Episode #4 – GTD and Brute Force

What do you do when brute force is no longer an option? That’s a question that Byron Palmer, an innovator and grazing specialist for the Sonoma Mountain Institute, found himself wrestling with as he progressed in his career and life. Join Mike Williams as he and Byron walk through his journey of discovering GTD, the value it brings to him and how he continues to integrate subtle elements to create greater levels of coherence.

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ANDREW J. MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company, Episode 4, with our featured conversation between Byron Palmer and guest interviewer Mike Williams.

Welcome again, to another episode of Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand. I’m Andrew J. Mason and if this is your first episode with us, we want to welcome you. We are so glad you’re along for the ride. I mean this podcast really is all about helping you on your journey, learning the art of stress free productivity. So if this is your first episode, I do encourage you to go ahead and go back to Episodes 1 through 3, catch up, listen in. There is just so much good inspiration in there, including interviews with David Allen himself, New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink, as well as some practical steps like a guided mindsweep. So you’ll want to check that out if you haven’t already.

Well in the first episode, we mentioned, you’d be learning from an entire spectrum of people, life styles and careers and today we are so honored for two reasons. First, we’re going to be interviewing Byron Palmer who did some tremendous work with sustainable agriculture and we’ll be learning how his GTD system helps him stay on top of it all, and secondly, our guest interviewer today is Mike Williams.

This really is a community and if you’re interested in diving deeper in that community, maybe getting early access to interviews like these, or helping guide each other along the way, there is so much more, head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast, to find out how you can be a part of GTD Connect and stay tuned to the end of this interview for a coupon code that’s going to give you a great discount.

Well hey, the GTD path of mastery never really ends and Mike models that so well. I mean, you can tell that he is a lifelong learner and his passion and curiosity definitely shine through in this interview. So here is Mike Williams, interviewing Byron Palmer on his GTD experience.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Long before I joined the David Allen Company, I was a GTD fan, joined the path of mastery. Along that journey I had a chance to talk with a lot of people and one of the things that we all had in common was a passion for what GTD released in us and a common language that it produced.

So today, I’m joined by Byron Palmer and Byron as a fellow GTD enthusiast, came to us through a letter of gratitude for what GTD brought into his world and we’re looking to reach out to GTD implementers and learn from them and so Bryon, you’re here today to talk to us about that. I’m very grateful that you’re here and as a starting question, just an opening question, tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are and what do you do?

BYRON PALMER: Yeah, well thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to tell you a little bit about my story. Currently you’ll find me in Pengrove, which is a little town about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, sort of nestled in between the town of Sonoma and Napa. So wine country, agricultural country. I work for a non-profit that does agricultural restoration.

MIKE WILLIAMS: So tell me a little bit about the arc of your career and where along that journey did you stumble upon GTD. I’m wondering, just curious, how you found this methodology.

BYRON PALMER: So early on in the workplace after college, I took pride really I think in being able to solve problems for people. I think it is, and still is a way to gain acceptance not only of myself, but also from others. I found that if I could help people solve problems, I ended up getting to work in amazing places and do really fun things. And in my mid-twenties I was sort of you know, working this dream job and working with amazing folks as an independent contractor and really just trying to solve problems for people in different ways and I was doing alright, but what I found out was I started solving problems for folks, they gave me more problems to solve. Are you familiar – has this ever happened to you?

MIKE WILLIAMS: Ha, ha, ha – absolutely! The better you get, the better you better get – so … ha, ha, ha. Yeah!

BYRON PALMER: And so, you know, it’s like one or two things either happens I think a lot, is either you say no, or you start dropping balls and making messes and I definitely wasn’t going to say no. So, I just started becoming less good at more things, you know, dropping more balls, hoping people weren’t noticing, but I was noticing and it was driving me crazy and uh, another guy that I was working with told me about GTD, and I loved the title. So I opened up the book and read it cover-to-cover a number of times and implemented it and it definitely transformed my life. I was really busy, really slammed. I did quality of life, before I found GTD was lower. I was doing – you know, I had great friends, great – great job, working in a great environment, but I just had so much going on that I wasn’t able to be present to enjoy it at all.


BYRON PALMER: And I think what GTD really gave me was that ability to, you know, get it all out of my head and be present and improve the quality of my life dramatically.

MIKE WILLIAMS: You know you mentioned like in your twenties, you’re just a) full of energy and then maybe life wasn’t as complicated so you had the gift of brute force. Can you talk a little bit about the brute force transition and you know, the intersection with GTD and some of the pain points that helped solve or the awakening that happened during that period?

BYRON PALMER: When you ask me that question, I have this memory, specifically. I’m sitting in the office of the documentary film company that I worked for and it’s 6:00 o’clock at night. I have a cup of coffee on my desk. Everyone’s closing up in the building that I’m working – you know, the lights are turning off. Everyone sort of works normal 9 to 5 five hours. Our director of photography walks by and he looks at me and I’m kind of just ready to keep going and you know, I feel like I’m just getting starting and its 6:00 p.m. and I started at 8:30 or whatever. And he looks at me, he’s like, “How do you do that?” And at this point I’m 25 or something, right?

And I’m like, “I don’t know, I just – you know, I just do.” You know, I think I turn out the lights at 9:00 o’clock and I was, you know, I was pretty spent, but I could just do that, right? I had that capacity, I had that energy. I was 25 years old. What was the expense? The expense was not having energy and time to see my friends as much. A lot less calls to home.


BYRON PALMER: You know, my parents saying, “Where are you? What are you doing?” Not being able to make enough time for friends and home. When I look at you know, the things that I value and the way I want to spend my life, like that wasn’t necessarily happening. It was just all focused. As I got older, you know, things got more complicated. I, you know, got a partner, I got married, you know, you get a house, you get – there’s all sorts of things that happened and luckily for me, when I first got a partner is when I actually found GTD. I think I was 28 at the time. It allowed me to layer on complexities that life demanded of me. You know, all the bills, all the commitments, birthday parties, presidents, contribution, like – walk with friends, talk about relationships, like all of the commitments – all of the things that sort of layer onto life. It allowed me to add those things without adding the same amount of stress.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Nice. Those are interesting benefits that come out of the GTD system. So I’d like to venture back in and maybe go down to another layer of detail which I always find fascinating. You know, how people came to GTD and one of the things I picked up on was – you read the book and then you re-read the book and then you re-read the book.

I’m curious if you had a similar experience as you read and re-read the David Allen Getting Things Done book or whatever books you read.

BYRON PALMER: That was a deep and layered question huh?

MIKE WILLIAMS: Ha, ha, ha. I’m good at those. Ha, ha, ha.

BYRON PALMER: Yeah, ha, ha, ha, ha. You know there’s this truism or you’re just a different person every time you interact with content. You interact with it, whatever it is, you embody it to a certain degree, you change as a person and then you see the content again and you’re a whole other person, so you’re going to experience it differently and grow, right?

And I think that’s been the case with GTD. I could not imagine when I interacted with GTD the first time how complicated my life was going to be. When I came across it I was like, “Oh this is great!” But I didn’t actually understand how important it was going to be for me at the time.

When I first interacted with it, I think the two most significant elements that I implemented were the collection habit and the weekly review.

MIKE WILLIAMS: So tell me more. Give me some juice here about how do you collect? What were your collection tools and your instillation, your implementation and how that morphed over time?

BYRON PALMER: I had a physical in-box that was sort of in a briefcase like thing that would move around with me and a notepad, early on, because this was when I still a flip phone. I didn’t have a PDA or anything like that. And I would set up a mobile office. I didn’t have a steady office in any place, so I’d set up a mobile office and I had a briefcase and like a little to-go file folder, it wasn’t that big and I think the two – like I said the two biggest things were I would collect everything and I would process it in a weekly review. And one of the things that I found early on were like, “Oh, well I don’t want to forget to do this. I’m just going to put it in my weekly review.” Like my weekly review started getting seriously onerous.

You know, I’m like, review every project, support material, because I want to be comprehensive. I think early on when I was implementing GTD, being comprehensive was more important than, I want to say, continuity and longevity. I actually developed a weekly review that was so cumbersome that I started – I started getting serious psychic resistance to the weekly review. I started simplifying my weekly review and I started realizing that my ability to create systems and things for myself to do was far in excess of my ability to execute those things. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Yeah, oh yeah – oh yes. And that’s one of the brilliant aspects of GTD. You start to see how often you’ve gone to the buffet and how much you’re taking off of it and trying to eat …


MIKE WILLIAMS: … and becoming really conscious to that. So tell me a little bit more. I love where you’re going with the weekly review. How did you renegotiate with yourself to find a way to create the conditions to make it more attractive for you?

BYRON PALMER: At a certain point in my life, I think I had this like personal pep talk, where I said, “Look you can either be comprehensive or you can be simple and effective”, and I decided that simplicity was more important than being comprehensive. It doesn’t mean that I don’t include, you know, everything that I need to include. It just means that I – if it doesn’t absolutely have to happen, if it’s not going to make my business fail, I started shrinking it down and now, and just to talk a little bit about the evolution of my system now, so now everything’s digital for me.

I have a lot more stability in my life, so I do have a physical in-box. I do have a dedicated office. Don’t tell David, but I share a desk with my wife and …

MIKE WILLIAMS: It’ll be our secret.

BYRON PALMER: Yeah, just you and me – just you and me and the listeners.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Ha, ha, ha. That’s right.

BYRON PALMER: And I wish I didn’t but I don’t have the ability or I’m not making the time or I decided to not, you know, put another desk in my front room or whatever it is, all the excuses they come. Everything’s digital now in my place. My life’s more stable and uh but the inputs and the open loops are coming at me a lot faster and so what I use now is to collect and process and organize, is a tool called a sana, which is a Cloud based project management system that’s sort of GTD inspired. I collect almost everything digitally either through a sana directly because I can have it on an app on my phone and then I do all my processing on my computer because it’s an easier interface, if I can’t collect it on a sana because app won’t be responsive because it does need data connection, so if I’m out on a ranch and I’m like, “Oh man, I need to remember to replace this water valve.” Or, “I need to remember to bring the minerals for the cattle”, I use another application called Google keep, uh, but I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that, but it’s great and you can add reminders, you can take pictures, you can add audio recordings, whatever, so basically I have three in-boxes now and one is a paper based system and there’s two digital ones that sort of work in tandem today.

David talks so much about having things you like and things the way you like so you don’t have psychic resistance and I can’t just say how important that is enough. If you don’t have notepads you like, and pens you like and file cabinets you like, I feel that in my body, the sort of apprehension to like – take notes, unless I’ve got the 7 mm rollerball you know Bics I like, whatever it is. The gears – a key component and the more I’ve done this, the more I realize – it’s like – just get it – just get it and have enough, have more than you need. It’s like I don’t want to be hunting for the pens I like. I want like Costco pack of tens.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Ha, ha, ha.


MIKE WILLIAMS: Love that. It’s so interesting. One of things we encourage folks to do is embrace what you’re saying which is create the conditions for you to just find joy in the tools that you’re using, because you’re going to use them so often, really pay attention to that because it can have a huge lift for you. You have choice here. It’s a very interesting behavioral thing to watch, people connecting to like – you know what? You’re right, I can choose a paper that I want. Somehow fun got a bad rap somewhere along the line. You had to work hard. Why can’t work be fun and joyful as well? So these little things make a big difference.

BYRON PALMER: My wife is awesome and she gets also – she doesn’t use GTD but she gets all sorts of stuff done. I mean, she’s just – she’s just doing it. She got us some filing cabinets a while ago. You know, she got them used. You know we both work in food and agriculture so we don’t have a ton of disposable income to be throwing around and I didn’t necessarily enjoy using them. I really appreciated the effort that she made and she got – you know, and she did it and like I said, she gets so much done, but I didn’t like using them and I’m like, “Many I really want a HON filing cabinet. So I found like a used office supply place that like liquidates offices and they had a bunch of them and I just – I interacted with every single one to make sure every drawer and every piece of everything work, you know, and it’s like I walk out for one with a quarter of the price. So I think there’s work-arounds, but when you tell people that. “Like what did you do this week?”

I’m like, “Oh I went – I went file cabinet shopping.”

MIKE WILLIAMS: Ha, ha, ha.

BYRON PALMER: They’re like, “Oh that sounds super-fun.”

No, I’m like, “It was awesome!”

MIKE WILLIAMS: Ha, ha – you don’t understand. File cabinets, plus labor, plus good labels equals so much uh …


MIKE WILLIAMS: … resistance removed from your life. Uh you mentioned that you do most of your processing at your computer. I’ve got to imagine that somewhere along the line you found that doing some single threading processing at your computer was more advantageous than trying to do it on a small digital device. It’s a working hypothesis I have in this conversation, but I just wanted to test it and – is that why you ended up processing more at your computer because you had the tools and everything needed in that context to do it more effectively or – tell me a …

BYRON PALMER: Definitely.

MIKE WILLIAMS: … little bit more about that experience.

BYRON PALMER: I really don’t enjoy interacting extensively with my phone interface in any capacity – you know, other than maybe like reading the news or checking an e-mail, but any serious work, you know, I’d say that the amount of time it takes to get serious work done on my phone is probably quadruple, you know, or quintuple. It takes a computer. And when I’m at the computer, I can just fly through it, because the interface is just so much wider and uh user friendly. That’s the tool that enables me to do it the fastest with the least psychic resistance the most efficiently. I – when I work and I’m managing cattle, I’m out on the landscape, we manage a variety of properties. I’m out on those properties, but when I’m doing all the administration work um or you know, visioning work or whatever it is that I’m doing for the work – I work from home, which is great, so I can have my sort of cockpit set up there effectively and figuring out what are the tools that I need to be enjoying processing the most, and paying attention to that is really important, because if you’re doing something and you’re noticing, you know, just noticing emotions and you’re like – are you – are you tense, are you upset, are you frustrated? Like where are you carrying that? That’s pointing to something about – I think, about the way your systems are set up and that there’s room for improvement, if you’re feeling that way.

MIKE WILLIAMS: You know, it ties back to, you know, I love your arc, I love your evolution. Going back to your early 20’s when you found GTD, you were working at a level with what had your attention at that moment and – and once you started clearing out, you know, the business and what was frustrating you, what had your attention that was on cruise control what was behind that was – ooh – now what really has my attention and then – then you started working on that layer.

BYRON PALMER: I think one of the most amazing things about GTD is the power of distributed cognition. I work with a lot of amazing folks, I have a lot of friends that do great work and they do – you know they work for non-profit, they work for environmental education, they work in social justice and they’re just doing great work. You know, we often talk about how we’re forming ideas and executing and things like that and one of the things is with GTD is the ability to capture your creativity whenever it comes. Because I often find, if I open up a document and I’m like starting a project, I don’t necessarily have the creativity in that moment, uh when the curser’s blinking. But what happens is, I close the document and I’ve got all sorts of creativity. I’m on a walk, I’m out with the cattle, I’m out with the dogs, I’m out with my wife, I’m in the bathroom. If I’m able to capture that in a system and then put it together later, the amount of creativity that really comes out and is captured and can be implemented is huge because I’m not requiring myself to just think in the moment and have a good idea. Oh, like – who’s got a good idea here? You know, and I capture it over time.

I’ve had the surprise – I don’t know if you’ve ever had the surprise where you forgot that you created a protocol or a document or – or project support materials and like years later you go to try to get some information on this topic and you pull and it shows up and you’re like, “Holy smokes! I already solved this problem and it’s right here!” I’m so appreciative of my previous self for doing this for me. You know?


BYRON PALMER: That I can’t even remember that I did it. And that’s been super helpful. I think like, you know, just like loss of creativity in all these amazing moments and ideas that we all have, you know, is almost like epidemic um of lost creativity and ability to execute and we have a lot of big problems in the world right now and we need the ability to capture those ideas and put them into systems and organize them and execute. Like we need those ideas with the challenges that are facing us, so I really appreciate that how our distributed cognition and like constant capture of creativity and the ability to help us implement it.

MIKE WILLIAMS: I couldn’t agree with you more and, you know, for those listening, distributed cognition is really an interesting word for writing something down, placing it in a bucket or capture and collection where you can clarify what you’re thinking about it and then move it to the appropriate bucket, so your brain can step back and look at it again anew and the next level of the checklist and the beauty of those things. If you remember that they exist and when you can call them into action to serve you is just tremendous.

BYRON PALMER: At our house, we um, if we can get a checklist for it or standardize it, we try to do it. So for instance we have dog sitters, we have like the guidelines, everything you need to do. Print it out. We just hand it to them. You know, you’re packing for a trip, got different pack lists. Is it a three day camping trip, is it a back-packing trip, is it a car camping trip? And we call them S-O-P uh S-POPs, which is Standard Palmer Operating Procedures. So …

MIKE WILLIAMS: Love it. Ha, ha, ha.

BYRON PALMER: … yeah, we have a whole folder for that. So anytime we do anything that we know we’re going to do again like sell a car, you know we just try to create a protocol for it, put it in the file folder and doodle box and you can just bust it out again when you need it, which is really helpful.

MIKE WILLIAMS: If you were to sit down with your younger self, let’s say in college, what would you tell your younger self about GTD or this methodology?

BYRON PALMER: If I was talking to my younger self, like if I could sit down with myself in college, I’d probably look me in the eye, sort of have a come to Jesus and say, “Read this book and it’s going to be essential for you thriving.” Because I went to college and I studied really hard. I got a business degree and I didn’t learn anything remotely like what was in GTD. I learned a bunch of abstract concepts that I forgot and I think really teaching myself specifically about the collection habit and the weekly review and the power of the next action would be three things that I would really just try to hit home to myself at that point.

MIKE WILLIAMS: How about some pain points that uh it helps solve over the arc of your journey so far?

BYRON PALMER: Hmm. You know, I think relationships is probably the biggest pain point that it helped on my journey. I’m one of those people where if you’ve got open loops and you’re not doing something with it, about it, right in that minute and I’m thinking about it, I’m obsessing and it’s stressing me out, if it’s not collected in a system outside my head. So that means that I’m always thinking about it, without GTD here. And like a hamster on a wheel. And that can drive – that drove me crazy. And so I felt like if I wasn’t working on those things, I – you know, I was missing out, I was losing. So I was always trying to work on something and that didn’t leave as much time for my relationships with friends and family and with myself and the things that I wanted to do to take care of and nurture myself and my self care.

When I eventually got everything down into a system that I trust where I could review it, review what all – you know all the next actions, I could then be present for being with my wife, being with my friends, being with my family, so I would say, not only did it allow me to be more present, it gave me the ability to additionally schedule time and make time, make time available – right? Put first things first, and so it definitely empowered me sort of in both of those realms and it allowed me to schedule time for myself in doing what I want to do with myself, so …

MIKE WILLIAMS: Did others around you notice a change of any sort?

BYRON PALMER: I don’t know. You know, they definitely noticed I was around more and definitely my friends noticed some changes and I think in the work environment people noticed changes. And because it also became part of personally like honoring commitments became part of what was really important to me and GTD allowed me to do that. So I think people noticed that as well, that my ability to sort of honor and keep those commitments got better and better.

MIKE WILLIAMS: So what’s – what’s next on the horizon for you as far as – you know – where – where do you want to bring your GTD system next and what’s next for you as far as the career aspect and vision and purpose that you’re shooting for or striving for and where would you like to go next as you continue your own personal journey?

BYRON PALMER: We didn’t get too much into the weeds of the work that I do, but the industry in which I participate is extremely challenging, over 93% of people that ranch lose money. It’s one of the few industries in which people actually work a full time job to support their other job. It’s important for me to help figure out how to do what we do and make it economically viable and repeatable. And I work with a great team of three other guys. We work for a non-profit and we also have a for-profit that we’re working on developing as well. You know, there’s not a ton of books out there on this. You know, how do we have happier animals and happier people and all that. And that’s the vision you know, that we’re working towards. Specifically as it relates to GTD, because the industry I work in structurally, it’s just not set up to make a good living, I need to be Johnny-on-the-spot with my organization and my capturing of my ideas and my creativity and my ability to keep commitments and work with others and so I imagine that my – my adherence to GTD will get even more fanatical in order for me to stay at the top of my game and do all those things that I was just talking about in our vision, but at the same time enjoy time with my wife, dogs, you know, have some kids, uh spend time with my family, because I’m not interested in building a business or an economic model that is using unsustainable effort because I don’t have it anymore. I’m not 25 with a cup of coffee at 9:00 p.m. you know, in the office reviewing you know, video footage. I don’t have that kind of gusto. So I think my systems are going to get a little bit tighter, specifically, I think my next action thinking is going to become fundamental. I’ll just, you know, just always on that next action piece, keeping hard edges to the different – to my calendar, keeping hard edges to like when I’m doing what stage of a process – those types of things I think are always going to be key and then I think connecting with more GTD implementers about how they implement and just getting further education and up until I think six months ago, I actually didn’t even realize that there was a community of GTD implementers. There was just David Allen on the front of the book and me in the office having conversations with this cover, you know, where he’s sitting there on the stool or whatever. And uh, so I think increasing my connection with the community is probably going to be key for my future success and happiness as well.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Byron, awesome and so inspiring. And this conversation, no doubt, will plug you in with that community.

I have so much thankfulness and gratitude for you showing up for this conversation. I know you and I have talked about connecting when I’m up in Sonoma in the near future. Hopefully, we can pull that off, but uh …


MIKE WILLIAMS: Why don’t we end it here and I’ll look forward to our paths crossing. Thank you so much.

MIKE WILLIAMS: All right. Sounds good. Thank you.

ANDREW J. MASON: Wasn’t that incredible. I think my favorite part of that interview is the idea of capturing all the creative ideas that show up. I mean, how many times have we lost potentially amazing ideas just because we didn’t have the initiative or means to write it down?

Well, speaking of writing it down, you’ll want to write down this coupon code and address, if you’d like that discount to GTD Connect we were referring to at the beginning of the episode. Head on over to GettingThingsDone.com/podcast and enter the coupon code podcast at checkout for a significant discount and join our online community, where you’ll hear many more conversations like these.

We are working on a show that includes your questions and comments, so if you have any pressing, need to know, got to have an answer GTD questions that you’d like to ask me, David, our coaches or anyone on the team, maybe about best practices or maybe you want to know whether David himself ever procrastinates or falls off the wagon. You can send us an e-mail at [email protected] and we’ll be looking to put together a Q&A episode.

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