Get Things Done With David Allen!
Listen to #43 episode of Stay On Top Of Your Work to discover the secret behind David Allen’s GTD methodology!
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. That’s why David Allen created Getting Things Done®. GTD is the work-life management system that has helped countless individuals and organizations bring order to chaos. GTD® enables greater performance, capacity, and innovation. It alleviates the feeling of overwhelm—instilling focus, clarity, and confidence.
Today, David Allen is considered the leading authority in the fields of organizational and personal productivity. The David Allen Company oversees the certification academy and quality standards for Global Partners offering Getting Things Done courses and coaching around the world.
Keynotes of this episode:
- Why the philosophy of Getting Things Done is so important
- Keeping stuff in your head gives you a false sense of control
- Your head is a really crappy office
- The “Why?” and the Purpose
- David Allen challenges time tracking
- I am challenging David on GTD for teens and he challenes me back
- Everybody is totally productive. You’re producing exactly what you’re experiencing
Connect with David
Kate: David, welcome to Stay On Top Of Your Work Podcast. I’m very happy and very honored to have you here today with me.
David: Thanks, my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.
[00:01:22 – 00:02:09]
Kate: Sure! I know everybody knows you but still, I’d like to ask you if you could say a few words about yourself?
David: Well, I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to figure out how to stay calm and cool amidst the complexity of our lives. And so, I basically uncovered, discovered, formulated a set of best practices about how to get the right things done, the coolest things done with as little effort as possible and keep a clear head so you have plenty of space to do the really things you really want to do.
So that’s my game. That’s what I’ve figured out, that’s what I’ve sort of been distributing around the world right now so that’s what I do.
[00:02:10 – 00:04:18]
Kate: Fantastic. You are the author of the famous book Getting Things Done. The first edition was published in 2001 and it’s been almost 20 years. How do you see things have changed since that time? And how the system of Getting Things Done is working right now?
David: Well, the methodology hasn’t changed nor will it change for the next 300 years. When we fly to Jupiter in 2090 somebody still needs some sort of in-basket to capture things that they might need to do something about. Somebody still needs to pick that up and decide well what exactly is that, what’s the outcome, what’s the next action? Somebody then needs to track that next action of that game to finish at that moment in some trusted place.
So I just uncovered what we all have to do, if you can’t finish something in the moment but you still have some commitment about it. So that’s universal and that’s been true.
What changed is how fast things are changing, therefore, how much more necessity there is for people to get a whole of this methodology so that they don’t let their world overwhelm them and that they can take in new information, decide what it means, park it in a trusted system, recalibrate all of those commitments, and then refocus themselves fast.
C’mon, your parents, they didn’t need to change the world nearly as often as you do. And you and I, c’mon, I am 73 but I still feel like I’m about 26, right. We’re having a change as we speak, right? It’s coming in. So what I have to do to manage that change is no different than what your parents or your grandparents had to do when major change happened for them. It’s just that it’s happening with us daily or weekly as for them it might have happened two or three times in their adult life.
So that’s what’s different. What’s different is how fast it’s coming and how many more people need to get a hold of these best practices.
[00:04:19 – 00:06:13]
Kate: Right, so why do you think people have such a problem with organizing their life, their time and with being productive? And why that philosophy of Getting Things Down is so important?
David: Well, my theory is, I couldn’t prove this to you, but my theory after a lot of years and thousands of hours of working with thousands of people is that keeping stuff in your head gives you a false sense of control.
If I can keep it up here, I don’t have to deal with it and I can then handle… change the baby’s diaper or cooking dinner or writing the business proposal. If I can somehow file it in here, and most people don’t really realize that your head is a really crappy office.
So I think most people just haven’t learned to change how they’re trying to manage their commitments. It could have fooled me. I’ve learned this many, many years ago but what’s been surprising is how long it takes for adults, actually anybody to change that habit. That when you say, “Hey, I’ll get back to you on this,” you know I’m gonna pull out right then, I’m gonna pull out this little note taker and write that down because my head can’t handle more than 4 things at once. Otherwise I’m gonna be driven by whatever it is and latest in my head as opposed to strategy or intuition or freedom of thought.
So my whole thing is about clear space. Not about working harder, not about, you know… productivity has such a baggage around it in terms of people’s image of it. People think, “Oh, I’m gonna be more productive, I have to work harder, I have to sweat more, I have to spend longer hours…” Meh, it’s not true.
[00:06:14 – 00:07:42]
Kate: And I’m thinking, because you said, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them,” and in your book you very often write that you have to write things down. But what I’m thinking about is that if you write everything down don’t you become overwhelmed with all that information and what you have to do?
David: Well, I’m not writing anything down right now. If you ask me to do something that I can’t do right now, I’ll write that down. But c’mon, we all have 50.000 thoughts a day, I’m not writing, you know… I might write 12 or 15 during the day. Because as I think of it, many times what goes in our mind is grazing, as I say, like animal grazes, “Okay, that’s cool, that’s interesting, that’s fine” or whatever or I’m just using my mind to mature my thinking about something. And I don’t need to write that down unless some part of me has a thought that I wanna make sure that I can recall later on.
So remembering and reminding stuff, that’s what I need to capture. But everything else in the most of your day, you’re not thinking of those kinds of things.
Well, the problem is that most people who don’t get what this methodology is keep having the same thought, “I need cat food. I need cat food. I need cat food. I need to call my aunt. I need to do this, I need to do that.” They keep having all the same thoughts over and over as opposed to capturing those and getting those out of their head and getting that into a systematic process so that their head doesn’t have to keep doing that.
[00:07:43 – 00:08:42]
Kate: So what you actually have to write down is, I think, is everything related to work that you have to do at some time or isn’t it?
David: Yeah. Or not just work, it’s anything… “I need cat food.” If you can’t buy cat food that very second, you better put that somewhere. Otherwise, I need cat food is gonna wake you up at 3 o’clock in the morning. As soon as I need cat food pops up in your head more than once, you’re inappropriately engaged with your cat, right. You’re breaking agreements with yourself.
That’s the problem. It’s that most people keep thinking about things they would, could, should, ought to do something about but they’re not clearing that. They’re not getting that into some sort of external brain and external system that provide the triggers, reminders they need when they need to see them. Then your mind gets to go, “Oh, okay, I don’t have to keep thinking about that.” Because it’s on a post-it on a fridge.
So whoever is going to store will buy cat food. That’s all you need to do. I mean, in a way it’s that simple but most people don’t really get that yet.
[00:08:43 – 00:10:33]
Kate: And you’re also writing about purpose in your book. The big question why? Why to do things? Why is it so problematic and why don’t people ask themselves this question?
David: Oh, it’s a challenging question to deal with. Why do you have that pillow behind you right now? Why are you using that microphone? Why are you even doing this podcast? C’mon, I can ask you why about everything. Why do you have living room? Most people don’t even live in their living room. Why do you have a desk? Why do have a partner in life? Why do you…
You know, c’mon, it’s a challenging question to deal with. You have to keep coming back to it. Wait a minute, what’s my intention, what is it that I’m trying to produce, I’m trying to create?
The “Why?” question is simply another level of clarifying your agreements with yourself. Why are you on the planet? What are you here to do? By the way, why are you even having this podcast?
The “Why?” question is simply another level of clarifying your agreements with yourself.
And the answers to those questions, it’s gonna be quite valuable to you, if those are not clear already because they will help you set your priorities. They will help you make sure that you’re doing what you feel comfortable doing you ought to be doing.
So the “Why?” question is simply, you know, there’s the why, there’s the what, there’s the how, and there’s the when and the now questions. And these are all important questions, you know, why are you doing this? What would it look like if you were successful and fabulous and so how you’re gonna make that happen, so what are the things you need to commit to, what are the projects you’ve got, what are the actions, steps you need to take?
So, you know, I just identified all those 6 different levels of our commitments with ourselves and you can deal with it… Some people shouldn’t even think about their life purpose. They need to clean their kitchen. You know, if your kitchen is out of control don’t bother thinking about your life purpose. C’mon, if you can’t handle your day to day and it’s out of control, thinking about the bigger picture stuff is gonna throw you more out of control.
[00:10:34 – 00:11:11]
Kate: So you just have to start from the small steps.
David: You start from where you are. If your intention right now is on your life purpose, let’s deal with that. What is it? What do you need to do? What your desired outcome? What’s the next step you need to take to make more clarity or resolution on that?
So GTD is not so much about the mundane stuff, it’s about working with where you are as opposed to where you should be. So it’s about getting control of your context wherever you are so that it gives you more brain space, more freedom, and more clarity about thinking of whatever horizon you wanna be thinking of.
So GTD is not so much about the mundane stuff, it’s about working with where you are as opposed to where you should be.
[00:11:12 – 00:13:21]
Kate: I’m also thinking that we live in those times where people want to be superheroes of productivity. And we have so much information, so many books, actually based on your methodology how to get things done. So how can we actually choose the right information and implement it in our life?
David: Well, you just have to decide what’s potentially meaningful information. See, information overload is not the issue. If that was true, you’d walk into a library and die. As a matter of fact, the most information rich place in the universe is the most relaxing – nature.
So if you were to walk on the beach in Poland and look at the Baltic Sea, you’re gonna have a whole lot of information there. It’s just that you’re not looking at that and thinking, “Oh, I need to do something about any of that.”
The problem is that every email you get has this potential snake or bear or thunderstorm or, you know, whatever’s inside of it. You just don’t know what that is. But you think there might be. So you think, “Oh my God! There might be something meaningful inside of that!” So it’s not information overload, it’s potential meaning overload.
And if I nail that right then what you have to do is you need to capture things that are meaningful and then decide what they mean to you, fast and completely. If you want to then make sure you’re comfortable about what you’re not doing. So I just uncovered the methodology about what do you need to do to get stuff off our mind that’s potentially meaningful to you?
But there’s a lot of stuff you know… most people listening or watching this right probably have a lot of stuff in their email in-basket that is trash, some stuff that they should just pot as reference, some things they could just finish in two minutes they thought about what they needed to do about it.
And so, a whole lot of people are just piling stuff up that’s potentially meaningful but they’re not engaging in what they need to do about that because of that engagement.
[00:13:22 – 00:14:02]
Kate: What do you think about time tracking? Now, time tracking has become such an important part of productivity, people track their hours, how they spend their work.
David: It’s quality versus quantity. Five minutes where you’re totally present and loving with your kids is a whole lot more valuable than five hours of doing whatever that you might wanna think you ought to be doing. So, time tracking, meeh… Might be useful to some degree to see how much time I’m spending answering emails, how much time I’m spending doing XYZ.
But quite frankly nobody’s gonna keep up with that very long if they have a productive life. They don’t need to.
[00:14:03 – 00:15:17]
Kate: Okay. And what about Getting Things Done for Teens. I think that teens actually don’t have to use that kind of methodology because they are young people and they need to learn how things work on their own and maybe when they are older, they can reach out for your book and read it.
Do you think teens need to learn how to be organized or maybe they just have to go with the flow?
David: I don’t know. I’m just into giving people information. They can do what they want. I just met a woman who’s got an 11 year old son who had 500 whatsapps on his phone. So you tell me that kids don’t need to try figure out how to navigate this world of huge amounts of digital information that is coming at them.
So up to them, I don’t know. Depends on how mature they are. Depends on how important having a clear head is to them. Yay, go with the flow, find what you need. I don’t care. If going with the flow is not working for them, then they better figure out some best practices.
[00:15:18 – 00:18:09]
Kate: So in general, it’s all about intentionality and wanting to be aware of yourself to make some steps, to make that next action?
David: Yes and no. See, productivity is a strange thing. Everybody is totally productive. You’re producing exactly what you’re experiencing in what you have. So it’s not about being productive. You already are.
But when people say, “I wanna be more productive”, that simply means, I either need better results I’m focusing toward than I’m focusing toward or I need to be able to be more efficient about getting the ones that I’m focused on. So when people say, “I wanna be more productive,” that’s either one of those two things, sometimes both. I need to make sure I’m more efficiently moving on the things I wanna produce or, gee, I’m not sure I’m producing the right things, I wanna produce the best things.
So those outcoming and actions, essentially, those are the two elements of productivity improvements are how do I make sure I prove the things I’m trying to accomplish and how do I make sure, once I’ve decided what those are, that I get to them with as little resources required as possible.
So those are the two elements of productivity, of productivity increase. Again, everybody’s already productive. So, “I wanna be productive.” You already are! You produce the question. You produce the issue. You’re producing everything right now. So what you’re talking about is shifting your focus or being more efficient about what you accomplish toward your focus.
So I don’t care, if a teenager doesn’t care to do anything different than they are, up to them. But if they say, “hey, wait a minute, I really want to get into college or university or I really want to drive a race car,” or “I really wanna learn how to program software.” And they’re feeling blocked on at, that’s when they need to decide, “Okay, what’s the next action, what do I need to do after? What am I trying to accomplish?”
And people above will ask, “How old can a kid be to start to get this GTD or this Getting Things Done methodology?” I’ll say, “How old does a kid need to be to understand – how would you like the party to be, what would your ideal outcome be of success for you for your holiday party be? What do we need to do to make that happen?
As soon as they’re old enough to understand that conversation and to have any kind of an answer for that they’re old enough to do that? So 4, 5, 6 years old?
Kate: I think it’s the same for adults.
David: Believe me. You wouldn’t believe how many thousands of hours I spent with some of the most sophisticated people asking those simple questions and them going, “Oh, yeah, thanks! I needed to do that.”
[00:18:10 – 00:18:57]
Kate: Right, so when you’re working with your clients, what types of clients do you have? Are these people who have a problem getting things done or maybe they’re already organized but something is not right?
David: No, no, the people most attracted to my work are the people who need it the least. They’re already the most productive, aspirational people you’d ever meet in the universe. And it’s kind of a strange paradox. But they already aware their systems work. Their system is working for them. Giving where they wanna go now and they need to get more space to be able to do the next thing they’re trying to move toward because they already are in that mode.
So those are people that I get to work with which is kinda cool. I get to work with the most productive, aspirational, positively focused people that you’ll ever meet on the planet.
[00:18:58 – 00:20:00]
Kate: That’s interesting. So how does your work with clients look like? What is the process of teaching them how to get things done? Is it the same as in the book?
David: Exactly. I say like, “Hey, what’s on your mind? Let’s capture it all.” And that can take anywhere from two hours to two days to get everything out of their head that’s still banging around in their head. And then I say, “Well, great. Let’s take each one of them one at the time.” “What is that? What is that mean to you? What’s the next action? Is it something you need to act on? If so, what’s the next action? Will one action, finish this? If not, what’s the project you’re committed to complete about this?”
So that can take 2, 3, 4 days. Just to do that. And it’s the same thing. And then we… I would work with them to customize what kind of a system do they need to have to keep reminders of the calls they need to make, what websites they need to serve, things they need to talk to assistant about or their life partner about or whatever, which is the content that’s generated by going to this thought process.
[00:20:01 – 00:21:17]
Kate: So how is it that people who are super productive actually have a problem with getting things done?
David: Space. They need more room. One of my recent clients, I spent a whole year coaching him and this guy is, you know, he’s probably one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. His new venture is only… after two years old have a two billion dollar market cap. He has his own jet, he is on five boards, he teaches entrepreneurialism at one of the top universities in the US. He’s 47. And he’s presenting issue to me, he said to me, “David I’m just feeling I’m hitting my stride but I’m up to here, I got no more room.”
He wakes up with million dollar ideas, he just got nowhere to put them, no people to give them to who know how to do anything with it. So we had to deal with, “Okay, how do we both create capture process in terms of what he was doing and be able to build a system around him so that he could utilize that space in a much more productive way for himself.
So that’s a pretty dramatic example. That’s what I mean by it’s the people who are already productive, who are most aware of the limitations of their productivity.
[00:21:18 – 00:22:23]
Kate: That’s interesting. And how does getting things done work for you? Do you use it in your life?
David: Sure. I’m looking right now at about seven pieces of paper sitting at my in-tray but I hate to have to deal with. It’s gonna require me to think because I’ve got notes I took from a phone call last night, and I took a bunch of notes of things I need to do about that and a bunch of those I know I’m gonna need me to think about stuff.
But because I’ve got the habit, I essentially have an addiction to having empty in-tray, that’s gonna make me go through that process with all those pieces of paper and clean them up, and make those decisions, and get them into game.
So I’m a fellow student. I have to eat my own dog food. I do this regularly, I have to.
Kate: So it’s not that easy, I mean, there’s that struggle to actually do that but when you make it a habit, it’s much easier.
[00:22:24 – 00:25:49]
Kate: Alright! I’d like to ask you about the Global Getting Things Done Summit in Amsterdam in June. Can you talk a little bit about it?
David: Sure! You know, I did one ten years ago in San Francisco. I just said, “look the most wonderful, strange group of people that started to be attracted to this, I said, wouldn’t it be cool we just bring all those folks together, invite people, sort of interested, have some connection to this GTD and Getting Things Done methodology. And so we had about 30 speakers and we had about 300 people show up in San Francisco. And it was so great, so cool. I mean, pretty sophisticated folks that showed up.
And then I decided that I would not do that again. I didn’t want to make it some regular, annual event. Because it was so unique and it really put us on the map essentially for a lot of sort of press, and PR, and brand and the image of GTD.
So I said I wasn’t going to do another one but now, ten years later, I’m in Amsterdam, we have partners now all around the world that are distributing this methodology through their own companies and we certified their master trainers and they’re doing our GTD seminars all over the world.
And so we now have a global community that’s really global. And so I just intuitively said, “you know, I guess it’s time to… let’s just do another one.”
So I invited a whole lot of people who are main champions of my stuff and major people in my life and the development of this process. I said, “Hey, you guys are willing to come on your own expense and just participate in this conference?” And we got oversubscribed. So we now have over 40 wonderful presenters. Huge range of people. Everything from Marshall Goldsmith, he’s the top leadership coach in the world, to a retired US Air Force Major General, who’s used this in his stuff to… oh my gosh there’s Cady Coleman. Cady is one of the first women astronauts that we actually coached while she was on the space station.
So it’s a fascinating group of people that are coming together. So yes, we decided let’s just kind of, if you remember the old movie, “Build it and they will come.” So we decided that we will build the conference, we set it up and we just started to publicize it just a couple of weeks ago and we’re already 50% sort of subscribed so, very cool.
In Amsterdam which is my adopted city, it’s where I live now and that’s a great sort of, interesting that it’s Amsterdam because this was sort of city of the enlightenment anyway. And a great place to sort of put an anchor for the Getting Things Done methodology around the world and we’re officially in 60 countries now.
Not all of those are big or a lot going on but, you know, a lot of this was to be able to help support the brand to let the world know, 200 years from now we’re still gonna need this methodology and you’re not born doing it.
And now we have a whole global network of partner distributing this methodology in a very classy way. So that’s kind of a short version of a very long story about sort of pulling out this together and deciding to do this in Amsterdam, June 20-21.
[00:25:50 – 00:26:21]
Kate: Sounds fantastic! How is it to work with such amazing people?
David: Ah, it’s so cool! I wouldn’t have the life I have if it wasn’t for people, again, I get to deal with. Some of the best, and brightest, and busiest people on the planet. And that I’m able to contribute to help improving their situations and their life.
Now a whole lot of those folks are implementing and helping a lot of other people. So nothing feel better than me than to help people that are helping people. So that’s great. I’ve been blessed to build a career out of that.
[00:26:22 – 00:27:12]
Kate: I want to ask you what books do you read? What inspires you?
David: You know, I don’t read a lot. I’m just reading a book right now called, You’re Not As Smart As You Think, it’s a fun book about how many unconscious things affect our decisions and our activities.
I just finished a book called The Antidote. It’s kind of like a cure for the people who are tired of the self-help motivational game. It’s fun book. It’s actually quite a good book. So The Antidote and You’re Not As Smart As You Think. Those are the two current books that I’ve just read that were inspiring to me, both of them. Great stuff.
Kate: Alright. So my last question which I shouldn’t ask you, but maybe you have some final tips. How do you stay on top of your work?
David: You define what your work is. That’s a late great Peter Drucker, great management guru in the US. Basically challenge knowledge workers. People who have to actually think to decide what to do is your biggest job is deciding what that work is.
The email doesn’t tell you what you need to do with it, you have to. The problem you’ve got in your life doesn’t tell you what you have to do. You have to define that problem as a project and your own next action about it. So these things don’t show up by yourself. It’s a cognitive muscle and you have to train to capture things that have your attention, clarify what they mean to you. Organize the results of the actions and outcomes you come up with in a trusted place.
And that’s what keeps your head clear. So again, that’s the methodology I recognized essentially and put into a definable and usable methodology you can actually implement. But it doesn’t happen by itself. You have to do it.
Kate: Okay, David. If people want to find you, where can they look for you?
David: Well, gettingthingsdone.com is our website, you can see a lot and to the summit, just go to the GTDsummit.com, you will see an interesting view of what that’s gonna be.
Kate: And let’s hope the tickets are still available.
David: Yeah! It’s gonna be an incredible event so come on in.
Kate: David, thank you so much for being here, it was an honor and a pleasure to talk to you.
David: My pleasure. Thanks for the invitation and good luck to all of you.
Thanks for listening!