David Allen Part 3: Really Getting it Done is Not Just Lists


David AllenA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Getting Things Done author David Allen on a variety of topics.

Read on for the concluding part 3, where I ask him about his new book and focus on the core of GTD.

Bob Walsh: How’s the new book going, can you tell us about it?

David Allen: It’s going. And it really developed out of the Roadmap Seminar, which is a one-day public seminar that I developed a couple years ago. I kind of re engineered my public seminar face into a one day, kind of a high level overview. It’s really sort of GTD on steroids. It’s sort of like most peoples’ perception of GTD is still rather surface.

But the principles that underlie why GTD works have huge implications and applications that most people haven’t yet either dug deep enough into it or didn’t understand it enough. So this is just going to be a further explication of that.

Bob: Trying to get them past the idea of just lists?

David: Well, a lot of people looked at GTD and said, gee, I either have to do that whole system…that’s a lot to do, I quit. And not really understanding that if you walk into anywhere and want to get more control, all you really need to do is a version of collect. That is I need to sit down and just get everything that has my attention or the attention of everybody in the group I’m trying to get control. Then you can get it out. I need to externalize it.

So externalizing things that have your attention is a very powerful thing to do as an initial step of getting control. That could be in a relationship, it could be in your family, it could be in a department, could be on a project. That core principle, people say, “You mean I need to write everything down? Well, I don’t want or need to write everything down, I’m still just going to make half a list.”

There’s still very few people, even people that you think do GTD are really, really, really doing GTD. Meaning truly nothing on their mind. Truly nothing is in their head. They’ve learned that the brain is not the place to hold that. And it’s externalized. It takes a couple of years for most people to really, really, really begin to integrate that so that that builds the consequential and sort of cruise control kinds of behaviors.

So there’s still a lot there. So again, I wouldn’t change anything. The first book, when you think about it is still just the tactical manual. You want to get control of your personal environment, here, sit down and do it. Part two of the first book is our coaching process. That hasn’t changed.

That’s actually how we do it. Now, we’ve learned a few things about, for the most part it’s a little too confrontational for most people to sit down and just walk themselves into this. A few people do. But they’re really kind of ready for it.

But most people sit down and say, “Oh my God, you mean gather every single thing that is not perfect or complete or finished in my world and put it in one place? Oh my God, I quit.” It’s hugely intimidating and I understand that. But sort of explaining why and how that works so that people stick with it.

It ain’t going away. My book is number 33 right now on all of Amazon. It’s increased sales of 20% every year and we don’t do anything to promote it other than just what we’re doing in terms of our work. Because I think people just really realize that oh my God, this is not another business du jour fad that’s going to go away. This is a whole new way to match your operational procedures to the way your brain really works.

The objective is to be positively engaged and in your world. Everybody gets off and gets on every once in a while. GTD was just look, there is a way that you get on. And getting on means in your zone. You know, when you’re in your zone, time disappears no matter what you’re doing. Like there’s no sense of overwhelmed, there’s no distinction between work, life. There’s no “gee I’m stressed.” You’re just on.

You could be “on” meditating and in zazen for six hours or you could be “on” running a four minute mile or you could be on hanging around with your kids. So “on” has nothing to do, it’s not situationally dependent. What it is dependent on is that you sort of get into the flow. You know, the guy who wrote the flow book. The whole idea of flow is to be able to be engaged in something that you can feel successful and positively engaged forward and that’s enough of a challenge.

So the whole idea of next actions on things, of externalizing your world and getting things down to doable chunks. All those things really serve and support people making it easier for them to be able to get into that zone. So that’s what GTD is about. It’s like, if you’ve somehow lost perspective and control, you know how to get back on fast.

That’s what GTD is. If you’re out of control or if you have lost perspective, I guarantee you if you write everything down, get it out of your head. If you take next action decisions and outcome decisions about what all those things mean and you park those in to a trusted place. Which you then review against all the horizon of commitments that you have so that you kind of integrate all that together and then make an intuitive judgment call about what to do, more than likely you will be on.

GTD just gives you the blueprint. If you want to get there, here’s how you get there. It’s not something to believe. Maybe there’s something wrong about GTD but I’ve never gotten one single email or anything that anybody said anything in there was wrong.

The issue is how do people implement it? Everybody says, “it’s really right, I just don’t have time.” Or, “I started, I fell off, and oh damn.” So that’s mostly what the feedback is.

Bob: Has your publisher and you set a pub date or a title?

David: January, 2009 is projected pub date.

Ed note: We’d like to thank Mr. Allen for his time. So, are you a really, really GTD’er? Why or why not? Tell us about it in the comments.


Christoph Dollis

I’m not expecting anyone to duplicate my system, just saying that the weaknesses of GTD: Especially lack of daily structure can be aided by routines, that way you DON’T have to skip exercise and personal development, like David does so often when he’s working on a project.

Further, Todoodlist is a fun way of writing a list, and working off of it. And it’s surprisingly logical.

I had to break up my monster comment into several comments because bigger ones were “discarded”!

Christoph Dollis

Is that a complex setup?

Kind of. But the routines really simplify it. You gotta do stuff in the morning and evening anyway… might as well be effective stuff!

I use acronyms for writing these routines and standard subtasks out anyway, so it hardly takes anytime at all.

Christoph Dollis

Do I think there’s magic in this, that the universe will “manifest” what I want? No, that’s a bunch of nonsense. BUT! Does it focus my thoughts over the week and especially as the week goes on to a good habit, quality, or idea I want to better?

You damn right.

Unlike Franklin, I don’t choose 13 subjects in advance and rotate them 4 times a year. I figure what I want to work on will change, so I just pick a “self motivator” each week. If I wanted to, I could work with one for more than a week, but a week of concentration usually works wonders and the idea will often come to mind when needed in the future.

Christoph Dollis

Now what’s this Ben Franklin stuff?

He had a personal development plan where he would focus on 1 and only 1 area of his life a week. That’s what I just started doing and it’s been wonderful.

Every week in my weekly review I choose a “self motivator” as W. Clement Stone called it, and I work on it for 10 minutes a day: 5 minutes with my morning routine and 5 minutes with my evening routine. Basically, it’s an “affirmation”. I say it 50x in the morning finding myself getting more excited at the end than at the beginning. And I write it down 15x (at the end of the day)… which is what Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, did.

Christoph Dollis

Every week I create a new Todoodlist with what I plan on working on in the following week. And there’s also a daily Todoodlist with my routines, plus 1-3 “Most Important Task(s)” per ZTD, and any subtasks associated with them per Todoodlist.

It’s a lot simpler and quicker than it sounds. I find this type of list is faster to write than a flat list because I just put the stuff wherever, then draw connecting lines and circle only the next action per task/routine.

For my Project list, I DON’T list an outcome. In other words, instead of trying to write the perfect goal statement for it, I’ll just list the project name like “Car”, “Earnings per Hour” (with the assumption I want them as high as possible!), and “Toastmasters”. I also keep the canonical Waiting For, Someday/Maybe lists, and generally review them once a week.

Christoph Dollis

Likewise, I have an evening routine, and eating healthy is its own routine. These all go on my daily plan, which is quick and fun to put together. Writing it is part of my evening routine.

For lists, I use Todoodlist. It’s awesome. Paper and pen/pencil. It’s a non-linear visual way of mind mapping tasks. Super quick to write and “context” is taken care of by writing dotted lines across the page connecting tasks in this way. Otherwise, it’s squares, circles, and lines. You really should google it and check it out if you’re curious. Otherwise, go with what you’re doing now. There’s nothing wrong with a proper list.

Christoph Dollis

I use a hybrid GTD/ZTD/Todoodlist/Benjamin Franlinish W. Clement Stone “Self Motivator” System…

David Allen started the search for info on how to get my life in order and I’m thrilled with it. More and more these habits have become automatic.

Basically, I do GTD, but I’ve tweaked parts of it. Since I’m quite a linear thinker and tend to bite off more than I can chew, getting overwhelmed and disappointing myself, these other elements added to the system have made a big improvement.

I use GTD in the sense that I have an “Outcome” list: basically, the broad strategic directions for my life… things like “Be financially independent” “Help other people”, “Have rewarding friendships”, as well as other elements like health, fitness. Often I don’t even have a project under these, many are handled with daily routines.

I agree with Zen Habits that GTD is lacking a lot of structure, which can be helpful to people. It’s been said that the first hour is the rudder of the day. So I have a morning routine, which takes an hour long and is mostly health/fitness/personal development. It’s a fabulous start to the day and puts me a long way toward achieving many of my outcomes.

Todd V

I’m glad to see David mention the _Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience_ book. Staying in the zone – in ‘flow’ – whether it be mastering GTD or anything else in life – is a matter of balancing skills and challenges. Too much challenge = overwhelmed. Too much skill = boredom. The right balance of both = flow. The problem people initially face with GTD is that the challenge to learn the system seems overwhelming at first; but once they learn some initial skills and habits, the experience starts to become more enjoyable.

Fitness Guy

This was a really good read. I am glad to know that I am not the only one that struggles with the collect portion of GTD.

Also I find it important to be reminded that the whole idea is to get everything out of your mind so that we can use our heads better instead of a rotation of remembering stuff.


I always thought GTD was good but could it also be bad? Think about it, if you always had to write down what you had to do, then you can never remember what to do!


You really should have done a better job of transcribing the interview. There are words missing and the grammar and punctuation are poor. David Allen is an excellent speaker and writer, and here you represent him as anything but. It was your job to use punctuation to properly reproduce the inflection and intent of his spoken words. I do not think you succeeded at this.


If you’re interested in the flow that Mr Allen was speaking of check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow: The Psychology of optimal experience”. I read it after GTD and I think it identifies the goal of the system.


I am working on my GTD system but I do believe that getting stuff out of our heads is vital. I used to be a case manager at a women’s shelter and sometimes our clients were so stressed about their very long list of things to do to get housing (on top of the stress of being homeless and the events that led to their homelessness) that they were frozen and unable to move forward. One of the first things I would do after taking a case history was show them my own to-do list to help them with their plan. I’d say, “You don’t have to worry about these parts because I’m worrying about them FOR you. You can let it go now.” Their relief was often palpable.

Trusting my to-do list to hold the important things I need to get done is a big part of keeping my sanity as a freelancer!

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