Episode #12 – GTD and Self Leadership

Join David Allen in an intriguing conversation with Robyn Scott, a brilliant 30-something Brit with a fascinating background and palette of projects. As an author, social entrepreneur, and already a recognized leader in global change, she discusses how GTD has had an impact on her work, and explores with David a new and effective technique for motivating ourselves to actually take the next actions that we define.

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INTRODUCTION BY DAVID ALLEN: Hi, David Allen back with you In Conversation with interesting and productive folks in our GTD network. In a few moments, you’ll hear me talking with and also learning from Robyn Scott, a delightful, bright and energetic young Brit, who, at less than half my age, has already accomplished some pretty amazing stuff.
I initially connected with Robyn through Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take who pointed me to a blog she recently wrote, describing her discovery of the value of framing GTD next actions, an emotional pay-off context, instead of the traditional action categories.
Then, as I discovered more about Robyn, I really wanted to share her rich story and practical wisdoms with everyone.
Here we go.
DAVID ALLEN: Hi everybody, David Allen back and I intend to have a lot of fun and learn a bunch of stuff in the next few minutes as I chat with Robyn Scott. And Robyn, if you surf the web for Robyn Scott, that’s R-O-B-Y-N, uh as I have, you’re gonna see an awful lot of stuff. She’s only – how old? What? And of course, then again you’re part of a millennial generation that is doing those kinds of things in spades. So I’ll stop here and let me toss it to you Robyn. You’ve got a bunch of people potentially listening to this and if they don’t know who you are, give us a few paragraphs, however you want to frame that, because I’ll poke and prod at you, you know – whatever you might leave out, so don’t worry.
ROBYN SCOTT: Well this was extremely exciting to be here. I’ve been a long-term GTD fan, so I think as I explained to Adam Grant who made the introduction between us, it’s like meeting the pope of productivity.
DAVID ALLEN: Ha, ha, ha.
ROBYN SCOTT: It’s a real honor to be interviewed today. Uh, it’s probably worth, in terms of why I’m doing what I’m doing now, just skipping back a little bit to my childhood briefly. So I grew up quite unusually in the middle of the bush in Botswana, um, and didn’t go to school until I was 15, with some very odd parents. My father was a flight doctor and my mother was a straight academic who obsessed about home schooling us and then very quickly went from a life that was pretty boring to teach three young kids. So we had this wild and increasingly, I realize, wonderful – the older I get the more I appreciate the time, it was sometimes frustrating, but life in the bush, 200 kilometers from the nearest shop and with endless free reign.
And what was quite significant about that for me I think two things, one that I developed a real love of starting things, because if you’re not schooled you’re forced to experiment and see what works and uh starting businesses in particular. I think Botswana is a really interesting country because it’s a successful African democracy. You’ve got massive problems, but you’ve also got a huge amount of potential so it’s got the best of the continent and a lot of optimism.
So I’ve always been interested in business as a force for good and a blank slate in terms of what you can do with resources.
And then as a second important part of this background, I was growing up against the AIDS epidemic. We were there from 1987 to 2002 and that was the highest rate of infection in the world at one point. Um, at the moment one in every 20 citizens in the country is an AIDS orphan, so I’ve just always felt very deeply that one has a sense of responsibility to do something.
I then had a chip on my shoulder about not being educated and so tried to accumulate some real education. I studied bioinformatics in Orkland and New Zealand and um, then did a post-graduate degree in Cambridge in the UK in commercializing early stage science. Um, I did a thesis on medicines pricing, uh worked at the Financial Times for a little bit and after um got the idea to write a book about Botswana. There’d been a lot of stories of ex-patriot, particularly women in Africa that are quite miserable in a way, it was set in a tragic context and I thought it was an opportunity to tell a more positive story about the country and also weave in the story of AIDS.
So I wrote that book, got very lucky with the timing, used some of the capital I got from the advance to start a social business in Botswana – a non-profit social business that’s led to something, uh another one in South Africa working with prisoners, which we can maybe touch on, because I actually think we can learn a lot from prisoners and uh, did start another company based out of London which connect entrepreneurs and corporate, called One Meet, and now starting um, very early stages of a company that’s looks at generosity and increasing it and that’s called Intros.
DAVID ALLEN: Uh wow – wow. Any one of those is good as you can probably – and people listening to this could probably imagine, I think it’s been multiple hours of digging in and finding out and how come and what it’s like and what you’ve learned, etcetera, about all that, but maybe fill in a few of the blanks about the uh – one leap are you still – is that still going, are you still engaged in that, and mothers for all, so – so – let’s take your active or currently engaged activities and maybe flesh out a good paragraph on each one of those. I think each one of them is fascinating.
ROBYN SCOTT: So – yeah, very much so, it’s still a start-up, so we’re learning a lot and adapting, but we’re really excited about the potential of turning the power balance slightly around, so in the past, big corporates controlled all the resources. They also sort of had a sense of control of the ideas and that’s very quickly changing. We’ve got a real democratization of innovation and small companies can scale enormously rapidly, so what we do is we bring in SWAT teams of brilliant entrepreneurs into big companies and help them change their thinking and increase the speed of which they can do something, in such a way that it benefits both sides. It breaks down the barriers between market leaders and market innovators. And I’ve always, I think, partly as a function of background, been interested in connections between very different groups of people, because I think the more different two people are, obviously the higher risk the connection is, the least – less likely it is to work out, but also the benefits, if you do make it work are enormous, in helping both sides to see the world differently.
And then on Mothers for All, so that started in Botswana. We began by thinking how could we help the communities that are bearing the burden on AIDS predominantly to do it better and to have a more equitable situation where you support the people who’ve taken these kids to their homes. So we began by saying we would take any woman who had voluntarily taken into her home two or more orphans and we train these women in environmentally friendly cross-skills as a basic starting point, which brings them a living wage. We sell their products around the world, but we also overlay on top of that, financial skills training. Barkley’s Bank is one of our big supporters. The World Bank has also given us grants. We give these women accounting skills, we teach them permaculture courses and we take the women who are most able and we put them in more leadership positions. That’s been going for several years now, continues to grow and to touch many lives and is tremendously exciting. We know that only national grass roots are non-profit in Botswana.
Out of that we’ve recently spun out Brothers For, in South Africa and that is working with ex-offenders, helping them integrate back into society. You’ve got recidivism rates of sometimes upwards of 90% in South Africa country, which has huge crime problems, huge unemployment problems, so we take these men and we help them develop skills, but we also help them to become positive agents of change in their communities and I think that is just a tremendously, tremendously exciting area in development, because the whole – all these gender narratives tend to focus explicitly on women – you know, how do we solve the problem from the perspective of women, but actually you’ve got to work with men too and there’s something slightly scary but also marvelous about taking people who’ve done really terrible things and starting there and saying, “Let’s try and unpick the problem” from their perspective.
DAVID ALLEN: Wow, that’s amazing. By the way, I have to go back to the first one, in terms of – of people of different ilks and venues and ecosystems and intersecting with each other. Is anybody surfs the web and sees a picture of Robyn Scott in terms of growing up in a place that you probably don’t look like you belong there. Uh, young, blonde, you know, English and somewhere I saw a picture of your grandmother’s house with a calf or something that was on the bed, ha, ha, ha. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt an exciting conversation about what you’re doing with the men and adopting these orphans.
ROBYN SCOTT: Yeah, so I got involved with this project actually through my mother who was doing medical research in prison populations, but it was originally around this extraordinary group of men in the most dangerous prison in the country, and this is one of the most violent countries in the world, who had recently received a talk about HIV and AIDS at a time when Thabo Mbeki, then president was basically in denial about the disease. And one man in particular had been so struck by the misery being imposed on the communities, that he thought, maybe this is bad enough, that even us maximum prisoners who own nothing could do something to help.
And this prison was ghastly. You couldn’t have musical instruments, that was part of the punishment to being in maximum and he – this young black man um who was in for a political crime, managed to persuade a white Afrikaans social worker, who’s an incredibly enlightened guy and extraordinary man, but the combination of these – a white man and a black man collaborating was very unusual at the time, still a deep racism in the prisons, even post Apartheid, he persuaded the social worker to back them, this weird group of men in this endeavor to give something back to the community and basically this man went out into the townships around the prison, which is just north – about an hour and a half, north of Cape Town in the wine lands and he said, “Look, I’ve got these eight maximum security prisoners who are on a mission to give something back and they want to see if there’s an orphan they can help.”
And he went to Child Welfare and there were like, “Man this is South Africa, it’s bad but it’s not that bad.”
And he basically was referred eventually to a woman who’d taken in raped toddlers into her home, a poorly educated grandmother, who’s in the township. And he went to her and he said, “Look do you have a kid who could benefit from the help even of a group of maximum prisoners?”
And she said, “Sure I do.” She had this little boy called Tabung. He was 11 at the time; he looked about 8, lost his whole family to AIDS and had AIDS himself. He also had spina bifida, so he had very little chance in the world and he was a skeleton and they took him to the prison to meet these men and they were so moved that they did this extraordinary thing, they possessed nothing, had no autonomy or control, but the only items they could claim of their own were their civilian clothes which were locked up awaiting their release and some of these of guys were in for life and these were the – I suppose, the bastions of freedom their connection to the outside world and they cut them up. They got special permission for scissors and needles and these big burly men, all of them murderers, started stitching clothes for this little boy, so when he came the next time, they gave him these very inelegant trousers and shirts and that – that gesture, won so much admiration and astonishment from the prisoner authorities that they got more permissions. They were allowed to grow vegetable garden and it has become an extraordinary and completely unprecedented program where they adopt and support hundreds of children in the local community. These kids visits once a month, they have a party at the prison and they get out of their dilapidated bus that they’re dropped off in, and they run to the prison fence and they hang onto the fence and shake it trying to get inside, which is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, but it’s an absolutely fascinating extreme hardcore example of who two – two extraordinarily different groups by being in a situation where all assumptions drop away and there’s just a real need to help each other in really profound manner. You’ve got these children who have nothing, who don’t see the skin color of the men, they don’t see their orange prison uniforms, they just see someone who can help them and then you’ve got the men who have children that just love them and look up to them and it’s been also extremely interesting in the effect it’s had on some of the very racist white men working with these kids and being needed by these poor black kids in the township, completely transformed their view of other races.
And it always makes me think and kind of come back in a weird way to productivity, but sometimes we almost ask too little of ourselves. We assume that when we’ve got limited time or limited resources, we should minimize or ask to make it easy to get started. And in this case, it was actually the sheer scale of the ask, the impossibility of supporting orphans that I think had help energy that made it possible. So sometimes something impossible can actually maybe a more practical way to start.
DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, oh that’s such a fascinating spin on that and uh, you know, interesting factor about that – and thank you for sharking that story Robyn. By the way, I would assume this is being documented by somebody.
ROBYN SCOTT: That was the final part. So I – I met them and started writing about them. My literary agent – I swore I wasn’t going to write another book, but he heard about this and he was like, “This is the most extraordinary story. You should tell it.” So very slowly I’m writing the book, and it was the involvement through the book that made me connect the work of the non-profit, uh – so yes, writing it as a book, it will hopefully be a documentary and possibly a feature film. It’s kind of – its sort African Shawshank Redemption style.
DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, no kidding. And you know I have to say as you’re speaking. I haven’t – only fairly recently have I sort of really had a reason to sort of tap into this generational value system. And of course the millennials of which I’d say you were probably – the flying wedge of a demonstration of the millennial values or one way to say that is work has to be fun and fun has to be meaningful, you know, and it’s a 24/7 engagement and it’s not – it’s not like work and then life and then any of that sort of stuff.
Now I had a chance to work with Ignite Good, which is a nascent organization of just millennials in the U.S. uh and it’s fascinating to me to see how much richness there is in just the experience, but an experience that has to do with you know, kind of in a strange way, the whole productivity equation and you know, outcome and action thinking as opposed to victim and problem thinking. Uh, you know, is – is – and boy what an example of that, so – so best wishes in that endeavor. And you know, anybody listening to this, if they can bring any support to what you’re doing.
ROBYN SCOTT: Thank you. Everyone can’t say that. And I’ve learned this and been so surprised is really a lot of this mission driven, highly value driven work and the way it blends into careers is about mobilizing other people and it’s absolutely remarkable today with the, I suppose technology, but also people wanting to participate in solving important problems, how – how much good will you can draw on and I think a lot of what seems to be individual story is actually a complex where both a lot of people participating. And one of the things that slightly embarrasses me is telling the story of this work is important and I love doing it, but I’m possibly the least important part of many of these equations.
DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, well – that’s to be seen, you know, as we go on.
So I hate to say this sounds like kind of a step down, like gearing down into first gear instead of high gear, which is you know a lot of – a landscape that you’ve been describing there, and back to the precipitating event of us connecting with each other was this fascinating thing and again, it’s pretty unique, you know, in my 30+ years of being involved with best practices, about how you get stuff done with as little effort as possible, you know, and make that meaningful. Uh, the spin that you put on how do you motivate yourself, you know, to be engaged in all the stuff that you define that you need to do. You know, the late, great Peter Drucker, you know, and a lot of our work is – how do you define what your work is, which is one of the bigger challenges.
Interestingly by the way, a sidebar on that is I’ve discovered I’m in the process of revising Getting Things Done. You know, Penquin wanted me to – we’ve mutually decided it was time to update some of the vocabulary and some of the spin on all this. The principles are you know, are your eternal, but how we think about that, whereas in the book I talked about knowledge work. You know, I think a lot of people don’t even relate to that, especially people of your generation. You just grew up in this, where you had to think to figure out what to do. Work was not self-evident and so almost like the last thing a fish notices is water. So essentially everybody essentially has to sit down and define what it is that I need to do, want to do. So it requires that. And so, a lot of, as you so rightly, up I think uncovered in this fabulous blog that you wrote and we’ll have to let everybody know how to go read that if they haven’t seen it yet, about – you can define all the actions that you need to do and that’s hugely beneficial and has a high value to it, just that process itself, as well as learning what that thought process is and getting comfortable with it. Then I got to tell you, the biggest issue out of all of this is how come people can’t make it stick. You know, they get it. Nobody in the two million books out there of mine in all the languages, nobody has ever written back and said anything in there is wrong and everybody writes back and says, “It’s all fabulous, I wish I did it regularly.” Ha, ha, ha – so the building of habit is what you did and I know this sounds all mysterious for people who don’t know what I’m talking about, so let me toss it to you Robyn to give at least a long paragraph and we can probe into it a little bit further about what you uncovered or discovered about this in terms of how do you motivate yourself to actually do those actions that are on your list?
ROBYN SCOTT: And funny enough, you said it’s maybe a step-down from the drama of that prison story, but I actually see it as fundamentally linked because the thinking behind this experiment [INAUDIBLE 00:22:17] to the post was really how, when one’s overwhelmed with tasks that are about the sort of survival kind of stuff, not in a critical sense but surviving with the demands of work, etcetera, however you carve out the time to do things for other people which have a longer term payoff and I began with the questions specifically around giving generous introductions, which is something I’m looking a lot at now and when you started. And one of the challenges I had with connecting people is I know – I know it’s a good thing, I know great things come out of it, but it takes real effort, it takes cognitive effort um, as well as time to do it well and the …
DAVID ALLEN: And we should step back and maybe describe what we mean by introducing people, like, “Hi, you need to know – I know two people and they don’t know each other so I need to hook them up together and I think that’d be really cool.”
ROBYN SCOTT: Absolutely. You could solve each other’s problems, you could do something really important together, but those kind of high value introductions also require a lot of thought and imagination and judgment both how both sides will react to it. So we’ve all experienced introductions being transformative in our lives, but doing them well takes an investment of time from the person making the connection and investment of effort. And I always think about how I could build a habit around that and I realized that basically it’s like a question of ego. The pay-off of making an introduction when you’re thinking about what could happen later, is too deferred and I got to thinking about why – what makes me feel good about it immediately? And it was this idea of being helpful, like a feeling you send introduction off and you feel like a good person who’s contributing something. So I thought, what if I create a bucket in my task list for helpful things, introductions and other actions I can take to benefit other people? So I open it in the morning and there’s a list that says, “Hey you do these things and you’re gonna feel like a good person in the world”, which is a nice thing to work towards across the day.
And I found it really helpful to, most regularly to do that. So then I started thinking, “What is every action has some sort of emotional payoff and I began playing with different emotional outcomes and categorizing tasks by those different outcomes. So, for say, business critical ones, sending off an investment plan or a big client proposal, I feel pretty [INAUDIBLE 00:25:02] when I complete those and then all the irks and um slightly tedious things that you know you have to get done; it might be a reorganization or a meeting you’d rather not do but which is important and I those in a supremely satisfying bucket and I chose these superlative descriptions ‘cause I found that actually meant that it ruled out some of the tasks I shouldn’t be doing in the first place, because if you’re doing a task that’s just going to make you feel like okay afterwards, the chances are you might not need to be doing it.
So I had these really dramatic descriptions of the task lists, which I …
DAVID ALLEN: I have to read that list, by the way. I don’t know how much it’s changed, but the ones we have – triumphant …
DAVID ALLEN: We have supremely satisfying. We have massive relief. We have highly helpful. We have basic decency. We have delight, and we have fit for battle. I mean this is poetic in and of itself. Just to unpack the emotional content, that truly was there. And you didn’t have to – it’s not like you had to go find valuable things to do, it was like finding the value in the things you were already doing.
That to me is an absolutely phenomenal paradignamical twist on how to think about your stuff. Truly.
ROBYN SCOTT: I think it’s like – I began to think of it a bit like a sort of toggle key that it allows you by reminding yourself of the value and having emotions as a context, it almost creates value as a context and it allows you to, when you see your task in that emotional context, you almost get back of it and you toggle out to a higher intent or purpose or priority and it allows you to unlock your – it allows me at least to unlock my brain from what is sometimes a very single minded involvement the present, which is not always helpful.
DAVID ALLEN: You know Robyn it interests me because we’re going through sort of a branding process, not just sort of but as a very real branding process because the GTD and David Allen Company brand was sort of the little brand that ran out from under us. We didn’t – you know, it was not even a conscious process, it kind of just spread around the world in spite of ourselves, so actually stepping back and saying, “Now wait a minute, there’s an awful lot of GTD that’s presented as the what the how and not a lot about the way.” And so – interesting ‘cause when I think about what you uncovered with that, it’s taking the why down to the granular, sort of on the ground, run-way level.
DAVID ALLEN: You might have the big why. Oh – okay, yeah – well we understand our corporate purpose and we’re doing great work in the world, etcetera and then it all rolls down to the meeting you have to go to and the budget you have to do and the report you got to write in and you know this phone call you have to return and you lose the connection between that big why and the little why, but the little why may be and probably is as profound as the big one – maybe even more so. So – so that’s what I think you tapped into there, which was – I’m still kind of resonating around it.
ROBYN SCOTT: I love the way you put it because you can never do big whys – big whys are goals, whereas you can execute on the little whys and you can get to the end of the day and tick them off, but I … You know, talking about the value side of it, I’ve always seen GTD – it gives you superpowers to do the stuff you really care about – to do the whys, so the idea of integrating that in the brand I think is super exciting. I generally put it – getting things fun, it’s like one inspiration on getting things done, it’s more profound than that.
DAVID ALLEN: Where there may not – thank you and I see that as well and getting things fun is a whole lot of the big sticking point, ‘cause people go, how come I sit and I stare at these action lists and they wind up you know, playing solitaire or you know, having a beer or whatever, not that those are bad things, but when you’re doing those to avoid things that actually – all you’re doing is creating a bigger should. You know, the great sign on your desk: I will not should on myself today, but boy that’s one of the biggest hurdles I think that people have to navigate when they implement this powerful stuff and the way we’re framing GTD is it produces the conditions for people to flourish, because it allows you the freedom to be creative, the freedom to do this because it actually does handle those kinds of distractions. And all that’s well and good except when you get down to the real micro: why am I doing this? And there is no emotional juice to this. In fact, there’s an emotional negativity that shows up around this, because I didn’t make that – have a connection.
ROBYN SCOTT: Absolutely. And I also think a side-effect of this for me has been that you start to – I’m a writer, story-teller, so I think in terms of [INAUDIBLE 00:30:03] but now when I open my task list in the morning, there’s a sense of, I suppose it sounds a bit cheesy but abundance, ‘cause each day is a picture of why. So this day might be a day when I’ve got a long task list – it might be hard, but I’ve got opportunities to help a lot of people, or I’m going to be learning a lot from these activities, so each day has it’s little kind of mini-narrative and personality of sorts which is linked to bigger things that you care about. So it’s almost like the task thing become uh small parts of a story and they have a – there’s an integrity to that picture, an integrity of purpose, which I find is helpful framing.
DAVID ALLEN: That’s totally elegant and I have to say, and this is self-disclosing time, I actually printed out a big part of my action list to frame that the way you framed it, and I was going …
ROBYN SCOTT: Ha, ha, ha.
DAVID ALLEN: … and I got to say, this is not easy. Ha, ha, ha. It may be – certainly at the level that I’m working at sort of professionally, when I look at my list, for instance, uh editing a newsletter that we send out to 200,000 people out there, with an essay that I’ve written, what’s the – how do I describe that? Now it is fulfilling when I’ve done it. It feels very satisfying when I’ve done it, but in a way, you know, I’ve gotten to a point in my life where a lot of the work I do has impact that is quite – not abstract but far away from my sort of immediate experience of it, other than the joy, you know, as a writer, you know writing is something that’s the worst thing in the world to do until you’ve done it. So I love to have [INAUDIBLE 00:31:51]
DAVID ALLEN: You know, ‘cause you actually have to think and oh, God, ramping up the thinking engine sometimes is really tough to really do that. So – so you know, part of this, I’m going to hire you as a coach to sit down with me and help me unpack – wait a minute, because it’s not like wow, that’s unmeaningful to me, therefore let me take it off my list, it’s really understanding what is the subtlety of why there’s a pay-off here. And I could feel already a difference as I’m going through all this. All these errands like find a good man bag. You know, ‘cause I just saw – you know, I love bags. I got – I got – I probably have 14 different bags that – you know for different venues for things I do and why, you know, and look good at all costs. Uh, and when I finally saw one Brittish president of a bank, was carrying or some European president of a bank had a man bag and it was in one of the magazines, called wow, we broke some code here. You know, how cool is this? I went, “Okay! Cool!” So how would you describe, where would your version of get a cool man bag. What would your pay-off of it? Is that like utter delight, or you know fantasy fulfilled or look good at all costs? How would you describe that? All of that’s to say, I think every person individually would have their own very unique spin and just that exercise itself called what are – what provides you with those moment to moment or minute to minute pay-offs?
ROBYN SCOTT: Absolutely. And the personalization thing is fascinating. So I’ve had – I’ve only written something that produced such a dialog and I’ve had all sorts of versions of people trying it out and the consistently across that, it is highly personal and the particular word makes a big difference. So people like – triumphant doesn’t work for everyone, and some people, I prefer the carrot approach, some people prefer the stick approach, so like this will – um this will prevent imminent doom and using fear as a …
DAVID ALLEN: Ha, ha, ha – right.
ROBYN SCOTT: But the actual word, it’s almost an act of art. What is that word that resonates with you that catalyses action of some sort? So on the bag, I’m obsessed with bags, particularly from organizational perspective. Say if something can help me make my life more efficient and has lots of great pockets, etcetera, I also get very delighted by it. So I would use delight for that. Uh, but I think – I think you have to experiment a lot and people have been trying different words and [INAUDIBLE 00:34:30] and some people have also said it makes sense to refresh your words so you don’t start just ignoring them, just having another list, you actually reframe it.
Just one thought on the writing, I have a very brilliant entrepreneur friend who has this great way of looking at anything she’s doing as what question is this work answering? And I found that’s another really important lens onto deep work that can be quite draining. So there’s both – what it’s gonna do, the effect of it and that’s the emotion, but there’s the secondary effect of how it’s progressing you towards a deeper understanding. So I also – whenever I’m working now I’ve adopted that, so if I’ve got a big piece of writing to do, I’ll say, “What questions am I answering? And I’m picking what uncertainties am I gonna resolve by doing this?” And I find that’s a different kind of payoff which complements the emotional one.
DAVID ALLEN: And which – so which of your categories, what are your words for that one?
ROBYN SCOTT: That list – words, but I will, but that is before I embark on something, I’ll say what question – what is the question that I’m resolving?
ROBYN SCOTT: And then it will have its emotional category as well, but I’ll actually write that question.
DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, no – I get that and by the way, that’s very powerful and I will steal that from you as well, but I’m curious whether that – does that wind up – that next action, which is draft you know, chapter re: or draft blog re: – if you were to put that is that triumphant, supremely satisfying, massive relief – or whatever? Or do you – how would you frame that one? ‘Cause I have a bunch of those. You know a lot of my next actions right now have to do with building and enhancing and refining and codifying sort of our whole global curriculum for GTD and as simple as the GTD process is, getting that in a perfectly exportable and globally digestible form is quite daunting, uh and to get it right. And so you know, I stare at those things like, “Okay – yeah!” I got to gird my loins to do that, so you know, to hop into it. But I’m not asking you to answer that question, I think that’s one I need to answer for myself about that, but I was just curious if you can give me a hint called, how would you frame that in terms of what – what would be the immediate payoff for doing that?
ROBYN SCOTT: See, I hadn’t thought of this one, but I would probably pick something like uh – it’s not really an emotion, but it’s more a state, but I would pick something like transformational, because you are working from one point to another and there are all these pretty agonizing steps along the way, but as you see that as one part of that transformation, for me that is something that will resonate.
DAVID ALLEN: I get that and I think my ego is just not quite strong enough to swallow and thing that I can guarantee that, so I – but that’s a good one.
ROBYN SCOTT: It’s dimensionally transformational, if you want a caveat.
DAVID ALLEN: Ha, ha, ha. Transformation R&D. Ha, ha, ha. I get that.
ROBYN SCOTT: Since reframing tasks to do with emotions which I found very helpful is I have a journal at the end of the day. I write at the end of the day. I’ve always been interested in gratitude, but I found that sometimes I just don’t have the energy to write about that every day. So instead, I have four parts to this journaling. I’m still experimenting, but one category is gratitude and I always write something. And then the other is – the other three are achievements, lessons and helpfulness. And the – I mean, lessons is a great thing to write, because the worse your day has been the chances are the more you’ve learned, so there’s always the option teaches something hard into something positive. Achievements is really interesting because it basically, I’ve realized you get a – when I do an ex-post factor evaluation of a task, you weigh it up very differently. So I often put something in my important/triumphant bucket and I’ll complete it and then I’ll be reflecting at the end of the day and think about should this go into the achievement bucket, and I will often not put it in there, because I’ll feel uncomfortable about the causing it – I suppose the importance of being an achievement and it made me realize that when we think about stuff, we often tell ourselves stories about importance that aren’t really true.
DAVID ALLEN: Interesting and interesting that just the acknowledgement, again – one of my big sort of ah-ha’s about this really is not that it changes anything that we do, but that we unpack and mine the gold about what we’re all doing anyway. I mean, come on – typical adult self talk is like 83% negative, so you know, if we could just all stop beating ourselves up …
DAVID ALLEN: … think how different the world would be. So at the end of the day achievement called: Made it through day.
DAVID ALLEN: Did not kill anyone today. You know, ha, ha. Did not kill myself today.
ROBYN SCOTT: Exactly, but I mean at some level you’re right. It is just a simple reframing, sort of taking a different style shot on the Instagram. It’s just a way of looking at it which gives you a bit of perspective quickly and makes you question some assumptions that you otherwise might not have.
DAVID ALLEN: Different spin on this. Just the tactical of this, because I know, serious GTD enthusiasts are gonna say, “Well look, if you organized all your actions simply by the emotional pay-off, what happens – how – how do you sort them out, because you know, obviously the value of creating either tool or location context makes that a little bit more efficient. I’m out with a phone, just show me all my phone calls.” Obviously it would be nice with a relational database where you could see them either way, so that, you know, of my phone calls I see which ones, all the different emotional impact for those, but just show me my phone call list. How do you practically – how do you support that?
ROBYN SCOTT: I haven’t solved it. I’ve been playing with a few things. Um, you can use tagging but I wish one of the great applications would introduce it and it would be cool if someone introduced it in a way that wasn’t just about the initial categorization but they then gave you a picture at the end of the day. I would like to see, like my tasks completed in all their emotional groupings – emotional glory and I think it would be a really fun thing to try it.
DAVID ALLEN: How cool. Yeah. Well I’ll share that with my partners, the Intentional Software people as we’re looking at all the different ways you know to take any kind of a particle and be able to parcel it and be able to change that on the fly as you want to see it. So believe, that may show up. No promises, but – that’s a great idea.
ROBYN SCOTT: I’ll be your first and most devoted user.
DAVID ALLEN: Sure. I’d love to hear just down to the mundane GTD stuff, how did you run across this, what was its impact on you? How do you apply it now? You know, what – if someone walked into your life right now, what’s a day in the life of Robyn look like, just from a productivity or efficiency or system view point?
ROBYN SCOTT: So I came across, via my brother, who at the time, um it was probably about five years ago, he had actually just graduated. He had moved to England from Australia and he’d been landed in this incredibly challenging job and he subsequently ended up running the big division of the company at a very young age, but he was on the lookout for things that could give him superpowers. We shared a lot of stuff on task management and performance and I remember he called me one day and was like, “You’ve got to read this. This is the most amazing thing. It’s completely changed the way I do stuff.” And he had bought the filing cabinets, he’d gone for the whole shebang. Um, and he’s a very – he was a physicist and he’s a very exacting – uh has a very exacting mind and titanium discipline, which I think puts him in probably a category of users that you must have who can basically follow it to the letter. I followed the category that has adapted and I find certain things are just too difficult. I maybe don’t have the fortitude to manage all of them all the time, but the things that really struck me were the two minute rule. I found that just amazing. Um, and partly because of what it is, but partly because of the sheer elegance of the idea, um and it gives one such a sense of control and power over your tasks.
Um, also the notion of getting things off your mind and stopping them from pre-occupying you and the weekly review, etcetera, I just found amazing. So I basically follow it and I have been doing so for years. I have a couple of spins on it. I do it – I like things on one page, so I do a daily planning couple of minutes, where I’ll a take a full page and I’ll divide it into four sections, line down the center, line across the middle and in the two top sections I’ll put two big work areas, so it might be sort of my business and it might be one of the big non-profit projects and then on the bottom I’ll have others and then I’ll have one that says myself. I try to make sure I have a distribution of tasks each day across those. Um I just – in the others one, it’s usually something about being helpful, in the self one, it can be go for a run, at least do something that stops one going completely crazy. But that I found is very useful. I always begin with it.
DAVID ALLEN: You do that the night before or first thing in the morning – are you a morning person or an evening person?
ROBYN SCOTT: I tend to do it in the morning. I find the writing down – that sort of digest I do in the evening, the gratitude, learning, achievement and helpfulness. That often helps you think about things you want to do the next day because you’re like, “No I wasted my time on this.” But I will write it out in the morning.
DAVID ALLEN: Good and how e-mail and text driven is your life these days? How do you navigate in all that?
ROBYN SCOTT: I’m pretty e-mail driven. I’ve actually – I just started using dictation software to try to make it more pleasant writing stuff and sending stuff. I had some rules with e-mail. So I try to give myself at least one big break of time during the time when I won’t check them. I also found extremely useful Tony Hsieh’s Yesterbox system, where you basically treat yesterday’s e-mail as your e-mail task list for today, which makes it a defined and limited list. You know, the problem with answering today’s e-mails means you just get – you go down a rabbit hole, so I found that very, very useful indeed.
DAVID ALLEN: Interesting by the way, a little sidebar on that. I don’t know if you know Ben Hammersley, my friend, and you know, work The Guardian and WIRED UK. Ben’s great. When he was over at the U.S. last time he said, he actually had installed a fabulous technique and he thought he was gonna really bother all of his friends, ‘cause he just unhooks on Friday and he just sends out a response – he has an automatic response called, “If you had sent me an e-mail now, I will not actually open it or look at it or do any responses until Monday morning.” And he thought he would just bother everybody.
And he said it was so amazing because everybody say, “Thank you! Thank you Ben!” Because they were afraid that if they sent him an e-mail, he was gonna send one back and it would just eat up their weekend as well. So you know, it was like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Thank goodness somebody said – you know – went out there and said this is not an instant, always on, you know, medium.
ROBYN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s politeness. I’m out of office replies and as they relate to productivity and they’re really interesting because you’re getting more and more people saying, “I only check my e-mail once every two days, and don’t expect this and don’t expect that …” But you also see some really imaginative variations on that where people really explain the thinking behind it and the mutual respect and maybe give a story about what they’re working on. Actually a friend of mine who’s writing a kick-starter campaign, told me about this, because he set an out of office saying, “I’m so sorry, I’m gonna take a while to respond to you, but this campaign is doing all my time, it’s really important to me.” He said it was the most useful thing he did for the campaign in terms of promoting it, ‘cause everyone was …
DAVID ALLEN: Of course. What a cool idea.
ROBYN SCOTT: So I tried that actually – my holiday last year was going to prison to work on the book, and the [INAUDIBLE 00:47:44], so I wrote – my out of office was, “on prison break”, which I just couldn’t resist writing. And the amount of engagement and wonderfulness that I got as a result was fantastic. So I think you can impose all sorts of rules – and it gets back to this task list, and some of the other things I do. If you present things as a learning exercise and I ask for feedback and I constantly experiment and I think, uh Arianna Huffington – I listened to her amazing interview with you and she had this line about almost being – it was an adventure but constantly experimenting with yourself and if you involve other people in that, because we’re all experimenting with ourselves, it’s really engaging and interesting.
DAVID ALLEN: Wow! How do you do big picture thinking in your weekly reviews and any other larger review – have you built some templates around that yet, or are you sort of letting that emerge organically …
ROBYN SCOTT: It varies to be honest. I mean, I find big picture stuff I get a lot of my ideas when I’m running, so I try – on days I want to – I need to do that, I’ll try to set aside some time for something physical or going somewhere green. I find that really helps. Taking my – I carry a notebook all the time and I’m taking it somewhere just out of the office is very helpful.
Something that’s helped me a lot recently in terms of taking breaks more effectively which also frees up your brain for big picture stuff is standing – I begun standing at my desk and it’s been completely transformative. It’s also a great way for forcing you to weed out unnecessary actions and tasks.
DAVID ALLEN: Yeah, it certainly helps me in conversations and certainly a lot of teleconferences and things where I need the energy to really focus on that. Sure.
ROBYN SCOTT: But I think, to me the biggest thing is just actually putting a mote between the daily grind of e-mails and small diffuse actions and concentrated thinking and whatever that mote is – I try different ones. It’s the fact that it’s a switch – it’s almost a switch of medium.
Uh, actually I’ve been on this. I was struck recently reading a book called Scarcity. I don’t know if you’ve come across it, really fascinating.
DAVID ALLEN: No, I haven’t.
ROBYN SCOTT: It’s looking at scarity as quite an abstract concept which has similar effects, whatever the scarcity itself is. So the examples and the science looked at in the book ranged from poverty – so scarcity of money – to um, loneliness – human contact, to dieting, food options and into time – a scarcity of time and it’s extraordinary that the brain reacts in a similar way across all these different types of scarcity and um, the reaction if you prompt people with their particular scarcity fear or scarcity constraint, it has this amazing effect on IQ. It causes it to plummet. I think it’s around the region of up to 10 points. And as I was reading this, I was thinking – this is the logic for getting things done. It stops you being in a constant state of scarcity, so you can actually galvanize your brain at 100% capacity on things that matter, on the big picture thing.
DAVID ALLEN: Interesting. Well that’s definitely for exploration.
Robyn, I could go on infinitum. The elegance with how you frame these very personal but very profound issues I think we’re all dealing with is terrific so I’m looking forward to whatever else you start to produce that’s coming out, from whence that – wherever that comes.
As I bring this to a close, since there are lots of people listening to this that may have various interests about various things that we’ve ranged quite a bit around cabbages and kings here for sure, if somebody wanted to get in touch with you or find out more about what you’re doing or engage with that, uh is that okay and if so how would they do that?
ROBYN SCOTT: I’d definitely love that. Um, all my details can be found on RobynScott.org, but available on Linked In, Twitter, Facebook and my e-mail’s [email protected] and would love any inputs on [INAUDIBLE 00:52:22].
DAVID ALLEN: Robyn, thank you so much. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount, just personally out of this conversation and some of the work that you’re doing, so …
ROBYN SCOTT: Thanks so much. It’s been delightful. Bye bye.
DAVID ALLEN: Terrific. Thanks.
IN CONCLUSION, DAVID ALLEN: Well it was really great to listen back as I was editing this conversation. So many gems to digest. I’d really like to hear back from those of you who, as I did, decided to experiment with Robyn’s inventive technique for galvanizing your inventory of next actions.
Over the years in GTD, we haven’t focused on the emotional component because it’s such an amorphous arena to understand and manage and frankly doing basic GTD so often changes how we’re feeling about everything anyway, but leveraging the emotional payoffs by focusing on the little whys, I think is brilliant and can be as simply understood and applied as a practical technique as anything else and it does address a universal question from the GTD community. Once I have the actions defined, how do I get myself to actually do them?
If you’ve been intrigued by Robyn’s story and her projects please do connect in with her at RobynScott.org. That’s R-O-B-Y-N Scott.org. I find my own optimism fueled by this coming generation’s values and engagements across the broadest spectrums in our world.
So anyhow, for now, thanks for engaging with us and stay in touch as part of our rich GTD network, which continues to grow around the world.

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1 Comment

  1. Did David Allen ever get a copy of Robyn’s current emotional context list? I would love to see how she’s updated it!

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