David Allen on “Getting Things Done” in the Digital Age

Feb 7, 2017
8 Min Read
David Allen on “Getting Things Done” in the Digital Age


David Allen on “Getting Things Done” in the Digital Age


As the digital age continues to transform our lives and careers, we face unprecedented challenges when it comes to managing time and information. Many leaders find themselves feeling overwhelmed by a constant influx of data, demands, and tasks, and they feel ill-equipped to meet the requirements of their roles.

On the enterprise level, the problem is even more complex. Leaders have to grapple with not only their own sense of inefficiency, but also with the knowledge that their key teams and stakeholders are struggling to keep up on their individual and shared responsibilities.

I had the opportunity to interview productivity guru, David Allen, via Skype from his home in Amsterdam. He’s the chairman of the David Allen Company and has more than thirty-five years of experience as a management consultant and executive coach. His newly updated book Getting Things Done offers a comprehensive approach, known as the GTD model, for optimizing corporate productivity.

Our discussion focused largely on technology and why the GTD model is intentionally silent on the use of digital tools. To Allen, going after the latest technologies before doing the hard work of creating systems for individual and organizational productivity, is like putting the horse before the cart.

Your Processes Will Never Be More Efficient Than Your Thinking

Many executives today assume that productivity depends on using the latest digital innovations, but Allen emphasizes that technology is just a tool. In his writing, speaking, and coaching his message is that efficiency is the by-product of leaders and teams rolling up their sleeves to do the hard work of corralling and managing all the tasks and to-dos swimming around in their heads.

“I've spent thousands of hours one-on-one deskside with some of the busiest and brightest on the planet since the early 80’s,” Allen says. “The GTD workflow model clears up tons of stuff for a lot of people. People try to add another system, but ‘garbage in is garbage out.' If you don’t have an appropriate thinking process, tech is not going to solve the problem. All it’s going to do is magnify it, frankly.”

The cornerstone of the GTD model is getting thoughts out of your mind and into an external system, such as paper files or smartphone productivity apps. The goal is to reduce stress and improve workflows by capturing, clarifying, organizing, reflecting, and engaging with your whirlwind of thoughts very intentionally and systematically.

Allen discusses his model with great frankness and directness. “The way you get things done is you need to define what ‘done’ means, what ‘doing’ looks like, and where that happens. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the desired end result? How do you allocate resources to make it happen? What does ‘done’ mean in terms of a process being improved? You’ll know it’s ‘improved’ when what is true? That’s what you need to do to get it all under cruise control.”

When asked if GTD looks a bit different on an enterprise level, Allen said, “It’s the same methodology for a 12-year-old as it is for a CEO. There's very different content, obviously, in terms of what they're dealing with, but the issues are universal issues. It's just that when you get to the executive level, the results of inefficiencies are magnified.”

Ask For the Technology You Need to Improve Your Processes

David Allen says that when it comes to technology, executives need to be clear about what they want and need. They shouldn’t get new technology for the sake of having new technology.

He says, “The big issue always for tech is ‘what's the purpose’? What is it that you're trying to do? And often the problem is nobody is clear about that. What does the executive really need to have? What do they need to have on their dashboard?”

Allen says, “If executives have been really clear about what they need on their dashboard, I would find it very difficult to find any organization that couldn't get it together to give it to him. I think the main issue is they don't know what they want.”

The Best Technologies Are Essentially Decision Support

While Allen’s model focuses on the practical steps of setting up a tangible system, he acknowledges that various new digital platforms can serve the same purpose on the enterprise level. However, he says it’s still essential that leaders remain mindful that such technologies merely serve as “decision support.” In other words, technology doesn’t replace the need for you to systematically identify, prioritize, and follow through on your thoughts, concerns, to-dos, and projects. While Allen avoids discussing specific digital tools, he says that cloud-based platforms can certainly be a good holding place for data to support decision-making.
After talking to Allen and reading his book, it’s clear that a PaaS is especially well-suited to GTD because they standardize and unify data across the organization, eliminate data silos, and allow each user to create dashboards tailored to their specific roles and responsibilities. Users can even create customized apps to meet their individual and departmental needs, without any coding. Leaders can help their teams and stakeholders to stay on task, by limiting who can input data, controlling how individuals can interact with data, and providing governance over users’ customized apps. In short, a PaaS can clearly support the GTD process of capturing, clarifying, organizing, reflecting, and engaging. That’s a solid recipe for “getting things done.”


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