proportion to the respective populations, GTD has sold more books in the UK than in the US.