“Sounds very interesting and like loads of fun!” replied David Allen when we cautiously asked if we could use him as the voice of a GTD gadget in Planet Edirisa. Awesome! But let us also offer you a proper transcript of the chat Akiiki and Miha had with him.
How did you come up with the idea of Getting Things Done, what experience made you work on it?
It was a long process, there was no one big overnight epiphany. It was more like a long series of small epiphanets – small little realizations, small little tips and tricks I got to know through my work and then, over the years, it all began to come together into a cohesive methodology.
Did your philosophy come together before you actually wrote the book “Getting Things Done”?
The book was really written after 20 to 25 years of developing and researching the model which was the core of my consulting and training business. I didn’t really know what I figured out concerning methodology and how unique it was for about 10 or 15 years.
And finally, when I was able to test it in some of the best, busiest and smartest environments and people in the world, I found out that it really did work universally, and I was ready to put it down into a book form.
I actually wrote it as a manual – In case I got run over by a bus I wanted to make sure the knowledge I discovered, uncovered and formulated would be available to everyone.
So initially it wasn’t even called GTD? It was just you trying to train a few people to tackle problems more easily?
That’s right. Getting things done showed up as GTD just because that was the title of the book. Believe me, we had 700 suggestions for the title before we came to that one, because it could have been called quite a number of things. But we figured that GTD was the most attractive title possible for the market interested in this – our focus in the upcoming and high performing professionals. Although we called it that, it isn’t actually about getting things done, it is more about getting on your game and getting appropriately, positively and constructively involved with your life.
You were highly influenced by martial arts and Eastern philosophy – how much did that inform GTD?
I don’t know how critical that was, but it was certainly helpful and it related a lot to many principles that I was very familiar with. Studying karate and getting a black belt was a very powerful experience in focus; clearing your head is a critical component of GTD. There was a lot of crossover between those two things for sure.
Who were your role models, who inspired you to start with these things?
There were several, I had mentors and coaches. A man named Dean Acheson was one of the more significant people in my life. He was a management consultant who had uncovered the power and the value of next-action thinking. Discovering what will be the next action is something that might be complex or vague. Having that clarified on the front end was a very powerful and very key component of GTD. He also taught me how to get everything out of my head, download all those things that were running around as commitments or open loops inside my head.
There probably was no other person which gave me anything similarly significant. He wasn’t necessarily that good at implementing all that himself, he had just discovered that it was a critical factor in his executive consulting and organizational alignment consulting.
It turns out that what I did was take this and develop a personal methodology which used some of those key principles plus several more. This became the core of what GTD was about. The role models were just people I saw that had a clear head and were focused.
I guess my biggest inspiration was realizing that it is possible to build a system which would get us back to a really productive mindset and a great place to operate from, whenever we fell out of it. So that was my primary motivator and drive, essentially an ideal that I didn’t see anybody model before.
How successfully do you follow GTD on a daily basis? What have been your challenges?
I do this pretty well, I fall of the wagon regularly but the whole point of the GTD is not to be focused 100 percent all the time – I don’t think anybody can do that. When you get in control and get focused, you’re automatically going to tap your creativity, which will throw you out of control and throw you out of focus again.
So it is not about always being in some place clear and focused, it is about finding a solution in case you are not as clear and focused you would like to be, but you have a method how to get back there. I think that if you do not fall of the wagon six to eight times a day, you are probably not playing a big enough game.
I know how to get back in control fast, whether I do or don’t implement my own best practices – and sometimes I am just too lazy. But the good news about GTD is that it makes you realize of what you could do it if you wanted. People often don’t know how to get in control and that creates some anxiety that covers their whole life.
Once you know that you could get clean again and get into control, you just need to empty your head, decide next actions and outcomes and organize them appropriately. This awareness gives you a lot of freedom. I live in that freedom all the time.
Now the biggest challenge for me is the biggest challenge for everyone, which is – it is the question how often do you need to step back and get the current again, because the more successful and productive you get, the more likely you’ll get engaged with your life, and very often you will forget about weekly reviews or forget that you should step back and look at things from a higher perspective.
When you were developing the theory, were you ever close to giving up?
Not really, because everything was developing so slowly over time. In order to keep my job I wanted to get better and better at it. I got a lot of positive feedback from people that I coached and that kept me going – that became the center of my professional work and it was something I enjoyed doing. I found a huge value for myself and other people every time I implemented a part of it. There wasn’t a time when I would say – I don’t think I got this. I couldn’t work as an authority if that were the case.
However, when you say writing a book – that is another story. Writing a book is a big job, especially if you want to make it as good and complete as I wanted to. I was close to giving that up several times because that is just a very very difficult piece of work.
If you hadn’t been the one who started GTD, would you be discouraged in the beginning?
I am happy to use best practices from anyone. As a matter of fact I thought in the early days I was the last person in the world to learn this, I was just trying to catch up with everybody else.
It just turned out that the longer I spent working with this and as I started to work with more senior and sophisticated professionals I discovered that not only they didn’t figure GTD out, they were the hungriest for it. So I hadn’t really have a lot of time to look around what everybody else was doing.
GTD didn’t really become such an universal brand until the book was published. Frankly I just developed this because I needed it myself and the people around me needed it. By 2003 or 2004 and especially when it started to hit the technology world and the blog world that’s really when it got famous. So your hypothetical question is hard to answer.
Did the global interest in the GTD take you by surprise?
To some degree it was surprising. I often say it really depends on what bed side I get up in the morning. Only 2 million people in the world have bought my book in 30 languages because there are 6 billion people in the world. Then there is another part of me really surprised that anybody caught it because it looks like so many other things. It was interesting and surprising that it took off the way it did. I like to think I experienced the best practice psychologically of having high anticipation but no expectation.
Did you have doubts while writing the book?
My biggest doubt was whether or not I can put the value into a book. I had never before transmitted what I came up with in any other way than my one-on-one coaching or my seminars and workshops. I knew people could catch it then because I had an experience. What I didn’t know was that I can take the value and the model and the essence of what I knew and came across and get it into a book form that people could catch.
So I was really waiting with high interest to get the first piece of feedback once the book was published. When I got my first email from a woman who picked it up and changed her life by using what was in it, I said hooray – so it is possible to virtualize the GTD and get it into other forms!
Which people is GTD applicable to? What results have you got ten years after publishing the book?
People who work on an assembly line in a factory don’t really need GTD to get their work done. They are just producing something and they don’t have to question what they should or could be doing.
But those who have to keep track of projects or things that couldn’t be finished right then – these people GTD is applicable to. I have never gotten any feedback from anybody that anything in the content was wrong. I only get positive feedback, people wish they could do GTD consistently.
To be continued …
transcript: Tjasa Zajc
photo: the David Allen Company
The David Allen series:
- Part I: about David Allen
- Part II: the headless chicken syndrome
- Part III: simple solutions
- Part IV: peace brought by a weekly review
- Part V: Akiiki joins GTD
- Part VI: Akiiki is organised like never before
- Part VII: give your calendar a break
- Part VIII: Akiiki reviews what matters to her
- Part IX: Akiiki interviews her mentor