David Allen is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on personal and organizational productivity. He has 25 years of experience pioneering, researching and coaching corporate managers and CEO’s of some of America’s most prestigious corporations and institutions. It has earned him Forbes recognition as one of the top 5 executive coaches in the world.
He is an international best-selling author for Getting Things Done; the art of stress free productivity, 52 productivity principles for work and life. He is also the engineer of GTD (Getting Things Done) popular methodology and has shown millions how to transform a fast-paced, overwhelming, over-committed life into one that is balanced, integrated, relaxed and has a more successful outcome. He is a consultant, educator and a popular keynote speaker for such diverse clients as City Group, General Mills, Stanford University, New York Life, and Microsoft.
David is the founder and president of the David Allen Company whose inspirational seminars, coaching and educational materials, and practical products present individuals and organizations with a new model for winning the game of work and the business of life. He continues to write articles and essays that address today’s ever-changing issues about living and working in a fast-paced world and attaining a work/life balance.
Dr. Relly Nadler: How is it that you came to work in this field that you are in today?
David Allen: I’ve always been fascinated by what kind of things could affect human behavior and effect results. I, perhaps, didn’t say that as intelligently when I was in my younger years, or didn’t know exactly what it was, but I’ve always been interested. I guess because I’m one of the laziest people in the world, but I actually like to increase results and produce things, so I was always looking for tips and tricks about things that would do that.
That took a lot of different forms for me; a lot of exploration in the self-development world, high-performance behaviors, I got involved in martial arts learning a lot about physical effectiveness and that way the psychological aspects of it. Then I got into the management consulting game. Basically, trying to understand organizations and people within organizations and what some of the things were that they could do that could also increase performance.
Dr. Relly Nadler: I’m a past athlete, and I know how that contributed to my life and perspective, but you were saying it was just around the mental piece or the discipline piece?
David Allen: I got in to it because I had been fascinated by Zen and the whole Eastern philosophy aspects since I was in high school. I had done a lot of reading on a philosophical basis and had resonated to that style of simplicity and elegance that is embedded in the aesthetic of Zen and Eastern philosophy. But then, I wound up meeting someone who was an expert in martial arts and he, for various reasons, offered to teach me. I got involved simply from the philosophical and aesthetic side. I had heard about martial arts and that somehow it had a relationship to the philosophical side of it, but I wasn’t a highly physical person. I sort of played tennis in high school; I wasn’t a total doofus, but I never really used that as a focal point.
In my mid-20’s I started to study with this guy and got enthralled by it, it was fascinating. When I got into it from the philosophical side I found it extremely valuable and profound just in terms of using the physical aspect of it as a learning tool.
Dr. Relly Nadler: It’s kind of the efficiency of motion and how you use your energy and how you use others energy. I can see a tie-in to some of your work today.
David Allen: As you know, athletics has always been a great testing and proving ground for behavioral things, especially things that have to do with focus. When you are up at the edge and you are trying to break four boards and the best you have ever done is three, you are sitting and staring at those things; learning how to manage and control your inner focus and maintain a positive self-talk strategy. I have always said if you can make it around 18 holes of golf without any negative self-talk, I want you on my team.
Dr. Relly Nadler: What is GTD, Getting Things Done, and how is it unique; in other words, why Getting Things Done and why now?
David Allen: A lot of what I discovered was how to get rid of drag on the system. How do you get rid of the stuff that gets in the way of us being there? I can’t help people be essentially more creative or the source of their spontaneous intuitive judgments about things and where they are going, because I think that is where success really comes from is some inner intuitive aspect of what we are doing. That is highly unique to each individual. But what I discovered was that there is a lot that gets in the way of our ability to both tap into that as well as to implement it.
I just continued to keep researching; what is it if I stop doing this or do this a little differently that makes it easier for me to focus appropriately on that inner intuitive quality? GTD was just a compilation of those practices about how you eliminate the things that are pulling back on your ability to focus and be in control.
The way I got into this; I’m not one of those highly motivated, ambitious kind of people that you see, and you have probably interviewed. I don’t get up early, I don’t spend my time focused on the most strategic things for 3 hours before get into anything else. I like to sleep. Frankly, I like to sort of “hang out”. I came across these techniques as a way, essentially, to be as lazy as I like to be but still produce results. Maybe that can create an edge of research as well as anything else.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Why do you think getting things done today is so challenging for people, especially in the business world?
David Allen: Well, Getting Things Done addresses the whole idea of commitment and being able to manage that inventory in some objective way. It is really not so much about restructuring or organizing information because there is information all over the place and always has been. What is different, I think, is what I call not” information overload” it’s “potential meaning overload.”
Nature is pretty obvious and it’s full of all kinds of information that doesn’t stress you out. As a matter of fact it relaxes you. But with emails; you don’t know what is sitting inside of there. You don’t know what it means and it might mean something. It could be a berry, a bear, or a bug inside each one of those emails. So if you don’t train yourself on how to make those decisions in terms of deciding what things mean that you have allowed to come into your world, but still think they may mean something to you, that is where this stuff can back-up on you and create huge amounts of stress. That is what is really increasing.
What helps that, expands that, or promotes that even more is how fast things are changing. Nothing is new except how frequently everything is new. You and I have gotten more input in the last 48 hours that will potentially create new projects and shift our priorities at least tactically than our parents got in a month and some of them in a year.
It’s not so much that the change produces the necessity to regroup and refocus, and reorganize, it’s just that change or input is happening so fast that makes those changes required. So learning how to do that quickly and elegantly and not letting stuff hang around is part of why GTD hit a nerve and why it’s not going away in terms of our needs to learn how to do that better.
Dr. Relly Nadler: I also think that the aspects of Emotional Intelligence; self-management which deals with consciousness, initiative, achievement orientation and a lot of things, fold right into the practical side that you are doing. But I also hear what you are saying in your book about some of the fear and apprehension people have; whether it’s in the email – what don’t I know, what is in my stack or pile that I don’t know. How have you found that fear and apprehension affects people?
David Allen: There are two aspects of self-management, from my experience. Over all the years it has all sifted down and concentrated in two particular dynamics. One is control and the other is perspective. If you feel like you have enough control, then you are cool. If I feel like I am focused on what I need to focus on the appropriate way, the appropriate time and the appropriate horizon, I’m cool. If I’m feeling in control and feel like I am absolutely focused appropriately, there is probably no need for anymore time management, stress management, personal prioritizing or anything – you are there, you are on. It’s just when I happen to feel like I am losing control or I am not as in control as I need to be, or not sure I am focused on what I need to be focused on; that is where utilizing techniques or best practices will come into play. What GTD did was to discover the five phases of how you get control if you are feeling out of control and the six horizons that you need to focus on if you want to focus appropriately.
Dr. Relly Nadler: One of the things we are talking about is perspective, control and keeping track of things. In your book you talk about the “Open Loop.” What is this Open Loop?
David Allen: As soon as you make a commitment and you don’t finish it right then, you essentially opened – I call it an “open loop”, you could call it an incompletion, you could call it any kind of an unfulfilled commitment. There is a part of us, it seems, psychologically, that does not lose track of that. We consciously can lose track of it very easily. “Hey Relly, I’m going to get back to you”, and then two minutes later I’m focused on the next thing. I made the commitment, I forgot I made the commitment, but unfortunately, there is a part of me that didn’t. It still remembers; David you just committed to something. But if I lose track of it consciously, it seems that where that goes in the psyche is what I call psychic ram. It’s like ram on a computer – it’s short term memory space that is very limited space but it is trying to hang on to it. It has not sense of past or future, that’s the problem.
So I say Relly I’m going to get back to you, I lost track of it consciously, but there is a part of me that thinks I should be getting back to you 24 hours a day. It’s constantly running in there. My core processor, if you will, is sitting there spinning and burning up trying to keep track of this commitment, but I consciously lost track of it so I don’t have a chance to unhook the energy from it.
We talk a lot about being able to renegotiate your commitments with yourself, that is why making a list makes people feel better. Everybody listening to this at some point has sat down and felt a little overwhelmed and out of control and you made a list and felt better. I just figured out why that works. If you actually figured out why that works you would never keep anything in your head the rest of your life.
Dr. Relly Nadler: In your book you talk about the 5 Stages of Mastering Work Flow. Can you go through some of that?
David Allen: Essentially, when everybody says, look we need to get organized and we need to get focused, which is what you will tell your project team, it’s what a company will tell itself in any situation. Those are the two admonitions and that is why I have flushed them out in terms of control on perspective. But, you don’t just get organized. Organized is actually Stage 3 of the 5 Stages of how you manage this stuff appropriately. If you are appropriately managing input when it is coming to you.
- Stage One: Collect it – you have to collect that input and capture it to make sure it is in front of you.
- Stage Two: Clarify it – clarify exactly what that means; I can’t lose the email, but I also then need to open it and read the email and decide what it means. Is it a reference, is it something to act on, is it something to do or not? What does it mean to me?
- Stage Three: Organize – once I have determined what it means, then I organize it. Example: this is reference material therefore stage three is that it goes where reference material goes.
- Stage Four: Review it – look at the inventory once I have captured it and clarified it and organized it. I then need to be able to have it in some reviewable mode so that on some regular recursion of reflection I can look at all the stuff. Simply said: look, I can get to a phone, I’ve got time, let me see a list of all the phone calls I need to make on everything in my life.
- Stage Five: Engage with it – OK, now let me allocate resources. Let me go do. Out of all that is here this is what I choose to do and engage with.
It’s not rocket science. We all sort of do that all of the time about a lot of things anyway, I just made that more conscious, because each one of those stages actually has it’s own best and worst practices. If you try to do them out of order or if you don’t include them all in a holistic way, it won’t work.
What is the two minute rule? Find out what the Six Horizons are in David’s more recent book, Making it All Work. What are the best ways to handle interruptions? Learn more and get more tips and tools to tune-up your performance by listening to the complete recording above, without commercials.