David Allen: The Art of Getting Things Done (GTD) – The Tim Ferriss Show

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Key Takeaways

  • The series of steps David recommends for improving productivity:
    • Step 1 | Capture – Get everything in your brain out onto a blank page (this is most important)
      • “Your mind is made for having ideas, not for holding ideas
    • Step 2 | Clarify and Organize – For reach item, ask: “Is it actionable?”
      • If no – Trash it
      • If yes – Decide on the next action
        • David calls these “next action decisions.” Each answers the question – Where physically are you going to go and what are you go to do to move the needle on X?”
    • Step 3 | Reflect – Schedule time to reflect on the above, preferably weekly
  • The Hierarchy of Priorities (use this hierarchy to decide which actions are most important):
    • What is your life purpose? 
    • What’s the vision of your purpose being fulfilled successfully? (What do you want your life look like 5 years from now?)
    • Goals and Objectives | If you want your vision to come true, what do you need to accomplish over the next 3-24 months?
    • What’s important for you to maintain for you to achieve your vision? (Ex. – Your health, relationships, etc.)
    • What are all the things you need to finish related to any of the above projects? (Ex. – Buying cat food, ordering something off Amazon, etc.)
    • What actions do you need to do to move any of the above projects forward? (Ex. – Sending an email or talking to a colleague)
  • LET GO – Control is the master addiction

Books Mentioned


  • David Allen (@gtdguy) is one of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity

“Your mind is made for having ideas, not for holding ideas”

  • “Your head is a crappy office… Your brain did not evolve to remember, remind, prioritize, and manage relationships with more than 4 things.”
    • And pretty much EVERYONE is constantly trying to keep track of WAY more than 4 things
  • Do NOT leave stuff in your head 
    • Why do people prefer to not write things down and instead rely on remembering a lengthy to-do list? – “It gives them a false sense of control…. and control is the master addiction”

How does David begin coaching high-performing executives? | Get it Down on Paper

  • The big thing he stresses – make sure the client has a place to capture everything going on in their head
    • This very often just involves writing down EVERYTHING on a piece of printer paper. For example:
      • “I need new tires”
      • “I have to pick up my kid at 4”
      • “I need to plan for my next meeting”
      • “I need to buy cat food”
      • Etc.
  • Your mind doesn’t have a sense of past or future, so when you’re keeping things like the above in your head, it’s as if your brain is constantly being reminded, 24 hours a day, “I need cat food”
    • “You can’t do more than 1 thing at a time and there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing all of that all the time”
  • Each item on a to-do list, in a sense, is an “agreement”
    • By leaving these items your head, it’s as if you’re breaking every one of these agreements because you’re not getting them done
      • Making a list prevents this – “You can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing”

Keeping Track of Information in the Digital vs. Analog Format

  • David prefers to capture things he needs to do/whatever’s floating around in his head on paper
    • On occasion, he’ll use Braintoss (it’s an app that emails you anything you note down)
  • There are SOOO many digital tools – “The plethora of options have almost made it more work”
    • Simply – “Productivity hasn’t gone up at all, yet technology has gone through the roof”

The Road to David’s Book – Getting Things Done (GTD)

  • David attended Berkeley as a grad student to study American Intellectual History
    • This was in the heyday day of the psychedelic era – “If you can remember being in Berkeley in 1968, you probably weren’t there”
  • But…David soon dropped out
    • “I realized I wanted to get my own enlightenment instead of studying people who had theirs… so I jumped ship and went on my own exploration path. Lots of drugs, martial arts, spiritual stuff… it was the 60s! … I was more interested in finding out who I was and finding out about God, truth, and the universe than having a job.”
  • David went on to do quite a bit:
    • He helped start a New Orleans style restaurant in LA
    • He sold mopeds
    • He helped run a landscaping company in the San Fernando Valley
  • Along the way, working various jobs, David started to form the model that ultimately became GTD 20 years later
    • “There was no grand epiphany, there were just little small epiphanies along the way that I began to cobble together in a systematic approach”

Next Action Decisions

  • A next action decision answers the question – Where physically are you going to go and what are you go to do to move the needle on X?”
    • For example – It could be writing an email at your computer, going to the hardware store to buy nails, or talking to someone about X
  • It’s the VERY next thing you need to do to get clarity on X
    • “And people avoid this like the plague”
    • “Outcome and action are the 0s and 1s of productivity, but most people have not actually identified the outcomes and specific actions of the things that have their attention”
      • Most of the things on a common to-do list are NOT the very next action you need to take nor are they the complete outcome you’re trying to achieve by whatever action you need to take
      • “Getting things done… you have to know what ‘done’ means”

The Practical

  • Let’s rewind a bit and go over a practical series of steps David will often take his clients through:
    • Capture what’s on your mind on paper
    • For reach item, ask: “Is it actionable?”
      • If no – Trash it or incubate it (AKA defer it)
      • If yes – Decide on the next action (AKA do it or delegate it)
        • If one action won’t complete it, assign it to a project
  • But remember the 2-minute rule: anything you can do in 2 minutes, do it!

The Hierarchy of Priorities

  • (use this hierarchy to decide which actions are most important)
  • Going from most to least important:
    • What is your life purpose? 
    • What’s the vision of your purpose being fulfilled successfully? (What do you want your life look like 5-years from now?)
    • Goals and Objectives | If you want your vision to come true, what do you need to accomplish over the next 3-24 months?
    • What’s important for you to maintain in order for you to achieve your vision?
      • Ex. – Your health, relationships, finances, or spiritual life
      • In an organization, this would be your job description
    • What are all the things you need to finish related to any of the above projects?
      • Most people have a long list of 30-100 
      • Ex. – Buying cat food, ordering something off Amazon, etc..
    • What actions do you need to do to move any of the above projects forward?
      • Ex. – Emails to send, people to talk to, etc.
  • On a simple level, you can also ask yourself – “What has my attention most? What most do I need to handle so I get clear space again?”

What’s one of the best personal investments David ever made?

  • Deciding to drop out of Berkeley
    • “I had been doing all the things that were expected of me… I had been a straight-A student, I’d gone to a very hip and cool college, I got into graduate school, I had good grades, married a beautiful woman, and got a house in Berkeley. This was as cool a life as one could have, but one day I woke up and realized it wasn’t the life I wanted. There was adventure I was holding myself back from. There were places I wanted to explore and things I wanted to do… One day I just decided to not go back to school.”

David’s Stint in a Mental Institution

  • “Back in my early Berkeley days, I was having my own psychic/spiritual experiences. I didn’t understand where they came from and didn’t understand why people didn’t understand them… Suddenly I found myself outcast and it was quite painful. I wound up involved in aberrated behavior out of my frustration and they put me away in a mental institution.”
    • David stayed for about a couple of weeks
    • “I had read much of the literature pondering the question, ‘Is crazy really crazy or are you just tapped into something very different?’ I knew I was tapped into something very different, but couldn’t get anybody to understand.
      • “At some point, I decided to cooperate instead of railing against these people. I never really got cured.. you’re just looking at a high state of cooperation.”

Getting Spiritual

  • After being released, David recalls coming across At the Gates of Spiritual Science by Rudolf Steiner at a bookstore
    • He spent the next 4-5 months exploring huge amounts of the esoteric literature and studying the science of spirituality, leading him to acquire a spiritual coach, John-Roger Hinkins
  • How does David define “spiritual”?
    • “Stuff you can’t see that’s affecting us”
      • (thoughts, emotions, etc.)
    • “We all exist on many different levels… There are a lot of different worlds out there. It’s possible to experience those worlds if you meditate or practice certain practices. You can quiet yourself enough to be able to tap into a lot of the other levels we exist on.”
    • “Everybody’s on a spiritual path whether they know it or not. Everybody’s doing what they’re doing as a way to fulfill something they’re trying to complete on the planet.”

Nasal Breathing 101

  • David was recently getting a Shiatsu massage when he was recommended The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown
    • The book takes a deep dive into the importance of nasal, rather than mouth, breathing
      • David even suggests taping your mouth shut while you sleep to facilitate this

What books has David recommended most to others?

David’s Morning and Bedtime Routine

  • Every night, David looks as his calendar for the next day to see what he absolutely has to do
  • “I’m a huge fan of sleep. I used to think I was lazy, but now, given the new cognitive science, I’m just smart.”
  • Every morning, David:
    • Has a glass of lemon water and french-pressed coffee
    • Has a protein shake
    • Reads The New York Times
    • Plays a game or two of Words with Friends to get his brain going
    • “And then, I do whatever I feel like doing next” – Usually, he’ll take a walk in a nearby park

What does David wish more people would pay more attention to when it comes to his book, Getting Things Done

  • Many don’t write things down, decide next actions, or step back and reflect with a weekly review (below)

The Weekly Review

  • Step 0 – Make sure you’ve already captured, clarified, and organized the stuff going on in your life
  • Then reflect:
    • Take an hour a week and simply examine your life
      • What happened in the last week?
      • What do you need to do about it?
      • What’s new?
      • What do you need to be aware of?
    • “Any kind of thinking in a more reflective process is going to be able to help anybody at any time”

Does David have any rules for what he says “no” to?

  • Tim, lately, has been trying to figure out the single decision that removes many decisions
    • For example – he says “no” to all speaking engagements outside Austin
  • “Not really, except unpleasant people” 
  • Dave has done nearly 2,000 interviews since publishing his book in 2001
    • He’s still going! (at age 73)


  • Tim recalls a quote from a Fast Company piece on David:
    • “People assume that I’m a hard-working, left-brained, results-oriented, OCD, anal retentive kind of guy. But the reason I’m attracted to this work is that it allowed me to be more creative, more spontaneous, and freer. I’m a freedom guy.”
  • David brings up a quote – “Be steady and well ordered in your life so you can be crazy and spontaneous in your work”
  • A good analogy – the middle lines in a road serve as a constraint
    • They let you think about other things while you’re driving – “It’s just enough structure to give you freedom”
  • “GTD provides space… If you capture, clarify, organize, and reflect on all the things that have your attention, it will give you more room. What you do with that room is unique to you.”

Productivity Tools

  • David uses IBM Notes to manage his email in sync with an app called eProductivity (which only works with IBM Notes) that lets him “use email as a task manager”
    • David keeps navigators on the left side of his screen with various action lists separated into a variety of categories: projects, agenda, calls, computer, creative writing, errands, home, online, “someday maybe,” and “waiting for”
      • The app allows him to drag an email into any one of the above categories
  • David will also use Evernote and Evernote Web Clipper periodically

A Quote David Lives His Life By

  • His screensaver says “Let go”
    • David adds – “Control is the master addiction… drop it and let life be what it is”

What would David’s billboard say?

  • “Your head’s for having ideas, not for holding them”

Parting Thoughts

  • With what’s in front of you, complete it with as much elegance and excellence as you can – the next thing will show up, so don’t worry about it
  • “If there’s one thing people could probably do more of, it’s relax and enjoy life”

Additional Notes

  • Back when The 4-Hour Workweek came out, Tim was interviewed alongside David on the phone and says he was a “nervous mess”
  • David uses an Apple Thunderbolt Monitor
  • When David was 17, he spent a year as an exchange student in Zurich, Switzerland
  • David recalls reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler
    • The book discusses how cultures have their own psyche and how that affects art, philosophy, math, science, and medicine
  • David’s first job – a magician at age 5 on the sidewalks of Texas
    • He charged 5 cents to put on a magic show for people who walked by
  • Tim recorded this interview in “rural NY” where he’s doing some isolated writing 
  • David moved to Amsterdam from Ojai, California a while back
    • Tim adds – “It’s one of my favorite cities in the world… It checks so many boxes. It’s a marvel of a city.”
  • David is coming out with a Getting Things Done workbook in September
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Notes By MMiller

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