Episode 94 – Interview with Productivity Expert and Bestselling Author David Allen


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Episode 94 — Interview with Productivity Expert and Bestselling Author David Allen

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 94! I’m speaking with the bestselling author of Getting Things Done and productivity expert David Allen. I’m really excited about this! I keep getting people asking for more productivity tips. I’ve done a lot of Podcasts on this:

– Creating Your Morning Ritual: allanmckay.com/13/

– Extreme Flow and Productivity Hacks: allanmckay.com/26/

– Killer Tools to Help You Get Shit Done: allanmckay.com/35/

I thought it would be helpful to interview other experts on the subject, people who have written books that have withstood the test of time. David Allen has written the bestselling book Getting Things Done, which Time Magazine dubbed the best self-help business book of its time. Getting Things Done has been published in 28 different languages. David is considered to be a leading expert on organization and personal productivity. I’ve had his book for a quite a long time, so it was cool to get to chat to him!

So many of us feel that we don’t have enough time. We use time as an excuse for not doing things we need to do. We all have the same amount of time in the day. It’s about reflecting about where your time is going (just like you do with finances). Take notes, or check out the show notes!

Let’s dive in!



[-[36:01] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. Typically, we go on job interviews and either shoot ourselves in the foot by charging less than we’re worth and getting the gig — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars accumulatively over time on the table; rather than asking what we should be charging. At the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much.

I’ve put together a website: www.VFXRates.com. This is a chance for you to put in your information — your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be worth. This is something I’m going to continue to build and flush out over time.

The key thing is — I want to hand you the tools to grow and learn:

– to negotiate better,

– to ask for the right amount of money in the right way.

The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! Put in your information and you will get instantly notified with how much you should be charging per hour, as a VFX Artist.



David Allen is a bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, the first edition of which was published in 2001. David is also 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, Allan McKay and David Allen discuss the four steps to productivity according to the GTD System, and the tips for freeing up space — for more creativity.


Website on the GTD System: http://gettingthingsdone.com

Getting Things Done on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Getting-Things-Done-Stress-Free-Productivity/dp/0143126563

Article on David Allen’s GTD System on LifeHacker.com: https://lifehacker.com/productivity-101-a-primer-to-the-getting-things-done-1551880955

Article on David Allen’s GTD System on FastCompany.com: https://www.fastcompany.com/3003010/how-official-getting-things-done-app-will-free-your-mind-and-empty-your-inboxes

David Allen on CNN.com: http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/internet/02/09/david.allen/index.html


[-[34:37] Allan: To start out, tell us a bit about your background. How did you start out? Was it always something that was aligned for you to do this, or did you fall into it?

David: I fell into it but only because of two reasons:

I had the love for clear space. Through Martial Arts and my own meditation practice, I discovered how cool it was to get your head cleared and have nothing on your mind. How to have the freedom, the peace of mind; to let you mind wander into the depths of sophistication of places it could go when it gets quiet.

In professional world, I worked for people who hired other people to do that for them. I wound up becoming a consultant for helping people organize their own businesses. In the mean time, I discovered techniques that helped me get rid of pressure in my head, which gave me more room to think about more meaningful things. Those techniques also worked for my clients. When they would try out my techniques, they would get the same results 100%:

– More space;

– More control;

– More focus;

– More ability to do what they wanted to do.

That’s a very short version of a very long story. There was no overnight epiphany over all that. Just blow by blow, step by step, figuring it out. At some point, I had the opportunity to design a training for a large corporation around what I’d uncovered. That worked really well, and I got involved in corporate training and packaging my techniques more as a seminar. It was successful! I wasn’t entrepreneurial or highly aspirational myself. I’m more of an educator. But it worked.

It took me 25 years to figure out the technique and it was bulletproof. In 2001, I wrote the book Getting Things Done. It took the movement onto the global stage. Figuring out what to do with that has been the next chapter of my game.

[-[31:57] Allan: That’s awesome! What was it like for you, at the point of seeing your book catch on? Was it a big shift in your career?

David: It was, Allan. It was really a milestone for me. I knew if I had time with people, I could get them invested in this methodology. But I didn’t know if I could translate it into a virtual medium. That was a big milestone for me when I published the 1st edition. The weekend it came out, I got an email from a lady in Philadelphia: “I read your book, David, I implemented it. It changed my life!” It was a big milestone. So realizing that I can put it into a virtual form was a big milestone. But that was pretty late in my career. Since then, it [became] about figuring out how to scale it globally.

[-[30:27] Allan: I think it’s such a critical thing. A lot of people have a sense they need something like this: a bit of a self-audit to see where our time is going. We all know time is our most valuable commodity. We take it for granted that there is so much time in the day. If I start shaving off time here and there, I can take on other things I find fulfilling. A lot of us [haven’t had] that epiphany yet. 

David: You don’t need time — you need space. It doesn’t take any time to have a creative idea — that idea of what to do with that graphic or that spin on the website — it doesn’t take any time to be present, or innovative, or loving. Any of those golden goodies we’d like to have to be successful! But they do require something: They require room in your head! If you’re taking on several projects, or if you’re taking your work home, you’re not present. If you’re on your Smart Phone while your daughter is playing soccer, I’m sorry, you are not present. The whole idea is about: How do I create room, the space in my mind so I can be fully present with what I’m doing? That’s the key element! That’s what people are really after:

– “I need room to think about how to do things strategically.”

– “I need room to think about my next gig and what I want to be doing out there in the world.”

– “I need room to step back — or step up — to think about above the horizon, about what I am and what I want to do right now.”

That’s hard to do if you have so many open loops you’ve agreed to handle. The key to getting things done is not about getting things done. The keys is to be engaged with those commitments you’ve got in your life. All those things — down to the mundaneness of your life — those are the things that tend to grab your attention, from having the space to think about the things you need to think about.

[-[27:43] Allan: I think it’s really cool for you to describe things the way you describe them by saying “You need space”. Our priorities do require a physical space to be put into, other then the arbitrary, “I need more time”. Even by using words like that, it’s clear that it’s about creating space in the schedule.

David: Well, time is a critical element to our existence, just like oxygen. But you can’t do  much about that. It’s about how you are breathing, and how you are using your time. So it’s not about getting more or less of it. It’s about you being in the midst of it.

[-[26:56] Allan: You’ve coached a lot of people and you affect a lot of people’s lives.  What are some of the bad habits [you see] when people start wanting to make some change?

David: Oh, gee, Allan! Look! There are four key elements that you have to employ to get your kitchen under control and to get your consciousness under control. Any one of those could be the reason why you fall off:

1. Identify what’s pulling on your attention. What’s distracting you right now? The first mistake people make is they use their head as their office. It wasn’t designed to do that. Your brain didn’t evolve on being able to prioritize. It evolved on being able to survive the juggle, or whatever. You have an incredible machine in your head that can recognize patterns in your reality. But you go to the store to get lemons, but you come back with six other things and no lemons. What happened? You gave your brain the job of remembering. It wasn’t designed to do that.

2. Even if you make a list — budget, mom, bank — then you have to decide what you’re going to DO about it. Why did you write down “mom”? “Well, her birthday is coming up.” What are you going to do about it? “I don’t know.” That’s the problem.

– What’s your commitment?

– What’s your action?

– What’s your outcome?

3. On most people’s to-do lists, you won’t see actions or outcomes. You see them identify an issue that needs to be fixed or clarified — but it’s not clear what needs to be done about it. If even if you decided to take action, but you didn’t write it down, you’re relying on your brain to keep track of it. So: Organize the results of that thinking!

4. Even if some people have done all that, they don’t look at it later. They don’t step up and look at all the things on their calendar. So step 4: Review it! 


– Capture it!

– Clarify it!

– Organize it!

– Review it!

If any one of these drops out, you’ll be driven by the lamest and the loudest. Good luck!

[-[23:26] Allan: I like that! For me, one of my habits, is: I would write down my notes. Bit by bit, that list would get so big, I’d be writing on the margins. You can cross off half that list and still feel depressed. What should people do if they overload themselves? 

David: Hey, a very simple answer: Grow up! Most people listening to this have at least 100-200 actions, moving parts they’ve committed to. So what? A big list — what’s wrong with that? Most people think just because they have that list, they have to do it all right away. You’re committing to do it as soon as you can, as it’s appropriate. You need to get used to a lot of things you’d like to do. It’s like a menu at a restaurant: You pick the ones you’d like to do right now! You just have to be comfortable about the things you are not doing.

[-[21:40] Allan: I like that! What about batching tasks and errand together? Is it important to put aside time to get the smaller things get done together? 

David: Yes. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to have a whole day to do the small, dorky things you need to do. Grouping those together is more efficient. A lot of this is: make as few rules as you can to live with. Just make sure to not waste your time. Once you get your act together — with this methodology — feel free to do what you feel like doing.

[-[20:27] Allan: I like that. Setting up a few obvious ones here, for some people, they don’t think about the obvious. It’s important to point these things.

David: No kidding. And that takes multiple levels, from mundane to bigger things.

– Making sure you talk to your life partner about what you need to do to move your business of life forward appropriately.

– Making sure you talk to your boss about making sure we’re clear about what your position should be, etc.

[-[19:23] Allan: That’s a good point too! Do you believe in flow states, especially for creatives: that we have non-interrupted times to get into the zone? Maybe it’s more productive to set aside two hours.

David: Absolutely! It’s quite dependent on each project. I just started acrylic painting and I keep it in front of me. I might only spend 15 minutes to add a shadow to a cloud. It’s great to pick and choose how much time you want to spend on it with a free consciousness. And to your point: Sometimes, when I was writing my first book, it took me two years to realize I needed four hours of uninterrupted time each day. So, I think, it’s unique, Allan, to each individual specific creative process. I don’t think you can create any one rule.

[-[17:38] Allan: How are you finding acrylic painting so far?

David: Oh, I love it! I’ve had that on my mind for a long time. It’s really fun!

[-[16:46] Allan: That’s great! My fiancé is an artist. I don’t like to interrupt her when she is in the zone. For you, you’ve relocated to Amsterdam. [Why?]

David: You know, it was for a gazillion reasons. It’s a perfect storm: My wife and I wanted to get out of the U.S. My work was becoming more global. We’d fallen in love with Amsterdam. Could’ve been anywhere, as long as it’s near the airpot. It’s like San Francisco of Europe. We fell in love with the city and the Dutch. It’s a wonderful place!

[-[15:00] Allan: One thing I was curios about, are there any tools your rely on — that you could recommend to people — to structure their day? 


1. What’s absolutely critical is pen and paper. No WiFi, no batteries. You need to capture ideas as they occur to you. No decision about it, get it out of your head. That’s step one.

2. Then I have a physical in-basket where I throw in all my notes. When I get time and the frame of mind, I empty that in-tray. I go through all my notes. Then, I go through the clarifying process — of what I need to do — about the things I’ve captured.

3. The result of that is some sort of a list: a list of errands, a list of things I need to talk to my wife about, a list of projects. I have a list manager. That’s the only tool you need. You could do it with a paper-based planner (you could have a page called “errands”, you could have a page called “calls”). There are hundreds of list managers that have showed up since my book got written. Anything that manages lists: I personally use IBM Notes. I used the Palm before that. I used a paper-based planner for 20 years before that.

[-[11:50] Allan: I think that’s an important message. It doesn’t matter if you’re using  a notepad, or a Word Pad. No thing is going to magically unscrew you day. You have to look at the obvious: You just have to start it!

David: It’s true. It doesn’t matter what tool you’re using. But once you get this methodology going, you want the coolest tool.

[-[11:08] Allan: Do you think in the beginning it’s important to do a bit of a self-audit. I was talking about this the other day, it’s like money. You need to figure out where you’re leaking it.

David: Yes and no, Allan. Sure, getting a grip on the current reality never hurts. It’s always going to increase your awareness. At the same time, who cares how much time you’re spending on social media, as long as you’re getting things done! If you’re spending 10 minutes a day doing something with full awareness, spend the rest of the day having fun. I don’t think anybody should create any rules about that. It’s nice to be aware when you’ve ran down a rabbit hole of Facebook. That’s just being an adult. But building those templates and programs that track all of that, I’ve never seen anybody do that to a successful degree. There’s too much thinking you have to do to input the process. You need to sit down and get organized.

[-[08:45] Allan: I love the consistent theme I’m starting to get here, which is: Grow up and take responsibility for your day. 

David: And most people want these templates on [how to] manage time. They want this silver bullet. It’s just a way to be immature, to not be accountable from moment to moment about what you need to be doing.

[-[08:20] Allan: It’s like buying a gym membership. For as much as you can disclose, who are some of your clients and do you have any stories that could help us?

David: I think for your audience, they may think, “Getting organized may work against my spontaneous artistic, intuitive process.” Some of my biggest champions are Will Smith, Joss Whedon, Robert Downey Jr., Howard Stern. All of these people have publicly spoken about my stuff. Any one of them is also managing a business.

Spontaneity is directly proportional to your ability to create structure. You’re free to be spontaneous. I ask, What do you think about that line in the middle of the road? “I like it.” Why? “Because it gives me the freedom to think about other things while I’m driving.” Is the structure constraining or is it liberating? That’s the key question you need to ask. What structure do I need to not worry about my bank account? That’s the key message I have for the creative audience in creative fields. Having the right structure — that’s the whole point of all of this.

There is no difference with other aspects of your life. Get aspects together so that you’re freed up to give it the freedom to range around into the nothing where inspiration happens.

[-[05:17] Allan: I like that! Having structure helps you not exhaust yourself by thinking about all the variables.

David: It’s hard to make a painting without some edges.

[04:59] Allan: I like that too. That’s the perfect metaphor for it! Focusing on [your book], chapter 14 focused more on the cognitive science. Do you want to discuss that, or any other additional discoveries?

David: That’s the whole point: Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them. Most people are still using their head as their office. Keeping all of that in your head, you’re screwed. Cognitive scientists have now validated that: Having more than four potential meaningful things in your head — you’ll be driven by the loudest. I’ve experienced this with my clients. Manage this stuff outside of your head to have clear consciousness.

[-[03:34] Allan: What are some of the things you have coming up? 

David: We have a book coming out by the end of this year on this methodology, for teens. Teenagers haven’t been trained on how to manage their lives when they leave home. We’re spreading our GTD methodology. We have certified trainers now around the world. That’s a lot of what I’m doing now. And: my next painting! I have a blank canvas staring at me from across the room right now.

[-[02:27] Allan: Love it! I want to thank you. This is a big subject. It’s so vital for all of us who struggle to find time. It really comes down to structuring your life instead of finding excuses.

David: People need to pay attention to what has their attention — and giving it that attention. If you need cat food, write it down. In a sense, it’s that simple:

– If you need to balance your bank account;

– If you need to research your new job;

– If you need to update your CV.

Get a grip on those things! Don’t let them bounce around your consciousness, eating away at your energy.

[01:19] Allan: Where can people go to find out more about you?

David: www.GettingThingsDone.com. And the revised edition of the book is available in bookstores.

[-[01:04] Allan: That’s great! Thank you for doing this! 

David: Thanks, Allan! Take care.


Thank you to David for taking the time to discuss and share his insights. That is it for this Episode. Take a moment to leave a comment on iTunes.

Next Episode, I will be speaking with Nathan Fowkes, a Concept Artist who has worked for DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Disney. He is a really amazing artist!

Rock on!

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