(Part 1) Mind Like Water with GTD — An Interview with David Allen

david allen workflow interview mailbutler gtd

On the development of GTD, habits building, managing team lists, worst advice… and more

David Allen is the author and creator of Getting Things Done (GTD), a time and project management method that is one of the most widely adopted for personal and professional productivity. GTD has continuously inspired a culture of organizational tools, websites, methodologies since its birth in 2001. The book has been republished in thirty languages globally.

In the 6th edition of Workflow, David chats with us about the beginning and development of GTD, game-changer apps, his view on AI and its competition with GTD, and ways to live a purposeful life.This is Part 1 of our interview with David.


Simone: Thanks so much for having the interview with us David. For those who are not familiar with GTD, can you introduce yourself and what GTD is about?

David: Sure Simone. Quite simply I spent the last 30 years and first 15 of those years really researching, developing, formulating, coding the best practices in what we do that allows us to get stuff done. I put all of this into a methodology that are practices on how to keep your head clear, keep things stable, in control, and give yourself the space to focus on the meaningful stuff.

GTD are fairly simple steps — but you’re not born to do them, you have to learn themYou have to practice them, and they’re not hard, it’s not just a new technology or language you need to learn. Just the behaviors that make that stuff work.

Simone: So it’s about having more space, not time.

Yes — just notice what has your attention, and ask yourself ‘why?’ Does it have my attention because I’m doing creative thinking about it? That’s cool, that’s what your head is for, what your intelligence and your intuition are for.

But if it’s popping in your head because you keep needing to know something about it, or change the situation about it, or deal with it but you can’t make the right decision of what to do, or you haven’t placed this thought into somehow, a trusted bucket of thoughts — it’s gonna keep banging in your head. Find the outcomes, desires and next actions required.

Just being present so you’re not distracted is the coolest place to be.

These are the 2 elements of productivity:

  1. What am I trying to accomplish?
  2. How do I allocate resources, attention, and activity to make that happen?

They’re not automatic decisions.No email will tell you outcomes or actions. No thought you wake up with tells you that. You actually have to sit down and think and use your cognitive muscle. Put yourself through this thought process.

Simone: And GTD is also influenced by martial arts you practiced?

David: Yes, it’s basically the same thing: how do you stay clear, in case you’re surprised by someone in the alley? I just figured how to stay clear when you’ve got 100 emails a day. There’s no difference except for the context or the nature of the input. If you’re still taking one meeting onto the next, you’re taking home to work in your head or vice versa.

I used the phrase mind like water. Water is not confused. Water appropriately engages with the environment, no matter what. The idea of having your mind clear enough. You don’t overreact, or you don’t underreact. That’s the most productive state.

Simone: Do you recommend, or do exercises to improve determination? Like the Wim-Hof-method?

David: No, people do that to avoid dealing with their in-basket. All of you need to do is look at the problems and ask:

What the hell is this and what am I gonna do about it? What’s the next action? Is this a project that I keep track of? There’s no substitute for this exercise. Interestingly it takes two different parts of your brain that you got to train.

Outcome comes from the forebrain, frontal cortex. Actions come from the limbic part of your brain that says, ‘hey, I need to move on this’. These are two different parts of your brain. And people resist this like it’s the plague.

Why is anything still staying in my in-basket? Because you refuse to think of what it needs to be done and what you gonna do about it. And/or you don’t have a good system. So you’re depending on your in-basket to keep buzzing at you. And there’s no light at the end of that tunnel.

Simone: Does GTD work better for people that can adapt to new habits?

David: I haven’t met anyone who’s already had these habits already. It’s hard habits for anybody. If you say ‘Hey David, let’s hop on a call’ and I said yes — I’m gonna take out my notebook and write it down. That’s a commitment. I’m not gonna let anything get into my way of the commitment. I’m gonna let my brain be the office that manages what to do and externalize all the commitments.

It takes time even for people who are great at adapting habits. There’s no shortcut, but you can get value out of it immediately.

Simone: Keeping lists is the key to GTD. What about people working in a team that keep up with a shared to-do list?

David: My first question is — why? Why are you sharing a list? It’s like the sharing is what a team needs to keep track of as a project.

There might be some things that are important to your teams, or your project team to get together and be like ok, here are all the things we have our attention on as a team. Keeping track of status and all that, with the role as a team. Nothing wrong about that, but people individually still need to keep track of their own actions, they need to do this or that, people still need their own personal systems, to manage whatever shows up in the team context.

A lot of people try to develop groupware and project tracking software… it’s very difficult. You need to get everyone to play. CRM works because you’re fired if you don’t input the right data, there’s such a protocol at what you’re doing in the business.

Why would you need to keep track of the actions I need to do? That means either you’re not required or I’m not required. Keeping track of my actions, that’s my job. If you’re keeping track of the outcomes that I’m committed to doing then sure, but that will go on your Waiting For list.

If people manage themselves, you’ll realize how little it needs to be captured in a group setting.

Sometimes you need group context to make decisions like, how do we allocate resources in teams…but that seldom drills down into the action level, which the individual involved needs to do that.

Simone: What’s the worst productivity tip you have heard?

David: ‘Don’t worry about in-basket zero.’ Grow up. You either should get that stuff, or not. There are no interruptions, there are only mismanaging.

If you think you can avoid stuff coming in, why are you letting them in to begin with? If it’s part of your game in terms of commitment that you have to deal with — deal with it.

When you have a backlog of potentially meaningful stuff, any inputs will feel like interruptions. That’s why I’m cleaning up all the backlogs, and when I have a surprise coming to me — when those things land, I want to have such a clear headspace that I can evaluate them based on all the stuff I have to do. If you can’t see having 60 seconds of overview through your commitments you’ve got, you’ll be driven by latest and loudest. So that’s one of the worst tips I’ve heard out there.

Another worst tip is to label everything with priorities, 1,2,3.

Simone: Why shouldn’t we label priorities?

David: Well, you’re thinking of priorities all the time. But when you’re playing with your kitten or dog — is that on your list? Is that a 1,2 or 3? A high or low? And then you’re playing with your kitten and feeling guilty that you’re not doing stuff that’s priority 1? Give me a break, that is no.1.

You’re making priority decisions every moment. Now you are talking to me, that is your priority. And that’s the best thing you can be doing right now. Otherwise, your head would be totally somewhere else.

If you’re always thinking about priorities … I’m not saying to not set priorities, but don’t try to oversimplify that and give yourself some formula that determines your purpose, your core values, your vision in where you’re going. The goals you need to accomplish, the things you need to manage and maintain to make sure you’re healthy.

Most people reading or listening to this probably have over 30 projects, 50 next actions. So if you’re telling me trying to sit down and structure a 1,2,3 priority set, the main thing is to get your head empty, look at what options you have externalized, and then make an intuitive decision of which errands you need to run, or whether you need to process your emails tonight, or just take a nap. Or spend time with your family.

These are constant moment-to-moment decisions, and you’ll never be able to get rid of that challenge. It’s always there. You just need to make sure you’ve structured your environment and behavior so that you feel the most comfortable about whatever that is you’re doing.

And very few people have a clue in what they’re not doing.Could you just get an inventory of all the things and your current commitments, and you’re going to be a lot smarter than you know.

Continue to Part 2 ➡️

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