Getting Things Done
Tips on Using Your Time Productively
David Allen is an international author, productivity expert and founder of the David Allen Company, a management consulting firm. For 20 years, he has developed and implemented productivity-improvement programs for more than a million people at Fortune 500 corporations and U.S. government agencies. He is the author of three books, including the best-seller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
SUCCESS: Why do you think the work-life balance concept is misleading?
David Allen: A lot of people I know sit at work worried about stuff at home, and when they’re at home, they are worried about stuff at work. Then you’re in neither place. Your brain needs to engage on some consistent basis with all of your commitments and activities. You must be assured that you are doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s OK to be not doing what you’re not doing. If it’s on your mind, then your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you will come back to regularly and review. To be able to handle your commitments and agreements with yourself, you have to have a clear distinction between what you’re doing and everything else. That’s the boundary I have. You have to be fully present with what you are doing and ask yourself, “How do I get that other thing that’s distracting me on cruise control?”
People often seem overwhelmed with the amount of choices they have for their lives, so what are some of the best management techniques so people don’t wind up with regrets?
DA: The best time-management technique is to ensure you have captured every single thing that has your attention, or should have your attention, by writing it down. The goal is to get projects and situations off your mind but not to lose any potentially useful ideas. Then you can step back and look at your list from an observer standpoint, and not let yourself be driven by what’s the latest and loudest in your head. The worst practice is to let yourself be driven by your desire to relieve the pressure of what’s pulling on you, instead of using your system for capturing, clarifying, organizing and reviewing. While you do want to be making intuitive choices, no system is really going to tell you what to do. You still have to trust your heart and your spirit—your intuition. But a good systematic approach will let you feel a lot more comfortable and you won’t miss all of your possible choices. Letting the latest and loudest thing steer your life is not the way to live your life or make decisions.
How can people make progress once they have captured and reviewed their to-do lists?
DA: I have a personal mission to make [the question] What’s the next action? part of the global thought process. Ask yourself, “What’s my next action?” It clarifies things quickly. There’s a great difference, however, between making that decision when things show up versus when things blow up. So many people glance at a project and think, “I don’t quite have all the pieces between here and there.” We know something is missing, but we’re not sure what it is exactly, so we quit. Without a next action, there remains a potentially infinite gap between current reality and what you need to do. Constantly ask yourself, “What’s my next action?”
Some people say they’re waiting to catch up with the minor to-do items to focus on their major goals, but that day never seems to come. How can people more effectively use their time to get the majors finished, instead of the minors?
DA: It’s a good question. I think it comes back to focus. The truth is, if you really look at where you want to be going, there are things you can do that can get you there faster and sooner than other things. It’s the old priority decision. Which one of the things on my list—either a project or an action—if it were finished, would actually give me the highest payoff? If you’re making that kind of distinction, it doesn’t get any better than that. That’s how I would make the distinction between minors and majors.
Now, the highest payoff may mean it’s going to give me the most relaxation; it’ll take the most pressure off my brain; or it’s going to move me toward something that’s really meaningful to me. So I don’t think you ever get away from that responsibility to be making mature choices about which one of the things you need to do is more important. Ultimately, you have to have conversations with yourself about all the areas of responsibility you have, including your health, state of mind, things you might want to be accomplishing, and your values for your lifestyle and work—where you want to be.
I think we do resist doing the things that are the most meaningful to us because it’s going to get us closer to unlocking some wonderful, grand, glorious part of us that we really aren’t ready to engage with yet. I think it’s our own self-image and esteem. It’s probably the biggest angel at the gate—if I don’t think I’m really worthy of that, then I’m going to find all kinds of reasons to avoid getting involved with it. It’s a fear of success. But when you start to make things happen, you really begin to believe that you can make things happen. And that makes things happen.