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Cutting through the clutter to get things done

Story Highlights

• "Getting Things Done" has sold more than 500,000 copies
• Book published in 23 languages
• David Allen has huge following with bloggers
• Allen calls the book "advanced common sense"
By David E. Williams
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(CNN) -- Management consultant David Allen is a best-selling author, runs a multimillion dollar company and travels the country teaching executives to be more productive.

Allen, 61, is best known for his book "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity." The book, published in 2001, was the 46th most popular book on on Thursday.

He may seem like an unlikely Internet hero, but legions of bloggers have embraced his timesaving methods. A quick Google search for David Allen and "Getting Things Done" turned up more than 1.3 million hits.

Allen said "Getting Things Done," or GTD, is "just advanced common sense," but he said it took him about 20 years to figure it out.

"I had 35 professions before I was 35, so it's either consultant or flake are your two options, so hopefully I took the positive route on that," he said. "I kind of didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had a degree in American intellectual history, then a black belt in karate and all kinds of weird things trying to find out where I was going to land."

He said he saw a huge need for time management training in the corporate world.

"I thought I was the last kid on the block to learn this stuff, and the more professional and sophisticated people that I met would have already done all of this stuff. Well, that wasn't true," he said.

Clear your head

One of the key steps in GTD is to get all of the information you're carrying around out of your head and put it someplace safe until you're ready to use it.

Allen said making a list can help you feel better when you feel overwhelmed, confused and out of control.

"If you'd figured out why that happened, you'd never keep anything in your head again for the rest of your life," he said. "Nothing in your world changed, but somehow how you engaged with your world changed."

How you capture the information isn't important, Allen said, but you need to keep it with you or you won't trust the system.

"I don't care what you write it on, you can write it on your arm," he said. "But I guarantee that if you write it down and you keep it someplace where you won't lose it and you look at it sooner than later you're going to feel better than if you don't, and you'll be more productive and use less energy."

Allen says his martial arts background helped him appreciate the value of eliminating distractions.

"If four people jump out at you in a dark alley, you don't want to be thinking about two e-mails you haven't answered," he said. "When I got into the business world I discovered how distracting that world can be. You don't just have four people jump you in a dark alley, you've got 3,000 people who jump you all of the sudden."

What's done, and what's doing?

The GTD method gets users to define the outcome of a project and then breaks the project down to the next action that must be taken to reach that objective.

In other words, if you need to fix a door, the outcome could be to take care of a squeaky hinge and the next action would be to pick up some oil at the hardware store.

Allen said that breaking down a project when you get an assignment is a lot easier than doing it when your boss is screaming for results.

It also helps you take advantage of small windows of time.

"Nobody gets two hours to do anything these days. You get 12 minutes here, you get five minutes here, three minutes there," he said. "But most people's systems and their behaviors aren't set up so when they get a surprise window of six minutes they don't know what to do with it."

Allen said he's got a long list of things he can get done in a few minutes.

"All I have to do is pop open my action list, I've already figured that out," he said. "What I won't do if I only have six minutes is figure out what's going to be on the list. That's already done."

Inspired followers

Allen said developers send him new programs based on GTD all of the time.

"I think I became popular in the tech world because the "Getting Things Done" model is a highly enabling model and that's sort of the purpose of IT is to enable people to get stuff done faster, easier, cooler, classier in a more elegant way," he said.

Ethan Schoonover, an American artist and photographer living in Hong Kong, developed the free Mac program, Kinkless GTD, in 2005 -- shortly after he started using "Getting Things Done."

"I thought it might take a couple hundred lines of code, but it's ended up clocking in at over 4000," he said in an e-mail.

The program has been a labor of love for Schoonover. The 34-year-old said he wrote it to improve his programming skills and because he couldn't find software that worked for him.

"Geeks are lazy. We don't want to have to do the same thing twice if we can automate it the first time round. We like patterns, processes, systems," Schoonover said. "GTD provided the blueprint. We could either implement the blueprint by hand or create tools to assist us. We've been creating tools."

Ed Eubanks, a minister, tech enthusiast and freelance writer in St. Louis, Missouri, said he's tried several programs since he started using GTD.

"The ideal system would be everything you need and nothing you don't, and that's going to be very different for everybody," he said.

Dutch blogger Frank Meeuwsen writes about "Getting Things Done" on his blog "What's the Next Action."

He said he bought the book in 2005 but was too busy to read it for three months.

"But one evening I started and I read it front to back in two evenings. And I was converted. I really felt a connection with the GTD principle, and I understood how it might help me," Meeuwsen said in an e-mail. "And besides that, things could only get better productivity-speaking so why not give it a go?"

Allen said he's a little bemused by the attention GTD has received.

"The fact that it became such a buzzword, I guess that's pretty cool. ... Especially if it adds value to people's life to do anything with it and explore it," he said.

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David Allen's "Getting Things Done" is published in 23 languages and has sold more than 500,000 copies.

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