This is from a recent issue of the “Productive Living” newsletter.

Hi Folks,

The major complaint about our Getting Things Done methodology is not that it doesn’t work or that the principles aren’t sound—it’s that people don’t work the system. I’ve learned that many times the problem is not lack of motivation or discipline, but instead some rather mundane and practical behaviors that can be easily changed to make things work much better. I’ve identified three in this essay. If you do a quality check on your own system and where you notice you have cracks and stress fractures, it could likely include at least one of them.

All the best,




There are three common reasons why most people seem to flounder with their personal workflow. At least part of their systems lack one or more of three essential variables: consistent, current, and contextually available. This was reaffirmed for me in a coaching session I did with a senior executive. Here’s what showed up:

Consistency: She had some phone call reminders on pieces of paper, some in her head, some on sticky notes stuck to the phone. Keeping the same kind of reminders about the same kinds of to-do’s in different media in different places is hugely inefficient and confusing. Information or reminder triggers of a specific type must be kept in the same place, the same way, all the time. Otherwise we have to make the “what do I do with this?” decision with every such particle, and that throws up a quick barrier to engagement. She decided to go with simple file folders labeled “Calls – Work” and “Calls – Personal”, as the best way to manage those, and sanity began to prevail.

Currency: No matter how consistent the system is, if it is not current (i.e. completely up to date with all items in a category) it still can’t be trusted in a way that relieves the psyche of the job of remembering and sorting. You’ll look at a list and some part of you knows it’s not the whole list, so (a) you won’t totally trust your choices and (b) you’ll still try to use your head to keep track. And if your brain still has that job, instead of trusting your lists, you won’t be motivated to keep your external system going (it will be too much work for the value received.) You’ll feel like it’s hard work to keep the list and will resist looking at it anyway because you’ll know it’s only partial and it will remind you that you’re “behind.”

Contextually available: She had been trying to organize action reminders by project or by topic, instead of by where the reminder needs to be seen in order to get it done. Project thinking and planning need to be seen by the title or topic, because that’s when we need to see that information (when we’re meeting or thinking about it). But reminders of the next actions required need to be seen where those actions can occur–phone calls when we’re at a phone; errands to do when we’re about to go out in our car; emails to send when we’re at our computer; etc. Information and action reminders should always be stored in such a way that we are likely to see them when we need to see them, and can use or move on the data. If you store your Next Action reminders by what or who they’re about, every time you’re in a place where you can do work (at a phone, at your desk, in your car, at home) you’d have to look through dozens of folders or files to find reminders of all your options. And when you’re running fast and only have a short window of time, you won’t really check the whole inventory and you’re likely to make choices from latest-and-loudest instead of objective overview.

David Allen’s “Productive Living” newsletter is  free and sent about every 4 weeks. You’ll find essays from David, thought-provoking quotes, and productivity tips you can use every day.