Interview with David Allen on productivity

We’re excited to bring you an exclusive interview with David Allen on productivity. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know who he is. Best known as the creator of “Getting Things Done“, David Allen is a productivity consultant  - or, if you ask us, a productivity guru.

Check out the video interview below, or continue to read what David Allen shared.

David Allen on productivity

David Allen (Source)

Hello, David! What did you write about productivity that was missing from the other books?

Most of all the other books I’ve read have very good things in them. They have a different perspective – and from different perspectives you get different ideas.

I think my perspectives are unique in some sense, because what I did was uncover one of the basic foundational principles at play when things really work – what are you doing that causes things to work.

We’ve all had better days than others, right? What makes the difference between one and the other? And I just uncovered what those were and made those principles explicit. So, once a principle goes from implicit to explicit, you can do it better and more elegantly.

For instance, a good example – most everybody has at some point felt overwhelmed or confused, then sat down, made a list and felt better. More in control and more focused. Well if you reverse engineered how that happened – nothing changed in your world, except how you engaged in your world changed.

If you figure out that “Oh, the way I’ve now engaged with my world changed by simply writing things down – it gave me more sense of control, more focus, more space in my head,” you’ll never keep anything in your head for the rest of your life. And I don’t! Your head’s a terrible office. So, I just uncovered that, and a lot of people have now copied it…

It took me 25 years to realize nobody else seemed to have come up with that the same way that I did. And that’s when I decided to write the first edition of “Getting Things Done”.

So yes – those kind of principles: that you do not have to go change who you are as a human being to be a lot more effective. But oftentimes there’s decisions you have to make and ways to think about things that produce a more effective result. That reduce the barrier of entry for you to get engaged in your world to get things done – and frankly, to be able to just relax.

getting things doneI just discovered them what those were because I needed them for myself, and it turned out that all those principles work for everybody else… So that just became part of the methodology.

I think another difference is that the Getting Things Done (GTD) system starts with where you are and not where you should be. Most people’s attention is on is not fulfilling their purpose on the planet, it’s the cat food they need and the babysitter that they need to change, and the holiday they are about to go on, the tyres on the car that they need to get… And that’s where people’s attention is. If that’s not under control, then don’t try to think about bigger stuff.

So, where most people are, actually, is down in the mundane aspects of their life. And GTD gives you a very effective methodology to deal with that. Not because that’s the most important stuff – it’s almost because those are not the most important things.

But if you don’t handle the unimportant things that you still have to do well, they’ll take up much more space than they ought to. The GTD methodology makes it easier to do that. I don’t think anybody else approached it from that way, because in a way, it’s sort of counter-intuitive.

People who work at startups often need to execute a lot of different tasks, so there’s a big context switch that can feel so unproductive… So is the solution to write down what you were just doing before the context switch?

the gtd methodology

Yeah! Well, you need a placeholder for it. If you don’t put a placeholder for that thing that’s not complete yet, and turn around to do something else, there’s a part of your pshyce still wrapped around that. And so, you’re not giving your full attention to the new thing.

Your psyche will try to multitask, but it can’t do it. That’s why it feels so frustrating and burns you out. If I write a note about that and drop it in a place that I know I’m going to get back to, my brain frees up and I can rapidly context switch.

Look at a martial artist who fights four people – they don’t fight four people at once, it’s one at a time. And each one is left nice and clean. There’s no residue from one to the next.

And indeed, there are times when you really do need to give yourself a longer timeframe to think more effectively about something, not switching those contexts. But it makes a huge difference when you have a really trusted personal system, to be able to keep placeholders for all those things that are not complete.

So, it’s about giving a pen and paper to our development team, and just let them write down the tasks like this?

Yeah, pen and paper and a tray that they throw the stuff into. And the process of emptying out that tray sooner or later, so that they’re appropriately engaged with that commitment still.

Sometimes, productivity is hindered by noise from the environment – so it is not under our control. How does your system help increase productivity between the person and the team?

First of all, there are no interruptions – there are only mismanaged inputs. You either shouldn’t get the input, so stop it – or if you should because it’s some commitment that you have, then you need to manage it well.

See, what GTD does is it actually improves every one of your intersections. The more out of control they are – the more in control you should be. So you don’t catch their virus.

Productivity simply means producing desired results or experiences. If you go to a party to have fun and you don’t have fun – it’s an unproductive party!

Most people think productivity has to do with business or busy-ness…  but no – productivity just means producing what you say you’re going to produce or want to produce.


What are the main obstacles for people becoming productive?

I think mostly it’s people’s addiction to stress. People are willing to tolerate having 3,000 unprocessed emails in their inbox. Why don’t you taste what it’s like to have nothing on your mind? That stuff just feels so uncomfortable.

But if you’re so used to it, you’re not motivated to do anything differently. You’re not motivated to do the things that actually produce a higher state of productivity.

“Life is OK.” – that’s the biggest problem, most people are not in big enough pain to change. And that’s why the first people to adopt my methodology graduated rapidly professionally and now they’re having to deal with whole new levels of accountability and detail. Their systems just crapped out, and it’s like “Oh my god, I need to get back to the control and focus that I experienced earlier on. Help!”

So it’s that sense of being out of control and not having the focus that they’re used to usually makes people the most interested in getting involved with this work.

But we’re also teaching kids this stuff – because they get it right away! It’s like “Oh, sure, that’s what you do!” That’s our big vision – let’s get it to the kids and into the educational system, so we don’t have to change a bunch of cranky adults.

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