David Allen: There Are No Problems, Only Projects

When David Allen wrote Getting Things Done in 2001, he could only dream of the mass adoption of his framework. The acronym for the book, GTD, has become an imprimatur of best work practices in the 21st Century. David’s book has sold more than two million copies, and GTD trainings and products are available in almost 80 countries and over 30 languages.

In the face of a tsunami of emails, increasingly complex projects, and accelerating change in the workplace during the 1990s, executives needed a way to tune out the noise and focus on what mattered most. At its most fundamental level, GTD entails gathering and classifying important information, and then delineating desired outcomes. From there, you can derive what next actions you should take.

The GTD method advocates creating workflows that allow you to be as “dumb” as possible in terms of remembering your ever-expanding to-do lists, and instead save brain capacity for meaningful work.

Do one thing at a time and feel good about it. Stop feeling crappy about all the things that you aren’t doing. GTD is a profound cognitive shift, and it puts the practitioner in the driver’s seat instead of letting them fall victim to the whims of the world around them.

After almost 20 years of evangelizing GTD and growing a massive global following, David is preparing to retire. We interviewed him for the first time since we published his episode of This is Product Management to capture what he’s learned about growing his business and get his perspective on the future of GTD.

New Tools, Old Problems

The GTD methodology hasn’t changed much since David initially created it. What has changed, however, is how many people now need it. The audience has expanded vastly beyond a small initial cohort of overachieving professionals as the nature of work has changed.

The audience now includes what a recent Buzzfeed piece dubbed “The Burnout Generation”. The author, Anne Helen Petersen, describes the challenges that millennials face in the modern world:

I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months. None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, taking boots to the cobbler, registering my dog for a new license, sending someone a signed copy of my book, scheduling an appointment with the dermatologist, donating books to the library, vacuuming my car. A handful of emails — one from a dear friend, one from a former student asking how my life was going — festered in my personal inbox, which I use as a sort of alternative to-do list, to the point that I started calling it the ‘inbox of shame.’”

According to David, overcoming the “errand paralysis” is nothing new. Humans have been expressing the same concerns since time immemorial, and David says evidence can be found in human diaries from 300 years ago or on cave paintings. This is because if people are not applying GTD, they’re prone to commit too much time to many projects. Instead of watching the so-called “inbox of shame” multiply, burnt out professionals today can benefit from committing to less and making better choices about time distributions, David says.

Even with new technologies, people can only do one thing at a time. Now more than ever, GTD offers a solution to the problems of excess stimuli in the workplace. This is why David is planning for GTD to continue to help more people after he retires.

Lessons on Business

David didn’t expect GTD to proliferate to the extent that it has. He didn’t do much by way of marketing for his groundbreaking creation. Rather, people who had benefited from the methodology started building coaching, consulting, and training business based on it. These practitioners brought GTD to people of all walks of life across the world, without much cost to David’s company. It’s a fascinating business model and a perfect case study on distribution partnerships.

This Summer, David is hosting The GTD Summit, and many of the world’s leading GTD experts will be speaking. The conference will mark the culmination of his career and pave the way for GTD to continue long after David stops working.

Check out the GTD Summit here.

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