The following is from a Q&A with the creator of the GTD method on productivity in an anxious age.
David Allen has been thinking creatively––and helping others think creatively––about productivity since the 1980s. It all started when he was helping his friends with their small businesses. His desire to be efficient turned into a productivity consultation business. “Now they call it ‘process improvement,’” he jokes.
The Getting Things Done method, described in Allen’s book under the same name, involves five steps: capture what has your attention, clarify your process, organize, reflect, and engage. It’s a mindset, he says, and one that has significant implications for reducing stress and anxiety in all areas of life. In a culture that has trouble setting boundaries around work, or where personal life and work increasingly collide, his method has helped thousands of people around the world improve their workflow process.
He spoke with Workflowy about how his method helps manage anxiety and stress.
Can you summarize the GDT method?
Basically, it keeps stuff out of your head. Your head’s a really bad office because it doesn’t have a sense of past or future. So all the commitments that you make with yourself that you would, could, should, need to resolve, those need to be externalized. You need to get them out of your head. You need to clarify exactly what you’re going to do about them, if anything, and then have some sort of external brain or trusted external system that you keep track of all the reminders that you need to be reminded about that you then review and keep current on some kind of consistent basis.
A lot of the stress comes from people mismanaging their own agreements with themselves. If you’re trying to keep more than four things in your head, in terms of things to be reminded about, or trying to prioritize or try to manage, you will sub-optimize your cognitive process. You won’t take a test as well. You won’t be able to be as creative. You won’t be able to be as present with your kids.
How would you say specifically your method identifies the problem and addresses it in a different way than other productivity methods?
This method just starts with where you are now and where you should be. If you try to focus on some vision or purpose or long-term goal, but your day-to-day is out of control, good luck. You’re just going to create stress and frustration. You need to make sure that you get really clear with what has your attention. What’s got your attention? What’s on your mind? And the recent things are on your mind because you’re not appropriately engaged with them yet. Grab it, write it down somewhere, capture it somewhere and then decide, well, what exactly do I need to do about that thing?
See, most people’s to-do list is an incomplete list of still-unclear stuff. And so those to-do lists can create as much stress as they relieve, simply because if you look at them, they remind you of decisions you haven’t made yet. What are you going to do about mom’s birthday or what can you do about the tooth that hurts? What are you going to do about the vice-president you should hire; what are you going to do about whether you should adopt or get divorced or not? Those are the things that are on people’s minds. It doesn’t mean that you need to finish them. It doesn’t mean that life is easy. You just need to be in the driver’s seat about how you’re engaged with those commitments that you’ve made with yourself.
In the book you talk about how there are no clear lines around work anymore. And that was 20 years ago. For me, that’s where a lot of my work anxiety comes from; it just bleeds into 24/7. What do you think is a core part of why we’re so anxious about work currently?
Well, you don’t feel in control of it. You feel like it’s controlling you instead of you managing it. It’s not a feeling of overwhelm. I used to say GTD handles overwhelming [feelings]. But if you were really overwhelmed, you’d handle that. If your building caught on fire right now, believe me, you’d feel overwhelmed, but you’d handle it. It’s almost like if you don’t have that kind of crisis, you almost have a bigger one. You have the stress of opportunity. You have that knowing sense of anxiety of there’s all kinds of stuff up there I would/could/should be doing, but I don’t know exactly what it is. And then you let yourself be driven by the latest and loudest. Appropriate engagement doesn’t mean that you need to finish all that. It just means that whatever your relationship to [your to-do list] is on cruise control in some way.
How do you feel like COVID and the last 18 months have affected you personally and the way you work, or remote work in general. Have you gotten feedback from people about how anxieties surrounding work and stress have become worse?
It hasn’t affected me very much—it just kind of stopped my travel. Mostly I’ve worked from home for the last few decades anyway. The big change in the world out there is how many more people need to be a lot more conscious about this methodology, because the change threw them into a kind of unknown or unfamiliar situations that they have to get control of pretty fast. The methodology didn’t change. I mean, this will be true a hundred years from now. People really need [GTD] now because they don’t have an office and they don’t have a structure anymore. A lot of people just wound up in freefall simply because they lost the structures that they could trust that would keep them focused.
When I think of productivity methods I think specifically about how I can address this with my work or with my school. But this is really about a lifestyle change in many ways. And with COVID all the lines are blurred because you have all these like working moms who you’re navigating, taking care of a partner and kids.
My third book was called making it all work. “Work” has a bit of a pejorative or a bit of a negative spin around it, much like productivity does. Anything you want to get done that is not done yet, I consider work. You need to fix your washing machine. You need to research a new mobile phone service. That’s all work. As a matter of fact, your brain doesn’t make that distinction. You’ll be as distracted if you’re at work about personal stuff, as you will in your personal life by work stuff. My methodology applies to all of that. Why don’t you get clear about all of it?
So in terms of anxiety, is there a time when becoming less anxious means that we need to be less productive?
A lot of the new research says, if you don’t relax and daydream, you’re not going to be as productive in terms of just getting real work done, simply because your brain needs to rest and it needs to recalibrate, and it needs to reinforce itself. And so you need this, you need to make sure you get seven to eight to nine hours of sleep at night. You need to not take naps in the afternoon instead of drinking three cups of coffee and those things help your brain then recharge. And so recharging your brain. You know, oftentimes what you need to do is stop and, and, you know, stop the world and pop off, you know, take the dogs for a walk. We’ll have a glass of wine. I’m going to do something to sort of recharge or let your brain kind of recharge.
Especially over the last 18 months, but in general, how do you think your method can help with helping people move forward in their life as they’re suffering from anxiety or depression?
I can’t see any other way to do it. That’s why I can’t stop talking about [GTD]. Like if I’m only going to meet somebody for an hour and share with them what I know I’d say, well, how about we get you into clear space? I mean, I’m a big champion of just clear space. What do you need to do to get clear? So your head is not distracted. And then you’re, that gives you access to your intuitive, creative, strategic, maybe spiritual intelligence. Get clear about the realities of your life and the commitments you’ve made in your life, and then watch what happens. You just engage and then live and learn and course correct. And you keep going.
Update: Check out our complete GTD guide and template to help get you started.