Productive Living
David Allen

Hi Folks,

Summer is arriving in California and I'm enjoying the longer days and warmer nights. This month I am tackling the age-old issue of "stuff," which is my technical term for inputs we've allowed into our world, about which we've yet to decide what, exactly, they mean to us and what we're going to do about them, if anything.

I assert that it's actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero than to maintain it at 300 or 3,000. Will it take effort? Of course. But there is gold to be mined there with a trusted practice that will have ripple effects across your workflow and motivation.

All the best,




At a certain point, you will get it together.

When the number of used glasses and cups in your living area reaches a certain point, you will clean them up. For some people one is too many. Someone puts one down, they pick it up. Some people, however, will only do something about the glasses and cups when there are no more clean ones. Different standards for "stuff."

At a certain point, you will clean up your email. For some people twenty is too many. And for some, it's five thousand. Different standards for "stuff."

These standards are very powerful unconscious drivers of your behavior and permitted experience. You may consciously think you'd like to keep a neater house, or process your email more regularly, but if you don't change the set point of the real standards you have about the amount of out-of-control-ness you actually will tolerate, they will slide back in spite of your best intentions. Pit your willpower against your unconscious cruise controls, and guess where I'll place my bets.

If the good fairy visited everyone you know and work with right now and magically dissolved every email sitting in IN, within days the number would be back up to the comfort zone of the individual. Some people would have twenty, some three hundred, and some two thousand. Even people doing the same jobs, at the same level, with the same amount of input.

So what?

I assert that, for email, it's actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at three hundred. As opposed to drinking glasses, for which the next action is obvious (wash or dishwash it), that decision is still unmade for much of what lies in IN (hence it is still "stuff," i.e. something in your world for which the action is still unclear). Every time you even slightly notice it again and do not dispatch it, it wastes energy.

Also, have you noticed that you don't throw paper on the ground in a clean park? But as soon as there's any trash at all, it has broken the code and more trash accumulates than would otherwise. As soon as you allow indecision on the front end with any of your input, you have broken the code and it will mount up all around you.

For more tips on managing email, download my free article "Getting Email Under Control" from our GTD-Q site.



You cannot consistently perform in a manner which is inconsistent with the way you see yourself. —Zig Ziglar


Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to time management?

A: People don't capture everything they've committed to. They don't clarify the outcomes and actions required to move forward to completion on those commitments. They don't organize reminders of what they need to be reminded of, when. They don't review and reflect on the total inventory of their world and commitments of things to do. And they don't allocate appropriate time and focus to evaluate and reassess their commitments at each of the horizons at which they have those commitments.

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Hello Mr. Allen,

I've been working with the GTD methodology ever since my first job out of college in 2004. My boss was a huge GTD fan and nabbed copies of the original book for everyone in the office. Needing a way to understand the work world as a fresh college grad, I found a method that made a lot of sense.

Sometimes I'm better at implementing a full system than others, but the GTD principles underlie a lot of the way I work in all my different arenas. Lately, though, I've found myself in a new and challenging situation. The Barnes & Noble where I work part-time (I'm a grad student), is understaffed, and I often find myself not only in my least favorite job in the store—cafe barista—but also working alone.

Today I pulled a 5.5-hour shift. The cafe manager, while available for back up, needed as much time as possible to work on hiring new people, so he asked me to only call him if it was an emergency.

So what did I do? I considered it an exercise in the ready state. "How fast can you get back to 'ready'?" Working in a cafe alone over the lunch hour is a constant "about to get jumped" situation. Although my Next Action lists in this situation are simple enough I can keep them in my head, I still thought about it in terms of contexts—@oven, @bakery case, @coffee, @dishwashing sink, etc. I find myself thinking in that way—"Okay. I'm in the coffee context. What's next? Oh, right. Refill the basket and be ready to brew a new urn. Okay, now I'm @bakery case. What now? Right. Remove this empty plate, and add 'Look for thawed brownies' to the @back_Fridge context."

It was kind of a transcendent experience. I never called for back-up once. The store manager wandered over when I was about a half-hour away from the end of my shift and went, "Okay, so how bad is it?" I went, "The bakery case is handled, there's a new pot of coffee ready to go, and I'm current on dishes."

She was flabbergasted.

Even though GTD is commonly associated with office executives, one of the stories David tells is about how he learned about the importance of review while working at a filling station. I'm curious to know if others have had experience implementing GTD in really unlikely situations.

Jessi G.

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