Getting things done
Dayana Yochim:
David Allen is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. David, thank you for joining us.

David Allen: My pleasure, Dayana.

DY: I am going to spot you up with a few "getting things done" concepts and have you elaborate a little bit on them.

DA: Sure.

DY: "Your in-basket is not for storage."

DA: There are phases of how we manage these commitments as they come to us in work and life and so forth. The first thing you have to do is make sure you have captured all these things that represent commitment. ... The in-basket is a fabulous tool for grabbing hold of these ideas. We don't know what we are going to do with them yet, but we know we are going to do something. ... The [point is] to have a place that captures information from other people so they don't have to get a face-to-face with you. They can put [something] in your in-basket, send you an email, leave you a voicemail. Those are all versions of in-baskets.

. But I need a place to unload my pockets from the meeting and the receipts from the cab and the two business cards, as well as the notes I took when I checked my voicemail running through the airport. ... [so] I just unload right into my own in-basket. Meeting notes, all that stuff, should just go right in there to begin with.

DY: "The two-minute rule."

DA: Ah, the magic of the two-minute rule. The two-minute rule says if you are processing your in-basket ... then you process it by picking the stuff up and going, "Hmmm, what is the very next action on this, if it is an actionable item at all?" Once you decide, "OK, this is an actionable thing," and the very next action is actually something you could finish right there in less than two minutes, do it right then.

If it takes less than two minutes to do it, it takes longer to stack it, track it, and look at it again than it does to handle it when it is in your face. I guarantee you ... it will feel like you get an extra six months to your life.

Where, and how, to start
DY: Speaking of things hanging over your head, let's roll up our sleeves a bit and help people tackle a few of these big projects on their to-do list. First, there are the big daunting things -- save more money for retirement, look into refinancing the home. Do we have enough to send Junior to college? They are overwhelming tasks, and people tend to simply avoid them. What is the trick to tackling them and getting them done? Where do I start?

DA: You define what "done" means, and you define what "doing" looks like. When you say, "I need to save more money," ... it sounds to me like your project is to look into possible savings plans or options. . Or maybe you need to research getting a financial advisor.

It is kind of hard to stretch into some big vision unless you have a thing to finish toward. So defining some chunkable, completable thing becomes a project. You don't have to save money. You need to find out how to do that.

So, first of all, you need to identify these very discrete kind of operational sorts of outcomes that I call a project. OK, then you have to ask, "What is the very next action?" You don't need to have the plan. You don't need to know how to do it. You don't need to know which stock to buy. You don't need to know any of that. You just need to know, "What is the next thing I need to do that is going to start getting me information?" Surf the Web, talk to a friend, call somebody you already know, subscribe to The Motley Fool. Whatever the stuff is, there is some next physical step to take toward closure on whatever that project is.

So give yourself a doable, next physical action on these things. It helps a ton.

DY: I have set up my 401(k) at work so I know I am saving. I have automated that. I know I have made the right investment decisions, [and] I have set up a quarterly review for myself. But then there is balancing the checkbook, paying taxes, dealing with the receipts, dealing with your spouse's receipts because they don't always tell you what they have bought with the credit card. What are some of the best practices for handling [mundane] chores like that?

DA: Well, some chores you don't need to write down, because the world tells you. I don't need to write down "do laundry." . So some of those things, like "pay bills" -- as long as the bills to pay are in the appropriate place ... you probably don't need to write that anywhere else. If you don't know where the heck all your bills are because they are strewn all over God and creation, you had probably better write something down. So it depends. . [If] you can trust that the receipt is landing in the in-basket from your spouse, then you don't need to deal. That is enough of a system, because those are less-than-two-minute things: Pick it up; write something on it; stick it in the file where it needs to go. . I pay all my stuff as soon as I get the bill because I do it by Quicken electronically, so it is a less-than-two-minute thing. None of that stuff lies around.

DY: But since we like to put it off, do you think we should time ourselves to show ourselves how long two minutes is and how much we can really get done?

DA: It is nice to have a two-minute timer. We actually created a two-minute timer in our company because we know once people sort of [realize] how long two minutes is, you can get a ton done, really.

Overcoming challenges
You have coached some of the most successful business leaders in the world. What is the strangest thing you have seen? ... We are not asking you to name names here. Just behaviors.

DA: [A] staff person found about a hundred thousand dollars in stock that a guy didn't know he had. To him it was chump change, but they were cleaning, going through the center drawer of his desk, and he found stuff underneath there he didn't even know he had.

DY: If that is not incentive to get organized, I don't know what is. That is excellent!

This is kind of a philosophical question. What do you say to the person who thinks organizational systems are something that stifles creativity?

DA: Well, you don't want to stifle your creativity. You just need an organizational system that unlocks your creativity.

What I don't like are distractions. I am not a naturally organized guy. ... I have to work at it. Maybe that is why I teach this stuff a good bit. I happen to like to follow my spontaneous and intuitive hunches. Don't fence me in. I am a freedom junkie. What I discovered was that doing these kinds of things that I uncovered, unlocked that a lot more. It is a lot easier to be spontaneous if you trust your system and your ducks are all in a row. If you don't trust that you are managing your agreements with yourself, they will always be on your mind, and you will not have creative space.

DY: David Allen, freedom junkie?

DA: Absolutely.

You can read the entire interview (or listen to the audio file) at Motley Fool GreenLight, our new personal-finance service, where Dayana also offered readers two follow-uparticles inspired by her interview with David Allen. If you'd like to see what other personal-finance tips Dayana and Shannon Zimmerman are serving up for you, try out GreenLight free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.