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David Allen on Productivity, Passion, And Getting Things Done
We have an amazing guest because he’s the guru in this space. If you want to listen to anyone, you want to listen to David Allen. He is a productivity consultant with more than three bestselling books on the market. He’s considered one of the leading experts on organizational and personal productivity. He’s best known for the highly popular Getting Things Done or as all the people call it, GTD. That’s a time management method. He has a book of the same name and I’m excited to report that there is the teen version that’s coming out. We’ll get some information about that. David Allen is also ranked among the top five executive coaches in the world. That does not come easy. That comes from a lot of experience. David, thank you for being here.
I’m delighted to be here, Penny. Thanks for the invitation.
Before we started the show, you were talking about you living in Europe and you’re loving it with your new adventurous lifestyle.
We don’t want to get stale. My wife, Catherine, and I don’t have kids. Several years ago, we have thought that it will probably be really nice to get outside the US and we saw people slightly older than us, they were looking a little more sedentary than we felt comfortable being. We said, “Let’s throw a dart and let’s make it happen.” We had no idea how long we were going to stay or where we were going to pick. We really threw a dart. My work is now pretty global. Amsterdam is much more the center of the world than Santa Barbara was. We love it and we fell in love with the city and we’re still here. We’ve been here four years.
Why are you so passionate about productivity? What was the moment where you said, “This is what I want to dedicate my life to?”
As life becomes more professional and complex, the easier it is to screw up the clear space. Click To Tweet Passion is highly overrated. Whatever you’re passionate about, you’ll crash and burn with depression about an equal amount sometime soon. I’m not a motivational speaker, I’m not a, “Get up. Let’s go do it.” If you wanted to say what most interests me most attracts me, it’s clear space. I’m a freedom guy. Having nothing on my mind or having only on my mind what I want on my mind with no distraction, no pull, no worry, none of that internal stress about any of that has been highly important to me.
I would embark many years ago, 40 plus or 50 years ago, in my own self-development journey how to stay clear, different spiritual practices, martial arts, and in all various personal growth stuff that I’ve got involved and in terms of self-development, training, and intensives grow yourself things. I’ve been involved in that for many years and then discovered that as long as you’re on the planet, you can’t quite check out from it. There’s a part of me that for many years, I wanted. I don’t want this world. I’m much more interested in the inner world and the exploration of that but they weren’t paying people to do that.
It was not quite my style. I like good looking women, Chardonnay, and the cooler things in life to enjoy that. As someone who still has that life and is involved in this life, as I started my consulting practice back in the early 1980s, how can I stay clear? As my life became more professional and more complex, I discovered how easy that was to screw up the clear space. If you’re on a retreat and you can’t talk for ten days, those are some of the easy ways to start to uncover and explore some of the inner worlds and inner-outer worlds that you might want to explore.
The real challenge is when you leave that space.
You walk back into the tsunami of the day-to-day fire hose of life, how do you somehow maintain the clarity of space or know how to get to that clarity quick in case something out here in this material world disturbs you?
We’re all disturbed. The statistics are alarming how disturbed people are in terms of how they’re emotionally drained and constantly distracted. Before we go there, for a number of years, I had a different show called Take Charge of Your Productivity and I did ask every guest one key question and I want to ask you that here. I know what your answer is based on what you said but to simplify, what is your definition of productivity?
I was surprised it doesn’t have any bit of freedom or clarity in there.
If you got the desired result you want, and you’re not engaged in it appropriately, you’re not free. It owns you. You’re not in the driver’s seat. If you go to a party to boogie and you know boogie, that is an unproductive party. Most people, their vacation takes them half their vacation to rest from the last 48 hours before they leave. If you’re going to vacation to relax and you’re not relaxed, you’re not appropriately engaged with your commitment about relaxation or changing your environment. You have a different perspective on life, which, for me, would be the desired outcome. Life is a vacation, so I don’t take vacations, I just change environments.
The big key to getting things done, it’s a big secret. Getting things done is not so much about getting things done, it’s more about how do I appropriately engage with all the levels of commitments in my life that I have so that I feel comfortable about what I’m doing. I’m present with what I’m doing so that there’s no distraction. That’s the best place to hit a golf ball from, fire somebody from, cook spaghetti from, tuck your kids in the bed from at night, it’s when nothing’s on your mind except that. Being present with whatever your experience is, you actually don’t even have to like your life to be present.
I’m not a motivational speaker. The truth is that once you are present, you will. You are a creative, dynamic being. As you start to clear the space inside your psyche of these things that will disturb that space, assuming you have an intention to appreciate that space or explore that space. My stuff creates space without fail. I absolutely will guarantee you that if you implement any version of the methodology I uncovered and packaged together in the Getting Things Done methodology, you will create more space. How you use that is totally unique to you. You may use that to be more creative or be more strategic or just be more loving and present with whatever you’re doing and be able to watch your girl play soccer without being on your iPhone. I’ve had testimonials from parents who said that was transformational.
It is a proven system and you’ve got a cult-like following of people. It’s because of the results that they’re getting. They want to share it and they’re dedicated. I want to talk a little bit more about the system to give people some insights. They can read your book but I want them to hear some things from you. Do you ever get overwhelmed or are you always mind like water?
The easy way is to start to uncover and explore the inner and outer worlds. The challenge is when you leave than space. Click To Tweet I’m overwhelmed. I fall off this wagon daily. If you don’t, you’re probably not playing a big enough game. It’s not about always being in some sartorial on the mountain. There is nothing wrong with that, but the whole idea is once you fall off the surfboard, you need an ankle tether to get you back on the board. It’s your creativity, your aspirations, and your motivations that throw you out of your own comfort zone and throw you out of control. You don’t want to stay there. If you have some new vision, set some new goals, you have anything that’s new that comes up in your life you need to deal with or you want to deal with or some new opportunity, you’re going to have to undo all your previous stuff, recalibrate, and refocus so you feel comfortable about how you know in the driver’s seat about the new game.
It’s like a bicycle. If you get on a bicycle and try to ride it and stay there, you’re going to fall off. That doesn’t work. You’re going to constantly be off and constantly course correcting. That’s what this methodology is really about. It’s about how do you keep course correcting. Once you notice something has your attention, that creates a stress. How quickly can you decide what’s got your attention? What do you need to do about it if anything? If you can’t finish that and handle it right then, how do you park reminders about what you need to do about it in a sub-trusted place? That’s how you stay clear but you’re not clear all the time. You wouldn’t want to be.
I wrote the book, The Productivity Zone, and how to get quicker in it when you get out of it. People are like, “You must be always on time and always perfect.” I’m like, “No.” I wanted to hear from you. You have been doing this for so many years, we won’t name how many, that people appreciate that this is not about being perfect or perfection. As you said, it’s about understanding how to quickly course correct.
It’s like if you like to cook, no meal is ever totally perfect especially if you’re like most women I ever hung out with. They’re always trying something new. Especially when friends and guests are coming over, they always cook something they have never cooked before. Then I was wondering, “Why is that? Why did they do that? Shouldn’t you cook the thing you know you are going to do perfectly?” “No, we have to try this. You got to try this.”
I don’t think I would do that but I did do that once. I tried to make crème brûlée and that was a total disaster. It’s because around other things is we want to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone. We want to please somebody and we are bored with the same things that we make. That’s the same in other things that we do in our lives is we get to a point where we’ve done that, we want to do something bigger, we want to add more value.
The point is it wasn’t quite perfect but you course correct. “Next time, I’m going to add a little more pepper,” “Next time I’m not going to add too much pepper,” or “Next time, I’m going to sauté this a little earlier.” Cooking is infinite in terms of how good you can get at it. I make the point that this whole getting things on methodology in terms of staying on top of your world is a lifelong lifestyle, art, and craft. It’s not a one-time, time management tips and tricks. There are lots of tips and tricks here that emerged in the process of me uncovering this. It’s mostly can you live your life in such a way that no matter what happens to you, you can get back on course, stay focused, and grab the things that suddenly have your attention and know how to process them so that they’re not spinning around your brain at 3:00 AM.
I have my techniques, but what do you say when people say, “Everything is urgent, so it’s really hard for me to prioritize. I’ve got this list but everything is top on my list.” How do you deal with that?
The fact that they even stopped to ask me that question means that was the most important thing and they put everything else to bed. You don’t do one thing at a time, so your glass is either half empty or half full. I like what I chose to do right now. The main problem is that most people are not feeling appropriately engaged with all those other things, so they keep encroaching on them and they’re trying to use their head as their office and your heads are a crappy office. Most people are trying to use their head to remember, remind, prioritize, and manage relationships between all of those gazillions of commitments most people made that they’re not aware of. I’ve spent literally tens of thousands of hours one on one with some of the best, brightest, and busiest people on the planet getting to unload stuff out of their head.
I know that the basis of capture and get it out of your head to free your headspace and when you get to some of the steps, you’re clarifying and you’re organizing them. Is the organization the priority? How do they then decide what’s the very best next thing to do?
Let’s skip up to the top, do they know why they’re on the planet? What’s their purpose as a human being, as an entity here that is incarnating in this world? If they know that, then they should ask themselves which email to write first, should you clean your toilet right now, do you want to cook spaghetti right now, do you need to take a nap right now, or do you spend time with your girl right now? I’ve identified the six horizons we have commitments, why are you on the planet and what are major important to you. That’s horizon five.
Horizon four is what’s your vision of a successful life of implementing that. Horizon three would be what are the things you need to accomplish over the next three to 24 months. Horizon two will be what are all the things you need to maintain your health, your vitality, your relationships, and your finances. Horizon one is what are all the projects. You’ve got about all that stuff. “I need tires on my car, we need to handle the next vacation and I’ve got to get my kids into the school for the next school year.”
You need to get all the things out of your head so that you can see them from a larger perspective. Click To Tweet Don’t keep it up there. The point is you need to get all that out of your head so that you can see it from a larger perspective. Most people are letting their minds run them. You’ve heard of emotional intelligence, this is mental intelligence. Don’t let your mind run you. If you ever change your mind, who did that? That’s who I’m talking to. It’s the part of us that has a mind and you use your mind for very appropriate things. You use your emotions for very appropriate things but that’s not who you are.
This gets you more back in the driver’s seat to get more in control of all of those things that have engaged these various parts of yourself and to be able to identify what are they. What are all the commitments I got about mom and her birthday? What are the things I need to do about the next vacation or the things I need to do about potentially changing my career? Should we get a divorce or not? Those are the things that you need to get out of your head. Identify those and then start to engage with those appropriately. What’s the desired outcome and what’s the next step?
Getting Things Done, the two keys are what does done mean and what is doing look like. That’s all you really do. What does done mean about mom and birthday? What does done mean about looking into whether divorce or not? What does done mean? Your done doesn’t mean that you are going to get divorced, it means you need to put that issue to bed. Either decide to or not to or park it for another year to think about it. It’s whatever the heck you do to get engaged appropriately whatever this commitment, this bell ringing inside of you. I identified the algorithm that you need to apply to be able to get those things off your mind without having them finished.
A structured approach is absolutely key in helping people to make it simple. When there’s a structured approach, it helps them to follow it. You also make it very easy and clear for somebody to follow. That’s why there’s such a huge following behind that.
It’s a simple stuff but you’re not born doing it. You actually have to learn it and it’s a cognitive muscle to train. What do I need to do about this email? Everybody’s got ugly emails. You open them, “What would I do with this?” What do you need to ask and answer? What’s the outcome here? What’s the next step you need to take to get clarity on it? You can train yourself about, “How do I approach these things that show up in my world and yank my chain that grabbed my attention?” You don’t need to go very far at all to understand or to see where to apply my methodology. That is what’s gotten your attention. Those people who have been reading this have had their mind go I’ll bet somewhere different than what you and I have been talking about.
If I were coaching them I’d say, “Where’d your mind go? Why did your mind go into that?” Because you’re not a properly engaged with it yet. “I need cat food.” “I need a life.” “I need tires.” “I need a new VP of marketing.” Whatever the hell it is, whatever grabs your attention about any of those things, that’s what you need to start to identify. I understood the necessity to identify what’s got your attention. If you want to clear your head, you better clear it from whatever has got your head unclear. Why is cat food on your mind? It doesn’t mean you have to go buy cat food, it means you need to better write cat food on a post-it on the fridge so whoever goes to the store buys cat food. Otherwise, you will wake up at 3:00 AM and go, “I need cat food”.
It’s so important. You use a lot of computer references and I’ve used that in the past, too, that each task and each thing take up energy and it runs in the background until you’re able to write it down. People don’t recognize that anymore because the computers are so different now. When I was younger, you’d have a certain number of windows open and then it would use up the entire capacity of the computer and then you could no longer work on the current application. That’s a great analogy. I’ve heard you use it.
Life is a vacation. Don’t take big issues, just change environments. Click To Tweet You have a number of great analogies for us to really get it in a simple way. What I find sad is that we are grown adults, so I am so excited because we don’t have the skill sets. A lot of us are getting them a lot later in life. The fact that you’re bringing out a teen program that’s going to address this at the core of when they’re starting their habits and behaviors around studying, around managing different tasks before they start piling more and more on, I think that’s fantastic. I’d love to hear a couple of words about what’s special about Getting Things Done for Teens.
It’s out in the U.S., in the U.K. and in the Netherlands. The Dutch version came out. Getting Things Done for Teens is out. It’s the same methodology. It’s just using examples and a little easier to engage with it with some cartoons and some characters in there built in to help explain what this is about. It took a long time for me to get to the place where we figured we could write the book for teens. I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, coaching and in the training world. People would go through this, my training or my coaching and go, “I wish I’d learned this when I was twelve,” or “I’ve got kids that got to know this. How do we get it to them?”
I don’t have kids. I didn’t have a very good base to come from about how to frame this methodology for a younger age group. It took me twenty years to figure out what I figured out, to begin with, and then I wrote the book Getting Things Done but it was targeted for the fast-track professionals out there in the world. In the ‘90s, in early 2000 when the book came out, the first edition of Getting Things Done came out. It was really targeted for the folks that were on this tsunami of e-mail coming at them and the whole overwhelming world. My business was basically in training and coaching in the corporate world. I didn’t know really how to address the younger set with this. Franklin Covey has done a pretty good job where they did the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. That was pretty successful and it still is. He said, “Is there another version of this I could do?” I looked around and I didn’t know how to address the education market with it or to address that thing.
I’ll try to make a very long story very short. I met a guy senior manager at General Electric Healthcare in Vermont and he had come across my stuff. He was a huge champion of it and using it inside of GE with all of his teams. He had young very young kids at that time. He said, “Let me frame this for my kids.” He started to develop techniques for his kids and he started to blog about that. Mike and I wound up connecting with each other. He became the president of my company for five years. Mike came on board and said, “If there were somebody who could add some great material and potentially be an author of the book.” Then we ran across a guy three or four years ago, a public school teacher in the Minneapolis School System who had himself he had come across GTD, turned him on, changed his life.
He said, “I can’t hold this back for my nine, ten and eleven-year-olds that I’m teaching.” He started to frame Getting Things Done For Kids in that way. He did that quite successfully. Those two guys are the co-authors of the book. They really did the heavy lifting of, “How do I take the David Allen methodology or the GTD methodology and how do we frame this?” A very simple example would be when you or an executive, everybody comes home you’ve collected business cards, receipts, and meeting notes from the board meeting, whatever. Where are they? They’re in your briefcase, they’re in your pockets, and they’re somewhere. You need to empty those.
A nine-year-old needs to empty his or her pack. How many parents have had your kids show up with something that you should have signed two weeks ago because it was stuffed in a pocket of their pack that they didn’t unload? The necessity to unload their pack on a consistent basis, regularly, not miss anything that they’ve collected out there is exactly the same principle of one executive that needs to empty their briefcase with their board meeting notes. Same thing, just different content for sure.
What I’m hearing you say is that you’re getting into the school systems as well. Is that right?
It’s not about perfection. It’s about understanding how to quickly course correct. Click To Tweet We’d like too. We partnered with VitalSmarts in the US as our exclusive distributor of Getting Things Done training in the US and they’re very interested in the education market. The key is to reach teachers and administrators with this methodology. Once they get it, they’re not going to help but be able to then transfer to the kids. If you get the kids to get this and the teachers don’t, they’re not going to be able to support these new behaviors for the kid. Yes, stuff is in the works, is in process. Getting Things Done for Teens is available on Amazon and any place you buy books. It’s written equally for caring adults as well as for the teens. This is for teachers, counselors, parents, ministers, and anybody that’s working with teens or young people.
Kids, once they leave high school, mom disappears as a trusted system. They have to manage themselves. Along the way, they had to be fed and they had to feed themselves. They have their homework done for them then they had to do it themselves. They had to have mom make the Halloween costume then they have to make it themselves. At some point, it’s a graduation of kids taking on the ability to be able to manage themselves. There has been a big gap between their world they’re living in and the world they’re walking into once they leave the school system especially these days.
I met a woman not long ago whose son is eleven years old. She looked at his phone. He has 500 WhatsApp messages on his phone. She said he’s classy enough to go on, “I don’t pay attention. I got to do my homework before I go play.” He was mature enough to be able to not have that distraction but that’s pretty mature.
It’s a huge issue and I believe that there could be a connection to suicide rates that have been going up sky high with teens and the pressure that’s on them. The fact that they are overwhelmed and they don’t have the skill set because they’re not teaching at school about how to deal with this. Like you said, if you’ve met a lot of people who have come to you and said that it’s changed their lives, I guarantee you that this is going to change lives for a lot of teens and that’s got to be super exciting for you.
We had dinner with a couple of friends here in the Netherlands. The Getting Things Done book itself is pretty thick. It’s a whole manual of everything I’ve gleaned from my 30 years of experience I wanted to park in the Bible and get it in there. It’s pretty daunting for people if you’re not familiar to look at it. She said, “I want to read the Getting Things Done for Teens first.” It’s the lower barrier of entry to be able to get into because you got cartoons and it’s easy to play. It’s all the same stuff. There was no denigration of the methodology for kids. It’s exactly the same methodology. There’s no lesser about it.
Thank you for sharing that. Is there any anything else that you want to share with the audience that you think is important for them to know other than to go out and buy not just Getting Things Done but all your books have such incredible insight and wisdom in them that they should get the set?
If you get it, you don’t need to buy any of the books. Anything potentially meaningful to you about what you might need to make a decision or take an action or anything at all that might be potentially meaningful to you needs to be captured in some external bucket that you trust you will get to sooner or later. Step two, you need to make sure you pick up whatever you’ve captured in that bucket and decide exactly what it means whether it’s actionable or not. If it is, what outcome are you after and what’s the next action you need to take.
Once you make those decisions you need the step three, park those in some organizational system you trust that you’ll be reminded of the errands you need to run, the things you need to talk to your wife or partner about, the stuff you need to do at your computer, the phone calls you need to make. You’ll see reminders of all those activities and actions that you’ve decided you need to take at the appropriate time when you have actually taken that action.
You keep that sole external system reviewed on some consistent basis and current so that you trust that your brain doesn’t have to remember or remind anymore, it just needs to know where to look and then it can then make intuitive choices about what to do. You feel then comfortable and confident that whatever you’re doing is exactly what you need to be doing. That’s it.
I wish that it could just go from your mouth into our brains and then be fixated there.
The brain is easy, and your behavior is a whole another trip.
If you don’t fall off the wagon daily, then maybe you’re not playing a big enough game. Click To Tweet When you talk about an organizational system for reminders and ways to review that, are there any apps or tools that you’ve used that you think are great for supporting your system?
I’ve used a bunch. All you need is a list manager. I’ve done everything from the early days in 1981 or 1982 when I uncovered this methodology. File folders with pieces of paper inside it. Use that. That was great. When personal planner shows up in the mid to late ‘80s, I use one of those for twenty years because all you need is a page that has a list of phone calls to make. It was just a way to externalize that in a loose notebook. That works fine. Since my book came out, there are over 300 apps that have been built around my methodology purporting to support that and they’re all just lists. All you need is a list. They’re good if you’ll use them.
They’ll all work but it comes back to our behavior. David, thank you so much for being here. For those of you who are listening online, of course, you can go to David’s website. David, what’s your website again?
They’ll give you a lot of the resources. You can also go there to get links to getting the book. For those of you reading, this is an important and yet simple thing that we’re really getting at to make yourself more productive, to get that clarity in your head and for you to take back time. You’re taking back control, you’re taking back creativity and the access to get clarity on the things that are most important to you and make those things happen. Thanks again, David.
My pleasure, Penny. Thanks.
- David Allen
- Getting Things Done
- The Productivity Zone
- Getting Things Done for Teens
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens