David Allen is widely recognized as a leading authority on productivity and organization; his first book, Getting Things Done, has been the inspiration for thousands of information economy workers, many of whom write about their relationship with the principles of “GTD” on their own blogs, and his latest book, Making It All Work, covers the same theoretical framework. “I was writing for the GTD audience as well as people who might be seeing this for the first time,” Allen told us during a telephone call last week, “so I can certainly understand how if somebody took just a cursory glance at this, they might think it was just a rewrite or a rehash. But in my experience, [Making It All Work] allows people who are already familiar with GTD to put the pieces together in a more elegant way.”
“Somebody told me, and it seemed an appropriate way to describe the difference, that Making It All Work is right-brain, and Getting Things Done is left-brain,” Allen continued. “If you want the tactical manual, my first book has all that detail… the principles are all there.” But Making It All Work tackles those principles from different angles, and takes them outside the workplace, getting at the core values of control and perspective—which, as we understand them, boil down to two questions: What do you want from life? And what do you need to do to achieve that?
Last week, Allen led the first GTD Summit, a two-day conference in San Francisco where he was joined by guest speakers like Guy Kawasaki, James Fallows to discuss the application of GTD in the office, in classrooms, and at home. The popularity of GTD is, however, based to some degree on the image of moderately successful people using it to block out distractions and become highly successful—is it still relevant in a world where more and more people are struggling to hold steady? “When we designed the conference, the world hadn’t gone to hell in a handbasket economically,” he acknowledged. “It does make it a little more poignant. To me, the question is: A lot of what GTD is about is when you have the time and energy to work on your own process, this is the most elegant way to do it. So from a Pavlovian standpoint, if everybody’s just out in survival mode right now, how much difference does any of this make? But then you have people saying ‘if I didn’t have GTD, I would’ve been run over last month.’”
We’ve worked at applying GTD to our own life, and we’re far from perfect at it, so we wondered—does Allen ever find himself overwhelmed by all the incoming stuff that needs his attention? “All the time!” he said. “All I did was describe it. I’m kind of like a football player. I can describe the game of football, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not hard to play, that I don’t have to work it like everybody else. The bad news is I don’t have any excuses, because I know how to get back there. And the good news is that just knowing that I can get back there makes it a lot easier to surf through life and still get spontaneous and out-of-control.”
“That’s the tricky part,” he continued. “Once you get good at this, it is pretty easy to let things get out of control because you know you can fix them pretty easily. But that’s better than living with the feeling that you can never get it fixed. A guy came up to me after one of my seminars all excited, and he told me, ‘David, you let me know that heaven exists. I don’t think I’m going to do what I need to do to get into heaven, but I’m just really glad to know it’s there.’ If nothing else, to know that there is light at the end of that tunnel, if you want to go down it, is a good feeling.”
He reiterated the simplicity of the GTD system, emphasizing its deep roots. “I learned about a tickler file 30 years ago working in a travel agency with a friend of mine,” he explained. “What’s new about that? I learned about getting stuff out of my head and keeping projects in a folder on separate pieces of paper when I was managing a service station in 1974 in Los Angeles, a block off the freeway. There’s nothing particularly new about any of that… I think what’s going to be new is when people start to catch how technology and tools can better support our thinking process. Those are the things that are interesting to me. Mind-mapping to me has been as paradigm-shifting as word processing and spreadsheets were; it’s a whole new tool or methodology that allows me to (a) be more creative, (b) capture that creativity, and (c) not lose it, stay in control of it.”
In the meantime, he said, GTD doesn’t require much in the way of fancy gadgets or apps. “All you really need is a good list manager,” he confided. “Once you get GTD and you’re really moving fast, most of the stuff that’s out there is just training wheels. They get in your way after a while and you just want something where you can get stuff down on a list and look at it quick… Basically, you just need whatever you need to be able to sit back and do a weekly review [to] truly see the world from every angle you need to see it at to get you to make all the decisions you need about all that.”
(He did confess, though, that he’s got a favorite new tool: “I just discovered bold ballpoint pens, a Cross ballpoint pen with a bold point. And I said to myself, ‘Wow, that writes so easy! I think better with that pen!’”)