On Time Management and David Allen

There are three generations of thought on time management.

The first consists of the hundreds of books out there on time management, all of which read as if they were written by the same person — for instance, use an egg timer to time your phone calls.

The second generation is Stephanie Winston’s The Organized Executive. Just as Johann Sebastian Bach represents the culmination of the best of the Baroque era, Winston represents the culmination of the best of the first generation. But it’s still simply a collection of tips and techniques; there’s no theory behind it.

The third generation is David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, which combines Eastern/Zen philosophies with Western time management practices. Allen starts not with tips or techniques, but rather with a theory, namely that the goal is to have your mind completely free, so you can soar like an eagle. The aim is to get your mind like water. A body of water does not dwell on the past or the future; it is only in the present. When a disturbance happens — e.g., someone throws a rock into the pond — it reacts appropriately, not too much and not too little. It quickly goes back to its contented state, as the waves rapidly dissipate.

The goal is to have your mind completely free, not to get organized. Getting organized is simply a necessarily evil in order to get your mind free. If your mind is free without being organized, great! Who the heck wants to have to get organized? Unfortunately, there’s no way to get your mind free without getting organized.

David argues that one of your goals in life should be completely present at all times, what he calls “in your zone.” This is an athletic term for when an athlete is completely focused on the task at hand. If you’re playing tennis at Wimbledon and you’re about to receive a serve from your opponent, you probably aren’t thinking about when you next need to buy toothpaste. Rather, you are completely focused on what your opponent is doing.

There are six primary ways to get organized :

  1. Develop a leak-proof system.
  2. Group tasks by where you want to perform them (e.g., at the computer, supermarket, vacation home)
  3. Make no distinction between work and personal tasks.
  4. Follow the two-minute rule.
  5. Process all of your paper through your In Box.
  6. Conduct a Weekly Review.

Develop a Leak-Proof System.  First, everything must be recorded in a leak proof system, one that tracks all of your to do items, all of your commitments, and presents them to you as you need them. Your mind is a terrible storage facility; it should be used to think, rather than store things to do.

The actual system you use does not matter. It can be a paper notebook, a purchased system (such as Daytimers or Filofax), your mobile phone, the Tasks component of Microsoft Outlook, or a Microsoft Word file. I recommend against a paper system only because it’s so easy to lose. If you’re a road warrior, a mobile solution makes a lot of sense, provided that you synchronize with your desktop PC, in case you lose your phone. (This is what Allen uses, because he travels so much. I use a database I wrote, which is described below.)

Whichever system you use, it has to be leak proof — everything has to be tracked, from “I need to buy eggs the next time I’m at the supermarket” to “I want to travel to India next year”. If there are things that you are not tracking, they will clutter up your mind, your mind will not be like water, and then what’s the point in having a system?

Group Tasks.  Second, in listing your uncompleted tasks, they should be grouped not by project (i.e., fix dinner, write article, finish leveraged buyout), but rather by the place or location where they need to be performed. Assume you have ten projects, each with 5 tasks that you have to do in the next week. Assume that each project has one task that should be done when you are at the supermarket. Allen argues you should have a category “Supermarket” (or perhaps more generically, “Errands”) and then have these tasks listed in that category, so that when you are at the supermarket, you’ll have in one list everything you need to purchase. Other tasks might be broken down by “Home,” “Computer,” “Internet,” “Phone,” “Office,” depending on where you spend your time and what tools are available to you at these various places. The point is to organize your tasks according to where you can do them, not according to the larger project you want to pursue.

No Distinction between Work and Personal Tasks.  Third, Allen says you should make no distinction between work tasks and personal tasks. Whether you have to purchase a book at the bookstore, have your coat mended, hire a new secretary, or write a report for your boss, it’s all stuff you have to worry about. All of it needs to be entered into your leak-proof system and then tracked. Many people make the mistake of only tracking their work tasks, with the result that their personal tasks are clogging up their brain, and thus their mind is not free. As Allen says :

“I consider ‘work,’ in its universal sense, as meaning anything that you want or need to be different than it currently is. Many people make a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘personal life,’ but I don’t: to me, weeding the garden or updating my will is just as much ‘work’ as writing this book or coaching a client. All the methods and techniques in this book are applicable across that life/work spectrum — to be effective, they need to be.”

Two Minute Rule.  Fourth, Allen argues for a two minute rule — If something can be done in two minutes or less, simply do it now and get it out of the way, rather than putting it on your To Do list.

In Box.  Fifth, you need an In Box, into which all paper is placed and then processed. Most of the paper in your office should be thrown away, now — you simply don’t need it. Most of the rest is reference material, and should be filed in an intelligently-designed filing system that you understand. The remaining paper has to be processed, in many cases creating an entry in your leak-proof system.

Weekly Review.  Sixth, you should conduct a Weekly Review, where you review your life priorities and all of your activities of the previous week, process them, and plan your next week. He recommends Sunday evening as an optimal time to do this.

One of the most interesting aspects of David’s system is that there is a substantial difference between following it 99 percent of the time and following it 100 percent. If you follow it 99 percent, then the other 1 percent is still cluttering up your mind and your mind is not free. In some cases, you could have the worst of all worlds — your mind is still cluttered but you’ve got the overhead of an organizational system. For some people, if you can’t get to 100 percent, you’re better off with no system at all, because at least you don’t have the overhead.

One example of my following his system — I never let my In Box fill up. Most of the e-mails can be quickly read and then deleted. A few e-mails are filed. (Rather than filing these messages right away, I move them to a folder called “E-mails to File.”) For those that need a response, I just respond now, rather than waiting. Those for which I’m waiting for a response, I file in a folder “Waiting for a Response” and then check it once a week, sending reminders to those that haven’t responded. As for the occasional e-mail that does require thought, I print it out and put the printout in my Daily To Do notebook. I used to have over 1500 e-mails in my In Box, which caused me to feel anxious. Now, at the end of the day, I get my In Box down to zero.

Another tip Allen mention is how to condition yourself to do something that you should. For example, some days I just don’t feel like exercising. I know that if I put on my gym clothes, subconsciously my mind is going to be saying, “You’re already dressed, you’re half way there, if you don’t exercise you will have wasted your time putting on your gym clothes, so go exercise, otherwise you’ll feel like an idiot.” And I’m then more likely to go exercise.

One of the most important aspects of GTD is to separate planning from doing. When I combine both, I am less productive. It’s better to spend 30 to 60 minutes a day planning your day, get your list perfected, and then jump into “To Do” mode. If you have a list that you trust, so you are not subconsciously asking yourself “What have I forgot to add to the list?, it’s amazing how focused and productive you can be. No doubt new items to do will pop up while you are in To Do mode. That’s OK, simply write them down, and at the end of the day, you can add them to your leak-proof system.

I took David’s workshop in 1999. For about five years after that, I sometimes followed it and sometimes did not. Around 2004 I buckled down, applied more disciple, and I have been quite conscientious since then. It has changed my life. There is no greater freedom than having your mind free. At his website you can sign up for his free electronic newsletter.

David has written three books. I would start with Getting Things Done. Then I would read Making It All Work. Last, I would read Ready for Anything. He also gives public seminars. I have attended his seminar twice and I highly recommend them.

(Allen is a good example of my first saying. I’m not smart enough to have come up with Allen’s approach, but I am smart enough to recognize he is the best thinker in the world in his field and smart enough to copy/follow him.)

Do you have any ideas on time management that you haven’t copied from David Allen?

I practice what I call radical simplification — breaking tasks down into very small, bite size, more manageable subtasks, which allow you to focus on one small task at a time. And I mean small β€” often I’ll break things into 2-or 5-minute tasks. Completion of the task is a psychic win, which spurns you on to then complete the next task.

How have you implemented Allen’s system?

Allen says you should organize your To Do items by content — i.e., where they should be performed (thus, all of your tasks that require access to Internet should be kept on one list, all of your tasks that are errands should be kept on another list). In terms of implementation, that makes a lot of sense. At the same time, conceptually one often groups tasks in one’s mind by the project they are a part of. While attending his seminar for the second time, it dawned on me that what I really wanted was a database that would allow me to slice and dice my tasks in several different ways. I spent most of the second day designing such a system, and probably a month of my time writing and further designing such a system.

The system I developed is a database system written in Microsoft Access. There are approximately 20 projects, and 3 to 5 subprojects within each project. Each task is a separate record and is assigned to a project. I can display or print by project, subproject, where the task should be performed (errand, office, at home, at night, etc.). I can display or print only the Most Immediate tasks, and I can print out only the tasks that I have delegated to my secretary. I can also list only those tasks are intellectual work that I can do outside the office, such as enhancing this profile. I can also put assign a tickler date to any task, and then print out all the tasks that have a tickler date before today’s date.

With this system, I’ve got everything tracked. If I think of something while I’m driving, I write it down on a piece of paper and then enter it into this system. Thus, my scarce brainpower (some would say incredibly scarce brainpower) is not consumed worrying about things that I have already thought of. One downside, however, is that my system is a real database and requires a PC (desktop or notebook) to run. Thus, it cannot be used on a PDA (unless you have a PDA that can run Access) and thus probably would not be appropriate for someone who is highly mobile.)

Video of David Allen speaking at Google (46 minutes)

Video: How David Allen Gets Things Done

Organize your life! The Atlantic Monthly article on David Allen

Fast Company article on David Allen

Wired Magazine article on David Allen

Other articles about David Allen

Read James’ essay, Some Financial Advice.

List of other essays written by James Mitchell  |  Copyright notice

Cite as β€œOn Time Management and David Allen” by James Mitchell. February 4, 2012, version 1.5. http://www.jmitchell.me/essays/david-allen.

  • Amisha Ekaant

    The biggest requirement for growth is having time to dedicate it for any business. There are a number of ways that a time management system can help grow a business.

    One of the best way is to use some good time management software to manage the tasks and time where it is necessary for both the employers and employees. Hence, I would suggest to use Replicon’s software ( http://www.replicon.com/olp/online-time-recording-software.aspx ) for efficient time management.

  • Felix

    Hey James, If you are looking for a tool to manage your projects as well as your time. I’d recommend you to give proofhub.com a try as well. This tool is very intuitive and feature rich. Highly recommended.