Don’t Manage Time, Manage Yourself

Overworked overachievers suffer from a ‘gnawing sense of anxiety.’ Here’s personal-productivity guru David Allen’s cure.


The good news: You probably have something in common with one of the nation’s leading heart surgeons, one of Microsoft’s top marketing executives, and one of Wall Street’s toughest deal-makers.


The bad news: That something has prompted each of these overachievers to seek professional help – all from the same high-priced coach and adviser.

What’s their shared affliction? It’s what personal-productivity guru David Allen calls GSA, or “gnawing sense of anxiety.” An overloaded in-basket here, hundreds of unanswered emails there – soon enough, life feels as if it’s spinning out of control. “The degree to which things gnaw at our minds is usually the degree to which they are ‘stuck’ in some way,” he says. “You get things off your mind by making progress on them.”

Allen, 52, teaches people how to get unstuck. His firm, David Allen & Co., based in Ojai, California, conducts seminars and one-on-one coaching sessions throughout the United States. Allen estimates that he has worked with 150,000 people over the last 20 years. His clients include Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Fidelity Investments, L.L. Bean, and the U.S. Navy. He is also cofounder and director of Actioneer Inc. , a San Francisco-based software and education company that develops personal-productivity applications. Allen spoke with Fast Company about his techniques for treating GSA.

Why do we feel so overwhelmed?

We clutter our minds with vague promises about what we should do, what we could do. But there is always more to do than there is time to do it. Most of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do – it comes from not keeping agreements they’ve made with themselves. When you tell yourself you ought to do something and then don’t do it, you experience self-doubt and frustration. You can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool yourself for a second.


Productivity is about completion. My system is based on identifying all the “incompletes” in your life – from mundane tasks to pressing responsibilities – and isolating the simplest next step to complete them.

It sounds simple. Why don’t more people do it?

They think far too much. There’s usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much you’re actually doing about it. Ask yourself a question: From the minute you woke up this morning until right now, have you thought about something that you need to do but haven’t done? If so, you’re wasting your creative energy. You’ve got to get that item off your mind.

And you don’t need to finish it to get it off your mind. You just need to clarify your agreement with yourself. For most people, that means making a list. Actually I suggest making five lists, which together make up what I call a “Total Life To-Do List.” (See the sidebar, Four Tricks That Save Time.)

There are three things you have to understand about lists. One, it doesn’t take long to get started. The first thing I do with clients is to lead them through all of their “incompletes.” We create a series of lists and files to track those items. That process usually takes three to six hours.


Two, lists work only if they are 100% leakproof. A partial system is almost worse than no system at all. If your “To-Call” list doesn’t include all of the phone calls you have to make, then your mind still has to remember some of them.

Finally, not every item on every list requires immediate action. There’s always more to do than what you can do. But you can feel good about what you’re not doing only when you know what you’re not doing.

How can you feel good about what you’re not doing?

Years ago, I earned a black belt in karate – which is how I learned the concept of “relaxed focus.” The typical businessperson experiences 170 interactions per day (phone calls, hallway conversations, emails) and has a backlog of 200 to 300 hours of uncompleted work. How do you relax and focus amid so much chaos? You need ruthless clarity. Ask two simple questions about everything that comes across the transom: What is it? Is it actionable? If it’s not actionable, then you eliminate it or incubate it. If it is actionable, then you ask, What’s the next step? You can do it, delegate it, or defer it. I call this “next-step management.”

That doesn’t mean always working on the “most important” stuff first. There are few occasions when you have the energy, the tools, and the time needed to work on your highest-priority items. Sometimes the most appropriate thing to do, if you have 10 free minutes, is to water your plants.


Do you consider yourself a control freak?

Actually, I’m just the opposite. I love being spontaneous. I love having the freedom to follow my hunches. That’s hard to do when you have 473 things gnawing away at you. The reason to get disciplined and organized is not just to be disciplined and organized. It’s to “clear the decks” so that you can operate with a broader vision.

What’s the one organization that never cracks in a crisis, that never complains about “putting out fires”? The fire department! Firefighters are constantly interrupted from doing their work. When the alarm goes off, everything gets interrupted – and most of the interruptions are false alarms.

Of course, firefighters don’t complain about this reality – which is the reality of life in most organizations. They create methodical procedures to deal with it, and they implement those procedures with integrity. That’s a good lesson. Your ability to deal with surprise elegantly, or to innovate in surprising ways, is the ultimate source of personal advantage. But you can’t turn on a dime if you’re always fumbling around.

David Beardsley is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Contact David Allen or visit the Web .