Getting Things Done founder David Allen talks to CIO UK

Getting Things Done (GTD) is probably the world's most popular time management methodology – and it's particularly popular among technologists. Founder David Allen says he gets five or six messages a day from people around the world saying how much the system has changed their lives.

Since time management is on the minds of all IT directors, I got in touch with David Allen and asked him for some tips that might help CIOs in the UK.

Pat Brans: Can you start by giving me an overview of Getting Things Done (GTD)?
David Allen: Sure thing. You know, I just spent 30 years basically honing the best practices for time management. I identified the practices that make a difference between good days and bad days - the difference between surfing on top of your world or being overwhelmed by it.

A half a beat ahead and half a beat behind is only one beat difference, but man, it's a light year difference in terms of how it feels. There are very specific kinds of behaviors that I identified and researched and tested and I morphed together this methodology called "Getting Things Done", which is really just a set of those best practices.

Most people who think about time management, personal productivity, organisation, or stress management attempt to address the same thing, which is: how do I achieve or maintain or regain control, how do I achieve, maintain, or regain focus?

I just discovered the algorithm that actually produces that.

Pat Brans: Can you describe the algorithm?
David Allen: Quite simply there is a five-step process to getting something under control. You need to capture the stuff that's not on cruise control, you need to clarify exactly what those things are, what they mean, what you're going to do about them if anything. You need to organise the results in appropriate categories. You don't have to keep rethinking what these things mean and then you do step back and reflect and review on the inventory of all those commitments and multiple horizons.

Then you make good trusted intuitive choices about how you engage and focus your attention and your resources as opposed to being driven by the latest and loudest, and hope that what you're doing is right.

Now that's actually how you get your kitchen under control, it is how you get a country under control, and it is how you get your company under control.

I just identified the steps - and all of those five steps are quite different steps. It's not just about going out to get organised or going out and setting priorities. That's way too simplistic, and your system will implode if you just try to do that. But each one of those steps we have identified has a specific pattern of behaviour or things to do with specific techniques that are different from each other. In other words, capturing thoughts and ideas and potentially meaningful items is very different from organizing the results or thinking through those things.

Pat Brans: The book Getting Things Done was published in 2001, and it has had quite a big take up. Can you describe the typical user of GTD? Is there a typical age?
David Allen: No, there is no typical age. It ranges all over the place. The one common denominator we've seen over all these years is the people who are most attracted to it are the people who need it the least.

The most productive people are the most interested in the uptake. They are usually the people, who - at least subliminally - assume that their life is going to be better in some way 18 months from now. It's really interesting to people that are on a productivity track already as opposed to people who don't even know things are out of control.

It used to puzzle me why the most productive people were the most interested in this and then one day I had the big aha. It's the most productive people who get the most value out of reducing drag on their systems, and that's what GTD does. It eliminates drag.

You're not moving if you're in your comfort zone. Getting rid of drag is a drag, because you have to change some habits and behaviors to make the system work. But it's kind of like fine-tuning or refining somebody who is already high.

And those people could be 12-year-olds. They could be CEOs. They could be new hire receptionists. They could be homemakers. We work with all of them.

Pat Brans: What are people looking to achieve specifically through GTD?
David Allen: They want help in getting more or less of something, and that something might be leaving work sooner, spending more time with the kids, watching more football, making more money, or producing more at work. It's really about people who have some level of investment in increasing quality of life, quality of output, or quality of experience.

Pat Brans: So they have to have identified that they need help in the first place, right?
David Allen:
Yeah, yeah.  Once people catch this, they want everybody around them to get it because life would be a whole lot easier if all of your intersections kind of moved up the food chain using these best practice principles. But you can't really legislate this system to anybody. What you can do is hold them accountable to deliverables because GTD is really is nothing but just good business practices.

You make a commitment with me and keep track of it. I'll keep track of it too, so we both make sure the thing happens. If it matters to us that it happens, we need to make sure we have the integrity to make it happen.

So that's all it is. It's making sure to use the techniques and the tools to really build the external brain and that's a lot of what GTD did was recognize the value of building an external brain instead of trying to use your psyche to do it. Your psyche is a terrible office.

If you're handling yourself, everybody around you is going to know that, and is going to feel it - especially if they report to you or somehow look up to you or need your approval. You can hold them to the kind of standards you're holding yourself to, and you don't even have to say GTD. You just say hey, I gave you these six things last week. How are they doing? You've got a list. I guarantee you if you're the boss, they're going to get their list.

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