Getting Things Done, with David Allen

Parvati Magazine spoke with David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, a perennially bestselling book on personal organization.

Parvati Magazine: What is the GTD productivity system?

David Allen: It’s a set of best practices I discovered, uncovered, tested, researched, and implemented over the last 30 years with thousands of people. It’s a way to be able to surf on top of your work instead of being buried by your work.

The basic process is to build an external brain to get things out of your head. Your head wasn’t designed to remember and remind. It’s designed for other things, which it does very well. If you keep a calendar you are already using an external brain. Why do we keep calendars? Because we have commitments, your head doesn’t do that well, and the price of missing something is huge. It’s just that most people have a whole lot more commitments than what is in their calendar and are still keeping most of those in their head. The practices of GTD are basically not foreign behaviors. You write stuff down, decide sooner or later what action step, if any, you’re going to take and then organize reminders in a trusted place. Then you review and reflect upon them on a consistent basis to determine what you will do and how you will spend your time.

PMAG: This seems straightforward; why don’t we just do it naturally?

DA: We are trained to think our head can handle everything implicitly and it doesn’t. To a large degree this syndrome showed up when the late great Peter Drucker identified knowledge work, where you have to think as opposed to reacting. In earlier times a lot of what we did was reactionary just to survive; feeding the baby when it cried, putting out a fire. But as soon as you have to think, make a decision, and keep track of things you can’t finish in the moment, then that moves you into a different world in terms of managing your commitments and yourself. And that is relatively recent if you look at human evolution, although even cavemen made lists. Now the complexity of the lists has changed.

PMAG: Many of us think if we just had more time we could somehow manage it all. Can you explain the difference between time and clear space and why it matters to productivity and well-being?

DA: It takes no time to have a good idea, to be innovative and creative, to be loving, or to simply be present with what you’re doing. Those don’t require time–they do require room in your psyche. If you’re worried, distracted, carrying work to home or home to work in your head, you’re not going to be as productive as you could be, no matter what you’re trying to do.

PMAG: What benefit do people receive from incorporating GTD into their life?

DA: GTD practices produce more clarity, more control, and the ability to give greater attention to whatever is most meaningful to you–whether that’s writing a business plan, negotiating a contract, cooking spaghetti, or tucking your kids into bed at night. You’re more present, and with the greater efficiency it creates, you’ll have more time and space to do things you really want to be doing (but haven’t been able to “get around to” yet).

PMAG: How do GTD principles provide a complement to personal or spiritual development and a meditative practice?

DA: GTD doesn’t replace spiritual or meditative practices; but it does make them much easier to do and optimizes your ability to lift your awareness to more subtle things. The more your attention is freed up from remembering and reminding yourself about the mundane stuff of your life and work, the more room you will have to allow your consciousness to have more meaningful experiences.

PMAG: Do you have a single piece of advice for people feeling the weight of overwhelm in their lives and wanting to get it under control?

DA: Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.

PMAG: Where can people go to gain an understanding of GTD and explore implementing the principles in their life?

DA: The best single source is the new edition of Getting Things Done. Also, there are lots of resources through the website –

David AllenDavid Allen is the best-selling author of Getting Things Done (2001), one of the most influential business books of its era, and the ultimate book on personal organization. “GTD” is now shorthand for an entire way of approaching professional and personal tasks, and has spawned an entire culture of websites, organizational tools, seminars, and offshoots. In 2015, David released an updated edition of the original “manual” for GTD, with detailed overviews, examples and coaching advice to get your system up and running.