Lifehacker has been writing about David Allen’s advice on getting more from your time since its earliest posts. We recently peppered Allen with questions about picking up where GTD left off; here’s what he had to say.
If you’re new ’round these parts, or only rarely delve into the time-management, Allen is the author of Getting Things Done, the much-referenced guide to breaking up the myriad tasks, messages, and projects of any kind of work into a schedule and system you can work from anywhere. When the terms “universal capture,” “two-minute rule,” or “next action” pop up, there’s probably a GTD geek hovering nearby. Allen is also the founder of the David Allen Company, which coaches managers and consults on improving productivity in companies. His latest book, Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life, picks up, in a way, where Getting Things Done left off, as you’ll read below.
Lifehacker: What will someone who has already read Getting Things Done learn from Making It All Work?
David Allen: Why, if they implemented some of the GTD techniques, they potentially experienced something more significant than just a workable technique.
Lifehacker: Can someone who hasn’t read Getting Things Done start with Making It All Work? How linked are the ideas and systems in the two books?
DA: Yes, absolutely. MIAW takes the GTD principles a bit wider and deeper.
Lifehacker: How many GTD-focused, third-party software apps, calendars, pads, or other gear come to your attention every day/week/month?
DA: It varies from a couple each day to a couple each week. Some of these are brought to my attention, and many are brought to the attention of my presenters, coaches, and office staff.
Lifehacker: What functions or features of those third-party systems are most important for creating a realistic, task-oriented system? What aspects of third-party systems tend to fail, or misdirect?
DA: Simple list management features are a must. You need to be able to review your current projects as a list, and your tasks as lists categorized by appropriate contexts. For example, a good list management application will have the ability to create a list of phone calls, under a category such as Calls. That way when you have a phone, and the time to make some calls, they’re easy to pull up without scrolling through all the other tasks that require other resources. The application should make it as easy as possible to do what you can in that context, without forcing you to look at tasks you can’t do in that context. When I’m waiting to board a plane, I don’t want to read through a list of items to purchase the next time I’m at a hardware store. When third-party systems tend to misdirect, it’s generally because they over-complicate by adding features that most people don’t need. They try to help by thinking for you. But the truth is that the executive thinking process is still yours to do, and software has not been able to take over that function. On the other hand, some try to add more features than you need, which actually cause you to have to think and sort more than you need. Lists must be quick to add to, and quick to review, without any more than the necessary thinking involved.
Lifehacker: In your one-on-one training sessions, and in feedback from customers, where do you believe most folks fall off the GTD wagon? Is it a behavioUral and discipline concern, or just a failure of focus over distractions?
DA: Most folks don’t take the GTD tools far enough to really get the benefits. They don’t really do a thorough and consistent mind sweep, externalising all of their commitments into a system they trust. Then they don’t review their commitments (calendar, projects list, next actions for each project) often enough to build the trust that they’re doing what’s most important at any given time. They therefore still trust their psyche more than their system, which makes system maintenance more trouble than it pays off.
Lifehacker: What kinds of unique challenges do workers who almost exclusively use a computer for work face, apart from the standard challenges in any office environment?
DA: We have so many opportunities to distract ourselves with what’s available on our computers. It can take more discipline to work productively on a computer, when it’s designed to feed us interruptions and take us down fascinating rabbit trails, with notifications of new emails, animated instant messages, lots of interesting clickable links, all in a rich multimedia environment. And, there’s an out-of-sight, out-of-reviewed, syndrome that tends to cause action management on the computer to become stale and secondary to latest and loudest self-management.
Lifehacker: When should someone devoted to Getting Things Done, or any combination of productivity systems, know that they’ve invested enough into their system and stop tinkering with it? In other words, how does one know if they’re spending too much time fine-tuning the engine instead of just driving?
DA: You only need to fine tune the engine to the point where it’s not on your mind. As long as your attention is not distracted by your system, you can stop tinkering. Unless you enjoy tinkering, and that’s the best use of your attention.
David Allen’s book, Making It All Work, is available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere, and there’s a free (and fairly long) live recording of Allen touring the book and general productivity concepts. For more information on David and the David Allen Company, check out DavidCo.com.