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Productivity 101: 'Being smart about how to be lazy'

David Allen is the high priest of personal productivity. His first book, Getting Things Done , sold more than 1.5 million copies, and now he and his GTD consultants travel the world helping people to, well, get things done. Not bad for a guy who had held 35 jobs by the time he was 35. The California-based consultant, 63, who will be speaking in Montreal tomorrow, spoke to The Globe and Mail about being lazy and the spiritual side of the cult of GTD.

You've built a multimillion-dollar company based upon a system to help people manage their work and life. Yet you say you're the 'laziest guy you ever met.' I wake up thinking, 'How much easier can I do whatever it is I'm doing?' It's a little hyperbolic, but it's also a way to make a point, which is all about being smart about how to be lazy. I have a black belt in karate, and a lot of people say that's not very lazy. But once you've got a black belt, you can walk across the room with less effort than anybody else.

When you encounter somebody who's never heard of personal productivity, never heard of Getting Things Done. Are there people out there like that? [laughing]Yeah, I guess they're still there. The elevator pitch is this: I didn't discover or make up techniques or behaviours that you don't already do. This isn't like learning a foreign language. It's really just understanding the principles that underlie the experience when you do stuff that really works and you're "on" and time disappears. … Everybody has written stuff down on a list and felt better; I'm just the guy who figured out why it works.

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Where does multitasking fit in? You can't multitask with a concentrated focus. You can't think about two things at once. You can switch fast … but you can only consciously place your attention on one thing at a time.

So is multitasking a myth? The problem is people don't know how to place-hold what they're thinking about, and it follows them along. So a part of their psyche is attempting to simultaneously manage several things at once, and that's creating ulcers. Ask a black belt whether they are fighting four people at once when they get jumped. They're not. They're fighting one person at a time - it's just a really fast switch. I was much better at fighting four people at once than one because it required me to be totally present.

Did you get to the breaking-bricks point with karate? Yeah.

What was your record? I usually broke cinder-block bricks. Maybe two or three.

Is there a spiritual side to GTD? If you mean the small "s," then yes. I've always been fascinated by the things you can't see, but in that sense gravity is spiritual, too, because you can't see it. To me, the unseen is the most fascinating thing. If you could get a hold of what's going on there, then you have the ability to really control and manipulate and be lazy as hell. … Unfortunately, most people have such a negative connotation - when you say 'spiritual,' they go 'cult.'

People talk about the cult of GTD. I saw buttons online that had your picture inside a heart. It's cute [laughing]

But are there people who are skeptical of this to the point that they think it's manipulative or a culty kind of thing? Sure … essentially what I'm teaching is an installed thought process. So some think it's mental manipulation and assume that it's like mind control.

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Do you have a crisis of confidence about telling people how to manage their lives? Do you ever have doubts or waver? Oh yeah. It took me about 25 years to figure out that I had figured it out and that nobody out there had done a better job of it. It took me that long to validate to myself that it worked without exception … The people who are most attracted to my stuff tend to need it the least. These are people who are thrusting themselves into the world to do more and better. In other words, if you don't want to go anywhere, getting rid of drag is a drag.

George Carlin had a famous routine about stuff. It seems as though you've created your own riff, except it's about stuff to do, rather than the stuff you own. His thing was about possessions. Mine is about things that are possessing you.

How did you come up with the term getting things done? It's catchy. Believe me, I'll sell you about 743 used titles, cheap. It was agony, a dark night of the soul, with me and my editor to try and figure it out … the concept of 'getting things done' seemed to be attractive yet universal. GTD was the acronym we were using around our office.

And now it's on your licence plate: GTD GUY. It was. I got rid of it because I live in small town and, well, it was fun to have that on my licence plate - but I don't any more.

Special to The Globe and Mail

What's GTD?

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  • The core concepts of the Getting Things Done system, according to GTD coach Kelly Forrister:
  • 1. Collect and download everything that's got your attention, especially the stuff you're holding on your mind.
  • 2. Decide the very next action you need to take on any of those.
  • 3. Organize it into a few key buckets:
  • a list of your outcomes (Projects)
  • a list for the things you need to do (Next Actions)
  • a list of things other people owe you (Waiting For)
  • a list of the things you might like to get to (Some Day/Maybe)
  • 4. Look at it all on some kind of regular basis to make sure it's still current (Review)
  • 5. So that you can always trust you are making the best choices (Do)


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