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What does it take to bring order to chaos?

David Allen is the creator of Getting Things Done®. GTD is the work-life management system that has helped countless individuals and organizations bring order to chaos with stress-free productivity.

After decades of in-the-field research and practice of his productivity methods, David wrote the international best-seller Getting Things Done.

Published in over 28 languages, TIME magazine heralded it as “the defining self-help business book of its time.”

Fast Company Magazine called David “one of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity.”

Listen to the following interview if you want to become a better entrepreneur through greater focus and productivity.



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Read Raw Transcript Now:

Success Harbor: Hi everyone. This is George Meszaros with Success Harbor and I have David Allen here with me. David is the creator of Getting Things Done, also known as GTD. GTD is the work life management system that has helped countless individuals and organizations bring order to chaos with stress free productivity. David wrote the international best seller Getting Things Done published in over twenty-eight languages. Time Magazine called it the defining self-help books of its time. Fess Company Magazine called David one of the most influential thinkers on productivity. Welcome.

David Allen: Glad to be here George. Thanks.

Success Harbor: Thanks for being here David. What were you doing before you developed GTD?

David Allen: Well the methodology of GTD is something that just developed over twenty years of me doing consulting and coaching and training work in the professional world. Before that I had my own little consulting practice. Before that I had thirty-five professions. Didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up so of course the consultant is about the only route to take if that’s sort of your style. So you know I liked coming in and assessing situations so I can say how can I prove it so people can get more done with less effort and then move on to the next thing. Then one day I actually realized that they actually paid people to do stuff like that so I hung out my shingle and became a consultant in I think 1981.

Success Harbor: Let’s talk about the feeling of being overwhelmed. In your opinion what are the reasons people, both in personal and in business life often feel overwhelmed.

David Allen: They’re keeping all the stuff internalized in the system and define and objectify it and your head is a terrible office. It has no sense of past or future so you tell yourself you need to buy cat food or you need to extend your credit line at the bank and if your head is the only place keeping track of that and we’re viewing it, it’s bouncing around like pinballs in a pin ball machine and it’ll wake you up at 3 o’clock in the morning about your cat food or about the bank and you can’t do anything about either one then. It really is not, your brain is really not designed for that.

Success Harbor: So what do we use then if our brain is not designed to keep all that information? How do we avoid all that?

David Allen: You can use anything that keeps it out of your head. Write it on your wall, write it on your arm. Print it out. Stick it somewhere. The main thing is you need to get it out of your head. Not just writing it down won’t fully solve it. That’s the first step. A lot of people write a lot of stuff down. They just don’t do anything with it. They don’t look at it and they’re finished thinking about what they write down. So it’s still crawls back up in their head. So there is a formula that I uncovered really about how do you get stuff off your mind without having to finish it yet and that’s a five step process that I uncovered so you know that’s quite simply you need to capture the stuff on your mind. You need to clarify exactly what it means and what you’re going to do about it if anything. What’s the outcome and what’s the next action step? You need to park those results in some sort of appropriate, organized, set of categories so you can then step back and you know stage four, step back and look at that inventory on some consistent basis so then step five, you actually engage with something from a trusted place as opposed to geo-hope this is what I ought to do. But most people are still being run by the latest and loudest thing in their head because they’re still using their head as their system.

Success Harbor: What do you think is the reason that so much self-talk is negative?

David Allen: Well, I read a study many years ago that if you grow up in a healthy American home, whatever that means but you know, reasonably sane, you know American home, about eighty-three percent of your feedback was negative. Don’t do this. You’ll hurt yourself. [Palm Desert alarm companies Mumblings]. Don’t do that. And then later on, the people who were studying the self-talk process said that the typical adult does about eighty or eighty-three percent negative self-talk. So it makes sense that that matches up to how most of us are raised.

Success Harbor: Is it that you think that’s a part of the animal in us to have that self-talk, to kind of keep us alive?

David Allen: I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s it or not. I think you know you can’t stop talking to yourself so you’re constantly doing it. The nature is, what’s the nature of it, you know as I say, what if your friends talk to yourself like yourself? “Hi George, what an idiot. That was a terrible interview. You weren’t perfect. You said that word wrong. Oh my God. Don’t even try to wake up in the morning.” You know this is a strange little animal inside of all of us so I think there is a proclivity or propensity for people to want to. I think people want to perhaps save themselves from disappointment you know. The pessimist is never disappointed so you know it’s kind of risky to step out there and say I’m okay, I’m good. Life is great so let’s go, you know. So entrepreneurs have to deal with that all the time.

Success Harbor: Can you tell? I’m sorry to interrupt. Can you talk a bit about the importance of focus? I think we talked about the feeling of being overwhelmed and I don’t know how much of that is a lack of focus. Can you give us an example of staying focused or how to stay in focus?

David Allen: Well you know you have to put yourself in crisis and that handles it. You know just you know set your house on fire. You’ll focus, you know. Most people actually move into a high performance behavior in a crisis because basically it puts you, it has you doing the behaviors that allow your brain to be highly focused. You have a desired end result that you’re very passionate about called live. You know don’t burn up and you’re constantly then making next action decisions. You have an outcome that you want, you make a next action decisions. Much like in software or technology. It’s agile programming. It’s where we’re dynamically steered. I take a step, I get feedback until I’m correct and get out of that building and live. That’s focus. So that happens automatically. I think a lot of people allow themselves to get into a crisis mode modality because it reduces the necessity for you to think. You don’t have to make decisions.

Success Harbor: You know, when I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, they kind of pride themselves on putting out fires. I was wondering if wanting to feel that you’re putting out fires is the way for them to just be more productive or feel like they’re able to focus better?

David Allen: Yeah. I think it is. I think it’s you know, it galvanizes your necessity to focus to begin with and makes you feel important you know and you feel like you’re getting stuff done. And it gets you off your butt, you get moving. You know, so I understand that that’s not the most effective way to deal with life. If you’re making decisions when the heat forces you to make decisions they’re usually not good decisions. If you can make those decisions before the heat is on so I think people actually need to learn how to focus and make decisions before the you know life forces them to.

Success Harbor: I have read that the average person looks at his smart phone about one hundred and fifity times per day. People log in on average to Facebook about fourteen times a day so it’s like the culture that is developing is always focused on elsewhere instead of here. Why do you think that’s happening?

David Allen: Well I think it gives people a sense of control. It gives people a sense of belonging, gives people a sense of fun. It’s the fastest way to avoid your life. You know. Not that it’s a bad thing. You know I think social media. I relate to it like a cocktail party. You wouldn’t want to spend your life at a cocktail party but sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s necessary if you’re trying to network. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. There’s really you know. Social media in a way is nothing more than a bulletin board in a Laundromat. It’s just a lot more available, coming at you fast and it’s kind of sexy and you’ve got lots of links that you can go down and all kinds of rabbit trails that can suck you in if you’re not highly focused on what you need to do. So you know all that social media and all that you know, the digital world has it’s come on, is really a two-edged sword. First of all, there’s you know all the way cool apps that are showing up every day. At the same time it’s this black hole of bulk and moors of what the hell do I do with all of those apps and where do I put this and where does this go and should I, which one should I check and how often should I look at that and you know, it’s crazy and it can be very crazy making very easily. But that’s only because you know all it’s done is surfaced the fact and the situation for people to let you know and give you lots of feedback about how focused are you.

Success Harbor: Yeah. I mean does it feel like that it’s easier to be somewhere else virtually than dealing with the here and now. So it’s just another way of the opposite of being focused on what needs to be done at the moment.

David Allen: Yeah. Could be. Could very well be. I mean there are lots of ways to avoid being totally present with where you are or what you’re doing. You know, oftentimes, it’s the, you know, the people who procrastinate the most, people who avoid doing you know important stuff you know, are usually the most sensitive, intelligent and creative people because you know talk about self-talk, it’s the thick, dullards, it’s the insensitive people who just go start hard charging because they’re too you know insensitive to be aware of all the stuff that smart sensitive people that in a quarter of a second that can generate huge phantoms and demons in their head about all the things that might have to be done in order to do that thing perfectly and all the potential negative consequences if it’s not perfect and they just freak themselves out within half a second. So that makes it very easy to want to run away from that. So that’s why a lot of what I teach is how do you take anything that’s got your attention and identify it and identify the very next action step on it because that next action step as simple as it sounds, that’s the whole point. Get it simple. Get it down to something that you can very easily get a hold of and feel like you can win at. Increase your back credit line. Great. You know I can do that. Wait a minute. What’s the next step? Pick up phone. You can do that. Punch seven numbers you know. See what happens. And if you get it down to that and if you can say focused on that but if what you can do is train yourself to focus on a doable event you know about any of those things that have your attention, that’s. That doesn’t happen by the way just because you’re born. That’s actually a trainable, learnable, skill or behavior set.

Success Harbor: So breaking everything down into small manageable chunks?

David Allen: Sure well you need two things. The zeros and ones ultimately of productivity are what does done mean and what does doing look like and where does it happen. So what does done mean? That’s equally important to break something down, to say break what down. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish here? You know, what’s your project? Is your project to increase your credit line or just to find out whether you can or not? Those are two different projects. So entrepreneurs need to feel more comfortable to say I need to feel okay if they don’t give it to me and I need to still create a win. In other words, I’ve optimized the possibility that I could extend my credit line. That’s like in sales, you always need to give yourself a game you can win. So instead of affirming and yes it’s nice to have a vision that the client or potential client is going to buy from you but they may have had a bad day and still win as long as your project will maximize their opportunity to buy. And that’s a challenging thing for any sales person to do but that’s something you can always win at that no matter what they do. So you need to sort of define, wait a minute what are the games I can win, the things I can finish and define those. So that’s defining outcome. That’s the zero and the one is okay, what would be my next step if I had nothing else to do but that, where would I go physically? Would I boot my computer? Would I surf the web? Would I call somebody? Would I talk to my partner you know? What’s the fixed physical visible thing that would start to kick-start movement towards completion of whatever this thing is about? And those are master keys but they seldom show up. Most people listening to this right now, if you have anything that looks like a to-do list, I’ll be willing to bet you 99.9 percent of you have an incomplete list of still unclear things. You’ll look down on that list and see things like bank or mom or doctor. Well good you may have captured some things but you have not defined, wait a minute, what’s the specific outcome? I get to mark this off as done when what’s true? What’s the win here and that’s your motivator. You know you need to build that in to all those things that have your attention. Nor on your list will you see very many if any very next actions. What’s the next action on Mom? Why is it on your list? Oh it’s her birthday coming up. Well what’s the project? Oh I don’t know I guess we’re going to give Mom a birthday party. Fabulous. Now you have a project. What’s the next step? I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to call my sister and that’s the kind of thinking as dumb and silly as that sounds that most people are avoiding like the plague. I know I’ve spent thousands of hours with some of the best and brightest people on the planet, best side with them going through that process.

Success Harbor: That was really good by the way you know. It just makes me think about to-do lists in an entirely different way. It feels like there is so much more competition for attention, so much more data out there. I’m not sure if we’re smarter though. There is all that’s out there to become just a distraction or to make us dumber.

David Allen: Well George back to your original point to stay focused. What are you trying to do? You know for some people that may be exactly what they need to do for networking reasons or other things but why are you doing it? You know. And that’s tricky business because sometimes the thing to do you need to, if you had a bad day you know you’ve been in six meetings and you were beat up in five of them and your brain is scrambled eggs by 6 pm you know, that’s not the time to call a potential client. That’s the time to surf the web and do Facebook and do all kinds of dorky things just to relive your own pressure on yourself so you have to. It’s all about how conscious are you. Why are you doing this? Is this avoidance or is this recreation and I think that’s important to know. A lot of that’s about how well do you know yourself and how conscious are you willing to be you know at that point in time. Does that make sense?

Success Harbor: Yeah do you think that society is addicted to distraction? You know I’m wondering if distraction is actually just another form of addiction or an escape?

David Allen: Well that’s a good question. You know I don’t know. I’m just guessing on it. From my experience the biggest addiction is control or attempt to control stuff and I think that when people feel out of control they need to hop into something they feel like they can control. That’s why people love to play golf, or play tennis or play pinball or play computer games or whatever because you get to complete something. You get to control it. You know and I think that’s what people are most addicted to. I think that’s also why people keep stuff in their heads because of the false sense of control.

Success Harbor: What do you think are the reasons for people staying busy doesn’t translate to being productive?

David Allen: Well, if you step back and say well what’s the definition of being productive? Say well, do you produce something or what are you trying to produce? If you go on a vacation to relax but you are stressed out on your vacation, that’s an unproductive vacation. I think people have a little bit of a preconditioned idea of what productivity is. Productivity in my terms is just achieving desired results for experience. So if you’re trying to relax but you can’t relax, that’s unproductive. That’s an unproductive experience. So when you think of it that way then being busy is, it’s all about are you, is your busyness producing what it is you’re committed to produce. Some people, being busy is a very healthy thing to do. If you have serious depression, sometimes getting up and being busy no matter what it is, go wash the dishes, go you know take the dog for a walk, go do something that you can do because busyness then may actually be a very positive thing for you. Get you engaged in something. You know so you don’t you know you don’t sort of self-absorb in morbidity. So again, it’s tricky. I don’t mean to be clip about this but you really do need to ask yourself wait a minute, what are you trying to produce. I know, the simple answer is, sure, a lot of people out there are used to doing busy kind of work but that work is not focused toward a specific outcome. They wind up just doing a lot of stuff. Why are you doing it? I don’t know because I’ve always done it. Well that’s probably not the best answer.

Success Harbor: Can you share your ‘mind like water’ way of thinking about productivity?

David Allen: Well that came from the martial arts. I spent some years in martial arts years ago and it’s a great image. Water sort of responds to things appropriately. You don’t see water over or under reacting to things. It’s an appropriate response. You know you throw a little pebble in the water, the water responds to the pebble. It doesn’t overreact. Throw a big rock in it and it has big rock responses. And it goes back to calm again ready for the next input. So that idea is not overreacting or underreacting to anything but being appropriately there. So it’s another way of saying I’m present or being present with whatever it is that you’re doing. So that idea is ultimately getting things done and here’s a big secret George for you and your audio listeners, getting things done is really not about getting things done. It’s about being appropriately engaged with your life and your work. Now there’s a lot to unpack about that idea of appropriate engagement. What does that mean? Well, you know if you keep telling yourself I need cat food and you know and it keeps popping into your head, you’re not appropriately engaged with your cat or you’re agreement with your cat. You know so you don’t have to go very far to see where to say wait a minute, do I have my life water yet? Well that’s because of what’s still on your mind. You know, what’s still popping into your head, distracting you, pulling you, tugging you, little big personal or professional. You don’t have to go very far to ask yourself what has your attention. The reason things have your attention is usually because there’s some decision about that thing you haven’t made or you haven’t parked the results of that in some systematic way so that you trust your brain can let go of it. Did I answer your question or did I go too far afield here?

Success Harbor: Yeah. No, it’s actually great. It’s great. Now can you give me an example in your own business on staying focused? What helps you stay focused?

David Allen: Well yeah. First of all, zeroing all my in-basket, getting out all my new inputs every twenty-four to forty-eight hours so that I’m not distracted or pulled on by stuff that might be meaningful to me that might be more important than whatever it is that I’m focused on. So I need to stay focused by keeping very current with whatever is new and in my work and in my life so it doesn’t pull on me. And so that I can also then trust my inventory of all the options I have to do. And you know so that’s you know basically I implement the five steps you know. I make sure I capture everything that’s on my mind, everything that’s popped in that’s potentially meaningful. I pull it into my own entry or in-basket, ensuring my own in basket, both electronic as well as physical and then I zero themselves out sooner or later. What is it? What does this thing mean? Am I going to do something about this? Is it reference? Is it trash? Is it something I need to do something about? What do I need to do about it? Is it a single action? Is there a project here? So I’m constantly making those decisions and essentially defining what my work is and then once that work has been reasonably defined and is reasonably current, then I need to be able to step back and take a look at the whole picture. Look you know, I’m out. I’ve got a mobile phone. I’m waiting on a client to meet with me but he’s twenty-minutes late. Let me see all the phone calls I need to make then I’ve already determined the next steps on anything I need to make progress on. So all those techniques and all of those, the results of having captured, clarified and reviewed all of my stuff is how I stay present.

Success Harbor: As an entrepreneur, how often do you revisit what your vision is, what your goals are etc.?

David Allen: As often as I need to get those off my mind. There’s an inverse relationship between on your mind and getting done. So if you keep thinking, I keep. When I’m playing with my dog I don’t want to think about my strategic plan. I need to have already thought about it. So it really comes back to what do I need to keep looking at. Now a more practical answer perhaps is yeah, every so often it’s a really good idea to pull those things out and say am I directing myself or really where I want to be and how I want to be. You know, I would say, I’ve identified in my book and my work, I’ve identified six horizons that we actually have commitments about you know. On the ground level are all the commitments of actions you need to take, phone calls you need to make, cat food you need to buy, stuff you need to talk to your banker about, stuff you need to talk to your spouse about etc. So there’s that level called the action level. A lot of that action level is driven by your commitments on the next level up which is projects. What are the outcomes that you’re trying to accomplish? Oh yeah I need to extend my credit line. Oh yeah I need to make sure I get all my checkups since I’m fifty this year or whatever age you are. So make sure you get all that updated and handled. That’s a project. Need to give Mom a birthday party. So that’s the next level up would be horizon one which would be projects. But the reason you have projects and actions too is horizon two which is what are all the things you are committed to maintain? You know, what are the things you need to keep up to a certain standards? I need to maintain my health. I need to maintain my finances. I need to maintain my relationships with people. I need to maintain my house. I need to maintain, in your business. I’ve got PR and marketing and financing and whatever., Those are not things to finish. Those are just areas that need to be maintained at certain standards. So that’s the third horizon up which I call horizon two because the first horizon is really the ground level. Horizon three is going to be well okay, where are you going in the next you know three to eighteen months? And that would be what most people would think about in terms of plans or objectives or strategies for the next year or so, so that’s oftentimes where you want to look at that. You know where do we want to be by the end of 2015? Okay what do we want to have true? Above that would be vision. Where are you going with this? When you really grow up five years from now, three years from now, whatever, you know what would success look like for your business, your enterprise? And then above that horizon is about what’s the purpose, what is the point in doing all this and what really matters to you, you know? What’s the purpose of your business? What’s the purpose in your life? So those are all relevant levels of commitment to start to identify and so when you think about how often I need to look at those, I’d say well you want to keep day to day control. You need to look at your calendar. You need to look at the calls you need to make. That’s the ground level, probably once a day or multiple times a day you better revisit that. The next level up in terms of your projects, you probably better be reviewing those weekly if you want to keep it in control and at a next level. And then your job description and your org chart and how am I doing about all the aspects of my life in terms of life balance, making sure I’m monitoring all of those every month, every quarter or so is not a bad idea. You pull that out as a checklist and then your goals meaning what are you trying to accomplish in the next twelve to eighteen to twenty-four months? Yeah probably once a year or quarterly revisit those. Make sure they are still alive and well. Correct them if you need to change them. The big picture stuff. You know hey where do you want to be? Where’s out vision? Not a bad idea to do that yearly. You know go off-site with your partner or your spouse or your family or step back and take a look and say hey where are we really going here? So those are you know generally speaking the horizons or commitments. You don’t need to look at those every hour or every day but probably need to build at them often enough. So I’ll come back to my first answer. I tend to do those whenever I need to do those so that that pressure gets off my brain whenever that needs to be. Oh come on entrepreneurs can be big picture stuff constantly especially in the tech world. Man those things a lot of people especially if you’re edgily building your business, you may come up with a very different product than the product you started with as you probably know George in that world. So there’s kind of a, it depends, but those are all the factors that one should consider.

Success Harbor: Can you give us an example of how your company helps entrepreneurs?

David Allen: Well what we do is we produce and facilitate the conditions for people to be able to flourish. We like that word because it really means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and it should. In order for anyone to flourish they really need to have clear space. The need to have, they need to feel in control, need to feel focused. So all of our work is to facilitate people being able to get into that space where they are in control and they’re focused and they have the capabilities to do that in a maximum way and you know it looks very different for different kinds of people. So if I say you know if you’re twenty-four, you’re old and full of juice and venom and adrenaline, flourishing for you may look like a twenty-four-seven kind of week you know. That’s because that’s your game. If you’re fifty and just left a corporate job and going to sort of build your own little business, the next thing you want to do and do it on your own, flourishing may look very different for you. You may have kids that are still trying to get into college and a lifestyle that you still want to maintain and so that’s going to look very different for you. However our stuff is universally available for both of those people to be able to do both of those things better with less effort. You know the whole idea of productivity is being able to produce an outcome with less effort and less resources required. So being able to stay focused, able to keep your eye on the ball and be able to allow your brain to not be distracted by the things that hold it hostage because you haven’t managed those well, that’s what we solve and or that helps anybody.

Success Harbor: You have managed to build an amazing brand. What are some of the reasons that GTD stands out today?

David Allen: It works. Sorry. It’s good stuff and one of the things, I did not go out to publicize GTD as a brand. It’s kind of an accident, brand by accident. It just really you know, the methodology was developed over and I tested it, researched it, used it for twenty, twenty-five years before I was willing to sit down and write a book about it. I had to make sure there were no holes in it and I’ve literally spent thousands of hours with truly some of the best and brightest people on the planet that would spit you out in two seconds if you couldn’t stand toe-to-toe with them in terms of this methodology not being functional or not really working for them and it worked without fail with everybody. So I figured okay it was time to write the manual for it. So I know that’s not, doesn’t say much about how do you promote and build a brand. I think you know one of the things we’ve been learning over the last two or three years ourselves is you know, is I think a real key to brand is authenticity. How authentic do you show up? Does what it is that you’re putting out represent who you are, what you’re doing and what you’re delivering? So you know I think because I didn’t hold anything back, there’s really not much dialogue out in my work. At least I don’t think so. I wrote it all into Getting Things Done in that book because I truly wanted to say look if I got run over by a bus, maybe somebody at some point would figure this methodology out but apparently nobody else seems to have done it the way I did so I decided I would just put it out there in that way and you know part of this too is I kept, stayed available. I’ve done probably 99.9 percent of every podcast, every interview, everything that anybody ever wanted to talk to me about this thing, I said sure, because you know it’s like, I care enough about it and I suppose this comes back to what people would you know generally refer to as passion. It’s like I can’t stop doing it. I discovered this is great stuff. It improves everybody’s life when they start to implement any version of this so I can’t hold it back. And it’s fabulous to have sort of created something that without fail you know is one hundred percent bulletproof that it works. So I don’t know maybe some combination of all of those things helps. Maybe that’s the long way of saying, George come [00:30:59.07] Inaudible. I’m sort of used by it as much as anybody else.

Success Harbor: That’s great. How much of your growth is global and what kind of impact does it have on your business?

David Allen: Well we’re still a small little company. I mean we’re twenty-plus people you know and we’re still not huge but you know our game, I think a lot of what we’ve been learning over the last few years is stick to your knitting. In other words, what are we the best at and try to as best we can find partners and other channels that can manage what we’re not that good at. So one of those aspects was years ago we discovered this is great global methodology and the world had been knocking at my door since Getting Things Done was published. We’ve has all kinds of people as you can imagine, said gee David can I distribute your stuff in Romania? Can I distribute your stuff in Japan? Can I distribute your stuff? So we really didn’t know how to manage that so our strategy is then to find partners who we knew had much better capabilities and expertise in those kinds of channels. So we now have a partner whose been setting up exclusive franchisees around the world for us, for this methodology. So we’re right in the middle of that right now, just starting to get traction but we have officially and legally fifty countries now that we’ve signed in license agreement to start to distribute this. Still very small but it’s a long tail and a long game of my division that we would build a global community of practice, best practitioners and trainers and people who really get this. Because if there’s no bias culturally, gender wise or person-wise for this methodology and the world really needs it more and more so every day.

Success Harbor: David I want to thank you for coming on Success Harbor today to share your wisdom. How can people find out more about you, either the franchise opportunity or about GTD in general?

David Allen: The website. Gettingthingsdone.com to spell it all out and go there. Lots of stuff. It’s a fun site now you’ll see lots of stuff. Lots of ways to play there.

Success Harbor: Everybody out there. Go to gettingthingsdone. Check it out and again David thank you very much. I appreciate your time today.

David Allen: George my pleasure. Best of luck to all of you

Success Harbor: Thank you very much. Bye.