David Allen on dealing with interruptions

Date: Thursday, September 01, 2011 by GTD Times Staff


42 Responses to “David Allen on dealing with interruptions”

  1. Paulo S. Abreu says:

    Fantastic! Nice example of how to use (and leverage) the inbox. Thanks, David!

  2. William Thirteen says:

    thanks David, you just inspired me to go over and clean out my inbox!

  3. Craig Maloney says:

    How would you approach this if you were writing that same note on the computer? Minimize, or close out completely?


  4. Kelly Forrister says:

    Hi William,

    The way I do this electronically is to send myself an email with what I’ve collected in the subject line. I trust I’ll process it when I get to that inbox. Works for me.

    But more often than not, even as paperless as I like to be, I always have scraps of paper around me to collect on and into my inbox it goes. My workstations (work and home) have an inbox in arms reach, like David shows in the video.

    Hope that helps,

    Senior Coach & Presenter

  5. TesTeq says:

    The essence of the power of FOCUS. One thing at a time, folks!

  6. Boleslav says:

    This type of video modelling has helped me to understand the GTD bit better, thank you.

  7. Kelly Forrister says:

    Hi Boleslav

    Glad you found value. We have loads more like this on GTD Connect.


    The two-week guest pass will give you access to the video library!

  8. Arun Kumar says:

    Hi David & Kelly, I believe this is a new practice on dealing with interruptions. It is really fantastic.

    But I feel it is little incongruent; lets say I come to office at 9AM, I pick up and capture all my docs and papers and add the items which I am suppose work and put it in my in-tray, I spend next 15 min to process the in-tray and I make it zero (just like inbox zero). Now since I would be processing the in-tray only once in a day, I will be only capturing the items in it through out the day but will not be looking into it.

    Thus for dealing with interruptions instead of polluting the in-tray it is better that we have another tray say ‘pit-stop’ tray, so that we know all our earlier work is in suspension mode and parked in reversed order over there and we need to get back to the ‘pit-stop’ tray to resume our work and we need to check it again and again by forming habit when the interruptions are over.

    Kindly consider my comment as a improvement suggestion, I am a big fan of GTD, and both of you guys are my guru 🙂

  9. Heather Ross says:

    Great video, but most of what I do is on the computer. If someone comes in and needs my attention, I can’t throw what I was working on in the inbox (the way David did with what he was working on in the video). What’s the best way to deal with that?

  10. Sander Robijns says:


    If I remember correctly, what has been put in your inbox once and gets processed (thus out of the inbox), NEVER gets tossed back in again.

    Hence, what you do in thee morning is basically abusing the inbox for what it is not: a list of your work that you commit to on that day.

    Having such a list is a good idea however. I do it myself as well. Each morning I mark three next actions that I want/need to have completed by the end of the day. It is basically a shorter version of the next action list.

    However, the “stuff” needed is kept in reference material. Either documents on the computer or in filing folders that I have nearby.

    I have a three tray stack on my desk. Top tray is inbox. Middle tray is file folders with reference material of running projects. Lower tray is used for agenda items, things I need to discuss with someone. It can contain the project reference material if I need to discuss the project on that day.

    Don’t get me wrong here. You should apply GTD the way it feels most comfortable, but be aware that you don’t break some ground rules. Keep your inbox for what it is meant. Otherwise you might get confused yourself when you accidently mix “today’ work” with “incoming”. Because you already made decisions about “today’s work”, but not yet on the new stuff. If that never happens to you, then fine, it means you’re closer to being a GTD blackbelt that I am (and I fall off the GTD bandwagon a lot, even after two years).


  11. Arun Kumar says:

    @Sander – Thanks for the reply, I am agreeing with you and saying the same thing that you are saying 🙂

    Like Heather Ross & Craig Maloney, I am also now curious to find out how we can get this implemented electronically, what are electronic tool like post-it notes or stack of cards which can provide auto sequence and drag and drop of bunch of applications, open PC files and website tabs so that we can deal with it one by one.

  12. Kelly Forrister says:

    We don’t have any specific recommendations for electronic collection tools. In my earlier comment I mentioned an option for doing this via email.

    Some people also do this by adding it as an uncategorized task –to be processed and organized (so essentially the uncategorized category is like an inbox.) Just tread carefully on that option, making sure you have VERY clear boundaries between processed and not processed.

  13. Eric Hvisc says:

    HMMM an in box for running projects. I think this solves one of my dilemmas.
    I work for three department, and I’m involved in the shop’s union. so next to my computer I have four stacking trays, each with outstanding business for the four things I work with. Normal what I’m working on sits on the desk and collets post it notes from incoming messages concerning anything but what I’m working on. My inbox is used by co-workers who use this to give me new work while I’m away form my desk. And I’m away from my desk a lot, it the nature of my job. This is the stuff that hasn’t made it to one of the four trays.
    So I’m thinking I need a “hold box” for the item I’m working on at that moment so I could shift the item there as I pick up the phone or run to another location. this just might work.

  14. David says:

    I really like this video! Tasks that get interrupted usually end up in large piles all over my desk by the end of the day. However, I have one question (in addition to the one asked above about how to handle electronic tasks that get interrupted… which is also a big problem for me).

    How do you quickly access items needed for other tasks that come up during the day (often unscheduled) when the materials might now be buried in the in-basket instead of filed with the project to which they relate.

    I have tried using a spiral notebook for all of my non-electronic work, so it’s all in one place… but that interferes with the in-basket technique suggested in the video.

  15. Brent says:

    Another highly-effective approach to dealing with the ringing phone interruption: don’t answer it. Better yet, don’t even allow yourself to hear it if you’re not quite free from a Pavlovian response to ringing phones yet. Turn off the ringer while you’re focusing on whatever you came to the office early to work on. Let all phone calls go to voicemail and process them in that context later.

    Around video timestamp 1:46, David hints at the underlying point I’m trying to make: answering a ringing phone is actually a choice. However, many people don’t really exercise their power to choose their response to this particular stimulus. They respond in the more rote-like fashion that David exhibits around timestamp 1:05. In most cases, this type of unexpected phone call is not something that warrants your immediate attention anyway.

    I realize the true message of this video is to show that an inbox can be a very effective tool to help you deal with interruptions. Agreed. However, if you’ve decided to come to the office early to focus on work that you truly want to get done, take proactive measures to shield yourself from interruptions. When you intentionally/unintentionally extend open invitations to be interrupted, the world will not hesitate to oblige.

  16. Sharna Sammy says:

    Hi, is there any chance i can get this article in a pdf format or any other readable document please? I cannot view the video.

    Many thanks.

  17. Kelly Forrister says:

    Hello Sharna,

    It does not exist in any other format. So sorry.


  18. Steve Epstein says:

    Interesting concept, but I’m wondering if it has applicability in a real-time environment. I work in an emergency department, with many interruptions, many of which are critical for patient care. Corralling them for later is not often an option – it only serves to upset the person whose need is delayed. Not to mention that when on the run, the inbox would need to be physically attached to my body!

    Any other GTD concept that could be applied to that situation?

  19. Karl Knoeringer says:

    Hi folks,

    I agree with Brent, that David should switch of the phone and lock the door in the first place, for he came early to work on that project/task. But that’s not the purpose or this video.

    Now for the use of the Inbox.

    IMHO I think David should NOT toss the task he was working on into the inbox but instead leave it on the table. But after deciding to take the call and writing some notes this new input is a classical inbox item. Because there has not yet any thinking been done on how to deal with it.

    And this is also the case for the paper stack, take the stack, add info, toss into inbox.

    Now you return to the task you were working on and that is still in your face on the table.

    But wait a minute, what if the phone call or the visitor got you really out of what you were doing? Then you could really go on and do the thinking, processing and organizing in one sweep, for you are already thinking about the topic. Effective.

    in the above video you are left with an empty table and face the decision “What to do now?” instead of going back to what you were doing.

    As already mentioned by others the task you are working on is not an inbox item for the thinking on what to do with it has been done.

    Also there is no need for an extra box, just leave it on the table and in the forefront of your mind – concentration and focus.

    Now, if you were to abandon working on this task, the right thing would be to put it back to where you pulled it from, i.e. you project or Next Action folder.

    Personal suggestions for
    * being on the run: use 3×5 index cards on the body or a notepad

    * electronic surrounding
    + use two monitors, on the main one is what you’re working on
    + decide what your electronic inboxes are, perhaps you need several, one in email, one folder for incoming files, one in your GTD software of choice, a MindMap with drag&drop links to the files you need to work with…

    Get lot done


    PS: Remember the hour glass, one grain of sand after the other, that’s how they come and that’s how they are best dealt with.

    In fact, that’s where you’re stuck, stuck at the point of action in the middle of the hour glass, stuck in NOW. You can move away mentally, but then nothing gets done.

    Reminds me of… Bye

  20. Mark Kovacic says:


    I enjoyed the video about the inbox. How would you handle it when you deal with confidential items that cannot always sit out, especially overnight?

  21. Miriam Jacobs says:

    Love this video, because it makes the process so clear. I also agree with an earlier comment: if at all possible be selective about answering the phone. My morning hours tend to be the most productive for writing, and talking to people often needs less of my brainpower, so I like to do that in the afternoon. Cup of afternoon tea, maybe feet on desk and I return a series of calls. Often find that by the time I call back, many of those ‘urgent’ issues have already been solved! Clearly there are important people and issues who deserve and need your immediate attention, but it is worthwhile to make the distinction.

  22. Murray says:

    I agree that throwing it back on the inbox doesn’t work for me – I never get to the bottom of the stack, as David mentions. @Heather Ross: I also try to be paperless. I’ve been making notes in WORD, and storing them in My Documents without any attempt to place in organizing sub-folders, since this way I can find them quickly just by typing the project name when opening a doc in WORD. I do not have this integrated with my inbox, however. But, at least I’ve made the step improvement of getting off the paper notebook. One problem situation: In meetings, it remains politically incorrect to whack on a keyboard, so I handwrite on my iPAD and upload the file as a jpg into my WORD doc to keep the Project notes consolidated. Love to hear other ideas though.

  23. Oxana says:

    Thank you so much for the video! It brings the message so clearly!

    I tried to connect to the http://www.gtdconnect.com
    and got the following message:
    You have asked Firefox to connect
    securely to secure.davidco.com, but we can’t confirm that your connection is secure.
    Normally, when you try to connect securely,
    sites will present trusted identification to prove that you are
    going to the right place. However, this site’s identity can’t be verified.


  24. Oxana says:

    Thank you so much for the video! It brings the message so clearly!

    I tried to connect to the http://www.gtdconnect.com
    and got the following message:
    You have asked Firefox to connect
    securely to secure.davidco.com, but we can’t confirm that your connection is secure.
    Normally, when you try to connect securely,
    sites will present trusted identification to prove that you are
    going to the right place. However, this site’s identity can’t be verified.

    What should I do about it? It would be great to see more videos.
    Thank you

  25. Janice says:

    Hi David, Thank you so much for everything.

    I have been aspiring to master GTD for many years. Not that it’s difficult at all, but I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder so organisation is almost impossible for me.

    I don’t despair. I study GTD and aspire towards a mind like water, like other people study the Bible and aspire towards Godliness.

    My inbox is stuffed full and glaring at me right now. Your video is wonderful but the comments have done my head in. I will just listen to you I think! Onwards and Upwards.

    Thanks again for being alive!

  26. Arlene Hoag says:

    Nice clear video. Very helpful. I just moved to a new home office and need a desk. David, where did you get the desk shown in the video? Its just what I was visualizing.

  27. Graeme says:

    I agree with previous comments, I would not put what I am currently working on into my Inbox. I would not answer the phone (unless it was my wife!), I would let it go to voicemail and would process that inbox at a time that suited me.

    I would treat the new paperwork handed to me by a colleague in the same manner as David and it would go into my inbox for processing at a later time.

    @Murray – take a look at Evernote, you may find it useful. The paid for version will allow you to upload your handwritten iPad notes and have them digitised and indexed for searching.

  28. Roland says:

    Yep, gotta take time tomorrow to clear my inbox! Actually 3 of them, my kitchen island, my living room couch, and my basement office desk! I have “important” notes and folders in all those places waiting for me to move it to the next action.
    I love the analogy to the fire department, they always are ready because they always pick up after themselves!

  29. Bob Watkins says:

    Let me add my thanks to the growing pile. What a huge amount of benefit packed into only four minutes!

    Guess what? I was interrupted three times just watching it.

    @Sander: the way I justify putting a task back into the Inbox once it’s been processed is that the interruption has created a change in my situation. It’s could be the same task as it was before, but it might not be. I have to reprocess it even if it’s only for a second, to know that it has the same meaning for me and the same priority it had before. Unprocessed things go in the Inbox. So it’s only natural to put my current task into the Inbox when I’m interrupted.

  30. Becky Reid says:

    Thanks everyone, for the hints and tips about your own inbox management techniques.

    For the digital folks, I’ll just share what I do. I keep a bookmark folder called “in box”. When I get interrupted or have to move to a new task, I can save it to that folder. Just like going through an in box and processing the stuff in there, I have I have to be disciplined about going through that bookmark folder every day and deciding what still needs to be done with the window that I was working in when I was interrupted.

    Works for me anyway. Cheers.

  31. Riccardo Mariti says:

    As usual you’ve simplified the complex. True mastery! Best wishes from London David, hope to see you soon.

  32. Jane Gadd says:

    I have recently started to use MS OneNote, and have it pinned to my taskbar, all I have to do is name new sections and pages, then drop in notes, emails, web links etc to the relevant section, it allows me to tag comments that are linked back to Outlook and become reminders and Tasks. OneNote is my In tray. With a scanner on my printer any 2 page document can be quickly added too. Larger content is saved elsewhere and referenced to. Hope this helps someone else.

  33. Nigel says:

    Heard about your 3 sided in tray from one of your productive talk podcasts but didn’t quite get it. Seeing the video makes it so much clearer.

  34. Angie says:

    I create document for many clients. Some of these client projects get put on hold. I then put all that project’s documentation in a four-sided box the size of a ream of paper, label it, and store in in one of those mail-slot sorters that have 16 slots for paper-size storage. (I made the boxes using cardboard sheeting.) I also have a rule that only one project on the desk at a time. This prevents one client’s document from ending up in another client’s hands. If I am interrupted when working on one project, the current project documents go back into the box, the box is stored and then the new project is dealt with or also put into a box. Sometimes the documentation is too big for the normal project box. I found some square tubs that stand on top of the mail-slot storage unit and those hold a year’s collection of receipts and such.

  35. Thomas McEvoy says:

    Great video and reminder to KISS! I attended David’s seminar way back in 1998 when everyone was using Palm Pilots! Eventually people would start recommending their Palm Pilot addon, what we would call an App today, to make the GTD process ‘better’. It really seemed to escalate out of control. I think the video approach is perfect.

  36. (a different) David says:

    One interesting thing I noticed in this video is that the inbox queue is LIFO (last in-first out) rather than FIFO (first in…)
    I would think that one would want to work on the items in the original order rather than in the reverse order. So my suggestion is to put items into the Inbox FACE DOWN.
    Then when you pick them back up, you have to turn them over, and now you’ve got the first thing you were working on at the top of the pile. (Of course based on priorities, you might choose to re-order the pile.)

  37. John says:

    Hi Oxana,

    Secure.davidco.com has a Secure Sockets Layer certificate issued by Network Solutions. You can trust the site’s security. Firefox has been known to issue the warning page even for a secure site.

    — John

  38. Bob says:

    That was fantastic – very helpful!

  39. Judy Clees says:

    THANK YOU!!!!!

    This has been one of my boggest issues at work. I am going to try a modified version of this starting tomorrow. Since we cannot have an actual “inbox” I will create a virtual one and use that. I think this will save my sanity as well as keep my clients happier.

  40. Mick says:

    The greatest thing in this video form me is the habit of writing down date/time before you take notes at the phone. Will follow!

  41. Gorby says:

    Hoping for more of these videos. It’s like David Allen is on my side.

  42. Andre says:

    @Arun & Sander,

    I didn’t see if this was addressed in subsequent replies, but there’s never been a rule in canonical GTD about only processing once a day. If it’s practical for you to block out time in the morning for processing, so be it, but that doesn’t prevent you from processing items that accumulate later in the day if you have a window of time.

    Regarding the “never put anything back in your in-basket” rule, that only applies to the initial set-up the system–to prevent novices from avoiding processing. If it takes two to six hours to set up a GTD system, it helps to enforce a one-way valve in the workflow; otherwise people wind up stacking open loops rather than closing them. Once you understand how to process an item, there’s no danger in using the in-basket as a buffer for interrupted work, because your workflow is still a closed loop–i.e. you’ve set yourself up to return to any interrupted tasks, and there are no leaks in the system.

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