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GTD Leaders: A Lifehack Exclusive Interview with David Allen and Mike Williams

GTD Leaders: A Lifehack Exclusive Interview with David Allen and Mike Williams

Editor’s Note: Lifehack was granted an exclusive opportunity to speak with both David Allen, founder of the David Allen Company, and the company’s new CEO, Mike Williams. As the new year begins, this is a great opportunity to learn about GTD from the man who created it and the men who plan to move it forward from here on out. Enjoy.

Lifehack: We have David Allen of the David Allen Company here. What’s your role now David – are you founder, are you chief innovation officer, or…?

David Allen: I am chief evangelist and visionary – that’s probably my major role. I still have a good bit of operational responsibilities – particularly in terms of our program development, content, QA and so forth that I’ve still got my hands into. But Mike Williams is pretty much taking over most of all of the operational, strategic and resource allocation side of the game.

LH: And speaking of which, the new CEO of the David Allen Compan is here as well, Mike Williams.

Mike Williams: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

LH: First off, we receive this press release indicating that Mike Williams was going to become the CEO of the David Allen Company, and I had never heard of the man before. David, what drew you to Mike in terms of bringing him on board as the CEO of the David Allen Company and what was the process to bring him into the fold?

DA: Well, that is a long story I’ll try to shorten it and not bore you to tears with all the history of this. But basically several years ago my wife Kathryn and I decided we were at a fork in the road where we said, “Look, do (we) just want to keep this individual and be sort of the source of this…and maybe build a community, a net community or a network community, not have an organization and try to roll this any bigger than just my own personal game?” And we decided that we didn’t. The press was great, the world was just was waking up, the book (Getting Things Done) was in 30 languages, and the world was not right here at our door.

    David Allen (Photo via David Allen Company)

    And you know, why hold this incredible methodology that seems to be transformative to everybody that doesn’t have a social work, gender or professional bias at all – and is a global thing– back? So we said, “Let’s do it,” and that started us down the path to try to figure out how do we operationalize this, how do we build a business to essentially distribute this educational model and have a business model at the same time so that it’s viable and can expand.

    But – long story short – I decided I needed to find a way to structure the organization or to build a process so that it could be more self-managing and bring on the kind of people that would be interested in running this and taking this on – because I certainly wasn’t going to do it by myself. At one point I said, look who would be the ideal person for all of this and I just had Mike in my mind.

    We’d met, he had been part of my network but I’d never had any kind of conversation – I mean, the guy was a senior guy at GE. So I didn’t know if this guy would ever have wanted to run this company. So I just raised a flag and waited to see what would happen. Mike and I had lunch last May back in Boston and I just sort of floated the idea, “Hey, would you ever consider…”

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    And that’s how it happened.

    LH: Mike what drew you into the idea of becoming CEO of the David Allen Company? Is it a different slant in terms of, say, running GE, which still obviously involves a lot of time management and project management? What drew you to this whole new aspect of your life?

    MW: I think it all starts back in 2004 when I got exposed to the GTD methodology. And if I can point to one book that has really changed and shaped my life for better, it’s this particular methodology. And the company I was working for at the time grew up and then got acquired by General Electric later on. So it has helped me both in the previous life, then transitioning to one of the largest companies in the world, and then also taking on new responsibilities within that large company.

    But the aspirations with respect to a person’s career has a lot of different dimensions. I’ve been in the healthcare IT information technology space for over 23 years, largely focused on services side of things. And during that time I’ve worked in the organizational development department. I’ve run four different types of education businesses within GE, and been part of services teams that are really trying to transform healthcare.

    At some point in time though, my thinking and what GE taught me really started to spark my entrepreneurial spirit. Before David even approached me I was doing my ideal scene imagining and I was thinking to myself that it would be fun to get back a smaller private company, ideally under a hundred people who were doing really cool work. You know, stuff that’s kind of changing their part of the world and would align to my value system.

    So I kind of chalk it up to “be careful what you ask and what you wish for because somebody out there in the universe may call your bluff”. And that’s exactly what happened.

    That day I showed up and had lunch with David and Kahtryn was…I don’t know what the colliding of two ideal scenes looks like but that’s probably the closest that I had ever been. Because here we have a private company – check – with under a hundred people – check – doing really cool work (…work that’s really helping people because that’s a big value alignment for me) – check – has a great product and a great brand – check. Then I also asked myself if I would I love doing this job every day. That was a “triple check” because I was such GTD enthusiast before. Just imagine getting to wake up every day and playing the space! It’s just wonderful.

    So really the alignment of the opportunity plus all the wonderful things that I learned at GE in my career could be directly applicable to this new opportunity in this new game that I want to play for the next 20 to 30 years in my career…and have a lot of fun at it.

    LH: David you and I have had this conversation before where we talked about how January – and correct me if I’m wrong – is more of a time of reflection and cleaning house as opposed to just starting brand new things. What’s the one thing that you’d recommend people do to prepare themselves for maybe a chance of alignment like you guys had for the coming year? We’ll start with you David.

    DA: You know, I’m going to be a broken record, but if you’re really ready to take the next chapter the first thing you need to do is start to pay attention to what has your attention and basically externalize all of that and step back and take a look. You need a map, essentially. Get a map of where you are, what’s true, what’s pulling on you, what’s there and as best as you can objectify that.

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    There are two aspects to that. One is sort of acknowledgment and a completion – sit down and at the end of the year (and ask) what have we accomplished? What’s true? How can we pat ourselves in the back? What are issues we’ve come up with? What’s the current reality state there? So there’s the current realities looking backward in terms of a historical sense just to get closure on that, and to get a little bit of a step outside of ourselves and see it. And then there is current reality, what’s pulling on us what’s attracting us, what’s pushing on us, what’s also true right now? Where is the creative dissonance and the current reality…essentially, that’s looking forward.

    So those polarities actually come together with doing a real current reality externalization of that and get it out of the psyche as opposed to try and manage all those factors. I mean, we’re living such complex lives – there’s no way on earth we can keep all that internalized and really trust our judgment on that. So that’s part of the GTD methodology and a real core piece of it. It’s called “get this out of your head so it frees up the flow” as opposed to being a log jam.

    LH: Mike, what are your thoughts on this?

    MW: For me it’s about freeing up space and freeing up that space to let your mind wander a bit. Because the ability to look backwards and see what you accomplished, to reflect on what is kind of in the subconscious of your mind and then the other thing would be to have the courage to actually dream. It’s funny, I’ve worked with a lot of people and when you ask them to write down your ideal scenario it’s one of those muscles that hasn’t been exercised that much.

    So one of the cool areas where I often find myself kind of drifting into this space naturally is just getting in your car and driving down the highway for about three hours, see what shows up in your mind, and just pay attention to what starts coming forward. That is often when I have interesting thoughts or the things that are tugging on me surface. But I think the reason for that is because I found a space to have that thinking space. So if you want to go into that deep reflective mode try to find that space where you can get that deep thinking space, have some tools there so you can collect what’s on your mind just as it shows up and then get it out of your mind, park it and then come back and look at it and see what it’s telling you.

    LH: Further to that…David, is this a time of year where it’s easier for people to grab on to probably one of the tougher components of GTD for people to “get”: The Horizons of Focus? Is this the time of year when it is the best time – the most capable to grab on to those and look forward – as opposed to putting in time and just capturing and capturing? Is this a good time to look at that and really get clear on what we’re looking for down the road?

    DA: Oh, sure. You know, any kind of icon that you can use or any sort of metaphorical sort of thing that we can use to back off and say, “Hey, you know…it’s time for a new game.” That’s why actually travel (works so much for this).

    Travel is a handy illusion that we can sort of pretend that we can show up a new person in a new way, I mean to Mike’s point, driving – getting a little white line fever and just driving. Get somewhere new, give yourself the chance to get out of the old conditioning and “same old, same old.” So, obviously (this time of year is a) great time to do that. You could use Spring Cleaning, you can use Summer Solstice, you could use anything…anything like that which gives you an opportunity to say, “Let’s blow a whistle,” and just call a halt in the game and step back.

    Anything that can help you lift a little bit – that’s just part of the GTD methodology is a regular reflection and review modality. And there a lot of different horizons to do that in but it’s you know, boy we all get down on the weeds and wrapped around the axle is tight as anything. And we need to go manage the forests instead of just hugging the trees. Not all the time, we all have to be down on the day to day operational stuff but boy that can get really old and tiring if you don’t lift back up. So obviously new year is a great opportunity to you know use that for that purpose.

    LH: Mike, there is an interesting article by Cal Newport where he talked about the “post-productivity era” and he talked about how we were obsessed with the tools that need to be used to get productive as opposed to actually being productive. Do you think we are at a point where the tools are now going to be able to work synergistically more with the greater public in terms of getting things done? Do you tend to agree with that or do you think that’s it’s a healthy combination of both?

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      Mike Williams (Photo via Twitter)

      MW: I think the productivity conversation probably belongs more in the thinking pattern behavior pattern area because when you look at GTD it’s really neutral to any particular tool. And some of the most sophisticated people are actually doing GTD on paper. But what’s changing within them is the thought pattern that they bring to all the stuff that’s entering their lives. So the analogy I love to use is that I kind of think of GTD as a Star Wars kind of thing. It’s an epic battle between you versus the stuff in your life – and you’ve got your lightsaber out and if you can carve out the stuff into tiny pieces then you own the stuff. But if you let stuff continue to grow, it will come in and it will overwhelm you.

      It’s that discipline – that kind of Jedi discipline – of being able to carve the stuff, assign your relationship to it so you can control it versus it controlling you. That kind of stuff transcends any particular tool. What you need to do though is find a system that you trust to put these little pieces in so that you can bump into them where they make sense to you and where they create meaning to you. So it’s those little rituals, those habits, those behaviors that need to change. If you find a tool to align to those, fantastic, that’s an important part of the system.

      So I would have to agree with the premise – let’s transcend the tool, let’s go to the thought patterns and then go back to the tools that provide the form and the system that work for you. And the thing I love about GTD is people can be on totally different tools and be very, very productive. And it’s not the tool, but it’s more of the thinking process.

      LH: You brought up an interesting point, and I want to take this to David. Do you think people are heading back towards paper more and more because of the onslaught of information that comes our way? Do you think paper is “making a comeback”?

      DA: Actually, it’s making a come forward. It’s different usage of it. Any of those things can get in your way and any of those things can work. To Mike’s point, even though we’ve been introduced to emotional intelligence and I think we’ve got to understand the value of that, we need to move into mental intelligence. People are using their psyche still to capture all kinds of stuff and to avoid decisions and it’s becoming this huge log jam, this huge constipation on the psyche and that absolutely cannot endure with the world that we’re in.

      What we have to do is we have to be able to externalize that capture so that that’s not banging around the psyche and then also make decisions about that stuff that we have allowed come to our ten acres that we have captured. That whole process of capturing and then making decisions is really critical to get it out of the psyche – back to Mike’s point – so that it frees up intuitive intelligence to be able to use it for what it needs to be, as opposed to just truly log jam in terms of creative flow. So where we’re getting to is understanding the necessity for creative flow, the necessity to be able to manage all of these things with appropriate placeholders. So understanding how to deal with paper and Evernote or Outlook or whatever, all of those tools are that just become potentially very valuable placeholders for this.

      But again, it’s back to the thought process that we once you do that, any of these things work. I also think there is a reason you start to see paper as a way to reflect a larger context and relationships between things than it is on the computer. It’s still hard to flip pages on the computer and see them in your face like they can on a paper planner. We’ll get there – and it’s going that direction – but I think it’s the moving forward with understanding a new way to use these tools and why these tools are so valuable.

      That’s why GTD hit such a nerve in the tech community; it was because suddenly there was a way that was a non-tech means that actually turbocharged everybody’s cool gear and gave them a way to actually use what they were already using and really liked using. But now it gave them a way to use that in such a way that it just took off like crazy. So that’s true with paper as well as with the high tech stuff.

      LH: Mike, what do you think of the term “lifehack”, “lifehacker” and all of the “lifehackery” stuff? Do you think we’re confusing common sense with lifehacks? Or do you think that it’s more of an anomaly when that happens?

      MW: I absolutely love the term lifehack because what it expresses to me is the spirit of experimentation in the pursuit of what works for me in my life, what’s true. And I just love the idea of getting out there, putting things in play, experimenting, testing your hypothesis and seeing if it resonates with you. So lif hacking your way through life…I think that’s called life. I think it’s absolutely essential. It turns it into a very interesting and creative game when you do something like that.

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      LH: David, what about yourself?

      DA: I totally agree. I think you know all of life is a hack. Like I woke up – I was born – asking myself, “How much easier can I do this?” All they did was just put a name of what I’ve always done as far as I can remember.

      People have always said that (I’ve) always been organized; that’s sort of a misconception that GTD is really about organization. But I’ve always (tried to figure out) how much easier I can get from here to there. I’m always thinking that way. Somebody just put a name on it.

      LH: I’ll share what my wish list item is for 2012. My wish list item for 2012 is a return of The GTD Summit. Mike, what about yourself?

      MW: Boy, that’s a big question. So you know my wish in 2012 for GTD is the expansion of the community. The GTD Summit would be part of that, reaching out through our online presence through GTD Connect and also in 2012 we’re going to be expanding internationally. So all those things combined equals lives impacted and lives touched by our methodology, and you know we carry the premise that when somebody engages with us in this methodology that their life will be changed in a positive way. And if we change somebody’s life in positive way then that’s a very powerful place to play.

      That would be a major intention that I’m carrying forward. As well, my family currently lives in Burlington Vermont and we’re moving to Ojai, California. So making a successful transition for my family is something that definitely has my attention for 2012.

      LH: David, what about yourself?

      DA: You know just lowering the barrier to entry globally for GTD, to get people to be attracted to it, to find out what it is and to allow for us to be able to build an elegant path and a recognition of this as a lifelong and lifetime thing to play with and to play in. I look at it now much like a martial art. Forty and fifty years ago very few people even know what they were. And they’ve spread around the world and it didn’t oversimplify it. It was a still a very sophisticated, very powerful thing to do and yet it took of virally around the world. And I see GTD being the same thing.

      That’s what I would love to see. Finding great ways to get a lot more people engaged, and then building the highway out there for people to stay on board. Just keep taking this and being supportive and developing this and supporting each other as a global community.

      LH: David and Mike, I’d like to thank both of you for taking time to speak with me for Stepcase Lifehack.

      DA: Our pleasure.

      MW: Yes, thank you so much – and thank you everybody at Lifehack too. You do great work.

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      Mike Vardy

      A productivity specialist who shows you how to define your day, funnel your focus, and make every moment matter.

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      Last Updated on August 20, 2019

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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