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.
Manage Time, Manage Yourself
Overworked overachievers suffer from a
'gnawing sense of anxiety.' Here's personal-productivity guru
David Allen's cure.
by David Beardsley
by Richard McGuire
from FC issue 14, page
more stories from this April 1998 issue
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. http://www.actioneer.com/ , 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
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
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
David Beardsley email@example.com is
a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Contact David Allen firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the
Web http://www.davidco.com/ .
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