It's 10:47 a.m., and David Allen, the man behind the world's most popular productivity system and eponymous bestselling book, is sitting across from me at a cafe in Amsterdam, sipping a glass of white wine. He wants to clarify something.
"People assume that I am a hard-working, left-brained, results-oriented, OCD, anal-retentive kind of guy," he says with a laugh. "In fact, the reason that I was attracted to this work was that it allowed me to be more creative, more spontaneous, freer. I’m a freedom guy."
After spending most of his life in California, where he founded Getting Things Done, Allen moved to Amsterdam a year ago with his wife, Kathryn: Another goal on the path to freedom—done.
"It was on our Someday/Maybe list," he says. He’s busy educating himself on Dutch art and history as well as setting up a European GTD operation.
Allen started out as an unlikely business guru. In the early 1970s, he dropped out of a PhD program in American history at UC Berkeley, briefly ended up in a mental institution, taught karate to make ends meet (he has a black belt) and became a minister of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, a new-age church founded in 1971, with an emphasis on meditation and what it calls as "practical spirituality."
He was also fascinated by Zen Buddhism and the martial arts, both of which had a strong influence of the development of GTD. Allen has even described GTD as a martial art.
"What was driving all that was my attraction to clear space," he says. "I love the negative space and the minimalist aspect of the Zen aesthetic."
Although it’s often seen as a complicated time management system, GTD, according to Allen, is really about creating mental space. "You can’t manage time," he says. "Time just is. That’s not the big issue. The big issue is really space. When people say they need time management, it’s usually because something is feeling out of control or inappropriately focused."
Allen doesn’t think GTD is really about productivity either, at least not in the traditional business sense. "Being productive means producing desired experiences or results. Do you want to relax? If it takes you three quarters of your holiday to relax from the last two days of getting ready—not exactly your most productive vacation."
GTD consists of five basic steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. Capturing means making a list of all the things which consume your attention. Many people already run into trouble at this stage. "A big addiction is to keeping stuff in your head," says Allen. "I think it gives people a false sense of control: ‘I will feel more out of control if I look at how out of control I am.’"
"People get mad at me for their list and I am going, 'I’m sorry. ‘That ain't my list, sweetie. You are the one who made those commitments.’"
The first step of GTD is to get all the things you need or want to do—buying cat food, starting a company—out of your head and into a trusted external system. Only once you "capture" do you decide whether you are focused on the right things. Allen describes six horizons of focus, working up from your daily errands and tasks through projects, the areas of your life those projects fit into—finances, career, relationships, health—and finally to your overall purpose as a human being.
Bringing those horizons into balance requires reflection, he says. "If you want to say, 'Am I focused on the right thing?' I would say, which one of those conversations has not been matured sufficiently or lined up with the other ones appropriately? Some people need to focus more on their goals. Some people need to stop focusing on their goals and actually get shit done."
Often the things rattling around in your head are not the most urgent or important things you need to do—collecting the dry cleaning, calling your cousin, making dinner—but they all consume mental space. "If you don’t handle the unimportant things, they start to suck energy out of the important things," says Allen. "It’s not just about the important things. It’s about everything."
Step two is clarifying exactly what each of the items captured means to you. Should you be paying attention to this at all? If yes, then what outcome would you like? Is it actionable and what’s the next action you should take?
"It’s really about appropriate engagement," says Allen. "The only reason that something is going to be nagging on you or pulling on you is because you are not yet appropriately engaged with it. Appropriate engagement doesn’t mean that you have to finish it. You just have to be in the driving seat about what you are doing with it or not."
Making considered decisions like this is tiring, which is why we often avoid it and stay in busy mode instead. In fact, Allen insists, making no decision about an item in your inbox is also a decision, and requires just as much cognitive effort.
In the next step—organize—you store action reminders on a list of one-off actions (e.g. buy milk), project action lists (projects require more than one action to complete) or your calendar (meeting with Bill). "Most people are using their mind to remember and remind, and it does not do that," says Allen. "What it does do is recognize patterns and make intuitive judgments about how to allocate your resources. You are great at recognizing. You can’t recall worth crap. You forget where you left your keys." So by entrusting all your reminders to an external system, you free up your mind to do just that.
Next, reflect on your to-do list by breaking it down into easily digestible steps, and determining which ones you can handle now and which you should delegate. Finally you switch to execution mode—engage—by looking at your next action lists and making an intuitive judgement about what to do now based on your location, energy level, and priorities. Which may mean deciding to do nothing. "A hallmark of how well you can do this methodology is how well you can do nothing. How well can you actually have nothing on your mind?"
Allen is a big fan of doing nothing, of daydreaming and napping as a means of engaging the reflective as opposed to the reflex brain. But having loose ends, or open loops, cluttering up your headspace makes that difficult.
"If you still need cat food, you can’t fully focus in an undistracted way and you can’t stop and relax. People think meditation is stopping the world and having the world go quiet. No. The universe is always on. It’s just which part of it you want to listen to. If you are distracted by the noise of Leidseplein"—one of Amsterdam's bustling nightlife neighborhoods—"it’s kinda hard to notice the subtleties of a Rembrandt drawing."
Allen has a theory about why GTD has such a rabid following among software developers in particular—and why they don't completely get it. "The techies love GTD because it is an intact system—no holes in it. They are as lazy almost as me. Their whole industry is a productivity industry. What they don’t realize is that it is a methodology, and not a technology. It’s a thought process." That thought process takes some time to master, around two years according to Allen.
Creatives like GTD for different reasons. "They like space. They like room: room to think, room to be creative." But GTD’s most surprising superfans have their minds on higher things. "The clergy love it," says Allen. "I have often argued that we should create a clerGTD. From any and all denominations. It’s quite ecumenical. They know how to do the God stuff, but it’s all the stuff they have to handle that they weren’t trained to do. The more they do that, the more they can focus on the more meaningful stuff."
The clergy may be converts, but not everyone is. Lifehacker’s Dustin Wax observed: "There is a powerful urge to create GTD-free zones, usually in the home—we apparently find it distasteful to reduce our non-working lives to a set of next actions and project lists." Some have argued that GTD does not lend itself to creative work, while Geekpreneur offers "26 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use GTD", complaining that: "It’s dull, it’s difficult, it’s about as satisfying as an air sandwich. And it doesn’t work."
Allen takes the skepticism and the mischaracterizations in stride, and with a sip of wine. "The people who are most attracted to GTD are the people who need it the least," he muses. "What this system does is it releases drag on the system. Who is most aware of drag on the system? The most productive people."