Episode #1 – David Allen talks about the new edition of Getting Things Done

What’s different now?  Over the 15 years since David Allen first published Getting Things Done, the ability to achieve  “stress-free productivity” grows more important than ever.  David joins us in an all-new interview where we discuss the changing times, why people get trapped in unproductive thinking, and how to instantly gain more clear space.

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Podcast Transcript

ANDREW MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company, Episode 1, with our featured conversation with David Allen.

Welcome everyone to the first episode of Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand, and this podcast is all about helping you along your journey, learning the art of stress-free productivity.

Well my name’s Andrew J. Mason and my goal in this podcast is really to help you first understand that you’re not alone in learning this systematic approach to thinking. My hope is that this podcast will help introduce fellow GTD implementers to each other all around the world and it’ll really help us all think about what we’re thinking about.

So what can you expect from this podcast? Well each episode is designed to bring you up close and personal with somebody that’s in the trenches practicing GTD. You’re going to hear from some maybe well known people and maybe also some people that aren’t quite as well known but are practicing GTD really well and it’s also going to be a place where you can get some question answered for the Q&A segment, as well as find some exclusive previews of what David and the company are up to.

This podcast is also about that extra edge. A lot of people don’t make progress because they aren’t aware of all the different resources that are available to them. For instance: Did you know there’s an online community of like-minded members called GTD Connect? It’s a place where you can help each other on your journey, get exclusive interviews and early access to a host of conversations, including today’s interview with David Allen. If you’d like to check it out, head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast to sign up today and stayed tuned to the end of the podcast to hear about how new members can get a significant discount. It’s just a tool to help you on your path of GTD mastery.

Well speaking of mastery, as I mentioned today’s feature conversation is with David himself and by the time this episode releases, his second edition of the book Getting Things Done will have already been published. And without further ado, I am so excited that we’re talking with David Allen himself today. I figured what better way to launch a podcast than to be talking with the man behind the methodology himself, so thank you David for joining us today.

DAVID ALLEN: Hey Andrew, all good.

ANDREW MASON: People that have been studying GTD for some time may know that it kind of started out as the realm and domain of you know, executive coaching and those that were faced with thousands of decisions every day, but low and behold that’s now happening to everyone, so I know this could very likely be someone’s first exposure to GTD, so I guess, you know, the question, standing in their shoes and someone downloads a podcast called Getting Things Done and you know, I’m busy – that sounds like something I should be doing, you know – what is Getting Things Done and where’s a good first place to start?

DAVID ALLEN: Well it’s a set of best practices that I recognized, uncovered, cobbled together over the last 30 years. Basically about how do you get room in your head and what you do with room in your head? For most people, certainly for executives to begin with, they need the room to be able to think strategically to focus on meaningful stuff, to get rid of distractions that were hanging up their mind and their energy.

So you know, I guess from the early days when I was so attracted myself to clear space, you know – how do you get there and how do you do that, especially when your life gets more complicated and so many things involved in it?

So it was really about how to recognize what are the things that you know are pulling on our energy, how do we essentially get those things under control and get an appropriate focus about all of those? And most people live a much more complex life than they realize. All of their would, coulds, should, need-to’s, ought-to’s, whatever. So this was just a methodology about how do you actually both recognize what those things are get the pressure of those off of your mind without necessarily having to finish everything you’re committed to. But it’s not something – it was a set of best practices that actually are quite easy to do. They’re not like new skills that you need to learn, but people aren’t born doing it and they don’t happen automatically, so you do actually have to put some cognitive focus on it. So it’s really about how do I get things under control and how do I stay appropriately focused? And it’s just a set of practices that actually work, without fail, to make that happen.

ANDREW MASON: You know, I love that – uncovering principles versus you know, creating product. Just to be an advocate for the first-timer, you know they maybe have tried other methodologies or other uh products that are promising to launch their productivity to a new level and you touched on this, but what really does make GTD stand out?

DAVID ALLEN: Well I think it is that case, that what I did was recognize the – what happens when things work, when things are off our mind or what do we – you know, when we’re “on”, what are the behaviors that get us on? Because we’ve all had better days than others and you know, what makes for the better day versus those that aren’t so cool? And it’s really understanding the principles behind that. I mean, everybody listening to this, at some point, has at some point, felt overwhelmed or confused and sat down and made a list and felt at least a little more controlled and a little more focused. And you know, if people really ever reversed engineered – that is figured out: Well how did that happen? I suddenly have improved my situation to feel more in control and more focused and yet nothing in the external world has changed. What did change?

What changed was how I am engaged with my world change because essentially I got it out of my head. So you know, over all these years, it’s come down to something that now cognitive science has validated in spades in the last ten or fifteen years, which is that your head’s for having ideas but not for holding them. It wasn’t designed for that. It didn’t evolve to keep track of more than about four meaningful things at once.

ANDREW MASON: Well you keep mentioning space and how this kind of all happens in an instant and a lot of people say, you know, “Man, if I just had more time.” Do you think that’s the case?

DAVID ALLEN: No. If people had more time, they’d fill it up with as much as angst and frustration as they currently have. So it’s good news people only have 24 hours you know of that. You don’t need more of that.

But I say – as I say, how much time does it take to have a good idea or to be present, or to be loving, or to be innovative or to be creative? Zero. Those don’t take space. They do require – I mean those don’t take time. They do require space. In other words, I have to have room in my head. ‘Cause even if you had a free, you know, “a free hour”, if your head is still clogged up and distracted by all of that stuff of life, that you haven’t yet gotten on top of or managed appropriately, you’ll waste that hour and feel worse, and yet, if you do have your life under control and are on top of it, you know, a free five minutes or two minutes, you know, can allow you room to have a really cool creative idea, or to be able to appropriately focus or direct yourself, you know, in terms of the meeting this afternoon or you know, how you’re planning the week.

ANDREW MASON: I love that just over the last couple of weeks, the next edition of your book has been published and I’ve started working my way through that and when somebody hears that a second edition of a book been’s published, I can almost hear them saying, “Ah ha! Okay, he’s uncovered additional principles.” Are they right about that? Are the principles different or has something else changed?

DAVID ALLEN: No, the principles haven’t changed at all. As I say in 2190, when we land on Jupiter, they still need something that serves the function of an in-basket and they still need to decide what are the next actions on things that show up that are potentially meaningful. So, these principles are timeless. At least once you’ve become a knowledge worker and you’ve moved out of survival mode where you’re just present – you know, just being present to stay alive and to eat and not be eaten, which is how you’re brain evolved on the Savannah was to be able to just do that. And that’s when your brain is okay and does pretty well. What your brain doesn’t do is keep track of much more than that. And so, the principles themselves about how do I stay in control of things is – the simple principle called get it out of your head, build an external brain. Anybody who keeps a calendar is already doing that, is already implementing that principle, said, “Whoa, wow – my head cannot keep track of these 65 things I’ve got on my calendar for the next three weeks.” So what do you do with it? You get it out of your head. You park in some systematic place and you also have a behavior that trusts you’re going to look at that at the right time. Well, those are basic principles. It’s just that most people don’t really apply those principles to achieve that kind of control and focus, which is kind of interesting and somewhat paradoxical that we all do it, we all know it, everybody feels best about their job a week before they go on a big holiday, because all they’re doing is externally all the would, could, should, need-to’s, ought-to’s and they’re getting a handle on them and renegotiating all those commitments with themselves and with other people. I just suggest that people do that daily and weekly, not just yearly to get that level of clarity and focus.

ANDREW MASON: You know it’s so interesting to me about the calendar. People are so okay with – so socially acceptable to be able to keep that part of your brain out of your head and be able to look at it externally. What do you think is some of the angst people feel about doing that with the rest of their life? Where does that come from?

DAVID ALLEN: I don’t know. It’s fascinating to me that I’m still preaching this after 30 years …


DAVID ALLEN: … and that the world still has a huge habit of keeping stuff in their head. My working hypothesis is that it gives people a false sense of control to keep it in your head.


DAVID ALLEN: You know, most people don’t want to look at or acknowledge, you know, all of their own commitments with themselves and with other people, all of their own stuff, if you will. Maybe that’s part of what – you know what it’s about and/or people just are so used to thinking that my head is fine and it’ll remember anything that I need to remember at the right time and they just have bad habits about that.

ANDREW MASON: You know, this uh – some of it’s our society and culture or at least you know I can attest to the American society and culture but you mentioned the phrase “The better you get, the better you had better get” and you know as people become more and more responsible for a larger amount of decisions and ranging through larger amounts of information, you know I’m sure this gap for this style of thinking goes from you know nice to have to like must have and do you think there’s going to be a noticeable performance gap that just continues to widen between those that don’t intentionally think this way and those that really do?

DAVID ALLEN: I think so. It may not be as obvious or evident as most people would like to think out there, either in terms of people making more money or being more “successful” materially. I think it’s certainly true existentially in terms of people’s experience. In other words, how much better do you feel at the end of the day? I mean, how easily do you measure the fact that a whole lot of people who do this process, the GTD process, wind up going, “Oh my God! I got to watch my girls play soccer this afternoon …


DAVID ALLEN: … without being addicted to my Smart Phone!” I mean, how do you measure that? So if you said, anecdotally certain people, anybody who starts to implement this, starts to feel a huge release of their energy and a lot more room and space to do whatever they’re wanting to be doing, for you know somebody, a rock musician like Eben Tobenfelt to – what he uses space for is quite different than a 53 year-old executive and what they use space for, but they both need space and they want it.


DAVID ALLEN: And this delivers it. So it’s an interesting methodology that it – no matter where you are, and what situation you’re in, it improves your condition to apply these principles. I mean none of it hurts.

ANDREW MASON: Ha, ha, ha.

DAVID ALLEN: You know, it’s not like running with scissors. If you just keep a pad by your bed you’ll sleep better. You know so – yeah.

ANDREW MASON: You know I think something that people very often experience is once they have that clarity, they taste that space, they start to ask the question: This has worked so well for me, you know, my boss, my co-workers, my wife or husband, how do I get them to do this as well, because it’s so freeing for me, how do I get somebody else to practice this?

DAVID ALLEN: Boy I don’t know. I don’t that one either. You know, as you can imagine that’s part of our business challenge and model to keep our own business viable because it, in a way, is a very simple IP or concept, but how do we get people to sort of recognize that they need this. We solve a problem a lot of people don’t really recognize they have.


DAVID ALLEN: I think for a lot of reasons; first of all, not many people have ever had the experience of what it’s like to get that pressure off your mind.

ANDREW MASON: That’s right.

DAVID ALLEN: You know and the last thing a fish notices is water and the last thing a lot of people notice is the pressure they’re in, because they’re in it 24/7.


DAVID ALLEN: Wait’ll you experience what it’s like to have nothing on your mind. It’s a wonderful state to be in. But to convince people a) that it’s possible and b) you know, how much cooler life is when you do that, I think people catch it cognitively, but then when they start to say, “Oh you mean I actually have to write everything down?”

“Well, no, you just have to write anything down that you can’t finish in the moment you think of it that is potentially something that you need to do or handle or think about or make a decision about. Yes you do need to do that. You know, that is a required behavior.”

But I – so I think it could very well be that a lot of people just feel intimidated by their lack of it. I haven’t met very many people that stand up and say, “I am totally in control of my world.”


DAVID ALLEN: You know, most everybody feels rather embarrassed about you know, being behind the eight-ball and everybody loves to say, “Oh I’m so busy”.

ANDREW MASON: Ha, ha, ha. You know I’ve asked this one before in our last interview, but I absolutely love the answer and you know, you mentioned brainstorming the natural planning method and how important it is that you know, when we’re thinking about the future that we envision, you know, wild success with our outcomes, uh what is your big picture of wild success when it comes to the world’s adoption of GTD?

DAVID ALLEN: Well the wild success is that anybody on the planet who could and would want to use this methodology has access to it.

ANDREW MASON: That’s my hope as well. Are there any common denominators in people? I mean you have such a wide range and sampling of people that practice this methodology now. Do you see anything in common between those that are more willing to accept and practice this way of thinking than others?

DAVID ALLEN: You know Andrew the only single criterion that I have seen that is pretty universal about people that are attracted to this is people who assume that 18 months from now their life is going to be better and more enhanced and fulfilled than it currently is.

ANDREW MASON: Hmm – wow!

DAVID ALLEN: And it’s interesting because one CEO will get it and the CEO right next to him with exactly the same profile doesn’t get it.


DAVID ALLEN: One 12 year-old with the same profile as the next 12 year-old, one gets it – the other one doesn’t, but I guarantee you the common denominator is there’s some version of a life-long learner or some sense of “Gee, I want to get more or better or more enhanced results – there’s more to be had than what I’m currently having” and not necessarily in a negative way, but in an aspirational way.


DAVID ALLEN: And I think that’s – you know, funny over the years I’ve been – you know, interesting to find that the people who essentially need this methodology the least are the most attracted to it.


DAVID ALLEN: And you know I scratched my head for quite a while trying to figure that out. One day I had the big blinding flash of the obvious, you know the big “duh!”, it’s like – oh – what this really does is it relieves drag on the system and who’s most aware of drag on the system? The people who are pulling against their systems the most – the fastest people essentially. So it’s the most productive people, first of all, who are most aware of being held back by stuff uh because they’re pulling up against it. They’re also the people who tend to throw themselves most out of control …

ANDREW MASON: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

DAVID ALLEN: … out of their aspirational – you know, out of their crazy-making and their cool ideas and the next thing they want to be doing. And most people, you know most of those folks, I think have – are a little behind the curve in terms of their own personal systems being set up to support that. So that’s – maybe over time, you know, maybe that will change. We hope you know, our hope is seven generations from now, just the world will grow up thinking this way.


DAVID ALLEN: Because we’ve learned that kids can actually think this way. Kids don’t have to necessarily be that aspirational. I think they’re more naturally aspirational to begin with and if you just tell ‘em, “Hey, here’s an in-basket – here’s what outcome and next action thinking looks and sounds like” when you’re five years old or when you’re twelve years old and we’ve got parents teaching their kids to do that and some pilots work in some schools now, you know, attempting to address this. But this doesn’t happen by itself, so this is not an automatic process for kids to necessarily think this way, but they can be trained to do it and can be led down that path very easily.

ANDREW MASON: I love the idea that that is a possibility in our future. If you wouldn’t mind me breaking from the script just a little bit, just for my own selfish curiosity, throw a couple of rapid fire questions your way …

DAVID ALLEN: Oh have at it!

ANDREW MASON: … they might seem disjointed but …

DAVID ALLEN: No go for it, seriously.

ANDREW MASON: Do you have any favorite memories of when somebody actually finally you know, get is. The light bulb comes on. You know, it changes their life maybe is a strong word, but they at least experience some level of relief. Is there any you know, specific anecdote or specific time that really just sticks out in your mind from that?

DAVID ALLEN: You know, I have to say not. It’s almost universal. I mean when I’ve spent thousands of hours desk-side and you know, with some of the best and brightest people on the planet and invariably everyone has the same kind of experience which can look or sound somewhat transformational. I mean I do remember one executive who, you know, I was coaching him one on one and came in the second day to work with him and he walked in a little bit miffed and ticked off. And he said, “David!”

I said, “Oh God, what happened? What’s up?”

He said, “I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”

I went, “Oh my God! What happened?”

He said, “I was so stoked after just the first day of coaching!” He was so inspired, he had visions he’d never had before, he was so – bouncing off the wall, he was so crazy enthused you know with the release that had happened, with just one day of applying this methodology. And you know that was probably one of the more dramatic examples but that’s – some version of that is almost universal with people who’ve done this. I mean, some people have gone public, some fairly well known entertainers in the U.S. anyway, have attributed this to being you know, contributing to a major change you know, creatively in their life.


DAVID ALLEN: And you know, we get that regularly. You know so it’s a – in a way I hate to become blasé about it because it is absolutely – it is wonderful and it is transformational. I just like the – I don’t like to feel like a heavy weight proselytizer about this. I mean, we like to sort of let people know this is a simple methodology. You don’t have to buy into anything. It’s not a belief system. You know, test it out, prove it wrong. You know, get engaged and see just – see for yourself, you know.

ANDREW MASON: David in your book you talk about having a smart part of our brain as well as a not so smart part of our brain and utilizing structures to kind of keep you at a higher productivity level when you’re not feeling so smart. Can you talk about that and some of your structures?

DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, well as I say, you know, I discovered over the years that I’m only randomly inspired and intelligent.

ANDREW MASON: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

DAVID ALLEN: You know, and so, but if you’re – if you’re only randomly inspired and intelligent but you’re lazy like I am and hopefully have a little bit of cleverness to you, you know, when you’re inspired and intelligent you need to capture the results of that, and then you know, park those in appropriate places so that when you’re kind of thick and dumb, you know, you do smart things.


DAVID ALLEN: So you know, if you’re in an inspired moment, say, “Wow!” You know, “Here’s a website I need to surf”, or “Here’s a present I’d love to get for my niece” or “Wow, here’s a cool idea I might want to build into a seminar or speech that I’m giving.” Right? To be able to capture that when you have that idea, park that someplace so that idea’s not lost and you know, before long, you know, you’re going to pick that idea up and say, “Okay, where does that go? Where do I park that appropriately?” So then you’re feeling kind of thick and stupid and you’re trying to wake up in the morning and need to work on a speech, you look at your notes, you go, “Oh, hey! That’s a good idea! Yeah, I had that three days ago and now here it’s available to me in the right place.” So that’s a – that’s a kind of a silly, simple example, but that’s pretty universal. I think it’s the not so smart people that think they’re smart all the time.

ANDREW MASON: Ha, ha, ha. Well said, very well said.

Um, we’ve asked this question kind of in a different way and so you may have already addressed this, but just to attack it from a different angle, you know I’ve heard you mention that our own personal addiction to stress is one of the biggest obstacles for us to learning to think this way. Do you have any reasons as to why you might think that is?

DAVID ALLEN: Well you know, the way – addiction sounds a little – a little tough, but it actually in a sense it is – it’s your willingness to tolerate …


DAVID ALLEN: … not doing this.


DAVID ALLEN: And – and the willingness to put up with that amount of – of stress in your life. I mean everybody at some point, you know – look, when I was – what – this is 1967, so when I was 21 years old, I hitch-hiked across the Middle East, you know, in the back of trucks and truck stops in Turkey and Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Would I do that now? I don’t think so. You know – maybe if I had to, I knew I probably could do it, but – you know, how about uh a four star hotel at least? So standards can change. So there are certain things I’m not willing to tolerate, you know …


DAVID ALLEN: … that I used to be able to tolerate and that you know, let’s take it down to the practical level, like most people will tend to tolerate a certain number of unprocessed e-mails in their e-mail application, in their in-basket, and the reason you tolerate that – and you know, if the good fairy showed up and disappeared everybody’s e-mail so there was no backlog and it was at zero, in about two or three weeks they’d probably have pretty much the same number they currently have.


DAVID ALLEN: Because it’s not about the volume of that input they get, it’s about their tolerance for how much of that input unprocessed they’re willing to tolerate. Mine is zero. I mean it’s never zero, ‘cause there’s always stuff coming and I don’t take a shower 24 hours a day, but at least once a day, right? If I – and sometimes I’ll go two, but you know, that starts to feel a little grody, but the same reason I empty my in-basket is the same reason I – and the same reason I do a weekly review of all of my stuff and catch up on everything is for the same reason I brush my teeth and take showers. You know, if I don’t the scuzz factor gets too high.

ANDREW MASON: Ha, ha, ha.

DAVID ALLEN: You know, it’s just psychic scuzz but it’s still the same thing. So you’re willingness to tolerate how much psychic scuzz is really the biggest barrier to people implementing this.

ANDREW MASON: Hmm. Well the book and the movement are named the same, Getting Things Done and uh, we are so excited to have talked with you David for our first episode, so thank you for spreading the stuff and making this your life’s work. It does matter.

DAVID ALLEN: Thanks Andrew, I appreciate it. It was fun.

ANDREW MASON: Hey and thank all of you for listening to this episode of Getting Things Done. We are so excited about next week’s episode because our feature conversation is with Daniel Pink, the New York Times bestselling author of To Sell is Human and we’re going to be talking about information overload. It’s definitely a huge subject and something that is really pertinent to our world today.

Now we’ll be sharing a 20 minute portion of that conversation but it is a much larger and more in-depth conversation than we could just fit in that podcast and if you’re interested in checking out GTD Connect, head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and in order to receive a significant discount, use the code podcast at checkout.

We’re also collecting questions to be answered on a future episode so if you have any questions for David Allen himself or for myself or anybody in the David Allen Company, send an e-mail to [email protected].

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