Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen

”Rule your mind or it will rule you." ~Horace

If you search for “productivity” on The Google you’ll get 192,000,000 results. Do the same for “life hacks” and you’ll get 15,600,000 hits. And if you do the same searches in Google Play (Android’s app store) and Apple’s App store, you get too many to count. In fact, Apple even subdivides the apps into categories like time-management, task management, project management, etc.

Presumably, we are obsessed with getting things done, or at least with thinking about getting things done. (Under the productivity category there is a subcategory called “Get Stuff Done.” Sign me up for those apps for sure.) The essential productivity apps are calendars, to-do lists, note-taking systems, PDF markups, and apps for brainstorming and mind-mapping. These apps vary in price from free all the way to $150.00 for the famed Omni Productivity Pack, which includes, simply, a mind-mapper, project manager, outliner, and task manager (albeit very high quality ones).

The point is we (larger corporate America) are really interested in productivity. We can’t get enough of it. But we don’t realize that productivity comes with a tradeoff in Presence.[1] We read about it (a lot) and spend our money on it. But productivity can’t really be bought; it’s earned, just like any other discipline or skill.

The man who wrote the book on productivity, David Allen, wrote not to speed things up but to slow them down. He helps us create processes which increase our agility in doing things, and that frees up some time, to be sure, but to take that time and go whole-hog back into the pit of multitasking is to be the swine for his pearls. His goal in writing is simple: “Teaching you how to be maximally efficient and relaxed, whenever you need or want to be, was my main purpose in writing this book.”[2]

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a methodology, not an app. People often mistake it for a rigid set of rules when David Allen never intended that. GTD is just a fancy name and brand for what everyone does who is good (practiced and efficient) at getting things done. Allen didn’t invent this out of thin air–he himself said that GTD is inherent in the nature of life–he simply discovered it as he tweaked his own workflow.

Definition of GTD

GTD is a protocol. It is a system of rules (guidelines, really) which direct the flow of information as it enters your mind and exists as actions.

GTD isn’t voodoo

When you think of a productive person, who do you picture? I used to picture a disheveled guy in a cubicle, buried in stacks of paper, something like what you’d see in a newsroom right before the evening paper goes out. Paper, pens, and keyboard keys are flying and clacking, and everyone is drinking their 100th cup of overly-caffeinated coffee. But now I picture something like a Tai Chi master who seems to defy gravity.

There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged.[3]

The art of productivity has been barbarized by overeager Americans who think busyness is a virtue. What they don’t know is that what they feel is virtuous (getting lots done) is really just dopamine.[4] GTD, and productivity in general, should be about quality of life, not quantity of production. Productivity isn’t about shaving seconds off of every-day tasks (those would be called productivity-tweaks); it’s bigger than that. It’s about making the right decisions with your time so that in 50 years you have reached your desired goal. It’s about making wise choices, not multitasking Without true productivity you can spend your entire life working like a hamster running on his wheel, and 50 years later realize you didn’t actually accomplish much.

This is why I love GTD so much. In the Bible, “wisdom” is mostly defined as the art of skillful living, the ability to navigate the world as a mariner on the sea. The Truth gives us that navigational power (like light in the darkness), but it doesn’t equip us to wield it. There are such things as Truth-bearing mindless mariners steering rudderless ships. GTD is a step toward becoming a skillful navigator of the onslaught of information of modern life.

Overview of GTD

Most of us live reactionary lifestyles. We act on information that comes to us in the moment, and we give priority to the urgent, neglecting the important. GTD uses a simple process to get your goals on paper and make intentional choices about how you spend your time. The key to the system is this:

The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my “stuff” in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind. And that applies to everything—little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not. Everything. There is usually an inverse proportion between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.[5]

If productivity and presence are binary, the thing that is keeping you from being more present is your productivity (or your churning pretense of it). Getting things off your mind is the first step to becoming present. He calls these stray thoughts “open loops.” Anytime you let these open loops rule your mind, you give some of your memory to them, like clogging up RAM on a computer. This build-up creates stress and anxiety because your brain is freaking out at all the things you have to do but can’t act on. Getting those out of your mind and into a system you trust frees you from that anxiety. Most, if not all, of our anxiety comes from things we can’t control. Once you get free from these open loops, you’ll experience newfound peace as you trust the system, not your brain.

My favorite quote in the book is this:

There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.[6]

This sums up the goal of GTD. Get back in control. You’ve surrendered the near-infinite power of your mind to a few open loops here and there, just because you can. When you start dumping those out, you’ll realize it wasn’t just a few, it was hundreds.[7] Accept that you have a couple hundred open loops, and stop telling yourself you’re not suffering from that mental clutter because you are, and unless you start developing a system you can trust, you will continue living a reactionary lifestyle as a stifled, anxious–and, if fulfillment comes from attaining a life-mission, then–unfulfilled human being. Next time, a look at the actual system itself.

”It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head." ~Sally Kempton

Other Resources:

  1. And Presence is the key ingredient to happiness, peace, joy, and even Wonder and amazement. Most spiritual clogs for modern man probably come at the altar of productivity. “Be still,” God says, “and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). We must balance our doing with our being.  ↩

  2. Allen, Getting Things Done, loc 139.  ↩

  3. Allen, Getting Things Done, loc 302.  ↩

  4. “…You’ve got a recipe for addiction: you receive a text, and that activates your novelty centres. You respond and feel rewarded for having completed a task (even though that task was entirely unknown to you 15 seconds earlier). Each of those delivers a shot of dopamine as your limbic system cries out ‘More! More! Give me more!’” (from The Guardian).  ↩

  5. Allen, Getting Things Done, loc 501.  ↩

  6. Allen, Getting Things Done, loc 511.  ↩

  7. Part of the GTD protocol is to do a mind-dump where you pour everything out of your head onto paper and get free from it all. It took one executive over 12 hours to get free.  ↩