Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

March 2013

One On One: David Allen

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor
PCMA Convene

The productivity guru talks about Getting Things Done, his pioneering system for personal and professional efficiency — and what meetings and meeting professionals can learn from it.

David Allen's whole career as a productivity and efficiency expert is based on being simple, direct, and action-oriented, and so his famous “work-life management system” for helping people get things done doesn't mince words. It's called Getting Things Done (GTD).

GTD is a practical, nuts-and-bolts program designed to overcome the chronic anxiety that often besets modern professionals — the feeling that whatever you're doing now, there's something else you should be doing, even if you're not sure what it is or how to get started on it. “I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, I'm just a practicing human being,” the wry, folksy Allen said in a recent interview. “But one way to think about this is, what I've done is uncover essentially the logistics of our head. In other words, if you keep track of would, could, should, ought to in your head — that part of you seems to have no sense of past or future. You could be as much reminded about it at three o'clock in the morning, when you can't do anything about it, as any other time.”

As the founder and chairman of David Allen Company, a global training and consulting company, Allen developed GTD to help people “shut that voice up” — not necessarily by working on the project that's keeping you up at night, but by systematically mapping out your commitments and responsibilities in a way that creates “some level of cruise control” in your mind. “I just uncovered or discovered or just made explicit the mechanics of what happens when you make commitments or have potentially meaningful stuff,” Allen said, “and you don't appropriately engage with it.”

Not surprisingly, we found some relevance for meeting professionals — and their attendees.

It feels like nobody in history has ever been as busy or as overwhelmed by information and obligations as we are today. But is that actually true?

Well, I don't know. How many more sonatas could Bach have written? How many more paintings could da Vinci have painted? There's an openendedness to the amount of work that you could do. I don't know if you've seen my TEDx talk I just did, but one of the conclusions I came up with when I really had to condense all of this is the fact that when you're in crisis, there's a kind of serenity that shows up, because [problems like] taxes and tires on your car are put on the backburner. You are trying to survive, right? You are totally focused on the desired results called “live” — don't burn up, don't drown, and don't get killed. It demands appropriate engagement.

The problem is, when you're not in crisis, you have a more subliminal crisis that shows up, because now the whole rest of the world floods into your head: “Oh, sh-t, now I've got taxes and I've got tires and I'm getting a cold, and my sister is about to divorce her husband and, oh, my God, they're trying to borrow money from me” — all of that suddenly implodes in your psyche. Because we don't have as many survival crises as a culture, we have another kind, which then creates that sort of subtle sense of more existential anxiety, that you should be doing a whole lot more different things or more stuff than whatever you're currently doing, you just don't know what the hell it is.

Is this a problem that's driven by technology?

No, not at all. Technology makes it more obvious, because technology has allowed you to be able to search the Web about watercolor classes [for your kids]: “Oh, my God, there's 43 of them out there. Now what am I doing?” So, the technology has made the opportunities a lot more ubiquitous and a lot more accessible and a lot more in your face.

While we were on this call, there's stuff piling up on your desk and mine, too, that can totally blow the hell out of what we think we ought to be doing as soon as we get off this call. Those changes and those opportunities and those productivity-influencing, project-creating kinds of inputs — those always create some sort of dissonance out there. It's just that they're coming so fast. You and I have got more [information] in the last 72 hours than your parents got in a lifetime, in terms of stuff that could affect priorities and could create fairly significant change in terms of how you're doing what you're doing. You don't have two years of cruise control once you get comfortable with a new job, or the change or the acquisition or the death in the family, or whatever. Now you've got about 20 minutes. And then something else is going to show up. So there is a new set of executive triage skills that, whereas 1 percent of 1 percent 40 years ago had to do it, now 50 percent of the workforce has to do it.

The late, great [management consultant] Peter Drucker framed it. He said, “Look, the biggest work for knowledge workers is to define what your work is.” It's not already predefined; you have to do that. So, if you look on typical to-do lists, you'll see things like “budget” or “bank” or “babysitter” or “Mom.” What are you going to do about those? What is your work about Mom and her birthday coming towards you? What is your work about the budget? Are you supposed to draft something? Input something? What? That's where all the stress and the anxiety is. People have these commitments, but they don't realize the thinking that's required and the organization that's required to be able to get that stuff to shut up in their head and to get back on to cruise control. That's what I've figured out, is what that algorithm is.

Has your own approach to these questions changed or evolved as your company has grown and as your own professional responsibilities have increased?

It's only been simplified. You know, it all sounds self-evident when we talk about it now. It wasn't 20 years ago. It took me 25 years to figure out what I needed to figure out. It didn't change it — it's always been true. I mean, the principles I talk about are as old as dirt. You keep something in your head, it's going to stress you and bankrupt your creative energy. You can't fight that. That's been true forever.

What's changed is for me to understand better ways to explain it, to let the world know there's a whole lot better place to operate from. It's about understanding there are three primary principles, and if you understand them and how they function and operate, you can design your own systems and you can keep your head focused and clear.

Number one is, you've got to keep stuff out of your head and you've got to capture potentially meaningful stuff in trusted buckets. Write it down, stick it somewhere in your in-basket. Call your answering machine, leave yourself a message. Whatever you do, get it out of your head and get it out in front of you. And then, sooner than later, empty those buckets by going through each of those potentially meaningful things and decide, very specifically, what does it mean? What does “babysitter” mean? What does “Mom” mean? What does “budget” mean? What's “bank” mean? And that means you've got to define outcomes desired and action steps required.

Step two is clarification of real, specific need. I know it needs something, but what specifically am I committed to about it, and how would I move forward on it? That's what defining your work really is.

And stage three is to make sure you have appropriate maps of the results of all of that. You know, show me all the projects I'm getting ready to finish in the next 12 months. [If] you don't have that, there's no way you're going to walk around with a clear head. Show me a map of all the things I have to do before noon

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