Questions For: David Allen

May 21st, 2010 by Paul Keegan

The productivity guru discusses how getting things done is acting responsibly.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

David Allen, 64, is the author of the vastly popular book and productivity manual “Getting Things Done.” Since its introduction in 2001, GTD, as his system is known, has attracted a devoted following of bloggers, technology workers, and Fortune 500 executives, who use it to help manage the daily torrent of information while also keeping up with a seemingly endless list of tasks and obligations, both personal and professional. Allen is also a black belt in karate and will occasionally throw a few karate punches during presentations to make a point. His most recent book is “Making It All Work,” published in 2008 by Viking.

What does responsibility mean to you, in the work you do?

If you say someone is responsible, that usually means that if he makes an agreement, he keeps it, or re-negotiates it, and doesn’t let it fall through the cracks. A lot of GTD is about that — keeping agreements and not losing stuff. If I’m going to be responsible, I’m going to hold myself accountable. But I think a subtler and interesting spin is to break the word down into two parts, “response” and “able,” meaning one’s ability to respond.

Can you give an example?

I’m coaching a senior executive now who has gone from a backlog of 4,000 emails to zero, and he’s kept it that way since I started working with him in November. He was like most people — dealing with whatever is latest and loudest, doing emergency scans of his email from people like the company chairman. But anything that was not quite the latest and loudest was lying fallow — issues that were mission critical for his direct reports. They couldn’t move on anything! They were banging on his door, trying to get on his calendar. Now that his inbox is empty, guess what’s happening? His direct reports shoot him a quick email and he gets right back to them. Now they can respond in their world. His secretary goes home at 5 o’clock every night; he has doubled his ability to respond. That’s being response-able.

Do you find that people most often break agreements with other people or with themselves?

It’s never really about your commitments to other people; it’s always about your commitments to yourself. Sometimes our clients get mad when we don’t tell them what to do. We say, “It’s not what your boss thinks you should do with that piece of paper. It’s what you think you should do with that piece of paper, based on what your boss thinks.”

In other words, they are not taking responsibility?

You have a choice: You can either get knocked around by the latest and loudest thing, or you can stop and figure out who you are.

Aren’t you simply helping people get more organized and productive?

Look, everyone has stuff — on their desks and in their inboxes. To decide what to do with your stuff, you have to decide what it means. To know what it means, you have to decide why you’re on the planet.

You once said, “Many times in my life, I just turned and walked out the door.” Sounds like you’ve had moments of irresponsible behavior yourself.

One day, I just literally walked out and started running with the clothes I had on my back. I said, “I’m just going to start all over again.” I left my marriage, left grad school, left my friends. But that was actually one of the most responsible things I’ve ever done. I was Mr. Nice Guy, a straight-A student, everybody’s friend. I’d figured out early how to play everybody’s game, because I hated emotional conflict of any kind. I was trying to be responsible to people who were telling me what to do with my life — but I wasn’t being true to myself.

What were you trying to resolve by creating GTD?

The best answer I can give is that I’m lazy and always wondering how to make things easier. I’m so not an organizing kind of guy. I’m into freedom. People think freedom and responsibility are opposite polarities, but they’re not. Freedom actually comes from discipline. I’m free to walk through a tough bar without worrying what might happen, because of my karate training. That comes back to the “response-able” piece: the more free you are, the more able you are to respond.

What’s striking about GTD is how mundane it really is. Can you explain quickly how your system helps someone to achieve that freedom, that ability to respond —and be responsible?

There are five basic steps: collect, process or clarify, organize, review, and do. Say you’re walking down the hallway and you have an idea: “I’m going to New York City next week; maybe I’ll go to the ballet while I’m there.” You want to make sure to grab hold of that idea. So you jot it down on a piece of paper and drop it into your in-basket. That’s the first step: Collect. It’s a way of being responsible to yourself, or more accurately, of being able to respond to the possibility of experiencing ballet in New York. The next day, you pick up that note. What to do next? Let’s see if my wife Kathryn wants to go. That’s step two: Clarify. Now I have a next action: email Kathryn. She gets my email and replies that she wants to talk about it in person. So I put a note in my list of things to discuss with Kathryn. That’s step three: Organize. When I’m with Kathryn, I glance at my list, which is step four: Review. We discuss it and she agrees. That’s step five: Do. So the decision-making process is completed. Now I have to search the Internet for tickets, so I make a note to myself to do that, which starts the process over again.

That seems like a lot of work just to make one small decision.

But it’s not a small decision. Is spending time with your spouse important? That’s what life is, really — small moments like that. And that’s the way we do things naturally anyway. I’ve just systematized it, so you can go through that process with everything that comes into your life, even if you decide to do nothing. Once you get the hang of it, you just do it automatically. I’m doing this all the time; I can’t stop doing it.

Running your own company must require thousands of those small tasks. What’s on your to-do list today?

I have to call a consultant about an opportunity that I need to move on sooner than later. A staffer needs me for 30 minutes to look at a new set of workbooks. Kathryn and I are throwing a bocci yard party and we need to get the invitations out this morning…

And yet you sound as relaxed as a man on vacation.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I used to say, “Running a hundred miles an hour! Crazy busy!” Now I say, “Moving slowly and strategically.” Because in truth, you can only do one thing at a time. The question is, which things will you do? And which things will you decide not to do? That’s the strategic part. That’s being able to respond to what life throws at you. That’s really what being responsible means.

Paul Keegan is a contributing writer for Fortune and Money magazines and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, and other publications.