Getting Things Done


Tuesday 27 September 2011

David Allen

Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity

BAFTA, London

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At any given point in time, most of us are engaged in 75-100 projects. From work projects to “organising a holiday” and “doing something about Mom’s birthday,” David Allen argues we’ve all got a lot of “stuff” to deal with.

Allen, “kinda Californian” and the world’s foremost productivity guru, offered practical tips on how to cope with our increasingly complex world. His system, Getting Things Done (GTD), is not a simple one. That’s because to deal with complexity, Allen believes, “you need a complex system.”

When we are in control, relaxed, highly focused and inspired this is our “optimal productivity state.” “You’ve all been there,” Allen assured the 200 strong audience at the London Business Forum (LBF). The problem is, he suggested, “People will find themselves in this state and don’t know how they got there. Then they’ll fall out of it and don’t know how to get back there again.”

We’re in this “optimal” state, Allen suggested, when we look at our watches and think, “Where did the time go?” It’s when “stuff is happenin’.” What GTD teaches are behaviours to regain that focus and control when we fall off the productivity wagon: when we’re out of control, stressed, unfocused, bored and stuck.It’s also about clearing our minds to have the time, or “bandwidth”, to be more creative and innovative. By taking control and organising all the “stuff” that comes into our lives on a daily basis we can achieve a kind of psychological liberation, Allen suggested. “I love having nothing on my mind, except what I want to have my attention on,” he told the LBF.

Allen credits Karate for helping him discover the GTD principles. “When four people jump you in a dark alley, you do not want 2000 unprocessed emails sitting, hanging in your psyche.” When an important project comes your way at work, just as in combat, you want to have “full availability” to respond appropriately to it. This, Allen explained, is how he realised “the strategic value of clear space.”

So what are the GTD rules?

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organise
  4. Review
  5. Execution

Everyone, Allen insists, must have a place where they capture “potentially meaningful” information: “Things that have landed in your world […] that have something you need to do about it, you just don’t know what to do about it yet.”

To capture this information you need “collection devices”: files, in-trays, notebooks etc. This is essential for remembering ideas too. Ideas always happen when and where you’re not expecting them, explained Allen. “You need a place to capture that agenda thought while you’re buying bread, and a place to capture that bread thought while you’re in that marketing meeting.”

However, he warned the LBF not to become “compulsive list makers”. You have to follow the next stages through and give all the “stuff” you’ve captured your attention in order to decide what needs to be done. Ask yourself, said Allen, “Am I going to do something about this?” If the answer is no, or maybe then you can delete this information.

Once you have clarified what something means it can be filed in the appropriate place, this is step three: Organise. Allen insisted that he is only organised because once he has clarified what something means he is too lazy to want to think about what it means again. If it is filed somewhere where its meaning is predefined then you won’t fall back a step.

After information has been captured, clarified and organised it must be reviewed on a consistent basis, Allen told the LBF. Constant review means that you can keep track of projects, ensure you’re reaching the milestones that you’ve set and clear anything that is no longer relevant.

Allen suggested that step four is often what is lacking in today’s organisations. Weekly reviews, he stressed, are so important. They need to be held away from the desk, serving as a kind of business “oasis” and a time to catch up on all the projects you’re managing. Allen calls this “professional reflective time.”

Following these steps leads to best practice in productivity, said Allen. If any of these steps slip then the choices we make will not be confident ones, “you will be making choices on what’s latest and loudest and not out of a trust factor but out of a hope factor.” GTD is not, Allen insists, about making the world simpler because the world isn’t simple, it’s about being “engaged in this complexity that we are engaged in.”

Allen concluded with a guarantee: “If you have captured everything that has your attention, clarified what it means to you, organised the results in some appropriate way so that you can review it […] and you have had sufficient enough of a conversation about why you’re here and what success would look like, what you need to accomplish, what you need to maintain and what you need to finish and you got all that and out in front of you, I guarantee you that you can go have a beer and have nothing on your mind.”

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