Getting Things Done – Interview with David Allen
This interview was from the March-April 2006 Issue of Homiletics
David Allen is an international author, lecturer and founder and president of the David Allen Company, a management consulting, coaching and training company.
In the last 20 years he has developed and implemented productivity improvement programs for over a half-million professionals in hundreds of organizations worldwide, including many Fortune 500 corporations and U.S. Government agencies. He delivers public and in-house seminars, executive work-flow coaching and consulting programs that address interactive and organizational productivity and alignment issues.
He is the author of two books — the international best-selling book, Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking 2001) and Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life (Viking 2003). He has published numerous essays and articles in professional journals and periodicals on the topic of personal effectiveness.
David is a popular keynote speaker on the topics of time and stress management, individual and team productivity and high-performance work practices.It was at such a conference that he stopped to give us some time over coffee in a corner of the hotel lobby.
HOMILETICS: Pastors consider themselves to be very busy people doing ministry that has a high level of value for them. They manage a core group of volunteers; they visit the sick in the hospital, the troubled in their homes; they attend meetings, and they’re also expected to have time to prepare for a sermon, plan the worship experience and so on. What advice do you have for them?
ALLEN: It’s the advice I have for anyone who has to maintain an inventory of what I call open loops, that is, things that you’re committed to do but you can’t finish when you think of it, but you have to keep track of it.
You need a whole series of “best practices” and techniques — to be able to manage that, you have to be able to know that you’ve captured the inventory of what those are, that you’ve clarified what those are, that you’ve organized the results of those in coherent way, so that when you’re doing whatever you’re doing — whether you’re visiting in someone’s house or writing a sermon — you don’t have the rest of that inventory encroaching on your psyche so that you can be fully available to whatever you’re doing when you’re doing it.
But your brain won’t let you loose from that until it trusts that there’s a better system than it. You can fool me, but not your brain. And so the problem is that your system isn’t better than your brain, your brain keeps trying to do it but it doesn’t do it very well, it gets it all mixed up, it tries to do everything at once, there’s no sense of past or future in there, so you feel you should be doing that “other thing” even though you can’t be doing it right now, but part of you thinks you should be doing it right now.
The basic message is that it’s possible to be fully available for whatever you’re doing with no sense of being overwhelmed, have time disappear and be totally on with what you’re doing, and still be buried in your life, but you don’t get that for free! You have to maintain these best practices that manage this.
HOMILETICS: So you have a message of hope! [laughter]
ALLEN: It’s not a belief system. You can test it out. It’s pure mechanics: You do this, you produce this result. Your mind is made for having ideas, not for holding ideas.
HOMILETICS: An ancient rabbi was once asked to explain or define his faith while standing on one foot. So he recited the Shema. Standing on one foot, what is the “Getting Things Done” or GTD system?
ALLEN: Keep it all out of your head, determine specifically what the outcomes and the action steps on actionable items are, parse that thinking into trusted places, review them and reflect on them as appropriate, and trust your heart in terms of your choices and options.
HOMILETICS: I believe you could have said that standing on one foot! [laughter] You say that you can’t do projects and pastors are very project oriented, they’ve got balls in the air all the time. We’re going into Lent, the Lenten brochure needs to be printed, the Bible study needs to be organized and so on. What do you mean that we can’t “do” projects?
ALLEN: You can’t do an outcome. You can’t do taxes. All you can do are physical actions: boot computer, type words, pick up phone, walk body. You can only do actions. It’s just that a project is actually an outcome so that if I do enough of the right actions I can say that my taxes are done, my church is built, my assistant is hired. You don’t actually do a project.
People say, “I don’t have time to do a project.” And I say, “Do what?” Well, they haven’t figured that out yet. They haven’t figured what the doing looks like. So you don’t know how much time you need. Because you can’t do a project, you can only do an action about it.
HOMILETICS: So you have time to do the next action.
ALLEN: Well, you may or you may not. You don’t know how much time you need unless you know what that next action is.
For most people, their most strategic project has a less-than-two minute action, so it shouldn’t even be around. It should already be done. Because for most people, their most strategic project, the next step would be to have a meeting of key people to figure out how to tackle it, and it usually takes less than two minutes to set a meeting, but unless you’ve figured that out and made the decision that setting that meeting is actually the next thing to do, you’re the bottle- neck, and you’re hung up. I don’t have time to do what? Set a meeting? How long does that take? Doesn’t take very long at all, but until you figure out what the next action is, you don’t know how much time you need.
HOMILETICS: You have a chapter called “Getting Control of Your Life: Five Stages of Mastering Work Flow.” There’s almost something of a spiritual ring to that, as though, if we could bring the clutter, an unruly desk, under control, it would bring to us a sense of deeper wholeness.
ALLEN: If you care about what you’re doing, if you’re doing meaningful things, your ability to do those meaningful things with less distraction is going to be more fulfilling to you.
If you’re not doing meaningful things, a clean desk isn’t going to make your life any more meaningful than a messy desk. So, give me a break! Being organized is not the essence of anything. Organized toward what? Organization just means that there’s an efficiency to my system. But if you know what you’re doing, efficiency is your only improvement opportunity.
I think Jesus was probably a great businessman. If you really know what you’re doing — saving more souls with less effort, or improving life with less effort — now a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, so their improvement opportunity is to learn about where they’re going and what they’re doing.
HOMILETICS: This doesn’t have anything to do with happiness, per se.
ALLEN: No, you don’t have to like your life to get it in line.
HOMILETICS: So, well-organized people aren’t happier people, necessarily.
ALLEN: Not necessarily. Often, people who are doing service and doing good work are the highest stressed people because they care. There’s no end to good work that you can do. So the ability to overwhelm yourself is magnified exponentially the more your work is meaningful.
HOMILETICS: So these five stages, Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do. I gotta tell you when I first read those, I later couldn’t remember what they were. So I wrote down the first letters, C-P-O-R-D, and I thought if Allen had used an H instead of a P for process, he’d have CHORD. Hitting the right chord. And then I thought of the word Handle instead of Process, as in take care of, process, deal with. That would be too gimmicky, wouldn’t it?
ALLEN: I’m going to chew on that!
HOMILETICS: When people make lists, often the first thing they put at the top of the list is: “Get organized.” What does that mean to most people? Why doesn’t it work?
ALLEN: When you look at most people’s “to-do” lists, all you see is an incomplete list of unclear stuff. Every single thing on your list is either attracting you or repulsing you. There’s no neutral territory. You’re either going, “Wow! When can I mark that off?!” Or it’s, “No! Get out of my face!” Because there’s thinking about this I haven’t finished yet, and I don’t have the time or energy to think about it now, so stop reminding me I’m overwhelmed.
So the problem is that what most people consider being organized, isn’t yet. And it still has a lot of gaps to it, and so the brain hasn’t truly been able to relax and let go because the system isn’t complete, coherent and consistent. What they call organized is only partial and it’s only reminding them that there’s more to do that they haven’t felt like doing.
In other words, if you still have a bunch of stuff in your head as well as stuff on the list, you don’t really trust the list. Your brain can’t really let go. “Yeah, but there’s stuff I need to do.” The reason “getting organized” doesn’t really work for people is because they haven’t collected all the stuff that they need to think about, they haven’t finished the thinking about all the things they need to think about, so that they can consider the content of what needs to populate the organization of their system.
In other words if you have something bugging you in your brain, and you haven’t sat down and figured out what the next step is, then some part of you is still spinning around, there’s an open loop out there. What I discovered was that there’s a thinking algorithm that you can actually finish; you don’t have to finish whatever the thing is about to get it off your mind. What you do have to do is you have to put it in front of yourself, get yourself to make the decisions about what outcome You’re committed to and what’s the action step that would start to move it forward, park those things in some trusted place that you trust you will look at as frequently as you need to, to keep your agreement with yourself about what this thing means. Then, your mind will let go, but not until.
So it’s possible to have all this serve you, but when most people try to get organized, they don’t actually collect everything and process it first. They try to do it all in one shot and they blow a fuse when they do that.
HOMILETICS: And that’s the cornerstone of the system: First, collect and get the buckets out there and start throwing stuff into them.
ALLEN: That’s the very first thing to do: Grab what has your attention. Another way to say that is: If you don’t give what has your attention the appropriate attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves. So start paying attention to what has your attention.
There’s gold to be mined inside of that. It’s not a bad thing. It just means there’s something that’s not finished about that. That “ding, ding, ding, dude” — your bell’s being rung internally by some thing, and the reason it’s in there is that some part of you has some commitment and intention that is not being managed as constructively or productively as it could, or you haven’t finished what you need to do to get that into place inside of yourself, and so it’s ringing your bell until you do. So you’ve got a great servant in there that’s whining, “What are you going to do?” [in a childish, mimicky voice] It’s only about 7 years old emotionally.
That’s why it wakes you up at 3 o’clock in the morning and beats you bloody about something while you’re just lying there. It don’t have a brain. Your brain doesn’t have a brain. If it did it would only remind you of stuff when you had a chance to do something about it.
So understanding that principle, you will start to pay the right kind of attention to what has your attention. Why is it yanking my chain? I better pound that stake in the ground out there because I’ve got a commitment I better keep track of, and I better trust I’m going to be reminded of that project as often as I need to. That’s why a weekly review and those kinds of reflection processes are so critical. You’ve got to trust that you’re going to be looking at those lists. You have a lot of people who make lists, but they still don’t get rid of the anxiety because they don’t look at the lists.
HOMILETICS: You stress the weekly review.
ALLEN: It’s not the only review. It’s probably the most lacking. The lack of it is creating the most stress right now in people’s professional and organizational lives, simply because you need to review different things at different horizons, at different recurrings. How often do you need to review people to call? Well, soon as you have time on the phone, so several times a day. How often do you need to review your calendar? Several times a day. Where do I need to be next? You need to review and reflect on your action levels, often several times a day.
But once a week, what do you need to see? Well you need to see whatever you need to see to keep the action list populated. And that would be what I call projects — tires on the car, hire the assistant, restructure the junior choir. Whatever.
If you’re actually looking at them sufficiently once a week, you probably don’t need to see them more often than that, because, again, you can’t do those projects. About choir: Oh, I need to talk to Betty Smith about that. You need to be reminded about talking to Betty Smith, because that’s what you need to do to move this forward, and you just need to make sure that the “talk-to-Betty-Smith-level” of doing has been defined, and that’s why the weekly review is so critical.
HOMILETICS: Do you put the weekly review down as a calendar item?
ALLEN: I don’t, because I don’t need a calendar to remind me to take a shower; the scuzz factor gets too high if I don’t. So, for me, I don’t need to write it down because my psyche scuzz factor gets too high if I’ve gone too many days without doing a review.
When you’re first trying to build this habit, it’s not a bad idea to build some cues into that. Sometimes I say, maybe you should do it every Friday, or whenever you’re at the end of your work week, or for pastors giving sermons on Sundays, Monday morning might be a good time for a weekly review, or perhaps Friday afternoon so they can get their “church business” stuff off their plate so they can write their sermons on Saturdays. I don’t know. Whenever you do it should be a habitual time to do it.
HOMILETICS: You talk about a mind like water, and your friend and mine, Randy Coy, told us yesterday that he has a mind like mud. [laughter] He’s been under the weather, low energy right now. Often he has a mind like gasoline, things just explode out of his mind. But what do you mean when you suggest that we should have a mind like water?
ALLEN: It comes from a martial arts image of throwing stuff into water. Water responds to input appropriately. And then it’s back to calm and balance again. It’s like a clear pond, and it’s ready for whatever you throw into it, and it will engage with that appropriately. Doesn’t overreact, doesn’t underreact. And then it’s back to calm and balance again, and ready for whatever the next reaction is.
You would translate that to: the appropriate reaction and response to any input in your life.
HOMILETICS: How do you develop a sense of what’s appropriate?
ALLEN: You make sure you’re not distracted. Distraction will keep your mind from being clear and open. You take one meeting into the next meeting, or you take your work home with you, you’re not mind like water, I’m sorry, you’ve got a psychological pigpen. You’re running around with all this stuff spinning around you, you still got residue.
Executive behavior gets rid of residue rapidly. Get off the phone. What does that mean? What did I decide? What do I need to do about that? You get closure, you clean up, you clarify and organize and dispatch the results of that thinking rapidly so that you’re available to the next person. You don’t have that stuff about what you need to do still spinning around.
We engage, and if we engage in stuff that we can’t complete in the very moment we’re engaged with it, we’ll pay for that. We will bring that forward in some psychological way. The whole point is, with as little effort as possible, how do you sufficiently finish that process? Otherwise it will keep following you, and you’ll be sitting there talking to me and your brain will be 14 other places.
HOMILETICS: What? — no, just kidding. [laughter] In the New Testament, we read that “faith without works is dead.” Is this another way of saying that it’s not enough to have a vision and to know what the outcome should be, we also need to know what the next action is? Agree?
ALLEN: Absolutely. And, you know, that gets to a big issue. A lot of people, especially people sensitive to quality of life, don’t like imperfection. And so their procrastination factor can be huge because they don’t want to do until they know. The problem is you don’t know anything until you do. So, that’s another way to say faith without works is dead.
You’ve got to get engaged. If you don’t get engaged, there’s a part of your mechanism that doesn’t think, doesn’t think appropriately, doesn’t get the information it needs. Now, you may just need to go do something that helps further thinking. But you’re still going to have to do something.
HOMILETICS: You use an analogy from the aerospace industry to assess the “doing.”
ALLEN: There are multiple levels of how you define what your work is. Somewhat arbitrarily they to seem to fall into about six different levels, or horizons, or conversations with yourself.
If you go top down, from 50,000 feet, for example, you’ve got Purpose of Life, the ultimate driver, what’s your raison d’etre, and core values. So that’s like 50,000 feet. What’s the purpose of my life? That’s one level of conversation to have. What’s the purpose of our church? What’s the purpose of this project? So this lofty viewpoint is the ultimate driver of every decision, allocation of resources. Are we on purpose? Meetings that have no purpose are not effective meetings.
If you apply this to your life, your church, or organization, you say, “Well, here’s the basic purpose of what we do,” then the next level is the 40,000-foot level, “What would the vision look like of your purpose being fulfilled here in the world?” So that’s the vision stuff. Organizationally, or even personally, three to five years out. Where are you going? If things are going as well as they could go, what’s pulling or pushing on you as you try to express yourself out here in the world? That’s the vision of 40,000 feet.
Then we say, “Okay, in order to make that vision show up, let’s back it down a bit. What’s going to have to be true 12 months or 18 months from now so that that vision will actually happen. Ah! Now we’re coming down to what we would call strategic planning, or annual planning. This level is what I call 30,000 feet — things that you can actually finish or accomplish that would move you toward the bigger gain.
At 20,000 feet, it’s a little different spin. You say, “In order to get there, I’ve got all these different parts of myself and/or my organization that I need to maintain and manage. That’s what I call 20,000 feet, which would be areas of focus and responsibility.
For instance, if you don’t take care of your body, none of this is going to happen. So some part of you needs to maintain the physical body. You also need to maintain relationships. I’ve got a marriage, I’m a parent. This would be, organizationally, your work chart: How’s P.R.? How’s marketing? How’s sales? How’s operations? How’s finance? How’s quality control?
HOMILETICS: How’s tithing?
ALLEN: How’s tithing? [laughter] That’s right! How’s morale? How’s the staff? How’s burnout? What are all the pieces and parts of these mechanisms that need to be maintained at certain levels and standards? This is 20,000 feet.
Now if you have those conversations, purpose, core values, vision, where we’re going, here’s the plan, here’s all the areas we need to maintain, you look at all that, you will have probably come up with, as most people do, 30-100 projects about all that. Get tires on my car, start an exercise program, hire my assistant, set up a planning session with our board. All that stuff. That’s where you start to get a lot more operational, down to projects, 10,000 feet. More than one-step things that you can finish within a year.
Now you still don’t have anything you can do with any of that. But then all that boils down to what I call the runway. Let’s look at the physical action items that need to happen about those projects: the phone calls, e-mails, the “talk to Bill,” buy nails, that stuff.
So these are the different horizons essentially of work. Now, how much is knowing your life purpose going to help you to decide which e-mail to write first tonight? Try this: a little bit.
It does help — a little bit. It will help a lot more if you know what the vision of that looks like, it will help a lot more if you know what your short-term goals are, and it will help a lot more if you’ve checked all the moving parts of what your doing and you’ve decided what you need to do to maintain those, and it will help a lot more if you’ve defined all the projects you need to do, and it will help a whole lot more if you’ve gotten clear about the 140 things you need to actually do about all that, then, you might have a choice, you might have a chance to sit down and trust which e-mail to write first.
I don’t think that you can skip any one of those conversations at any one of those horizons and still trust your choices.
HOMILETICS: This isn’t an approach you suggest that we apply to all areas of our lives, including relationships.
ALLEN: No, if your head’s empty you don’t need any of this! I’m sorry. Welcome to lazy! So I don’t suggest people do this unless they want nothing on their mind. I’m just saying, “Look, if you just want to be, dude, piece of cake!”
The problem is, because we’re on a doing, material level, if you’re not doing, you’re going to have a hard time being. You can only be so long without doing at this level. Being is a way to remind yourself of the way other levels are but not the way this one is.
The only reason for these conversations is to assist me and anyone else to say, “Okay, let’s try to identify what some of these open loops are so that we can start to grapple with them.” If we don’t identify them, they’re going to be pulling or pushing on you.
HOMILETICS: But in relationships, isn’t this a bit artificial? Isn’t a highly organized and structural system in your life the enemy of spontaneity and creativity?
ALLEN: Good questions. Here’s another truth: If you don’t handle mechanical things mechanically, it will start to mechanicalize your life. If you don’t want to send your spouse an e-mail or if you don’t want to have a list of business-of-life stuff that you need to go over with your spouse, then, trying to remember all the stuff you need to go over with your spouse is going to take over your relationship. Whereas if you just handle it, you get it out of the way so that when you’re together you’re spontaneous. Right?
If you can live in spontaneity, be my guest! Be my guest! I get a lot of people who say, “Oh, I’d like to be an artist, creative and spontaneous.”
I say, “What kind of art?”
“Great! Show me your brushes.” They do. Neat as a pin. Neat as a pin! What do you mean you’re not organized? Oh, they say, I don’t think about organizing when it’s important to me. When you’re actually doing something that you really care about, getting organized is not something to do, it’s something you do. You just can’t help it.
If you’re going to play golf, you better know where your 9-iron is. You’re not thinking about getting organized; you just have to do that. So what do you need to do to make sure your relationship has nothing on your mind except spontaneity and enjoying your relationship? You better clarify stuff: Are you going to pick up the kids after school or am I? You getting the present for Suzie or am I? Do we need to get wine for the dinner?
So if you don’t handle the business of life, it screws up spontaneity. Make sense?
HOMILETICS: Yeah, does. Let me quote Mr. Allen: “One of the greatest challenges we must face at some point in our lives is that our sense of self-worth cannot hang solely on our inventory of what we’ve created. If all we’d done were to disappear at this moment, we have to know that we will continue to have value and that we can create from scratch what we need of what we want. We have to know that no matter how finished we think we are, God isn’t done with us until she is.”
Did you think that no one would notice? [laughter]
ALLEN: Just trying to be equitable!
HOMILETICS: Do women as a general rule handle work flow better than men?
HOMILETICS: What about personality types? Are some people just more innately able to keep their lives organized?
ALLEN: I haven’t seen a bias on any of that, actually. People do it for different reasons. You might see someone with a messy desk, but at 30,000 feet he’s a lot clearer than most people. And you see people with a clean desk and they don’t have any idea what they’re doing with their lives. So who’s better organized?
Well, a lot of people are using cleaning up the runways as a way to avoid thinking about more strategic and inspirational levels that will actually blow the heck out of their systems and keep them disorganized and on the edge. “Being organized” is not the essence of this thing anyway.
So, who takes to it? There are different reasons. The highly “results-oriented” personality will like the system because it will let him get results better, bigger and easier. A person who likes to experience quality-of-life stuff, likes the system because it then frees him up for quality-of-life stuff. So people do things for different reasons. If you’re a party guy, you’ll like it because it will make for better parties. If you’re a bean counter, you’ll like it because you can count beans better.
But I haven’t seen any difference in terms of Myers-Briggs types, personality types, right-left brainers, yin and yangs. Everyone is going to have a weak suit; some people will be people who vision a lot easier, but they’ll have a tough time grappling with action items and execution, and others hate to do the vision thing, they just want to be told what to do and follow orders.
So, again, which person takes to GTD? Well, the person who takes to following orders is going to need to stretch himself to keep focused on results. But I haven’t seen anyone who doesn’t have a problem creating a project list.
In other words, everyone is equally out of control with this stuff. [laughter] Most people, until they meet me, or see someone on our staff, actually implementing this, it’s like, “Wow, I still have a lot of work to do.” I had 200 people in a room this morning, and afterward they were like, “Goodness, I thought I had it all together.”
HOMILETICS: Do you get a messiah complex? Like you’re saving all these people from themselves? The problem with messiahs is that they usually get killed in the end.
ALLEN: Yeah, I love to get off the pedestal as fast as I can. “Excuse me, do not put me on a pedestal. I’m just an ordinary shmoo like everybody else and I fall off this wagon as much as anybody. I just happen to have come across a model that works.” So at least I can hold up the banner of what the model is.
HOMILETICS: What were you like as a teen? You have the pocket protectors and ballpoint pens? Attache case to class? [laughter]
ALLEN: No, not really, but I wasn’t disorganized either.
HOMILETICS: Was there a life crisis that caused you to say, “Wait a minute, I need to do something here”? Well, that’s a bit personal, you don’t need to answer that.
ALLEN: No, I’ve had numerous of those over time, but not so much about this particular piece of it. I have always been interested in spirit, stuff that’s invisible, how the invisible impacts or relates to the visible. I knew there was stuff going on that you couldn’t see. So I was fascinated and determined to find out what that was, because ultimately I’m a lazy guy, so if I can find out what’s really making all this work, that’s the easier place to operate from, right? So let’s go find out what that is.
But as I have matured in life, I’ve started to uncover the fact that there are a lot of unseen things, and if you were really going to get into the science of spirituality, if you will, that getting to a clear space was an important thing to do and that meditative or reflective or contemplative things were not about quiet in your life, they were about listening to a different noise. You can’t hear that noise if this noise out here is too loud. So it’s not that it’s not loud inside, it’s much more all-encompassing when you go inside than this is out here. But it’s so subtle that this will distract you easily.
I found that I was very interested in being engaged in the world but I still had an inner life. So how are you in the world but not of it? That’s been a growing desire and awareness. And I got some great mentors, tips and techniques over the years, but it was always about, “Oh, this makes me a lot clearer. Oh, wow, this feels better!” Now it’s easier to maintain clarity and not be distracted. I just don’t like stress, and I don’t like to work hard, or harder than I need to.
So there wasn’t any big cataclysmic event. But still, if you saw my toolshed, you’d go, “Wow, this guy who teaches organization is out of control!” I don’t put a lot of attention on it until I really need something really important that I can’t find and then I just get it together, go hit my button, clean up my toolshed. But, I’m just an average Joe.
HOMILETICS: I was interested to note as I was reading these books that you use the word “preaching” frequently. You really do have a sense of mission, that what you have to share will improve the quality of life and it drives you.
ALLEN: Well, it attracts me. I don’t know that it drives me. How can I keep doing this? I’ve seen very few things with so little risk involved create so many profound and positive effects in people’s lives.
And also, I don’t pretend that all of this is spiritual, other than everything is spiritual, but it’s based on what I’ve experienced as spiritual principles. We have to be responsible for where we put our energy. We have to bring that to the table, and grace can let it all go and as soon as you’re of service you don’t need any of this, you’ll be in your zone. So you’ve transcended what this level’s about anyhow, you’ve moved into another sphere.
My stuff doesn’t replace that, in terms of that fulfillment that tapping into the more spiritual qualities of who you are — will bring you to.
To learn more about David Allen and the GTD system, visit www.DavidCo.com.