The Art of Getting Things Done with David Allen

Last week, TEDx came to the Claremont Colleges. It was an inspiring Saturday full of positive energy and captivating stories. If you weren’t there, I want to ask you one simple question: Why? Perhaps you were deterred by the hassle of pre-registration. Some of you may not know what TED is or why one would go in the first place (That deserves a whole article in itself!), but I’ll bet, for some, the answer boiled down to this: You wanted to go but were wayyy too busy and stressed out to give up nine hours of your Saturday, even to attend a TEDx conference.

If that last option was the case for you, there is at least one speaker you could have personally benefited from hearing speak: David Allen.

Allen coaches, consults, speaks, and writes about the topic of stress-free productivity. He's one of Forbes' top five executive coaches in the United States. Years ago, Allen developed a simple model that can help anyone relax, gain a clear mind, and get the results they want to see. His book, Getting Things Done, is a national best-seller.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Allen the day before his talk to learn a little more about his model. Allen, like many people, didn’t always know what he wanted to do. “I had 35 professions by the time I was 35!” he said. What Allen knew was that he liked to walk into a situation and see how much easier it could be. "They actually call those people something and they pay them money to go do that, so I hung up my shingle and since then began exploring what are some of the things that allow us to create the best results we can with the least amount of effort,” he explained.

Allen's entire Getting Things Done (GTD) system is based off of one simple idea: appropriate engagement. Your mind should be appropriately engaged with all the tasks at hand. This system gives you a “mind like water”; if you throw a stone into calm water, the water will ripple out exactly as much as it needs to—not too much or too little—and then return to its calm state.

So how does one obtain a mind like water? Perhaps you’ll be disappointed with the simplicity of the answer. Allen said, “I can tell you the model in twenty seconds; it’s just, keep anything potentially meaningful out of your head, sooner than later decide what it means and what you’re going to do about it, and park those results in some trusted place that some part of you knows you’ll look at the right time and the right place, and trust your intuitive judgments about what you do. That’s all it is.” While it may be simple, it is absolutely effective.

The actual details of the system you use are up to you, but here are a couple components Allen suggests in his book:

Write everything down: Do not use your mind as your system to remind you of anything. Create an in-box for physical material and some sort of space where you can jot down any fleeting “I need to...” thought that comes to mind.

Process it once: When you sit down at your inbox, you should process each item one time. Nothing goes back to the in-box. See the workflow model below to find out how to process your in-box materials.

Understand the purpose: For multi-step actions (aka projects), know why you are doing what you’re doing, visualize the outcome you desire, and work toward that vision.

Actions. Actions. Actions: You must think of your incomplete tasks as actual actions. This means that things on your to-do list aren’t “religious studies project” or “mom.” You need to boil it down to the next actionable step.

Review the lists: This system is all about trust. You have to trust your system so much that you stop keeping things in your head. This means that you have to know that you’ll look at your lists and calendars at the correct times. Make it a point to review your lists and process your materials at least once a week.

According to Allen, the biggest thing the world needs to learn is to “stop using your psyche as your system. It sucks. Your psyche and creative energy should be used to make intuitive choices, do intelligent thinking, and be creative.” When you use your psyche as your system, you throttle your creative energy. Allen insisted that students can get a lot out of his system because it will allow them to maximize mental bandwidth, open up to more opportunities, and build good habits for life. He also stressed that you don’t have to undergo a full-scale overhaul of your life; any little bit helps. So if you can’t start big, start small. Start writing more things down; start translating tasks into actionable steps.

When you apply this system to your life, you should feel like you're perpetually “in the zone.” This means the only thing on your mind is exactly what you've chosen to focus on. The real trick to the system is in implementation. It requires a change in habit; it will feel unnecessary. Allen said, “It’s one of the more instructive things to realize about these practices; we’re not born doing them. You didn’t hop out of the womb going, ‘Hi, what am I trying to accomplish? What’s the next step? And who’s doing it?” Allen likened it to learning a martial art: “If you ever learn the martial arts, you’ll find that the basic moves feel very unnatural and very awkward. Once you do them 1,000 times, you’ll see that’s the best way to manifest the highest amount of power with the least amount of effort.”

I asked Allen why it is that more people don’t utilize his system, and he said he doesn't know! He said he thought he was the last person in the world to figure this stuff out. “Once you start to do it you go ‘duh.’ This is a big duh-factory in terms of what I’ve created,” he said. Allen thinks it is an addiction to stress that stops people from implementing a system like his. “The biggest barrier to entry is people’s addiction to stress—their willingness to tolerate the pressure of not doing this… It has to do with their comfort zone of how much unprocessed stuff they feel okay about having. How much pressure are you willing to tolerate?”

So CMC, the question is now posed to you: How much pressure are you willing to tolerate?

Tolerate less. Get things done.