Getting Things Done with David Allen | PoP 376

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Getting Things Done with David Allen

Do you have a long to-do list and just feel overwhelmed by it all? How are you prioritizing your tasks every day? What if there was a better way you could focus and manage your thoughts surrounding the things you need to get done?

In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks with David Allen about how to get things done, clear your mind and focus better!

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Meet David Allen

David Allen - Getting Things Done

One of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity, David’s 35 years experience as a management consultant and executive coach have earned him the titles of “personal productivity guru” by Fast Company Magazine and one of America’s top 5 executive coaches by Forbes Magazine. The American Management Association has ranked him in the top ten business leaders. His bestselling book, the groundbreaking “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, has been published in thirty languages; and the “GTD” methodology it describes has become a global phenomenon, being taught by training companies in sixty countries. David, his company, and his partners are dedicated to teaching people how to stay relaxed and productive in our fast-paced world.

Find out more about David on his website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.

David Allen’s Story

David’s thirty-five years of pioneering research, coaching and education of some of the world’s highest-performing professionals has earned him Forbes’ recognition as one of the “Top five executive coaches” in the United States, and as one of the “Top 100 thought leaders” by Leadership Magazine.
Fast Company hailed David Allen “One of the world’s most influential thinkers” in the arena of personal productivity, for his outstanding programs and writing on time and stress management, the power of aligned focus and vision, and his groundbreaking methodologies in management and executive peak performance.

In This Podcast


In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks with David Allen about focus and productivity.


We’re all focusing all the time but how are you focusing.

Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of data out there saying your brain needs to rest, you need to integrate, you need to archive, you need to regenerate. But that’s hard to do if you’ve got so many potentially overwhelming things that are unclear, uncaptured and unorganized.

Clear Things Out

Your head’s for having ideas but it’s not for holding them. You didn’t evolve to remember, remind, prioritize and manage relationships with more than 4 things.

David learned about 35 years ago that every time you sit down to meditate you better have a pen and paper by you because as you start to unpeel that onion all kinds of stuff will start to surface that you don’t want to have to keep resurfacing. You need to get it out of there.

  • Meditate
  • Write things down as they pop into your mind
  • Journaling

The 6 Horizons of Focus

Ground: Calendar/actions

This is the ground floor – the huge volume of actions and information you currently have to do and to organize, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, stuff to file, things to talk to staff about, etc. If you got no further input in your life, this would likely take you 300-500 hours to finish. Just getting a complete and current inventory of the next actions required at this level is quite a feat.

Horizon 1: Projects

This is the inventory of your projects – all the things that you have commitments to finish, that take more than one action step to complete.  These “open loops” are what create most of your actions. These projects include anything from “look into having a birthday party for Susan” to “buy Acme Brick Co.” Most people have between 30 and 100 of these. If you were to fully and accurately define this list, it would undoubtedly generate many more and different actions than you currently have identified.

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability

What’s your job? Driving the creation of a lot of your projects are the four to seven major areas of responsibility that you at least implicitly are going to be held accountable to have done well, at the end of some time period, by yourself if not by someone else (e.g. boss.) With a clear and current evaluation of what those areas or responsibility are, and what you are (and are not) doing about them, there are likely new projects to be created, and old ones to be eliminated.

Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals and objectives

Where is your job going? What will the role you’re in right now be looking like 12-18 months from now, based on your goals and on the directions of the changes at that level? We’ve met very few people who are doing only what they were hired to do.  These days, job descriptions are moving targets. You may be personally changing what you’re doing, given personal goals; and the job itself may need to look different, given the shifting nature of the work at the departmental or divisional level. Getting this level clear always creates some new projects and actions.

Horizon 4: Three- to five-year vision

The goals and direction of the larger entity within which you operate heavily influence your job and your professional direction. Where is your company going to be, one to three years from now? How will that be affecting the scope and scale of your job, your department, and your division? What external factors (like technology) are influencing the changes? How is the definition and relationship with your customers going to be changing, etc.? Thinking at this level invariably surfaces some projects that need to be defined, and new action steps to move them forward.

Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

What is the work you are here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate bigger picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your real values, etc.? From an organizational perspective, this is the Purpose and Vision discussion. Why does it exist? No matter how organized you may get, if you are not spending enough time with your family, your health, your spiritual life, etc., you will still have “incompletes” to deal with, make decisions about, and have projects and actions about, to get completely clear.

Five Steps That Apply Order to Chaos

  1. Capture – Collect what has your attention
  2.  Clarify – Process what it means
  3. Organize – Put it where it belongs
  4. Reflect – Review frequently
  5. Engage – Simply do

Find out more about the GTD Summit here

Access David’s training here.

Books by David Allen

Other Books Mentioned In This Episode

Useful Links:

Meet Joe Sanok

private practice consultant

Joe Sanok helps counselors to create thriving practices that are the envy of other counselors. He has helped counselors to grow their businesses by 50-500% and is proud of all the private practice owners that are growing their income, influence, and impact on the world. Click here to explore consulting with Joe.

Thanks For Listening!

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Podcast Transcription

[JOE SANOK]: How realistic is it to want $100,000 practice? What are the best practices doing out there? What are they ignoring and where are they spending their time? I’m going to be talking about this exact thing on June 11th during a live webinar. It’s going to be at one o’clock Eastern, 12 o’clock central, 11 mountain, 10 o’clock Pacific and anywhere else in the world, you can do the math. Go over to to register for this. I’m going to be there live answering tons of Q&A while also walking you through what it takes to build $100,000 practice in two years. So many people have done it and I’ve helped over a thousand private practices to grow and scale and you can be one of those. Head on over to to register for this event on June 11th.
This is the Practice of the Practice podcast with Joe Sanok, session number 376.
Well today in the Practice of the Practice podcast, we’re going to be talking all about how to get things done. And you know, for me this is really important, not because I want to be just like making money and not because I want to just have a successful practice or because I want to grow my consulting. To me, if you waste time, you are stealing that from your kids, from your friends, from your hubbies, from the time you slowed down. That doesn’t mean that you always have to be going full tilt and killing it but if I dink around at the office and I don’t focus on getting the most done that’s time, I could be supporting my wife at home with the kids or I could be doing other things. If I could work one less day a week, that’s an extra day I could be doing tons of other things.
So, when we talk about getting things done, which we’re going to be doing today with David Allen, it’s not just about, I guess produce, produce, produce. It’s more about what kind of life could you live if you are highly focused on the things that actually matter. Because at the end of the day, if we spend our days on email for hours on end and responding on social media and we’re not really looking at, “What is the single best use of my time?” well you’re stealing that from parts of your life that you really need to be putting that time. So, whether it’s here or at Killin’It Camp or Slow Down School or consulting or any of the things that we do, we want to try to have it be the very best use of our time.
So, we’re going to dive into those techniques today with the master. I mean, when you hear this guy’s bio, you’re going to be like, “How did Joe get this guy? And literally wherever our Next Level Practice people, they reach out to me and say, “This book has transformed the way I do things. You should reach out to this guy.” I did, and he said yes. And so, it’s awesome because we have this community of people and actually on Monday, so this is early June so on Monday the 10th, the next opening for Next Level Practice, we only do this four times a year, is happening.
So, if you go to, that’s going to give you immediate access to sign up for Next Level Practice. If you want to read more about it, head on over to The basics of it are this, if you want to be in community with people when you’re starting and growing a practice, this is the membership community to be a part of. Calling it a membership community just doesn’t even capture all it is. So, we are different in so many different ways, so we have a ton of e-courses. We now have over 30 e-courses, and you want to think about it almost like the Netflix of e-courses, specifically for private practice where you’re going to binge through one a month or so, on marketing or starting a group practice or even just the basic set ups of when you’re first getting going.
Then we also have community and live events each month, you have access to Sam who does a lot of marketing things, we give you free things every month and a lot of the courses that are out there. They might be time-limited for two weeks and you know, they run really full tilt and those are good for people that want to kind of cruise through things just quickly and then kind of do it on their own for a while. There’s other ones that you might get a couple e-courses as part of it, but this really is meant to be the ongoing community that helps you level up. And when we talk to people that have gone through Next Level Practice, they’re within four or five months starting to add clinicians to the practice.
I just talked to a lady yesterday and she quadrupled her income and she was already making five or 10 grand a month. And so, I think she went from, I want to say she went from five grand a month to 25 grand a month. I’ll have to get the exact quote, and my attorney makes me say we don’t guarantee that. But it’s a community of people that get together, we help each other, you get accountability partners. When we have our live events, probably half of them we break you up into small groups of three or four online and then you have these deeper conversations with people.
This most recent cohort was really saying, “I did not realize just how interactive this was going to be. This isn’t just passively kind of watching things at my own pace,” which is part of kind of the Netflix side, but then when you come to the live events, you get to hang out with people that are doing exactly what you’re doing. You get to go into small groups and have my help helping you start and grow a practice.
So again, that’s to read more. You’re going to do forward slash door at 10:00 AM Eastern on June 10th and dive in. We only open this up four times a year and so, and also this fall, our plan is to raise the rates. Right now, it’s $77 per month and you’ll be locked in at that price. It won’t go up for you but this fall we’re evaluating whether we want to go up to 88 or $99 a month. So, if you want to get in at this price, now is the time to do it. Last time we had, I think 84 people, maybe 74 people. Boy, my numbers are off today. Anyway, so today we’re diving into how to get things done with David Allen, and without any further ado, here’s David Allen.
Well, today on the Practice of the Practice podcast, we have David Allen. David is one of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity. David’s 35 years of experience as a management consultant and executive coach have earned him the title of personal productivity guru by Fast Company magazine and one of America’s top five executive coaches by Forbes magazine. David, can’t believe you’re on this podcast. Welcome.

[DAVID ALLEN]: Thanks for the invitation, Joe. Delighted to be here.

[JOE]: Yes. Well, why don’t we start with, if people aren’t familiar with kind of the getting things done model, take us back to kind of, where did that come from. Before we get into the meat of what it is, we all kind of have backstories of how we land on our models and, through our own failures or our own successes. Take us back to kind of how that got developed and where you were at that point and then maybe some of the outcomes of that model working in your own life.

[DAVID]: Yes. Well I had 35 jobs by the time I was 35. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had a lot of friends that seemed to know what they wanted to do. So, you know, I needed a job so I just wound up being a good number-two guy for a number of the people in my network. I helped two guys start a restaurant in LA, I ran a vitamin distribution, I helped a guy, I managed a landscape company in San Fernando Valley for a friend. I go on and on, no need to bore everybody with all that, but what I like to do is go in and say, “Well, okay, how are they doing what they were doing?” And I’m the laziest guy you ever met.
So, I said, “Well how can we do that easier?” So now we call that fancy phrase process improvement, but I just [crosstalk]. There’s got to be an easy way to do this, right? And then I’d fix it and then get bored and then leave and go work somewhere else that I discovered they actually pay people to do that. They call them something, you know, consultant. Wow. Now I am one. So, I hung up my shingle 1981 Allen Associates and so I got very hungry for good models to use in a consulting practice. Because again, I didn’t want to have to try to make it up every time I ran into somebody that, where I could create some value.
So, I got very hungry for a model that would be universal. You know, the one of the right, you know, Joe, you are in that business too. What are the questions people need to be asking and answering themselves that gets them aligned, gets some focus, get them clear, all that good stuff? Also, just personally as my life was getting more complex because of my meditation practices, spiritual practices, I had a black belt in karate in my twenties and a lot of that taught me the value of clear space. You know, come on, when four people jump you in a dark alley, you don’t want 2000 unprocessed emails banging around in your head.

[JOE]: Yes.

[DAVID]: So, I was very hungry. I loved the idea of clear space. I’m a freedom guys, so I love the freedom to be able to focus without having distractions, without being hung up about stuff I can’t do anything about. So, I got —

[JOE]: Before we get too far into the business, I want to land there for a second. I want to hear more about your meditation practice and what that’s done for you, how you got into that.

[DAVID]: Well, that’s much longer. When my memoirs come out, there’ll be a lot. Let’s see, what’s the short version? Short version of that was, I’ve always been interested in sort of the worlds we can’t see. I was a philosophy major, I was in a history major, a history of thought, history of culture and got fascinated by all that. And basically, then also started to have some of my own experiences, you know, instead of studying people who were enlightened, but sort of one of my own. So, I dropped out of graduate school and decided to go look for God truth in the universe. This was Berkeley 68 so you can imagine —

[JOE]: There’s a lot of opportunities then to find there. [crosstalk]

[DAVID]: There was fertile content for, you know, in all that exploration and I did get down to that exploration. Then I had started to have some very profound experiences internally, and so, I was running across people who seemed to be better than me at that and had good tools for that. So I ran across a great spiritual coach and I said, “Hmm, he seemed to have matched to the DNA that I was resonated with and he seemed to be much further along on the track [inaudible 00:10:52] and go to hang out with him until I come to the end of that road and then I’ll go find another one. That road never ended.
So, I wound up with the guy named John Rodger for 45 years, he died about five years ago. But that was very subtle. I don’t proselytize about all that. It’s a very ecumenical approach that says sort of spirit with a little S as well as big S out there; just stuff you can’t see. And how do you, you know there’s a lot going on out there and you can actually learn how to tap into that and get access to that. But again, I don’t talk a whole lot about that —

[JOE]: But I do think that when we have our own practice, whatever that looks like, that gives us kind of a deeper meaning. It informs our business work. It’s a lot harder to just say, “Oh, I just want to go make some money,” versus, “Man, I’ve been internally transformed and found deeper meaning in life and now my business is extension of that and I want to take some of those concepts in there, even if it’s not any sort of believe what I believe.” But, when you’ve been transformed, it’s going to affect every area of your life.

[DAVID]: Of course. And it turns out that what I wound up uncovering, what then became known after I wrote the book 20 years later called Getting Things Done, basically it was a methodology that I came up with. Not that it’s spiritual itself, but it has also lot to do with if you’re on that kind of track or path or want to be able to create clarity in your head, how do you get clear? You know, because just, we’re all focusing all the time, but how are you focusing? You can look at an email and complain about it. That’s one focus. Or even looking at email and go, “Oh, wait a minute. What does that mean to me? What am I going to do about it? There’s something that I committed to complete. Now on this, what’s my next action?”
So, I learned what I discovered and I’m sorry I’m sort of bleeding this into, what’s the content of this methodology? But I really discovered what’s the algorithm about how you get your head clear? What you do with a clear head is up to you. You know, a lot of people use it to be more creative, more innovative, more strategic, more loving, more present, which is for me the golden goodies. Anyway, you don’t need time to do that. You need space.

[JOE]: Yes.

[DAVID]: So, I uncovered the space mechanism. In other words, “How do I get space in my head?” I watched your Ted Talk. Now as you know, the last 10 years, there’s been all kinds of data out there. Now they are saying, “God, your brain needs to rest. You need to integrate, you need to archive, you need to regenerate and whatever.” But that’s hard to do if you’ve got so many potentially overwhelming things that are still unclear, uncaptured, and unorganized, you know, that you’ve let come into your ecosystem.

[JOE]: It’s interesting. I often see people that, they first start saying, “I want to slow down so that my business can grow.” And then what I often see at Slow Down School, this event we put on here in Northern Michigan in the summertime on the beaches is, when these high achievers slow down for a couple of days, they realize that the slowing down itself just feels like, “This is what life should be and now my business is an extension of that.” And then the creativity, it’s not blocked by all these kinds of goals and aspirations and all the other things that get in the way that are just, “Oh, my life feels like it should feel and now, wow, when I’m in that space, I can create things that have much deeper meaning for the world and for my business and for my clients.”

[DAVID]: Yes, absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. Good work.

[JOE]: Yes. So, when people, so I feel like for a while I’ve struggled with meditation in the last kind of year or so. I had more breakthroughs with it. It for a while felt like I should be doing this. It’s supposed to give me clarity and it just, I kept falling on my face. For people that are in the midst of kind of that mental battle, but they know that they need to kind of clear things out, like their brain has too much in it, what are some first steps that can really help them kind clear it out as you were saying?

[DAVID]: Well, I have a bias that, you know, that’s what my stuff is all about. So, it’s one thing to sit down and attempt to meditate, focus on your breathing; always gets you more present. So that’s the mindfulness techniques about doing that. But if you still need cat food, you’d notice your cat and go, “I need cat food.” As soon as ‘you need cat food’ pops into your head twice you’re inappropriately engaged with your cat, right? So how do I get cat food off my mind? Well, why don’t you go right cat food and post it on your fridge so that whoever’s go to the store can do one thing, sit down and actually meditate without cat food popping into your head.

[JOE]: Yes. I think people then feel guilty like they had to write something down and then they beat themselves up and say, “Oh, I should be so present that I don’t think about cat food.”

[DAVID]: No, believe me, I learned 35, 45 years ago that every time you sit down to meditate, you better have a pen and paper by you because as you start to unpeel that onion, all kinds of stuff is going to surface that you don’t want to have keep resurfacing. You need to get it out of there and your head is for having ideas but it’s not for holding them. It didn’t evolve to remember, remind, prioritize, or manage relationships with more than four things. New data basically has basically validated that.

[JOE]: I love that line that your head, say that again. Your head is to create ideas, not to hold ideas …

[DAVID]: Your head’s for having ideas but not for holding them.

[JOE]: Oh, that’s awesome. So then, what are some other techniques kind of to take people through that process of clearing things out?

[DAVID]: It’s, you know, journaling for instance, is a great meditative process. It’s a great way to help sort of clear into a data dump just out of, “Hey, what’s up?” Because the whole thing is about being present and one of the keys, you know, you can go back to the Stoics, one of the keys to being present is acceptance. So, you’ve got to accept all those commitments that you’ve got. Most people resist like the plague, my process, because I’m going to have you sit down and dump out of your head every single thing that has your attention.
Everything has got that, all your woulds, could, should, needs to, ought tos, big things, little things. “Gee, I need a new career. Should I get a divorce? My tooth hurts. We should get a puppy for the kids.” And most people have no idea how much of that is actually spinning around in their psyche. Most of it subliminally, because you’re going to only remember one at a time, but it’s spinning and then you’ll wake up thinking about the dog or thinking about your career or your divorce at three o’clock in the morning and you can’t do spit about any of it. Hugely inefficient, hugely distracting, hugely strangling in terms of your ability to be clear and fresh. So, that was, you know, write it down. Come on. Everybody watching or listening to this at some point felt a little overwhelmed and confused and sat down, made a list and felt better.

[JOE]: Yes. One thing I’ve been thinking about recently, because you know, I hear people talk about like they’ll have a vision board and they want to, you know, give it to the universe and intention, all of that or write it down and set your goals. In some ways I’ve kind of resisted that because it felt maybe more on the woo woo side than I felt comfortable with. But recently I was thinking about how much, and this came from just being present and observing my own thought prep patterns, how often my thoughts are based on triggers that I have no control over. So, a car goes by and I’m like, “Oh yes, I’ve been meaning to clean my car.”
Like, and then a person walks by or the dog or the girls, you know, I have a four- and seven-year-old that they would love to have a dog. Like, “Do I want a dog? I don’t really want a dog right now.” I feel like, and you know, all these triggers that are happening that I have no control over and my mind is kind of bouncing between. And I’m wondering if, whether it’s journaling or a vision board or whatever it is, it’s saying, “What are the triggers that I want to happen first?” And then the involuntary triggers maybe are secondary to that because I’m so focused on, “This is what I need to be working on now. This is what I need to be thinking about now. I don’t have space for the involuntary triggers.” How does that sit with kind of what you’ve observed over this career of helping businesses and helping people?

[DAVID]: Well, in a way Joe, it’s all about completion. It’s all about, you know, we’re here to finish something. We’re here to do something. We’re here to express, to expand, to experience, right? So, you can’t stop that process. We carry logical beings. You know, if I ask you to stop trying to plan, you’d plan how to do that, right? So, you can’t stop focusing if you’re conscious. It’s just what are you focused on and is, are you focused appropriately on it? So, the end, when I say completion, your vision board may be a way that some part of you is telling you, “Hey, I’m not sure I’m completing what I’m here to do.” And so maybe some bigger picture about what wild success will be five years from now might be a very useful thing not for you to have.
But quite frankly, once you get into this, it’s all the same stuff. Cat food, you know, create a life five years from now. That’s all what’s got your attention and you know, there’s a very simple form that, okay, it’s got your attention. Great. What’s your next action on there? Is that something you intend to move on or is it something you just want to sleep on and meditate on? Or is it something you just want to let cook for six months and then have a trigger six months from now and say, “Joe, how are you doing about X, Y, and Z?” So, there’s all kinds of ways that you can actually get that stuff off your mind and then use it for appropriate triggers, because that’s actually what you want. I assume you have a calendar.

[JOE]: I do, yes.

[DAVID]: Have you looked at it in the last day or two?

[JOE]: Oh yes. I look at it probably right 12 times a day.

[DAVID]: You look at it as often as you need to to orient yourself in space and time so it can be present.

[JOE]: Yes.

[DAVID]: Duh, duh. It’s just in your calendar is only 3% of your life. What about all the other things like dogs or your kids, needing the car cleaned or whatever. There’s no difference there. It’s still a commitment unless it isn’t. You might say, “Okay, what I’m going to do about dog and girls? Am I going to let them drive this? Am I going to do some little bit of research? Am I going to make this to project that we have [inaudible 00:21:04]? That’ll be really cool and fun because you see dogs for girls, it could very well be part of your highest value, you know, providing, great experiences for your family as they’re growing up, right?
So, there’s multiple horizons. I identified in my methodologies, six horizons of our commitments and couldn’t get it any simpler than that. There’s the big one called, ‘why are you here’? Your purpose and principles and your core values. Then there’s knowing what your life purpose is that can help you decide which email to write first a little bit. But you’re going to need to probably get them a little more operational. Say, “Well, if you were fully successfully implementing your vision,” and by the way all your people listening to this, they’re building their own practices. You can walk through these same levels; would be the questions that you need to, you don’t have to, but they’re going to be highly valuable for you to think through. And there are different content at each level. What’s the purpose of your practice and what are the core values of your practice?
Do you care what kind of clients you have? Does this matter to you? So, those are the kinds of things to become conscious about at the highest level. And then you say, “Okay, well the next level that they’re on to help me decide which email to right, what’s my vision of that being wildly successful five years from now. How much money do you want to be making? How many clients do you want to have? What kind of impact do you want to be having? How do you want to feel about what you now know how to do that you didn’t know how to do now, you know, et cetera, et cetera? You know, write your own picture. So, that’s your vision board or that’s your, you know, what are all that cool stuff? Well, that help you decide what to email or a little bit more.
But then you need going to need to ask yourself, “Well, what are the commitments? What are the things I need to commit to or I’m already committed to to accomplish goals over the next, 12 or three to 24 months?” Wow. You know, I need to make sure the kids get into the right schools. I need to make sure that we [inaudible 00:22:47]. I labeled these horizon five, four and three. So, five is purpose, four is vision, three is goals and objectives. Then you have horizon two, which are all the things you need to maintain so you can move toward any of that. How’s your health, how’s your finances, how’s your relationships, how’s your asset management? How’s your technology? And those are all the things you need to maintain; your job description, if you will.

[JOE]: Because you can’t hit those higher things if you don’t maintain the basics?

[DAVID]: Correct. Yes. I mean if you’re too far in debt, if you’re not handling your day to day, at least up to some level of occurrence. If you’re going to have lunch today, you’re working at that horizon, right? You’re just taking care of your physical energy in your body for sure. That’s horizon two. And so that would even, just be being aware of that is helpful. Those of you starting your own practices out there or working on your own practices, pull out your org chart. Who’s accountable for keeping the books? Who’s accountable for strategic planning, who’s accountable for customer service, who’s accountable? Just at your org chart. Just that is that level. You don’t finish growing clients. You just need to look at and say, “Am I doing that appropriately? Is there anything else I need to do about that?”
So, that’s horizon two. Horizon one would be what are all the things you need to finish over the next weeks or months that’s going to make all that happen in, out of all those moving parts? “Oh yes, well I need to research dog. We need to handle our next holiday. I need to make sure the kids are set up for school for the summer.” Those are projects. Most people have between 30 to a hundred of those given a very broad definition called something you can’t finish with one action. You need to keep track of it until it’s done. Get tires in your car or whatever and that stuff, hire the assistant, fire the assistant. God knows how many things that people have.
So, those are, that’s horizon one. And then there’s the ground level. Ground level is all the things, the actions that you actually need to take about any of those moving parts. Emails you need to send, stuff you need to buy at the store, stuff that you need to talk to your life partner about, the stuff you need to draft on the computer. And most people, they actually did this conscious inventory; have between 150 and 200 of those right now.

[JOE]: No wonder we feel overwhelmed.

[DAVID]: No wonder you feel, you don’t feel overwhelmed because there’s that much to do. I mean it’s not information overwhelmed. If that was true, you’d walk into a library and blow up. It’s most people’s organization or incomplete piles of unclear things. So, to define the content, most people haven’t defined the projects they actually have and they haven’t defined the action steps they need to take about them. They’ve just got stuff on a list called mom. Good, good historical data. Why is it on your list? When is your birthday coming? What are you doing about a birthday? “Ooh no.”
And that’s where the stress is coming from; is people have a lot of stuff that they’ve captured. That’s why they’re getting things don’t process sort of the core tactical aspects of the five steps. You capture stuff that has your attention, write it down, right? And then, so you write down mom because you know her birthday is coming. Then step two is clarify. So, what exactly are you going to do about mom’s birthday, if anything? What’s your next action and is there a project you need to complete about that? That’s the clarification step. Once you make that decision, if you decide the next step is to call your sister, see what she thinks about mom’s birthday and what you ought to do; and if you can’t call your sister right then, then you need to organize some reminder to call your sister when you have phone and time. That’s organize. So that’s step three.
So, you capture stuff that got your attention, you then clarify exactly what you’re going to do about them if anything or what they mean to you. Is that reference? Is that trash? If you wrote down dog, car, whatever while you were trying to meditate, then when you come out of meditation, you need to look at that list and go, “Am I actually going to do anything about those things? They could just be out dumb idea. Throw it away. Or it could be, “I’m going to keep track of some potential projects I may want to do with the girls or maybe review that regularly see if we’re ready to do any of that creative stuff. Maybe they rather take karate or who knows?”

[JOE]: Yes.

[DAVID]: So, in order to be able to throw that scrap piece of paper away or whatever that thing is that you wrote down, you need to then clarify and organize anything. You know the trash goes to where trash goes, any reference goes to where reference goes, and if there’s an action step you need to take about it, you need to define what that action step is and park a reminder somewhere you’ll see it at the right time. [crosstalk].

[JOE]: So, it’s four action. So, it’s capture, clarify, organize, and then —

[DAVID]: Then you reflect and then you engage. In other words, before you go to errands, you need to take a look at the five errands you’ve told yourself you need to run. You don’t have to do all five, but at least you want to see the map. Next time you talk to your life partner about the business of life stuff together, you want to have all that in front of you. You know, not that you need to spend time on all those, but at least you’ve now got it parked in the right place so that you move things forward with minimal amount of effort. Told you I’m the laziest guy you’ve ever met.

[JOE]: Yes, no, I like it. Now, if I feel like one problem a lot of people have is it feels like whether it’s family life, your business, whatever, for every day there’s 20 things coming in and you only have time to really do five to 10 of them. Well, how do you suggest people eliminate some of those things? Put them in the parking lot, whatever? Like what strategies do you have over that dynamic that seems to happen especially, and maybe it’s just my phase of life too having like two little kids. It just feels like even to keep up with the mail sometimes. “Oh my gosh, I’m just going to go through it all on Friday when I have time.”

[DAVID]: Yes. Well that’s fine. As long as you trust you’re going to, and there are no burning barnes. That’s exactly what to do. So, you just, you know, you never get rid of, you don’t ever eliminate the need to be making the challenge to be making good choices about how you spend your time and your focus. That doesn’t end. You just want to make sure you’ve got the good stops or the maps appropriate. So, some part of you makes trusted decisions as opposed to being driven by latest and loudest.

[JOE]: Yes. I want to underline that because I think latest and loudest oftentimes gets our attention instead of kind of being grounded in, “Where am I headed in my business? Where am I headed in my life?” That, whether it’s that flashing email or that social media post or whatever gets you riled up versus, “What’s my purpose today that I need to work on?”

[DAVID]: Yes. And what’s the purpose of being on that email list? What’s the purpose of being on Facebook? So, you can always throw the purpose question? Why do you have those pictures on your wall there, by the way? Why do you have a couch? And by the way, what’s that thing in front of you? See, most people don’t live in their living room because they will ask themselves what’s the purpose of a living room? How about live in it or not? I don’t know. So, you can, you’re always going to help yourself by throwing yourself the purpose question.
And so back to your point, there’s always more to do than you can do, you know, so half empty, half full. You’re either feeling really good that talking to me Joe now is exactly the thing you need to do given why you’re on the planet, your vision of success and all that stuff. You know, otherwise, some part of you is not fully present here with this. I don’t care, but you do.

[JOE]: Well, then I don’t get the most out of talking to you too and see if my head somewhere else, then, yes.

[DAVID]: Me too. So, the whole idea is do what you need to do and in a very simple way to prioritize and just say, “What most has my attention right now that make the biggest difference if I got it off my mind?’ But knowing how to get it off your mind, you’re not born doing that. That’s why you need to read my book if you haven’t already yet.

[JOE]: Yes. That’s what I love about these kinds of interviews. It’s like just a taste of this much broader and in-depth approach. So, —

[DAVID]: Yes. And it’s simple. It’s not like a foreign language or it’s some new technology or come on, everybody knows how to write something down. Everybody knows how to decide a next action on mom and birthday. Everybody knows how to keep a list and look at it at the right time. You’ve got a calendar, you’re already doing that, right? So, these are not new behaviors. It’s just very few people have the content in there, know the way to engage with all that content appropriately and to clarify what it needs to be. So that’s all I figured out. So yes, there is a methodology to do that.
How you do it, how you capture stuff. Write it on your arm. I don’t care if it’s recorded on your phone. It doesn’t matter. My capture function is truly while I’m sitting at a desk, I always have a pen because God knows when lightning is going to strike or when I’m going to say, “Oh Joe, I’ll get back to you about that.” Or you tell me, “Hey David, here’s a great restaurant. Next time you’re in Traverse City [inaudible 00:31:33]. Yes, you bet.

[JOE]: Well, I think, I am glad you bring that up because there’s practical things of those ideas kind of come through you and leave. And if you don’t have a way that you’re capturing it, it just goes. And so, the Notes section on my phone, I almost always have my phone with me, and so I would hope that I’d have a note pad, which I usually have, but sometimes I don’t. So, for me, I have a couple sections on my phone there. You get the mini notepad and it looks like it’s your wallet.

[DAVID]: It is.

[JOE]: That’s awesome. Notepad wallet.

[DAVID]: Has all the key plastic, has a great little pen and a pad because God knows when lightning strikes and [crosstalk]. I don’t need to turn anything on by the way.

[JOE]: You can see that on our YouTube channel. We’ll have the video for this too. So, if you want to see the wallet…

[DAVID]: Yes, I have an iPhone too. But you have to turn it on. There are clicks you have to do and you’re not going to do that.

[JOE]: Yes.

[DAVID]: You know you had a whole lot of stuff probably pop into your head. You weren’t willing to pull out your phone to be captured simply because they are barriers to entry there. It’s okay as long as you grab stuff and go, “Excuse me, I need to record this,” and you do that. And also, that you empty that within 24 to 48 hours. Don’t let it become a black hole and you know, grow fallow in there because that’s the problem with the tech. The tech world out there is, unless you’re really disciplined with what I’m talking about, it can become so increasingly overwhelming because you don’t know where you put stuff. There’s stuff that you might need to, would, could, should think about or do something about. Would that go into Evernote or do I have that in for Dropbox? Wait a minute. I think that’s on my Outlook stuff.

[JOE]: Yes. For me, I have my notes are, either ideas that I know I want to come back to and then I have in my calendar to review those notes monthly. I have another section for a book I’m working on and just wanting to capture that so that when I’m at that writing phase, it’s there. But then the things that daily I need to work on, I look at my schedule, what’s already in there and then every day I have my to-do list of the most essential things to do for the day that I then put in there. So, that’s how I structure it. I’m sure people do it differently, but what am I missing in that?

[DAVID]: Well, one of my radical approaches that kind of made me popular when the book got first published in 2001 was that daily to-do lists don’t work because your day is going to be changing very fast. A daily to-do list is okay as long as you’re willing to tear up that list in any second when something else shows up and not feel guilty that you didn’t get to that because there were higher priority things that you didn’t expect that showed up, and because they were higher priority, you didn’t get to those other things. Life is like that. So, my coaching about all that is generally in the way I do it and the way that people who’ve implemented my methodology is keeping running next actions list that don’t get rewritten.
My errands list does not get rewritten every day. It’s just there in case I go out for errands. My list of stuff to talk to Katherine about doesn’t, my wife, doesn’t get rewritten every day. That’s just there whenever we need to go over our business of life stuff. So, my calendar is only my hard landscape. The things that I won’t get another chance if I don’t do them, like talking to you right now. But they were only two of those on my calendar today. You and coming up, you know, a little short while another teleconference that I’ve got. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything. I’ve been busy all day. I’ve been working off of other lists. They’re not rewritten. I just get, I just pick and choose and, you know, I’m cherry picking the stuff off those other lists. That makes sense.
That said, if you have all this stuff externalized, so you’ve got a truly complete external brain. I know a lot of people that are champions of my stuff that the night before they scan through that whole picture and then take a little three by five poster and pencil in the three or four things that are going to get done if they have time. But they’re not tied to that. So, it’s okay what you’re doing there, but as soon as you find yourself not getting to some of those things and they stayed on Tuesday’s calendar, what happened? Whoops. Just slipped through a crack. And some part, and not only that, you don’t know what the [inaudible 00:35:44], if you’ve got a bunch of like tools on there as well.

[JOE]: Yes, no, I would say that the way I structure is, it’s more of here’s the one thing that I need to do and then kind of things kind of pop in. That’s how I do my consulting too, where people will have the one thing they need to work on then their next things in order. But I see that tendency in people where they make a list and they just want to cross it off the list and really folding socks is as important as other things.

[DAVID]: Sure, or taking a nap.

[JOE]: Yes.

[DAVID]: I mean, I take naps almost every day and you don’t see them on my calendar.

[JOE]: Now, how do you feel the most successful people balance looking forward to the kind of future vision, the things that are going to be big steps forward and managing the day to day because obviously there’s things in our business and family that are the day to day that are needed, but then there’s also things that if you achieve them this year are going to be a big step forward for you. How do you help people kind of determine how to really prioritize those things that will be game changers for them?

[DAVID]: Well, I think most people are probably savvy enough to realize, “Wait a minute, I need to bring me or me and my partner or me and my staff offsite for a day or so and rethink what we’re doing.” You know, let’s take a look at the bigger game. And oftentimes the bigger game consciousness or the bigger game content only shows up when you structure time to be able to have that kind of offsite time to be able to think like that. And so oftentimes you do need to structure some way to be thinking of whatever levels you need to. So, these different horizons I said have different recursions and when they ought to be revisited. Your life purpose should just be as conscious as you are and that all the time, you’re sort of fulfilling that, you know, staying in alignment with that.
But your vision may be changing. Maybe, how often do you and your family need to sit down and say, “Guys, where do we want to be three or four or five years from now? Have that conversation with your girls. What are they seeing? So, it’s like, and you only need to have that conversation whenever you think you need to have that conversation. So, some part of you feels kind of aligned that, “Hey, this is kind of going in the right direction.” Many times, you’re forced to make those decisions. If you have a life partner and they come home and say, “I’ve been given a major career opportunity. We’re going to have to move to Afghanistan for a couple of years, but it’s going to be really cool.” You’re going to have a vision dinner.

[JOE]: And maybe a couple of vision dinners.

[DAVID]: Yes, who knows? So, oftentimes life throws you courage, you’re going to have to go to these different horizons to make those kinds of choices. You know, about okay, where are you going to be in and why? So, I don’t make any hard rules about that other than what has my attention and what conversation do I need to have with myself in any other key people to make sure I get realigned or that we are staying fresh and current. Yes. As we need —

[JOE]: Right around the time that this podcast goes live in early June, my wife and I are going to be going away for the weekend and just for a visioning retreat, just the two of us to kind of talk through where do we want to go, where do we want to head, like what are our hopes and dreams and so, yes.

[DAVID]: All that good stuff. Well, and the fact that you have this quiet retreat or whatever you call it —

[JOE]: The Slow Down School, yes.

[DAVID]: Slow Down School? Yes, same thing. You back away from the noise and that’s why meditation is always helpful. See, the universe is always on. And by the way, it’s not overwhelmed or confused. Look out there. It’s fine. It’s only how you engage with it that creates confusion or overwhelm or a sense of that. So again, then, “Okay, what do I need to engage with right now to give me more relaxation in my head, more freedom in my head or more fun in my head?” Or God knows, whatever you consider important. You know, I’m a freedom and a clarity guy.
So those are key for me and maybe not everybody’s. You know, if you’re 23 and it’s all an adrenaline rush, those folks get bored going home, you know, but as soon as you have kids, as soon as you want to paint, learn to watercolor, as soon as you want to learn to play the flute, you know, yada yada in addition to your career, then trying to then, you know, how do I manage the balance? How do I manage that picture? And it could be very different this year than it will be next year if you do that nearly.

[JOE]: Yes. I think that idea of freedom and clarity of just, you know, are the decisions I’m making allowing myself to feel that connection with the universe or whatever kind of people use that as their vernacular, or is it pulling me further away from that kind of grounded-ness

[DAVID]: Well, yes. I use as a criteria in is whatever, is this thought, is this activity creating expansion or contraction?

[JOE]: Drill into that a little more? What do you mean?

[DAVID]: Look, if you’re thinking having a vision, you’re going, “Oh my God, I could never do that,” that’s contraction. If you’re going, “Oh wow, that’d be so super way cool that we could do this,” that’s expansion. So, am I in an expanded, is this activity I’m doing giving me a sense of that’s the right thing to be doing and I’m okay or, “God, this is off,” or “I’m feeling more often more fatigued when I do this.”

[JOE]: Yes. I love that as a just feeling kind of heart, like, am I feeling like it’s closing in on me or the opportunity is expanding because so often in business it’s all like numbers, things we can prove and you kind of a dashboard and that’s just the very simple feeling of, is it expanding or contracting? Now that you have a conference coming up and you haven’t done one of these in a while, it’s kind of in late June, I want to hear a little bit about that and why now when you haven’t done one in a while.

[DAVID]: Well, I’m not in that business. [inaudible 00:41:17] I’ll make a very long story very short, you know my consulting practice, I wound up figuring out some of these best techniques to use with my clients, for myself as well. Had a major guide, had human resources in a big corporation saw what I was doing and he said, “Gee David does those results more clarity, more control, more focus. We need that in our whole culture, our whole company. Can you design a training methodology or training seminar around this so that we can deliver to a lot of people what is this you’ve uncovered?” So, I said, “Okay.”
So, I wound up spending two months and designed a personal productivity training that we did a pilot program for a thousand executives and managers and it worked and sort of thrust me into the corporate training world. That was Lockheed 1983/84. So, then I wound up spending years designing and refining this stuff and delivering a whole lot in terms of the corporate training world, but also startup businesses and whatever. Also, I was still doing a lot of, we didn’t call it coaching back then, but that’s actually what it was, where that moved more into senior executives and people within those companies that I was working one on one with, with the same methodology. So, it took me then 20 years to figure out that what I’d figured out was unique that nobody else had done it. And so, I figured, well, I guess it’s time to write the manual. So, that’s why this started in the early 1980s but I wrote the book from 97 to 2000. 2001 it was first published, the first edition of getting things done.
That’s why GTD kind of became this brand. It was just our shorthand for Getting Things Done, but it kind of took off just as this thing went around the world and the book was successful. So, that thrust us into a sort of, not just the training world, but a global version of that. So, we now are officially in 60 countries. Some of them are just barely starting up their own consulting and training businesses, but they are all champions of this methodology and wanted to include that and get it into their culture. So, this has expanded and back 10 years ago in San Francisco, you know, there were a number of people from all different industries, very, very cool folks that we said, “Look, I think we need to sort of raise the flag and see who would show up if we have a conference about this.”
And so, we did and we had 30 plus really great speakers and we had about 300 people and it was such a unique, creative, powerful event. We got some good advice, “Don’t do it again.” It was such a unique thing that I didn’t want to be necessarily in that business, so I didn’t plan on doing it again. But now, Kathryn and I moved to Amsterdam where we now have partners all over the world, it’s become a global movement, if you will. So, I said, and I’m 73, Joe, so, I don’t intend to do this again. Believe me.
But I said, you know, “I think it’s time to raise the flag because a lot of these people have not met each other. And so, you know, the train has left the station and it’s really nice to let us bring everybody together so that they feel so much more confident, aware what a global movement this is and it’s not stopping.” So, there were a lot of reasons to pull all that together. So, we’ve got, if anybody goes to you’ll see we’ve got 40 presenters: Marshall Goldsmith, Dan Pink, Charles Duhigg, all these are champions of my stuff and friends of mine. And so, they just on their own dime just are all coming and doing presentations for two days. It’s going to be quite an event.

[JOE]: Oh my gosh. Like, those are all people I really respect. It’s amazing you’re bringing them all together. I can see what I’m doing in late June.

[DAVID]: Yes. And people like Katie Coleman. Katie, you may not have heard of Katie, unless you’re into astronauts, but she was one of the first female women astronauts. We were actually coaching her on GTD. She became a big champion while she was on the space station. So, she was implementing our stuff while she was flying around the world out there and it was so fun and creative and very into some of the most inspiring and productive people you’ll meet, are going to be there so, —

[JOE]: Well, in the Power of Habits, such a good book, you know, Charles Burke and so that’s wonderful. Well, if people want more, kind of want to learn more from you, they want to go through your book, your courses, any of that sort of thing, where should they go?

[DAVID]: Well, is sort of, you know, that’s our basic website; book is just, you know, buy that for me at the good bookstore. Get Getting Things Done, the new edition in 2015 is probably the best way to start if you’re new to this. I’ve got two or three other books out there and also on our site, you’ll see where there are public seminars being given by all of our partners. In the U.S. we partnered with VitalSmarts. They were the folks who did Crucial Conversations and all of that. Great company. And so, they become our exclusive distributor of our trainings in the U.S. So,, you can see Getting Things Done, a picture of me on there, you know. So anyway, and they are doing quite a number of public seminars and workshops around the U.S., so, —

[JOE]: Wow, that’s amazing and I know a lot of you listening, you’re inspired by what you’re doing in regards to your work with your clients. And I just want to encourage you to see how David kind of took what was working, thought about it for decades and wrote this book. And it’s changed the way that businesses do things and there are ideas inside of you that you can go beyond just your private practice. And so, get out there, test it out, create your framework and the world needs to hear your voice. You have a unique voice. David, thank you. Oh, one question I always ask people I almost forgot is, if every type of practice owner in the world were listening right now, what would you want them to know?

[DAVID]: Build your external brain and don’t keep anything in your head. Stop using your head as your office. It’s a terrible office. Your brain did not evolve to remember, remind, prioritize, or manage relationships. So, the more you can externalize all of that, and the more that you’re able to then create the freedom and clarity inside your own head, the more you can then trust listening to your heart and to, you know, your spirit of whatever it is that actually is the inner voice that you need to listen to. So, that’s really where the cool things come from, but the ability to be able clean up the space around you and keep it clean and then not only that, but then utilize these techniques to be able to manifest the stuff that shows up in your inner world.
That’s, couldn’t say anything more than that. You know, one of my new licensees and partners, is a licensed psychotherapist in South Africa. He got totally enthralled with this. I ask him, it’s just a little sidebar on those. I asked him, I said, “So, tell me what about GTD and psychotherapy and the practice.” He said, “Well, GTD doesn’t necessarily solve all those problems.” He said, “But if nobody does this process, it’s hard for them to distinguish what the issue really is because there’s so much static going on in there.” He said, “Once they actually get this methodology, then it’s a lot cleaner and clearer to then recognize what it is that you really need to pinpoint in terms of the counseling or the coaching or the therapy.” So, I thought that was an interesting way to see this. So, maybe some of your folks, that’ll be interesting perspective to —

[JOE]: Yes. So may help them personally but also help them be even better therapists. Oh David, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast. Head on over to his website, we will have links to that in the show notes as well and have a wonderful rest of your day.

[DAVID]: Thank you. Have a wonderful rest of your life, Joe. Thanks for the invitation. Take care everybody.

[JOE]: So, what are you going to do today to get things done? I love that idea of just your brain is not meant to store checklists and all those to-do things. How are you going to get that out your brain today? And really how are you going to be surrounded in community with people that are going to help you continue to grow?
Two things. Wanted to let you know, again, on the 11th of June, 2019 at one o’clock Eastern, we’re going to be doing a live webinar about your first 100K in private practice. So, head on over to and also on June 10th at 10:00 AM Eastern, we’re going to be opening up the doors for Next Level Practice. That is the membership community that is for starting and growing a practice. Think about it like the Netflix of e-courses for private practice plus tons of content and other things for you. You can sign up over at We’d love to see you there. Thanks for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have a great day.
This podcast is designed to provide accurate, authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It’s given with the understanding that neither the host, the publisher or the guests are rendering legal, accounting, clinical or other professional information. If you need a professional, you should find one. Thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for your intro music. We love it.