The Power Of Deceptive Simplicity

In this month's Harvard Business Review, we feature Being More Productive, a conversation with productivity experts David Allen and Tony Schwartz. We asked each of them to comment on the other's system. Today we feature Tony Schwartz on David Allen; tomorrow we'll present Allen on Schwartz.

Most people who give advice for a living either offer too much or too little. What moves me most is deceptive simplicity. By that, I mean ideas that may seem obvious at first blush, but whose accessibility turns out to be the product of rigorous thinking, skillful synthesizing, and a commitment to clarity.

I say this because so many of us are so busy and so barraged by information that we're reaching a point of saturation. There's just not much room left in our working memories to deeply absorb anything truly new or complex.

Instead, we end up skittering from one thing to the next, reacting more than we reflect, settling for a snippet of an experience here and a whoosh of sensation there, but rarely staying with anything for very long. We live in the shallows, dancing as fast as we can to keep up. The ironic result is that, while the world keeps changing, we don't.

Technology, for example, has gotten way out ahead of our ability to manage it skillfully. Rather than opening up our worlds, or making us more efficient, our digital devices increasingly just distract and preoccupy us. As the polymath Herbert Simon put it so presciently way back in 1978, "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

Which brings me to David Allen, whose work I've followed for a decade, but who I only met and came to know during the past year. David is most famously the author of Getting Things Done, which is about as deceptively simple a title for a book as you're likely to run across. But simple as it sounds, the title is bursting with understatement.

How critical and complex is it, after all, to get (the right) things done in a world of endless demands and infinite distractions? I summarize David's ideas at my peril and yours, but here's what they've meant to me:

Since none of us can hold very much in our working memories, the trick is to download everything you need to do in one place — "outside of your head," as David puts it, "so it's off your mind." Next, you need a way to define your commitment for a next action on each of those items, rather than the expectation that you'll complete each one, all at once. And finally, you need a system for regularly reviewing the next actions you intend to take.

At first blush, this sounds like David's advice is little more than making a "to do" list and sticking to it. It's the subtleties that make it more powerful. Writing down everything that's on your mind, for example, turns out to be quite a trick. When David does this exercise with individual clients, it can take a full day, sometimes even two. Clarifying the next action requires first defining what a successful outcome would look like, and then defining in precise terms the next physical action you must take to move the process forward.

It's not my goal to teach you David's system, but rather to bring your attention to the breathtaking insight at its core, which is this: If you're not acting on something that's on your mind, it's consuming time, energy and precious space in your brain that you could be using to do richer and more productive thinking. Or as David puts it, "You'll need to get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind."

What David has done for me is to define a practical path into what athletes refer to as being "in the zone," psychologist Mihalyi Csikszenhmihalyi calls "the flow state," martial artists term "a mind like water," and the Buddhists teach as "mindfulness."

David's system is about clearing out the noise of your mind so you can think free from all the clutter. Imagine being three feet underneath the surface waves in a stormy ocean. You're perfectly aware of what's happening on the surface, but you're in a calm and quiet place, prepared to take the next appropriate action.

In many ways, David and I couldn't be more different. He's a laid-back Californian committed to investing as little effort as possible to get things done. I'm a New Yorker committed to investing as much effort as possible to get things done, in bursts, followed by recovery. David isn't that concerned about the impact his system has on the world. That's the whole game for me.

But here's where we do ultimately agree: To manage the storm around us, we need to quiet the storm inside ourselves. By doing that effectively, we can devote more attention to whatever we decide matters most.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony's most recent book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.

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