Organize Your World

By Johannes Werner September 30, 2009

The moment the clock turned to 12 noon, the phone rang, proof that David Allen lives by his word. We chatted with the California-based self-organization and productivity guru about his system, his cult-status consulting firm, The David Allen Company, and the heady days he remembers from attending New College in the 1960s. Allen, whose book, Getting Things Done, has sold 1.5 million copies, is returning to his alma mater Oct. 23, to help the college kick-start its new Corporate Council and to share the secrets of his system with business professionals.

In a nutshell, Allen’s “GTD,” as the system is known, is based on freeing our minds of unimportant clutter so we can relax and focus on the important things. Dozens of corporations large and small and oodles of top executives are spending $8,000 on group seminars and $6,000 on private coaching sessions with the David Allen Co. to learn about GTD.

And not only did Allen call exactly at the time he had agreed upon, but it also took him just a matter of minutes to set up his interview with Biz941 when he was first approached. 

What is the GTD system?

GTD is about capturing, clarifying, organizing and reviewing your total inventory of personal and professional commitments. It helps you relax and gives you control of your world.

The principles apply to individuals as well as to organizations. I’ve met a lot of people who know GTD intuitively. I guess that’s why GTD hit such a nerve, because it’s truly a whole model about how to do that in your kitchen, in your relationship with your kids, in managing a country—anything.

Probably anybody who has been feeling confused or out of control sat down at one point and wrote a list that made them feel better. Organizing your agreements into a trusted system frees the psyche of lower-level activities and creates greater bandwidth for creative thinking and decision making.

Can you give us three of your top tips for businesspeople? 

1. Keep everything that has your attention—personal, professional, little, or big—written or recorded into in-baskets, lists or other capture devices. 2. Sooner rather than later, determine out of each one of those captured thoughts what outcome (if any) you are committed to achieve about it and what the very next action required to move it forward would be. 3. Build in a regular weekly executive review time (block two hours) to bring your list of projects and associated actions current, and step back and scan your horizons to get a refreshed operational focus for life and work. 

Is there a link between being organized and the recession? Crises force people to ask the really good questions, such as, “What’s important to me?,” “What do I care about?,” “What’s really mission-critical?” If you feel like things are out of control, that’s when you really need help in getting your act together.

Who can afford a $6,000 personal coaching session with you right now? We’re still doing business. If you cut your workforce by 30 percent, whoever is left is about to turn to toast. With the responsibilities they have, they need the tools to manage an even greater workload.

How has your company fared over the past year? 

We got slammed in January and February. We had some blue-chip clients that we thought might be immune, but they dropped the ball.

Truth is, they still had money, but they couldn’t be seen spending it. Almost everybody pulled back; much of our business is now booked on a short-term basis. But several clients are now coming back, starting to seek longer-term engagement.

Why is your picture on the cover of your book and your name on the company? 

What I teach really is a process, it’s not about me. But quite a few years ago, I began to realize that it was easier for a lot of people to buy into a personality rather than a process. The myth of me serves as a banner to tell people, “There is a way you can be relaxed and in control, and here is a real person who can demonstrate that.” That’s an important message you can’t communicate in any other way than being a role model.

Big corporations can be very dysfunctional. Does self-organization work in a troubled environment? Every situation is totally unique. If you talk about the CEO, absolutely. If you talk about a temp hired to work there for three days, probably not much.

Do I need a Blackberry, Skype and Outlook, or can I achieve GTD just with Post-it Notes? 

The simple answer is, yes, you can do it with a pen and a Post-it. But it’s not really the tool; it’s how you engage with it. Posting a sticker on your computer screen might help a little bit, because you know Mom’s birthday is coming up, and that’s why you stuck it on there. But as long as you’re not making any decisions about what you’re committed to with Mom and what you need to do next, all that’s going to do is create stress every time you look at your computer screen.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been smitten with your concept. But do you have any evidence of lasting love?

Oh, yes. It’s pretty much anecdotal, because this is so fundamental in helping people think and act that almost anything you could measure might be an improvement. The proof is in the pudding. Just look at how many people are doing it.

How did New College influence you? 

This was ’65 to ’68. Those were heady times anywhere, but particularly at New College. Back then, they hadn’t yet figured out what was their ideal student profile. It was populated by—I don’t want to use the word “strange”—unusual kids. I think they decided to pick kids who stuck out in some way. There were kids who were politically oriented, kids who were editors of their school paper, straight-A students, brilliant kids who were B- because they weren’t motivated; they were all over the map. New College was a wonderful place to not yet have to make a decision about what I wanted to do. It opened my eyes to an awful lot of the world.

Are you in touch with people from those years? 

Not a lot. There weren’t many of us; I think 80 people graduated the year I graduated. We came in with the four winds, and we blew away with the four winds. That was part of the nature of the college. It attracted such independently oriented people. I don’t know if you could get any of them together to try to do anything, kind of a radical group of non-joiners.

You were roaming Sarasota on your motorcycle.

Yes. Sarasota was a fabulous place to go out to Lido Key on my old Triumph TR6, on a moonlit, balmy Florida night. That’s as good as it gets.

Why are you based in California? Any consideration of moving your business elsewhere?

In a way it doesn’t matter. California is mostly where I landed and where I started doing what I was doing.

What are your next big goals? 

Going global, for one. There is no cultural bias to this. I’ve done this all over the world and have yet to find anybody who doesn’t relate to this information in a positive way. I hired a CEO two years ago, and now we are slowly expanding to the world. The next challenge is, how do we create the education in such a way that it can be most efficiently and effectively distributed? The world of multimedia and e-learning is a big frontier.  

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