in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #543: Learn the System for Getting Things Done

Over ten years ago, I read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. I’ve been using the tactics and strategies that he laid out in the book in managing tasks and, well, getting things done, ever since. David’s out with a new workbook to accompany his classic bestseller, and I have the pleasure to speak with him today about his philosophy and system for managing life. We begin our conversation discussing how David came up with the GTD system in the first place and how it differs from other time management systems out there. David then explains what the “mind like water” mantra is about and how the GTD system helps you clear your head. We then dig into the specific steps of getting things done, including capturing ideas, clarifying tasks into action, organizing those actions, reflecting on your action list, and, of course, taking action!

This is a time management system I can personally endorse, so if you’re not familiar with it or have fallen off the GTD wagon, I recommend giving this show a listen.

Show Highlights

  • The origins of the GTD system
  • What makes GTD different from other productivity/time management methods?
  • Why your head is a crappy office 
  • Recognizing what has your attention, and then capturing it 
  • Going from capturing to clarifying 
  • The two-minute rule 
  • Sorting all your various next actions 
  • Projects vs. actions 
  • What it means to “reflect and engage” 
  • The importance of daily and weekly reviews 
  • How couples and families can implement the GTD system 
  • What does GTD mastery look like?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

"Getting things done" book cover David Allen.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Over 10 years ago, I read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, and I’ve been using the tactics and strategies that he laid out in the book in managing task, and well, getting things done ever since. David Allen with a new workbook to accompany his classic bestseller. I have the pleasure to speak with him today about his philosophy and systems for managing life.

We begin our conversation discussing how David came up with the GTD system in the first place and how it differs from other time management systems out there. David then explains what the mind like water mantra is about and how the GTD system helps you clear your head. We then dig into the specific steps in Getting Things Done including capturing ideas, clarifying task into action, organizing these actions, reflecting on your action list, and of course, taking action. It’s a time management system I can personally adore. If you’re not familiar with it or have fallen off the GTD wagon, I recommend giving the show a listen. After it’s over, checkout the show notes All right, David Allen, welcome to the show.

David Allen: Brett, delighted to be here, thanks for the invitation.

Brett McKay: You are the author and the creator of Getting Things Done. I’ve been using it for over a decade, it’s changed the way I manage myself, and I know a lot of our listeners are familiar with the method in the book. Before we get into that, can you tell us about the origin of this system, and this has become a phenomenon around the world. How did it get started? Where did you start piecing together the idea of what would become Getting Things Done?

David Allen: Well, I was deeply involved in my own sort of self-development process back in the 60s, 70s. I was in Berkeley, California making what was … Well, a lot of what we were doing was sort of exploring ourselves. I got involved in the personal growth movement, got involved in some really elegant experiential training about that stuff. Some of the pieces that were 20, 30 years later to become GTD or part of the methodology as I finally described it in the book and started there.

A lot of it about agreements, you know how do you manage? What happens you don’t keep an agreement with others and with yourself? Some of that started there, and there were also, we started to do some sort of productivity trainings as best we could around that and in a lot about open loops of what happens when you make a commitment that you can’t complete yet, or what happens when you do finish your commitment, that’s open.

Some of the sort of early pieces that were components of, you know, part of the larger gestalt of the personal growth movement. I got familiar with some of those things. Ultimately, after lots of different jobs and not knowing what I wanted to do, I became a consultant and started to work with people who seemed to know what they wanted to do, and I came in and helped them sort of work their own process. A lazy guy will just walk in and say, you know, how can we make this easier? Now, they call that process improvement, but I just said, you know, how much easier can I have to work? Then I’d help my friends with their businesses sort of get up to speed, get under cruise control, they get bored and go somewhere else.

Then I discovered they pay people to do that, they call them consultants, so sort of hung out my own shingle in 1981. I started my own consulting practice, and then I got very attracted to what are kind of models that I could use, and if it wasn’t clear how to help somebody, they might want to bring me in as a consultant. What could I access? What can I pull out of my hip pocket as a model of stuff to walk people through a process that would improve no matter who they were or what kind of business they had or whatever? I was always hungry for what were the sort of the prime or primary or the essential elements to being in the productive state where you had maximum space, maximum clarity, maximum efficiency with whatever you were doing.

I got hungry for that, but also given my work in the personal growth world and in my own spiritual practices and explorations, meditation, kind of black belt in martial arts and karate, and so a lot that had a lot to do with clear head. I also was very attracted to how do you keep your head clear so you can stay focused on all the cool stuff. My life wasn’t broken, but I started to experience and explore some of the techniques I was discovering. I had a couple of great mentors that taught me the other pieces of this. I said, well, that worked for me. It helped keep me clear. Turned around and used those techniques with my clients, it worked for them too, without fail. Well, that’s pretty good.

Then somebody in the big corporate world saw what I was doing to say, wow, we need that in our whole culture for stability and control, accountability, you know, senior and professional people being able to manage themselves well. They asked me if I could design a training around what I had uncovered as these best practices or series of these practices. I did that and it worked very well. It was very successful. In 1983, ‘84, I did that for Lockheed in Burbank, in California. It worked so well. I always found myself thrust into the corporate training world, like god, you could have fooled me. I was an American cultural history major in my graduate school studies in Berkeley, in 1968,

If you had told me I’d be in corporate training world, I had said, what are you smoking? Come on, give me a break. I found out that was the audience that was quite hungry for what I had uncovered, because that was the beginning of the tsunami of email and the digital world and the input that people were dealing with, and the speed of change was speeding up and so people couldn’t rest on their laurels anymore. There was a lot more need in a beginning, awareness, a need I think, certainly, in the major business and corporate world for how do people stay focused and in control, and sort of time management kind of hit a buzz in the 1980s.

I kind of rode that wave, and that’s where it all started, really, was me, just sort of building a bit of a boutique consulting and training practice with a partner or two that just trying to fulfill a need that showed up. I didn’t really know what I had come up with. I’ve never taken a traditional or formal time management or business or psychology class in my life. This was all street smarts that I discovered for that.

A lot of what I had been doing sort of consulting to friends who were running their own businesses and so forth and became the sort of coaching in the corporate world, with the clients that were starting to bring us in to do trainings for lots of people, but their senior people wanted to know how to do this 101. I basically spent thousands and thousands of hours one-on-one desk side with some of smartest and brightest business people you’d ever meet, actually refining and implementing this, what became the sort of Getting Things Done methodology.

Again, Brett, it took me 25 years to figure out what I had figured out and that it was unique and nobody else seemed to have done it, so that’s when I wrote the manual, that’s when the book Getting Things Done came out in 2001. There’s a very short version of a very long story.

Brett McKay: No, well, I think it’s interesting. I loved hearing that, because I loved the idea that you didn’t know where this was going, you didn’t have an end goal, right with this? You just …

David Allen: No, I was just trying maintain … I just wanted a good job. I just was like, oh, they like what I’m doing, well good, what can I do next, who wants me to come back and do something else. I mean, I have not been very entrepreneurial or aspirational. I was more of a researcher and educator than anything else. I just liked to sort of create my own, be able to maintain at least, a boutique kind of a career that could support my lifestyle.

Brett McKay: I think that’s usually for particularly young people who are starting off in their careers. They think they have to have it figured out right from the get-go. Here’s an example of it, you know 25 years, but you found something that’s fantastic.

David Allen: I don’t know how to tell anybody else to do that. I just uncovered it as I came along and just kept staying the course with what’s next, what’s next, and keep doing a good job with whatever was in front of me, and then seeing what showed up next.

Brett McKay: What’s the next action? We’ll talk about that, right, here in a bit.

David Allen: Yeah.

Brett McKay: For those who aren’t familiar with GTD, what makes it different from other time management or productivity methods, so I just said, these kind of sort of picking up in the 80s, where you saw a lot of, yeah, the Timekeeper, the Franklin Covey stuff sort of coming out. What made yours different from that stuff?

David Allen: Well, this methodology is more about not what you should be doing, but what are you doing and where are you? It kind of got rid of the shoulds, just how do you get control of where you are and what is it that gets you to be clear in your head about the complex world that you’re dealing with and all the inputs that you’re dealing with and so forth. This stuff, it kind of starts with where you are and not with where you should be, so that’s one difference. Don’t worry about the long-term goals or vision or your life purpose, if your toilet needs cleaning or if you need cat food and you’re not managing that well. If your day-to-day is out of control, don’t even try to think about the future, because all it will do, will frustrate you, you know, create guilt.

A lot of this was about how do I get control of where I am right now, how do I get it stable, how do I get clear right now with the things that I have already committed to that are already sort of running around in my ecosystem and how do I manage that? I think that’s one difference. The major focus here was to have a clear head, not to achieve necessarily a new result. I mean this is kind of the big secret, Brett, about Getting Things Done is it’s not so much about Getting Things Done, it’s about being appropriately engaged with your world, so you’re present with whatever you’re doing, and how present are you when you’re cooking spaghetti or your mind on the two meetings you screwed up this afternoon?

How present are you with watching your girl play soccer versus being on your iPhone trying to do emergency scanning to keep track of all the stuff that may be falling through a crack? A whole lot of it is like people trying to live a busy life and trying to stay clear and present with the quality of whatever it is they’re doing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s personal, professional, big or little, it’s whatever you’re doing at any point in time that you could be optimally available for it. That’s really what the objective of this was. I don’t know any other time management course that kind of frames it that way or even gives you the tools to do that.

Brett McKay: Well, this idea being clear. This is mind like water, right?

David Allen: Yeah, well, the idea of water. I mean I think Bruce Lee’s sensei sort of turned him on to that, I kind of stole it from the martial arts, with the idea that water’s appropriately engaged with whatever it’s doing. It can be though it seems to be fairly week and flexible, it could be extremely powerful. The whole idea is building in the flexibility of water, but also the capability of being as powerful as water is. Not over or under reacting anything. Water is appropriately engaged with its environment, whatever it is. If you take one meeting to the next in your mind or you take home to work in your mind or work to home in your mind, you’re not in a mind like water state.

Brett McKay: These are open loops, right? Those things that aren’t finished, so you keep thinking about it in your head, so you can’t be present in whatever it is you’re doing.

David Allen: Yeah, and your head is a really crappy office. I mean we know now given the cognitive science research that showed up in the last 10 or 15 years. Something that I discovered 35 years ago, but they have now validated that, that your head can’t manage more than four things in terms of remembering or minding and prioritizing and managing relationships between them. Your brain did not evolve to do that. It does not do that very well. Your brain evolved to do some very sophisticated stuff to keep you alive on the Savanna in the desert, the jungle. You recognize that’s a tiger, that’s my kid’s crying, there’s a thunderstorm. There are berries in that bush. You do that very well and computers can’t even do that yet.

Your brain is doing some fabulous stuff, and yet you go to the store for lemons and you come back with six things and no lemons. What happened? Well, you tried to use your head as your office and it’s a crappy office. It wasn’t designed to do that. A whole lot of what cognitive science has now validated is the need to build an external brain.

In the complex world we live in, if things that you’re committed to that you can’t finish in the moment you think of them, then you need to keep track of that in some sort of externalized form. Otherwise, it’s going to take up brain space and prevent you from doing what your mind is really good at doing. You only have certain amount of space in your head, but the more that you fill it up with those open loops that you’re not managing really well, then you don’t have room for intuitive intelligence.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was interesting in the re-release of Getting Things Done in 2015, you have a whole section about the cognitive science that sort of backs up what you’ve been talking about, I thought that was really useful.

David Allen: Yeah. Well, it’s just that nobody has got a lock on the truth, we just all sort of discovered it in our own ways about how that works.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this external mind. I think a lot of people have experienced that, that’s how bills get unpaid, that’s how you miss, you forget that there’s a parent/teacher conference, because you try to keep this stuff in your head. GTD is all about getting that stuff outside of your head and in processing it in appropriate ways, so it doesn’t get lost. Let’s kind of walk through GTD for those who aren’t familiar, sort of the framework of it, the first up is capture. That’s an important process, because a lot of people don’t think about it, what does capture look like?

David Allen: Well, they’re actually sort of part A and part B. Part A is recognizing what’s got your attention. Anybody listening to this even in the short-term been talking and probably had their mind go somewhere else, where is that? Where’d it go? About what? Something is not on cruise control, just identifying … This has got my attention, should I get divorced, should I buy cat food for the cat, do I need to go and give the kids karate lessons, do I hire a VP of marketing, oh, my God, I just got a new project, do you know, yada yada, my two thirds, right? Any of those things that pop into your head are because there’s something, that some part of you thinks you might, would, could, should ought to decide or do something about them.

First of all, recognizing that you have those thoughts or that those things are out there that are not on cruise control, then part B is write it down. Capture it. Cat food, tooth, VP of marketing, divorce. All that, just write it down, get it out of your head in some sort of a external form, some sort of trusted bucket. For me, for 98% of the time, I just write a note and then throw in my own in tray.

As we’re talking, if something pops into my head, I’ve got a pen and paper right here, I’ll just write it down and then tear it off and throw it into my in tray. My head had an idea, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Actually, I don’t even want to if I’m focused on talking to you. I don’t want to have to try to think what does that mean, I just grab the idea. Later on, sooner than later, I will then walk through steps two and three as you know, you don’t just leave it in the in tray. You then need to make some decisions about it.

Brett McKay: You also say you can capture things digitally. For example, I use the to-do list app on my phone and laptop to capture things. There are other ways to capture things digitally if that’s your preference.

David Allen: Those can work as long as you work them. Good ideas and inspirations, and I would, could, should, ought tos, they’ll come and they’ll go. They come and you better grab them when they come, because you’ll forget what you forgot very soon, the way the brain works. Training yourself to capture potentially good ideas, potentially useful things. That’s actually something you need to train yourself to do. It doesn’t happen automatically.

Brett McKay: Right, and I noticed as I started to do that, like just start capturing thoughts, like my brain gives me more thoughts, because it’s like trust me, hey, you’re actually going to do something. I don’t know if it’s my brain actually is thinking that, but they just like they trust that I can do something about it. I don’t know, I feel like I generate more thoughts as I capture them.

David Allen: You can, there’s an end to that at some point. Have you sat down and actually wanted to implement this full process? It may take you one to six hours to actually capture all the things that have your attention, until they stop. They will stop, by the way.

Brett McKay: You want to get to that point, right? That’s the whole mind like water.

David Allen: No, that would be the ideal, if you really want to get mind like water and a clear head, you better get everything out of your head just banging around in there, that’s not finished yet, that you might want to do or decide something about.

Brett McKay: One of the powerful tools of this capture is it’s a systematic mind sweep that I’ve been doing for over a decade. It’s amazing what’s come from that mind sweep.

David Allen: Yeah. Well, mind sweep, can take in a lot of forms. I mean for those of you who are not familiar with GTD, this is basically saying, look, write down anything that’s on your mind, anything that’s your mind. Little, big, personal, professional, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a commitment to do them. All you’re doing is trying to empty RAM inside your head. You empty the short-term memory thing. Just get all of that, oh, I need cat food, oh, I should do this, or what about that class I might want to give my three year old so he can get into Harvard. God knows how many things people think about that are possibles and that they might want to decide or do something about. A great movie somebody recommends. Here’s the person you might want to hire as your accountant.

All that stuff, anything that shows up in any conversations and any interactions you have in your world out there that can’t be finished in that moment, that’s the stuff you need to capture. There’s a lot of that stuff, so if you really wanted to be clear, you need to make sure that you’ve captured all that, so that some part of you doesn’t go to bed and go, what am I going do about it, what am I going do about it? If you only keep it in your head, that place has no sense of past or future. It will wake you up at three o’clock in the morning. I need cat food or I need a new business plan, same space.

Brett McKay: Right.

David Allen: Just yank your chain kind of like random ad hoc moments when you can’t do spit about either one of them, which is really stupid. You need to get smarter than your mind, and most people are letting their minds run them as opposed to, wait a minute, you have a mind, you’re not your mind.

Brett McKay: Right. No, yeah, so you have a trigger list on your website, sort of like to get people thinking about the things they can get out of their mind. It’s like what stuff do you have around your house need a fix, who do you need to call back, what stuff you have to do at work, what appliances you need? I go through that every week and do sort of a mind dump and it’s been really useful.

David Allen: Yeah, good for you.

Brett McKay: Okay, we get this stuff all off our mind, we’re going to write down thoughts, put them in a inbox. We’re going to have a digital inbox, we’re going to put bills in this inbox, we’re going to just capture it all in one place. The next step is clarify, what does that look like?

David Allen: Well, you can write down light bulb, what are you going to do about the light bulb. Do you need to buy it? Do you just need to change it? Do you need to figure out and just go look and see what the wattage is in the old bulb that burned out on the porch? What’s the next thing you need to do? Most people actually keep avoiding, most people avoid that next action decision. It’s really clarifying what exactly these things that have your attention, what’s the nature of them. The very simple algorithm in the book, I elucidate on that and you could find that in multiple places out there.

It’s a pretty simple formula. It’s just like, well, wait, first of all, whatever you wrote down, whatever you’ve captured, whatever you’ve thrown into your in tray, is it actionable, is it something you’re committed to move on or not? Yes or no? We get a lot of things both in our email and our physical mailbox and so forth that there’s no action on, but you need to decide what that is. By the way, junk mail does not tell you it’s junk mail, have you noticed? It’s telling you, this important, you need to pay attention to this, right? You’re the one who actually needs to make a decision about these inputs that you get, wherever you’ve collected these inputs that you’ve allowed to come into your ecosystem in some way.

Your own notes as well as in the stuff piling up in social media and email and your physical inboxes and mailboxes. Right, so you need to decide, what is that? If it’s non actionable, then it’s either trash, reference material or something to hold on till a little later date to make a decision about it. That’s a clarification of the non-actionable things as either something I don’t need or something that I need to just hold onto, to refer to later potentially or something I need to be reminded of at some later date. Then if it is actionable, oh, there is something I need to do about this or I want to do about this. Then you need to decide two very important questions to answer.

One is what’s the very next action you would need to take? You wrote a note about mom, great, why’d you write the note? Well, her birthday is coming. Great, what are you going to do about her birthday? What’s the next step? I should probably call my sister, what she thinks about we should do about mom’s birthday. Great, now you’ve made a next action decision. By the way, will that one action, calling your sister, finish whatever your commitment is? No, we want to celebrate mom’s birthday. Fabulous, now you have a project. There are two things you need to ask and answer about the things that landed on your plate that are actionable.

What’s the action and what’s the outcome? Action and outcome are the zeroes and ones of productivity. Thinking, what are we trying to accomplish and how do we allocate resources or reallocate them to make sure that it happens? That thinking does not show up automatically, as a matter of fact most people listening to this right now, if you’re listening to this right now, pull out your to-do list if you have anything like that, and look that list and what you’re likely to not see are actions and outcomes. You might have written down, just call your brother, wish him a happy birthday and maybe that’s the next step.

Likely, what you’re going to see are things that still need a decision made about what exactly are you going to need to do to move the needle on that to get the closure or resolution or clarity on what that thing is. Oh, by the way, what’s the outcome you’re committed to complete, that you need to keep track of until you can complete it? That’s the cognitive muscle that actually people need to train. That’s the clarify step and it’s very, very powerful. Trust me, Brett, I’ve spent thousands of hours with some of the best and brightest and most sophisticated people on the planet, walking them through with that exercise about all the stuff they dumped out of their head the day before and they haven’t done it yet.

That’s the big problem, because what happens is, then that stuff spins around and keeps spinning around in there. If you haven’t finished your thinking about what it means, what does done look like and what does doing look like and where does it happen. Interestingly, I discovered or uncovered or recognized that, that was the thought process you have to apply to these things to be able to get them off your mind without having to finish them.

Brett McKay: Do you think this is where a lot of people mess up getting things done, when they try to implement it? Like they don’t properly clarify or describe what they’re trying to do?

David Allen: Sure, they write down set meeting. I go, well, how are you get set the meeting? Well, I could send them an email, I could follow them, I can talk, yeah, if you haven’t decided that, you haven’t finished your thinking. Some part of you is still spinning in there. Oh, how do I set that meeting, every time you look at that list. You can change your mind.

Look, just decide what’s the very next physical, visible activity you would need to do about mom’s birthday, about increasing your credit line, about anything, the tooth that aches, or hiring the right VP of marketing. What’s the very next thing you need to do if you had nothing else to do in your life, but move that to closure, where would you go right now and what would you do? Surf the web, send an email, draft ideas, talk to somebody. What would you need to do? Most people actually avoid that decision, until the heat forces them to make it.

Brett McKay: One of the powerful rules that come out of this process is the two minute rule. As you’re going through and you’re saying, okay, this is actionable, and then one of the questions you can ask yourself if the answer is yes, is well, can I do this right now? You just do it.

David Allen: Yeah, two minutes or less, and that was just kind of a rough estimate of, that’s pretty much the dividing line where if it takes less than two minutes to do it, it would take you longer to organize it and review it later than it would be to finish it right then. That’s why that’s there. What you don’t want to do is go run down some rabbit trail of something when you have other potentially more important or significant things sitting in your in baskets and in your email before your start spending extra time on something that may not be the most important thing to spend time on right now. The two minute rule, yeah, that’s great. I’ve had people tell me that was worth the price of admission. Just that, changed their life. That’s the two minute rule.

Brett McKay: You clarify and now, you have these tasks and maybe okay, you figure out the ones you could do in two minutes or less, you do those, but there are some tasks that, okay, you can’t do them now.

David Allen: Right.

Brett McKay: How do you organize that stuff so that you continue to keep the loop closed and it’s not just spinning there in your brain?

David Allen: Well, once you clarify the nature of these things, you don’t need a really complex system. You need to keep track of the projects you have, so a project list is really important. You need to keep track of your own actions you need to take about the projects or any single actions. Those could be on, actually, two list, your calendar has some things you need to do, it’s a specific thing, the next thing you need to do is go to the meeting on Monday at two o’clock, and that’s on your calendar this time. If the next thing you need to do is actually to do some research before you go to that meeting, then that’s a next action you need to put on some sort of a next action list.

You’ve got a project list, you have your actions you need to take, which would either go on a calendar or on a next actions list, you could do an around your calendared items. Then a fourth list called waiting for, things you’re waiting on to come back for somebody else. Essentially, if you have a fairly simple life or lifestyle, those four lists can handle pretty much everything. Now the non-actionable things, obviously, you need someway to try stuff and you need a reference system both digital and paper-based, so you can put stuff that’s just referenced somewhere so you can find it later.

You need some sort of a, what we call a tickler system or an on-hold or an incubate system that will let you say, I don’t know, this cultural event that I just got mail about, I might want to go to. It’s two months from now. There’s a Bach concert at the concert hall, but I’ve got so many pending things, but I might want to go to it. Remind myself in a month, probably will give me time to get tickets. You need some sort of a system that’s going to give you that sort of ping back whether digitally or in a physical tickler file or Bring-Forward file where you can see that kind of stuff.

That’s about it, you don’t need, in terms of categories, those are the primary categories that you need to have to organize the results of your decision-making about what you need to be reminded of and what you need to have access to in the appropriate context. Where it gets more complex is most people have 100 to 200 next actions aside from their calendar. What happens if you got a fairly complex life, you may find as I have, much easier to sort your next actions into various contexts. I have an errands list of my actions that need to be taken when I’m out and about have a list of actions of things to talk to my wife about, when she and I get the time to talk about the business and life stuff.

I have a list of things to do in terms of creative writing on my computer and that’s a separate list. I have sorted those into things, because, I can’t do all of those at any one time. I don’t even have any possibility to run errands if I’m not out doing errands. I then sorted my action list into some subcategories, but it doesn’t have to be that complex, but it is sophisticated enough to be able to manage a pretty sophisticated life.

Brett McKay: The distinction between projects and actions, that took me a while to figure out when I first started working with GTD, because what I would is I would just create actions. Like you said earlier about the example of mom’s birthday, right? You can say mom’s birthday, well, there’s going to be a lot of actions you have to take to get to the completed thing. That took me a while to figure out, but once I did it, it helped out a lot to think, okay, if it requires multiple steps, it’s a project, and just create a project folder and you have your little list of actions to create that project, to finish that project.

David Allen: By the way, Brett, given that definition, most people listening to this, have somewhere between 30 and a hundred projects, if they include personal and professional.

Brett McKay: Right, even something like cleaning out your attic or basement isn’t just a single action.

David Allen: Yeah, go up there and start, but you probably are going to have that as a project, because you make, oh, I have to give those things away, we have to get boxes so that we can do those. We need to digitalize our photographs in that box. You may find a whole lot of other things there. It is tricky business to kind of say, what actually do we actually call a project? Most people listening to this probably have a body project. Fix of tooth, you know, see how your blood level is right now and give them cholesterols, whatever.

David Allen: Get check up that you’ve been avoiding X, Y and Z, or God knows, whatever all those things are. I need to look into this sprained ankle that’s not healing, maybe I should go figure out how to handle that. Those are projects, because you have at least a phone call to make or at least a web surf to do to find out, well, what might I do next, and you couldn’t. That’s not going to finish whatever this is. Whatever it is you can’t finish in one sitting or kind of in one call that’s obvious, that’s a project.

Brett McKay: The final steps after you’ve clarified your mission, organized those tasks and projects is to reflect and engage, what does that look like?

David Allen: While you’re going out for errands, what do you want to do? Look at the errands you’ve come up with and decide which ones you’re going to run. You got a list of stuff to talk to your partner about in your business, right? You’ve got the meeting coming up, take a look at the list you’ve created and say which ones are the most important that we deal with it if we have a short period of time. It could also be reflect, it could be at any levels of commitments. I mean the other aspect of getting things done is identifying the multiple horizons that we have commitments and there are six of them.

The top level, why are you on the planet, what’s your purpose and your core values, and then you have what’s your vision of doing that successfully, and then you have what are those things you need to accomplish to make the vision happen. Then you have all the things you need to maintain to make sure all that works and keep going toward that in a balanced way. Then you have all the projects about all that stuff. Then you have all the actions you need to take. I couldn’t get it any simpler than this, Brett, over these 35 years. There are six horizons, we actually have all of this commitments.

Reflecting could be, how often do you need to reflect, if you’ve got a life partner, how often do you folks need to think about where you’re going in your life in terms of career and lifestyle. Where do you want to be five years from now? What’s pulling or pushing on you, the things you might want to change? If you say if you got a job that’s just changed, you know, how clear are you with you and any potential boss or partners about your job description and your accountabilities? There are a lot of these commitments at multiple levels that need to be reviewed and reflected, so you can feel comfortable about both your priorities and as well one of the appropriate projects I need and actions I need to take to maintain all those things.

This is not quite a … Most people have a much more complex life than they realize. Don’t shoot the messenger guys. I’m just letting you know all those things are going on. When you say reflect, yeah, reflect on what? Reflect on the 35 projects you have? Yeah, and once a week you ought to. Reflect on where you need to be this afternoon, yeah, check your calendar. That’s good reflection. Reflect on how you’re trying to manage the strategic plan you have and the operational plan you have in your company. Is that a quarterly review, monthly review?

How often do you need to look at that? Reflection just says step back, step up at some level to be able to look another level of game in terms locating yourself in space and time. Then you move to step five, so then whatever you decide to do this afternoon, whether that’s take a nap, have a beer, draft a plan, deal with the ugly email that’s staring at you in your inbox, that’s that. Then you do that from that context.

Brett McKay: Then this also was where the weekly and daily review comes in. This is where you figure out, you know, you do that step back on a weekly basis. What am I doing with these projects? Is it pushing me forward where I want to go and then, yeah.

David Allen: … even have that project.

Brett McKay: Right, that’s not important, because I think sometimes people think like if they put something on a list, it means they have to do it, not so. You can change your mind.

David Allen: Yeah, things change. Yeah, and sometimes you have an inspiration and then two, three days later, pfft, well, too much wine, that was dumb, or you know, no, given all the other things I have on my plate. By the way, if people don’t have a complete project list, they’ll always over commit.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no, that’s true.

David Allen: I’ve seen an exception to that, but once you have a complete list of all the commitments you have, the word N-O is going to come a little easier to you.

Brett McKay: That’s a good point, because I think, like the people I know of myself, and I don’t know exactly what’s going around, have it in front of me all of the stuff that I’ve got going on, I over commit. I’m like, oh, yeah, I’ve got time, and then, you know a month later, it shows up, and I’m like, oh, crap, I don’t have time for this. I didn’t have time then. I don’t why I said yes a month ago. You mentioned, you’re doing this stuff with your wife. I imagine families could benefit a lot from a GTD methodology, because the modern family is just crazy like you got three kids going to different things, all at different times. What does a GTD system look like with like a couple or within a family? Have you seen that play out?

David Allen: Hugely, with families, it’s huge. I’ve got a lot of families that do family weekly reviews. Download the kid’s schedule for the next week, what’s come up? Look at your spouse’s schedule. Look at your partner’s schedule. Hey, what’s come up? What do I need to know about that? How can I help? What do I need to do? The lack of those conversations create some of the strangest stress out there in those relationships. You didn’t tell me. Were you going to pick up the kids? I thought I was, yada yada, oh, my god. Yes, any kind of sharing of commitments in terms of groups and teams, and so forth. What do we all need to be aware of?

Not only that, just proactively if you got a family and say, hey, we’re having a holiday coming up, but sit down and have a brainstorming. What do you all want to do or are we taking care of everything, we might want to see a little … Hey kids, what do you want to do with this? Well, let’s go surf the web and see what you might want to, you know, yada, yada. Those are great conversations that you won’t have, unless some part of you sits down and says, hey, I got a project called Next Holiday, wonderful, next action. I have to check with my family and see what they want to do and make sure we’re all in the same page.

Brett McKay: Say someone starts doing this, what does GTD mastery look like? Does it just become second nature, where you don’t have to think about the process and you just do it?

David Allen: Yeah, that’s it. My wife took a seminar from me 35 years ago. People ask me about her system. I go, I have no idea. I just know where her in-basket is and I know how to email her. That’s all I need to know. She handles this from there. It’s great, because if she’s sitting in the other room right now, I could email her right now, because I don’t want to disturb her, she’s doing some work, she’s doing stuff she’s involved in. She’ll see it in her own timing. We trust our systems and our own integrity to be able to deal with these things in that way.

Man, does that move me up to the food chain in terms of relationships. You know, because then a lot of what screws up relationships are those kind of strangely mundane, but still meaningful things that are not handled really well, and the communication just falls through a crack and then you have all the issues and conflicts and stresses that show up because of that. Yeah, it’s great stuff. Most anyone gets GTD, gets this stuff. It’s going to affect every one of your intersections. Brett, how many people do you intersect with on a daily or weekly basis?

Brett McKay: Lots of people.

David Allen: Every one of those intersections, when you get off that phone or you get off that conversation and you go, I’m tracking what we just decided or what I have agreed to, what they have agreed to, that I need to keep track of or whatever, that just moves all that up the food chain. Those people whether they get GTD or not are going to find that out when you come back and say, by the way, we talked on Tuesday, you said you could do this by Friday, I don’t have it yet. Do you need some help? Do we need to renegotiate? Then I’m going to go, oh, my god, Brett, actually cares about this and tracks it. Boy, does that make a difference, you know, from then on and your relationship.

Brett McKay: I imagine, the end goal too as we were talking about it. I want you to get this thing going, you flex those cognitive muscles to clarify your task and get them in a system, is that, yeah, you feel present or actually you can be at your kid’s soccer game and just think about your kid’s soccer game and nothing else, which is a great feeling.

David Allen: Yeah, I mean the whole idea is like clear space. If people ask me, well, what should I do with this? I say, what do you need to do to get that off your mind? Have a very simple question back. What do you need to do to get that off your mind? What do you need to do to get that off your mind? I just figured out the algorithm about what they need to decide to think about and how they need to organize that so it does get off their mind. Most people don’t have a clue frankly, about what they need to do, but that was the elegance of GTD.

Brett McKay: That it is.

David Allen: I figured that out.

Brett McKay: Well, David, where could people go to learn more about the work? I guess you have a new book coming out, a workbook as well.

David Allen: Yeah, we do. Well, is our website. Now, our trainings, we’ve certified master trainers and coaches in 70 countries so you can go to wherever you are in the world. If you’re listening to this, you can go to our website and see how you could get a training, which is really good to do. Obviously, you can get my book, the new edition of Getting Things Done, and it has all this in there and how to do all that.

Yeah. If you get the book Getting Things Done, it may be a little daunting from a lot of people, because I just accumulated 25 years of my professional work, or 30 years of my professional work and put it into a manual. A lot of people, it does tell you how to implement all this stuff with a lot of detail and cool stuff about it, but a lot of people feel a little daunted or overwhelmed by that. We decided, let’s create a workbook to sort of lower the barrier of entry, for people to be able to say, look, here are the 10 moves that are easy to do.

If you do them, you’ll start to implement these five steps of capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage in a very simple and easy way to start to do that. That’s why we figured it was probably a good idea to do a workbook. We’ve got QR codes in there, if you got an iPhone or a phone that recognizes QR codes. You read the little thing and be able to do a little exercise and then you can pump in the QR code. You’ll see me talk for two or three minutes about what that actually is and what it feels and looks like so it’s cool, we feel proud of that.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Well, David Allen, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

David Allen: Brett, my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

Brett McKay: My guest here is David Allen. He’s the author of the book Getting Things Done. Check out the new workbook that’s out that accompanies the book, it’s called The Getting Things Done Workbook. It’s both available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website in Also, check out our show notes at where you can find external resources, where you delve deeper to this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives. There are 500 episodes there as well as thousands of articles on things like productivity, Getting Things Done, I write about there as well. Also, if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The Art of Manliness podcast, you can do so in Stitcher Premium.

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