Get a Grip on Your Process, or Give It Up

If you’re not willing to commit to keeping your head completely empty, it’s not worth trying to make any “personal management system” work. Give it up.  Don’t kid yourself. Throw your productivity tools away.

OK, I’m becoming more direct and succinct. (At 72 I think that serves us both, and I choose not to beat around the bush.) But I’m also getting a bit bored with people half-heartedly attempting half-implemented solutions as they attempt to do “just a part of” GTD and complaining about it “not sticking” with them. Now, a partial engagement with this methodology won’t really hurt (and can create some minor wins), but it produces such a minuscule fraction of the value possible if you go all the way. People who say they are “doing GTD” are still showing me half-filled-out lists of still-undecided stuff in their system. They may have a few folders set up, a couple of next-action lists; but a majority of their stuff is still scattered from tables to briefcases to kitchen drawers to their heads—all un-retrievable in any consistent fashion.

Stop complaining about your stress and your overwhelm! Look outside—the universe is not stress-out or confused. It’s fine. It’s only the way we are engaged with it that creates our negative reactions. GTD is the process we’ve uncovered that creates appropriate engagement. What you’re dealing with at hand may not be easy or fun, but being in the driver’s seat about it moves that experience to a much more mature and effective level. But If you’re not willing to make this process really work, 100%, don’t tire yourself with the pretenses of half-baked solutions. They just add insult to injury, and quite frankly, may not be worth the energy to continue.

It’s like trying to keep air in only three tires on your car. Hello. IT WON’T DRIVE WITHOUT THEM ALL! If you’re going to flop along anyway, don’t waste your energy trying to keep just a couple in good shape.

Either your head is the place to keep track of stuff, or it’s not. You’d have a hard time intellectually justifying something in-between. If you use a calendar at all, you’ve already admitted you need external support to manage your life.

But, hey, why not? Just keep it all in your head, throw away your calendar, and trust that you’ll have what you need for information and perspective whenever you need it. If you had the guts to really do that, 100%, it might work. I might actually try that some day. Until then I will be responsible to the creative process that I’m born with, frequently makng agreements with myself and others that I need to define, clarify, track, and renegotiate regularly, to get off my own back and to make meaningful things happen.

But, if there’s only part of all this in your system and only a part in your head, you won’t trust either place to give you appropriate guidance. You’ll be driven in your choices of what to do by simply the latest and loudest things in your psyche. Good luck.

OK, I admit it—I’m just projecting some of my own frustrations with the resistance to full-out execution of the Getting Things Done process that I have encountered with so many people, and the unfortunate give-up energy I have seen from people who “fell off the wagon.” Don’t take me too seriously. Most people haven’t really had the game defined so they could see how the partial solutions are no solution. But if you have…

Give yourself a break. If you’re going to play this game the way you are trying to play it, you’d better really play it.

Write it down. Anything, everything. Decide what your intention is about it, and what the next step would be. Do the action, delegate the action, or defer the action to your list of optional things to do. Look at all that regularly. Be conscious about what you’re doing, and what you’re not. Get free. You should be focusing all your energy on bigger issues, greater joy, and more expanded opportunities.

Thanks for listening.

–David Allen

This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.


Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for the ‘kick in the pants’ David! I did a full dump about 6 months ago and have been 1/2 arse-ing it ever since. Time to get on board and stay there!

  2. I’m guilty of only partial implementation but not of complaining to anyone.. except myself.

  3. Reading GTD was the first big shift I made toward becoming truly productive (and successful). A life-changer, thank you David. And while like most I’m not letter-perfect with the implementation, I do agree that the key is “either your head is the place to keep track of stuff, or it’s not”.

    I find that I tend to allow myself some reasonable leeway in a couple of areas:

    1. Reviews. I do them, but not at a set interval. That means I end up reviewing either too often or not often enough. I can sense that this adds some ‘slop’ in my otherwise tight gearing at times.

    2. Collection/capturing. While I don’t keep multiple lists, I sometimes allow a few things to rattle around upstairs – often while I evaluate whether I really care about them, or allow them to form into a ‘thing’. So, while there’s no permanent parking in the head, I am guilty of some brief double-parking from time to time – I’ll just be a minute…

    But even with those non-perfect implementations, as long as I’m ‘very good’ (say A-minus/B-plus), about keeping things out of my head and in an external, organized, and reviewed system, GTD works quite beautifully.

    The thing to keep in mind, and what I remember attracting me to the book years ago, was in the sub-title: “Stress-Free Productivity”. Anyone can run around like mad and get things done. The key is being able to enjoy being highly effective and efficient. And that takes discipline in the form of staying true to GTD’s main tenet, but not necessarily being perfect in every aspect of the methodology.

  4. I know so many people who should read that! Now I have backup whenever someone starts ranting on about GTD: “Hey, buddy… Please, just read this before you bluster away.”

  5. Well said. Thank you David for laying down the gauntlet. I started this morning taking a critical look at what I am doing and not and am heading back to the book.

  6. Just attended a GTD introduction meet up gathering in Shanghai China, 24th Nov, which was hosted by Kate and presented by Twinson Wu, and the seminar definately allowed me to access several productivity boost methods through the sharing best practices. On the journey of “mind of water” the first step reread and set up the system to release my brain power from memorizing all the staffs.

  7. Wow….tell us how you REALLY feel, David! What a great kick in pants. I am so glad you decided to be bold and blunt. I need to print his out and put it on my bulletin board next to my computer. Cheers!

  8. Hello Mr. Allen,
    I loved how forward, blunt and honest you were in this message. I must admit that I needed to hear what you said in the very fashion that you presented it.
    I started using your system many years ago, and I was always at my best. This past year, everyone was telling me to “get with the digital age” so I did, and I failed miserably! Personally, I have always loved using and seeing my goals, plans, actions, and schedule on paper. The feel and rhythmic, ceremony-like action of writing everything down was (in my opinion) partly soothing, and most importantly, had allowed me to cement in my mind what I was to do, how to do it, and by when it needed to finalize.
    When I made the mistake of using technology, it was as if I was missing a huge step that allowed my brain to process my work in a manner that made me focus, retain and memorize what I was to do.
    With technology, it was far too easy to get sidetracked and lose sight of what needed doing.
    For the past year, I felt overwhelmed; have been the least creative and productive, and have been overly stressed.
    This coming year, I will be returning to my old system and will use technology as a backup when I am unable to carry my planner with me.
    Thank you for all that you do, and continue doing. You are such an asset, and are much appreciated!

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