Can creative people practice GTD? Isn’t all that structure restricting? Find out as David Allen talks with Todd Henry, the author of The Accidental Creative and Die Empty. Thousands of creatives have found that implementing GTD’s methodology actually provides more freedom to create. David has said that to be creative, you don’t need time, you need space.
Subscribe or Download
Note: This is the original transcript from David Allen’s In Conversation with Todd Henry.
DAVID ALLEN’S OPENING REMARKS
Hi, everyone. David Allen here In Conversation, inviting you to join me as I chat with great people in our network about their life, their work and their ideas.
You’re about to hear me talking with someone who may be one of the more wonderfully intimidating people I’ve connected with. If you wince, as I do, when smart, articulate people challenge me to step up to my own plate in fresh and expansive ways, you’ll probably feel the same way about Todd Henry.
Todd’s a consultant, author and inspirational resource for professionals in the creative fields like design, advertising and copywriting. Todd’s message about sustainable creative work, actually speaks to all of us though. He’s written two books, The Accidental Creative, and his newly published one, Die Empty. I consider both of his books prime resources for staying creatively involved and on top of our world day to day, and his intersections, inclusions and championing of GTD® are really cool.
DA: Hi everybody, David Allen, back In Conversation, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation because it’s with Todd Henry, and I just finished reading and giving my kudos and endorsement to Todd’s new book, Die Empty, and Todd we can talk about that as we get further into this, the author of The Accidental Creative, doing all kinds of cool work out there, but you can probably tell everybody listening what you’re doing better than I can.
So, Todd, say hello the GTD Connect® world and the folks listening to this, and maybe tell everybody, at least a few paragraphs about where you are, what you do and anything else you’d like them to know.
TH: Great. Happy to, and David thanks so much for having me on this In Conversation. I know I’ve interviewed you a couple of times for my Podcasts, so it’s a little strange to be on the other side of the microphone, but it’s great to be back in conversation with you and to share in the GTD Conversation that you’re creating.
Yeah, so I’m based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When people ask me what I do, I always tell them I’m an Arms Dealer for the Creative Revolution, which then usually warrants two or three paragraphs of follow-up conversation. So what I tell them is what I do
is I help people who have to create every day. They have to turn their thoughts into value, to do that more effectively. And really that describes what many of us in the marketplace have to do. We have to go to work every day, solve problems, create, design, write, whatever it is we’re doing, we’re typically turning our thoughts into value and with that comes a unique set
of pressures. And so I’ve focused most of my work and my energy on helping identify some of those common dynamics that exist when you have to turn thoughts into value and then helping people figure out some systems and methods to help them do that more effectively on a day-to-day basis.
DA: Well, I know from delving into your work and seeing what you do that, that what you consider a creative person can pretty much include anybody who’s doing any kind of knowledge work, that they have to think in order to know, to produce value. But obviously, there was a niche that you started with, and a niche that probably bring you in. So more specifically, what’s the biggest audience that you have? Are these creative firms? Are they ad firms? Are they publications? Are they design firms? What’s the typical profile of the people that would say, “I need to call Todd Henry”, or that bring you in?
TH: Yeah, so when I started the company, I was really focused on creative services firms. I mean, that really was my background as creative director, leading designers and writers and people of that elk and that was really where the bulk of my experience had been in the marketplace. I focused on creative services firm, people who had to create, whether it’s client work, marketing work for other companies. That was really where I focused most of my efforts initially, and had great success working with those stereotypical sort of creative or artistic or design focused organizations, but over time what I found is that I’m actually getting more and more inquiries from the consumer packaged goods companies and sales organizations and marketing organizations within large pharmaceutical companies, and things of that nature. But really, people that I didn’t initially intend to reach out to with my work, but over time I’m getting more and more inquiries from those sectors and I think it’s because people are starting to realize that, again, we’re not really equipped to deal with some of the pressures that we face, when
he have to come up with great ideas, great solutions on a daily basis. And I think people are starting to figure out, “Okay, how can I do this more effectively?”, rather than going through the typical cycle of two years, burn out—refresh; two years, burn out—refresh, which just isn’t a very sustainable way to work.
So I would say I started focused on that creative services sector again, because that was my background, but I’m finding that these conversations are really gaining traction in every sector of the marketplace right now.
DA: Well you probably whetted a lot of people’s appetites already, just with that conversation, so I don’t want to go too far before we actually jump into what are some of those practices and so forth? And I know your Ted-X talk by the way from 2012 was great, so I think that’s a great 22 minute version of a high level view of what you came up with in The Accidental Creative.
Well, two questions, one is: How do you intersect with people in order to coach them, provide that value? Are you doing one-on-one stuff, are you doing small team stuff? Do you do this in a larger context or all of the above?
TH: These days I’m mostly focusing on teams within organizations or organizations as a whole, so I think divisions of companies. DA: Um hm.
TH: Some more high level coaching and training that I’m doing on that level or I obviously spend a lot of time speaking
at conferences and different events where there are like-minded people gathered, who want to understand these dynamics better. I don’t do a lot of one-on-one coaching these days, but I do deliver podcasts through accidentalcreative.com. I put out a weekly podcast where I do kind of coaching based on some of the feedback I’m getting from the community and also we write a lot of articles there and we have guests on, we have guest posts and things on accidental creative as well. So that’s really where I’m kind of doing most of my personal interaction these day. I don’t do a lot of one-on-one coaching. Most of the training coaching I do is on either a division level or maybe on a small team level within an organization.
DA: Okay, well let’s get down to some of the highlights. For folks who have not delved into your work yet, give us the short version anyway. What’s the problem and how do you help people really solve that?
TH: Well the primary lens that I’ve always looked at all of my work through is that, I believe when you want to accomplish something, whatever it is, you have to start with: What is the desired end state? That’s the best—I mean, you talk about this obviously in your work. You know, you have to define a project before you can—you have to define: What am I trying to do? Before you can figure out how you get there.
Well in my world and in my work, I’ve sort of defined success as being prolific, brilliant and healthy, all at the same time. Right? Prolific meaning you’re doing a lot of work, brilliant meaning you’re doing good work, because that’s always helpful; and healthy, meaning doing it sustainably. And what I’ve found David, is that people often sacrifice the healthy piece on the altar of being prolific and brilliant, so doing a lot of really good work, but unfortunately, they’re not able to sustain that pace long term. And what happens over time and I know you’ve probably seen this—I’ve seen this so many times in the course
of my interactions with people, that if you don’t pay attention to the sustainability piece, the healthy piece, you eventually will lose the other two as well. Because we’re not machines, you’re not a machine, I’m not a machine, we’re not wired to function as machines. We have to have a sense of rhythm in our life if we want to be effective and especially as it relates to our creative process and coming up with ideas and then applying those ideas to the work that we’re doing. We have to have a built-in,
a baked-in sense of rhythm to how we work, because that’s simply how we’re wired as humans. If you look at anything else in the ordered universe, everything functions by rhythm. Humans have the unique capacity to try to usurp rhythm for the same of getting a lot of stuff done, right?
TH: We can make that choice, we can exert our will and usurp that sense of rhythm, but when we do that, we always pay
a price on the back end.
DA: I love it, by the way. I know you know Tony Schwartz, a friend of mine in the network, and Tony certainly is a huge proponent of the rhythmic aspect of energy and how we manage that. And, of course, you know Steven Pressfield.
DA: My favorite little book The War of Art, where if you don’t build the habit to build a rhythm and to build a process, forget trying to suddenly be creative. And I love the way that you’ve approached that. You know, “When they jump you in a dark alley”, as I say, “it’s too late to practice.” So, building a process, which I think is terrific and I don’t want to co-opt your message here, but I just think that’s terrific in terms of what that process is.
Give folks a little more of a taste; if somebody actually were implementing your best practices, what would that look like, and what’s the delta between that and what most people are doing or not doing?
TH: Yeah, and this is the territory that I really explored in The Accidental Creative, this idea if you want to be brilliant a moment’s notice—like you said, when you’re jumped in the alley, you want to be prepared to deal with that situation, you have to begin that preparation far upstream from the moment that you’re in crisis or the moment that something comes up. You can’t live
in perpetual harvest mode, like so many of us do. You have to go through the cycles of planting and cultivating and all of the things that you’ve probably heard a million times. It’s not what we know, it’s what we do that matters, right?
So I always tell people there are five key areas that you really have to hone in on if you want to be effective in building rhythm in your life.
The first is focus; it’s impossible to solve a problem you haven’t defined. Many of us try, we try to solve problems we haven’t defined by that’s where, I think, a lot of the stress and anxiety lives in the lives of creative pros, is that they’re trying to do something they haven’t really defined. And focus is really all about how you define your work, but you have to have a rhythm of stepping back on a regular basis, defining what the problem is you’re trying to solve if you want to set your mind up to do what it does best, which is solve problems and form patterns.
But we know that there are many enemies of focus in the world today, not the least of which is this little dynamic I call “the ping”. And the ping is this perpetual pinprick in my gut that says something like, “You should go check your email right now.” Or “You should go check your twitter feed right now.” Or, “You should go check your phone because maybe the President
of the United States is calling with a National Security Crisis”, right? And the ping delivers this level of urgency that screams at you. The life philosophy of the ping, David, is: Something out there might be more important than what’s in front of you.
DA: Or something out there is a lot more easily distracting me than the agony of staring at this blank piece of paper.
TH: Absolutely! That’s exactly right. And technology is an extension of my capacity to accomplish my will, so where my abilities end and where my goals are a little beyond that, technology bridges that gap. Well we live in an age where technology is enabling more of those latent capacities than at any point in history. So it’s my will, David, to be entertained all the time. It’s my will to be comfortable all the time, to have that sense of constant stimulation, or, I guess if you apply this to work,
it’s my will to feel like I’m in the know all the time. I’m always connected, that I’m contributing value, that other people see me as valuable. But that pull that the ping delivers to us can distract us from the more important work, the work that really we’re being tasked with, the value we’re being charged with creating, because we feel that we have to stay connected or
we have to stay aware of what’s going on. And so the ping tells us, “Hey, something out there might be more important than this really critical work that’s in front of you.” So we have to learn to tame the ping and we have to learn to focus effectively and define the work that we’re charged with doing and define those problems very specifically if we want to be effective.
TH: So that’s the first area of rhythm that I typically work with people on.
DA: Yeah, I’m reminded of the late, great, Peter Drucker, saying, “The biggest work of a knowledge worker is defining their work”, as you say that.
DA: It’s funny because everything that you talk about, especially for the creatives, is exactly what any knowledge worker really has to grapple with. In a way, it’s even more subtle sometimes because defining the project that you thought you were just given …
DA: … it’s very easy for that to seem like that’s evident, what it is and why you’re doing it. I’m sure that’s the same issue
that you’re artists and more “creatives” also have to deal with.
TH: Oh, it absolutely is. And I see this all the time. I mean, I see people—one of the most illuminating things for me David, when I read Getting Things Done, was the idea that a project was anything with multiple action steps. Right?
DA: Um hm.
TH: Because I was living at that point with basically concepts on my task lists. Concepts that I was—they were more like
aspirations than they were projects, right? DA: Um hm.
TH: But that doesn’t really help you get the work done. All that does is create stress whenever you look at it. Well, in the same way, I walk into organizations all the time who are trying to solve concepts. They’re trying to generate ideas for concepts, but they haven’t really defined the problems that they’re trying to solve, with their creative work. And it’s funny how once you sit down and you define that subset of problems that you’re really working on and you get really concrete about that, it’s funny how quickly ideas start flowing because you’re actually working on a problem, rather than trying to just resolve a concept, which is impossible.
DA: And one could even, in GTD terms, than what you learn how to concretize that, you actually don’t have to have defined the problems to actually have a project about defining the problem.
DA: Most people aren’t willing to admit that they don’t know what the problem is as opposed to, “Ooh, I now have a project,
called “get clear about what the heck this thing is and why they gave it to me.””
TH: Exactly right and one of the things that I have to work with organizations on especially is giving them—making sure that they’re instilling a culture of permission within the organization to occasionally step back and say, “I’m not sure I understand what we’re doing here.” Because there comes a point in any project where it starts to get a little bit awkward to ask questions about what the objectives are for the project …
DA: Um hm.
TH: … and so people don’t do it. But if you create a culture of permission where people are allowed to step back and say, “Hey, I think the problem we’re solving may have changed. Can we talk about that?” And you know what? The problem you’re solving should change from day to day or week to week as you’re working on the project. That focus area should change
if you’re really making progress on your objectives, but we don’t always feel permission sometimes, especially in organizations to step back and ask those clarifying questions, which can suffocate the creative drive of the organization.
DA: That’s so right on. I really applaud your insight on that, that as we mature—I’ve usually framed it in terms of people’s visions and goals long-term, that you’ll never actually achieve, though you kind of slide into them, because that goal is only as good as you are mature right now, and then as you move toward it, you gain more maturity and more experience and so the goal itself will very probably mature and change.
DA: So I love the way that you’ve helped frame that and give permission for that, even down on a more operational side
of the game and I think everybody needs that permission. Great stuff!
TH: Well some of that—and this is a little bit of a side tracking maybe, but some of that in Die Empty, some of the conversations I was having, especially with Millennials, people who are younger in their career. They would keep saying to me, “I just want
to know what my life is about. I just want to know what my purpose is. What—the thing I should be doing is.”
And I forget who said it, but they said it in such a brilliant way: “They’re trying to make that decision with the least information they’re ever going to have about the subject.”
DA: That’s great! Yeah, I love it!
TH: And they’re trying to determine the next 40 years of your life, when you’ve only lived like two years as an omnipotent adult. Instead, get out and do stuff and try things and step back on a regular basis and ask, “What I just tried, was I effective in that way, in that area, or do I need to redirect, or do I need to try something different?” Right? It’s by action and learning and response to what you learned that you actually are able to direct into a proper course of action and figure out where that interception of passion, skills, experiences are. And the same thing applies to our day to day work. You have to learn: Act, step back, learn, redirect. Right? That’s the way that you get better at what you do, and that’s also the best way to move a project through a pipeline.
DA: Dynamic steering. Absolutely! But don’t let me hijack your five stages, because I think that’s useful. So, Focus was first.
TH: The second area is relationships. There’s a myth David that we live in an age of the lone genius. Where somebody
in a cabin in South Georgia is inventing the next iPad and they’re going to come out and say, “Ta da!” But we know that
great work and especially innovative work happens in the context of community. You know, innovation is the collective grasp for the next—it’s groups of people stumbling awkwardly into the unknown, or as Steven Johnson calls it, “Exploring and pursuing the adjacent possible”; trying things, experimenting together, and sharing that knowledge together, that intelligence, so that we can all approach the work in a more effective fashion. And so we have to be purposeful about building relationships into our life that challenge us, that stimulate us, that allow us to see the world in new ways. And we have to have rhythms
of connecting with those people in our life, if we want to be effective. You know, creativity and effectiveness is not a solo sport, it’s a team sport and we need those kinds of networks to help us stay focused on our most important work.
DA: And I love your focus on—as part of that, that it’s not only what are you interested in, what are doing, what’s inspiring you, but also, how can I help you? And the whole idea of service, I know for me Todd, I don’t know about you, but I can start to dry up and blow away in terms of my own creative juices, if I don’t just go out and participate and get involved. It’s kind
of like seductive, because the easier it is for me to be able to afford to back away and not have to be involved, there’s a part of me that would just crawl off into a cave and …
DA: You know, I’m a closet introvert, really. So I hear you and I have to—I’ve learned by this time in my life, I need to regularly
throw myself out there, especially with our work and roll up my sleeves and get involved with people, directly.
TH: And I think there is this, especially among introverts, because I’m the same way. I’m definitely, skew more towards the introversion scale, which is funny because I speak in front of thousands of people and I look like the most flaming extrovert in the world, but I’m not. I
TH: I’m actually, you know, very introverted, which means I get my energy from being alone, but I’m very similar in the sense that just left to my own devices, I would probably go to my home office and curl up with a book and speak three weeks there and never interact with anyone. But I’ve come to learn that, that is not healthy for my creative process, for my effectiveness. If I want to be effective, I have to stay outward focused. The fastest way to shrivel up is to turn inward and make all of your
work about yourself. Your work is not about you, it’s about other people. It’s about the value that you’re contributing to other people, and so you have to stay outward focused. You have to stay connected, if you really want to do your best work, if you want to get your best out of you every day.
TH: The third area is energy and we talked about Tony Schwartz. He has written some of the most profound stuff in the world about how to manage your energy on a day to day basis. He gets into it in a very granular way, right? Very specific about diet and exercise and those kinds of things, and it’s really profound.
I took a more macroscopic view of energy in The Accidental Creative, specifically and I wanted to look at how people structure their life and their workload, to give them the kind of energy they need, and so one of the practices that I discovered in the lives of really effective creatives, is the practice of pruning. In a vineyard, one of the primary roles of the vine keepers is to regularly prune areas of new growth off the vine. Perfectly good fruit, right? Why would you prune perfectly good fruit off
of a vine? You know that’s kind of the goal of the vine. Right? Well the vine keeper knows if that fruit isn’t regularly pruned,
it will eventually begin to steal resources from the older, more mature fruit bearing parts of the vine and over time, that entire vine will succumb to systemic mediocrity because it’s not wired to bear that much fruit. And in the same way, as creatives,
as motivated people, as talented people, we don’t struggle with “new fruit” on our vine, new ideas, new projects, new thoughts, even new commitments that we have to make personally, professionally, whatever it is, but we’re really bad at saying “no”
And I have to tell you, David, that probably the most profound thing, maybe outside of the defining a project thing, the most profound thing that’s ever happened in my work life has been introducing the Someday Maybe list.
DA: Um hm.
TH: It’s been introducing this idea that it’s okay to say no to things right now and put them on the back burner and say, “Someday I’m going to get around to this, or at least I know I’m going to look at it later, but right now I need to focus on these more important things.”
And every time I go out and speak to groups about this, I always say, “David Allen says …” Right? “Here’s the practice you need to do. David Allen says to do this. Do it. I’ll tell you it made a tremendous difference in my life.”
DA: Interesting, I’ve watched to that point and it’s a relatively sophisticated awareness I think, the power of what that is. There’s a very sophisticated guy that I work with, one of the most sophisticated, smartest guys on the planet professionally and otherwise, and he had—that was his big “Ah ha!” and he realized that he had constipated his creative process because he thought he had to commit to every good idea he had. And so the good idea machine stopped, you know, because there was no way on God’s green earth he could ever do even a portion of them. And so the Someday Maybe list, gave him the parking lot to be able to keep that flow going and not shut it down.
DA: Yeah, brilliant stuff. Terrific! Okay, number four…
TH: Yeah, number four is stimuli. So stimuli are all the things that go into our head. The things that inform out creative process, that keep us focused on our work that poke and prod us. They’re the raw materials of our creative process. You know, there’s this saying about food, that you are what you eat, well the same thing applies to our creative process. You create what you take in. So you need to be feeding yourself higher quality stimuli on a regular basis. Communion with great minds, as Steven Sample from USC says. Filling your mind with thoughts that stretch you, that challenge you, that maybe you even disagree with, but they cause you to have to think and argue and really figure out what it is you believe. But some of us are more content, David, to just subsist on intellectual junk food and over time that begins to kill our creative engagement and again kill off the raw materials that we have at our disposal for our creative process. So we need to have a system or rhythm of absorbing high quality stimuli. You know, a study plan and a regular time where we sit down and we absorb stimuli that challenge us and push us to think new kinds of thoughts.
TH: The final element of rhythm is hours and hours are all about where we put our time, obviously, but many of us default to an efficiency mind set with our time rather than in an effectiveness mind set. So we’d rather stack commitment and obligation after obligation after obligation, but we’re not really making progress on the most important things in our life, the things that make us really effective, so we can answer every email but if we’re not coming up with the ideas that we need for our work than we’re not going to be effective.
So we need to start thinking about effectiveness, not just efficiency. One way to do that is a practice I call, unnecessary creation, which means building time into your life to explore, to develop skills, to try new things, to experiment and basically just to fill your well, right? Just to have this place in your life where you can try things in a relatively low risk environment, develop skills and just feed your soul with activity that nobody’s paying you for, nobody’s looking over your shoulder and judging, which is rare in the world of work, but that you’re doing just because you want to do it. And the funny thing is, when you start building that practice into your life, many times, those things that you’re doing on the side, become incredibly relevant to your on demand work, the work that you have to do on a day to day basis. And so that’s “hours”. So the acronym, FRESH, Focus, Relationships, Energy, Stimuli, Hours—they spell the acronym fresh, so it makes it nice and memorable, but building rhythms and practices in those areas prepare you for that moment when you have to be brilliant and all eyes are upon you.
DA: Yeah. You know, that last point, by the way, in terms of the flow, I think in your book you mentioned somebody just journaling in the morning and that basically the reason you journal and it could be crap, it could be creative, it could be who knows what, but the reason to journal is post-journal.
DA: It’s like clearing the decks, like clearing your throat and clearing it up. And I found that too, in that it re-inspired me
to do even more of sit down, you know the way to write your book is write a crappy first draft.
DA: The willingness to make mistakes and to go—but to get the flow going. I think that’s so critical.
TH: Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read that book, but she—it’s a classic textbook of coaching for creative people, who want to be artists, who want to create things that are valuable and unique. And one of the practices at the very beginning of the book that she recommends is this thing she calls “The Morning Pages” and the Morning Pages are three long hand written pages of just stream of consciousness, whatever’s on your brain when you wake up in the morning, just write it, get it all out and just get everything out of your brain—right? And she said that, that practice alone completely revolutionized her energy for her work, because she didn’t realize how many things were weighing her down that once she got them out of her brain, all of a sudden she felt this clarity and this energy and this focus she didn’t have before.
And again, it sounds very reminiscent of GTD and all the things you say about getting things out of your brain, but in her case, it was three long hand pages. Nobody’s ever going to read them. She said you can even tear them up when you’re done
or burn them or recycle them—whatever you want. The point is just to get it out of your head and just write, and again that practice—it’s unnecessary creation—it has no purpose, no end, but just the act of doing it, it gives you energy, it gives you focus and it allows you to bring your best to your work.
DA: Very cool.
So, not fast-forward, but I know move forward, when I read Die Empty, you said, “Look …”, there were probably other things and I’m paraphrasing you here, so correct me if I’m wrong. You said, “Look, maybe your trajectory was to keep going in some of the other paths professionally you were doing, but you had to stop and write this book.”
DA: So you were demonstrating your own principal.
DA: Don’t die with that one still in you. So tell us that path and what caused you to write it and what do you think is the key message you’d like people to take away.
TH: Yeah, so a few years ago, I was in a meeting—this is probably, wow—it’s almost ten years ago now, I was in a meeting and out of the blue, this guy who’s leading the meeting said, “What do you think is the most valuable land in the world?”
And we’re all looking at each other like, “I don’t know. That’s a weird question. Why are you asking that?” Right? So we all started throwing out guesses like: Manhattan! Wrong. Oil fields of the Middle East. Wrong. So we threw out all these guesses and finally we said, “Why don’t you just tell us. Tell us what the most valuable land in the world is.”
He said, “I think the most valuable land in the world is the graveyard, because in the graveyard are buried all of the un-launched businesses, all of the unwritten novels, all of the un-reconciled relationships, basically all of the things that people at some point said, “I’m going to get around to that tomorrow.” And one day their tomorrows just ran out. You know, the death rate is hovering right around 100%. And so that day, I went home and I wrote two words on an index card, and those two words were “Die Empty”. Because I wanted to know that at the end of my life, I could look back and say, “I didn’t defer my contribution. I didn’t push it into the future. I was doing everything I could do on a daily basis to get my best work out of me.” That doesn’t mean working obsessively because work also encompasses things like how I treat my family. Right? I mean, that’s work. Raising kids is work, being present with them—that’s work. Treating my spouse properly—that’s work. And so I really developed this kind
of ethic in my life where I knew, I wanted to look back at the end of my life and say, “I didn’t leave anything inside of me. I did my best to get it out of me every day.” And so as I would go around and talk about The Accidental Creative to groups of people, I would share that message of “die empty” at the end. Hey you need to structure your life properly because you want to make sure that you don’t look back with regret about how you spent your days. And at the end of those talks, people would come
up to me and inevitably—you know, I would expect them to be saying, “Hey, these tips about creativity—this is great!” Whatever! It was always “die empty”. They would always come up to me and say, “How do I do that? What does that look
like for me? That’s great—that’s a great idea, but I feel stuck. What do I do if I’m stuck?”
And so my career trajectory David, would have been, “Hey, I’m going to write something about innovation. I’m going to write something more in this creativity space”, but I just kept seeing the need out there to have these conversations about why people get stuck in a place of mediocrity. Why, even though they’re well resourced, they’re talented, they’re focused, they still get stuck. And so even though, you know I had a lot of conversations with people who said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I had to follow my own advise and say, “If I don’t write this book right now, because I can’t look into another set of eyes and not have something to hand them and say, “Here’s what I believe about where you are right now.” If I don’t do this, I’m not taking my own medicine. I’m going to look back and regret not having done this.
And so recently I told my publicist, the publisher and all these people, I said, “Listen, if this is the end of my writing career and I have to throw my mike down and walk off stage, I’m glad it’s going to be with this book, because this really sums up what I believe about living a life of value and a life of meaning.” So …
DA: And you know, that all sounds motherhood, apple pie, in a way, like sure that’s a great thing focus on purpose, but I love a lot of the practical, both awarenesses and tips in the book. So maybe share with some of the folks, what are some of the things, like—you rang my bell, “Hey, it so easy to get stale on your success.”
DA: And keep it fresh, and keep going, and at 68, it’s pretty easy for me to let that start to happen if I don’t pay attention.
DA: So, what are some of those? That one and some other things and how did you frame them?
TH: Yeah, there are seven places that I identified and you’re going to figure out I’m a big fan of acronyms and alliterations, after just doing FRESH …
TH: … but in this ABCDEFG—I call them the seven deadly sins that lead to mediocrity. The first one “A” is aimlessness.
You mentioned that success can sometimes be your greatest enemy, because when you become successful at something, you immediately are tempted because it’s our nature as human beings. We’re tempted to try to replicate whatever conditions led to our initial success. But that is often the quickest path to failure and usurping your own ambitions, because conditions are never going to be the same as they were the first time. The only way to continue to be successful is to be willing to take risks and to stretch yourself and to step outside of your comfort zone and to try new things and to continue moving forward. The moment you start camping out—you know, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. So aimlessness is really all about defining your battles. Those battles that you’re fighting today are probably different battles than you were fighting five years ago or ten years ago or 20 years ago, whenever it was that you had your initial success. But so many people get carried along by their work or by the momentum of their past success and so instead of feeling like they’re driving the bus, they kind of feel like the bus is driving them and they’re just trying to avoid going in the ditch.
So yeah, I think it’s important on a regular basis to define those battles. What is it I’m standing for today? What is it, come
hell or high water, that I am going to do today, whatever it takes me, whatever I have to spend to make this happen, this is
so important to me, that I’m going to make it happen. This word “passion” gets thrown around a lot. People talk about passion and the importance of passion and be passionate about your work, and that’s fine, but I think when a lot of people talk about passion, I think it’s like you said, that mom and apple pie thing, I think they’re waiting for this wave of enthusiasm and ecstasy to come over them when they’re doing work. No, honestly, sometimes work really sucks. Sometimes work is really hard, even when you’re doing something you’re good at and you like, it’s really hard to do good work. And so we have to put passion back in its original context, David. The word passion comes from the root word in the original language that means to suffer. So the question we’re asking when we’re asking when we say, “What am I passionate about?” Is not, “Hey what fills me with a wave of ecstasy”, but what we have to be looking at is “what work am I willing to suffer for today? What do I care so much about that I’m willing to put myself on the line, I’m willing to die in the course of battle trying to make this thing happen?” And when you latch onto that, then all of the other stuff really fades to the background, because you’re able to say, “Hey, here’s what’s really important to me. I care about this so much, I’m willing to suffer for it.”
You know, I’m passionate about my family because if somebody steps in between me and my family and tries to harm them, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to protect them. Right? That’s a kind of passion that I have for my family. I’m going
to go down defending my family. And we all need to identify, what are those things, those principals, those battles in our life, that we’re willing to put ourselves on the line for, and that has to happen on a regular basis, not just once and done.
DA: Right. Other big highlights of the practice, as you’d say.
TH: Yeah, so the second area is boredom. You know, many people are among the busily bored and you know, they’re not
on a regular basis stoking the fire of their curiosity. You have to be fiercely curious. So things like I mentioned before, having a study plan, creating the list—this is one of the favorite things that I discovered in the course of my research doing this book is this thing that occurred with Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash. He found out when she was younger that she had such a terrible understanding of the foundation of country music and he took a sheet of paper and he wrote out a list
of country songs and he handed it to her and said, “Here. Here’s your education. This is your list.”
So whatever field you’re in, whatever industry you’re in, whatever area you want to pursue, figure out what is that list for me? What is the list of the top 50 resources that I absolutely have to become intimately familiar with if I want to be effective in my work, and then start diving into those resources and pursuing them. You know, that is your education, but you have to stoke the fires of your curiosity if you want to continue to get your best work out of you every day.
C is comfort. It’s so easy, once you experience success as we mentioned, to become comfortable, to become stagnant.
We are creatures of comfort. We like comfort, you know. It’s evolutionary biology pushes us towards comfort, but if we want to continue to grow, we have go practice as a regular growth into our life—skill development. What are you trying that’s new, that pushing you outside of your comfort zone? What skills do you need to develop tomorrow’s challenges, and start doing that now, today. Build a practice of that, rather than waiting until those skills are needed. Start developing them now.
“D” is delusion. And it’s important to be self-aware if you want to be effective, but so many people, David, get carried along by this perception of themselves, or worse, they’re afraid to take risks and try things and possibly fail because they would rather live with this sense of invulnerability than try something and fail and have to face up to reality. You know, so people, and I see this all the time in the market place. We build these walls around ourselves, these walls of self delusion that prevent us from seeing the world as it is and seeing ourselves the way other people see us. So we have to pursue radical self-awareness if we want to be effective in our work.
“E” is ego. You know ego can definitely stand in the way of our best work because it causes us to become fossilized around practices and systems. People again would rather drive the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean than admit that the boat might be sinking. If we want to be effective, we have to be confidently adaptable, which is different from being ego driven. We have to be confidently adaptable, meaning, “Hey, I believe I’m right, but I’m willing to listen to disconfirming information.” If you don’t do that, then you’re very likely to end up in a place where you’re fossilized around practices that are only driving you
to the bottom of the ocean, as I mentioned before.
“F” is for fear. Fear is about the unknown. It’s what we don’t know that often kills us. Donald Rumsfeld, a couple of years ago, gave this talk on what it was like to fight carousels. He said, “There are the known knowns, there are the known unknowns, there are the unknown knowns and the known unknowns.” Right? And he was kind of roundly mocked for that, but I thought, this guy’s brilliant! Because he’s describing what it’s like to have to step into uncertainty on a daily basis and do your work.
Fear is all about the unknown. It’s all about what we can’t see and the only way to combat fear is to take one step at a time, into the darkness, to say yes to opportunities even if they scare us. Say yes to opportunities or as my friend Thad Cockrell likes to say, “To step into dark rooms.” So every day, are you stepping into a dark room, trying something new, experimenting, stretching yourself and trying to find your voice, which only happens by trial and error.
And then the final area is guardedness “G”—that’s the final deadly sin. And this relates to something we were talking
about earlier. If we want to be effective, we have to stay connected. We need other people in our life. One of the practices that specifically that call out in that section is what I call finding a mirror. We need to have other people in our life who have complete and total permission to say whatever it is they’re seeing in our life, without us getting offended or getting defensive. We need other people to reflect back to us, what they’re seeing in us and to help us stay aligned if we really, really want
to be effective and get our best work out of us every day.
So those are the seven principles: Aimlessness, Boredom, Comfort, Delusion, Ego, Fear, Guardedness—those are the seven deadly sins and then a few practices to help countermand them.
DA: That’s very cool. You know, one of the things I’d like to tie this into because I found it so interesting, our paths as they have wound together in a way, one way that we describe GTD and it’s real primary driver, is getting present, and the strategic value of clear space. And so all of the things that essentially distract people and that gets more and more subtle as we unpeel that onion, is really about identifying what it is that’s pulling on your attention. What is it that’s keeping you from being fully present?
DA: What we have not done nearly to the degree you have is, okay, once you get present, what do you fill it up with? TH: Yes.
DA: You know, once you have like—empty head, or once your head’s clear, where do you now point it and what do you
do with it? And I love the qualitative aspect of what you’ve added to that. But to that point, I’d love to go back, because this
is a pretty GTD audience that’s listening to this, you’ve mentioned that you did run across this stuff. And again, there’s so many confluences here in terms of being able to step back, see the bigger picture, the weekly review, your monthly review …
DA: … being able to—you know, all those great tips and tricks that you’ve come up with. So how and when did you run
across GTD and you know, how did it impact you? You’ve mentioned a couple things already. Anything else you could add?
TH: Absolutely! Well, I try any and every system I could get my hands on when I was first in the marketplace to try to help me be more organized and effective and I come from—my background is in the arts, and I was a musician, in my—as I call them now, my misguided 20’s. And so I was traveling and playing music and I was on the business side as well, and so then when I entered into the marketplace, I really didn’t have some of those tools that my other peers had developed in their 20’s by necessity and so I started reading any and every book I could get my hands on. A friend gave me Getting Things Done, and I have to say, David, it completely and radically changed my life. I mean it did! I know you hear that all the time, but just the way it helped
me structure how I thought about my work. This is by the way, all pre any kind of technology to help me with this. I mean, I was using index cards, file folders. I mean, basically what you described in the original book. And now my system looks a lot different and we talked about that. But I basically became a GTD addict and I did basically by the book for probably the first three or four years, that I was doing GTD and then I kind of developed a few things on my own to kind of help me adapt the system and make it a little bit more consistent with where I needed to be, specifically my research as a writer, and my work with clients and things like that.
So I think I came across it in probably 2002/2003, was an avid GTD addict. People call me a book bully because I’m always pushing books in people’s hands and telling them, “You have to read this.” I probably have put more copies of GTD into people’s hands than any other book. Maybe The War of Art might be the other one that competes with it, you know, Steve Pressfield, but yeah, I think that as far as, and I’ve encountered every system out there, I think as far as helping creatives and knowledge workers organize their day to day activities, I have yet to come across anything that does it as effectively as GTD has done it for me.
DA: Well it’s nice to have somebody like you as a poster child to demonstrate how much … Let me back up. Most people see GTD, even when they see the book and they see a picture of me in a corporate suit and all that stuff, they think, “Agh, yeah,
I probably should because it’s corporate, this is left brain, and this is going to stifle my creativity and my spontaneity though
I think I probably should do this.” And what’s really great is a lot of the people that people would call some of the more creative types have really taken to GTD …
DA: … simply because of the space that it allows. People do it for a lot of different reasons, but that’s where there’s such
a cross over with your work.
TH: Well, what GTD has done David, is—in my life I’ll say, is it allows me to not worry—it allows me to know what I’m not doing, so that I can focus on the things that I need to be doing. And when you deal with uncertainty on a daily basis, like
you do when you’re creating on demand. It’s basically a step into uncertainty on a daily basis. You’re dealing with enough uncertainty in the course of your work that you don’t want to have to deal with uncertainty in terms of your system and your structure. So having that structure of knowing, okay—here are all the things I’m deciding not to do today, because I’ve got these lists of things over here and I know what I’m choosing not to do, allows me then to have the space to focus on the things that I am doing, or to really quickly redirect and say, “Okay, this is no longer important. I’m going to pull something
off of this list and I’m going to focus on that instead.” And you know, I might have, at any given time, 30-40-50-60-70 projects on my list and you know, tasks under each of those, but just knowing that those are there and that my mind is clear, allows me to focus on my writing or my client work or whatever it is on a daily basis, without having to worry about: What am I forgetting?
DA: Cool. And so what—people love the details. What would your system look like now, if I sat down with you and said, “Okay, how do you keep track of those projects?” And also, especially in your case, how do you manage a lot of the potentially creative inputs and collateral material, you know, the stuff that you might be writing about at some point in terms of digital
or paper-based filing, or any and all of that.
DA: So if I walked into your sort of productivity eco-system right now, what would I see? What are your key tools?
TH: Yeah, so all of my lists are in OmniFocus. I know you’ve talked about OmniFocus a lot. OmniFocus for me is the best, I found to be the best tool that most matches how I work and I use it on the map, I use it on iPad®, iPhone®, all of my lists keep synced up, everywhere I am on my task list. So everywhere I am, I can kind of see what I need to be focused on at that moment which is great for me. And again, I do a lot of moving things around and you know, defer things, or whatever, but it’s just knowing that I’m doing it that’s helpful. Right? Which is—that’s the best thing for me.
And I use Evernote for my notes system. So anything that’s a long term archive goes into Evernote. I have a scan snap scanner that I scan all my papers in. If it’s important, if I want to keep it for research for later, then I throw it into Evernote.
The note-taking system that I use, because people are often surprised by this because I’m such a technophile, I use index cards and I’ve used index cards for probably 10 years now. Index cards are cheap, they’re ubiquitous. If I run out of them, if I’m in a different city giving a talk, I can stop by a convenience store and buy a new stack of them. I have this little card wallet thing that I use, and so I just stick it in my back pocket, I pull it out, I can take notes. So at the end of any given day, I might have 8 to 10 index cards full of notes and things I’ve captured, whatever. Then I’ll sit down with those and I’ll put them into OmniFocus if they’re relevant. If they’re not relevant right now, I’ll scan them in the scan-snap and throw them
in Evernote and then the great thing about Evernote is later I can always search for text and it’ll go and find whatever it was I was looking for.
I use index cards, as well, when I’m taking notes on books for research, things of that nature and they’ll inevitably end up in Evernote at some point, because that’s the best filing system I found, mostly because of the search functionality.
But as far as capture, I used to do everything on my iPhone and by the time I type my pass code, I opened Evernote, I opened a new note, I completely forgot what I was trying to do.
TH: So for me, I’ve just found index cards are cheap, ubiquitous and really the best way to capture. Plus, there’s something, David, about physical writing that causes me to internalize the work differently. When I’m writing something down with
a pen, versus typing it in with my thumbs, something about the force of nature of having to slow down—I don’t know
what it is, but for some reason I just tend to think more deeply about the context of that work and why I’m writing it down and I tend to remember it better as well, if I’m physically writing it down.
DA: Yeah, me too, me too.
TH: Now, as far as research goes, I use a tool called Instapaper, which maybe some people have heard of. There are other tools like Pocket and Read-It-Later, I think is another one, but InstaPaper is a tool that allows me to capture any articles that
I come across on the web and throw it into basically a queue for reading later and so I’ll throw anything that looks of interest to me. I have time set aside to kind of go through all of the feeds and all of the web stuff that I look at on a daily basis. I’ll throw it into InstaPaper. Then during my study time, I’ll sit down and I’ll actually read through those articles, I’ll highlight things, I’ll throw things in Evernote if they’re relevant to what I’m working on, or I’ll also put them in a folder that I call “Recommended” and then those recommended articles I send out to my weekly email list, so I try to keep tabs of the ones that I think are really, really great and then I send those out to people later and I’ll just kind of funnel them in different directions, send them to people, attach them to a project if I think they’re relevant. Yeah, so that’s what I use mostly for my study time.
DA: Cool. And how do you get yourself to do a weekly review. You know that’s the nemesis of many people trying to stay onto a system as some regular, bring up the rear guard kind of event. Was that easy for you to build in? Obviously it’s one of your best practices now.
TH: No it’s not. It takes discipline and mostly because I’m traveling. There are really two modes for me. There’s home mode— so like I’m in my office mode and there’s travel mode, because certain times of the year, like October, I’m just
gone. I’m just not going to be home. I’m doing tons of conference talks or whatever. But what I’ve discovered is that if
I can eliminate as many variables as possible ahead of the review, then I’m much more likely to make the review happen.
So for me, the absolute best time for me is Sunday evening, because Sunday’s I tend to not work, unless I’m traveling. I’ve
had rest with the family. We’ve been doing stuff, we’ve been hanging out, whatever, but there aren’t as many solid commitments leading up to that. So if I do, say, 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock on a Sunday evening, it’s a pretty good bet that that time isn’t going
to be usurped by some other commitment.
However, I used to try to do it like end of day on Friday or something like that, and there would be a meeting or a phone call, or I was stressed about something or I was past a deadline on something, or whatever and so that always got pushed off into the nether-regions of my work world and sometimes it didn’t happen.
So I found, the best way to make it happen is to reduce the number of variables leading into it, so it’s the first thing I do. So
I kind of treat it as I’m kicking off my work week on Sunday evening at 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock, whatever it is, I’m kicking off my work week with this and it’s going to help me reframe my work. I get to look at my commitments that are coming up. I can ask the various prompts, many of which I put in Die Empty, the kinds of things I ask myself about, “Am I focused? Am I doing the right things? Am I growing this week? When’s that going to happen?” You know, all of those things kind of get baked into that weekly review on Sunday evening, so that when I go into my work week on Monday I’m set and I’m ready to go.
DA: Yeah, no—that’s—your Die Empty has so much great content to throw into a template for a weekly review for people that are really into keeping themselves focused. So I still have it as one of my actions was to create an Evernote list of questions for myself, you know, just based upon that. I have finished that one yet, but it’s a great idea, so I highly recommend that people look at that if you’re already seriously doing or you’re sincerely doing any kind of that regular regrouping with yourself. He’s got some fabulous questions in there.
TH: Well, you know I think the thing for me, and I learned this a long time ago, a lot of this stuff that I write about is the result of painful experience right?
DA: Yeah, me too.
TH: And you know, I learned a long time ago that an ounce of preventative effort now is way better than a pound of corrective action later, right? So if you can just discipline yourself to put an ounce of preventative energy today into your work, into how you structure it and all of that, it’s going to eliminate so many potential pitfalls and self destructions down the road. It’s so much better to just do it—just act on it, make it happen now, and you won’t have the regrets later.
DA: You know, you preempted the question I was going to ask you as we kind of roll this to a close here, was: What suggestions, what tips come top of mind to you that you’d like to share with people who are new to GTD and people who are new to your work, if you wanted to leave people with a nudge, a gem right now, about any and all of that?
TH: Yeah, I would say that the biggest advice I would have about all of that is listen, systems are guiding principles. Systems do not exist for the sake of the system. Systems exist to help you do the work and whenever your system becomes about the system, or whenever you’re obsessively tweaking your system in order to have a better system, then you’re missing the point. The point is doing great work. GTD is a great framework for that and all of the stuff that I write about folds into GTD because that’s the framework I’ve been using for a long time, right? But I always tell people when they come up to me and say, “Hey, I want to apply all these things that you’re writing about but I feel like it just overwhelms me.” I say, “Listen, back up, look at your life and ask yourself what one or two or three things can I start doing consistently— right? Right now, what one or two or three things can I build in now consistently, and then once you’re doing those things consistently, great, then start building in a couple more things, but don’t let the system itself overwhelm you. A system
is a guiding principle.”
And the same thing for GTD. I started off doing it by the letter, but over time, I’ve adapted it a little bit to make it work better for me, but it’s just a guiding principle. It’s a brilliant guiding principle, but the system doesn’t exist for the sake of the system, it exists to help me do better work.
So that would be, I think my best advice for people would be just, “Look, whatever you do, the most important thing is to do it consistently.”
DA: Very cool. So what’s inspiring you now? I know you’ve got the new book that’s launching, I bet that’s going to keep you involved for a while and doing some fun things I’m sure. Anything else or anything about that you’d like to share? What’s inspiring you and where you’re going?
TH: Yeah, I mean the thing I’m super excited David and the funny thing is, you know, I mentioned earlier that I was a little concerned about this was kind of a side-track in my career trajectory writing this book and many of my colleagues and probably our colleagues had a good laugh at my expense when I was on calls with them. You know, like I can just see, “Die Empty” a big banner coming down behind you at a sales conference, whatever.
But I have to tell you that the response to this book has been really overwhelming to me and you know, I’m sure, very well, that when you create something that’s very close to your heart and you really care about—you put it out there, there’s always this kind of, “Eh—what do you think?” Right? Because I really care about this deeply and the response has been super overwhelming and I can’t wait to get it into as many hands as possible. So that’s really exciting and inspiring me, but the thing that really inspires me more than anything, getting to go out and look people eye to eye and hear their story and help them figure out how to get on a path that’s going to unleash their best work, to help them get past their sticking points. The most inspirational things for me always happen in the context of conversation, even for the introvert that I am. It always happens
in the context of conversation with people, because we all have something unique to contribute. There is something that
we have to contribute that no one else in the world will ever be able to contribute because of our unique experiences, our passions, our skills and our opportunities. And if we don’t do it, it will never ever see the light of day. So I don’t want to rob the world of my contribution. I know you don’t want to rob the world of your contribution, David, and I hope that listeners feel the same way. The only way we’re going to get to a point where we can make that contribution is by being purposeful about how we structure our life and our day to day activities for getting our best work out of us every day.
DA: Fabulous! So, if people would like to get in touch with you directly or touch into what you’re all about and talking about and conversing about, is that okay? How would they do that?
TH: Absolutely! Yeah, the best way to do that is probably toddhenry.com and there’s a little contact menu item, or you can just go straight to toddhenry.com/contact, and those emails always get routed to me. So I would love to hear feedback,
or questions or any thoughts that people have.
DA: Todd this has been great. Thank you so much. I loved turning the tables on you and interviewing you and congratulations on the great work and the new book, and we’ll stay in touch.
TH: David, thanks so much and thanks for the brilliant work that you do and the inspiration you’ve been to countless millions of people like me out there.
DA: Cool. Take care.
DAVID ALLEN’S CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Wow! As I listen back to this conversation, I got another dose of inspiration and direction for my own work. As pat as Todd’s acronyms and models might seem, most like GTD, I really get them as appropriately baked down essences of what’s true for all of us, with lots of value to be gleaned from them, ongoing.
Well, thanks for listening. Stay connected. We’re all in this game together and to Todd’s point, let’s stay In Conversation, in whatever form.