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How to Get Things Done

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Do you want to improve your productivity?

Do you want to get a lot more done in a lot less time?

If so, you’ll learn a lot from this article in which I interview bestselling author and founder of the international productivity sensation: Getting Things Done (GTD) David Allen

In this article you will learn:

In a nutshell: You’ll learn how to be way more productive!

Let’s begin:

What is GTD?

Michael Frank: What is GTD? What is Getting Things Done?

David Allen: Well GTD is a set of best practices that I uncovered, unearthed, researched, and have been implementing for the last 35 years about how people can get things done and surf on top of all the stuff that they’ve got committed to instead of feeling buried by it. It’s not really time management as such because you can’t manage time, it’s really more about how you manage what has your attention.

The mind is for having ideas not for holding them

Michael Frank: You often like to say:

“The mind is for having ideas not for holding them” – David Allen

What does that mean?

David Allen: Well your brain did not evolve to remember, remind, prioritize, or manage relationships between more than four things. That’s been validated in the last 10 to 15 years with a lot of cognitive science research. But I just learned experientially many years ago, that if you keep stuff in your head it might wake you up at 3am in the morning when you can’t do anything about it.

“The big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future.” – David Allen

There are things you need to keep track of and your head is a very crappy office. It’s the worst place to try to keep track of things. Things will just show up in your mind at random times and in random moments, and you’ll suddenly remember that you need cat food when you’re lying in bed at three o’clock in the morning when you can’t buy cat food. The bottom line is that most people are still using their heads as their office. It’s a bad office.

The GTD five step process for mastering workflow

Michael Frank: GTD has a five step process for getting things done and mastering workflow, can you talk us through it?

David Allen: Yes. In the GTD system you:

1. Capture (write down) the things that have your attention

2. Clarify exactly what those things are, and what you’re going to do about them – if anything

3. Organise the results of your thinking. If you can’t finish a task in the moment, you need a reminder later on

4. Make sure you remind yourself later on, review and reflect the content of your inventory

5. Engage your attention and your activities based upon an overview of all that

GTD, Getting Things Done, Workflow

How to capture tasks

Michael Frank: Do you have a preference for how you capture tasks and get them out of your head?

David Allen: I do most of my capturing with pen and paper. No WiFi required, no batteries, no clicks. I always have a pen and paper with me and I walk around with a little notepad in my back pocket because God knows when lightning will strike and I’ll have some idea, but I can’t finish in the moment, so I jot it down.

I also have digital capture. I use a little tool called Braintoss which is in my iPhone so I can record it if I want to take a picture, and it automatically then gets sent into my e-mail which I then clean up fairly regularly. So the digital can work. You just have to be disciplined to make sure that you don’t leave the stuff lying fallow in there, and forget to look at it and bring it back under for you to clarify and organize what you captured.

Mind Sweeps

“You must use your mind to get things off your mind.” – David Allen

Michael Frank: You also talk about Mind Sweeps. What is a Mind Sweep? How do we do one? What is the purpose of it?

David Allen: Well a Mind Sweep is just getting everything out of your head that’s got your attention. Oh I need cat food – write it down. I need tires on my car – write it down. I’m thinking about hiring a VP of marketing – write it down. So write down anything that’s got your attention. And most people have a lot more stuff in their heads than they realize. So empty your head of anything that’s got your attention. Little, big, personal, professional – it doesn’t matter. Write it down.

Interestingly cat food will take up just as much room in your mind as strategic planning, so that’s another reason to externalize all of that and get it out of your head and write it down.

It seems a little counterintuitive to write down everything because it means you’re spending time with stuff that’s not that urgent. But the problem is that if you don’t write down and handle the not so urgent stuff, it starts to grab a lot more of your attention than it should. So you need to make sure that you’re getting stuff out of your head and down onto paper and using these best practices to take the pressure off those not so urgent things. For most people it takes somewhere between one and six hours just to capture all the stuff that has their attention. And it can take longer than that for some people.

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.” – David Allen

Michael Frank: Do you recommend writing down whatever comes to mind during those one to six hours in any random order that it appears? Or do you write things down via category, work, personal, vacation etc.?

David Allen: No, I just do it however it shows up because your mind doesn’t make any distinction between those two things, and so they’ll show up in a random order, and you don’t want to leave anything loose in there. In other words you don’t want to refile it in your head as it pops into your head. Get it out. Write it down.

GTD, Getting Things Done, Workflow

The Two-Minute Rule

Michael Frank: One of the most popular aspects of GTD and one of the first things I adopted was the two-minute rule which states that if a task takes less than two minutes do it now instead of planning to do it later. Can you speak about that..

David Allen: Yeah. The two-minute rule happens when you’re clarifying what all this stuff is, and a real critical part of that clarification is first of all, is this an actionable item? Are you committed to do something about it? Or is it just a random idea that you’re not going to do anything with?

If it is an actionable item that you want to do something about, you need to ask yourself: What’s the very next action? (You need to be very specific)

Once you decide what the very next action is, you have nothing else to do but to actually do it and buy cat food or get tires or whatever. And if you don’t know what the next action is and I was going to pay you a million dollars to get started: How would you start? Where would you go? Would you surf the net about something? Would you talk to your partner about something? Would you go to a hardware store and buy nails? What’s the very next thing that you would need to do?

Once you make that decision about what the next action is, if you can do the action in less than two minutes, you ought to do it right then because it would take you longer to organize it and remind yourself of it later on, then it would to finish it right then. And most people are not aware of how many things they can actually finish in two minutes or less, and because they haven’t actually decided what the next action is, they can’t apply that rule unless they do that thinking and decision making.

Michael Frank: Could the two-minute rule be extended to five minutes?

David Allen: Oh sure. It depends on how long you have before you have to do something else. You know if I’m on a 10 hour plane ride back to the U.S (David lives in Amsterdam) I’ve got all the time in the world so I can run down those rabbit trails and just keep finishing all kinds of things and I don’t have to necessarily pay attention to the two-minute rule. So it kind of depends.

What you don’t want to do is pick up something and then spend 45 minutes running down that rabbit hole when you’ve got more important or more critical or more interesting things lying beneath that in your in-basket.

The GTD action lists

Michael Frank: Once we’ve done the Mind Sweep and we’ve got everything out of our heads and down onto paper, one of the first things the GTD system gets us to do is to make a bunch of lists:

  • In (Where you capture ideas and tasks as they occur to you)
  • Projects (The things you’re doing that take more than one step to complete)
  • Next actions (The very next thing you need to do)
  • Waiting for (The tasks you’ve delegated to others)
  • Someday/maybe (The things you might work on “one day” or “someday”)
  • Triggers (Lists with words to trigger ideas in your head: Trigger lists)

Can you talk about these lists and how they work?

David Allen: Sure. A list is just a batching of things in a category. And the whole purpose of getting organized is so you can keep track of all of your projects. And for most people the easiest way to keep track of things is by lists. And obviously a list can be paper based like a page in a planner. Or it could be digital and you could create a category in any of the hundreds of list managers out there and they’re showing up weekly. At last count there were over 300 software apps that have been built purporting to support the GTD process.

So first of all you need a list of all of the projects you’ve got on.

The GTD definition of a project is:

“Anything that will take more than one step to complete, that you can finish within the next few weeks or months (less than 12 months)”

Most people generally have between 30 and 100 projects.

Then you need a calendar, which is a chronological list or schedule of where you need to be and when.

Then you need to have a Next Actions list not tied to a calendar, but tied to just as soon as you can get to them, stuff to buy at the store, stuff to talk to your spouse about, all the things you need to do at your computer etc. and these need to go on their own lists. Most people if they actually did this inventory of next actions with some rigor they’re going to wind up with 100 to 150 or more of those Next Actions.

Then you need a Waiting List to keep track of the projects and actions that other people are doing that you care about, that you’ve ordered, that haven’t come in yet.

And then you’ve got a Trigger list, that’s when there’s something I can’t do it right now, but I want to be reminded of say two weeks or two months or two years from now.

So it’s nice to be able to sort these things based upon the context you have to be in in order to be able to take those actions, so you don’t overwhelm yourself with 150 things every time you want to go do something. So those become the various kinds of action lists that you could keep track of.

How to track delegated and outsourced tasks

Michael Frank: How do you go about tracking things you’ve delegated or outsourced to others?

David Allen: Well it’s part of the Weekly Review. I don’t have to look at it every hour of every day. But if I have any tasks that I need completed by a certain date, then that’s going to be on my calendar as a red flag that if I don’t have it by a day or two ahead of that, then that’ll yank my chain and get me to yank their chain if it’s something I’m waiting for. But generally speaking I just need to see it once a week in my Weekly Review to see if I need to light a fire or check status or kick butt or whatever.

The Weekly Review

Michael Frank: How do we go about doing a proper and thorough Weekly Review? What are your recommendations?

David Allen: Well first of all you need to have a system that’s somewhat populated, in order to have something to review. You’re not going to do it in your head. Again your head is an awful office for that kind of thing.

The Weekly Review is about catching up. You know the world moves at us a lot faster than we can keep it pristinely organized and thought through appropriately. But you don’t want to let it go too long without doing as I say bringing up the rear guard. And so my Weekly Review starts by looking at my lists and seeing what it is I haven’t had time to mark off as done that I’ve actually done that week. Many times I’m moving so fast, I’ve got 10 or 15 things that I’ve finished and haven’t even had time to mark them off, much less figure out what’s next.

So the Weekly Review is a clean up process and I’m purging and getting all of the old business out of my system, and I’m looking at my calendar and going back the last two weeks to catch all of the “oh god that reminds me” and “oh yeah, I told him I should…”, because although I teach this stuff, it’s still slippery. And so I need to go back through my calendar to make sure I haven’t missed anything that may have emerged in some of those meetings. And then I look forward on my calendar pretty much as far as I’m got anything on my calendar, because many times there is some travel planning that I need to do way in advance.

So once I’ve gone back and forth and captured all of the stuff I need to capture from my calendar, I then make sure that my project list is complete and then I see if there are any new projects that have emerged in the last few days that I haven’t had a chance to identify.

See projects don’t really show up in nice pretty pink packages. They kind of ooze onto us. You know you made a phone call that you thought would complete something, and then this weird thing happened on that call and now you’ve got something else you need to do or handle about it. Those are the kinds of things, especially if you are moving very fast out there, that can very easily slip through a crack. And so the Weekly Review is the time to step back and reflect upon any new stuff out there that you need to grab hold of and clarify as a project. And then you need to make sure that all of your projects have Next Actions current on them. And then you’re cleaning up your lists and making sure everything is current, and looking at your Waiting for list to see if there is anything you need to follow up on, so that’s what the Weekly Review is all about, it’s just backing up and going through everything and getting current and getting clean.

Michael Frank: Let’s recap some of that.

The Weekly Review is reviewing:

  • Projects (The things you’re working on that take more than one step to complete)
  • Next actions (The very next thing you need to do on each project)
  • Previously completed actions
  • Previous and upcoming calendar actions
  • Waiting for list (The tasks you’ve delegated and outsourced to others)
  • Someday/maybe list (The things you might work on “one day” or “someday”)

The Weekly Review is making sure:

  • You’re up to date and current on all of your projects
  • All of your projects have Next Actions tied to them
  • Nothing has slipped through the cracks
  • And to remind yourself of what’s coming up next

What does “done” look like?

Michael Frank: I’d like to define Next Actions so it’s a little bit clearer. You define Next Actions in the book as something physical, something specific, and I think that’s where a lot of GTD practitioners may fail at first within the GTD system, not having something specific or tangible enough to work on in their next actions

David Allen: Sure. It’s one of the main reasons people procrastinate because they haven’t actually decided what to do. Yeah they know they’ve got to do “something” but they haven’t decided exactly what that “something” is. The key to getting things done is first of all: What does “done” mean? What am I trying to complete or finish here? What’s the end game? What does “done” look like and where does it happen? Does it happen at the phone hardware store or with your life partner? So you need to have an outcome focus. If you haven’t got that specific yet, then there’s a part of you that’s still not yet appropriately engaged with your commitments and it’ll keep banging you in the head. It’ll keep bothering you.

Most people’s to do lists are incomplete lists of still unclear things. There are things on their lists like “mom” and “bank” and “health care” and “vacation”. But what about that vacation? What’s the next action?

“Oh, I don’t know…”

“Well, how are you going to find out?”

“Well, I gotta talk to my wife about that”

Great. So then add: “talk to my wife” to your list.

It’s the avoidance of these kinds of decisions that causes most people to procrastinate.

The 6 Horizons of focus

Michael Frank: Let’s talk about the GTD 6 horizons of focus for reviewing your work

David Allen: Yeah you know from the very beginning of the productivity game the question has always been how do I set priorities? And so I just kept thinking and researching and pondering how do we set our priorities and what are the drivers of that? And you know I couldn’t get it any simpler than there are six horizons.

Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

What’s your purpose and what are your core values? What really matters to you? How do you know if you’re on purpose or off purpose? Whatever you’re doing needs to be on purpose and within your value system. But then again, even if you know your life purpose, is that going to help you decide which email to write first? Maybe a little bit, but you probably need to get more operational to understand these other levels.

Horizon 4: What’s your 3-5 year vision? 

What’s your vision of your purpose being wildly successful in the long term? In your career, lifestyle etc. where do you want to be five years from now? What does that look, sound, and feel like? So clarify your vision. Will that help you decide which email to write first? A little bit more, but in order to make your vision happen you’ve probably got to accomplish some things over the next year or two…

Horizon 3: What are your goals and objectives for the next 1-2 years?

What goals and objectives do you have or need to accomplish in the next 3-24 months?

“Oh we need to make sure that we’ve got a good financial system set up for our kids to go to college”

“Oh by December I need to make sure that I’m reasonably fluent in Spanish”

So that’s the typical kind of annual goal-setting or planning that a lot of organizations and individuals do.

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability

What are the things you need to maintain so you can achieve your goals in a healthy and balanced in a way? How is your health? How’s your finances? How’s your relationships? How’s your creative expression? How’s your fun factor?

All of these things need to be maintained at a certain level of standards. These are things you don’t finish, like growing sales.

Horizon 1: Projects

These are all of the things you need to finish about any of the above that take more than one action step to complete. You need to make sure that you’ve got a healthy lifestyle and you can get to your job. You need to make sure that you’ve got your transportation handled so you need to get tires on your car. So these are all the things you need to finish to move you toward your goals or your vision.

Then you’ve got the ground level because all of these levels I’ve talked about don’t have any actual “doing” in them, they’re just kind of awareness and clarification of the contents of what those things are that are your drivers.

Ground level: Where things happen. Calendar/next actions

The ground level is where stuff actually happens. These are the physical activities and Next Actions you’re taking. Call the Doctor and make an appointment. Go to the hardware store and buy nails. Talk to my partner about where we want to go on vacation.

And ideally your priorities are being set from the top down. But at the same time you can’t ignore any of these horizons. Because the lowest horizon does not mean the less. The ground level is actually where you’re going to fulfill your vision and your purpose and your mission and all that stuff.

So you need to take a bottom up approach and start from the ground level with your Next Actions because if your day to day is out of control, don’t even try to think about 10 years from now. You’re just going to frustrate yourself and feel guilty. The thing about GTD is that it starts with where you are, not from where you should be. So the ground level is what you need to get control of, and it’s the level that is changing a lot faster than any of the other levels and can cause you to feel more out of control than anything else. So get that under control. Start from wherever you are.

So what’s your outcome?

What do you want to have come true?

What’s your next action?

Overcoming procrastination

Michael Frank: Do you have any thoughts or recommendations about overcoming procrastination especially if you’re in the habit of it?

David Allen: You know people procrastinate either because:

a) The outcome is not meaningful enough

b) It’s boring stuff

c) They’re afraid of stepping into it and feeling out of control

Sometimes people just don’t know how or where to start. Sometimes not knowing what the next step is makes it challenging to do. There are many tips like Brian Tracy’s “eat the ugliest frog first” (do the hardest and most difficult thing on your to do list first thing in the morning), and Tony Schwartz a friend of mine says the same thing, sometimes the easiest way to get started is to simply do the thing you most hate doing first, so that you can snack on email the rest of the day if you want.

“When we truly need to do is often what we most feel like avoiding.” – David Allen

Now that said, another champion of my stuff, one of the most successful producers and directors in Hollywood, Joss Whedon who did the Avengers, said he likes to do the most fun thing first and that gets him going. So what’s the most fun thing you could do? And I kind of do both. Which one do I want to choose? Do I want to get rid of the ugly one? Or do I want to go have fun right now? And either one might be might be perfect. So I try to make as few rules as possible about anything.

Note to the reader: I’m a big fan of doing the hardest thing first, because it makes the rest of the day seem easy, and until it’s done you’ll be thinking about it

Multitasking

Michael Frank: Multitasking – any thoughts or comments in regards to it?

David Allen: Well there are switching costs. Any good computer programmer will tell you that. If you’re trying to debug something and you’re just about to find it, and then somebody suddenly walks up and interrupts you and asks you to do something else, boy the cost in terms of not only your stress, but also the amount of time it can take you to regroup and get your consciousness back into what you were doing before that is huge.

At the same time if I’m on hold on the phone and I’m cleaning up old emails, I’m not wasting my time. So you could call that multitasking if you want.

So if you have the ability to refocus quickly, then you can spin a lot of plates at the same time. That may not hurt your productivity, it may actually help your productivity, because you’re taking advantage of weird windows of time to do things, and you don’t need anything more than weird windows of time to get them accomplished or get them out of your face.

False deadlines

Michael Frank: In regards to personal projects like writing books, what are your thoughts on setting up deadlines? Do you find them to be absolutely necessary, or do you find that they hurt the creative process for you?

David Allen: Well usually with the books I’ve got a contracted deadline which gets me moving. One of the things I discovered over the years is to create false deadlines for myself. That is if I’ve got a real deadline by December 1st, and I need to have the book finished by then and into the publisher, I will usually give myself a deadline of a week before, or at least a few days before that, and the reason is that there have been so many times in the early years when I was doing any kind of writing when I would wait till the last minute, then I would write the thing and it would be good. And it was cool under that kind of create pressure to get your creative juices flowing and to get you to take some risk and to go ahead and write the book. It didn’t have to be perfect you just had to get going.

And then I’d turn it in. And then a day or two later I’d go oh shit! I should have said (insert great idea)… or something else occurred to me. So I’ve discovered that the subconscious and the creative process needs a little more time, once I think I’ve finished, to incubate on it. And so I’ll wait and see what else may show up that may add greater value and be more elegant than what I turned in. So I think for anybody who does any kind of creative writing at all, I would highly recommend you create false deadlines for yourself just for that reason.

Michael Frank: I think it’s a brilliant idea. It’s like you’ve outsmarted yourself. I’m going to start implementing false deadlines myself.

No problems – only projects

Michael Frank: Do you have any final comments about the GTD system or anything we haven’t covered?

David Allen: Our mission with this work is to create a world where there are no problems only projects. And boy what a great planet we would have if there were no problems only projects. And so that’s my mission. I’ll be 73 in December so I don’t know how many more years I’ve got on my tires. But that’s what I’m doing and that’s what this stuff is about. It’s about creating room. It doesn’t create time because you can’t create time. But it does create room internally for you to focus on the most meaningful stuff. So that’s my my final words you need to have room to focus on the meaningful stuff and you need to take anything that you would consider a problem and turn it into a project and get appropriately engaged with it. You’ll feel fabulous when you do.

One of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity, David Allen’s 35 years experience as a management consultant and executive coach have earned him the titles of “personal productivity guru” by Fast Company Magazine and one of America’s top 5 executive coaches by Forbes Magazine. The American Management Association has ranked him in the top ten business leaders. His bestselling book, the groundbreaking Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, has been published in thirty languages; and the “GTD” methodology it describes has become a global phenomenon, being taught by training companies in sixty countries. David, his company, and his partners are dedicated to teaching people how to stay relaxed and productive in our fast paced world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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