A day with David Allen

My IBM layoff package included some “retraining” money, which I have to use within 15 months. I had hoped to use it for the Ulpan I took earlier this summer, but language training must be certified to be job-related, and I couldn’t make such a claim. But a few weeks ago, I discovered that David Allen was going to be presenting a GTD (Getting Things Done) seminar in San Francisco today; the seminar was far too expensive for me to be willing to pay for it out of pocket, but it fit IBM’s bill perfectly.

I’ve been trying to follow the GTD method for a number of years (the earliest reference I can find in my mail is from late 2004), so I’m surprised I haven’t written about it here very much. I even teamed up with a colleague to give three or four presentations on GTD at IBM during the last six months I was there (one was the last week I was on board), because I’ve found it so valuable. But I’ve never had any real training in the method (other than reading The Book), and I’ve always found it difficult (nay, impossible) to pull off a Weekly Review. So I was hoping that spending a day with David Allen would help move me forward.

I came away from the session with a lovely new pen, autographed copies of the GTD book and his new book, Making It All Work, some other GTD paraphernalia, and a full head (despite having started the day with a mindsweep intended to get to an empty head). I also came away with a bunch of notes, which I’ll share here in hopes of giving you a flavor of the day (and me something to refer to):

General GTD thoughts

  • Don’t put new stuff on top of stale stuff – stale items on your list pollute thinking and lead to your going numb to the whole list. Put the stale items back in the inbox for rethinking.
  • Clear space gives you room to think! That’s the strategic value of clear space. And it gives you room to make a creative mess, find workarounds, and wind up clear afterwards — it’s fine to have a mess while you’re thinking.
  • Unprocessed backlog keeps you from being free to react to incoming events appropriately.
  • There are no interruptions, only mismanaged inputs.
  • Your mind is for having ideas, not trying to hold them. And it’s for making choices, not reminding you about todos.
  • You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing. That means you need to capture, clarify, organize, and review your agreements with yourself and with others.
  • Being organized is only part of being in control.
  • If your ship is sinking, you don’t care where it’s pointed. Control is prerequisite.
  • You can never get enough of what you don’t really need. Corollary: you can never work hard enough and long enough to fix the world.

Control: the five phases

  • A team or family mind-sweep will uncover things you won’t find individually
  • If you don’t keep track of all your commitments, you overcommit!
  • It’s hard to keep agreements with yourself if you can’t remember what they are. And until you’ve thought through till you have a next action and outcome identified, you don’t know what you have agreed to do.
  • Inbox items are placeholders until you have time to clarify and organize them.
  • Things have your attention when you haven’t given them the attention they need to move them along
  • When something is actionable, you need both a desired outcome and the next action to know where you’re going with it.
  • Deciding not to do something is a successfully completed project!
  • Outcomes need to be clear enough to be able to see the difference between there and here (during the weekly review)
  • If something has to be done by a certain date (but not necessarily on that date), it’s not a bad idea to put that deadline on your calendar so you see it while planning.
  • “Miscellaneous” lists are often a way to avoid thinking thru an item on the mindsweep. If it’s a single action, that’s ok, but then it doesn’t belong in any project. If it’s not a single action, it belongs in an appropriate project.
  • The power of GTD is in the executive thinking and decision-making, not the lists!
  • Project names should include the desired outcome, which usually requires a verb.
  • Put “non-routine” upcoming events somewhere you can see them at a glance, not just on the calendar
  • If you know what you’re doing, efficiency and style are your only improvement opportunities
  • The GTD question is “What’s the next action?” The next action has to be granular – exactly what needs to be done? Getting to that level means you’ve already done the thinking and don’t have to do it again.
  • Create an @braindead list – in advance! When you’re toast is not the time to make decisions, but it’s a great time to fill your stapler.

Perspectives: the six levels

  • Actions – fairly self-evident
  • Projects – what needs to be finished? When? What’s the outcome and what’s the verb that describes it? This is Weekly Review territory; also visit if things are stale.
  • Areas of focus and responsibility (PBC items) – never get finished! Is it being maintained at the right level?
  • Goals/objectives – what do we want to do next year? What did we do this year? What do we need to accomplish?
  • Vision – what would wild success look like? Where do we want to be in 5 years?
  • Purpose and Principles – why? Why am I here? What are my standards? How do I engage with the world?


  • To change your behavior, you need to see how you can do it and feel like doing it.
  • What don’t you see because you’re bringing conditioned limitations to the task?
  • When you identify with something, you see it. For example, when we first bought a Prius, I was amazed at how many other Priuses there suddenly were on the road!
  • Until you see yourself doing something, you don’t see how to do it.
  • Focus on outcomes and that will help you see how to get there.
  • Motivation is not “wanting to”, it’s “having to”…you need to raise your internal bar.
  • How do you identify with the result? Repeat the pattern – do it, hang around with people who do it, read and listen to material, focus and vision the outcome.
  • When you fall off, you need to know you can get back on.

The last word

  • GTD is not about getting things done, it’s about being appropriately engaged in your life.

I’m very glad I went to the seminar; I expect to take advantage of my three months’ “free” membership in GTD Connect to dig deeper and form new habits. Including the Weekly Review, which I’ve put on my calendar for Tuesday.

One thought on “A day with David Allen

  1. Thanks for the write-up. Glad to hear that I am not the only one struggling with the weekly review. Having tried to adopt GTD concepts for a while now I find that those reviews almost never happen. (I do thoroughly remove the reminder from the calendar every week, though.) Not sure if it’s the time slot or the general resistance to work through the pile of stuff once a week, assuming it’s the former I will follow your example and move my weekly review to Tuesdays also :-)

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