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Getting Serious About Getting Things Done

Can David Allen and his GTD methods help with productivity?

How many of you have "fallen off the wagon?" the motivational speaker asks. Many in the audience laugh knowingly before sheepishly raising their hands.

This isn't an AA meeting where the offenders went on a bender. It isn't a diet support group, and those with their hands in the air haven't inhaled a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Even so, the 111 business, government, and nonprofit executives (not to mention this reporter) assembled in a Washington hotel conference room are in dire need of help. Distracted by calendar alerts, burdened by back-to-back meetings, swimming in e-mail, we're all there to get the crunched-schedule monkey off our backs.

Our potential savior, sleeves rolled up and microphone clipped on, is productivity guru David Allen. He is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, the 2001 book that has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 30 languages. His eponymous, $8 million time-management empire spans everything from $595 per-person public seminars to corporate speaking engagements that can earn him $40,000 to $60,000 a pop. This fall, Allen will launch a co-branded line of organizing products with school-supplies maker Mead (MWV) in Staples (SPLS) stores. He's also producing an e-learning curriculum that will extend his reach even deeper inside corporations.

Widely abbreviated as GTD, Allen's method of getting things done focuses on two basic concepts. The first is that by dumping all the tasks floating around in our heads (everything from "buy toothpaste" to "write strategic plan") onto paper or into software, and then sorting them into a system of lists, we become better able to deal with the unexpected crises that disrupt our days. The second is that the complex projects that populate our to-do lists (say, "hire marketing manager") should be broken into granular "next actions" ("e-mail recruiter" and "call HR about firing current one"). Other closely followed tenets include a well-sorted filing system, a two-hour "weekly review," and that most holy of GTD grails: an empty e-mail in-box.

Simultaneously elegant in its simple suggestions and overwhelming for those even a tad obsessive-compulsive, GTD has fans in nearly every corner of the corporate globe. Google (GOOG), General Mills (GIS), and Target (TGT) have all brought Allen or his consultants in to train employees.


Increasingly, Allen's popularity is extending far outside the walls of U.S.-based corporations. Arianna Huffington is a fan. Allen spent the day after the D.C. seminar training 100 managers at the FBI. And in June, he traveled to Tokyo to meet with 150 Japanese business bloggers who are GTD users.

My fellow students of time management are a broad mix, ranging from first-timers, like the Federal Reserve administrator to my right, who hasn't read Allen's book, to soccer moms with a zeal for organizing. Several are repeat attendees, such as Steven Terreri, an executive director of oncology sales for Amgen (AMGN) who is hearing Allen speak for the fourth time. He's here for a refresher course but has other goals in mind, too. "I'd like to expose some folks who work around me," he says, referring to his administrative assistant and a team manager, both of whom he brought along for the day.

For newcomers like me, the morning is a helpful introduction. Rather than create a daily to-do list—a depressing exercise that means recopying everything you didn't finish on Monday's list to Tuesday's—Allen urges us to keep running lists organized by category or place, such as calls, errands, @home, @office. I immediately take to the idea of a "waiting for" list—a reminder to keep up with answers I haven't gotten or tasks I've delegated. I also like that Allen's system is platform-agnostic—high-tech geeks may prefer one of the many software add-ons built for GTD users. But it apparently works just as well with plain old pen and paper, which you can, of course, store in the GTD file folders the David Allen Co. is selling in the back of the ballroom.


But by lunchtime, I'm feeling overwhelmed. The concept of breaking down projects into actionable steps makes sense, but my brain can't wrap itself around just how granular I'm supposed to go. (Isn't "research hotels" an intuitively obvious action in planning a vacation?) And by afternoon, my head is swimming. After a couple of hours thinking at 20,000- and 30,000-foot levels—GTD parlance for pondering higher goals—categorizing "take car for oil change" into a topic area such as "personal administration" starts to feel like needless overthinking.

The real test, as Allen indicated, is how well I can make the ideas stick when I get home. I'm already a fan of some GTD dogmas, such as keeping running "agenda" lists for people I speak with often: my boss, my spouse, my colleague on a project. It's a simple trick for remembering what to discuss in meetings or calls. And I've been warned that it will take at least two months to make GTD practices habitual. But since I'm in the middle of moving, steps like creating a system of reference files seem impossible when I'm still surrounded by boxes. And as someone with more than 7,000 e-mails in her in-box, the concept of an empty one feels so preposterous I decide not to even bother.

In the end, the real questions I find myself facing are whether GTD will make me less stressed and more productive (I believe it will) or actually save me time (I'm a little skeptical). GTD doesn't, after all, make procrastination go away. In fact, Allen's instruction to go ahead and do anything that takes less than two minutes, rather than putting it on a list, has me feeling happily efficient. Meanwhile, what I should have been doing is, um, writing this story.

I call up Allen to see if there are any GTD secrets for stopping that pesky habit of postponing. Like any good self-improvement guru, he does make me feel better: "As long as you're going to procrastinate, you might as well clean up the living room." But even he recognizes that there are limits to a system: "All it can do is let you know that you're procrastinating."

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