Personal productivity guru David Allen took the time-management world by storm with the publication of his Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity in 2001. Writer Anne Field recently spoke to Allen about his system.

WealthManagement.com: Proponents say  Getting Things Done is much more than a time-management system. It’s a process that transforms how you live. Would you agree?

Allen: It’s really about feeling comfortable with your choices about how you allocate your attention and your focus. But it’s hard to allocate your attention and focus if your psyche is clogged up with a lot of things. When most people start to apply the system they do find it  transformative—the ability to get the right things done, to have a clear head, to get back your attention, instead of having it held hostage by all that stuff.

WealthManagement.com: Let’s talk about how you go about it. What are the stages in your system?

Allen:  Sure.  There are five stages of maintaining, achieving and maintaining control of your work and life.  First stage is you have to capture or collect all the stuff that's not on cruise control--stuff you don’t have systems for and that needs your attention. So, the first thing you have to do is collect whatever is on your mind that you need to make a decision about what to do about it. You have to make that very evident and put it in front of your psyche. For some mid to high-level professionals it can take one to six hours.

A lot of people take notes. But you have to make sure those notes then get thrown somewhere that will force you to move to the next stage. You have to tear off those goodies and throw them in an in basket, as opposed to stuffing them in a corner.

Stage two is about the process of clarification, of deciding if something requires an action and what action to take.  If it’s not actionable, then you throw it out, incubate it or reference it. If it is, then decide how to accomplish it. Do you make a call? Send an email? If you can finish an action in less than two minutes, then do it right away.  If it involves more than one step then you have a project, which means you have to keep track of it until it’s finished.

The next stage is where you organize reminders about your actions. So, for example, I need  a reminder to make a call.  I need a reminder to draft a new proposal. This is where you make action lists to keep track of your projects. You need to park these things someplace so your mind doesn’t have to keep thinking about what you need to do next.  

But then you need to go to stage four, which is a review all of that content. You do this according to different horizons.  First, on an hour to hour basis. For example, if you’re at a phone, then step back and review your options. Maybe one particular call is the best one to make right now. So you review and make a choice. The weekly review is the next horizon, two to three hours a week to step back and see, are all my projects complete, what’s changed, what do I need to track. Once a quarter, you need to do a review of your strategy.

The last stage is just doing things. Since you've accomplished stage one, two, three and four, then you’ll be making good, trusted choices about what to do.

WealthManagement.com: How do you organize your action lists?

Allen: Usually the most efficient way to group your task reminders is by what tool or location is required.  So if you can only do certain stuff at home, then having an at-home task list makes sense, because you don’t have to look at it anywhere else.  If you are going to make phone calls and you could do them from any phone, then have a list of calls to make, so that when you’re at a phone somewhere, you can see all those calls in one place.

WealthManagement.com: What are the biggest stumbling blocks?

Allen:  Overall, most people say, oh my God, that’s all too much trouble. Let me just keep it all in my head. That’s a lot easier. So they just give up.

But just implementing the process, you can fall off anywhere . A lot of people just don’t write stuff down to begin with.  Or, people may do stage one and write stuff down and then don't do anything else with it.  Now you have compulsive list makers. So they just wind up making lists all over the place, don't do anything with them.  Then, if you don’t have a good organization system to keep track of that stuff, you still wind up making decisions out of your head as opposed to out of your system.  And even the people who get good at stages one, two and three,  where they fall down is they don't do the weekly review. And so their system gets out of date and they start to lose the ability to keep it going.

WealthManagement.com: Are there any specific pointers for financial advisors?

Allen: I would say whether I'm talking to a financial advisor, a 12 –year- old or a CEO of a Fortune 50 company, the issues are the  same really. Each person might have different specifics. With financial advisors, many of their next steps involve  phone call meetings with clients, so a lot of the stuff on their list will be, next time I talk to Will Smith, here are the six things I need to talk about. But it's still the same process.