David Allen, author of seminal productivity and peace-of-mind tome Getting Things Done , has one secret, personalized trick for keeping a tidy inbox that you can’t use.
His trick: Skip any email that asks for the official Getting Things Done (GTD) blessing for a task-management app. None of them fit the bill, and the pitches add up quickly. “One a week, for the last five years,” Allen said in a phone interview.
The reason? Allen and his firm don’t want another list manager, another self-styled productivity app. What Allen has sought, for nearly three decades now, is a digital tool that actually abstracts list-making out of Getting Things Done, and offers instead more time to think about acting out the items on those lists.
“With (today’s) GTD ‘apps,’ you still have to think about what you want to accomplish, and exactly how you need to write it down,” Allen said. “What I’m seeking is, could somebody, some system, please embody my intelligence about how I want to have data structured, and how I want it to come out? Instead of running down rabbit trails, by making me open Outlook, or my browser, or my phone, to write that down?”
Allen is working on that system in an exclusive collaboration with Intentional Software , seeking to develop the closest thing to an official GTD program that has ever existed. The end product will be something of a meta-app, one that doesn’t care which calendar, email, task list, or idea capture tools you use. And if it works as envisioned, you might even find flexing your Getting Things Done muscles “actually fun, if you actually get the game and how it’s played,” Allen said.
Why Intentional, out of all the hundreds of developers and firms with productivity apps out there or in development? For one thing, Intentional didn’t approach Allen with an existing or in-development app to bless, but with a proposal to collaborate from the start on a new kind of software. Intentional is currently hiring around 20 new developers, half of which will work exclusively on the GTD project.
Another selling point was Intentional’s pedigree, and particularly its founder. Intentional Chairman and CTO Charles Simonyi  was the chief architect of Word, Excel, and other Office products at Microsoft, which just happen to be the most profitable products of that $200+ billion company. More than revenues, though, Word and Excel are early examples of abstracting data and technology away from people trying to simply work. Before Word and apps like it, you had to be a kind of programmer to write a properly formatted letter on a computer. Adjusting technology automatically to obey a real human’s intent for a computer is what formed ]Simonyi’s intentional programming concept , and gave his current company its name.
Finally, there is Intentional’s approach to moving beyond the constraints of an “app.” Rather than trying to sell a certain app, or cross-platform system, what both Allen and Intentional believe is needed is a kind of obsessively helpful, completely app-agnostic dashboard.
“We’re not trying to replace any application, including those very GTD-ish applications out there,” said Eric Anderson, CEO of Intentional. “Your inbox, calendar, contacts, social media outlets, your filing system, all need to be able to work together. ... The point of the matter is, people’s productivity, and the real art of Getting Things Done, is heavily dependent on a system that’s ubiquitous and not tied to any one device or platform.”
Anderson used to start his day by opening Outlook, or a browser, and following links and discussions out into a dozen or more web tabs, alternately easy to forget and overly distracting. He would sort, prioritize, and add context to messages arriving simultaneously in all his inboxes--Twitter direct messages, Facebook Messenger, Google Talk, text messages, email, calendar reminders, and more. But a well-tended Getting Things Done system should free one’s mind from reacting to whatever message just came in, knowing a system is in place that ensures the important parts of that message get done, deferred, or otherwise processed.
“If we do our job right, the meta-app will be able to manage those communication flows, and know the way I want them handled,” Anderson said. “Regardless of how other people want to bother me."
Allen suggests such an app will have a consistent look, but scales to fit whatever size screen you’re viewing it on. One section of the app is “all input ... you can add things in a fairly automatic way, let it park there, and it later reminds you, ‘Hey, dude, there’s something waiting for your attention.’” Another section holds the things that you need to be reminded of, because they’re coming up soon. Another section is where you park your files, whether in Evernote, Dropbox, or some other system. There’s some kind of space for creative thinking, perhaps with a style of mind-management plotting that ties into all the other sections. And all your communication fits into perhaps another space.
Allen’s last venture into productive software was Actioneer, a 1994 startup that raised $12 million for a desktop program that embodied Allen’s still-forming ideas about action-ready items. You would, as Allen put it recently, “Hit F12 to empty your head,” and Actioneer would pick up the mess. But after three years of development, and increased competition from established productivity suites, Actioneer burned out its funding and closed up shop in 1997.
But the market, or rather the App Store, has proven the enduring appeal of Getting Things Done. Apple’s App Store has more than 500 results  with the fairly unique “GTD” identifier in their description; Android’s Play Store has at least 1000 “GTD” appearances . Most of them are well-intentioned, but many of them “over-complicate by adding features that most people don’t need,” as Allen told me in 2009 . And what Allen and Intentional are looking to sell isn’t really a productivity tool, anyway.
“(CEO) Phil Libin didn’t ever want to call Evernote  a ‘productivity’ tool. You don’t want to have to convince customers to say, ‘Ah, I want to go buy productivity,’” Allen said. “Evernote provides a productivity, with something just intuitively cool about it. That’s where we’re going ... The way Charles and Eric and I envision it, we’ll allow a lot more people to just get this stuff and play with it, intuitively.”
“Productivity is a hard sell. Peace of mind is a little easier.”
Join Allen for a live online Q&A at 3pm E.T. on Tuesday, November 20th. Click here .
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[Chalk Check: AlexandreNunes  via Shutterstock]