You know the drill. It's Monday morning. You arrive at work exhausted from a weekend spent entertaining the kids, paying bills, and running errands. You flick on your PC — and 70 new emails greet you. Your phone's voice-mail light is already blinking, and before you can make it stop, another call comes in. With each ring, with each colleague who drops by your office uninvited, comes a new demand — for attention, for a reaction, for a decision, for your time. By noon, when you take 10 minutes to gulp down a sandwich at your desk, you already feel overworked, overcommitted — overwhelmed.
According to David Allen, 54, one of the world's most influential thinkers on personal productivity, this is the "silent trauma" of knowledge workers everywhere. We inhabit a world, he says, in which there are "no edges to our jobs" and "no limit to the potential information that can help us do our jobs better." What's more, in a competitive environment that's continually being reshaped by the Web, we're tempted to rebalance our work on a monthly, weekly, even hourly basis. Unchecked, warns Allen, this frantic approach is a recipe for dissatisfaction and despair — all-too-common emotions these days for far too many of us.
Allen argues that the real challenge is not managing your time but maintaining your focus: "If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. Remember, you're the one who creates speed, because you're the one who allows stuff to enter your life."
Allen has spent the past 17 years helping busy people deal with all of the "stuff" in their lives. At seminars around the world — at corporate functions and in corner offices — he has preached his gospel of personal productivity. His online newsletter, "David Allen's Productivity Principles," has more than 7,000 subscribers. His book, "Getting Things Done: Mastering the Art of Stress-Free Productivity," will be published by Viking next January. He's even cofounded a software company, Actioneer Inc., that offers a range of time-saving tools.
It's been a long, strange trip from his youth in Shreveport, Louisiana. As a teenager, Allen studied Zen Buddhism and followed the path of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation. In college, he focused on philosophy and intellectual history, and became fascinated by thinkers who, he says, "seemed to have something cool going on, some bigger reality. I wanted to have some of the same experiences. So I did." (This was the 1960s: Use your imagination.)
Allen journeyed to the University of California at Berkeley to enroll in a master's program in American history, but he soon dropped that plan to study karate (he earned a black belt) and to begin "a 30-year quest for God, truth, and the universe." For work, he taught karate, managed a landscaping company, and helped to start a restaurant, among other jobs. But his real passion was the pursuit of self-discovery — the personal-growth movement.
"There was a lot of flaky stuff on the edges, but at the core of the philosophy were some good ideas about how to live a life that's more in line with your values," Allen says. At the time, many HR executives were also broadening their interest in personal growth — in helping people to think and to work together more effectively. Over time, Allen discovered a bridge between his fascination with self-understanding and his desire to interact practically with the world. That bridge was time management.
Allen has never been a naturally high-productivity person. ("I'm more of a party guy," he quips.) But he tried hard to change that. As he did so, he became convinced that time management was the key to personal freedom — to greater self-discovery. He then became convinced that there was a pretty robust market for instruction in his newfound art. Finally, he became convinced that "God didn't really care whether I had money or not." More or less at that moment, he became a consultant.
In a series of interviews with Fast Company, Allen shared his ideas on increasing personal productivity in a business world that moves at warp speed.
If there's one thing that all of our readers probably agree on, it's that they have too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Why do so many of us feel that way?
There is always more to do than there is time to do it, especially in an environment of so much possibility. We all want to be acknowledged; we all want our work to be meaningful. And in an attempt to achieve that goal, we all keep letting stuff enter our lives.
The problem, of course, is that we also want to finish what we start. Much of the stress that people feel doesn't come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they've started. That's why a lot of my work has to do with how people deal with their input — email, phone messages, reports, conversations. Everything that isn't where it should be is an open loop, an incomplete, a distraction that slows you down. Your brain says, "Hey, that doesn't belong there," and you have to deal with that impulse.
If you allow too much dross to accumulate in your "10 acres" — in other words, if you allow too many things that represent undecided, untracked, unmanaged agreements with yourself and with others to gather in your personal space — that will start to weigh on you. It will dull your effectiveness. You've got to dig into the mess and put those things to rest. Productivity is about completion.
Isn't it interesting that people feel best about themselves right before they go on vacation? They've cleared up all of their to-do piles, closed up transactions, renewed old promises with themselves. My most basic suggestion is that people should do that more than just once a year. In fact, I tell people to take inventory weekly — to sort through all of the stuff that they haven't yet acted on. If you can get a clear picture of everything that you have to do, you'll be able to say, "Oh, this is what I have to do right now" — and then take the next step in getting it done.
If people took such an inventory, what would they find?
I like to talk about the "runway level" of life — all of the current actions, all of the little things that stack up. On their runways, people typically have enough stuff to create 300 or 400 hours of work. What's driving all of those tasks are between 30 and 100 projects of various shapes and sizes — commitments that people have made that require many steps to fulfill.
Once you've taken inventory, you can start to make sense of your runway. But then comes a second challenge: finding the time to do what you need to do. What's really different today is that we live and work in what I call "weird time." In weird time, no one gets 2 hours to do anything. Instead, we get 15 minutes — and sometimes only 5 minutes — between meetings and phone calls. You actually can get a lot done in weird time, but most people's thinking just isn't set up to take advantage of it. There are lots of opportunities during the day that people waste. They feel bad because they're not as productive as they should be, but they don't know what to do about it.
What to do about it is to turn it into a game: How efficient can I be? When something lands on your radar screen that isn't where it needs to be, you must decide two things. First, what's a successful outcome? In other words, what will stop the cognitive dissonance? And second, how do I allocate resources to make sure that the outcome materializes? That doesn't mean that you need to take action right away. But it does mean that, in order to get the task off of your mind, you need to decide on a course of action. The worst thing that you can do is to let things sit.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you should always work on "the important stuff" first. You might not have the energy, the tools, or the time. Sometimes, the most appropriate thing to do with five free minutes is to water the plants. Once you know what you're doing, productivity becomes your one true competitive edge. There's an elegance to how you work and live; it's not just about running faster.
That leads to a simple question that most of us find difficult to answer: How should we go about setting priorities?
When people ask me how to set priorities, I ask them a question: At what level do you want to have this conversation? Each of us operates on many different levels at all times. We each have a runway that holds all of the little things that consume our time. At 10,000 feet are the projects. At 20,000 feet, people are deciding on their roles and goals. At 30,000 feet, people are thinking ahead, asking themselves where they want to be in their careers 12 to 18 months down the road. At 40,000 feet, they're thinking 3 to 5 years out and looking at their organizational aspirations. Then, at the top — at 50,000 feet — they're asking, "What's my job on this planet?"
A Wall Street executive once complained to me about having to attend too many meetings. I drew a chart and asked, "At what level do you want to have this conversation?" I explained that at 20,000 feet, maybe you need those meetings. But if you go up a level and think about the next 12 to 18 months, maybe you can pass on some of those meetings. And at 50,000 feet, where you think about your heart and your health, you might say, "I don't need to make partner. I've made enough money. From now on, I'm going to leave at 7 PM every day. And if you don't like it, then fire me."
So a big part of setting priorities is being clear about your values?
Be careful. That's a very popular notion these days: If you focus on your values, then you'll improve the "balance" between your business and personal lives. Give me a break. Focusing on your values may provide you with meaning, but it won't simplify things. You'll just discover even more stuff that's important to you.
I've been working with the most values-driven organization that I've ever come across. And it has a big burnout problem. People there are always invited to collaborate; everyone wants to play. But how many 7 AM-to-7 PM meetings can you attend? You want to attend all of them because your values tell you that they're all important. But your spouse and your kids start saying, "We never see you."
We suffer the stress of infinite opportunity: There are so many things that we could do, and all we see are people who seem to be performing at star quality. It's very hard not to try to be like them. The problem is, if you get wrapped up in that game, you'll get eaten alive. You can do anything — but not everything. The universe is full of creative projects that are waiting to be done. So, if you really care about quality of life, if you want to relax, then don't focus on values. Just control your aspirations. That will simplify things. Learning to set boundaries is incredibly difficult for most people.
Most people make the opposite choice. They feel such a sense of responsibility to their job and to their colleagues that they become even more harried ...
Which is utterly self-defeating. Your sense of "responsibility" is a function of your response ability. I learned that in karate. Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax. The power of a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle. And a tense muscle is a slow muscle.
In other words, you can't do things faster until you learn how to slow down. How do you slow down? It's all about the dynamic of detachment. You have to back off and be quiet. Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you're doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. If your inbox and your outbox are completely full, or if people are screaming at you, then it's difficult to back off and think about things at a different level.
Have you ever felt as though time disappeared? Say, when you're really into a good movie? Or when you're busy doing something that you love, and the morning just flies by? From my spiritual practices, I know that when you get to some levels of existence, space and time seem to vanish. When I'm at those levels, I don't even think in terms of space and time anymore. When everything really lines up for me, speed is not an issue, because I have found my own rhythm. That rhythm may seem lightning fast or deathly slow, but inside me it's all the same. It's outside time.
Look at the best martial artists. They move very slowly. The faster you type, the slower it will feel to you, because you surf with your thinking. The same thing applies to reading: The faster you read, the more time will disappear, because you'll be able to feed stuff to your brain as fast as your brain can process it. That's why speed readers have better comprehension. They've trained their eyes to recognize stuff as fast as their brain can handle it.
But it's hard to leave space and time behind when you're distracted. If there's an open loop, space and time will find it. And anything waiting for a decision is an open loop. If there's a stack of papers on your desk, you have to decide on a course of action. As long as you've let that pile into your world, it's got a hold on you. What's the very next thing that you need to do? Until you decide on that, there's a gap between where you are and where you need to be — a big black hole that will suck you in.
Keith H. Hammonds (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact David Allen by email (email@example.com), or visit him on the Web (www.davidco.com).
Sidebar: Thank God It's Friday
At the heart of David Allen's productivity coaching is the discipline of a weekly review. "That is critical to making personal organization a vital, dynamic reality," he says. Here, adapted from Allen's Web site, is a list of steps that you should work your way through every Friday afternoon.
1. Sort your loose papers. Gather all scraps of paper — business cards, receipts, miscellaneous notes — and put them into your in-basket to process.
2. Process your notes. Review journal entries, meeting notes, and miscellaneous scribblings. Turn them into appropriate action items, projects, and so on.
3. Review previous calendar data. Look through expired daily calendar pages for remaining action items, and move those items forward.
4. Download your data. Write down any new projects, action items, "waiting-for" items, and so on.
5. Review outcome lists. One by one, evaluate the status of each project, goal, and outcome.
6. Review "next action" lists. Check off all completed actions. Look for reminders of further action steps.
7. Review "pending" and "support" files. Browse through work-in-progress materials and update lists of new actions, completions, and "waiting-for" items.
8. Review "reminders" lists. Make sure that there isn't anything that you haven't done that you need to do. Also, make sure that there aren't any checklists that you need to review.
9. Review "someday" and "maybe" lists. Look for any projects that may have become active, and transfer them to your "projects" list. Delete any dead items.
10. Review "waiting-for" lists. Record appropriate follow-up actions. Check them off as you complete them.
11. Be creative and courageous. Add to your system any new, wonderful, harebrained, thought-provoking, risk-taking ideas that have occurred to you.
Sidebar: Little Tricks
David Allen's productivity principles are rooted in big ideas — in a continuous search for personal growth and self-understanding. But they're also eminently practical. Here are some of his tips for confronting life in the fast lane.
If you travel regularly, dedicate a separate drawer in your dresser to the items that you take on most trips. Keep duplicates of things that you always take — toilet kits, power cords for your laptop, chargers for phones.
Create an "action support" file in your briefcase or on your desk. Use it for one-off paper items — airline tickets, fax confirmations, and so on — that don't warrant their own file but that you need to have at hand for certain situations.
Keep your email inbox empty. Discipline yourself to dump as many messages as you can right away, to address immediately any action that will take less than two minutes, and to group actions that will take more than two minutes into an "Action" folder.
If you travel with extra batteries for your laptop or cell-phone, put a rubber band around all charged batteries. That way, you'll always know which batteries are live and which are dead.
Increase your ease at the keyboard. If you don't type at least 50 words per minute, install a typing program (such as "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing"), and then practice. Also, learn the seven most common speed-key combinations for navigating Windows.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.