Become a Writer Today

Getting Things Done for Creatives. What Does It Look like and How Can You Do It? with David Allen

July 22, 2021 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
Getting Things Done for Creatives. What Does It Look like and How Can You Do It? with David Allen
Show Notes Transcript

I've read a few books about productivity and work that have radically changed how I think about finding time to work and creative projects.

One of those books is Getting Things Done by David Allen, and it made a significant impact on how I think about work. 

In this week's interview, David discusses how your mind is for having ideas, not for holding onto them, and writers and creatives must have a system for capturing all of their ideas.

I started the interview by asking him how GTD has changed since he first came up with the concept over 20 years ago.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How GTD has evolved over the years
  • Strategies for managing inboxes
  • Practicing weekly reviews
  • Managing your priorities
  • The books key role in the development of GTD courses
  • How the book was received in different languages around the world


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Thanks for listening!

David: Look, the whole idea of GTD is get everything off your mind except whatever you wanna focus on. So if you’re trying to be free to write with no distraction, you better handle everything that might have your attention. Are you appropriately engaged with your cat? Are you appropriately engaged with your life partner? Are you appropriately engaged with your health? Are you appropriately engaged with the novel you’re writing? GTD is not so much about getting things done, it’s really about being appropriately engaged with your commitments in life.

Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Getting things done for creatives, what does it look like and how can you do it? Hi, there, my name is Bryan Collins, and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.

Now, there are a few books that I’ve read over the years about productivity and about work that have radically changed how I think about finding time to work and for creative projects. One of those books is Getting Things Done by David Allen who is this week’s interviewee. I first read the book when I was actually unemployed about, I guess it would be 15 years ago so it would have been the first edition of the book because David published a second edition about 5 or 6 years ago, and it made a big impact on how I think about work. 

I took away lots of different things from the book but one of them was David’s piece of advice which he talks about in this week’s interview that your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them, and that makes sense because, if you’re a writer, chances are you’ve got lots of ideas. 

You could think of something while you’re in the shower, while you’re out for a walk, which is what I was doing before recording this podcast interview, or you could even wake up in the middle of the night and think of a breakthrough for your article, for your stories, or for your book. 

But if you don’t write those ideas down, if you try to keep them inside of your head, chances are when you turn up in front of the blank page and it’s time to produce your 500 or 1,000 words for the day, you’re gonna forget that idea because you can’t remember everything. So, I learned after reading this piece of advice from David that it’s key that writers and creatives have a system for capturing all of their ideas.

Now, for me, that system involves journaling. I use the app Day One to journal and I use Scrivener for long-form writing projects and iA Writer for short-form writing projects. I also use Trello, which is a type of project management software, to collaborate with other writers and team members who help me on Become a Writer Today. Now, the key or the takeaway isn’t necessarily that you need to use any of these tools or even use a piece of software in the first place. 

Pen and paper or a notepad will work just fine. What matters is having a place that you record your ideas when you think of them so they’re not cluttering around inside of your head. And what also matters is having them all in one place so that you can read through them and review them regularly and that’ll help you write your first drafts and it’ll help you with your stories and it’ll help you with your research.

Now, another big takeaway for me from David Allen’s work is the weekly review. So, once a week, I have a mini weekly review and it’s something I suggest you think about doing if you’re balancing writing with work and with life and, let’s face it, who isn’t? Basically, I sit down and ask myself questions like: What did I write this week? Did I hit my word count? How many articles did I publish? What worked, what didn’t work? What are my priorities for next week and did I achieve my priorities for last week? 

And I also review my calendar and clean out my inboxes and e-mail which is something I asked David about in the interview as well. Now, it only takes about half an hour to do all of this but, when I do this, I find I’m clearer on what I want to do next week and I’m also able to hold myself to account and see if I’m actually doing what I said I was going to do in the first place.

And, let’s face it, if you’re gonna write a book, then you need to hold yourself to account because, chances are, nobody else is gonna do that for you unless you’ve signed a traditional book deal and, even then, it’s still up to you to produce the words because writing is mostly a solitary activity. So I asked David all about his process for the weekly review and if he had any tips for creatives in the interview.

My final takeaway from this interview with David is how he released a second edition of Getting Things Done about 5 or 6 years ago and how they competed redid the cover because the audience for GTD had radically expanded. When he released the first book, it was business executives, people in busy day jobs, working in corporate companies, and so on. But then the book became a hit with Silicon Valley so David got rid of the shirt and tie that was on the front cover and went for a more relaxed look to communicate to his audience.

So, if you’re working on a book cover for your book, ask yourself, “Does my book cover communicate clearly what my book is about, and does it resonate with my ideal audience or with my ideal reader?” Funnily enough, years ago, I wrote a book about productivity for writers. It was a solitary book at the time.

It was my first book. Later on, I rewrote the book and I released it as part of a series of writing books but I wanted the series to look cohesive so they all needed to have the same book cover so I changed the title for the book in question, it’s now called the Savvy Writer’s Guide to Productivity, and I also changed the book cover as well because it was more reflective of the messaging of all three books. 

So, you have a book that’s in production, ask yourself those questions about the book cover and if you have a book that’s already out there and maybe sales are dipping off or it’s not quite doing what you want to do, take an honest look at your book cover and ask yourself does it resonate with your readers and is it something that you need to swap out or change?

Now, if you find this week’s interview helpful, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes, it only takes a few minutes, or you can just hit the star button or you can like or share the show on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. And you can become a Patreon supporter for just a couple of dollars a month. I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books. 

And, finally, I’m tweeting out writing advice and talking to other writers a lot these days on Twitter after I’ve produced my word count for the day so if you want to get in touch with me, Twitter’s a good place to do it at the moment or if you’ve got feedback about the show or you just want to say hi and let me know what you’re up to. It’s @bryanjcollins. I’d love to hear from you.

Now, let’s go to this week’s interview with David Allen and I started by asking him how GTD has changed since he first came up or evolved the concept some 20 plus years ago.

Bryan: So, David, Getting Things Done is a book that I reference often and I use a lot of the concepts from the book, everything from the weekly review to one of your key ideas which I’ll get to in a moment. My main question for you is the book was published, I guess, over 15 years ago. How do you feel GTD has evolved since then?

David: Well, the first edition, Bryan, you know, we published in 2001. I rewrote that edition for the second edition, which was published in 2015 and the methodology hasn’t changed. I changed some of my languaging and some of my ways to frame what the methodology is but the methodology is eternal. It’s as, you know, it’s as ubiquitous as dirt, you know? 

A hundred years when we fly to Jupiter, you’ll still need an in-basket, you’ll still need to decide next actions, you’ll still need to capture stuff that has your attention, you’ll still need to organize all of that as appropriate reminders in the right place and the right context and you’ll still need to review and reflect on all that stuff. That’s universal stuff. That has not changed at all. 

What changed really is the audience and the need in the audience has changed. See, when I first wrote the book, I knew it worked, the methodology already worked because this was 25 years of my work already. By that time, I’d spent thousands of hours with countless kinds of people and some of the best and brightest you’d meet and so I wrote the book, really, as a manual to capture what I’d learned in my 25 years of doing that. 

And the book itself was targeted toward the fast-track professional. That’s why you’ll see me — in the first edition, you’ll see me in a suit and tie and, you know, that’s not really me, you know? If I have to do that, I will, but, you know — and back then, that was the ripest audience for my message. They were the people most being hit by the tsunami of e-mail and change and fast track stuff and the people most interested in making sure they had a competitive edge, you know, to move forward. So, it was targeted and, you know, most of the vocabulary in my book was based upon my experience, primarily in the corporate and organizational world where I was doing most of the coaching and implementation of the methodology. 

So, it had that level of focus. So, what changed? Only some subtleties in terms of the languaging. For instance, I changed “collect” to “capture.”

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Because, especially for writers, “collect” has a little bit of a passive idea, okay, what have you already, you know, created that allow you to show up out there as opposed to “capture,” which is, you know, for the creative, especially creative writers, is a key element, you know? Write a crappy first draft, get every idea you can out of your head and capture it, get it out of your head, write and create a Word document or whatever app you wanna use, and do a data dump.

So I thought “capture” was a more universal and more accurate description of what that process really was. And also the second step to getting control which was — we called it “capture” and then “clarify.” Clarify became the second word to describe what that was. We used “process” as a word. Okay, we capture stuff and then we process it like you clean up your in-basket and you decide, “Is that reference? Is that something I need to do about?” et cetera, and we moved that to clarify which was a more universal and more accurate term about what that process is. So I got more subtle over the 15 or 20 years since I’ve published the first edition to realize there’s a much more sort of universal awareness, understanding, and application of this methodology that most people don’t see, to begin with.

A lot of people think Getting Things Done was just a way to get organized. Well, yeah, it is. But most people’s organization is rearranging incomplete piles of unclear stuff so, you know, I had to clarify, wait a minute, what do you need to organize if you wanna get it clear and wanna have a clear brain? And so refining some of my verbiage, at least in English, you know, was an important step in terms of how it developed, but the methodology hasn’t changed and it won’t.

Bryan: Yeah. When I first read Getting Things Done, it was your first edition that I read and like many people, I ran out and bought a labeler but I guess it was only a couple of months later that I realized that, for me, the key takeaway was your quote, that your head is for having ideas, not for holding them, and after that —

David: Yeah, I still have a labeler, you know? But this labeler is still critical. I mean, there’s more subtlety to that than most people realize. Naming things, you own ’em. If you don’t name ’em, they own you.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah, and I would certainly agree with that and I do use labels still but just maybe not a label maker, I use labels in the project management software that I use which is Trello. So, I suppose for a creative, when you were writing the second edition of your book, did GTD help you write that book in any way, and would you be able to describe how it did?

David: Well, sure. GTD — I just do GTD. I’ve done GTD for 40 years, you know? Since I ran across this model, it helped reinforce it for me so everything I do is that way. Okay, here’s the project, you know, finalize the draft and the second edition. Here’s my next action. Okay, I need to sit down and basically rewrite the book. And it was a — that’s a next action that took a while but I actually pulled up the manuscript from the first edition and rewrote the book.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Because I said, “Would I still say this the same way?” Hmm, yes. And a lot of it’s the same. If you read the second edition, a lot of it is the same. But there were a lot of things I wanted to add to it and different spin that after my 15 or 20 years of experience after the first book was published that I wanted to add into it and, again, to a larger audience, because that’s a lot of what changed is the audience. 

You know, the first edition was targeted to the fast-track professional. The second edition was targeted to the 80 percent of the world that are, you know, now knowledge workers in any way where you have to think about what to do during the day. It was really targeted toward a much broader audience and so I also framed the conversation toward the larger audience.

Bryan: And what was your reason for writing a second edition rather than a sequel?

David: Sequel would mean there’s something very different than the first edition.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Wrong answer. It was the same thing. But, again, it was the audience and the languaging and even my more understanding of some of the subtleties of the languaging that I wanted to put out. And also getting rid of some of the old stuff that made the first edition very time-based, you know? I mentioned Lotus Notes, I mentioned the PalmPilot, I mentioned other kinds of things, especially in the technology world. You know, God, this is really out of date, you know? 

So a lot of what I did in the second edition has unhooked any reference to technology because it’s changing as you and I are speaking right now, you know? But how you use the technology doesn’t change. That was another reason for a second edition because we did a really good job in the first edition to make sure it was as evergreen as possible. 

You know, my publisher then, Penguin, you know, Viking, which is a subset of Penguin, they said there might be ever greenness to this book, meaning it will still be useful 5 to 10 years from now and still sell. So, we tried to strip out all the business buzzwords and all the time-based things we could out of that first edition to make sure that it would still be viable and people would still read it and say, “Wow, this is still current, still fine for me,” but we missed some of those things, some of the technology stuff, especially, so I wanted to make sure we even made it more evergreen.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: That no matter when you read this, you know, they’re gonna uncover this in some archeological dig 300 years from now, they go, “Oh, my God, this is still right. This is still current. This is the real stuff.”

Bryan: Yeah, still applying the concepts within the book. One thing I’ve wondered about is for a modern creator or writer, any recommendations that you could offer for scheduling, making time with admin time during their day?

David: No, other than what works for them. You know, I’ve been jealous about writers that said, “I wake up every morning at nine o’clock and I write for three hours and whatever and I do that every day.” Oh, God. Part of me says, “I wish I could have done that.” No. My thing was create a format that when I feel I can have time to write — you know, it’s funny, you know, Bryan, when I wrote The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, you know, Getting Things Done, the first edition, I almost became an alcoholic becoming stressed out trying to write a book about stress-free productivity. Because I thought, okay, I could do it, I could do a breakfast meeting with a client, do a stand-up seminar all day, get on a plane, you know, for the next two hours to come back to, you know, where I was and write the next chapter. 

Wrong answer. So, learning that I needed creative space to be able to sit down and write. Otherwise, if I tried to write in any of those awkward spaces, I stepped on my own feet, I repeated stuff I shouldn’t have repeated, you know? I wasn’t back in the flow of my writing. So it took me a while to discover I needed at least 4 hours of uninterrupted time to sit down and get back into the flow of what I was writing. It was a big aha for me. 

Bryan: That’s quite a big block of time.

David: Yeah. Well, come on — but, again, I think that’s quite individual. Some writers just pick up right where they left off, especially if you’re doing that a lot and you have some technique where you just sit down and say, “Yeah, at eight o’clock every morning, I just boot the computer and I start writing. I just pick up where I left off.” I just have never had a life that was that simple —

Bryan: Yeah.

David: — or that structured. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a similar day in my life, given all the different things, you know, that I’m involved in and how I do that.

Bryan: One of the other key concepts in the book that made an impact on me was your idea of reviewing inboxes and I think most people would agree that we have more inboxes than ever these days, you know, notifications, Slack, social media, to-do lists, e-mail. What are your techniques or strategies for managing many inboxes these days?

David: When I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning all those up to zero.

Bryan: So you still practice “Inbox Zero”?

David: Absolutely.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Why not? Do practice garbage zero? Do you only keep some of your garbage and throw the big garbage away? You only clean out some of the things out of your mailbox and leave some of the rest?

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Why on earth would you not have inbox, you know, e-mail zero?

Bryan: Good question. Yeah, I guess what I try to do is categorize the e-mail by priority.

David: Well, that’s fine. That’s just organizing them but it’s moving ’em out of in.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Right? There’s a lot of e-mails I don’t finish, a lot of e-mails that’s just reference or that’s waiting for whatever. I just move those into those appropriate categories. But I clean out my inbox because the more unprocessed backlog you have, the more any new thoughts disturb you, are gonna bother you because, you know, there’s other stuff you might need or should be thinking about.

Bryan: And when you’re reviewing the information, do you have a system or place that you put everything into? I think in the edition that I read, you know, you were talking about creating a tickler file and, at one point, I was actually printing out documents and putting them in this file. These days, I use a slightly — a digital tool. Is there anything that you use?

David: A digital tool now simply because the physical tools just don’t work. In Europe, you can’t find the right kind of file folders, the right kind of filing cabinet to really make a really effective and fast, you know, physical tickler file work. So, if you read my book, I still used, until I moved to Europe, you know, a physical tickler file. Now, I’m like, you know, I’ll just — I’ll swallow hard and just use my digital reminder on my calendar for stuff that I wanna be reminded of at a certain date.

Bryan: I practice the weekly review quite a lot and I find that quite helpful for setting priorities for the coming week but would you have any recommendations for creatives about the type of things that they should be reviewing and if there’s anything specific that they should look at?

David: Look, the whole idea of GTD is get everything off your mind except whatever you wanna focus on. So, if you’re trying to be free to write with no distraction, you better handle everything that might have your attention. Are you appropriately engaged with your cat? Are you appropriately engaged with your life partner? Are you appropriately engaged with your health? Are you appropriately engaged with the novel you’re writing? 

GTD is not so much about getting things done, it’s really about being appropriately engaged with your commitments in life. But you need to know what those commitments are and you need to make sure that you’re reviewing them regularly. So, you can only feel good about what you’re not doing when you know what you’re not doing so a lot of the weekly review is reminding you what you’re not doing right and making that, “Okay, no, no, that’ll wait. That’s fine. That’s cool.” Or looking at your calendar and say, “That meeting’s coming up, am I okay about all that?” or looking two weeks ago on your calendar and go, “Oh, there’s my —” one of OSes, like, “Oh, God, I should have.” 

If any of those things are still banging around, just try to be creative enough to write, you know, creatively with nothing on your mind. So the whole idea, to me, I mean, why I sort of created all this was like I get very attracted to that idea of clear space. You don’t need time to have a good idea, you need room, right? So if your head is taken up, if the real estate — if your cognitive real estate is taken up by a bunch of stuff you haven’t handled or managed or gotten on top of, good luck to be as creative as you might be.

Bryan: What about if you’re — if you set aside time to do something creative but you feel like there’s a lot of things you need to do later on in the day, even though you’ve set your priorities and attentions, you still feel that hanging over you. Would you have any advice for what somebody could do in that case?

David: Well, where would they keep track of what they need to do later that day? If that’s still in their head, they’re screwed. Your head’s a crappy office because it has no sense of past or future so it keeps the “You should be” and “Don’t forget” and that, that, that. Why don’t you put that somewhere, you know, anybody who’s listening or watching this that has a calendar, you’re already saying your brain can’t do it so why the heck would you want your brain to try to keep track of stuff you needed to do later when you finished your writing?

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Where’s that list? See, when you’re down in the weeds, Bryan, you don’t wanna have to think about anything else, but when you’re down in the weeds, there’s a lot of the other stuff that’s still banging around out there that might bother you if you don’t trust that I can come up out of the weeds and look around and see where I need to focus next.

Bryan: It could be hard to get that 20,000-foot view, which I think is the metaphor you used in the book sometimes.

David: If this was easy, I’d have to find another job.

Bryan: So does it take somebody long, if somebody’s listening to this and they’re saying, “Well, okay, I think I’m gonna try GTD,” will it take them long to learn the system and implement it?

David: It will take them about 45 seconds to get the value out of this.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: Because once you stop listening to this or whatever you wanna do, get a good pen and paper and write down the top 10 things that have your attention right now. “God, I need cat food. I need a vice president. I need to find an editor. I need to find an agent. I need to make sure my agent handles x, y, and z.” Get that out of your head and that’s gonna take about, you know, at least 30 seconds you get some of the big ones and then take the next 30 seconds and say, “What’s the next action I need to do about the agent? What’s the next action I need to do about cat food? What’s the next action?” and then make those decisions. 

And then if you can’t finish those the moment you think of ’em, you know, write ’em down somewhere and park ’em somewhere, you know, you’ll see at the right time. You’ll suddenly feel much more in control of your life. That’s gonna take you about 2 minutes. If you really wanted to implement this so there’s nothing on your mind except whatever you want on your mind at any point in time, you’re gonna — it’s gonna take you a while because you’re gonna need to capture everything that’s got your attention, little, big, personal, professional, doesn’t matter, get it out of your head because your head’s such a crappy office. 

And then you need to go through every one of those things and make clarifying decisions about what’s the next action. And if one action once finished, “What’s the project I need to keep track of until it’s done?” or “What’s a reference?” or “What’s a someday maybe?” or “What’s such a crazy idea I don’t know what to do with?” And then, step 3, you need to make sure you’ve organized some reminders of any of those potentially relevant things in some appropriate place. You have a reference, you have a file for all the crazy ideas you have, a good file to create. 

Are you starting a Word doc — one of the reasons — you know, I’ve written five books that were co-authored last year or three, I just start a Word file, you know? A Word doc. I just start capturing anything that might be relevant to that. I just start to throw it in there. If you really wanted to do this, you need to just make sure you’ve got a system to capture potentially relevant stuff you can’t finish in the moment, to clarify, you know, what all those things mean, and then organize them based upon what they do mean to you and then build finally a reflection process, as you mentioned, a weekly review or at least something where you back off to take a look at all the possibilities and all the gestalt and all the options of stuff that you might, would, could, should be focused on. 

And then step 5, you engage your attention and your activities based upon some trusted choice based upon the best you could see about all the options that you have. Most people aren’t even close to what I just said. So, how long it would take you to get there depends on how close you are to that that I just mentioned already and some people who are brand new to this, it’s gonna take you 2 years to get really good at that, to make it habitual. If you’re already close to it, in just a couple hours, you could get way ahead of the game.

Bryan: Listening to you describe it, David, it sounds like a meditative practice almost.

David: Well, it depends what you mean by meditative practice. There’s a reflective process. If you mean by meditative, you have to think? Yes. Sorry, anybody listening to this. Don’t shoot the messenger. Thinking is required in order to get your head clear.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: It’s funny, you have to use your mind to clear your mind. It’s like one of those Zen koans.

Bryan: Yeah, something I certainly agree with. When you think back to when GTD came out and all the impact it’s had on people over the last 15, 20 years, are you surprised by the success of the book?

David: Bemused by it, certainly. You know, I appreciate how much — I had no idea how much uptake there would be. I just needed to write the manual, you know? At some point, I just said, “Look, in case I get run over by a bus —” It took me 25 years to figure out what I’d figured out and that it was unique and that it was bulletproof, you couldn’t punch a hole in it, and that nobody else had done it. And I got some good advice, “David, you have to write the manual,” so that’s what I did. It took me 4 years from the time I pulled the trigger on, you know, writing Getting Things Done to get the printed edition out, you know, and so that was quite a process in and of itself just to make that work, you know, and how to get the stuff out in that way because I didn’t know whether I could actually produce the value, I could produce —one, if I could hang out with you, Bryan, for 2 days as a coach or as a consultant or whatever and sit down with you at your desk and go through all the stuff you’ve collected on your desk and in your mind and get all that stuff, I know I’d spent thousands of hours with some of the best and brightest doing that specific thing.
I didn’t know if I wrote it in a book that you’d get it. So that was surprising to me was that people actually — and that was a big milestone when the book was first published in 2001, that weekend, I got an e-mail from a woman in, you know, somewhere, I was in California, she was in Philadelphia, and she said, “David, I bought your book at Barnes and Noble. I read it, I implemented it, changed my life.” Oh, my God. I said, “Oh, my god,” at least if one person can get this, that means I was able to virtualize this, you know, this best practice methodology that I’d unfolded or uncovered and identified so that was a big milestone. 

And then how big, how popular — well, that was one person, did anybody else want it out there? So, you know, it became a best seller in the US and then it started to go international. As soon as it was — especially since the paperback came out in 2003 and then, by that time, it started to be translated in 25 or 30 languages and it sort of reached the world and the world kept on banging on our door. “Oh, my God, this is so great. David, can I be a GTD coach in Ukraine or in Russia or whatever?” I’m like wow, okay. I guess, you know, just a general attitude I’ve had is high anticipation but no expectation. So I always find if I didn’t sell anything, I just did it to write it so that that was done and the manual was out there. 

At some point, somebody would pick it up and say, okay, case I got run over by a bus, at least the information will be out there, that seemed to be unique, seemed to be highly valuable for anybody who got it, read it, and implemented any of it. I thought that should be done. So that was my driver to write the first edition.

Bryan: Do you think you could have built up your business with coaching and courses and so on without the book or was the book a key part of it?

David: Certainly not to the degree it is now in terms of an international movement, really. I mean, we’re now represented in 90 countries with certified trainers and coaches that can then go deliver this work that we’ve certified they’re good enough to deliver this work from a training and coaching standpoint so that could not happen had the book not been written and published and then published then taken up and picked up. 

And, again, that was part of the coaching when I was — I said, “Okay, I now need to write the book,” I had a couple of friends and clients in the publishing industry and they said, “Well, David, if you think this book might have universal appeal,” or even just international or national appeal, that you weren’t writing a book about the sex life of retired penguins, you know, in Antarctica, that would have its own specific publisher that would just go to — that’d be interested in that topic. 

But if something had universal appeal that could be very broadly taken by the general public, then you probably need, you know, a really good publisher. And for that, you probably need a really good agent because if you’re not known, if you’re not a known name, the agent will know who to take it to, how to frame it, or whatever. And so I took that advice and did that. My agent, still my agent, you know, 20 years later.

Bryan: In terms of framing the ideas from the book for different countries, did anything have to change?

David: What changed was that a lot of the translations sucked. They were terrible. No, they really were and, you know, the Lithuanian translation, you know, translated “to execute something,” like to get it done, as execution like cut your head off, you know? 

And so most of the first edition, most of the translations were really terrible. And GTD is quite simple but it’s actually quite subtle and you need not a translation, you need an interpretation. You need somebody who gets what this is about and then says it the most appropriate way in that language as opposed to word-by-word translation because the word-by-word translation didn’t work.

Bryan: Yeah, I can get that because the terms you use are quite specific. So, how did you figure out that some of the translations weren’t conveying the message accurately?

David: People who knew GTD would read the Japanese version or they’d read the Spanish version and they were saying they didn’t get it.

Bryan: Yeah.

David: You know? That knew both languages, you know? So it was only feedback. It surprised me. I came back to my editor at Penguin, he said, “David, every translated version of an English written book is 20 percent bigger than that book,” because it — English is so subtle in terms of the languaging that to interpret it takes a lot more words in most other languages than the English words take so look at any of the translated versions of Getting Things Done, you’ll see them as bigger books than the original one simply because it takes more Dutch words to say what I said in one sentence that they need two sentences to sort of get to the subtlety of what that one sentence meant. 

And that’s true for most other languages, apparently, according to my editor at Penguin, anyway. He said that was true about that. So that was part of it. So, the second edition, we made an agreement with Penguin, we said, “You will not grant licenses to publishers until we can be assured that a GTD-aware person in that language can do a final edit on the book to make sure that they get it right.”

Bryan: I guess there’s an art to translations. It’s not just a case of changing words from English to French.

David: No, it’s interpretation, not translation. I need to understand what this meaning meant, what this sentence meant, and then how do I say that in French as opposed to how do I just repeat the English words in the French language?

Bryan: So you’ve written several books over the course of the past few years, have you ever considered writing a biography?

David: No. You mean an autobiography? 

Bryan: Yeah.

David: It’s on my someday maybe list is to write my memoirs but I would not make it an autobiography, I would make it a memoir so I don’t have to be so rigorous about, you know, what I say. I can just make it all my thoughts over the years and whatever. But I’ve had a pretty strange and interesting life that I think it’s a good idea at some point to write that down and how I got to where I was.

Bryan: Think it will be, yeah. So where can people find more information about you, David, or learn about applying GTD?

David: Just go to and you’ll see lots of different avenues you can take. Free newsletter. We do podcasts regularly. There’s a subscription membership to the GTD Connect. If you are, you know, seriously into this, there’s a huge archive, a library of interviews I’ve done and lots of, you know, detail, stuff, you know, from people all over the world. 

There are GTD forums all over the place. If you just go to, you’ll see a whole YouTube channel that’s got my three TEDx talks, all kinds of interviews I’ve done like with Tim Ferriss and other people like that so there are just tons of places you could go. If you’re interested in, you know, more in-depth training and coaching, public seminars as well as one-on-one individual coaching from certified coaches in this methodology, just go to Training and Coaching on the website and then click on your country, click that and click on your country and you’ll see, you know, who does it in your area, you know? We’ve got a great partner in the UK, you know, that handles Ireland and the UK and they’re doing a lot of work all around, you know, Ireland.

Bryan: Yeah, it’s certainly a system that’s really helped me but thanks for your time, David.

David: My pleasure, Bryan.

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