Episode #21 – Optimizing Your GTD System

How do you leverage procedures and tools for better outcomes?  David Allen presents a webinar on how to optimize your GTD system, so that you have the information you need to be productive, when you need it.  Includes Q&A’s from webinar participants.


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DAVID ALLEN: Well first of all, let’s back this up if you kind of come back to levels of abstraction about this, we say, “Well optimizing a system – well what’s a system to begin with?”

If you think about any systems, I mean if any of you were to think in your mind right now, what systems are you aware of?

Well, there’s a plumbing system, there’s your financial system, there’s a banking system, there’s a system of how you manage your weekend, there’s a system … You know, we’ve got probably hundreds if not thousands of systems and certainly probably millions of systems out there in the world that we’re taking advantage of. You know, if you just look around wherever you are, in your environment right now, everything you see was produced by some system, you know, probably that did it. And in my experience a system is something that produces or something that embodies procedures and tools and give you leverage for better outcomes or experiences. So why build a system? Well so that with the system of a wheel or the system of a wheel and an axel and said, “Hey one person can now move hundreds of pounds or kilos of stuff that they could not do before.”

The reason for systems is all about leverage. How do we take the energy we have and produce either more outcomes, better outcomes or whatever, or experiences. I’m cautious to not just frame this in terms of outcomes because you know, again a lot of what GTD is about is not so much – well, it can be about outcomes and product in terms of just the amount of stuff we produce in life, the amount of energy we put into it. But it could also be: What’s the quality of experience that you’re having? How relaxed are you? How cool could – you know, how much fun can you have? And so forth – so that is as much a profound outcome of a sense or productivity as you know, volume of stuff that you might actually put out the door. So that’s my definition of systems.

So follow with me now. You think about that, then you say, “Okay what’s an optimized system?” How would you know what optimized means about a system?

Well are any of you who’ve got a consulting frame of mind, the key and core question you need to back up a little bit about is, well you’ve got to decide – well wait a minute, what’s the purpose of this system?

People say, “Well I’ve designed a great system.”

“Well great. What does it do?”

“Well – no, it’s just great system.”

“No – it’s only a good system once you understand what the system is designed to do.”

So what’s the purpose of the system? Let me ask – how would answer that in my own mind? So how would you clarify the purpose of the GTD system? What do you think the purpose of that is? What do you think the primary purpose of being involved with GTD is? What is that?

And I actually came up with something and it was interesting, as I was doing and thinking about this slide, how would I describe this, and I don’t think this is the totality of it, but this is pretty big and it has a lot to do with what the specific focus of today’s webinar is about, which is making better priority choices about what to do, moment-to-moment.

How do you trust that watching this webinar right now or being in this or engaging with this is exactly what you need to do – that there’s nothing better to do in terms of your life and your work than to be engaged with this right now?

And so that – the usage of the GTD system, I think, is really designed to making that happen. That certainly in the development after all these 30, 30+, 35 years with me, was really about that. I think that was the prime driver. But not just to make sure that I’m doing – making the best choices, but that I make them with the least effort. Those actually are kind of tied together because if you’re having to work really, really hard or much harder than you should to be making a good choice, then there might be things you may be missing because now your energy may be inappropriately allocated. So if you kind of combine these things together, a bit of a holistic purpose statement of what’s – why is GTD there? It’s like, well hey, so that I feel really comfortable with what I’m doing and that I can get there fast, easy and with as little effort as possible so that I can stay present as much as possible.

I read Eric Hoffer’s quote here, which I think has some subtlety to it: “When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else, we are the busiest people in the world.”

So it’s that strange paradox and I think he said that better than anybody else I’ve heard say that, that people talk about, “Oh I don’t have time – I need more time, I need more time”, is probably because they’re not on their game and the people who are their game seem to have time for lots of stuff that may not seem like the thing that’s the most thing that’s on their game. So it’s a strange paradox that when you’re really highly focused on the right thing, given all the context of all the stuff I’ve talked about, there is a relaxed, mind like water place to come from and that being able to then be present with all of those things as they show up in whatever form they show up.

Now some of you are probably – actually a lot of you are probably not old enough to remember this guy, so I love to stick him in when the quote is – I have no idea who the quote comes from: “When you don’t know what to do, walk fast and look worried.” Ha, ha, ha. I guess there’s the simple answer, in case you don’t have an answer about how all of this stuff works.

I kind of wanted to go through all that myself, because I like to kind of think out loud as I’m doing that, but now I’m gonna leave some time to let’s play.

So I’d like to hear reflections, comments … John have you been keeping track of what people have been putting into – I haven’t paid attention yet. I’m gonna go try to catch up right now.

JOHN FORRISTER: Sure, here’s one to start. Helen is asking: “Does David have ideas on how we can build that time into our schedules so we consistently do it?” And that was the building and the defining time.

DAVID ALLEN: I think just realizing you need to have that time is the best thing to do. It’s tricky because it depends on your personality and your work style and life style as to whether or not you actually can structure something and stick to it. What I don’t recommend is you structure something and don’t stick to it. That’s the worst thing you can do.

So I think it’s just realizing – hey, I guess in my life the way I built it in is if I’m not doing anything else, I’m not sure what to do, I’m cleaning up. The best thing to do, the highest priority for me if I’m not sure what my priorities are is clean up. ‘Cause I’ve just discovered over time, if I just clean up, the priority will show up and I just learned to trust that. So when in doubt, clean a drawer – one way I say that. But I think that’s one way to approach it. If you can structure your life in that way and make that work, you will probably need an external support for that structure. In other words, a CEO I coached meantime he set up a 7:30 to 9:00. He just had his assistant say, “Don’t schedule any meetings for me before 9:00 a.m.” and then he just came in as early as he came in and used that time up ‘til 9:00, you know, to clean up. So if you can do something like that, well fine. If not, you might want to just start to build into a habit. When you’re not doing anything else, clean house.

And I discovered I’ve created so much stuff in my life that all I had to do at any point, and this is a big ah-ha, I had one of those freeway enlightenment moments, when I was thinking, “Well what should I do, what should I do, what should I do?” I realized – wait a minute, I put so much stuff in motion right now, why don’t I just deal with what’s right in front of my face, clean house and then let those priorities emerge. And that’s worked for me for a lot of years – so that’s my suggestion on that.

JOHN FORRISTER: Alright – that’s for that. And Francesca is asking about the Horizons of Focus and how much effort to put into populating the higher horizons. So she’s wondering is it mandatory to do the higher levels of purpose, vision and goals, or is it okay to just do the projects and actions and areas of focus?

DAVID ALLEN:  There’s no mandatory about anything, but you know if you say, “What’s my version of GTD?”

I’d say do as much as you need to so it’s off your mind. There’s no reason to do it if it’s not on your mind, it’s not pushing on you. Now that said, on your mind – there’s a lot of different minds you have, as I say too that once you really pay appropriate attention to what has your attention you’ll uncover what really has your attention, which by the way, when you give it appropriate attention will allow you to uncover what really has your attention. So there’s a big onion to unpeel about that. I suggest you don’t force yourself to go do anything that’s not somewhat evident but realize that there’s a real good chance that as you start to work this process that onion will unpeel and just start to pay attention to that. Don’t ignore that still small voice that says, “Hmm, you know, you really need to be thinking about …” x, y, z. And by the way what will get you to – you can wait ‘til life forces you to focus on those levels and, by the way, it will happen. You will have opportunities and surprises in your life and challenges that will force you to think about: Wait a minute, what am I doing with my life? Do I really want to live in New York City? Do I really want to be an artist? Do I really want to be, you know, a corporate Wall Street person?

At some point, you will probably have circumstances emerge that will force you to have to think at those levels. From my experience, the more you give yourself opportunities to think at those levels proactively, then the more you’re able to integrate those kinds of surprises, changes and opportunities in ways that are a little more elegant, but that’s really up to the subtlety of what you pay attention to, about what has your attention.

Frankly, sometimes I think it’s inappropriate to set goals. You may be setting goals inappropriately because they may not be the right goals because you’re doing it from a distracted shoulds moralistic standpoint as opposed to they’re naturally occurring and emerging as something that’s really showing up out of your process as a human being. And sometimes, what people need to do is focus on handle your e-mail (INAUDIBLE 00:15:57/00:09:58] You know, don’t bother setting goals. You’re not even there. Don’t bother trying to do something artificial that doesn’t work for you. There are a lot of different angles on that one, so maybe that helps.

JOHN FORRISTER: Alright, sounds good. Next one is from Charlie: “In thinking about my poorly utilized system I’m realizing I have a system in place with a number of reminders that repel me. I don’t want to do them so I scan through my list and look for something that interests me. I’m considering just moving everything but the things I really have to do to a someday/maybe list and see if that frees up the logjam.”

Any thoughts on that David?

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, you might want to even get more honest and you might find it even freer just make a list, “Here’s all the crap I told myself I should do and I just don’t want to.” And just put it on that list and deal with that and just look at it regularly and go, “Is that still what that means to me?” And you may find that you know, there’s other things lying underneath why those things are not attractive to you. You know, if you really wanted to explore it from a self-assessment or a self-diagnostic standpoint, you might want to ask yourself why is it on my list and unattractive to me? There could be several reasons. The typical reasons people will be unattracted to it is because first of all, it’s not a next action, so it’s going to require decisions you haven’t made yet, you don’t feel like deciding things right now, so you don’t want to look at it. So make sure you’ve gotten things down to the very, very, very, very, very next physical visible action. That un-sticks a lot of that resistance: Well I don’t want to do that. What you don’t want to do is step into it and not know what to do. So decide what to do and still feel like you don’t want to do it. And I understand. I mean, many a time the next action is a phone call I need to make to somebody and I just don’t want to talk to them because ya-da-da-da, but I still got to do that. And that might be distasteful. Oftentimes what people resist is the potential negative consequences of their action. In other words, you’re afraid of what might happen when you actually get involved in it. Because the greatest human fear is the fear of being out of control. People are killing themselves and each other right now just to maintain a sense of psychological control. It’s such a powerful driver of human behavior, particularly negative human behavior, that addiction to control, or I need to control my world and I’ll do anything to make sure I’m not feeling out of control. And so oftentimes, what we feel like what we don’t want to do are things that if we started to do it we’re afraid we’ll be out of control or we’ll produce an out of control situation, emotionally, physically or psychologically or mentally. So one of the biggest procrastination factors is people – I’m not sure how to write the blog. Ha, ha, ha. Hey go write the great American novel. Argh – I don’t know how to start. So you’re instantly feeling out of control if you just even throw yourself into move the computer, you know, type it, Great American Novel and start writing, it’s like – Oh my God! That’s such an out of control place and that’s why people resist those things.

So if you thing about this, there’s probably some interpretation of that. So there may be some self-diagnosis or some self-evaluation or just some self-reflection that may help you decide how to un-stick whatever those things are and meanwhile just go, look just be honest with yourself. There’s no greater healing process than current reality. Ha, ha, ha. Well, here’s the truth. I’m in debt, I’m out of control, I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m tired, I’m depressed – boom. So if all of those are actually how you’re experiencing yourself and you’re denying them then you’ll be hung in them. So it’s kind of the whole dynamic of what you resist you’re stuck with. Maybe some of what I said, stuck or hit a nerve hopefully.

JOHN FORRISTER: Well that was a fruitful question. Thanks Charlie.

Here’s one from Colin. “Do you put your horizons of focus in your inbox for Weekly Review? How do you get to review your horizons of focus regularly?”

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, I don’t. I’m still having to sort of pay attention to what has my attention. So I only pull them out when I feel like I need to look at those at that level for some reason. That’s why I – a big improvement for me would be to make probably some automated decision about how often should I look at that? You know, if I could trust that I had software that automatically said, “Okay time to look at this” and bring it up, I would do that. It’s not that easy right now for me, given all the other stuff that I’m doing, so I think that would be ideal. It’s just decide for yourself, “Hey how often do you think I should look at my extended family and everybody on there? How often should I look at a checklist of all the aspects of my life that I want to maintain balance in or health and finances or whatever? How often should I look at my job description?”

It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to go ahead and make that decision and make sure you’ve got the contents of that and then just build into a tickler file, or some sort of an electronic trigger or something that pops those up and say, “Hey David, you read to look at your job description?”

I go, “Okay sure fine.” So I haven’t make that quite as simple as I think the technology can and will make it, you know, upcoming, so I haven’t done it for myself, but I think that’s where we’re going and I applaud anybody who sets down and does that. But again, you’ve got to – it’s a tricky little line to walk. You don’t want to over structure this thing because then you’ll resist it, it won’t map to the reality that you’re really in because there’s so many variables and changes that show up and then you say, and then you feel bad because you didn’t stick with this motivational discipline thing that you tried to do.

You know, all of those gimmicks that people have out there about how many steps they’re taking and all those – all the digital things that are clocking on that. I say, “Yeah, good luck.”

And a lot of people say, “Hey, it’s regular, it’s great, it’s improved a whole lot of things”, but for the most part a lot of those things are just a fun weekend to play with and maybe I’ll play with it for two or three or four months, but see if it sticks around. So you have to be careful about these things that you’ve set up for yourself as regular habits. Pick small ones, little stuff.

I think on a regular basis if you just put this framework, the GTD framework up in front of you. I mean, for me, one of the reasons that I got involved in GTD and teaching it and whatever is called the best way to learn it, the best way to keep myself motivated. You know, it’s a little embarrassing to stand up and do seminars and do coaching with people if I don’t do this stuff myself, so oftentimes that’s my (this is a big secret folks, so don’t tell anybody), but one of the reasons I do all this and love to do all this is it keeps me honest. Hey, I’m gonna do webinar about this – how am I doing this? So it gets me involved in that way. So, you’re up against that habit change stuff right now, so there’s a lot of aspects of that, but don’t make it artificial, make it as natural as best you can and just explore, experiment. See what works, keep going, I guess is the admonition here. Don’t stop. Find what seems to work now, work it as best you can and learn what you can from that, don’t feel guilty or uncomfortable if you don’t stick with it. Just say, “Well, okay that got me to this place, now what’s next and what now has my attention?” Just keep always coming back here. Well wait a minute, what’s got your attention? What do you need to do to be present with your dog or your girl playing soccer this afternoon or you know, writing a report?

JOHN FORRISTER: Alright. Let’s switch gears a little to a software question. “Are tools like Evernote and OneNote, i.e. list manager plus reference manager on steroids the best type of tools for total life management, understanding that I need a calendar also of course.” That’s from Michael.

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, yeah – I think that’s fine. Anything that makes lists you know, all you really need are lists in terms of the software itself and I think software lists can be expanded to be mind-maps, they can be expanded to be visual scenes. They can be expanded to movies you make about whatever. So there’s a lot of – basically what kind of visual, conceptual cognitive reminder do I want to see? And so, yeah, anything that does that and all those are great tools. And in a way, the simpler the tool the more powerful it can be because you can customize it and it can incorporate a lot of different things. Also the simpler the tool and more complex and daunting it could be because it then requires you to then start to build a systematic way to manage the information within it. So that’s why I’m still working with – I pretty much landed pretty much comfortable twelve months later after I really started to work Evernote somewhat sincerely, ‘til I say I’ve got it pretty under my belt sort of way to know what kind of information I want to park in there and where. And it still – I’m still testing it. It’s still working. So those simple sort of list managers that are open ended that allow you to embed all kinds of stuff in there and connect them to a lot of other things, they’re great, fabulous, wonderful tools. So you can – you can use all of that for anything. You could do all of this in a moleskin notebook with a pen and ink. You don’t need to get much more complex than that. You could actually do all that there.

The software makes it much more kind of sexy and fun and it’s fun to play with and also allows you to connect a lot of things that’s kind of fun called, “Wow – that connected to that, I can see all that there …” but be careful because as someone said, they found the problem with Evernote it was write only, not read only, it was write only. All they did was spend all their time inputting into Evernote but never utilizing what they had in there because it was so open ended, they had so many things – they would stick in there but then they weren’t using it for actually what it was designed to do.

So again, the system will not get you to think it will support your thinking. You still are the one who has to manage your thinking process and then yes, these are all great tools that you can use. Once you know how to think – what do I want to think about this or what do I want to be reminded of, these are fabulous tools to be able to use for that and lots of ways you could frame that and customize it for yourself.

But there’s a bit of a difference between reminder and reference. That’s some of the tricky business here because – now I experimented a little bit with creating Evernote as an errand reminder system because it was easier to see errands on my iPhone when I was running around then where I had parked my errands in my other list manager. And that was the one thing I really wanted to see when I went out and about and I had my iPhone with me anyway, and so I play with putting that in there. So I still haven’t made that final judgment call on it. But that requires then the discipline in me to say, “Wait a minute, out for errands, I need to remind myself to go look there”, as opposed to, “Hey, uh here’s reference material, what was the name of that restaurant?” And I can look it up. So again, making the distinction between what’s reference inside of those systems, whether it’s OneNote or Evernote versus what do I need to use as a reminder system? As long as those are clear, as long as your behavior is engaged with that appropriately – cool, yeah. No end to that.

JOHN FORRISTER: Alright. Next one is sort of a psychological question. This comes from John, and he says, “Any clues regarding the psychological process that results in one thinking that there is no time to do anything except process a perennial avalanche of new inputs?”

DAVID ALLEN: I think – here’s just the top of my thoughts, I don’t have data on this. I think that that just is the nature of an insecurity of a certain personality type. All of our personality types of all of us, the way we’re wired, move into insecure sort of expansive versions of who we are and contracted versions of who we are. So I think a contracted version of who a certain type of person is just says, “I’m an information freak, but I’m not doing anything with it.” So ultimately I think it comes back to from a counseling or a psychological standpoint, it’s called what’s the purpose of that? If you said, “Look, I’m gonna write the great manifesto about topic X, Y, Z and I’m giving myself three years to do that”, then the nature of your world is gonna be integrate,  integrate,  integrate,  integrate,  integrate,  integrate,  integrate – I’m not gonna make a decision for a year and a half. I’m just gonna absorb, suck in, sponge up every single potentially meaningful piece of data that might be relevant to this then.

So I think it comes down to well who are you and where are you going and what are you trying to do and is that working for you or against you? So I think there’s an ultimate criterion, perhaps psychologically and I’m not a psychologist guys, so I’m not gonna pretend I have expertise really in that area. I’m just sort of practicing human being, but from that practicing human being standpoint, I’d say the real question is when I do that am I in expansion or contraction? Is that behavior moving more towards where I want to go, expanding, expressing, being who I am, showing up the way I want to show up, or is that avoiding who I am and what I want to express and how I want to show up in the world? And I don’t know that anybody can answer that except the person themselves.

JOHN FORRISTER: And maybe that’s related to a question from Laraya. “Difficulty with saying no to other people ourselves or difficulty with being realistic about what is possible.” What can you say about want to be realistic about what’s possible and get comfortable saying no to other people?

DAVID ALLEN: There is an automatic foolproof cure to that question. Get older. You’re not – you can’t help that, so you’ll get better day by day as you figure that one out. So I don’t mean to be facetious, in a way it really is about experience, it’s called how much can you take on? And it also, to some degree has a lot to do with your personality type. Believe me, I am a people pleaser from day one. I love approval. I’m an approval suck. I hate conflict. I hate to say no. Really. Really. I’m not kidding. So I’m a – I understand and empathize very much with, oh yeah, I absolutely won’t do whatever anybody else wants me to do and have trouble saying no to any of that.”

Uh, first of all the GTD process helped a lot for me over all these years because it let me know what my inventory was and I realized at least as I got a bit more mature about it that if I told people yes, that I really was not gonna be able to fulfill on that commitment, I was gonna undermine the relationship even worse. So learning over time the sort of maturity of approach that say, “Wow, that thing is so cool that you’re asking me to do, it really requires more attention than I have the capability to give it right now. Can you take a maybe on that or if you have a firm yes, I’ll have to say no. Sorry.” So learning to sort of be politically correct about that and make it my issue, not theirs and be aware of what you can do. You know, one aspect of that is anybody who’s not kept track of all your commitments will over commit, simply because I think we all have – our eyes are bigger than our stomachs and we all think we can do more than we can possibly do.

Now, that said, you know, I think everybody should stretch themselves and probably give themselves stuff so that they’re constantly stretched and challenged to be able to produce more and better and bigger. I think that makes is a fun game, but you got to be smart about it and you know, manage your inventory, manage your resources appropriately and so there is some experience level I think that will come into that that helps. I think that’s the best answer I can give right now.

JOHN FORRISTER: Alright and I think we’ve got time for one more, at least. George is asking about lynchpin habits for a smooth running GTD system. “Weekly Review seems to be the big one. Are there other important but perhaps less evident lynch pin habits that you’ve seen?”

DAVID ALLEN: Capturing everything on your mind, externally and emptying your in-basket, and the Weekly Review. You know, it’s hard to deny that next action thinking is – and outcome thinking, those are sort of core elements but it really comes down to that, get it out of your head, decide sooner than later you know what you’re committed to finish about it and what the action step is, park those reminders in some appropriate places and review it regularly. It is a holistic system. You can’t – if you leave out any one of those components, you’ve really denigrated the whole process. It’s really the combination and that sort of coherence of that model itself. It’s a different part of your brain that captures than it does to process it than it does to review it. It’s a different system and tool to capture, versus to organize to review and remind. So that’s what we’ve done with GTD is actually unpack all that to find out what are the specific and explicit behaviors for each one of those aspects of this holistic model about how do you stay on top of your game.




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