"My mission is to create a world where there are no problems only projects."

In this podcast episode, we touch upon David’s story and talk about how he came up with the ideas and models behind the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. We also cover the basics of the method itself, provide listeners with some great tips on how to get better in time management. If you are interested in learning more about the work of David visit his website, or grab a copy of his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

You can listen to the discussion on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with David, edited for length and clarity.

Agnes: How did you write the first version of the book in 2001? What lead you to creating the Getting Things Done (GTD) system?

David Allen: The system really is just a set of best practices that I discovered, or uncovered, and recognised over the 30 years plus of my consulting and coaching work. We did not call it coaching back then, as we were just consulting to entrepreneurs and executives, and people running their own businesses. And, I had an interest myself in clarity, clear space, and freedom in your head. I also had experience in Martial arts and meditating practices. I saw how easy it was for your professional world to clog that up and getting in the way to focus appropriately, or feel really in control. I could not have put those words on it back then. Later I began to use these techniques, which I used for myself, with my clients, and turns out it created exactly the same results, which was more sense of freedom in your head, more sense of meaningful focus, more sense of clarity, more space and room to think, room to think about the staff you would like to think about and focused on.

So, I began to pull those techniques together in a methodology, and I was asked by a big corporation to see if I can come up with a training that would be able to create that sort of experience for much larger groups of people, if I can take the methodology and put it into a training format. This was back at 1983 and 1984. It worked, it worked very well! So, I built a small consulting and training company through which we were taking this methodology and training to larger groups, which later rolled along. In fact, I still wasn’t quiet really sure what I have figured out, as I say it often it took me 25 years to figure out what I have figured out, which was unique and nobody else seemed to have done it. So that was the point when I decided to write the book, which included lots of years and thousands of hours of real time experience, one-on-one coaching with the best and brightest people on the planet, working with this methodology, watching its results, refining it, understanding it deeper etc. Then I decided to write the manual, which was in 2001. It took me 4 years, I started in 1997, to actually pull all that knowledge together and make it which I felt comfortable with. So, this is the short version of a really long story.

Agnes: I listened to the audiobook of the 2015 new edition in which you point out in the introduction that “If anything, the techniques and the tools are more relevant now, than they were back then”. Do you also experience this from the feedback that you are getting?

David Allen: Yes, I do. It is not so much that 25-30 years ago there were still people feeling overwhelmed, and out of control, and these techniques certainly worked for them. What changed are 2 things. First of all, the number of people that are now affected by that has grown significantly. It used to be that only senior people, or senior professionals with high levels of responsibility and accountability were the ones feeling that, especially in the early days when email was just beginning, and there wasn’t even social media. So, the number of people has increased dramatically, in other words, most anybody now, kids, students, individual professionals of new hires etc. that changed a lot, and in terms of how many people need to be their own executives in these days. So, the breadth of the population that are now sensitive to the need for this has increased tremendously.

And, to your point, indeed, to a large degree this is the stress of opportunity. How many things you could be surfing on the web right now, that could add value to your life and work? It is infinite. Thererfore, if you are not clearly focused on where you are going and what you are doing, it is really easy to get overwhelmed just because of all the opportunities that are out there. Of things, that could be useful to you, could be important to you.

Both the speed and volume of input have changed. This also means that the speed of change is speeding up. For instance, you and I, when we get off this interview, in 30 minutes things that could have landed in our inboxes could very likely change our priorities for the rest of the day. I think all of those factors have lead to an uptake and interest in a methodology that allows you to stay clear and surf on top of all this.

Agnes: “When you are really doing what you truly know you should be doing, there is no sense of overwhelm and no distractions between distinction, between personal and work life. It’s all just what’s now and then what’s next” - a quote from your book. At the WorkLife HUB, our business is about work-life integration, to figuring out how to help people have a great work experience and getting things done, but also to have a great non-work experience at home and with their families. This really resonated with me. Do you find it that maybe the work was kind of one entry point, where your clients and people could have access to your knowledge, and the training of your company, and then the people can apply this to their private lives and to their family lives? How does this unfold?

David Allen: As I mentioned before, I love clear space. And I love the freedom to be able to focus on what I want to focus on, and not be distracted, and not feel like I have to worry about something. I am really kind of a lazy guy, and I like comfort. So, I used this for me personally, and as I began to uncover and apply these techniques it just made a huge difference. If you feel more in control, more confident and clear head, doesn’t matter what it is about, it affects everything that you are doing personally or professionally. In truth, my professional career was really based upon a lot of professional people in corporate environments, where you have usually a lot more complexity and volume, and you fell for a lot of things that you feel accountable for that you need to manage well. This was really the arena where this really started to take of. Especially the fast track professionals, to whom we positioned the book to begin with, because they were the first people really starting to feel the flood and overwhelm of email in the digital world, back in the late 90s, as it was really beginning to take off. This was the most sensible audience to begin with.

Therefore, the first edition really focused on the professional world and the executives that I have worked with. The second edition, which was part of a bigger change, and its aim was to really finding lifestyle and lifelong art and craft on how you managed the flow of work and, in the broad sense, everything done that is not done yet. This could be get tires on your car, handle the next vacation, hire assistants etc. Certainly, this has applied to all of those things all the way along.

We have now a much larger audience that this is relevant for, and for them to say, YES, your personal life is going to be greatly affected by how clear you are at with your work staff and vice versa. But if you are taking work to home or home to work in your mind that is not clarity. That is not clear space. You want to be able to get everything off from your mind. Even in my personal life, if I am playing with my dog, I don’t want to be thinking about something else. I just want to thinking about playing with the dog. So, I don’t want anything on my mind and whether it is personal or professional, other than what am I doing. It is a very universal technique.

Agnes: We talk a lot about work flexibility and teleworking, and a major component of that is to define of what done looks like. And to have a very clear discussion and agreement between line managers and employees around what’s need to be done, and how it will look like when it is done. Then, it is really up to the person when, where and how they achieve that. This might be still sensitive issue to talk about at many organisations, because it does require a great sense of trust, and empowerment to let go a lot of this from the manager’s perspective and just to wait for the final product or project.

David Allen: It is true. In the old-old-days, you needed to look busy, in order for me to feel comfortable as your boss. If you are not showing up on the right time, or not sticking around work even later than you may not be doing your job as opposed to watching what would be the final output. The more people are telecommuting, and working individually, and being required to working individually and make up their own job and job description, yes, it becomes that much more critical that people move into the key component of GTD methodology, which is outcome thinking. What do we want this meeting to accomplish by what time? How will I know if I have done a good job? What are the things you are accountable to do? And those are great, mature conversations for anybody professionally. Sometimes, it is difficult to do those. Oftentimes the job are changing. And as things change, people feel that they are committing to do stuff that is old business and I need to commit to new business, so they might feel overwhelmed with the new staff that they need to do, because they don’t feel comfortable renegotiating the old stuff.

“The problem is that most people’s To Do Lists are reminding them of thinking of the decision making that they still haven’t done. A lot of to do lists actually create as much stress as relief simply because they don’t include outcome and action specifics.”

That’s hard conversation, but it is almost an impossible conversation if you are not keeping track of all of that. Back to the specifics of the GTD methodology that has a lot to do to making sure you are really clear that you have a very accurate inventory of all of your perceptions about the outcomes that you are committed to. Most people do not have that inventory, not even close.

Agnes: What I have found is that when I actually started to focus on how it will look like the things that I do when it’s done, the actual doing of it took lot less time than I was anticipating. It really resonates with a Martial art for work.

David Allen: Someone, very accurately described the GTD methodology as knowledge works athletics. In another words, it is the moves that knowledge works requires, and it is really a thought process, more than anything else. You are not borned with this thought process. This actually you have to learn. It is not hard, but it is not automatic. And the way you have just described, in focus of positive outcomes, will determine where your motivation will come from. And that is where you will line up your thinking. And, what is the next action? It is usually a fairly simple thing to do, so you lower the barrier of entry, after which it is really easy to unstick to that procrastination. It is almost like a cognitive muscle that you need to train and practice. It is not so much about the tools, it is really about the thought process that you need to apply, before you know how to use the tools.

Agnes: Do you receive fan mails, or feedback from people about how the Getting Things Done methodology change their lives? Do you have a favourite story?

David Allen: I got them every day! I have thousands! What is really so nice about this, and I feel very lucky and grateful to have come across this methodology myself and being able to create a career out of it, is that it does no harm. Any part of it that you try to implement will improve your state and your condition. If you keep a pen and paper next to your bed, you’ll sleep better. If you make an action decision on your to do list you’ll feel more in control and focused. Anybody who starts applying this methodology has huge benefits. Many times it gives people enough clarity to change their career. But, some people decide to stick with their job they were about to leave it, because they felt overwhelmed, but in truth it was for them actually the place to be they just needed to get more in control and feel better about it.

What this methodology does is it creates space. You don’t need time, you need room. It doesn’t take time to have a good idea, or be present with your kids, but you need room. If you are distracted, if you got the last two meetings on your mind than it becomes hard for you to watch your kid play football. The whole ideas is creating space, what you do about that space is unique to you. The methodology is being used by rock musicians to make sure their head is more open to better music ideas. Lots of CEOs that are using the clearer space to thinking more strategically on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Lot of clergy people, which is a 24/7 job, use the GTD methodology, and other highly intensive professionals also apply it.

Agnes: If I could ask you David to give one advice to a CEO to help improve the wellbeing of his or her employees, from your perspective, what are some of the things that they could start looking at?

David Allen: Obviously, I have a bias. If they have thought of this thought process that can make a huge difference. But specifically, I am coaching a executive right now, where it taken us several months to get to the place where he can see a full map of all of his own accountabilities, the things that have his attention as a CEO of his very successful and fast growing company. Defining that map, if you will, to orient himself so he can make good decisions about what to do and what not to do, and make sure he knows all the projects towards which he is fulfilling his own accountabilities and responsibilities. He has that map for his company, and he has a bigger map for his whole life. Those two maps are those two things that form one of the horizons, that I think people probably need to spend more time with. He is getting his staff and colleagues to carry out the same exercise, which can improve the work environment. It is making sure people are clear about what their accountabilities are, what the expectations are to the original point of what outcomes to I holding you to. It is also about making sure that you are creating a safe place for those conversations, because lot of people may not be comfortable talking about things that may feel like not doing that well.

Ultimately, this is the same advice I give to anybody at anytime. What has your attention? What is the thing that you want to get off your mind the most? How would you do that? What do you need to do to get that project off your mind, or that problem of your mind? Even when one person starts to implement this methodology affects everyone at their intersections in the organisation. As soon as you get two or more people involved can move your way up faster in terms reaching new levels of relaxation, relaxed focus, and meaningful focus in the company.