Getting Things Done guru goes digital

David Allen's time-management system helped his disciples get things done, but it required reams of paper. Now, at last, software comes to the rescue.

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David Allen's system lets him run his company from his garden in Ojai, Calif.
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(Fortune Small Business) -- I am obsessed with personal-management systems. Name a routine that promises to help its adherents work smarter or lose a few pounds, and chances are I've tried it at least once -- especially if it involves technology. (My latest scheme: taking pictures with my cell-phone camera of everything I eat, so I'll be less likely to snack.)

But in the past four years I have encountered just one great system for organizing my entire life. It's the same one that has swept Silicon Valley, rules the roost at Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) and recently inspired some of the most innovative personal-management software I've yet seen. Converts refer to it by just three letters: GTD.

GTD stands for Getting Things Done, a 2002 book by consultant and coach David Allen that has sold 1.2 million copies. Allen now runs a personal-productivity business, David Allen Co., in Ojai, Calif. CEOs pay the 12-employee firm up to $3,000 a day to organize their lives. The most important step in Allen's method: Write the longest list of to-dos you can imagine.

"If you don't have at least 150 next actions," Allen says, "you haven't captured them all."

That brings up the one thing that bothers me about GTD: It wastes a lot of trees. "Believe it or not, putting one thought on one full-size sheet of paper can have enormous value," Allen writes. Some people are okay with that. Most of my plugged-in San Francisco friends use nothing more advanced for to-dos than a pen. There's even a retro fad for carrying stacks of three-by-five-inch index cards. Merlin Mann, who writes the organization blog 43folders.com, dubbed this system the "hipster PDA."

It isn't just the environmentalist in me that's offended. Is this the 21st century or a world of Dickensian clerks? Your customer database, payroll and accounting spreadsheets probably live on your hard drive (and your backup drive, naturally). Why store your long list of next actions in the most combustible, irreplaceable format of all?

Thankfully, Allen seems less enamored with paper these days. "I'm working with this CEO who loved his hipster PDA," Allen says. "He took one look at the stack of three-by-five cards he'd created in our session and had his assistant digitize them all."

Allen currently uses a customized version of IBM's Lotus Notes for PC, which he calls his e-productivity suite. It syncs automatically with his phone, so he can add notes on the go. Allen isn't planning to commercialize e-productivity anytime soon, though. And he's wary of most to-do-list software on the market.

"Very few things out there have gotten slick enough," Allen says. "You have to think too much to use them. In the heat of battle, every click counts."

Indeed, dozens of commercial software suites claim to be inspired by GTD. None inspired me until recently, when I tried the latest entries in this market: Omni Focus and Things. Alas, each requires an Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) iPhone or a Mac and works best if you have both. But these apps -- Things, especially -- are useful enough to make me trade my old Palm (PALM) Treo for an iPhone.

I'd recommend trying the free versions to see which one works for you. Omni Focus -- developed by Seattle-based Omni in collaboration with Mr. Hipster PDA, Merlin Mann -- has more bells and whistles and will please hard-core project managers. Things is the brainchild of programmer Jürgen Schweizer and his small company, Cultured Code, based in Stuttgart, Germany.

"I was longing for a software tool that would help keep ideas around without letting them distract me from work," Schweizer says.

The result is as efficient and as streamlined as a German auto -- the BMW of GTD. I am in awe of how easy it is in Things to type out any number of to-dos in an in box, then schedule them or file them away under "Someday/Maybe" (a key GTD folder). My wife, who already owns an iPhone, raves that Things has changed her life.

And me? I finally have a system that encompasses all my high-tech self-help schemes -- no paper required.  To top of page

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