In this episode, David Allen, Founder of the Getting Things Done® (GTD®) methodology, and Tim Harford, economist and Financial Times columnist, talk to Todd Brown of Next Action Associates about the current COVID-19 reality and how to stay sane during these unprecedented times.
00:06 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. I think today is how to stay sane in the new reality, and I am delighted to say that I have two guests. This is a bit of a dream moment for me. Two guests that I have tremendous respect for, and who have done an awful lot of work and thinking in this area. Let me introduce first, Tim Harford. Tim is a columnist for the Financial Times, a broadcaster for the BBC, and the author of seven books, including most recently a book called 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, which was also turned into a podcast series, which I do very highly recommend. And Tim’s latest project is, he’s been working on a series called Cautionary Tales. It’s a podcast series called Cautionary Tales with Malcom Gladwell, and that’s out there, that’s out there now.
01:01 TB: My history with Tim, just very briefly, I got to know… I’ve been a very keen consumer, Tim, of of your various forms of output for many, many years, and then out of the blue about three years ago in an article that you wrote for the Financial Times, I remember seeing a few paragraphs on your interest in getting things done, and I thought, “Yet further… Yet further proof that some of the coolest people in the world are drawn to GTD,” so…
01:25 Tim Harford: Of course, of course.
01:28 TB: We’ve been in touch ever since. And for most of you, the other person with us on the session today is someone who will require absolutely no introduction, David Allen of, well, many books. But of course wrote Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity and has provided the foundation for an awful lot of the work that we do, and for, I’m sure, for an awful lot of you that are out there, a lot of the frameworks and the thinking and the systems that you’re using to try to keep on top of things in your life. So gentlemen, I thought we’d kick off with just some thoughts about how, in the current reality, you’re seeing challenges that pop up. These might be things for you, or they might be things sort of you’re seeing more broadly in the wider culture, but what particular challenges are you seeing as you try to stay both sane and productive? Can I can start with you, Tim?
02:25 TH: Sure. Well, why don’t I tell you what I’ve been thinking, and then we can get David to solve all my productivity and stress problems. This is what I’m hoping for, this is what I’m on the call for, a few minutes with my personal guru. So what struck me when the crisis hit, and many parts of the world went into lockdown. I was struck by this overwhelming wave of anxiety in the early days. But because deep down, I’m fortunate enough to be fairly safe. I have a job that at least parts of the job I can do very safely from my own home. I have space in my home, I have an internet connection. Really, I’m in a fortunate position relative to many other people. The anxiety was this really powerful anxiety, was quickly replaced by just a low-level hum of stress. I just felt extremely stressed about all the things that I had to do, but being a GTD acolyte, I was able to diagnose, I think, what was going on, and I wrote a piece about it for the Financial Times, which Todd, I think, caught your attention.
03:44 TH: The basic problem, it seems to me, is this, which is that we have all these projects. If we’re GTD people, we formalise the projects, we have a weekly review, we keep track of everything. But other people, they still have the projects, they may be just not as conscious of the fact that they are projects. We have all these projects, we have all these commitments, and the lockdowns and all the changes we’ve had to make because of the pandemic have just thrown all of them into chaos. So a load of projects have just been indefinitely postponed. This is not going to happen for three months, six months, a year. And we don’t know how long it’s been postponed. And then there are other projects that are just cancelled. I had plans for a big birthday for my wife, a big birthday for my daughter. Not going to happen. We’re not going to have those get-togethers to have those celebrations.
04:39 TH: Then there were the things that you had to do that have suddenly changed their flavour. So producing radio for the BBC, I still do it. It just works in a very different way. I have different things to think about. I have to manage my own audio, for example. I have to schedule periods of quiet. There’s the process of just getting the groceries, getting toilet paper, getting the shopping, works very differently. Still the same job, but the process you have to go through to complete those projects is very different. And then there are all the new projects, all the new things you want to do, the possibilities that have opened up because of lockdown, the journalism I want to produce to respond to the lockdown. I’ve been working on a book. The book is going to make no sense unless there’s some Coronavirus thoughts in that book. And so just, it’s chaos, it’s absolute chaos. All of these projects everywhere.
05:32 TH: And what I realised I needed to do, and to keep doing, because it’s such a fast-changing situation, was deep down, basically just a weekly review. Only the weekly review had to be quite deep and it had to happen every couple of days. I’m just constantly itemising those projects, figuring out what’s changed, figuring out what the next action is, and also figuring out what I just had to mourn and say goodbye to, because it wasn’t going to happen, and I could at least stop fretting about it. So thanks, David, because GTDs really helps. But that’s been my initial response to the crisis.
06:09 TB: David, any thoughts about that? I mean, let me just interject one quick thing here, I think, what’s interesting about what you said, Tim, is that… And I’ve seen this a lot in my conversations with people is that there are… In a big sense there are two things that are new: What needs our focus, and how we get that done, right? With people working from home, they’ve got new tools, they’ve got new great ways of working. And as you say, you know, what needs their focus, you know, what they can say to be like, “Oh,” etcetera, has also changed. So I would absolutely echo your thoughts. How about you, David?
06:42 David Allen: Well, come on, Tim, let’s go back to your TED Talk. Keith Jarrett, you’re the Keith Jarrett, “Wow, those keys don’t work. You know, these keys I need to focus on, because of whatever.” So what’s different? It’s exactly the same thing. So your innovative approach to life is probably going to move forward into a whole new level of game once this comes to some whatever new normal may look like after the pandemic, we don’t know that. So hey, so good work. But again, you know, a lot of what the value of GTD is the ability to deal with surprise. And there’s a maturity factor with GTD. At some point when surprise happens you fall off the wagon. At some point when surprise happens you get really on the wagon.
07:39 DA: So you’ve indicated and expressed a little bit of a kind of get on the wagon when the stuff shows up that you didn’t expect. But that’s really the game there. That’s why, you know, I guess my background in the martial arts should have made that sort of a good analogy, such a good analogy for this. It’s called, hey, when you get surprised you do not want to practice your forearm block when four people jump you in the dark alley. You better have had 4000 practices of your forearm blocks, so you’re ready to then spontaneously engage with whatever new showed up. So there’s really nothing new in the difference of that dynamic, and that principle, and its application across everything we’re all dealing with right now.
08:28 TH: Yeah, it’s really striking, though, how it does take a moment, or at least it took a moment for me. And by a moment, I mean a few days to really understand what was happening, why am I feeling so stressed? Why do I feel so overwhelmed? And sometimes when you’re in the middle of that sense of being overwhelmed, you’re so overwhelmed, you can’t even think about why you’re overwhelmed. And of course, the fact that, I mean, this is… People are dying, economies are in free fall, people are losing their jobs. The situation is just objectively very stressful independent of whatever productivity or your life hacks we may be embracing. And so it can be hard to diagnose where exactly that stress is coming from, I think.
09:18 DA: Yeah, well, that’s why I’ve just created… I think they can publish now, I’ve got 25 in the ranks of the Two-minute Tips for Turbulent Times. Alright, first of all, is your will in order? If you get it and you die, is everybody around you going to have to scramble to try to figure out what the hell, you know, do I do with this? Are you ready… Are you ready for that contingency, right? So just getting your legal stuff in order. I mean, it’s a great time to get clear, to get current, to get complete with a lot of that old stuff that’s been, you know, crustationing around everybody’s life that they’ve never had time to do, but now you better… There will be a post-pandemic, we don’t know what it’ll look like. But when that happens, you won’t have time again to update your will, update your, you know, what they’re going to do when I die, do I want to get burned or cremated, or you know what, what, you know, what, what, what… All that stuff of your life, right?
10:23 DA: And now is the time to actually identify what those both old crusty projects are that you may have had, that you’ve never had time to really engage with and do, and whatever new things you need to identify as projects. Wow, I need to set up a home office. [chuckle] I just read that not long ago. How many small desk are being sold around the world now? [chuckle]
10:47 TH: Yeah.
10:49 DA: So setting up your home office… Now, I’ve had a home office since 1981, so you know, that’s like nothing new to me, but a whole lot of other people are having to go through that kind of transition. What do I… How do I deal with kids that are now here while I’m trying to get work done, right? So I’ve been in 20 interviews for the last two weeks where people are saying, “How do I manage being at home, and how do I manage that?” Well, there are a lot of answers to that. So anyway, I’m just riffing on what you guys both just said, so…
11:21 TH: I’m very interested to get, Todd and David, both of your views, because you live and breathe this stuff, and you’re always advising people on the GTD methodology. One thing that interested me about what David just said is well, you know, there’ll never be a better time to sort out your will, to get those kinds of projects in order. And of course that’s true, I mean, it’s sort of almost tautologically, there’s never a better time to get your will in order than right now. But actually, it… What it’s done to me, or what it reminded me about was the fact that I’m getting a lot of emails from people who presume that I don’t have a lot to do. Things are quiet because of the lockdown, lots of plans have been cancelled, a lot of people have been been furloughed, or worse they’ve lost their jobs. And so there’s this sense, a lot of people have that there’s much more time. And of course, for some people that’s absolutely true, for other people there’s less time than there’s ever been, particularly, those who have young children at home.
12:31 TH: But for me in journalism, there’s a lot of news about, I’ve been making extra stuff, doing extra journalism. I feel like I’ve never been busier. And so one of the interesting challenges is that we’re dealing with all these other people in our lives, family members, colleagues, we all feel like we’re having the same experience because we’ve all been hit by the same big thing. But of course, we’re not having the same experience, we’re experiencing it very, very differently. And we’re not getting those same subtle clues from each other that we might do because we’re not seeing each other face-to-face. So one of the challenges I’ve been wrestling with and I’d love to get your views on is, how to interact with other people in your team, with other people in your distant family who are having these very, very different experiences and how to make sure that you all stay aligned and stay focused on the same things and are able to keep supporting each other.
13:27 DA: Good question, big question. Todd?
13:30 TB: Well, it’s funny that you’re just saying that, Tim. I literally this morning, just going to your point about the fact that we’re interacting with each other differently, I think that’s absolutely right. And I was having a conversation with my wife this morning about the fact that when she was going to the office, the interactions that you would have with people were very sort of fluid and could happen on an ad hoc basis, of course, and that’s gone away. And the result has been that she has a calendar absolutely rammed full of appointments that she didn’t use to have because there was sort of space in the unstructured tooing and froing of her office space for people to have those kinds of one-off informal interactions.
14:12 TB: The thing that I think is interesting for me about all of this and that it goes back to your point about different things deserve our focus and, David, your point about there’s never a better time to focus on some of these things, but I think what GTD enables for us is a sensitivity to the pressures that we’re feeling. And the pressures can be I’ve got too much email in my inbox, or the pressure can be I don’t have a will and I’m a little bit worried that that’s not really a great situation to be in right at the moment. And what GTD gives us is then some great ways to handle that tension and that pressure. And so, what I’ve been… The conversations that I’ve been having with people can boil down really to, “Hey, I’ve got all of these tensions, I’m feeling all of these pressures in places that I haven’t before.” And great quote from David here. “The way out is not around, the way out is through,” and as you said, David, in these moments, we can benefit from rededicating ourselves to the implementation of the best practices and our systems. David, what do you reckon?
15:28 DA: Well, one of the first things I did when I realised what the pandemic was going to mean for our business and our businesses was do a worst case scenario. I pulled up an Excel spreadsheet and I said, “Okay,” ’cause most of my business and my income is based upon, Todd, your work and all of the other licensees we have around the world. So I just said, “What’s the worst case?” And I went through a worst case scenario. Not to dwell on it, not to re-enforce it, not to affirm it, but just to relieve that pressure internally to be able to say, “If the worst case happened, can I endure it? How would that be?” And I acknowledged and accepted that internally. It’s the old stoic stuff. Again, that’s one of my great book recommendations is The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman, that goes into acceptance of current reality is a much more productive and powerful thing than the ra-ra, everything’s positive, kind of thing.
16:30 DA: Not that you shouldn’t have a positive vision about wild success, ideally if all this could be very cool, but the first thing you need to do is acceptance of current reality. And I think that’s what a lot of people need to do right now is accept what the current reality is or potentially is and then deal with that, ’cause again, that’s another version of the way out is through, you don’t… The more you try to stuff that, ignore it or whatever these subliminal negative fear things will keep running inside of you and that’s going to then undermine your ability to be productive and effective in terms of where you want to go and how you need to then navigate this new world strategically.
17:14 TH: This is music to my ears because before I was a journalist, before I became a journalist, I was a scenario planner working for a big multinational company, which is actually where I met my wife. So we’re two scenario planners married to each other, and I’ve actually said…
17:33 DA: Did you both have a scenario about the marriage and who you would meet and the ideal person? I’m curious.
17:40 TH: No comment. No comment on that. [chuckle] Don’t want to go into too many details.
17:44 DA: No, serendipity is wonderful too. Indeed. Yeah.
17:48 TH: It is. So the way that scenario method goes is you don’t just think about worst case scenarios, of course that’s very important, both for your own, I think, state of mind, and also for sound contingency planning, but ultimately the scenario methodology, we start exploring different possible stories about the future. What might happen, what are the big uncertainties? What are the things that we would like to know, but we don’t know and we probably won’t know until some time in the future? What are the certainties? What are the things that we’re pretty confident of? And to explore different aspects of those uncertainties and to see how that might play out. So this could be to do with how long the lockdown lasts, whether there’s a second wave. Depending on the individual business that you’re in, there might be very different possible scenarios for that. And in exploring the scenarios, you can then get yourself away from this question which is what’s going to happen. Not a very useful question because the answer is we don’t know.
19:00 TH: You get away from that question and you get towards, well, if this happened, what would we do? If this other thing happened, what would we do? And it starts to free you up once you’ve accepted the current reality and once you’ve got your current set of projects really focused, you can actually start having a conversation about the someday project effects, about the silver linings, about the opportunities that are opening up, even though we don’t know really what’s going to happen. It gives you a framework to start making those decisions.
19:33 DA: Well, all the best fortunes in the US were made in the Depression. So all the coolest things and the most innovative things have shown up with the constraints. Come on, Tim, you’ve talked about this. This was the…
19:48 TB: The unplayable piano.
19:49 DA: Yeah. So the constraints produce the ability. Just go try to be innovative. Go. Innovation, nobody ever went out to be innovative. They went out to solve a problem. They went out to handle something and then somebody looked back on it and said, “Gee, that was an innovative thing to do.” So innovation is not something you actually go out to do. Innovation is something that happens because of what you do given the constraints you have.
20:20 TH: Yeah. At the same time, though, you still need to have got your head clear so that you can figure out what’s happening and what the opportunities are. This is the story about Keith Jarrett producing this amazing results of the piano. He was still able to focus on producing that performance rather than just being a rabbit in the headlights. And as an journalist, I think the GTD methodology helps a lot with that.
20:45 DA: Yeah. And whoever I just interviewed and I just talked to, spent time with… Oh, it was Daniel Levitin, new book called Strategic Aging, highly recommended. If you’re over 50, you’re going to be over 50, dealing with anybody over 50, an absolutely must-read book. And Daniel actually got into it. He was a musician, a jazz musician. He wrote Your Brain on Music and then got into cognitive science and all that stuff. Anyway, he spent some time with Sting and he said, what’s fascinating about Sting, Sting’s life was so totally organised, Sting had to think of nothing. Nothing. Would just show up, because everything else was handled so he could be totally free to be in that space with what he needed to do. It’s fascinating. Fascinating stuff. So yeah, so being able to create enough structure, so you need no structure. It’s kind of like using your brain so you don’t have to think about your brain.
21:50 DA: It’s a strange… The paradox of getting things done in GTD is the thought process that you have to apply so you don’t have to overindulge or overstress that thought process. The night before, you put stuff in front of the door so you don’t forget it in the morning because you’re going to be dumb and stupid in the morning. So the night before, you’re smart enough to realise that whoever’s going to go through the door may be dumb and stupid. Let me do a smart thing so that then a dumb and stupid guy’s going to do a smart thing. No kidding. And that principle you could apply to a whole lot of what we’re talking about.
22:31 TB: I’m aware we’re coming a little bit close to our time here, Tim. Any final question you’ve got for David?
22:37 TH: Well, one thing that has occurred to me is that the thinking space that I think naturally existed in the day was, you show up at a meeting and you’re waiting for 10 minutes ’cause you’ve had to build in some extra travel time. You have an hour’s commute into the office, that gives you some time to think, to reflect, do some email, go through your to-do lists, go through your projects. That sort of time I think for many people has evaporated. It feels like we have more time ’cause we’re not commuting, ’cause we’re not waiting around because we can line up the Zoom meetings one after another. And in a way we do have more time, but we have less time to think. So I’d be curious as to your suggestions as to how to ensure that we continue to keep those thinking and reflecting spaces open in our lives which previously might have happened purely by accident.
23:34 DA: Beats me. Tim, how important is thinking space to you? If you wind up with space so you can think, take advantage of it. Go into your favourite thinking chair and sit. Bring a journal, bring a pen and paper, bring something with you so that you’re inviting the muse essentially in your life to show up at whatever level he or she may want to show up at. So I think building in the appropriate spaces and context that then allow you to do that kind of thinking, whether that’s going to, well, used to be going to your local coffee shop on a Saturday morning to do your weekly review, no longer available.
24:24 TH: It all evaporates. That’s the challenge, isn’t it?
24:27 DA: Yeah. So make sure you’ve got your own space that you do your thinking in. Sometimes it’s good to put on good music. Now, in the old days in that I’ve reconstructed that through Spotify, I’ve created my new… Another playlist of Vivaldi’s concertos. Those are my thinking tools. I put those on, I automatically move into weekly review thinking mode. Couldn’t help it. So music, where you sit, your context, your cockpit, is it set up so when you sit down, you’re ready for that kind of thinking process. I think creating context, and that could include music and space. Make sure that you’ve got the right space to do that. If you need to put police tape across your door so your kids and your life partner don’t come in and go, “Oh, dear, gee, dear, could you now handle… ” They’ll say now that you’re here… [chuckle]
25:29 DA: Yeah, come on, Todd. I don’t know if you coached Nick at Siemens where he got GTD, and did his weekly review. He actually had to push against the wall and actually do his GTD on Fridays at home from a German company. They did not go into the office on Friday. Nick was saying it was so out of his comfort zone. But the worst thing was, his wife would come in and go, “Oh, dear, would you… ” And then, of course, she got coached with GTD and then she understood the value of that private space to do that kind of thinking. So I think being able to set up your context and creating your parameters and conversations you need to have and negotiations you need to have with people you live around and with, so you can set up those kind of things, that would be a very good thing to do, especially these days.
26:23 TB: Wonderful stuff. I feel the need, in the interest of all the folks out there who’ve been scratching their heads with the references, by the way, to Keith Jarrett, we need to make clear what we were talking about there. So, Keith Jarrett, jazz musician, pianist and the album to check out that we’ve all been talking about. We discovered today that we have a shared passion for it, is now called The Cologne Concerts, which is a completely improvised concert. Anyway, absolutely, it’s on my, David to your point, is on my weekly review playlist. I know the music well but I just find it tremendously inspiring and puts me in a place that is very helpful.
27:03 TH: It’s an amazing piece of music. The back story is fascinating, the constraints and the problems that Jarrett was having to deal with. So actually, I gave a TED Talk specifically about what happened in the hours before he sat down on that piano and started to play.
27:19 DA: That was great. I just looked at that just before we connected here. And by the way, anybody listening to this, you guys all gotta go see that. So look at Tim’s TED Talk about innovation and his talk about the Keith Jarrett event. Fabulous stuff.
27:36 TB: All right. Gentlemen, thank you so much, thank you both for being a part of this today. For those of you who’ve been listening and watching, as always, we’re here to support you in whatever ways might be helpful as you make your way in the world with this material. If there’s anything that you think we ought to be aware of, thinking about, talking about in the work that we do, please do reach out to us. In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, and…
28:01 DA: And I have to… I’m going to interrupt you. Financial Times journalism, these days, guys, anything any of you guys can do to support the good journalism that’s going on. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Financial Times, The Guardian, all these guys are doing such great work and God bless you. Thank you for sticking in there.
28:28 TH: Thank you, David.
28:31 DA: And inserting and reinforcing some level of a sanity stick inside of the insanity that is going on otherwise. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
28:43 TB: Hear, hear. Great stuff. Thank you both, thank you all and we’ll be back in touch soon. Bye for now.