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EXCLUSIVE: Getting Things Done, Then What? The Secrets To Productivity With David Allen

Bestselling author, productivity guru, and all-round great guy David Allen talks about the secrets to and benefits of productivity.
by Caitlin Schiller | Jun 15 2016

Productivity guru David Allen is the wizard behind Getting Things Done, an organizational method that has transformed the way that we work. In this interview Blinkist’s Caitlin Schiller speaks to David Allen about what he calls “clear space,” the happiness industry, and Abraham Lincoln. Near the end, you’ll discover the real reason Allen developed the Getting Things Done system.

Listen to the podcast interview above or read the full transcript below.

A conversation with David Allen

Caitlin Schiller: So, what did your life look like before GTD? We’ve read that you’ve had numerous professions and I wondered if you could talk about that a little bit”

David Allen: Well, it depends on what you mean by “before GTD.” Before I wrote the book I had, I was doing this work for 25 years, it took me 25 years to sort of figure out what I had figured out, and that it was unique, and bulletproof. I was doing the work in terms of both researching and formulating and implementing this methodology, since the early 80s.

So, prior to that I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I helped a lot of friends start their own businesses, I was a good #2 guy, I was more interested in God, Truth, and the Universe and the sort of “internal world” instead of the external world. But I had friends in the external world and, they helped me pay the rent so, you know, I helped manage a service station, I helped a couple of guys start a restaurant in L.A. and helped a guy manage a landscape company, you know all kinds of stuff. That’s a lot of those professions they weren’t exactly careers, they were just, you know, how many different kinds of jobs that I’d had. I’d just walk in and look at what they were doing and say “Wow, there’s probably an easier way that you can do that.” Now they call that process improvement, I was just lazy, and looked around, you know: “Excuse me, this is not as efficient as it could be.” And then I’d fix it and then I’d get bored, and I’d go move somewhere else, and so then I discovered they actually call people something to do that and they get paid for it and so–consultant–now I are one, so I hung out my shingle in 1981 and started my own little consulting practice.

But there were two kinds of vectors there. One is you know I was hungry for some models in case I showed up and it wasn’t obvious how to help people, it’d be nice to have some models to apply. At the same time I was also interested in what I refer to as “clear space.” Being in the martial arts and meditative practices, and other things like that, I discovered how nice it was to sort of have nothing on your mind and have a peaceful, you know, head and be free of the static in there, but as I got more complex in my world, discovered that that was pretty easy to screw up clear space. So I was kind of hungry for what that was for myself, and found some great techniques, had a couple of great mentors that taught me pieces of this. And then, I turned around and started to use those techniques with my clients, and they also worked with them exactly the same way as for me – more control, more focus, more clear space, you know, for everybody.

So those were the beginnings of this in the early to mid-80s, and I was just doing work 1-on-1 with, we didn’t call it coaching back then, it was just consulting, you know, friends and people, small businesses and whatever.

And then a Head of Human Resources for, Lockheed saw what I was doing and said, “Wow, those kind of results we really need in our whole culture,” so he asked me if I could work with his team to help design a training program that would reach a lot of people with this methodology, as opposed to just 1-on-1. And that was when in 1983-84, that a big pilot program for Lockheed, with a training I designed and delivered, and it was quite successful, and so, I kind of, again, didn’t really know what I had come up with, because I wasn’t really familiar with the big corporate training world. But they thought it was great, so I just kind of followed my nose and just had sort of, boutique consulting and training you know, company, just sort of lifestyle consulting companies for several years, and just sort of following my nose and just all referral-based work that we were doing.

And so, at a certain point, I bought out a couple of partners and sort of shrunk it back to just me and my wife and put my name on, you know, the masthead, because my name had more equity really than the process did, and it was easier to sell a personality than the process. So that became David Allen Company, in 1996-97, and then I had a bunch of advisors just tell me “Hey David! You really oughta write a book.” And I said, “Phu!” Well, I didn’t know how to write a book, but said “What the heck!” and it was about this time that I, by that time, I’d figured out that this was pretty unique and nobody else had done it.

I wasn’t sure, I had no idea, how much uptake there was going to be on this. I just needed to write the manual in case I got run over by a bus. I figured at least somebody, at some point would figure this out, but let me get it down. So I really just threw everything in there. When I wrote Getting Things Done–and it took four years to do it from 1997 to 2001–when the first edition was published, it took a long time just to get it all in there. And I really put the whole kitchen sink in there. A lot of people get overwhelmed when they read it: “Oh my god, look at all that stuff to do!” and I say, well, I just wrote the manual. I figured, it took me 25 years to figure out what I’d figured out and to figure out that it was unique, and probably the rest of my life to figure out how to educate people with this and get it to stick.

So you know, still in that process.

“If you go to a party to boogie, and you don’t boogie, that’s an unproductive party… productivity simply just means producing some desired outcome.”

CS: It’s interesting that you say that you were doing this work for 20 years before you wrote the book. I guess that’s true for a lot of people, once they sort of reach their “calling.” Do you think that callings are a thing that actually exists”

DA: Well, you know, growing up as a Presbyterian, I guess I should think that, you know, that yes, that people have a calling. That was a part of the Presbyterian ethic anyway, that everybody had a, that there was a calling for people out there. I don’t know that I would say that everybody has a calling. I think that everybody has a unique signature, about what they do. The more authentic you are with that, the more you’re probably going to be gravitating towards something that resonates with what your talents are. I think there is an appropriate use of one’s talents. I think if you have talents and you’re not using them, I think that will be a kind of an edge and a frustration that people will have until they, you know, line those up a little bit better.

CS: Going off of what you just said a little bit: Do you have any advice for young people who are just at the start of their careers about finding their signature, about finding what they should be doing, quote-unquote, with their lives? Is there anything that you would recommend to them”

DA: Yeah. Be willing to embarrass yourself with whatever your fantasy is, about what you would really love to do in your life if you could truly have it the way you wanted it. And then ask yourself, what experience do you think that would give you. And then ask yourself, what could you start doing right now that could start to give you more of those kinds of experiences.

CS: You said “be willing to embarrass yourself about what you think your dream is.”

DA: Yeah, do you want to be prime minister of Germany, do you wanna be an incredible rockstar, you know, musician, do you want to be the great American novelist? Do you wanna be–I don’t know. What’s your fantasy? If you truly could be whatever you wanted to be, and time and money were no object whatsoever, what would you be doing? Give yourself permission, but again, people are often too embarrassed, even internally, to be willing to admit that’s really what I would love to do. But you don’t have to tell anybody so, you know, don’t be too uncomfortable, at least with yourself.

But ask yourself, you know, let’s suppose you say, I actually did that exercise one time – many, many, many, many years ago – when I was confused about, didn’t know what I wanted to do and wanted to make sure that I picked the right thing. Didn’t know what my destiny was, and “Oh my god, what if it’s the wrong thing?” and I just agonized over that for too many years.

And then I had a friend ask me, so what is your fantasy? And I just said – I was willing to admit – to be President of the United States. I used to carry around a penny in the US, when I was growing up there, as a little kid, because Abraham Lincoln was on the penny. And he was just my hero, because he just affected so many people in such a positive way.

And then my friend asked me, “So what do you think that experience would give you?” And I said it would give me people’s attention so I would be able to help them. And he said, “Well what else could you do right now, that you could be able to support people and get more people’s attention?” And, I forget exactly what it was right then, but I went “Ah, okay, got it!” And then I started to move forward, and started to move toward those kinds of things that gave me more of that internal experience. And haven’t looked back since.

So it’s great advice to just know that there is some part of you that kind of knows what this is, but you may not have uncovered it yet.

“Be willing to embarrass yourself with whatever your fantasy is… Give yourself permission.”

CS: That sounds pretty good. What do you think, David, of all of this chasing after happiness that people do, there’s a huge truck in happiness manuals and self-help guides. People just want to be happy, quote-unquote. Do you think that all of that stuff is worthwhile? What do you think in general about the happiness industry”

DA: Eh, I don’t know. Happiness is kind of, happiness is overrated, you know? I think satisfaction is a much better word, satis is enough, and faction–faculty–is to do. So enough appropriate doing, I think, so you feel fulfilled and satisfied as opposed to giddy tee-hee-ha-ha, you know. And again, nothing wrong with being happy and having fun. Laughing is a great healing, you know, physiological mechanism. I just found out about laughing, laugh yoga, which is taking over the world, apparently.

CS: What”

DA: People just, they just spend hours, just laughing, just laugh–hahaha–and it’s apparently quite healing and wonderful. I think all of that is really good stuff, certainly being happy is a lot better than being depressed.

CS: Certainly.

DA: Probably healthier for you too, so. But happiness, you know, happiness has a tendency to have a bit more of an emotional aspect to it, and your emotions go up, down, and sideways. So, you know, I’m not a motivational speaker, the more motivated you get, the more depressed you tend to get. When you go up emotionally, there’s a likelihood that you’re going to go down as well.

So, I’m much more into the even keel side of the game, balance and a sense of inner peace, I think is to me a richer place to operate from than just being happy.

CS:Could you talk a little bit more about “the more motivated you get the more depressed you are”? Is that just because of the dip that you mentioned or is there something else? That was a really interesting thing to me.

DA: You know, it depends on what you mean by motivation, I mean most motivational speakers get everybody jacked up and enthused and “Hot dog, I’m gonna go out and take over the world!” and then you don’t take over the world and then you beat yourself up. I think slower, steadier, wins the race.

CS: And that seems to align with what your system actually is, it’s breaking something down into steps that are doable and manageable, and actually visible in the short-term, but with a long-term goal as opposed to setting some sort of highfalutin ideal of a future.

DA: Well, I think ideal futures are great. The future never happens, it’s an illusion, but a handy one. If you think of how cool your life could be five years from now, you’ll tend to give yourself a positive image. The value though, is not in five years from now, because that never shows up, the value is in how that image is going to affect perception and performance right now. So, holding pictures in your mind, that’s extremely powerful, so whatever images you have. You know, I don’t like the word discipline, that sounds like too much work and sweat, but direction, I think is a better word. If you direct yourself appropriately, come on you guys know Holacracy! You know, predict and control is not that smart a thing to do.

CS: No, definitely not.

DA: But pointing yourself in the right direction, which is what your strategy meetings are designed to do, make sure that we’re moving in the right direction, but then be careful about your commitments, because making commitments without looking at your whole game, you’re going to screw up.

So, anyway, I think, directing yourself appropriately as opposed to setting hard goals that you beat yourself if you don’t meet them, you know. You need to be able, to reconstruct them. I don’t think I’ve ever really achieved any specifically hard goal.

The way that goals set, I tend to think that life happens–you kind of slide into life. You know, I set a goal like, “Hey, I want to be the down the street” and then I start moving down the street, and then I get halfway down the street and I see a road to the left, and I go, “Well, wait a minute, that’s more where I want to go!” So I never got to my first goal, but I couldn’t have seen that other street without moving toward the first one.

So, you know. In martial arts, that I spent a good bit of time in, when you’re sparring with somebody, you don’t want to stand still, you’re always in motion. Because in motion, it makes it much easier to turn even 180 degrees than trying to go a new direction from a standstill. So, it’s a lot easier to, to change when you’re in motion. And so being in motion appropriately, I think this level is a motion level, it’s a doing and an active level. If you’re really into being and peacefulness, that has to be matched with, or you don’t achieve that without an appropriate kind of directiveness and activity. You know, the people that I know that are most into being are highly doing people.

“The hallmark of how well you do GTD is how well you can do nothing.”

CS: Is doing the same as being productive”

DA: No, to be productive just means to produce desired results or experiences.

CS: So then how is a high-doing person different from a highly productive person”

DA: They’re pretty much the same thing. I mean, achieving a desired experience, I mean if you go to a party to boogie, and you don’t boogie, that’s an unproductive party.

Well, come on, if you go on a vacation to relax, and you don’t relax, that’s an unproductive vacation. Productivity simply just means producing some desired outcome. And if you’re trying to produce an outcome that you’re not in yet, then yes, you’re going to have to do some things in order to be able to produce that.

And even doing could just be stop-doing-anything. But that’s still doing something: it’s doing nothing.

By the way, the, you know, hallmark of how well you do GTD is how well you can do nothing.

CS: Do you think that we work too much today, that people are too focused on producing and being at work and being beings who are their jobs”

DA: Well, only if your job is not what you want to be doing. That’s you know, come on! That’s why my third book was called Making It All Work, is because it’s all work. If you think about the double-meaning of that, if you make it all work. Come on, is work a bad or a good thing? “Hey! My flashlight works!” Is that bad or good? No that’s great, that’s right! So how do you make things work? Well, think about all the multiple meanings of that.

And so, it’s all work. Anything you want to get done that is not done yet. “Wow, I need to take a nap,” you know, go take a nap! That’s work. That’s something that I need to do that I haven’t done yet. “I need to go paint a painting.” Great! That’s work. Why? But, most people have work as a pejorative: “I have to go work!” “That’s too much work!” I say, well I understand what you mean, you need to be able to balance that. You need to be able to balance your mental thinking, you need rest and spontaneity and day-dreaming in order for your mind to be optimal, in terms of how it works. So, yeah, I, you know, there’s a sense of relaxation and rhythm I think that’s important for people to have if you want what you’re doing to be sustainable.

So I think the sustainability factor is the critical factor, but you know, come on, it’s all work! The universe is always on. We’re always on! Going to sleep is work! So, you know it’s like, “What work are you doing?” “What activity are you doing?” “What are you engaged in right now?” And I think that’s just the critical question: “What are you doing?” And is what you’re doing what you ought to be doing? But, I understand where the question is coming from, like, do we all work too much? I mean, are people spending too much time at work when they really have a family that they need to spend more time with” think everybody always has that challenge to decide how you allocate limited resources. You know, management by its very definition is the allocation of limited resources, so you’re constantly having to say “Should I do this? Should I do that?” You know, right now, I’m saying, should I just stop answering this question and go on to the next one? Or should I go ahead and riff. I’m constantly thinking, “Should I, shouldn’t I?” I don’t know. I don’t think you ever stop that.

That’s the nature of our experience here, is learning from our choices that we make about where we put our attention.

CS: What you said about work, really made me think. Work can be framed so positively or negatively, and people seem to more often have negative thoughts about it. What do you think that comes from”

DA: I don’t know. I think because a lot of people feel like they haven’t shown up yet in the world. And that the job they’re doing is not the thing that’s going to allow them to really show up, in terms of who they really are, to totally express themselves. So, I think it’s just the angst, if you will, of human experience. That we’re never enough. There’s all kinds of ways that people will parade “I am not enough.”

“I’m working too hard, I’m not enough with my family. I’m not being creative enough, I’m not enough.” You know, come on, negative self-talk is just so rampant out there. I think it’s a way the ego tends to protect itself, is just saying: “Okay, I’m such a good person, that I need to feel bad about how I am not that good yet.” It’s a strange twist of what people do, sort of internally: “If I beat myself up sufficiently, that means I’m a good person.”

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