Getting It Done and Loving Life

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. That’s a central principle of renowned productivity expert David Allen’s work-life management system called Getting Things Done® (GTD). Allen, who recently revised his bestselling book, Getting Things Done, designed GTD to enable greater performance, capacity, and innovation, and the system has helped thousands of people and organizations around the world bring order to chaos, alleviate feelings of overwhelm and instill focus, clarity and confidence.

Allen describes GTD as a means for collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing all of the “stuff” that comes into our lives. “It is really is a set of best practices that when you apply them, it actually produces a greater sense of clarity and inner space, if you will. This is really useful on a day to day basis when our life consumes us and it feels as if there is no time for ourselves,” he says.

You don’t really need time; you need room. It doesn’t take any time to have a good idea. It doesn’t take time to be loving or present, but what is required is that you have room internally.

It’s less a matter of time than it is a matter of room, he continues: “You know, you don’t really need time; you need room. It doesn’t take any time to have a good idea. It doesn’t take time to be loving or present, but what is required is that you have room internally. If you’re distracted, if you’re being pulled and pushed by things that you have not yet appropriately engaged with, then it is very difficult to be creative or present or any of that good stuff.”

GTD offers practices that Allen says are not hard to do, but we’re not born doing them, so it requires some “cognitive horsepower” to apply GTD practices consistently and completely to create the kind of “room” he’s talking about. That practice and its benefits are useful every day, but especially in times of crisis. David reflects, “You get married, you get divorced, you buy a house, you got fired, you got promoted, you moved, life illnesses, all those kind of things. People have told me, ‘Wow, it really allowed me to move through this stuff with elegance and ease and without having it being insanely crazy.’”


The GTD method is fairly simple. It addresses what Allen calls the “vertical” aspect of life—“what really matters to me with my life and am I doing the right things” – as well as the “horizontal” aspect—how to manage the day. It’s a method that serves everyone, not just busy businesspeople. Allen says it’s also appropriate for students, the clergy, stay-at-home dads and anybody who has a busy life, and wants to “surf on top of it and have more room and more space.”

GTD comprises five simple steps to help you navigate all the details of the world as it’s coming at you and as you engage with it.

  1. Capture—Collect what has your attention
  2. Clarify—Process what it means
  3. Organize—Put it where it belongs
  4. Reflect—Review Frequently
  5. Engage—Simply Do

Allen describes the practice as a “lifelong lifestyle art and craft; the art essentially is how you manage the flow of life’s work.” There is science underpinning the GTD principles, as well: Peter Gollwitzer, renowned professor of psychology in the Psychology Department at New York University, has done research that shows we don’t even have to finish an undertaking to reduce the pressure we feel. Allen explains, “As long as our brain recognizes that there is a plan, that there is a place that holds the reminder, and feels confident that we will look at that reminder at the appropriate time and place, then this implementation intention and the practice to park things in the appropriate place – all that alone relieves the pressure.”

Here’s Allen’s advice as we enter 2016.

1. Ditch the Rush to New Year Goals—Instead, Resolve & Reveal
Make no new commitments before you resolve incomplete actions that are dragging you down, and design your day with new practices that allow way your desired life to emerge.

Allen says, “I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all beat ourselves up enough about that kind of stuff. So the way I describe it is New Year’s resolution, meaning resolve the open loops.” He adds, “It’s a good time to reset what would my ideal life be like and then let it happen.”

2. Minutes Matter
GTD includes a process called the two-minute rule that trains you to be motivated to deal with the things that can be dealt with on the fly. In other words, if you determine you can get something done in two minutes or less, then do it now. Allen observes it would take longer to organize that task and review it, than it would be to actually complete it and check it off the first time it comes into your life.

You can even group a few two-minute tasks together to tackle the next time you have a surprise “gift” of 30 minutes because something else was cancelled. It’s a great time to clean up old e-mails, send thank-yous or purge some of your files, and you’ll feel good because you took action.

3. Manage Your Addiction
Most of us are accustomed – Allen would say addicted – to feeling bad, and we have yet to know what it feels like to be uninhibited by unfinished business and the stress of anticipation. “Most people have lived for so long in that sort of ambient angst, the ‘Gee, I wonder if I’m doing what I really ought to be doing, given all the stuff I’m committed to.’ What I mean by addiction is that we’re willing to tolerate that distraction and that angst.”

He compares GTD to exercise, acknowledging that it requires attention and effort to keep up. That’s the biggest reason people “fall off the wagon,” but Allen says that it’s also hard to get back on because we aren’t familiar with the state of clarity that comes with the effort to manage your life.

4. Pull Up the Rear Guard
Allen’s GTD system requires a weekly review. He emphasizes that this step is essential to our productivity and peace of mind: Research in cognitive science has validated the GTD methodology with evidence that our brain was designed to have ideas, but not to hold onto them. The more open loops that you have in your head, the more that distracts and adds stress, simply because your brain isn’t designed for remembering and for reminding; it’s designed for recognizing.

According to Allen, “The weekly review is basically is just pulling up the rear guard, catching all the things that have occurred. Life comes at us faster than we can all keep it all processed and organized.” He’s well aware that reflection time doesn’t happen by itself; you actually have to stop the world: “It’s kind of like planning; when you most need to do it is when you least feel like
doing it.”

David Allen, creator of GTD, describes himself as “often identified by my description of a relaxed balance of perspective and control, known as ‘mind like water.’ This is not an empty mind (it’s impossible to have nothing on your mind, if you’re conscious); it’s a mind that is operating at a more productive and creative level. GTD helps you achieve and maintain that optimal condition, by using your mental energies to think about things rather than think of them.”