For over 15 years, David Allen has been sharing his insights on productivity with countless organizations and individuals via his Getting Things Done methodology. On this episode of Rule Breaker Investing, David Gardner welcomes Allen to the show to share the story of how he developed this expertise after working dozens of jobs and how Fools can apply his experience to their own lives.
A full transcript follows the video.
This podcast was recorded on Nov. 23, 2016.
David Gardner: And welcome back to this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast. I'm David Gardner. Happy Thanksgiving to all of us in the United States of America. Wherever you are, I hope you've had and are having a wonderful holiday. Well deserved, no doubt.
So I'm really excited, once again, to have another great entrepreneur join us for this Entrepreneur Month for Rule Breaker Investing and it's David Allen. David Allen is somebody who, as you'll shortly discover, is a productivity coach and guru. Somebody who wrote a wonderful book called Getting Things Done -- a book that certainly improved my life.
By the way, I never really like to say "changed" my life. I don't like the whole "change life." Really, when you think about it, everything that happens at any moment is changing your life, so whenever people say "that changed my life," that kind of rings hollow for me. I like to say -- and this isn't always true of things that change our lives -- it "improved" my life.
And certainly Getting Things Done has done that immeasurably for me personally and so I'm excited to share David with you in case that feels relevant to you. In case that might be helpful to you, here, as we hit the busiest time of every year. At least for me, the busiest next six weeks of every year.
So I hope you really enjoy this interview with David. David has a methodology called Getting Things Done. That is the name of his book. We're going to lightly speak to that. There's no real way to do an A to Z primer for that; however, I'm excited to say that David has generously agreed to do a Rule Breaker-extra.
So this week as we sometimes have -- maybe every month or two -- we have an extra. Thank you to my producer, Rick Engdahl, for putting in some (speaking of extra) extra time during a busy week to make that happen for you. But yes, we're going to go over Getting Things Done in a little bit more detail.
So if you're either new to the methodology and you're interested by what we talk about (as we talk about entrepreneurs this podcast), then you're going to want to listen to the extra this weekend. Or maybe you're an old GTDer, like me, and it's good to hear from the master himself. Brush up your Shakespeare a little bit and be reinspired, I think, by my conversation this weekend with David. I should note, though (I don't think there's anything particularly time bound about this) that we recorded this interview last week.
Gardner: And now I'm so pleased to be joined by David Allen, himself, from Amsterdam. David, welcome to Rule Breaker Investing.
David Allen: Hey, delighted to be here with you guys.
Gardner: Well, it's a real pleasure. You and I have gotten to know each other some over the last 10 years or so. I read Getting Things Done, your seminal work, somewhere around the first year it came out. Maybe 2003 or 2004? Somewhere like that, David?
Allen: It was 2001 hardback. Paperback in 2003.
Gardner: Good. I was paperback in 2003 and it was a total game and life changer for me. I've tried to give back here, some, over the years by just always mentioning how grateful I am for your work. I'm just really pleased to be joined with you this week.
I wanted to start by asking you -- let's go with the superhero origin story. When did you discover that you were a superhero? How did it happen? Tell us a little bit about your early life or early employment life.
Allen: Oh, my God. I had 35 jobs by the time I was 35. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was looking for God, truth of the universe. I was an American cultural history major in graduate school in Berkeley in 1968. If you can remember being in Berkeley in 1968, you were not there. I discovered that instead of studying people who were enlightened, I wanted my own. Graduate school didn't seem to be the source of that, so I dropped out and did all kinds of things. Karate. Meditation practices All kinds of spiritual explorations, etc. I was more interested in the inner world and how it connected to the big, big, big outer world out there.
And so to make a long story short, I wasn't for rice bowl and cave. That wasn't my style. I like good chardonnay and good-looking women, etc., so I said, "You know, I still have to pay the rent while I'm on this inner exploration." It turned out I had a lot friends in a network. A lot of them had aspirations and were entrepreneurs who were starting their own businesses, so I became a really good No. 2 guy.
I would just walk in and look around at what they were doing because I'm so lazy to begin with. I mean, that's why I developed GTD. I don't like to expend any effort that's not required. So I'd walk in and look around at what they were doing and say, "God, we could do this a lot easier if we did X, Y, and Z." So then we'd do X, Y, and Z and improve the situation, and then I'd get bored. And I'd go, "Okay, let me go find something else to do." And then one day I discovered they'd pay people to do that and they called them something -- so consultant. I couldn't spell it, but now I are one.
So in 1981, I hung out my shingle and started Allen Associates, my own little consulting process. So then I got hungry. Being as lazy as I was, I didn't want to have to make up whatever I was doing whenever I walked into a new client. If it wasn't obvious what I could do to help improve their situation, it'd be nice to have a model, or some models that I could pull out of my quiver and be able to use that as a way to help them ask the right questions. Answer the right stuff. What I'm sure you do, David, with all that stuff that you do. So I got very hungry for that.
Also, because of my other work, I had gotten very attracted to clear space. You know, in martial arts there's a lot of practice about how you clear your head so when four people jump you in a dark alley you don't want 2,000 unprocessed emails hanging in your psyche. You need a clear head to function most productively. So this sort of love of clear space.
And then as my world got more complex, I started to find, "Well, wait a minute. What are some models I can use to stay clear so I can stay more focused strategically [and] have more creative room in my head, etc.?" And I began to cobble together different techniques from different people. So I had two or three different mentors and explored a lot of things. There was no one big epiphany -- just a long string of "epiphanettes" -- for about three or four years back in the early 1980s as I was starting to do this.
And then I went, "God, this is really cool." I found stuff that really worked for me. Then I turned around and applied the same techniques with my clients and it turned out that it produced the same results. More results. More control. More space. More creativity. More room to think about meaningful stuff in meaningful ways. And I said, "Well, that's kind of cool."
And then some guy from the big corporate world showed up. The head of human resources at Lockheed. He said, "David, our whole company sort of needs that result. Can you take what you've come up with, there, and put it into some sort of educational format?" And so I did a pilot program for a thousand executives ...
Gardner: Wow. Lockheed is a big dog.
Allen: Yeah, it's a big dog. We did that in 1983 to 1984. Before you were born, David, I think. Maybe. You know, somewhere back there.
Gardner: I was only 17. Come on, now.
Allen: And I didn't have any experience in the corporate world or in the corporate training world. I have had no traditional business or psychology courses in my life.
Allen: Everything I learned I learned on the street. I learned out there with my sleeves rolled up working with real people and finding out watching this stuff, really, and how it affected people. But then I didn't know what I'd figured out, frankly. I was just trying to keep a good job. I found something that people thought was valuable and they were willing to pay me to come in and do it. And I wasn't particularly entrepreneurial or aspirational at that point, anyway. I just wanted to keep doing that and support my own lifestyle.
So I kept it a fairly small, boutique consulting practice. There was a couple of partners over time. And it really took me 25 years to figure out what I'd figured out. I never did any marketing. I just picked up the phone with people who referred me to other people that referred me to other people and other companies, etc.
And then at some point I realized, "Gee, I might get run over by a bus." I think it was time to write the book, as it took me 25 years to figure out that what I'd figured out was unique. That nobody else had figured it out and that it was bulletproof. Nobody could punch a hole in it.
Believe me, this was tested in some of the most challenging environments you could imagine of the busiest, brightest, best people in the world, and it would go viral inside of those environments. And those are people making more money in a year than I'll probably see in my life. And if this stuff was viral with those kind of people, I figured, "OK, now I feel like I have the confidence that I could put this out." That's when I wrote Getting Things Done.
Gardner: And how did the book come about, David? I mean, you've described it as a 20-year journey to realizing that it should be a book. What was the actual machination by which you did a book deal? Went with the book. I mean, that was a huge shift. That's the way that I found out about you and many, many others [found out about you]. That you really had just shifted from a corporate world consulting business to all of a sudden a mainstream media business.
Allen: Yeah. Well, one point ... and here's a real tip for any of the budding entrepreneurs out there. At least once at least have an ad hoc advisory group of folks that are friends of the court who will be honest with you and have some experience in different aspects of this stuff. That's what I did. I brought them together in my little yard underneath an oak tree in Ojai, California and said, "OK. Give me some advice, guys. What do I do with this tiny, little business that I've built?" And the conclusion was they said to write a good business book. And I went "Oh! OK. How do I do that?"
It had been on my "someday maybe" list for a while, anyway, because I really thought about doing that. And I'd made some fits and starts but hadn't really done it. And then I said, "OK, I better just pull the plug on this," and I actually made that a real project called "(a) publish book." And I didn't know how the hell to do that, so I went and did some research. It took four years from the time I pulled that trigger until it was actually on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. That was quite a process.
The first thing I had to do was figure out, "Well, first of all, how do you sell a book to somebody who's going to sell a book?" So I read whatever current literature there was on how you write a book, and that's a challenging thing, because if you're trying to sell a publisher to publish a book, you've got to write a business plan for the book. What's unique? Why is this different? Who needs this? Who's your target market? Show us an example that you can write. Creating a book proposal was an agonizing but very valuable event and stuff to do. So that took a little while to do.
Also to figure out whether you should self-publish. Whether you should go directly to an editor or a publisher you know, or whether to get an agent. And luckily I had a good friend in the book business and he said, "Look. If your book has potential value outside of a particular niche ..." In other words, it might have national value for a wide audience. It's not like here's a book about the sex life of retired nomads that maybe had a niche market. "But if you have a general audience of something like that, and you don't have a name, you better have an agent."
And he said, "By the way, my next-door neighbor is a good one." So he turned me on to a really good agent. She still is. She's been a great partner. She's been worth every cent of the 15% they get off of this, because she came from the publishing world. She knew the game, so she got me my first deal at Viking Penguin back then, and that's how it all started.
And then it took a year to really make that happen, and then it took a year to write the first draft. The first draft didn't meet my standards. I tore it up. I took another year to write the second draft. This is now year three. And then year four, it took that year to figure out the look and feel. To get the title. And by the way, I have 400 used titles I'll sell you real cheap...
Allen: ... for this book. Zen and the Art of In-basket Maintenance was one of my favorites, but we thought that was a little cheapie. That was an agonizing process. So it was not a simple game to go from here to there to get it out.
And I also had no idea how much the market would buy into this. I had high aspirations but no expectations for it, because GTD, as you know, David, is subtle stuff. It looks quite simple, but it's not your typical time management tips and tricks kind of thing. There was a whole lot of that out there in the market, [and] I wasn't sure that the world would pick up on the uniqueness and the potential power of what this methodology really was.
So it was bemusing, and fun, and certainly valuable to find it was a best seller. The first year I think it sold 60,000 copies which they figure is a best seller in the nonfiction world, anyway, in the U.S.
Gardner: I'm guessing you earned out your advance.
Allen: I did. And actually they kept it in hardback for a second year, which they don't usually do, but they make more money on the hardback, so they figured it was popular enough that they would still make more money. That's why it was 2003 before they did a paper version of it.
Gardner: Got it.
Allen: And then when the paper version hit, that really hit a nerve out there because the timing was perfect. That actually hit about the same time that the blog world took off. I don't know where you guys were in 2003, but around then was Guy Kawasaki, and Robert Scoble, and a lot of the folks who were the big bloggers. A lot of them were champions of my stuff, too. So all of that was kind of a perfect storm that got GTD and Getting Things Done sort of spinning out there in the tech world. It became the first non-tech name to really spread through the tech world.
And the whole GTD idea -- GTD, those three letters -- were just our internal shorthand for Getting Things Done. And it was a brand that ran out from under us.
Allen: Suddenly the world is talking about GTD, and I went, "God, what do we do with that?" So we spent the last 13 years chasing the brand that ran out from under us. That's a short version of a very long story.
Gardner: Well, and it's a story that I wish we had lots more time to talk about, but I need to drive forward very shortly to some tips that you'll have for entrepreneurs listening. That's been the focus this month. But before I go there, let me just ask you. Now, here, in 2016 reflecting back on the last 10 or 15 years, any thoughts about business or insights? Just reflecting on your own journey.
Allen: Hoo! You know, it's constantly sort of eating my own dog food and working on, "OK, wait a minute. What's the vision of where we're going? What does that look like?" And our business has changed a lot. A lot of things have happened economically since that time that have affected the business.
And essentially we always thought that we were going to be the holders of an intellectual property, and the only way we were going to scale it, if we wanted to scale it at all, was through partnerships and through technology. And that really hasn't changed. It's just taken various different kinds of forms.
So fast-forward to today and we've got two (potentially three) partnerships that will essentially take over and already are starting to take over the marketing, sales, and actually delivery of our training programs that we've now designed to go [global]. So we have global franchises, now, for our training program. We're working with a potential partner, now, for the U.S.
And that always was essentially part of the vision. We had no idea how the hell to get from here to there, but we just kept that out there as guidance about how we were making decisions about how to do it. We thought we could grow a lot of that capability internally, where you maintain higher margin and maintain essentially more control.
So it's been a little dance, there, between how much we can give away and how much [we can] give up in terms of quality control but, at the same time, [get] a whole lot more reach. That's been a lot of our strategy back and forth. Our internal committees and certainly of our own heads. You know, we all have committees in our head and sometimes they start throwing plates at each other in there. And which way do you go? Which way do you travel?
Gardner: David, to what extent was your move from California to Amsterdam a personal one or a professional one?
Gardner: I get it. I get it. Love it. And last question, and then we are going to drive forward to our tips for entrepreneurs. How active, or what is your role today in the business? Are you the visionary and people are coming to you? Are you still out there giving seminars? What are you doing? What does the movie of you look like today?
Allen: Well, one of my official titles is "Fool on the Hill," which you should probably relate to pretty easily.
Gardner: You know we love that. We love that! In fact, I think you owe us five dollars for some kind of an intellectual property violation.
Allen: Yeah! So, that's pretty much it, and I'm sort of the final arbiter of some of the quality in terms of just the content of the stuff. And that's primarily it. And I'm sort of the holder of the flag and the maintainer. Now we're franchising ourselves globally -- and there's a whole lot of piracy of GTD out there around the world -- so it's important when we have a real exclusive partner (that we set up, now, in 40 or 50 countries), that I show up, pat them on the back, and they see that I have now vetted them as they are the exclusive distributor because we're now licensing their master trainers and certifying them.
We've got a great team of people out there, so I figured one of the reasons to be over here, in Amsterdam, was it was certainly much more the center of the world than Santa Barbara was. I'm flying tomorrow to Milan and then Sunday to Moscow giving keynote speeches. So I'm still doing that, kind of ad hoc, as the world is knocking on my door to do that and also, at the same time, helping support our new franchisees in these areas. So last year I spent a week in Thailand, a week in Tokyo, a week in South Korea, a week in Budapest just doing that.
Allen: We're getting a lot of press, because the new edition of the book, which came out last year, is now being translated into the 20 to 30 languages that the first edition was published in. So the launch of that book -- I get a chance to show up and get a lot of press...
Allen: ... in those countries. So tomorrow morning I'll be on a Skype into Taiwan. They just published my book in Chinese in Taiwan, so that's a lot of what I'm doing ...
Allen: ... and it's different every week.
Gardner: You remain just as busy as ever. I do want to just remind listeners that we are going to have a pullout extra this week. David is graciously sharing some extra time going through some of his GTD tropes. That's how I think of it -- concepts. A little bit of tips and tricks. I'm going to keep it light, but a little GTD primer which I highly recommend for all Rule Breaker listeners if they're not already familiar with David's material, or even if they are.
David, let's now shift to the aforementioned tips for entrepreneurs. I know that you've spent your life as an entrepreneur. You also have constantly offered coaching and other insights to entrepreneurs. I just want to get some of your best ones right now -- maybe three to five and maybe a minute or two on each -- and I just am going to let you go because I know you can go well.
Allen: Well, I'm going to give you the big one. Hang on! Your head is a crappy office ...
Gardner: All right.
Allen: ... and virtually everybody out there is trying to use [their] head as a way to keep track. As a way to be reminded. As a way to see relationships between priorities. And you cannot do that. Your head evolved over a million years to keep track of about four things you couldn't finish when you thought of them in the moment. That was it.
I mean, your brain is absolutely brilliant with what it does. Recognizing patterns based upon long-term history. But you go to the store to buy lemons and you come back with six things that aren't lemons.
So your head sucks. It does not do that very well. [With] virtually every entrepreneur I meet (and I'm coaching a couple of them right now -- serious major league) the whole thing is building the external brain. You've got to get that stuff out of your head. So there's a whole process about getting stuff out of your head which, as you know, I'll go into. In our little extra I can add some more juice to that.
But basically if it's on your mind, and it's on your mind more than once, that means you're not appropriately engaged with it. You need to write it down. You need to make decisions about [whether it is] something you need to act on, yes or no. And if it is, what's the very next action you need to take. So when it's popping into your head about a potential merger, or increasing your bank credit line, or potentially hiring somebody, or whatever, there are two questions. What outcome is a successful outcome for you to get this person hired and have the right person in the right place, and what's the very next action? Oh, God. Maybe I should call this friend of mine who hired somebody like that and see if they have some tips.
So outcome and action. If you like to watch any kind of a ball game like basketball, or soccer, or football, the two things on anybody's mind out there on the field are where's the goal and where's the next play. So you need to build that into your entrepreneurial life.
Gardner: That's a great one. And yes, we will definitely be riffing off that a little bit in our podcast extra. David, let's think about somebody who's about to open up a restaurant. It's his very first shot at opening anything. It's a business where people are failing left and right, all the time. I definitely can imagine some Rule Breaker Investing listeners who are right in that very situation.
You might have opened a David Allen restaurant, for all I know, but what are a couple of things that should be on that person's mind that would be non-obvious?
Allen: Well, one thing that people are thinking about in some way, probably (or they wouldn't even be there) is what would wild success look like? Wild success would look like what? And how would you know when you were there? And what exactly does that mean to you, because wild success means very different things for very different people, and so that's one of the first things that you probably need to get clear about.
Look, what would cause me to not have this on my mind? And it's coming back to the GTD methodology -- that you don't have to go very far -- and oftentimes that's what people often miss. The thing that's most bugging you, or distracting you, or exciting you ... what do you need to do to get that off your mind? Because when it's on your mind, there's an inverse relationship between on your mind and getting done. So start to notice what most has your attention about this restaurant, and about the opening, and about whatever.
So it could very well be those two things: thinking about vision and making sure that that's real clear, as clear as you can get it. I mean, oftentimes there's a ready, fire, aim. Sometimes you've got a vision that kind of got you started, and then you need to get started, and then you need to mature your thinking as you get started and then keep recasting the vision about what success is.
But there's probably some signature that's yours personally. And I like for people to start to recognize what's your signature. I don't care what kind of business you're in or what kind of profession you're in. You've got your own signature, and when you're playing in that key, everything seems to work much better. If you're playing not in that key, nothing seems to work very well. I think looking for what's unique about you and your signature that you might tap into if you're thinking about wild success.
And then more tactically and operationally, what's most got your attention about this thing, and what do you need to do to get that onto cruise control? Those would be my tips and tricks.
Gardner: That's great. Let's stick with the same thread and let's fast forward it a little bit. And our entrepreneur is, at least in his mind, having wild success because he's just now opening up his third restaurant in the same metropolitan area, and that's two more than he ever thought he'd be running. What is the biggest danger that person needs to be thinking about? What would you be coaching him to do, or not to do, given wild success?
Allen: Well, first of all I'd check in and say, "Is this the success that you assumed would be there?" And oftentimes people overrun their goals, and if you have an overrun goal, you're going to run into really weird space psychologically. Meaning you've actually met your goal and then you start fumbling, and you don't know what to do. You start fumbling yourself around.
So if you're an A, and you want to get to C, as you get closer to C, guess what happens to your energy?
Gardner: It goes down.
Allen: It goes down. So if you actually want to get to C, you better have a D. Because come on, David. I haven't been at your house, but I'll bet you never fully moved in.
Allen: I'll bet there's a box or two that never got unpacked.
Gardner: Guilty as charged. It's more than one box. Six years later.
Allen: Right? [crosstalk 00:24:44] Because you had the picture, and you were there, and you had all that stuff, and then you started to get the refrigerator [voice starts to slow], and you got the music, and you got your furniture, and then plll! Then you got used to that, and that can be extremely dangerous and very subtle, and something very few people recognize. When they reach their goal, or get close to it, their energy starts to sag or wag.
Now that doesn't mean you need to open three more restaurants. It could very well be that what you're going to do with your three restaurants is make them really unique, now. So again, what success would look [like] you may need to be rethinking, now. "Hey, I got this far, but is where I want to go quantity or quality? Or do I want to serve the community? Or do I want to create an environment where people can do X, Y, and Z? Have a place where I can support new artists performing in my restaurants?" I mean, there's all kinds of ways that one could think about, I would imagine. Adding more creativity, and adding more success, and more juice, and more quality to what people are doing.
Because those people get older. Now I know neither you nor I are getting older...
Gardner: It's true.
Allen: ... but while those other people out there are getting older; oftentimes it's more quality than quantity in terms of what success really means.
Gardner: OK, I think we have to end it. Well, not quite right there. I mean, time is running out, so we do need to end it, but David, how about one final money tip for entrepreneurs? The thing that I needed to ask you about 10 minutes ago that I haven't asked you?
Gardner: Love it. We're just going to leave it right there. It's a beautiful ending. David Allen of Getting Things Done fame. A friend of The Motley Fool. A friend of mine. Thank you so much for spending time with us this week with Rule Breaker Investing.
Allen: My pleasure, David. Take care.
Gardner: Well, that was a real treat. I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did. In that case, you would have had an awfully good time. So whether you're an entrepreneur, or an entrepreneur wannabe, or just somebody who enjoys listening and thinking about starting your own business, throughout the month we've heard from people who have done just that. I hope you've enjoyed hearing from them and being inspired by them.
And I'm happy to say that we're going to close it out in a special way next week. So next week is not only the last week of the month, and therefore it's Mailbag week, but we're going to have much of the episode dedicated to our final, fifth entrepreneur of the month, and that's going to be Guy Kawasaki, the very famous Apple evangelist from back in the day. The author of a wonderful book for entrepreneurs called Rules for Revolutionaries. I think I'll focus my talk with Guy there.
But I'm really excited to share Guy Kawasaki with you. If you're not familiar with him, one of those guys (kind of like David Allen) who has a million followers on Twitter and has influenced many lives for the better. Has improved -- not just changed -- has improved many lives.
All right, and before I close just a little bit of bookkeeping. Let me mention that you can check out past episodes of Rule Breaker Investing (and actually all of The Motley Fool's podcasts) at our podcast center. I don't think I mention this one enough. It's Podcasts.Fool.com. Please avail yourself of that. I'm sure many of you are already aware of it.
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Final note. It is Mailbag next week so please -- through RBI@Fool.com by email (or certainly you can just tweet it out to @RBIPodcast on Twitter) -- we would love to get a few of your questions to highlight next week.
In the meantime, just a reminder again. The David Allen extra this Saturday. Happy Thanksgiving. Fool on!
As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at RBI.Fool.com.