David Allen GTD

Why The Inventor Of GTD Doesn’t Like To Plan

In 7 Hours With, we explore the routines of leading professionals in their space to learn the when, why, where and how they work. In each diary, we will look at what they’re doing at seven different check-ins throughout their day.

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David Allen is a productivity consultant who created the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology. The basic principles of GTD include a concept called “mind like water” and the idea that your brain is the space for having ideas, not for holding them. He’s also the author of several books, including the best-selling Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Here’s how he spends his 7 Hours.

7 AM – Fuel The Body & The Brain

I get up somewhere between seven and eight o’clock in the morning and have a glass of lemon water. Either I prepare the coffee and lemon water, or my wife does. And whoever does that, the other person takes the dog out for a morning walk (we have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). I also have a soy protein drink to start my day, as well as a coffee with our Bodum French Press.

I then check the weather — I live in Amsterdam, and the weather here changes frequently. I also like to read at least the front page of The New York Times on my iPad. Then to get my brain kickstarted, I play Words With Friends — I’ve got about 10 or 15 games going.

8 AM – Start The Day Organized 

A bit later in the morning I’ll usually check email, at least an emergency scan to see if there are any emergencies or any fun, quick, easy stuff to handle. Checking my email is sort of where the planning of my day ends — the rest of the day is focused on things as they come up, and I largely do what I feel like doing. The only thing that doesn’t go with the flow is that the dog has to go out pretty much every four or five hours. Which is great, it gets us out into a beautiful park we have near our house.

I’ve always been pretty well organized, not because I’m a perfectionist, but mostly because I’m just lazy. I just hate redoing anything. So I always like to have a clear enough space to be able to do the kind of work I wanted to do. At the beginning of my career, I was very attracted to clear mental space, both in meditation practices, spiritual exploration, and martial arts. I then started my own consulting practice, David Allen Company, after lots of different jobs. I figured I’d just like to work project by project. At this time, I also found that as my life got more complex, I caught myself thinking: How do I keep clear space? This is what led me to developing GTD. It’s pretty easy for clear space to get messed up when you have a busier life. I wanted a way to protect that.

The origins of GTD started with a mentor I met in consulting. He came up with a number of techniques to help clear executives’ heads, and he taught me how to dump information out of the brain and decide next actions for everything. It turned out though that the techniques we worked on to get stuff out of people’s heads and into action was hugely transformational for all the clients that I work with. That solved 90% of their issues — just getting their head empty and deciding next actions. They loved having some sort of trusted system to rely on.

And suddenly, who knew, I found myself thrust in the corporate training world. For 20 years, I helped train hundreds of thousands of people, just through referrals. But we didn’t call it GTD then. We didn’t call things GTD until I wrote the book Getting Things Done. That was just the shorthand we used. It became this brand that ran out from under us, but it took me 20 years to figure out what I’d figured out, and that it was unique and nobody else seemed to have figured it out. It was bulletproof. That was the start of GTD.

11 AM – Break For Lunch

Throughout the morning, I’m working on things as they come up. My wife and I work together, and she has her own schedule, so we end up eating lunch on our own. Usually I will have an early lunch, which kind of breaks up the day. The dog will probably need to go out again at this point, so me or my wife will take the dog out for another short walk in the park.

12 PM – Review Materials For David Allen Company 

After lunch, it’s back to work. Oftentimes my wife sends me training materials for the David Allen Company that I need to do a final edit on. And that type of work shows up pretty much ad hoc, but it’s somewhat consistent. Probably once or twice a day I’ve got something like that I need to look at.

The David Allen Company, which is my organization that coaches people around the world on GTD, is officially represented in 90 countries, but we have a number of licensees that have whole regions. We also have about 30 master trainers, and once we certify them as a master trainer, then they have the ability to certify trainers within their own languages and regions.

That’s a lot of what my work has been in the last two to three years — supporting the new licensees who want to get started and build credibility within their own regions. So until the pandemic hit in March, I traveled a lot. A lot of my travel was to spend time with the new licensees around the world. Doing a lot of press, promotional stuff and keynotes. That obviously isn’t the case any more, but it was a huge part of my job.

3 PM – Recharge With A Nap

I’m a big fan of naps, and sleep in general. I’ll usually take a 25 minute nap many afternoons. 25 minutes is the suggested nap time. Beats a cup of coffee if you can do that. 

If you want to learn more about the restorative power of sleep, a good friend of mine, Dr. Theo Compernolle out of Belgium wrote a book called BrainChains. He’s done a lot of research to suggest just how important sleep is. The brain has an archival function that needs to stop cognitive focus to be utilized, and cognitive focused attention needs to stop enough to be able to then understand all this stuff that’s going on. To do that, your brain needs time. Sleep is where a lot of that stuff goes on. That’s why “sleeping on it” actually works. And that’s why I take a nap.

7 PM – Set Aside Evenings To Relax

Usually by this time, by dinner time, my wife and I relax. We go to Netflix and get a good movie on, or pick up a good book and read. I don’t try to do anything that requires external meetings or interviews after about five or six o’clock, so my day pretty much stops then. We also like to cook dinner around this time, and we’ve got organic markets that we just walk to and keep ourselves stocked with great ingredients.

9 PM – Plan For The Next Day 

After we watch Netflix and cook dinner, I actually start planning the next day. The first thing I do before I go to bed is look at the following day or maybe the next two or three on my calendar. I check in with my schedule and assess the hard landscape. Hard landscape being external commitments that I have, things that I need to show up for, like this interview. And any “have-tos” for the day. If I have to send a FedEx on Friday sometime during the day, that’s on my calendar as well. If you’re thinking about it metaphorically, hard landscape is the structures in your yard. Soft landscape would be the plants you move around. The hard landscape is important to me because it lets me know how long I can sleep — I’m a big sleep fan. So I love to sleep as long as I can. That gives me a sense of the structure that I work around, because overall I plan as little as I can get by with.

Once I’m done going through the next day’s action items, my day is officially over.