What I Learnt From David Allen’s GTD Presentation

This article first appeared on my Medium blog

Last week, David Allen was in Korea launching the Korean translation of the new edition of Getting Things Done and launching the GTD workshop programme. I reached out to David and he kindly invited me to the launch of the book and a mini-presentation / workshop on what GTD was all about.

Now, I’ve been using the GTD system since 2009 and I thought I knew everything I needed to know about GTD and how it works, but during the presentation I began to realise that although over the years I had perfected the art of asking “what is it?” And “what is the next action?”, I had, like many people, started to overcomplicated the approach.

At it’s core, GTD is very simple. You capture everything that is on you mind, not distinguishing between work or home, you then process those items by asking a series of simple questions — what is it? And what is the next action? — And you organise your tasks into lists of contexts. These lists are related to the place, tool or person you need to actually do the task. For example, if I have on my mind the need to see my dentist for a check-up, I would ask “what is the next action?” In this case it would be call my dentist to make an appointment. To do that task I would need my phone. So If I have my phone and a few minutes, I could make the call, make the appointment and add the appointment to my calendar. The task is now complete. I would not need to create a complicated system of projects and contexts for that particular task.

For date specific tasks, things that need to be done on a particular day, you add those tasks directly to your calendar. They do not need to be put on your task list. Your calendar is for tasks that must be done on that day. Your task lists are for “I would like to do on a particular day” tasks.

Anyway, I am sure those of you who are reading this already know the basics of GTD and if you don’t I recommend you read the book, it really can change your life.

What I learnt from the presentation and meeting the man himself is that GTD is about getting control of all the things in your life so you can make decisions based on what you have to do. That is made quite clear in the book itself, but it is something often forgotten once you start living the system on a daily basis. Once you have the control and you know you have all the things you have to do in a trusted place, you can make decisions about your day, and life, you couldn’t make before. David Allen pointed out that this control allows you to take a nap in the afternoon, if that is what you feel like doing, it allows you to take a whole weekend off and go to the beach without worrying about work you have left behind and it allows you to decide what you want to do and when, even if you have a boss demanding updates 24 hours a day.

Another thing I was reminded of is you don’t need a lot of sophisticated tools to make GTD work. Basically you need:

  • A place to capture everything (physical inbox or a digital inbox)
  • A Calendar
  • A place to keep your lists (paper based or digital based)
  • A place to store your reference and project support materials. (Physical reference folders or digital storage)
The last circle says “Waiting For”

The last circle says “Waiting For”

Whether you decide to go 100% digital or paper based or a combination of either is entirely up to you. And for your lists all you need are a list of next actions categorised into your own contexts (everyone is different) and a “waiting for” list.

For those of you who have been using GTD for a while, you will already know that the the “Weekly Review” is a crucial part of the GTD system. This is where you discover tasks that need completing, it gives you an opportunity to empty your head of all the things on your mind at that moment and it allows you some space to review you life and to make sure all the important things are being done. A completed weekly review leaves you feeling relaxed, fulfilled and at ease with yourself. It helps to keep you in control and it allows you to view the horizon to see if anything is coming up that may cause problems. The presentation made me aware that I was not doing my weekly review properly, and this weekend I sat down and did a thorough review. It was a wonderful feeling. It took me around ninety minutes, but the effort and focus I achieved was well worth the time. I shall be doing many, many more reviews of that nature in the future.

Finally, I would just like to mention that I had lunch with David, and that gave me the opportunity to see for myself what a person is like when they are living the GTD life and what I saw truly inspired me. David was completely relaxed, his phone was nowhere to be seen and his attention was fully in the moment. This is a guy who is running a global consultancy company, has a number of private clients, is rewriting the GTD workshop and travelling the world launching his book. Many of my own clients, whose workload is nowhere near as full as David’s, cannot stop looking at their phones during a meal, are always checking email and worrying about what they have to do next. I think that says it all. If you follow a simple GTD system where you know where everything is, what you have to do and by when, then you too can live in the moment, be relaxed and enjoy your life to the full without those nagging little voices in your head reminding you about stuff you cannot do anything about because you are not in the right place, with the right person or have the right tool with you.

So, for all my readers let me help you with the next actions for you life:

  • Read or re-read the GTD book
  • Empty your head of all the stuff in there into an inbox
  • Ask what all that stuff is and decide what the next action is to complete the task
  • Sort out your next actions into lists of contexts (what you need to complete the task)
  • Keep your system as simple as possible. (Stop trying to reinvent the wheel)
  • Start getting thing done.

GTD works, it’s flexible, it’s simple and anyone can take advantage of the power it gives you over your life and work. You just have to decide when you are going to start.