David Allen: The Real Secret of Getting Things Done (GTD)

Earlier this week I decided I need to rethink my productivity strategy. My setup has been working well for a while and then it just kind of….

broke down….


So – I went on the hunt for a very simple setup for Omnifocus and Getting Things Done (GTD) that might help me make it stick long term.

I’ve tried to use Omnifocus for years now and it’s never really stuck. So I did the opposite of what I normally do. Instead of trying to learn a big, sophisticated Omnifocus system – I tried to find the most simple setup of all time.

After going through a few blog posts I found a link to a podcast that answered a lot of questions for me (some I didn’t even know I had)… And completely changed the way I think about productivity.

What is OmniFocus

From Wikipedia: OmniFocus is a personal task manager by The Omni Group for Mac OS X and iOS. The declared goal of the program is to be able to capture thoughts and ideas into to do lists. The program uses concepts and techniques described in the book Getting Things Done (commonly abbreviated as GTD) by David Allen.

From Malan: It is a swiss army knife of a todo list + productivity engine that has so much power and so many useful features that people have to take classes to learn how to use it properly.

It’s the only app I’ve paid more than a few bucks for. (it costs $40)

What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

Wikipedia: Getting Things Done is a time management system, written and explained in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Often referred to as GTD.

The GTD method rests on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of your mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items. This allows one to focus attention on taking action on tasks, instead of on recalling them.

My Scattered Brain

I’m naturally a scatter brained person. For most of my life I made decisions on a whim, without thinking and without a master game plan of any kind. My life looked like this:

  1. Wake Up
  2. Chaos
  3. Go to sleep

For the majority of people I know, that is the blueprint for their day.

Malan Fact: While living in Dallas in the 90s I kept a quarter in my pocket that I would flip to make almost all of my decisions… I really did that.

Working on it.

Over the last several years I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into changing my ways and becoming a more organized and productive guy. I’ve experimented with every To-Do app and productivity system there is.

In the end, I wound up spending way more time “learning” productivity than actually getting things done.

And I’m not alone – there are 1000s of productivity apps out there and I’m going to guess that you’ve probably gone through your fair share of them too…

How many times have you downloaded a To-Do list app, sworn it was the answer to all your problems and then forgot about it a week later?

How many times have you tried to install someone else’s productivity system into your own life and found early success but then it breaks down over time and you quit?

If you’re like me – the answer is “too many times to count”. And they’ve all failed.

So why did they fail?

Well… I think I’ve finally found the answer.

Finding Answers

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I was researching Omnifocus + GTD (Getting Things Done) to see if I could come up with a really simple productivity setup.

After reading through a few blog posts I was linked to a recent episode of the Systematic Podcast where the host, Brett Terpestra talks with the creator of GTD, David Allen.

In this interview David said two things that hit me so hard that I stopped the podcast, opened up Evernote and started taking notes.

The info was so valuable to me that I thought I would share it with you today.

Below are the excerpts that really helped me as well as a link to the 45 minute interview. If you’re struggling with productivity I highly recommend you listen to the full episode.


David Allen, Author of Getting Things Done

Systematic + David Allen Notes

On The fundamental and simple idea behind productivity:
“I’m not a naturally organized or particularly driven or aspirational guy or even entrepreneurial. I wake up thinking How much easier can I do whatever it is that I’m doing?

A real word example:
“If I’m walking out of the room I’ll think How much easier could I get from here to there?”

On why lazy people make better efficiency experts:
“I’m lazy… The last person you’d ever want to listen to talk about productivity is somebody who’s into working hard. Because they won’t have tested the frontiers I have – on how much easier you can make things happen”

On Focus:
“I got a lot of training in martial arts – because a lot of that is about focus. And a lot of GTD was about how do I make that as easy as possible to maintain a presence of mind no matter what i’m doing.”

The secret to GTD:
“The secret to GTD is that it’s not really about getting things done. It’s about being appropriately engaged with your life. What will prevent appropriate engagement is distraction and not being present.”

Why emptying your brain into todo lists each is important:
“The whole idea of GTD about being present is that you can’t really focus your reflective brain full on being present if you’re distracted. If you need cat food and that thought “Gee I need cat food” pops in more than once, you are inappropriately engaged with your cat and “You need cat food” could pop in and take up brain bandwidth when you’re trying to focus.

So if you’re not handling those things, the incompletions in your life and parking them appropriately in the right places and making the right decisions about them (all the GTD stuff) then you won’t be able to put your attention on something 100% and you won’t be able to refresh your brain, at least while you’re conscious (as opposed to asleep which is when David claims the brain archives and organizes all the information you take in during the day).

You’ll sit back to let yourself daydream and “Oh Jesus I need cat food” pops into your head.

You can’t do either one. But if you actually apply the GTD methodology, that is start paying attention to what has your attention and then appropriately engage with it to get it off your mind, then you’re much more able to be heathy about focusing and refreshing.”

Why write things down makes you feel better:
“Your head if for having ideas, NOT for holding them”

My biggest take aways were this.

  1. The basic idea of efficiency is simply asking yourself the question “How much easier can I do whatever it is that I’m doing?”
  2. If you have a thought more than twice it needs to go onto a list, just to get it out of your head so you can think.
  3. Add items from the list to your calendar each day when you want to get things done.

My Productivity System?

I almost wrote out the current daily productivity that is working for me now, but I decided not to post it? Why? Because what I’m doing probably won’t work for you until you understand the basic concept of WHY productivity is important in the first place.

For me, productivity is not about getting more work done. It’s about being “appropriately engaged” with my life so that I can focus on each moment.

I can’t relax and enjoy something as simple as a nice dinner with friends if my head is constantly telling me “you need cat food… HEY HEY HEY you need cat food”.

But if I write the nagging thought down, I clear my head.

  • I know the thought is on my list, so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.
  • Now that I have a clear head I can focus on the present moment.
  • When I want to get things done I just add a few of the things I wrote down to my calendar as tasks.
  • If a task goes on my calendar with a time limit – there is a 99% chance that I’ll actually get it done
  • When I get it done it is out of my mind for good.

For example: I’ve been meaning to take my Cordoba acoustic guitar to the shop for new strings and a clean up for 5 months. It’s on my mind every day – but just hasn’t seemed to happen.

Yesterday I added “Take guitar to shop” to my calendar for 2pm – 3pm. At 2pm my calendar alerted me it was time do take the guitar in. So I booked an Uber, headed to the guitar shop and it’s done.

It’s Magic:

  1. I have a nagging thought.
  2. I write it down.
  3. I add it to my calendar with a specific time and date.
  4. I do it.

It’s as simple as that.

I no longer have to think about taking the guitar in for repairs. That frees up some of my mental energy so that I can focus on other things.

Like having a good time at the Joey Diaz show last night at The Comedy Store.


If you’ve been testing To-Do list apps and productivity systems and they’ve all failed I recommend you listen to this podcast with David Allen, the creator of the GTD (Getting Things Done).

In the podcast he shares the simple thought that led him to create the system and explains WHY productivity and efficiency are important in the first place.

When you understand the core concept – you’ll be able to create and install a system of productivity that fits YOUR life and YOUR work instead of trying to use someone else’s.

And that gives you a shot at keeping it in place long term.

This 45-minute interview help me a lot – I hope it helps you too.

Click here to listen to it now

  • bigaffdreams

    What are your top 2-3 take aways from the podcast?

    • bigaffdreams

      Anddddd I obviously posted this before I read your post

      • http://malandarras.com/ Malan Darras

        Haha, busted.

        Okay – For the ADD challenged:

        /// My biggest take aways were this.

        1. The basic idea of efficiency is simply asking yourself the question “How much easier can I do whatever it is that I’m doing?”

        2. If you have a thought more than twice it needs to go onto a list, just to get it out of your head so you can think.

        3. Add items from the list to your calendar each day when you want to get things done.

        ///Basics to start:
        1. I have a nagging thought.
        2. I write it down.
        3. I add it to my calendar with a specific time and date.
        4. I do it.

        • BigBadJohn

          Malan, I’m curious to hear your revised system bc I’ve been working on implementing the methodolgy Paul Klipp posted on Quora that you (& I think Charles Ngo) blogged about. That system seems really cool. And yet, somehow, I haven’t implemented it yet. 🙂

          So I know I should stop hoping for The Answer in someone else’s blog post — but I am kinda hoping you have it. :-/

          • http://malandarras.com/ Malan Darras

            please see the 4-step bullet list you just replied to. 😉 I’ll post my full system when i get it ironed out.

  • meldron

    Hey Malan – just thought I would mention that I never understood GTD very well either. I read the book but didn’t understand how to implement it properly until I took a skillshare course by a workflow designer named Tiago Forte who has a class called “Get Stuff Done Like A Boss”. I won’t post a link, but I highly recommend it. Especially for his own additions such as the morning checklist system, weekly checklist, etc.

    • http://malandarras.com/ Malan Darras

      Thanks, I’ll check it out and see what’s what. 😉

  • Daniel Nguyen

    Great write up man. I was starting to feel overwhelmed with my work and needed a way to simplify my work load. Thanks

  • http://about.me/bgn Sebastian Bagiński

    That’s very simple but powerful. Also, David talks great language, he even sounds like he’s curious about the world around him.
    But Malan, can you actually mention something about specific usage of OmniFocus for OS X? Maybe even record something for YouTube?

    • http://malandarras.com/ Malan Darras

      Sure, but I’m still working on it. As soon as I get it to a solid place I may post more about it.

  • John Anstett

    Hey Malan,

    Thanks for the insightful post. I’d love to hear more about how you use OmniFocus and tie GTD in with your concept of doing one big thing per day. That’s one area I’ve struggled with when it comes to implementing GTD. I create a list of many projects, then look at it and get overwhelmed. Lately I’ve been coming back to your idea of doing one big thing a day and I’m getting results. Keep up the great work!

    • http://malandarras.com/ Malan Darras

      John, I’m not quite ready to share what I’m doing yet because it’s not perfect. But I’ll tell you that when I restarted using Omnifocus/GTD I started with 1 project and 1 task per day.

      I don’t even use contexts right now. I created 1 project that had and a few actions/tasks. Then I put 1 task on my calendar with a start and finish time and then I did the task at the designated time. Then I added another task to my calendar.

      Previously I tried to add 100 projects and all kinds of actions and tasks and contexts and I’d get confused too. Really helped me to start small.

  • Thomas

    Good shit man, thank you.