(Part 2) Mind like Water with GTD — An Interview with David Allen

david allen workflow interview mailbutler gtd

On game-changer apps, backlog zero, AI vs. GTD… 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 2 of our interview with David. Read Part 1 of the interview here.


Simone: Do you think there have been any new technology or apps that would make us not only work differently, but actually think differently?

Nothing much since the spreadsheet.

Or physicality, or relational data input. We think differently now because of Excel. You also think differently because of Word. Everything else is simply volume change — nothing has really changed the way I thought of anything.

Except maybe mindmapping. Any kind of mindmapping app also helps change how you think about things, much like a word processor, your brain likes to think of something and later on think of where it goes.

Mindmapping and freeform thinking apps allow you to capture ideas, relate them to each other, or however they show up later on. That I think is a bit of a gamechanger, in terms of how much easier it made to grab thoughts about projects things like that. Otherwise, I don’t see any.

Simone: What’s the next game-changer of productivity? For example, Gmail has a new feature that moves forgotten emails back to the top of your inbox.

David: That’s just trying to fix stupid. It’s not a game changer.

Simone: 😄 But do you think these features are competing with… say you’re practicing GTD, and there’s this separate system telling you that there’s something you should do, instead of what’s on your list.

David: You should have made that decision to begin with. Why do you even go into any other system? Why do you even let that happen in the first place?

Simone: In this sense, do you think AI should also implement GTD?

David: Basically the future is going to be decision support.

If your sister has a birthday coming up, you can walk into a room and say ‘sister’, and she shows up in a hologram, and you punch on her, and you see every single present you’ve ever bought her and all of her favorite things, whatever you want to do about your sister. You might use this to make a decision out of what to do next. That’s the future. The apps can already do it, but nobody is building apps like that unless you’re being paid 6 billion dollars. But that’s basically where it’s going.

Before you talk to me, you might have looked at what stuff about David Allen is out there that I might need to have in my mind, or I might have to know about, which is still very labor intensive. If it knew David Allen was on your calendar and already there, and you had already programmed yourself ahead of every appointment you have that you wanted to get a hologram of whoever you wanna talk to. And any potentially valuable and useful information. But you would still need to program that, to begin with, in terms of what data out of that mass data field that is potentially relevant to you, that you’ll want to see it. That’s the future.

The problem is that some of it will be on Evernote, some on Dropbox, some of it on Outlook, some of it on god knows where. Your dashboard is going to need this bi-directional capability to go back and forth between all those raw data that they’re not going to give up. Unless you can build that piece of software that incorporates calendar, email, and all of the things that you’re handling right now, Dropbox, Evernote, whatever bidirectional capabilities, from an API standpoint, as well as from a legal and tactical standpoint. If you want to change things in your dashboard, it needs to go back and change things in the original raw data source.

I spent 3 years looking at intentional software with Charles Simonyi and his team. These are the people that built Office, Excel…they were looking at whether or not our technology can actually build something that wasn’t out there yet. The answer is no. The technology might be there already, but there’s no market for it.Most people don’t even keep stuff in their head, why do you think they’ll need it.

Simone: So this would be the ideal second brain.

David: It could be but I’m not holding my breath. Even AI. Any of that stuff out there, unless it’s 100% trusted, you won’t use it. You’ll use your little watch to count your steps. If you’re doing that, you’re 1%. For most people it’s fun, geeky, stuff to play with. If it’s not totally complete or current, you won’t trust it. Also, where do I put my trust? The trust to build your own system? To trust the system will give you the right data at the right time…good luck. Your calendar is probably the one system you trust.

Simone: Are you still a fan of emails?

David: Yes. I still use emails, and Slack and all of that.

They pretend they can be as good as emails. Give me a break! I’ve tested a bunch of those, and there’s absolutely no substitute for emails. Emails are here to stay. All of the other things are just buzz things to do what I can do with emails, in terms of how I use it and how I can manage it. Take that data and organize it in other places. It’s such a rich context people send and receive.

Simone: And what’s your take on Inbox Zero?

David: I do that every 24–48 hours. I just treat it like a physical inbox. The only difference is its volume, so you just gotta get fast. Or just not get them. If you just say, I don’t care — well good luck. If you don’t care, get off it — why bother?

Why would you keep an email around when you don’t want it, as opposed to deleting it the first time you see it? Because there still might be something you would, should, ought to, refer to, might do with it.

Well then why the hell won’t you put them where they should go, as opposed to just having them sit in your inbox? Most people have trash in their inbox. And they have stuff they can finish in 2 minutes, they have things they need to be reminded of, they have reference material. If you haven’t made those clear distinctions (that GTD is based on), you have to keep rethinking these categories each time you’re there. There’s some part of you, subliminally, that doesn’t want to open the email. Because there are too many different things in there.

The only thing I have in my inbox is just things I haven’t decided what I’m going to do about them yet. So then why not just go through them? As soon as you have trash, you should just clear it.

Simone: I feel like the difficulties of practicing GTD at the moment is that our generation has a lot more we want to capture — so to fulfill near future goals and quality of life. Yet we haven’t really been advancing in searching for higher purpose. Do you feel like, with GTD, you have moved towards your purpose in life?

David: I think that’s the case for all of us. We get wrapped around whatever levels of GTD we want to engage in. You go back to some of the higher horizons where you might have committed to, some consistent basis and say, ‘Ok, what am I about?’

A lot of people don’t need to focus on their purpose. Who cares. Go have fun. Do what you feel like doing. At some point, if you just truly have the guts to do whatever you feel like doing, pretty soon you’ll change what you feel like doing. And see what you learn from that. Then you can use the GTD model to help you: “I’m feeling out of control right now… how do I gain control?” Use the 5 steps! Capture, clarify, organize, review, engage. That’s how you get your kitchen in control. I didn’t make that up, I just identified it.

Not sure what I want to do with my life ?— then just think, what horizon would you like to focus on? What are the other key people that might be important to you? Who do you want to be in 5 years time? What do you want your lifestyle to be like? You know, this is a holistic model. You can play at any level of this game you want. I simply defined the game.

At some point, believe me, if you discover you have a life-threatening illness — you’re going to shift your horizons. If your life partner comes home and suddenly say we’re gonna have to move to Amsterdam — you will shift your horizons again and ask, ‘Wait a minute, how important is this? Where are we going? What’s our lifestyle? What are we gonna be?’ At some point, you will evaluate these multiple levels that anyone has to go through. When you’re talking about millennials, well then you care about work-life balance, you care about traveling … good to know. And that’s going to affect what you do, what you decide to do, what’s important to you.

The things that will throw you into the spin. The more you have developed this methodology, so you know when things get surprising, you know how to get back on course again, fast. That’s what I figure out.

You can wait until people jump at you from the dark alley. But it’s kinda nice to have it developed already. The more you understand these principles, the more you have them available to you. For when things get surprising, or when changes happen to you, when you have to reshift and make some new decisions.

Simone: So I will start now and wait till next time I get thrown into the dark alley. Thank you, David! 😄

David: Sure!

Get in touch with David:

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