Interview by Mike Sullivan
Mike: Hi, I’m Mike Sullivan. Thanks for joining us on M.O., where we feature small business owners and entrepreneurs and then bring you hits, tips, insights, and perspectives on what it takes to be successful.
Today joining us from his home is David Allen. He is a consultant and author. You probably know him best for creating the GTD or Getting Things Done system. It’s a personal and organizational productivity system, and it’s used widely around the world today.
David, thanks for joining us. To start out, with can you tell us a little bit about your background prior to GTD?
David: Well, I had lots of different professions, didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and in my 30s I decided well, since I never liked to stay in one place very long I think I’ll hang out my shingle and couldn’t spell consultant, now I are one.
That was the beginning of it. Just my own small little practice. Then quickly ran across and came across as many mentors as I could in terms of the consulting game. I’d been a pretty good number two guy. Since I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, I helped a lot of friends start businesses. So I’d been around and sort of seen from the inside out the small business startup game, and I was looking for models that helped people in that process.
I’d come in and look around and say how do we make things easier and usually helped them set up some internal systems. Then when I started to meet and hang out with some other consultants, I picked up different pieces and different best practices and then over time synthesized my own set of best practices.
We didn’t call it coaching back in the early ’80s. I was really consulting just to people who had small businesses and were startups themselves. First, just my network of friends and then that began to expand. I came across some good stuff that was essentially what became the core of what became GTD after 25 years of discovering that and honing and synthesizing and researching it.
So that’s how I got started was basically just a little consulting kind of a lifestyle business practice. I got a couple of other partners over time. Just a referral-based business. A big change happened when a big corporation asked me to come in and take my material and help them format a two and a half day productivity training for managers and executives using some of the material I’d developed, and that became the core of I guess the getting things done set of principles that I, again, still honed over all these years. So that’s the short version of a very long story. That was the background of it.
Mike: I’m sure you didn’t develop the system overnight or in one sitting. How did you come to develop this system over time?
David: Well, a couple of the key principles I learned from a mentor of mine named Dean Atchison. He was also an executive coach or an executive consultant and did a lot of organizational development work, and he had learned that it was critical before you try to get an organization to be able to focus on the future and toward larger outcomes that you’d better clean up a lot of what was going on in the organization and establish an intact communications system.
Having people dump stuff out of their head, collect all the old business, all the things everybody had attention on, I learned that from Dean, and he did that with me. That was like a very powerful process. I thought I was pretty organized, but when he had me do a mind sweep or a core dump, get everything out of my head, I saw how much of a difference that made, and then going through and determining the next action on each one of those.
Those stayed as the core principles. All of that was really designed to help an organization be able to think through itself in terms of where it’s going and its organization chart and its long-term plans. But it turned out that there was a whole lot of value just in that process in and of itself. That became a core of sort of a methodology that I began to implement and expand on. Also, the idea of focusing on outcomes, I knew early on in the early ’80s how powerful it was to hold a vision and hold things in your mind in terms of pictures and images and everything from the psychological aspect of it in terms of positive psychology side, but also down to the very practical side, how that opened up filters in your mind.
It was kind of the beginning of getting things done, but you need to know what done means. But that’s not that self-evident to people. Trying to sit down and get rigorous with how do you determine outcomes that you’re committed to and then figure out the next actions to them, those became key pieces. Again, this was not one major epiphany that I had all of a sudden. Over time, I began to pull all this together.
Those became the core things. Basically, my approach was look, if I only had a couple of days with somebody and I’d never see them again the rest of my life, what would I share with them that I consider the most important stuff that I had learned in my life experience, and it had a lot to do with being responsible for incompletions in your life and where you’ve put your energy and how you’ve attached to that, how to get free of those things, and then how powerful it is to focus forward on positive outcomes.
Those are not self-evident things, and over the years figuring out what were the best models to be able to both explain that as well as to help people implement those things. As simple as it sounds, very few people keep everything out of their head, and very few people decide outcomes and action steps until life forces them to. Those were some of the major components to this that got developed over time.
Mike: Can you tell us any of the individuals or corporations that you’ve helped with the Getting Things Done system?
David: Well, most of them don’t prefer to be named, so I can’t be disclosing of a lot of those. General Mills has been a huge client of ours, and their Chief Learning Officer, Kevin Wilde, has been very elegant in his endorsement of our work. We’ve trained thousands of people in that company. Probably at least a dozen more of that size and scope in terms of companies that we’ve done work for. Quite a number of senior executives and individuals, both entrepreneurs themselves running their own companies as well as senior executives in larger organizations. It ranges from Google and Microsoft and American Express all the way down to just startups and even churches and not-for-profits and NGOs.
Mike: You’ve written a few books including “Getting Things Done.” What can readers expect from picking up that book and going through it cover to cover?
David: Well, it’s a manual about my 25 years of best practices, and I wrote it in three parts. The first part, the first three chapters give you a quick overview of the conceptual model so at least you have the information about what that looks like. The middle part of the book is actually walking you step-by-step through what got developed as our coaching process.
In our company, we still do that. We’re hired to come in and work with people in an intensive installation of this methodology. It’s an intensive two-day coaching process, and we actually wrote it out in blow-by-blow. So if you have the discipline and interest, take a weekend and take part two and literally follow directions, put this here, take this here, here’s how you can actually walk through a process to help you capture, clarify, and organize all the stuff you’ve got your attention on and clear your head. So there’s a very practical part of it.
Then the last part of the book is the more subtle things to expect once you actually start to implement this. There’s a kind of, oh by the way, most people that really start to implement this in real time experience quite a transformation both in terms of their own personal life as well as their organization when they do this. There’s kind of a deeper explanation about what to expect as you start to implement it. So, that’s the three parts of the book.
Mike: Do you have any examples of the difference the system has made on individuals or businesses?
David: Well, it almost happens so immediately and so dramatically that it would be hard to say that it’s any one specific thing. Lots of people, certainly a lot of anecdotal information to people that once they did this, they slept better than they have ever slept before. It opened up their psychic space so that they could actually get a lot of creative and innovative and strategic ideas and do a lot more of that kind of thinking than they were ever able to do before. So it’s hard to quantify what those things are, but almost without exception, those are the kinds of experiences that people have right away once you start to do this.
Everybody watching or listening to this knows that at some point you’ve felt a little overwhelmed and confused and you sat down and you made a list and you felt at least a little bit better. If you reverse engineered that, nobody would keep anything in their head the rest of their life. But if you can imagine taking that and magnifying that by an exponential factor of a thousand, to be able to walk around with that increased sense of clarity and focus, that has huge benefits, both health benefits, personal benefits. People attribute now I’m able to spend more time with my dog or with my kids, as well as being able to just feel much more on top of their game instead of driven by it.
Mike: How about yourself? Do you use the Getting Things Done on a regular basis?
David: Oh, sure. I’m a fellow student. I get out of control and lose my focus regularly. It’s fabulous to be able to have the freedom to do that because I know how to clean it up and get back on to my game pretty fast. I think most people, especially entrepreneurs, you need the freedom to make a creative mess, and you need to be able to start from a clear deck so that you then have the freedom to be spontaneous and intuitive and follow your intuitive hunches.
That’s the whole idea is surprises coming toward you and you want to be able to have a clear deck. So it’s what I call the strategic value of clear space. The sooner you can get to that, then the sooner that you have the ability to do that and I’m using it regularly. Whenever I’m not doing something specifically that I’m focused on getting work done itself, I’m getting ready for the next work I need to do by cleaning up, because these days when you get off the phone, oftentimes you need at least five or ten minutes to process what just happened. Wow, what does this mean? What do I need to track about that? What commitments did I just make? Knowing what that process is and building that in rigorously really keeps it a lot cleaner as you go along. Also it gives me the freedom to just get crazy and lose control and just pile stuff up in my own in basket knowing that I can clean house pretty fast whenever I need to.
Mike: Let me ask you this. How important is it to follow this system exactly as you’ve outlined? I read the book a few years ago. I’ve implemented the system. I’m probably not using it to its fullest. What’s your perspective on that?
David: Well, you either want nothing on your mind or you want to keep stuff on your mind. If you want nothing on your mind, you absolutely must rigorously download everything that is potentially meaningful, decide the outcome and action steps embedded in those, and park those in some place you trust you’re going to look at, at the right time. There’s no exception to that.
Now, how you do that has huge amounts of variables and possibilities. That’s like saying, gee, can you sort of do gravity? No, you’re in it. If you don’t want your head to have the responsibility of remembering and reminding, you must do those behaviors.
Mike: We’ve spent some time now talking about the GTD system. Can you tell me a little bit about the David Allen Company and what services you offer?
David: Most of our work is around lots of different ways to implement the methodology. So we do one-on-one coaching. We’ve done that from the very beginning. We do a lot of half-day, one-day and two-day seminars and workshops within organizations. We also do one-day public seminars and workshops for this. We also have an e-learning version of this. We also have a train-the-trainer trainer certification process.
All of these are wrapped around different ways or are derivative of the basic behaviors of the five stages of how you get control and the six horizons of focus, as well as the planning models that we’ve uncovered. All of the content essentially in my first book, there are just lots of ways that we’ve developed now to be able to distribute that education. We also have lots of audio products and DVD products around that, both me doing seminars as well as expansive and more advanced work of this.
For instance, once you really start to do GTD, you might be interested in getting a CD set that we created about the weekly review, which is a very, very powerful way to be able to make sure that you stay on board with this as well as take it to a lot of new levels. There are lots of layers to this onion to unpeel.
Mike: For someone that this may be new to, what is the best way for them to get started?
David: That’s a good question. For that reason, we’ve built a getting started kit. So the best way to do it is go to our website and look for the getting started kit. I think it’s about $79. It includes my book. It includes CDs that walk people through this. Very live, very real stuff, kind of all the stuff you need to get started, and that would be the easiest way.
Mike: GTD is huge. There’s potentially millions of people and organizations using this system. There are websites dedicated to it. There are software applications and paper applications. There’s just so much information available. How does it feel to have made such an impact in organizational productivity?
David: It feels great. It’s fabulous. A lot of people can get notoriety and be famous for lots of different things. It’s nice to be well-known about something that really just improves people’s lives and their conditions wherever they do it and for everybody around them. So it’s a dream job.