Episode 182 — David Allen — Mastering Productivity

David Allen is a New York Times bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, the first edition of which was published in 2001. He is also the godfather of productivity. He has been a management consultant and a productivity expert. In addition to founding his multimillion dollar company based on the GTD methodology, he has founded Actioneer, a 1994 start-up specializing in productivity tools.

In this Episode, David Allen discusses how the Getting Things Done (GTD) System got started, the five GTD Elements and other methodology, and the GTD Global Summit that will take place in Amsterdam in June 2019.



[00:43] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[01:58] Please check out my previous Episode with David Allen: www.allanmckay.com/94. Thank you for listening!

[03:49] Please check out the book I’ve written on productivity called The Productive Artist: www.allanmckay.com/productive/. This is for us, creatives, and how we can create more time to do what we love. There are always ways in which we can be more productive!

[04:58] I’ve been working on my YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjgqdaigk7VSDqqqkHkcNTg). You can listen to this Podcast there, but there will be more carefully created as video friendly.

[06:04] Please sign up for my VIP Insiders List: www.allanmckay.com/inside/. I will be sending out a lot of free guides, free crash courses and tutorials, starting in the next few weeks.

[08:20] David Allen has a huge Getting Things Done Summit coming up in Amsterdam: www.gtdsummit.com. I’m considering going myself.

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[09:15] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

David: Hi, I’m David Allen. I’ve engineered that thing that’s known as GTD. A long story about how that happened. I’m now living in Amsterdam. I have a global network of licensees and people distributing this methodology all around the world. And it started from rather humble beginnings. It started with me: How do I stay more clear in my head as my life got more complex? Then I started a consulting practice and figured out that methodologies that worked for me — also worked for other people. I wound up in the big corporate world when someone said, “Hey, can you design a training around this?” I found myself thrust into the corporate world, training professionals and leaders. It took me 20 years to figure out what was unique. Someone said, “Write the book!” Oh, my God! So I wrote the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and published it in 2001. It took 4 years to get it out and it hit a nerve. That threw me into the potential of going global because the book got translated into several languages; especially in the tech world.

[10:36] Allan: Absolutely! Actually, do you think that’s a common thing now. You mentioned the tech world. In the last 10 years, people have gotten more high strung, putting more pressure on their lives. Or, do you think it’s always been that way?

David: It’s always been that way for a certain segment of people. That segment has grown. There are so many people now that have to be executives and have access to meaningful inputs — and there’s more possibility to get distracted by [the technology] that’s in your pocket.

[11:11] Allan: I think that going back 15 years, that was a big shift where companies were buying their employees Blackberries. But the expectation became that you would have that Blackberry with you 24/7. You’d do your work on the bus before you even go into the office. It would take over your life.

David: Well, yeah. But come on, it’s a great time to be alive. Come on, really! Would you give that up: Being able to do your work whenever you want and to be virtual or non-virtual whenever you want to do that? And to have all these plates spinning? But you better get really conscious about how you’re doing that.

[11:56] Allan: Yeah. I think that’s where GTD is so effective. A lot of us love working and you get to pick and choose the type of lifestyle that you want. You need to be in control of it, and most people are reactive. I’m curious: Over the course of tremendous career you’ve had, are there any winds that stand out, with clients that you’ve influenced with your training?

David: I hate to say it, but almost every week, I get a big wind. Someone got influenced by the book, or it allowed them to get a job, or to leave a job, or to write a book, to do what they really wanted to do. There’s a legion of testimonies. One of the big milestones, when Getting Things Done was published, that first weekend it was on the bookshelves in the US — and I got an email from a woman who said, “Hi, David! I read your book and it changed my life!” Oh, my God! I was able to put [my knowledge] into a book and into virtual form. I didn’t know that just writing it would help people. You only need one white bird to prove that not all birds are black. So the fact that any one person could get this may not sound like a big deal! But then to scale it to a global reach! That started the exploration on how to scale it up!

[13:53] Allan: That’s cool! What was it like? Looking at your career, it is a huge phenomenon. You’re the godfather of all of this. From having the pain points to figure it out, to having someone tell you to write about your system — to actually seeing it come to life. What was it like?

David: It’s bemusing in a way. I’ve tried to approach my life with high anticipation but no expectation. I had no idea how much uptake it would be. I knew it would work. By then, it had been 20-25 years and some of the busiest environments — and some of the brightest executives — and it hit a nerve with them. And I knew it worked by that time. You couldn’t punch a hole in the methodology. I wasn’t sure the world would pick up on that though. GTD is for anybody, but it’s not for everybody.

[15:15] Allan: I’m going to try to wrap my head around that.

David: The people are most attracted to this — are the people who need it the least. You were attracted to it because you’re one of the most aspirational people in this game. But it’s the people who are cool at this game who understand that there is a game to be in; and that systems are really good and you’ve out-created what your system can handle. You want more space. Who wants more space out there? Most people don’t think they need any more space. This is not for them.

[16:01] Allan: I think you’re right. It’s the people who want that extra 10%. They’ve started the journey on their own. That’s when they start to look to get better, to perfect it; or who has done this before. Most people, don’t Google how to be productive.

David: And that’s been a whole of my career. Now, we have kids who think that way. They just go, “Oh, that makes sense! Empty your pack every night.” Make sure that what came from your teacher — gets to your mom. The best and the sharpest people I’m dealing with are in that remedial mode.

[17:15] Allan: That’s kind of interesting! I want to touch on that later on with one of the speakers at the GTD Summit. With kids having exposure to all of this technology, are you finding a lot of them are exposed to these systems or reminders to keep their days more organized?

David: I think so. But once again, my co-authors of the book are more involved with the kids. But I’m hearing it more anecdotally. I just heard from a woman whose 10-year old son had 500 What’s Up messages on his phone. He was sophisticated enough to do his homework first, but he’d eventually want a way to do deal with all that stuff: to move it from his psyche and into the eco system. That’s the huge problem right now. In a way, kids‘ addiction to social media — and I don’t want to blame the medium but it can be very addictive. And if you aren’t sure what to do, any road will do. And it’s easy to get sucked into these rabbit holes that show up on your phone.

[19:11] Allan: Yeah, I think the most powerful button on any phone is the DND: Do Not Disturb. We take it for granted but you get your time back. And you get all this chaos that’s been going on — that’s probably been resolved while you weren’t a part of it. And you get to chose when you want to introduce that into your life. Do you find that are habits like that: like leaving your phone in the other room, so you aren’t waking up to that type of chaos in the middle of the night? Or any tools for time tracking?

David: I don’t use any of that. Most of it is just shelf ware. If you’re using it and 6 months later you’re still using it — it probably works for you. But if 6 days later… It’s like the watch that keeps track of your walking. And we’re pushing the edge of what’s really cool; but you’ll eventually find what works. Then, it’s cool! We keep coming up with smaller stuff, faster stuff. That all helped in getting there. Right now, it’s fun and geeky.

You see: If you empty your email every 24 hours, you don’t need any of this stuff. Most people are living in distracted mode and they’re constantly checking stuff to make sure they haven’t missed anything. Come on! Does your eco system have a way of tracking you in case of an emergency. Yes! Then leave the frigging this alone, you don’t need it. You need to tend to your psychic garden. I take my phone with me because of Google Maps. Living in Europe, I need it! And [for] the playing a game on the tram. Or checking out if there are interesting things I want to see. But I live in an unclogged mentality.

[22:22] Allan: Do you want to elaborate more on emptying your inbox every night? I’m curious about that myself.

David: Well, how often do you empty your physical mailbox?

[22:34] Allan: Not for a week, at least. I’ve just emptied it. It’s a pretty big pile [of mail], nothing could fit in anymore. But is that a habit of yours, to respond to everything?

David: I either delete it or file it away, respond to it in 2 minutes or less. Most of my professional work and life is through email now. I respond to correspondence for 2 hours a day. And because I respond to everything, people don’t send me any junk. “Oh, my God! This guy is conscious. I better be conscious myself!” I’ve built a pretty clean environment around me. You don’t need to have a backlog that’s nagging at you, in the back of your mind. Then people take a walk, or take a nap, or have a beer — but to avoid it.

[23:51] Allan: That’s cool! For anyone living under a rock, do you want to touch base on the whole concept of making space? It makes so much sense when you think about it.

David: Sure! You want to get rid of distractions. You want to be present. Being productive is not about doing something better or longer. It’s about being comfortable with the thing you need to be doing:

  • Should I talk to the bank about getting a credit line?
  • Should we get a divorce?
  • Should I redo my resume?

Most people have ton of that stuff bouncing around their head. What the GTD does is identify all those things that need your attention: little, big, personal, professional doesn’t matter! Write it down! Park it somewhere. Sooner or later, go over all of them. What is each of those is about and what do you need to do about it? What’s the next action you need to take? Those things don’t automatically tell you what to do about them. No email you open, Allan, is going to tell you what action you need to take right now. You have to think to make that decision! What does that email mean to you? You have to take those things, capture them, clarify them and then organize anything you can’t deal with in the moment, as the next stop.

  • Capture.
  • Clarify
  • Organize.


Those are the key elements. Then you need the steps 4 and 5:

  • Reflect.
  • Engage.

You can only make it a trusted choice, if you see the list of all of your commitments.

[26:07] Allan: I love it! I have one quick question that has to do with people dealing with overwhelm or anxiety about everything people need to do. They need to get too much on their plate. I tend to focus more when I’m stressed I do witness people shutting down and have anxiety. Obviously, you have a lot of clients. What advice do you give to them?

David: I think everyone has their own standard about that. How many dirty socks do you allow to pile up before you decide to wash them?

[26:57] Allan: I’m a man. I’ll wear them more! I do the sniff test.

David: Until them come walking to you? How many dirty cups do you allow to pile up in your living room before you decide to wash them?

[27:11] Allan: Got it!

David: So everyone’s got a different standard about how much incomplete stuff they can tolerate before they have to deal with it. So it’s the same thing: How many emails can you tolerate? Mine is zero! If everybody listening just did the [Control + X] and just dumped [all the email], everyone would have the same number of emails in a week. It’s not about their volume. It’s about how many unprocessed, un-clarified, unorganized things you’re willing to tolerate before you have to do something about it. Mine is zero! I’ve discovered that the cleaner, more organized I am — the more consistent it is — the easier it is to deal with surprise. The easier it is to roll with the punches.

[28:30] Allan: I think I’ve asked this question the last time (www.allanmckay.com/94). What do you think some of the bad habits there are around productivity? Multitasking, for example. Or, overloading their day with unrealistic expectations.

David: Those are all big ones.

  • Overcommitment is a big one. If you don’t track of your commitments, you’ll always overcommit.
  • Most people who feel out of control want to over-control what they do. That’s the daily to-do list. Then, they can’t get to one of them. Unless it has to be done, don’t put it on your to-do list! When you get free time, you can deal with all the random things you should do.
  • People don’t keep track of things.
  • Even if they do track it, they don’t decide on the best action or what the outcomes are.
  • Or, they don’t put it on the list. All you need to do is to look at them.

You could fall off with anyone of them. And if you haven’t clarified what you need to do about them, they keep buzzing around your head. Any one of these can increase your ambient anxiety.

[30:35] Allan: That’s awesome! One question is about Martial Arts and meditation. How do those relate to GTD?

David: All of those are a great way to shift your perspective and let go of being tied too tightly around the axil. Even if it’s just taking a walk. That’s all good stuff! It will shift your perspective. And physical exercise is always good. But I don’t care if you sit down to meditate — if you haven’t captured it. If you haven’t captured it on a post-in on your fridge! Come on! Those are not replacements for GTD. If you implement GTD, it will help you have a cleaner meditation practice.

[31:39] Allan: That’s cool! Let’s talk about the GTD Summit in June: www.gtdsummit.com. It’s a 2-day event!

David: Oh, my God, I’m crazy! Why do you I want to do this?! I did one 10 years ago in San Francisco. The road ran out from under us. People didn’t even know who I was or where GTD came from. That was a good reason to raise the flag. We had 300-400 people show up (even in the midst of the financial crisis in 2009). So that was great! It was such a unique event because of the type of people who came together. It was so creative! I didn’t intend to do another one. Now we have licensees around the world, they’re master trainers who train in their own languages. With all of that going on, I thought it was time. I’m 73, Allan. I figured it was time to raise the flag again. We got oversubscribed [for this summit]. These are some of the best writers and folks I know! It’s going to be quite interesting!

[33:58] Allan: It definitely feels like everyone got hand-picked. What are some of the subjects that will be covered?

David: What we did in San Francisco is some serious panels where we had 2-6 presenters of various sorts. These panels will be around: GTD and Education; GTD and Technology; GTD and Healthcare; GTD and Corporate Culture. These are serious segmented areas where you can take a look at the concepts of “clear space” and “projects instead of problems”. Lots of people will be talking about that. Dr. Julie Flagg runs an OB-GYN Clinic in Connecticut — and she can tell you why GTD works and how it saves lives. There are so many people, so many angles, but all based on the same principals:

  • Clear space;
  • Projects instead of problems.

It’s going to be fascinating! Anyone can listen in and get inspired.

[35:31] Allan: That’s so cool! What inspired you to do it after 10 years? This time around, why make it so much bigger and bring in the leaders?

David: Part of it is we now have partners around the world who have started up their own consulting practices and we’ve licensed them to use GTD. But they’re still trying to get traction. I’m going to South Africa, for example; and I’ll be helping our partner there. That’s what I’ve been doing these last 2 years. What we want to do is let these people get together and see if this is going to keep going.

[36:57] Allan: Do you have any other insight on what’s going to go on during those 2 days?

David: It’s going to be a lot of fun! That’s a key principal! And Amsterdam is such an eye-candy city. We are trying to build informal networking time. Round tables. A lot of people will have a lot of great backdrop stuff to show on the stage, during their presentations. But then you’ll be able to go hang out with them around round table, too. Very few conferences have this much coherence.

[38:18] Allan: We’ve talked about some of your speakers, like Mike Williams talking about GTD for teens. I think it’s going to be a cool event. I’m going to talk to my fiance to see if we want to go. I speak in Paris every March. I’m usually that Australian who’s wearing shorts, this time of year. For everyone who wants to find out more, where can they go?

David: Well, it’s either www.gtdsummit.com for the GTD Summit or www.gettingthingsdone.com — for Getting Things Done.

[39:29] Allan: I want to thank you for taking this time to chat and for sharing all of this insight.

David: Thank you, Allan! I appreciate the opportunity to chat about it!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank David for taking the time to chat. I think there was so much great insight and I’m honored to have him back on the Podcast.

  • I’m working on actionable material that I will be putting out on my YouTube, Instagram, Blog and Podcast. I’ve had a lot of late nights recently. I get asked about how I get so much done. So much of it has to do with concepts discussed in this Podcast. The reason I give all this stuff away for free is because of the difference this stuff makes in your careers and lives.
  • Next Episode, I am doing another Email Teardown. (Check out my previous one at www.allanmckay.com/176/.) I want to make this a regular thing. I want to show both negative and positive examples that I’ve received.
  • The Episode after that will be on How to Get Started. There will be Episodes on tricky interview questions and how to handle them. When I was 19, I went to a job interview in LA and it was a highly corporate environment. The interview went for at least an hour. The way the interview went down was the CEO saw me as a little kid. I told him what I made and what I was looking to make (which was $20K more). The guy stood up and yelled at me, “If you think you’re going to get this much money — you’re dreaming!” I ended up getting the same money at the end. But that experience still stands out. There doesn’t need to be any conflict if you’re prepared.

Please take a moment to share this Episode around. It would mean the world to me!

That’s it for now. Until next week —

Rock on!


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