015: David Allen, The World’s Leading Authority on Productivity

By May 23, 2016Podcasts

 

David Allen headshot and quote “Relax” from interview in episode 15 of the How to be Awesome At Your Job Podcast with Pete Mockaitis

If you ever find yourself going crazy with all the “stuff” on your mind, this episode is for you. Legendary productivity expert, GTD (Getting Things Done) originator, and best-selling author David Allen shares keys to getting work and life under control.

You’ll learn:

1) Why “write it on your butt“ can be a valid system
2) The core principles, science, and practices underlying the world’s most-used personal productivity system
3) How to cultivate the space our brains to generate power and creativity

About David

David Allen is widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on personal and organizational productivity. He’s an author, consultant, international lecturer, and Founder & Chairman of the David Allen Company, which serves over 40% of the Fortune 100. His 30 years of pioneering research, coaching, and education have earned him recognition by Forbes, Fast Company, and many others as “One of the world’s most influential thinkers” in the arena of personal productivity. PC Magazine called him one of the “Top 100 to Follow” on Twitter. His book Getting Things Done has sold about three million copies in 30 languages. His GTD system has given rise to a thriving industry of websites, blogs and software applications.

Items mentioned in the show:

David Allen's Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Well David, it is such an honor to have you here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

David Allen
Happy to be here Pete, thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve been wondering, and I haven’t found anywhere else online, could you share with us, just real quick, a little bit of, for starters, your story. The rationale that inspired you to kind of get up and move from California on over to Amsterdam just recently.

David Allen
Lifestyle adventure shift. Just, you know, one of those sort of inner intuitive things, kind of time to shift perspective, focus. Shake it up a little bit. Get a new lease on life at work. There was some good business decisions, as well as just aesthetic ones. Catherine and I fell in love with Amsterdam, we’d been there a couple of times already. I wanted to be in Europe, we’re franchising our training programs around the world and Amsterdam is much more the center of the world than Santa Barbara was, in terms of where this work is spreading. All of that kind of came together, we don’t have kids and our work became much more virtual anyway, our little company is pretty much scattered around the world. It didn’t really matter at a certain point when I felt the organization is self-organizing enough that I could stream myself up to be the resident global crazy man.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, that should be on your business card there. Tell me, you’ve made a number of shifts and a number of jobs over the years, could you kind of lay out a few of those jobs and share how that informed your inspirations and principles behind GTD?

David Allen
I was a good number two guy, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to find God, truth, and the Universe, so I was off into sort of a self-inner and outer exploration game, in terms of personal growth. The material world wasn’t that particularly important to me, but that didn’t pay the rent, so I had to pay the rent. I had friends who were aspirational and were starting their own businesses and whatever, so I was a good number two guy. I helped a guy manage a landscape company, I helped a couple friends start a restaurant in L.A., I sold vitamins with another friend, I helped a guy start a travel agency. I just kind of showed up and said, “Okay, well, how can I help you do what you’re doing?” I helped improve their processes system. Now they call it process improvement, fancy word.

Basically, I was just lazy and efficient, I thought, come on, there has to be an easier way to do this. Then I fix it and get bored, go on to something else. Then I discovered they pay people to do that, and they call them something, called consultant. Wow, now I are one, so in 1981 hung out my shingle, I guess that’s what I’m here to do. At least that’s what sort of floats my boat more is instead of tying myself into any one particular job or profession, is how can I help people do what they are doing. In a way I’ve always sort of thought, assumed I was an educator, so I wasn’t quite sure what form that would take.

That plus my interest in clear space, Martial Arts and spiritual practices, whatever, I’ve discovered how much easier, and frankly more productive you are if you don’t have anything distracting or bothering you in your head. The sort of peacefulness and freedom of being able to put your attention where you want it. I was hungry for those techniques. Then I found out that those techniques that I discovered for myself, turned around and used those for my consulting clients and they produced the same result, more focus, more control, more of a sense of being on top of my world instead of buried by it. That was the beginning of the development and sort of cobbling together and clarifying and honing this holistic methodology, which then became known as Getting Things Done or GTD, once the book got published, 25 years later. It took me that long to actually figure out that what I figured out was unique and nobody else had done it, and that it was bulletproof.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s get into it here, it seems like among my friends about half of them are, “Oh my gosh, David Allen? I’m so jealous, you’re getting to talk to him.” The other half are, “Who’s that?” I’m confused and I’m appalled and so I think they need to know everything that you have to share here about this methodology, so could you kind of lay out a little bit of, I know you could do a 2 minute version or a 2 day version or more, but could you say what are the essential principles, or building blocks, or what is GTD or Getting Things Done?

David Allen
It’s really about being appropriately engaged with your commitments and your world. At all those multiple levels of them. Appropriate engagement doesn’t mean you need to finish getting cat food or getting a life or restructuring your apartment or hiring an assistant or watching the ad campaign, it just means that you need to be appropriately engaged with that commitment. Appropriate engagement means I need to have decided what those things are, I needed to decide what I’m going to do about them if I’m going to do anything at all, and park the results of that in terms of some sort of external reminder system. Your brain is really a crappy office, Pete, come on. The cognitive science has now proven that, you try to keep track of more about things that you need to get done, you’re screwed. You’ll be toast.

The whole idea of building an external brain and then populating it with the appropriate data, and the appropriate contents which requires a thinking process. You can’t just put “mom” on the list and assume that’s going to get her birthday off your mind. You need to decide what’s the next step, am I committed to give her a party or not? There’s some thinking that has to be done to appropriately engage in your stuff. Basically it’s capturing the things that have your attention, deciding what you’re going to do with them, if anything, and then parking those results into some trusted external system, so that you can step back and let your mind release itself from the job of remembering and reminding. Let it then do what it does well, which is look at your options and then make good intuitive options about what to do and what not to do, but you can’t do that in your head. That’s a way to think about what GTD really is. Those set of best practices.

Pete Mockaitis
You talk about a trusted external system, what does that look like in practice, I mean I guess some people would say, “Oh like you mean my calendar? I’ve got that, and I put my commitments in terms of particular people and time on that.” What are some of the other elements of the system?

David Allen
I trust that if I’m going to the store, I have the post-it on the fridge that has everything that we need. That me and my life partner has come up with. That’s a trusted system, assuming that you’re going to look and grab the post-it when you go to the store. Trusted system includes your behaviors with it. A trusted system could be I’ve got 43 people on this whole floor, the fifth floor of this major office building that are all at my beck and call. All I have to do is spew ideas and then appropriate people that are paid sufficient amount of money, pick it up and make it happen. That’s a trusted system too. Anything and everything in between. Basically, so that my head does not have to keep track anymore, based upon the commitment.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect, and you’ve sort of laid out a deliberate idea of being kind of technology or tool agnostic as you lay out these things, some folks will use their Omni Focus for Macs, some people will use their smartphone, some people use Trello some people use pieces of paper and like you said, any and all of those are just fine.

David Allen
Yeah, write it on your butt, it doesn’t matter. As long as you have it somewhere that you’ll see it at the right time. None of that stuff really matters. That’s the problem, most people want the tool to fix them as opposed to the thought process. Once you have the thought process you can make anything work. If you don’t have the thought process, none of it works. You’re just going to be rearranging incomplete piles of unclear stuff, which is what most peoples organization system already is.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, well I think “write it on your butt” may very well be the pulled quote we use on the blog post, if that works for you.

David Allen
Sure, why not?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. What are the benefits if you’re doing a fine job of that, you’re collecting your stuff, you’re processing it, it’s neatly organized to an external trusted system, you talked a little bit about the brain science, what are the take-away benefits that people experience? I guess part of it, you mentioned, is kind of that psychic feeling of, “Ah, I have more focus, control, and feeling on top of things.” What are some other kind of hard benefits that folks have seen or the research has shown to be present?

David Allen
Bottom line is you have more room. More room to think, more room to make good decisions, actually just more room in terms of space in your head. How much time does it take to have a good idea? Zero. It doesn’t take time, it takes room. If you’re worried, distracted, got static and residue in your brain, hard to have a creative idea, hard to be present with your kids, tuck them into bed, hard to watch them play soccer, instead of being on your iPhone. You need space, really the creation of space, how you use that space will be dependent on you.

I’ve got a big champion that’s a rock guitarist, so he uses space to get more music ideas. I’m coaching a CEO right now, that’s using space to get more strategic ideas on how to deal with the U.S government. Got another CEO I’m coaching right now to get more space to be able to get more traction on the creative ideas he’s coming up with because he’s highly successful, but he feels like he’s just getting his stride and he needs more room to add more creativity to his life. I just read Robert Downey Jr. is reading Getting Things Done, and so ask him how he’s … what you do with room is highly individual to you. I just discovered the algorithm about what provides it.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve said many times, and I think that makes great sense, you said your ability to generate power is directly proportionate to your ability to relax. To that you’re talking about that notion of room, and so power can be creative ideas or other outputs of power?

David Allen
Sure, any kind of effectiveness to effect or to affect to create an effect, whether that’s cook a great spaghetti sauce or have a great conversation with your kids or just amble around with your dog on a walk in the park. That’s power as long as that’s the thing that you are focused on. It really is about being free to be fully available to wherever you want to put your attention. That’s probably the best way to think about, for me anyway, that was the big driver for me to figure this out, and it’s certainly a way most of the people who have experienced the success of applying this methodology would describe it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m curious then, in practice all that sounds like great stuff, we want more room and more power and more creativity, so what are the key things that folks, I guess, need to do, but generally don’t do in order to reach those outcomes?

David Allen
Write everything down that you’ve got attention on that you might need to do or decide something about. Then decide the very next action on those if there is an action involved. Those are the two core elements to begin with that most people don’t do. Most people do some of it, they do a little bit of it, but most people have some stuff in an external system and most of the stuff in their head and they don’t trust either one. It’s not worth keeping up with the system if you don’t trust that’s it’s every phone call that you make, and every project that you have. Why would you trust your calendar if you think it’s only half complete, right? You’re still going to have to take it back in your head in order to be able to do that. First of all, just externalizing all of these potentially meaningful things and deciding very specifically what you need to do about them. Those do not happen automatically, they don’t happen by themselves, you’re not born doing it you actually have to learn to do that. That actually is a cognitive muscle that you have to develop.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you walk us through there, what is the next action is kind of the key question associated with your responding to some stuff and you’re seeing what that looks like. I think that sometimes, it sounds a little, it sounds simple maybe even obvious for folks to say, “Oh yeah, I can do that,” but a lot of times they fall short. Could you maybe give us some examples of how people don’t really get a handle on their next action, so you said maybe they have ‘ mom’ written down on the post-it note, that’s not quite the same thing as zeroing in on the next action.

David Allen
Correct, what are you going to do about mom’s birthday? ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ Well if you had to do something about mom’s birthday what are you doing to do? ‘Ugh, God, I guess I need to call my sister and see what she thinks.’ Good now you have the next action. It’s that decision making process that people will often resist for multiple reasons. Getting real clear about what would move the needle on this. Most people it’s the perfectionism side of us and it’s the creative sensitive people that can think, “Oh my God, if I start moving and there’s too much I have to think about and it has to be perfect and so I quit.” Most people actually avoid that decision making.

You don’t above to make it perfect, you don’t have to figure it out, you don’t have to plan the whole thing. What’s the very next step that you would need to take to get some planning to get some information to move you forward? That’s such a powerful concept. Surprised me, I wasn’t born knowing this. I had a guy, a mentor of mine, that walked me through that process with my own stuff and I watched how transformational it was. I went, “Wow.” That’s not something that we sort of automatically or naturally do. You’ll do it when the crisis forces you to, or when the heat of the situation, or the pressure on the situation forces you to, yeah you’ll decide the next step, but that may not be the most intelligent next step.

You really need to make that decision when it first shows up as opposed to when it first blows up. That is training, you actually need to train yourself to do. I’m working with, maybe some of the most sophisticated, brightest, sharpest people on the planet and it takes them a year to learn that habit. To make sure that they never let anything lie fallow longer than day or two before they decide, “Wait a minute, what’s the next step on this thing that I need to do.” It is a trainable event, but it’s not something that happens automatically.

Pete Mockaitis
I love what you have to say about it’s often the bright, creative, sensitive people who have the capability of freaking themselves out faster and more dramatically than others, one of your sections of the book says a lot of people put themselves in jail just glancing at their 1040 tax forms.

David Allen
Correct. It’s the kind of thick and not so sensitive that you ask them to do something, they go okay, da da da, they just start moving on it, because they’re not aware of all the stuff that could go wrong. You have to quiet that demon inside, and the best way to quiet it is to get a very real, physical, simple, physical action. A lot of people say the next step is ‘I need to set a meeting with my staff.’ Well great, how do you do that? ‘Um, well I can call them or I could task my assistant or I can send an email. Decide. If you don’t decide then there’s a side of you that’s still not appropriately engaged with that thing yet, because you know there’s still something that you are accountable for making a decision about that’s going to have to move the needle on keeping this commitment. If you don’t get it down to the next action, you’re not appropriate engaged yet.

Pete Mockaitis
I like, even as you were speaking talking about getting a meeting with some people, that makes me think of there’s a meeting I need to set up with some people. I’m curious real time in conversations as you’re living life, how do you optimally, maybe for you personally, collect, capture that piece of stuff, that thing that pops up in your world. Do you have a note card you’re writing it on or is it in your phone, do you sort of excuse yourself, “Oh I’m sorry, I just have to capture this.” What do you say when you do that?

David Allen
All that. I carry a pen and paper with me, no wireless required, no Wi-Fi, no batteries, low tech is the easiest way to capture this stuff. I throw it in my own in basket. My own physical in trays. I got notes, I’m looking at them right now, got several notes I just thrown in there from telephone conversations I’ve had from input I just had. I haven’t taken the time to sit down and decide what’s the next step, but I’ll drive that down to zero before the end of the day. Any kind of capture mode and you can digitally capture. Digital is a little dangerous because out of sight out of mind, you might forget where you stuck it in there, whereas physical is in your face. It’s a lot easier to capture low tech and put that in my face and then throw it away once I determine what I’m going to do and then go into my digital world and park reminders.

Those are very different things, the capture mode and the organize mode are very different things. Most people don’t understand that, most people think that I have to make a list and that’s their organization as opposed to no, you don’t step out of your head first and then you retrace your steps through each one of those and decide what’s the next step, what am I going to do about it, what does this mean to me? Then you create an organization system. That’s why the GTD process has the five stages of how you get things under control, which is capture, clarify, organize, and then reflect on all that so that you engage appropriately.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m wondering, I think that many of us feel that there’s a sort of like a nonstop, go, go, go, that people and things and calls and appointments are kind of getting after our time and so, what you’re describing really does require creating a chunk of space and time and focus to go through some of this processing, organizing, thinking. Could you share a bit about what kind of time does that require for you to shut out the world on a daily or weekly recurring kind of basis?

David Allen
There’s daily stuff to do and there’s weekly stuff to do. Daily stuff to do is just be aware that you need 30 to 90 of white space a day just to process new incoming stuff. Your meeting notes, your emails, your voice mails, your texts, the things that come at you as well as the ideas you woke up with in the morning, and the things your thinking about that you need to deal with your life partner and your business partner. Those are the things that, if you’re sitting down and just going through, well okay, wait a minute, I need to capture those ideas, I need to then decide the next action, I need to park those where they need to go and or handle the two minute things. As you know, the two minute rule is really cool, because a lot of those things you could just finish in two minutes, you should do them when you think of them. That in itself, just to keep your in basket backlog down to zero or as minimal as possible is take you an hour, hour and a half a day for most really busy professionals.

There’s that level of gain, which is simply staying current so you don’t have a big backlog of unprocessed stuff. The bigger the backlog of unprocessed stuff, if you’ve got 2000 emails in there and some of them are yelling at you to deal with then any new input or interruption feels like a bitch because I got stuff to do, I don’t even know what it is and here’s more. As opposed to hey, I got a zero backlog, here’s new stuff that’s cool. Let me evaluate that against all the other stuff I have to do, yes or no. Park it, someday, maybe, no not now, let me do that tomorrow. It’s a lot easier to deal with your life when your backlog is as minimal as possible. That takes an hour, hour and a half a day just to keep it that way.

Then there’s once a week you need to step up and lift and look at your game and your life from a larger horizon. You need to manage the forest instead of just hugging the trees. You need to step up and look across, usually at the project level that’s the prime driver there. What are all the things that you need to finish over the next week or months that’s going to take more than one step to finish it. Get tires in your car, fix the watch, hire an assistant, launch the ad campaign, increase your credit line, most people have 30 to 100 of those. You don’t need to spend every hour every day thinking about all those, but you better give yourself at least once a week to think about all those and catch up and bring up the rear guard, otherwise, they will nag at you all week. Building in a daily time to just catch up and stay current with your backlog and then a weekly review on operational review time. Those are just absolutely critical and very few people are doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
What is the estimate on the weekly review time? If it’s 60 to 90 minutes a day for keeping the daily backlog down…

David Allen
We suggest to people to block two hours if you can, you may not need all of that time, and a lot of that time you’ll actually be doing good work. You run down some constructive rabbit trails, “Oh here’s a project let me grab five ideas about that project.” “Oh yeah, my next holiday, oh let me think, oh just let me call the hotel and see if I can change that reservation.” A lot of that stuff happens as you’re reviewing your past calendar and your future calendar as well as all your lists and so forth, so a lot of work gets done then too. It’s not just two hours staring at your navel, it’s really two hours of really going through your stuff and catching up and cleaning up. Essentially you know your system so that the next seven days you don’t need to do that kind of thinking again, you can go out and go hard-charging and pick off your list.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, I’d love to hear I’ve imagined you’ve had this conversation many a time with high powered executives when they say “David, I can’t make 60 to 90 minutes available every day to process this stuff, I’ve got so many people that I need to go talk to,” you know meeting by meeting, how do you set them straight?

David Allen
I just had that conversation right before you and I got on this call together, with one of my clients. That’s exactly what he’s dealing with and it’s going to take him a year probably to build in, I don’t know, he’s a fast study so he might do it a lot faster. I’ve had some CEO’s actually just block out, no meetings before 9 a.m. and then they come in 7:30, 8:00 and use that to clean house and kind of get ready for the storm. Just takes that time to do it. Takes time to think, folks, sorry. Thinking is required for your work. Grow up. It’s a required process. Defining what your work is, because Peter Drucker, the late, great Peter Drucker when he started to describe the knowledge work, he said that’s the biggest challenge is defining what your work is because it’s not self-evident. That email doesn’t tell you what you need to do about the email, you have to decide that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, and that’s kind of my experience of life, there’s certain things you just got to make the time for and if you don’t, you suffer the consequences, whether it’s nutrition, prayer, exercise, or GTD, I feel the effects when I neglect any of them.

David Allen
You’ll be driven by latest and loudest if you don’t do this process.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say that, for folks who they have, you know, they love your stuff, they try to apply it but from time to time they fall off the wagon. The stuff, it mounts and they have a lot of things they are handling and projects they’re going after quickly and they’re not taking the time, there is a backlog, there is a thousand or two emails screaming at them here and there, what do you do to pick yourself up and get going?

David Allen
You pick yourself up and get going.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

David Allen
Come on, if you’re not falling off your wagon regularly, you’re probably not playing a big enough game. It’s not about always being on some sartorial zen mountain top, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s really about just understanding the game, see I define the game, how much you play the game, when you need to play the game, when you need to come back and regroup, that’s up to you. When do you need to call a time out? That’s up to the coach. You have to decide when is it time that I need to regroup so that I can feel a lot more comfortable about what I am doing and what I’m not doing. That’s an individual thing, but I define how you get there, how soon you get there, how uncomfortable you allow yourself to get before you get there, that’s up to your own comfort zone about it and your own life. I at least define the game.

The whole idea here is not that you’re always in a peaceful state but that you know how to get back there. We use the image of the surfer with the ankle tether. The really good surfers, they’re going to fall off that board because they are out there for the adventure and the game, but they have an ankle tether on there, which basically means that they can get back on their board real quick. GTD is really both the board and the ankle tether, it’s like it’ll allow you to surf on top of your game, but when you fall off, that’s okay, you can get back on real quick. It’s very easy to fall off this game, but it’s also very to get back on. All you got to do is empty your head out again, decide next actions on stuff that’s got your attention, park those things along with all your other stuff, sit back and reflect on the whole inventory and then watch how much more comfortable you feel about what you’re doing.

There’s never an exception to that. I have never had anybody… my book is 3 million copies in 30 languages and nobody’s ever said any of that’s wrong. Everybody’s always said ‘yeah that’s right and I don’t do it.’ There is a mark of maturity, Pete, that people get to with GTD that takes awhile to get there, but when those things that often times spin people out of GTD, they’ll come a time when those things will spin you into GTD, “Wow, I just got promoted, I just got fired, I just found out I have a life-threatening illness, I just suddenly had to take on my mom’s elder care, wow we just moved.” Any of those life-transition times, whether that throws you off this system or whether you then use this system to be able to navigate that. That’s a mark of maturity in this process. I’ve got legions of testimonials about that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good and inspiring. I’ve gone both ways, so hopefully we’ll keep the proportion moving in the right direction in terms of spinning into it. I had someone else ask, they wanted me to pass along the question: How do you maintain the discipline to do the things that you don’t want to do and he said he’s probably just going to say you have to process from the top of your inbox all of the way down, but ask him anyway, so how do you maintain the discipline?

David Allen
You need to build in the rituals and the habits. The ritual is, and I still hate dealing with stuff, like ‘Do I have to deal with that email?” but I’m so used to I’ve got the comfort zone of having a zeroed out in basket that it forces me to make those decisions. Building in the standard, building in the essentially, the addiction to clear space. What do I need to do to get my space clear? If I were to coach you or anybody, Pete, I’d just go what’s got your attention right now? What’s most got your attention right now, because what’s got your attention is usually hung up because you’re avoiding some decision about it, or you haven’t parked the results in some trusted place. You don’t have to go very far to see where to start to implement this stuff, just say, “Well, wait a minute, what’s on your mind?”

The problem is that most people have, and I’ll call it an addiction, they got used to that kind of pressure. If the good fairy showed up and disappeared everybody’s email to zero right now, in about three weeks everybody would have pretty much the same number they had. It has nothing to do with volume, it has to do with your comfort zone of how much unprocessed stuff you will tolerate. Mine is zero, it’s never zero there’s always stuff coming in, but zero is kind of like I’m not taking a shower right now while I’m talking to you either, but I don’t go to long without getting one. I clean up my in basket to zero, I do weekly reviews for the same reason I brush my teeth and take showers. If I didn’t the scuzz factor just gets too high.

The main thing people have to do, I mean I hate discipline, discipline sounds like hard work and sweat, I’m too lazy. I like direction, I need to direct myself to do this kind of thinking and decision making. That doesn’t break a sweat, maybe psychically it does, but I still just get myself to do that because I want to get back to clear and clean again. Clear and clean is the desired state. You just need to get enough used to that. You won’t go too long before you brush your teeth, take a shower, or empty your in basket.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to empty the in basket, I think there is many a blogger who will share they’re super efficient, productive life hack way of emptying their email inbox, what do you do? You have a stack of emails, what happens next?

David Allen
I go through delete the spam to begin with, that’s pretty easy. I’m looking at mine right now and I just had 8 more come in, so about 11 right now in my in basket and if it’s not more than a screenful, I figure that I’ll probably zero it out before the end of the day anyway so I don’t do anything with them other than look at which one I feel like doing right now. If my brain is kind of toast, I’m not going to process my Visa statement. If my brain is toast, I’ll probably look and see if there are any of these that I’m CC’d on and just a little F.Y.I. and I’ll just get those out of the way. I will tend to snack around my email, but not if it’s longer than two or three screenfuls, then I’m going to start cranking down. I do LIFO, last in first out, because of all the discussion threads, that’s easier to deal with those to make sure I don’t miss anything in terms of the mature discussion on something.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense. With this next question I don’t want to sort of ignite a war, but I can’t help but notice that you use a ThinkPad in your videos and I’ve got a good friend, a roommate, just got a ThinkPad, and I said, “David Allen uses a ThinkPad,” he said, “Yeah, that sounds right.” It’s funny the brands that we’ve associated with Mac’s are creative and ThinkPads are, you know “I’m cranking through productive work.” What’s your preference on the Mac PC scene and why?

David Allen
I’ve done both. I was PC for most of my professional life and I jumped to Mac about three or four years ago just so that I could get bilingual and know what everyone was talking about. I’ve stayed with Mac just because of the security and reliability factor probably. I just feel better with the Macs. I just switched from Quicken, I kept a Parallels on my Mac Pro so that I could use Windows basically because Quicken, which I used a good bit, for the Mac kind of sucked, but it’s now reasonably good so I was able to dump Parallels so now I just moved over fully to one of the other. I could switch back and forth to one or the other. I had to give up somethings that I have not been able to fully replace in the Mac world that I was able to do in the PC, but then there are a lot of advantages to things. It’s 6 of 1, half dozen the other.

It’s nice to kind of have all those together and as the world has improved and I’ve just got some coaching about the iCloud and sort of the newer version of all this stuff that, that doesn’t really choke things up a lot. I’m still kind of learning about a lot of the cool things that you can do. Frankly, doing work on both the iPad or the iPhone is silly, I like bigger space. I’ve got a Thunderbolt screen I’m looking at right now that’s much easier and much better both on the eyes and to do thinking. The iPad and the iPhone just become the distribution channels for the results of that thinking. There are a lot of cool things you can do on them, great games you can play on them as you’re waiting on the doctor as I did this morning.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard you say that doing work on an iPhone can actually shrink your brain, tell me about that.

David Allen
Yeah, well, I’ve just discovered that the more space I give myself to think, the better thinking it do. Trying to do work on iPhone is really constraining. I need to be able to flip between a website that I want to go click at, I want to be able to look across a lot of different things, in order to see a lot of things. Just in my experience, simple little yes-no responses or whatever, quick little two-minute thing you might do with an email, that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that, little busy work stuff you just have to complete, sure, you can use weird little windows of time out there very productively. If you’re sitting down and actually trying to craft a PowerPoint presentation or draft a spread sheet or a pro forma for a business plan, give me a break.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. I’ve just got a couple more before we shift gears to the fast faves. What is your take on multi-tasking? Some people swear by it, others say the science shows that is a sub-optimal means of using your time and attention, where do you come out on the debate?

David Allen
You can’t multi-task, in terms of conscious attention on more than one thing at a time. You can switch rapidly and that’s okay as long as some part of you doesn’t have residue from what you’re switching from to the new thing. Unfortunately most people’s brains are trying to multi-task because they don’t trust their own system to keep track of something. If I’m talking to you about X,Y,Z, say “David, would you get back to me on that,” I’ll say “yeah Pete, I will get back to you about that,” and then someone comes in and interrupts me and I didn’t write that down. They’re interrupting me but my brain’s still going “Oh God, but I told Pete, I told Pete, I told Pete,” and so now I’m actually trying to multi-task which I can’t do, so I’m not present with either one. That truly sub-optimizes your performance, if I make a note about Pete, and get back to you and throw that in my in basket. When that person shows up I can give them my full attention. Why? Because I’m appropriately engaged with whatever that thought was.

Like a martial artist that fights four people at once, doesn’t fight four people at once it’s one at a time but they can rapidly refocus, they’re just not carrying one to the next. The ability to be able to switch focus is actually a craft and an art that you can learn to do very well, but not by trying to keep the stuff in your head. All the studies that say that basically you get interrupted to get back into the flow of your thinking again, for sure, that’s really true.

Sometimes the brain actually needs to rest by snacking on email and just scattering around, wandering around and chatting with somebody. As we know now from the cognitive science research that your brain has as much need for relaxation and spontaneity as it does real attention focus in order to be able to make the muscle optimal when you really sitting down to craft a business plan or the power point presentation or the email you really have to struggle with to tell your partner. Those are the kind of things that, yes, it’s true, but it’s not as simple, black or white equation.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you, I’d also like your take on, so with the new edition, which came out I guess a bit over a year ago now, I’m curious to know what’s new, or what would you like to share about what’s new in the new edition and is there anything that you’ve kind of changed your mind on or renounced? Like “I used to say this and sorry about that guys, this is what the research has shown or here’s what I’ve come to discover.”

David Allen
Answer your first question first, no I haven’t changed my mind about anything. Essentially the methodology is bulletproof, I’ve been doing this for 35 years. It took 25 years before I wrote the book, so this was well-tested stuff from the beginning, in terms of methodology itself. What’s changed is, several things, one is the new cognitive science. I put a chapter in there about that, that’s basically validated all of this. Also, how I framed the description of the whole methodology more of a life-long lifestyle art and craft of how you manage the flow of life’s work, as opposed to targeted techniques for the high-profile, high fast-track professional. The first edition was really targeted to that audience.

I even knew then this is valuable for students, or physicians, or clergy, or stay-at-home dads, anybody. Anybody who’s got a busy life that wants to manage their stuff, with less stress and more effectiveness. These techniques have worked forever, so the methodology itself didn’t change. I rewrote the whole book. A lot of it was just transcribing it because as I rewrote it, I wanted to say well I still use the same terminology now, 15 years later. A lot of it I did, I said “Hey, that’s good, there’s no better way to say it” then that, it was just a rewrite of that. There are some subtleties and some other things in there.

It’s more relaxed, it’s more fun, it’s easier to get through. I’m more relaxed, not quite as self conscious about trying to let people know how cool this is, because a lot of people really know. Also, the audience is just a much bigger audience than just the fast-track professional, so really more examples of that. More across the life and work spectrum. Some of the terminology, some subtle changes in the terminology, like I changed “collect” to “capture.” I changed “process” to “clarify” and I changed “review” to “reflect.” I think those are more universal terms that really indicate more accurately powerful this methodology really is, and potentially transformative in terms of your experience in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect, thank you. That just is further reinforcement that it is good, and it remains good and you’re tapping some universal kind of pieces associated with the human being and how we function.

David Allen
I’ve had people read the first edition ten times, because it’s a totally different book every time they read it. Every time you read any of this material you’re going to hear it and see it then experience it from a different level because it does touch so many different levels. You’re conscious is going to only take in a certain amount. One of the things that I think, when you say what would I change, what I really didn’t understand was how overwhelming this must be to most people. I decided to put it all in the book because I got ran over by a bus, I wanted to have the manual so that people could at least pick up the manual, and in case I didn’t have time to share everything with them that I knew about this and that I thought was valuable, I wanted to be able to put it in a referenceable material for people that wanted to dig into it at whatever level they wanted to dig into it.

Over the years I discovered a lot of people look at the book and go, “Ah, that’s too much to do, oh my God.” They look at it and freak out. One of the things I probably didn’t realize and have come to realize over the years was how potentially overwhelming implementing this methodology may seem to a lot of people. Being a little more gracious and patient with how long it takes people to integrate the various components and pieces of this. Though they’re simple behaviors, it’s not like a new language or a new technology for people to learn, they’re all behaviors people know how to do already. You know how to write stuff down, you know how to decide the next action, you know how to make a list, you know how to look at a list and review it and reflect on it. There’s no mystery in terms of the behaviors themselves, but to make these habitual processes as opposed to exceptional processes, that can take quite awhile for a lot of people to change those habits.

Pete Mockaitis
I also wanted to ask along those lines, I’ve given away numerous copies of your book Getting Things Done to people. Some of them read it, some of them intend to read it, for years, and so I guess I’d love your take on what have you found is sort of the optimal approach to enticing and on-boarding folks. Maybe it’s like they get a couple minute taste of a video or something and say, “Ph wow, yes, I want to know more,” or is it just kind of various things for everybody and there’s no universal prescription?

David Allen
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, okay.

David Allen
Probably the best thing to do is to start to demonstrate it for yourself and look like you’re having a great time, people go what did you do? And say well, you’re not old enough yet, come back when …

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll have what he’s having.

David Allen
Yeah, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Well perfect. Is there anything you wanted to share before we kind of shift gears into the rapid fire Fast Faves?

David Allen
No, all good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right well, can you start us off by sharing a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

David Allen
A favorite quote would be, “Let go and let God.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right, and how about a favorite study or experiment or piece of research you find yourself thinking about or referencing frequently?

David Allen
Most recently it’s a book called Brain Chains by Theo Compernolle a Belgian researcher, physician cognitive scientist about the limitations of your brain and the dangers of the digital world. It has a lot to do with my methodology and I’m referring to that a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. How about a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours that you found instrumental, it might be all of GTD or is there something else that works for you personally in addition to that?

David Allen
I can’t come up with anymore than emptying my in-basket, that just makes my life work, keeps it nice and clean and flowing. I don’t know that there’s anything better than that. Walking with my dog when I’m in town, relaxing and doing nothing. I think your ability to do nothing with a vengeance is a hallmark of how well you do GTD and I love doing nothing regularly. That’s another good habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Reminds me of Office Space, if I had a million dollars I’d do nothing. How about a favorite nugget, something that when you share you see people really nod their heads, there’s the Kindle highlights in the book, or it gets re-Tweeted, what are some of those gems?

David Allen
Oh God, I could come up with a thousand. Probably the favorite one is the one that we just stuck up there because it just seems to resonate with most people is “Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, and who do you look up to is there a key role model that you’ve taken a lot of wisdom and inspiration from over your life?

David Allen
Yeah, my spiritual coach a guy named John-Roger, he died last year and he was probably the one single person who was most instrumental as a mentor and a coach for me in terms of my inner life and how that affected my outer life. I met him in 1971 and hung out with him for 45 years.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh wow, would you, as we conclude, do you have a favorite call-to-action or challenge for folks?

David Allen
Yeah, relax.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good, thank you. If folks want to learn more about you, GTD, The David Allen Company, where would you point them.

David Allen
GettingThingsDone.com, pretty easy, lots of ways to play.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well David this has been a complete treat, I wish you the very best, thanks so much for making the time.

David Allen
My pleasure, Pete, thanks.

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The Gold Nugget

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