Nov. 23, 2021

Replay: Productivity with David Allen

Replay: Productivity with David Allen

The book Getting Things Done, by David Allen, was published over 20 years ago and today is it as relevant as ever.  The book, has which been published in 30 languages, has turned into a whole methodology called GTD and it is now being taught by...

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The book Getting Things Done, by David Allen, was published over 20 years ago and today is it as relevant as ever.  The book, has which been published in 30 languages, has turned into a whole methodology called GTD and it is now being taught by coaches all over the world.  

This episode originally aired in March 2021. 


I spoke with David about the origins of GTD, and he shared specific actions you can take now to enjoy your life.

For more information about GTD go to

For bonus materials of this and other episodes, subscribe via the website

Connect with me via LinkedIn at  or email me at


YC: I'm so glad that you could join me here today in the podcast.

DA: Delighted to Yadi. Thanks for the invitation. 

YC: I wanted to know, because I've heard of other interviews that you have done and, in your podcast, as well, that you mentioned the method of Getting Things Done it's not about just, uh, time management. Could you talk a little bit about that primary, uh, misconception of what the Getting Things Done, method.

DA: Well, you can't manage time. So what does time management mean? You don't mismanage five minutes and come up with six or four and a half. Time just is. It's an important component, like space is. So these are important components. When people say manage time, they're really talking about how do I manage my self during the time that I have. So it's really about self-management, but people oftentimes are uncomfortable saying, I need to manage myself better, but the truth is we all do, or we all could. We all have those opportunities. So they call it time management. But it's really about how do I manage my focus, how to manage my choices. How do I feel good at the end of the day that I made the right decisions about what I did and what I didn't do.

And so defining essentially what your work is and your work, meaning anything you want to get done, that’s not done yet, then how do I manage the scope and scale and content of all of that? So I feel comfortable that talking to you right now is exactly the thing that I needed to do, and that I can be totally present with you. There's nothing else I should be doing. Oh my God, I forgot. Or I should, whatever. So I need to be present. The time management is about what do you need to do to be present with what you're doing.

YC: I also wanted to know in terms of your particular, um, background too, cause you had a very interesting background. You have many professions throughout your life. I was reading, on your biography, you were a karate practitioner, teacher, waiter, taxi driver. Do you know what you wanted to be, in the future or when you, when you were growing up? 

DA: No idea. I had no idea. I was more interested in sort of truth, God, the universe, who I was, how I, why I was on the planet, what I was all about, what this big game was. So I was not entrepreneurial or aspirational materially really much at all. I liked my lifestyle, so I just needed that. They weren't paying people to do that. So you had to have a job. So they weren't really professionals. They were just lots of jobs. I had just to pay the rent and to keep doing and keep going with my sort of inner exploration at whatever level of maturity I was able to do to think about that in my life. So that's, that's what happened. And then, you know, 35 years later, you know, uh, I said, you know, I wound up helping a lot of people just by showing up and helping them design what they were doing cause I'm so lazy. Why did, why are you doing that? You know, I've never been, I haven't been eternally organized, I've been eternally lazy or let's put it positively, eternally efficient.

So I'm always been, you know, sort of focused on having some sort of a system so that you could stay focused on what you wanted to be focused on and not be distracted by, you know, by wasting time or energy, trying to find stuff or trying to think about stuff you haven't thought about before. So this kind of, uh, it's a mishmash of a long story of kind of where I came to all this, you know. Finally, as I decided to create my own consulting business out of just what I've learned and what I was doing and saying, you know, I get bored, you know, helping people fix their systems and then they, the systems work. I'm sort of a process guy, you know? So, um, then I decided I'd discovered they actually paid people to do that. They call them something, consultant.

I started my own practice, hoping and assuming I might be able to still make a living. Showing up on project by project basis with clients at that time, I had a network of people and, you know, small business owners and entrepreneurs or whatever. And I just would go in and help them and discovered processes that would help them stay focused as well as me as my life was getting more complex. So I began to just cobble together these best practices about how do I, how do I handle this thing that has my attention so I can get it off my mind so I can focus on that. So it was how do I engage with my life appropriately? So I'm free to focus on what I want to focus on. Do I want to focus on it to be present as the mindfulness people would say these days. But I learned that, you know, 35, 40 years ago that there were ways to do that without having to finish what was on your mind, but you needed to, but that wasn't free.

You couldn't do it by drinking or meditating or ignoring it. You actually had to engage with it appropriately. So I just discovered the algorithm or the formula about how do I engage appropriately with these things that have my attention so that it's not dragging my energy out because I can't do anything about it, but it's appropriately decided, organized, clarified, and parked in the right place so I can just be present by cooking spaghetti or writing the business plan or firing somebody or hiring somebody or whatever, whatever the heck you want to be present for. So it's really about being present. And that's much about working harder. I'm sorry, Yadi, I mean the word productivity has got a lot of baggage means harder. What more time they're going to ask more of me and whatever productivity just means, get what you want. If you're, if you're, if you're trying to take the evening to relax and you don't relax, it's an unproductive evening. Yeah. So productivity is about just producing whatever it is that you're after. That could be quality of life. It could be money. It could be creating a new business, you know, whatever the heck do you want to create. So I just identified that whole, essentially that whole algorithm or formula, how do I take, what's got my attention. How do I manage it appropriately so that I can be present with whatever I'm choosing to doing, feeling comfortable about what I'm doing equally comfortable about what I'm not doing. So I'm there, that's your most productive state.

YC: That's wonderful because people confuse that, trying to establish systems in order to be able to get as many things done as you can on a, on a day. And I always liked your approach of trying to… the whole purpose is just being able to be present and enjoy the moment. Not just about how much can you get into the day. 

DA: Well, excuse me, if your purpose is to get done as much as you want to get done during the day, that’s fine. Go for it. Yeah. Come on. You know, a runner that's trying to run as fast as they can, it's going to keep doing that. But that's probably not what those people want. That's what they're doing. Thinking that that's going to get them what they want, which is relaxed more in control of their life, more productive. But you know, you can't, you know, there's a great saying you can't get enough of what you really don't need. Right? And so if, if what you think is more time and work harder, that's not what you need. You can't get enough of that. You can never work hard enough. You can never get enough time to do everything you want to do.

You know? So it's a, it's a, that's a great thing to keep in mind. When you think about how do we be more productive. It's really about being more present with what you're doing, because you can hit a golf ball better. You can cook spaghetti better. You can you can tuck your kids into bed better. There's a lot of things you can do a whole lot more productively if you take the broader definition and, interpretation of that term, there are a whole lot of things you can do more productively if your head's clear.

YC: Absolutely. Any, what I also like about your system is that it's not a matter of, uh, it's capturing things, but you also have a methodology on how to capture those things. Uh, it's not just random to-do list and saving it for the next day. you have a system. 

DA: Yeah, there, there are five steps. I didn't make them up. I just identified them that you need to do. If you wanted to get clear about all those things. First of all, you have to capture all those things and what they are. So you identified yet. Yeah. People make to-do lists. They write stuff down. Sure. They don't completely do that. So the first step in the process I uncovered is to completely identify everything that's got your attention, little big, small, personal, professional. Doesn't matter. I need cat food. I needed a new life. Should we adopt? Should I get divorced? Uh, we need a vice-president. Uh, I need a new cell phone. We can get all of that. That's the first thing to do is to identify all those things that are pulling on the psyche based upon your commitments about would, could, should, need to, ought to.

So that's the first step, but that's step one. That's the capture step then, if you just did all that, you'll see the whole lot better. Everybody listening or watching this at some point has made a list. It felt better simply because they externalize the stuff banging around in their brain, which is a crappy office. It can't manage more than four things in there before you start to be driven by latest and loudest, not strategic thinking. And so that's just cognitive data, by the way, in terms of research, but done in the last decade or so. So your brain is a, it's a bad office. So you need to externalize all button, but then you need to have a good external system that then manage and reminders of those things. Reminders of what? Well, that's where step two and three, come in. Step two is to clarify what you wrote down. You wrote down mom, why did you write down mom? Because you had one. Yeah, you probably did. Oh, her birthday's coming up. Oh, great. What are you going to do about her birthday?

So you need to clarify what mom means and why you wrote her down. Why it has your attention? Oh yeah. We should give her, we should celebrate a birthday. Fabulous. Now you have a project celebrate birthday. What's the next step. By the way, I should talk to my sister maybe about what we should do now. Great. So now you have outcome and action decisions you need to make about the things you wrote down and that most people don't do that about their to-do list. They haven't decided the next step on it, nor have they clarified the specific outcome they're trying to produce. And so that's the clarification step. Step two. Step three is okay. Once you've clarified,  celebrate mom's birthday, where does that go as a reminder, until that's done. How about a project list? Ah, now I need to organize reminders of these things that have my commitment.

So then there's step three, which is organized. I need to organize a reminder to call my sister about that. Right? That's organized. So you capture, then you clarify, then you organize reminders of things. You can't finish it in the moment. Something you can finish in a minute or two, if they show up and they go, Oh, let me just do that now. Yeah. Great. But if you can't, then you need to keep track of that. Otherwise your brain keeps spinning about that. What am I going to do? That? When I was birthday on my God, who am I going to have my birthday? But you need to stop that. Spin, get the monkey out of your brain. And so that's why building a trusted external brain, anybody listening or watching this, it's got a calendar already has one, a version of it, right? So you can't argue with this, otherwise you would throw away your calendar. Oh, just keep track of everything you need to do when and where go for it. 
It's up to you, but if you don't want that stuff on your mind, then you need to trust your calendar. And you also need to trust a list of the errands. You need to run the stuff you need to talk to your life partner about the things you need to, because you need to make the websites you need to serve, etcetera. And so those become the content of once you clarified the things that have your attention, what do I need to do about them? Defining the work essentially that you have. And then step four is to make sure you look at the list. Hey, I got some time, let me surf the web.

What are all the web surf things I need to do? Great. I'm going out for errands. What are all the errands I need to run. Oh, look at that. By the way, I'm having a sort of business of life discussion with my life partner tonight. What are all the things I need to talk to him or her about? Ah, there's the list, right? So then you need to reflect and review on the content of this stuff. So that then when you find it, make a decision about what you do step five. So it's a trusted choice, not a driven by latest and a lot of choice. So capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and then engage in the contents of that. That's how you get control of your life.

YC: Yeah, absolutely. And it's very well defined. All of those things that you described and it's just, um, with the day-to-day, with the hustle, we just kind of forget and kind of respond to the latest thing and not have his strategic outlook on things. So, reading your book now, it's always a good reminder of all the things that we need to follow. And one thing too, that, from the latest version of that book that you had in terms of, um, you described that it, even with the changes in technology when you first published a book, the system still stays the same overall, the tools may have changed, but overall there's not necessarily a kind of a significant change based on tool.  Is there difference in the stressors that we have today, from what we had before that you think we should pay attention to?

DA: The thing that's changed, Yadi is velocity and volume and speed speed of new input, new input. So there's the, how much stuff is coming at you, how fast, the quantity of that and how much that then creates fast changing things that you didn't need to reconfigure what you're doing. That's, what's changed. And that's just because the technology and, you know, the digital world and the globality and all that stuff has just added to the speed and velocity, you know, and ubiquity it's 24 seven, it doesn't stop. So that's, what's changed is just, what is the content of things you need to apply this methodology to, but the methodology doesn't change. It just changes the content you have to then engage with it. It makes it that much more important to engage the methodology so that you can stay on top of that kind of world that's happening faster, bigger, and, and changing faster.

That's, that's, what's different. And that's why, you know, my methodology is picking up speed out there around the world, simply because people are going, Oh my God, now I need this. What's changed since I wrote the first edition in 2001 to 2015, when the second edition was not methodology, but the audience. When I first wrote it was the fast track professionals and the CEOs and whatever that really needed this, because they recognize the need now, because they were being hit with this Tsunami of all that stuff. I just mentioned. Now, everybody is. Teachers, stay at home dads, uh, physicians, uh, you know, , anybody out there in a busy world, none of those people can trust anybody above them in any hierarchy has the time or interest to manage them. They've got to manage themselves.

So a lot of the change in the world out there, you know, maybe to your point, Yadi, in terms of what you're doing and in the soft skills, you know, the hard news about this stuff is these soft skills are becoming more and more critical for everybody. Cause everybody's having to manage their old life as a self independent contractor. Whether, whether you get a salary or not, you are on your own game folks, right? And that's a big change has happened in the world too. It's just the nature of work. But, believe me, Yadi when we fly to Jupiter in 2090, you still need an in-basket you've tended to capture stuff that has anybody's attention on that spaceship. It's still needed to then make decisions about the next action that someone needs to do. You need to still make a decision about, is there some outcome we need to produce here about this? You still need to then have some sort of reflective review process that the right people see that the right time. So you're making a decision. That's how you get to Jupiter and get off of Jupiter. So I didn't, I didn't make these up. I just identified the processes and practices you need to do to get control of any kind of a situation that's not ultimately in control at the moment.

YC:  And you also recently published a book for, um, for younger audiences as well. I did want to ask you, cause sometimes, you know, we're all for those of us who have a team and work in a team environment and you wish they will simply implement those practices that you talk about. Is there a way that we can persuade others to, to follow a particular methodology?

DA: Yeah. Well, interesting. That’s the next book will be GTD and organizational culture. And how much when these practices implemented by indeed by a key individual and or a team itself moves them up the food chain. So you start to think at different levels in different ways, as opposed to, you know, patching cracks and trying to handle the stuff's just not been handled and dealing with all of that stuff. So these practices of GTD are quite appropriately, you know, applicable to team and culture. And that could be your family as well as your project team, as well as your management team. If I walked in as a consultant to your family, to your manager team for my first question is what has this team's attention? I'm going to go up to the whiteboard or wherever, what's not on cruise control for you guys right now. Why, what, what has your attention right now that needs thinking decisions, whatever. Step one capture. 

And then once we get all that on the whiteboard, we're going to go on. Great. Let’s go through these one by one. What is that? Is there something you guys need to do about that one? And by the way, what would your next action be to put that to bed or to put it on, or  that need to go to someday, maybe? Or is that a dumb idea? So we did a clarify step, then step three is okay, once we've come up with the actions and the projects, then we're going to organize those things. Okay. Now here's the five or 12 or 13 projects we need to do about this thing, right?

Not only are we going to organize that, but then we're going to go, okay. And then who owns that? So in a team context, these, these principles just go apply, but there's more detail. You'd probably need to drill down to what you don't probably need to drill down to is what's the next action once you've had, Hey Jose, is that yours? Yeah, that's mine. Great. Uh, what's the outcome and when might we get that by? Okay, we got that. Great! Bye. Right? So Jose then needs to decide himself, what's the next action he needs to do to make sure he makes that commitment. So then there's the individual productivity algorithm, which GTD really defines it in detail that then needs to apply to the individuals. Let me back this up. Yadi , can you teach an organization to read? No, but do you need people who can read in your organization. Can  you teach GTD to the organization? No. Do you need people who understand GTD to make the organization work? Yeah, absolutely. 

So if you think about that's the spin of the difference between the methodology on uncovered and how you could approach this to leadership, to organizational development, to, you know, you could take this to Kanban, take this to lean, take this to scrum, take this to any of this. And the people who are the best champions of these things who know my stuff go, wow. GTD is absolutely critical to make these things work.

YC: That is wonderful news said, that's your next book coming up (laughs) 

DA: We'll see, we'll see if the publisher wants to do it. We'll see. But that's in the works simply that, you know, it's true. Once people get this, they go, Oh my God, why doesn't everybody around me get this. It'll make life so much easier. Yeah, no kidding. 

YC: I want to know as well,  since you have implemented this, coming up with a methodology or kind of capturing what you have learned, how does a day in the life for you look like overall now. Just want to know a little bit about you being in the life at home, how you implement the systems on your day to day? 

DA: Me personally, well, the night before I look at my calendar for the next two days to see how long I can sleep. I love sleep. I try to sleep as long as I get, although we have a new puppy that has to get up in the morning and has to do her puppy things outside. And so, but I like to see what else I need to have in my mind about the day that's coming up in terms of whether I can go back to sleep after the puppy does her thing or whether I need to be up and do some other things. So then I look at my day, the night before, cause the only thing I have on my calendar, things that I have hard commitments about, I don't have, I'd like to, or I should or whatever I just have. Here's the things that I've committed to, so that I know what that hard landscape is, meaning the things that don't have a lot of movability to them.

And then I sleep as long as I can, wake up, take the puppy, drink a glass of lemon water, uh, share, French roast coffee pot with my wife and read the Dutch news and the New York Times front pages to should to get a sense of whether the world is still alive and well. And then, uh, you know, play a couple of games of Words with Friends, Scrabble, so I get my brain up and running and then I do, then I do whatever I feel like doing. And that could be, that could be a number of things, but again, I have all of that in front of me. I have all of that context there. So I'd plan as well, in a sense as little as, as little as I can get by with some things, you know, need to have a timeframe on, but anything that doesn't have a hard, external commitment, I leave myself license free to do, and then I just, you know, manage all that. And then during the day I just clean up my in-tray, clean up my in baskets, clean up my email as I have time in between to do that, to keep the backlog clear so that I'm free to make decisions about what I need to do.

YC: Sounds like a great day in terms of having that control  over decisions, um, and knowing what you want to do, leaving enough time to do what you want, which is what all of us want. Basically just not being able to rush around things.

DA: Maybe this is just me personally, my style, but I like being free, spontaneous, don't fence me in create as little as structure as I can to be free, to follow my intuitive judgments moment to moment because things change so fast, not only from the external inputs, but from my internal inputs. Yeah. Yadi, you're going to be smarter tomorrow than you are today.

YC: You thank you so much for sharing all this information because it's absolutely, uh, you covered a lot of the great things, , that you have covered in your books. I've read the book a couple of times, and it's always, I kind of come up with new things that I can implement in order to have a better level of, the good productivity. So thank you so much for your time.

YC: Quite welcome, and thanks for the invitation.