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« Now Is Better | Time Took Care Of »

Ask the Expert: David Allen

David Allen "Ask the Expert" interview about ProductivityBased on your outpouring of positive feedback, once again I'm happy to bring you the “Ask the Expert” interview series, which connects you with industry thought leaders. We’ve spoken with Peter Walsh about clutter, Sheila Delson about letting go, Laura Berman Fortgang about next steps, Judith Kolberg about change, and Sue West about fresh starts. This month I’m excited to have with us the world’s leading personal productivity guru, David Allen, to share his insights and wisdom about time management.

David’s book, Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, is a favorite in my collection, and is well worn and highlighted. Some of his concepts that I find most valuable are the ideas of gathering all your “to dos” in one place and then moving each one along by focusing on its “next” action. It’s an understatement to say that David has many fans. He’s an international best-selling author of three books, has over one million Twitter followers and over one-hundred thousand members in his LinkedIn GTD® Enthusiasts group. My sincere thanks goes to David for taking the time to join us. A special thanks to Kathryn for making it happen. Before we begin, here’s more about David.

David Allen is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on personal and organizational productivity. His thirty-year pioneering research and coaching to corporate managers and CEOs of some of America’s most prestigious corporations has earned him Forbes’ recognition as one of the top five executive coaches in the U.S. Time Magazine called his flagship book, Getting Things Done, “the definitive self-help book of the decade.” Fast Company called David “one of the most influential thinkers” in the arena of personal productivity. He is the engineer of GTD®, the popular Getting Things Done® methodology that has shown millions how to transform a fast-paced, overwhelming, overcommitted life into one that is balanced, integrated, relaxed, and has more successful outcomes. David is the Founder and Chairman of the David Allen Company. You can connect with David on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blog or website.


Linda Samuels:  You are internationally known as the “personal productivity guru.” While there is no quick fix for being more productive, where is a good place to begin?

David Allen:  Stress-free productivity means being in a personal state of relaxed, focused control and engaging in meaningful activity. A prime requirement for that condition is having a total inventory of your commitments with yourself – one that is current and objectified and well defined, at all the levels they exist (from “get cat food” to “get a new job” to ”get enlightenment”.) So job one is to capture and clarify that roster. Start by collecting all the particles around your environment that don’t belong there permanently and put them in your into your IN-tray (or a note to represent them, if they won’t fit). Then use pen and paper to empty your head of any- and everything else that has your attention. From there you’ll need to move on to determining the outcomes desired and next actions required for each of them. That whole process can take 10 to 20 hours, but anything you can start doing along those lines will move you in the right direction.


Linda:  Life requires that we get things done. Anna Quindlen said, “I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.” What is your perspective?

David:  Big Secret: Getting Things Done is not about getting things done. It’s about achieving appropriate engagement with all of your involvements. In order to feel comfortable with whatever you’re doing, you need to feel OK with what you’re not doing. So, not getting things done, for the most part, is a hallmark of optimal productivity! Of course, if your purpose on the planet is actually to complete, accomplish, and express, you’ll need to be getting those things done, in order to be at peace with yourself. Once you really catch what this game is about, and the optimal rules of engagement, playing the game, itself, is the reward. Indeed.


Linda:  What is your most surprising discovery about focusing on the “next” action step?

David:  That the decision about the most mundane aspects of our life (what visible, physical activity do I need to do, to move the needle on this?) is core to the sense of fulfilling our agreements with ourselves. If you think you should be doing something about a situation with your parents or your kid, but haven’t yet decided what the very next thing to do about it is, you’ll be in stress and not fully present in your life.


Linda:  What has been your toughest personal time challenge?

David:  Realizing how much of a clear context, in terms of time and environment, is required to do sustained, creative thinking. I can’t write the next chapter of anything without a good four-hour block of free space and warmed up fingers with a great laptop.


Linda:  If you had an unexpected extra hour on a particular day, how would you spend that time?

David:  Beats me. When it shows up, I’ll let you know. I trust my spontaneous, intuitive hunches.


Linda:  Is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t asked?

David:  The experience of stress-free productivity is one of a very natural flow. But it doesn’t consistently happen by itself. It requires specific practices that often seem unnatural and unnecessary at first. (“Write everything down? You’ve got to be kidding!”) Once they become habitual, however, you’d never think of doing anything else.


Thank you, David for sharing your thoughts about stress-free productivity and time management. Something you said which jumped out at me is the idea of “appropriate engagement.” Be comfortable with what you choose to do and not do. That in fact, not getting things done is the “hallmark of optimal productivity.” I love this perspective.

I invite all of you to join David and me as we continue the conversation. We’d love to hear your ideas about productivity, GTD®, and time management. Which concepts resonate with you? What are your recent productivity challenges or successes? 

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Reader Comments (33)

Love this interview! It has much to offer about stress free productivity. A key point to me is that this requires consistent somewhat unnatural practices; however practice is essential. Practice will lead to finding fulfillment in keeping commitments to yourself. Thank you David and Linda for sharing these insights.

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Delap

I'm so glad the David Allen has whispered his big secret: it's not about getting things done! This idea is central to my productivity manifesto, and it's a shift that I work to help my clients make, too. In my manifesto I state it this way: "True productivity is not about getting stuff done. It’s about discovering the easiest and simplest thing you can do — right now — that will have the biggest impact on your life, your wealth, and the world. And it’s about doing that one simple thing before you do anything else." Figuring out what those "easiest and simplest" things are and finding "appropriately engagement" with all the rest is the heart of the process of becoming really productive.

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Lukens

Linda, thank you and David for a wonderful interview! I have used what I call the 'brain dump' method for a long time now. Writing down everything that I want to do no matter how small or large allows me to think more clearly. An added benefit is that I sleep well knowing that I don't have to remember the things I want to get done. I teach this technique to all my clients! I also really loved what David said about ' achieving appropriate engagement in all your involvements' and about being O.K. with the things you don't get done.

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Quintana

Fabulous and enlightening interview! Thanks Linda for the opportunity to share. David Allen's perspective about stress-free productivity is so validating. Thinking that "In order to feel comfortable with whatever you’re doing, you need to feel OK with what you’re not doing," is a valuable sorting process. It always comes back to the power of saying "no." To over-commit is to under-deliver. It's a common "life-trap" we all get caught up in, and ultimately, it is a counterproductive and stressful experience. But when your priorities and commitment are aligned, that sharper focus will feed your productivity and success can really flourish.

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Borg

Am so enjoying the wonderful chorus of your voices! Thank you for taking the time to add your thoughts to the conversation and for your positive feedback.

@Ellen- You noticed the idea of going with "unnatural practices" until they become habits. Excellent!

@Margaret- Loved David's "Big Secret" too. It's a fabulous perspective to shift our thoughts from doing or not doing based on our priorities. Your manifesto is fabulous. I like the emphasis on "easiest and simplest."

@Diane- Yes...Love the "brain dump." It takes the stress away, especially when the download then connects to appropriate actions.

@Nancy- Beautiful parting words: "... success can really flourish." Isn't that what it's all about? Learning ways to identify our priorities and then appropriately act on them?

June 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Great interview, Linda. I, too, find initial resistance from my clients about writing everything down, but after a while they do indeed become believers in that habit. Thanks, David, for making the concepts of productivity so clear.

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSue Becker

This one was truly powerful Linda! Absolutely love it. Since time or lack of it is a common thread with all our clients I was reading with open eyes. I love how David turns productivity 180 degrees by making us face our comfort level with what we are not getting done. Like with your stuff, your time also has to matter. Linda, this is just a wonderful series!

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie Josel

Wonderful interview! I have had my own challenges with productivity. With trying to grow my business I tend to put too many things on my to-do list and feel that it has to all be done NOW and I stress myself out! I do fall into that trap from time to time still, but for the most part I have it under control, and when I do tend to slip back into that stress I stop to breath and take a look at what's most important and get back on track. I still have my list of to-dos but I spread them out more and make sure I give myself lots of time to relax and enjoy life! It's all about balance!

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Another great interview, Linda. Thank you. And thanks to David for distilling so much expertise into just a few paragraphs. I particularly liked the emphasis on making decisions - deciding on the next step is certainly vital. I also think there are other decisions that make a huge difference to getting things done. These might include deciding that a particular task actually needs to be tackled (is it really essential or could it be discarded?) and deciding who ought to do it (are you really the only person or can it be delegated?). In my work as a declutter coach, I find that people who procrastinate or get stuck mid-way through a project invariably struggle with these types of decisions. Thank you again for initiating such a productive discussion!

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJuliet Landau-Pope

Wonderful that you've joined the conversation!

@Sue- It's quite something when we move past "resistance" and on to forming positive, useful habits. Your clients are lucky to have your help.

@Leslie- What a great way to put it...learning to face "our comfort level with what we are not getting done" as a path to productivity. Excellent.

@Suzanne- David believes in "stress-free productivity" and it sure sounds like you've developed methods for doing just that with your mix of doing, not doing, and enjoying life.

@Juliet- Decision-making is in choosing to do or not do. And as you pointed out, it can be the place where we most often get stuck. In David's GTD system, he goes into great detail about the decision-tree which includes delegating, discarding, filing, and more.

Most appreciate "hearing" all of you. Thank you too for your positive responses.

June 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Good stuff!

My favorite quote from the article is: "Getting Things Done is not about getting things done. It’s about achieving appropriate engagement with all of your involvements." All too often we get so focused on the outcomes, looking forward to checking something off the to-do list, that we forget to connect with people during the "doing." A great reminder for us to focus on both task and relationship.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJane Perdue

Linda, mahalo nui loa - another great posting! I am a big fan of a number of GTD concepts - especially writing everything down & next stepping things - and I can't recall one client who hasn't benefited from learning these skills. I'm writing this morning because of something that David said that really struck a cord with me, which is the "clear context" needed for creative thinking. I've not been providing for enough of that in my life as of late and I look forward to creating more of it, starting today. A great reminder to begin a great day.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Sharb

What a great interview! I love David's ideas and listen to GTD in my car when I'm travelling to clients' homes. Although I use many of his ideas, I find that the most basic idea of getting things out of my head and on to paper is the toughest for me! I have a hard time sticking to just one notebook, calendar or capturing system so I get overwhelmed and don't ever feel like I have my brain dumps in one place (defeats the purpose, I know!). I like digital lists and calendars because they are always with me but I love paper and have a (neatly organized!) drawer full of them. Oh, and I have an actively used white board. Lol. If you or your readers have any advice on selecting only one, I'm all ears!


June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Sharp

The big secret about appropriate engagement is so essential. That keeps coming up more and more in the workplace since you have people with fewer resources, less people and more stuff to deal with.

Great interview, Linda!

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Simon

So good to read David's concepts here, so congrat's to Linda for bringing this great thinker to our attention & asking some excellent questions. I had come across David's work last year, & recall enjoying his particular take on Getting Things Done. Here the stand out piece is the clarification around being ok about not getting certain things done, as well as engaging other things "appropriately" as David mentions. His idea of a commitment inventory is a really core strategy,
especially when you value levels of peace, comfort & being in a state of natural flow. I'd encourage all readers to take a 'next step' to investigate David's writings further as he really has some excellent 'off-track' thinking around successful, stress-free productivity that deserves your attention....providing you are comfortable taking it off your 'commitment inventory', of course.

June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGrant Willcox

Count me in as a David Allen fan. Love this comment: In order to feel comfortable with whatever you’re doing, you need to feel OK with what you’re not doing.

Great interview Linda!!


June 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAby Garvey

What a great group! So glad that all of you joined the party to add you special wisdom to the conversation.

@Jane- This seems to be one that is resonating with many of you..."getting things done is NOT about getting things done." Focus and "appropriate engagement" are the keys.

@Andrea- Aloha! You're in the perfect place to make space for "clear context" and creative thinking. And when you return from Hawaii, you can bring some back with you.

@Lisa- If you could capture all ideas in one location, what would be possible for you?

@Janice- Interesting how you're seeing the idea of "appropriate engagement" even more essential in the workplace because of fewer resources. Focusing our energies on the "right" busy is key.

@Grant- Being OK with NOT getting certain things done is a biggie. Would you like to elaborate more about "commitment inventory?"

@Aby- Getting comfortable with the doing and the NOT doing. Love that idea too. Puts things in perspective.

June 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Another fabulous and timely post Linda! Thank you so much for sharing David's perspectives on the never-ending To Do list. Such an "aha" moment to embrace what we are not getting done and move forward with the next first step on our list - brilliant!

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColleen Ashe

Great insights! Thank you Linda and David!

I had to smile when David mentioned how people resist writing it all down. It's so true. When I forget to do this, my mind gets the best of me. Thoughts racing - trying to keep up with everything. My head grows heavy and the feeling of uneasiness creeps up. These are my cues that I have to download. Out come pen and paper and I can breathe easier again.

I'm always amazed at how I feel after completing the most mundane of tasks . . .
Cat food - check
Post office - check
Sign permission slips - check

It's easy to forget that our life is a string of moments and actions and there is no such thing as unimportant. Standing in front of my cat at 9pm and realizing that I forgot to buy cat food can actually make me feel bad. Of course, having her looking at me with scorn doesn't help either:-)

Learning to be at peace with "not doing" has been more difficult but I'm happy to report that I've made great progress in that area. I can now automatically ask myself . . ."Does it really matter that much?' Why?" . . . and make the decision to let go much faster than in the past.

I now know that things often work out better by "not doing." If something keeps getting moved to the bottom of the list, that's a clue. I need to either drop it altogether or look at what's at work here.

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYota Schneider

Thank you Linda for bringing wonderful minds to your blog and sharing them with us. I learned something new and that I know will help me live better. Understanding the tension between what is getting done vs what isn't, the relief that happens when I finally write down (what I call my mental dump!) all I want to get done and how it allows me to be present has been almost liberating. Interesting feeling! Thank you Mr. Allen for your contribution and again, Linda for making us wait for another great interview! :-)

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHelena Alkhas

I have to laugh, because I didn't respond sooner because I was attending to things. Groceries, vet, donations, bank, return items I borrowed to a friend.... All written on my list and parked outside my head.
I'm with David. If I get a serendipitous slot of free time, I will trust my hunches.

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie Dennis

Love this- "Stress-free productivity means being in a personal state of relaxed, focused control and engaging in meaningful activity." When we're in a calm, clear, connected state--- we are SO much better at making decisions, prioritizing and being efficient. We often try to launch activity from a frenzied place--- that's like trying to pole vault in quicksand. Doesn't work. Great info here.

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJill Farmer

Wow folks! You just keep bringing on the good stuff. Thanks to each of you for adding your unique perspectives and takeaways.

@Colleen- David gives us hope for that "never ending To Do list," doesn't he? It's all in capturing and accepting that not ALL things are meant to be done.

@Yota- Love how you've described the decision-making process and your feelings around it. And I especially appreciate how you pay attention to the "not getting things done" clues as potentials to be dropped off the list (guilt-free.)

@Helena- "Relief" and "liberating." Those are the two words you used to describe how it feels to let all those to dos out of our mind and consolidated to another source. Powerful.

@Melanie- Nice "parking" and getting things done, job! Love it and glad you added joining us here to your list.

@Jill- Love the visual, Jill..."trying to pole vault in quicksand." As you said, it just doesn't work, nor does trying to accomplish purposeful actions from a "frenzied place." Am appreciative of your visit with us. After seeing your post on Facebook, I thought you'd connect to the ideas here. I'm adding the link to your post about the brain dump process: I know my readers will find value from the steps you described.

June 13, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Linda, the hallmark comment was my favorite as well! As I've shared before, my brainstorming happens in my categorized journal. If I can't schedule what I'm thinking of, do it immediately, or put it on today's task grid (and erase it upon completion), it goes into that journal, where I develop the idea until I have or figure out what I need to have to do it. (Or delete it!)

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShelley

Love this.. So many people get caught up in the doing that they forget why they are doing any of it. Practice and purpose allows for the Flow that David mentioned. The music happens in the space between the notes.
Again thanks Linda for sharing these insights from your interview.

June 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElaine Shannon

Hi Linda,

I've always been a list maker and note-taker and I thoroughly enjoy the process and it's ultimately productive results (yeaaa, David)!

An "ah-ha' moment for me was something David said that, while I've always known this intuitively, really struck me when I saw it in print. It is the concept that "Getting Things Done" is more about NOT getting things done! It's really about choosing activities carefully so that we can achieve our goals. I was also struck by the importance of "...fulfilling our agreements with ourseves," and how without doing so "’ll be in stress and not fully present in your life." That is indeed, Oh So true!

Thank you Linda and David for another inspirational and educational message!
Sheila Delson, CPO-CD

June 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSheila Delson, CPO-CD

More wonderful great to "hear" all of you. So grateful for the time you took to stop by and add to the conversation.

@Shelley- Love the clarity of process that you've developed for yourself. What a powerful way to handle your thoughts.

@Elaine- "Practice and purpose!" The two P's of focus. Love it. And what a lovely way to describe this flow...." The music happens in the space between the notes."

@Sheila- The big surprise seems to be David's "secret" that was your personal "ah-ha." It was for me too, especially given that he's Mr. GTD. The "doing," though is a reflection of focusing on your goals and what's most important. His process gives us a way to manage all those things so that we can be fully present.

June 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Hi Linda, I am so enjoying your interviews with the elite experts on organizing and time management. thank you so much for inviting me to enjoy and respond. When I read your interviews I am always looking for a gem that I can connect with. This time it was the following from David:" Getting Things Done is not about getting things done. It’s about achieving appropriate engagement with all of your involvements." This is so true. One can go through life checking things off on their need to do list and when looking back will have not had any true engagement during the process. This statement has really helped me as I create my to do lists. Is it about getting loads of things done in a tight time frame or is it getting things done with a perspective of enjoyment and pride??? Thanks again, Thea

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTime With Thea

Thea- Wonderful that you discovered your "gem" from David's interview. It's a great perspective that he shared, which seems to have resonated for many here.

I appreciate your positive feedback on the "Ask the Expert" series. Like you, I love discovering the wisdom that these thought leaders have to share. Come join our conversation any time.

June 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Excellent interview with one of my favorite experts! So awesome that you had the chance to engage with him. I am currently reading his book, "Making it All Work", which pulls all of the pieces of organizing, productivity and time management together. My favorite aspect is that in order to feel at peace with what you are doing you have to be comfortable with what you are NOT doing.

July 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNettie Owens

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