Truly productive people always leave some blank spots in their day

The author of “Getting Things Done” says people focus on the wrong parts of his productivity system

Man sitting at a computer and an empty desk, staring off into space

(Anthony Lee/Getty)

If productivity were a religion, David Allen would be its high priest. Scratch that. He might the One True King of productivity. And his 2002 New York Times bestselling book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is his sermon. (“A new cult for the info age,” is how Wired once put it.) But in a recent interview with Fast Company’s Ciara Byrne, Allen spoke out to tell his disciples, “you’re getting me all wrong,” and outlined the biggest misconceptions about his patented GTD productivity method.

Allen’s system of checklists breaks productivity into five basic steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. We’ll let you read up on the first three steps on your own time, but the ones Allen says people most often misinterpret are the last two—reflect and engage. It’s at that point that one should think hard about his or her daily activities to determine which items to handle now, and which to delegate before switching to action mode. But sometimes the best way to engage with an item is to actually do nothing, he says. The GTD method is not just about checklists and productivity for productivity’s sake: It’s about freeing up your time. “A hallmark of how well you can do this methodology is how well you can do nothing,” he tells Byrne. Here’s how she puts it:

Allen is a big fan of doing nothing, of daydreaming and napping as a means of engaging the reflective as opposed to the reflex brain. But having loose ends, or open loops, cluttering up your headspace makes that difficult.

In other words, the key to productivity zen lies in this question: How well can you actually have nothing on your mind? This will be a difficult concept for Allen disciples to swallow. After all, the most hardcore among them will have already shelled out US$89 for the official GTD Notetaker wallet with integrated productivity notepad.

But Allen has a point. Sometimes the best course of action really is to do nothing. Some items can wait a day. Some issues resolve themselves. And some problems weren’t yours to solve in the first place. So write your checklist, attack it with vigor and, when possible, maybe just put it down and enjoy the time you’re supposed to be freeing for yourself.

As Allen tells Byrne:  “People assume that I am a hard-working, left-brained, results-oriented, OCD, anal-retentive kind of guy. In fact, the reason that I was attracted to this work was that it allowed me to be more creative, more spontaneous, freer. I’m a freedom guy.” Amen to that.