Interview with Productivity Expert David Allen (Part 1)

I had the pleasure of connecting with David Allen and interviewing him. We’ll be sharing the complete interview with you on the blog here. We hope you enjoy it!

Mike: We are here with David Allen, best-selling author, managing consultant, and productivity expert. David, welcome to the Consulting Success Consulting Interviews.

David: Delighted to be here, Michael. Thanks.

Mike: David, to start off I want to ask you what does being productive actually mean?

David: Well, it means being able to produce whatever it is that you want to experience or have or finish. To be productive, you need to produce something. It could be as subtle as happiness if you go on vacation to rest. It really is about achieving desired experiences or outcomes.

Mike: There’s this belief in society that the more hours you put in, the more that you’ll get done. That isn’t always the case, is it?

David: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, most people that wind up in what we call the “busy trap” usually is an indicator that they are feeling out of control and unfocused. They either go numb or more than likely, if they’re a mid to senior level professional, they’ll just get busy, busy, busy. To really speed up you need to slow down, not run faster.

Mike: To be really successful in business is it necessary to work long hours?

David: There’s a big it depends there. Example, I’ve worked with a client for many years, he’s the head of a major foreign policy advisory institute. When people came to work for him, they pretty much dedicated their life 24/7 to this guy for two years. They were just on-call all the time. This guy’s one of the busiest guys I ever met.

But the truth is, that’s just the expectation and that’s the game. Because at the end of that, they could pretty much name what job they wanted in terms of state department or anything like that. I think it really depends on what you’re after. I know I’ve been on the entrepreneurial mode myself. Many times, it is just a game to get out there and mobilize all your resources. I think you just have to be conscious about that, whether that’s worth it or not.

There are many times when I know many executives that just don’t have time nor the bandwidth to process all their stuff and their emails until after-hours or on a weekend. They just have to decide, “Look, is that the way this game really needs to be run?” On the other hand you don’t want to find yourself caught up in the busy trap.

I think it just needs to be a conscious engagement there and you just need to be careful in terms of “is it sustainable”. If you’re 24 years old and it’s all an adrenalin rush, you’d get bored going home. You’d be out of balance if you try to go have a balanced life, because that’s not what the game is. But if you have kids and you want to play golf and you’re 38…now, that might be a little bit of a different story.

Mike: Definitely. What I’m hearing you saying is that it really depends on what point you’re at in your life and what your goals are.

David: Yes. Not just goals, I would also include your standards in terms of lifestyle. I think that’s one thing that can slip up on people. I know it can slip up on me too, where I find myself slipping into the “yeah, let me just get finished. If I finish this then I get whatever the thing is I’m after”, and many times, that’s just the way to avoid the other thing that I don’t want to have to do or face, so you know, “let me go get busy”.

Ultimately, you can’t squeeze any more hours in the day. At some point, I think perspective is going to be the major component to your being highly productive – do I have the right perspective right now? Am I focused on the right thing in the right way? That’s where it gets really tricky. If you get down into the busy game and you get into the harder-harder, faster-faster, more and more, it’s very easy to lose sight on the bigger picture and then you wind up running down the wrong trail and then missing a perspective, missing an opportunity, missing some way to play and think about the game, which is really the most important thing.

Mike: What is the single biggest mistake you see professionals making when it comes to productivity and being productive?

David: They don’t keep track of all their commitments.

Mike: Can you elaborate?

David: Yeah. If I say, “Hey, Michael, I’ll meet you on Thursday”, or “Hey, David, you need to make sure you’re doing the job you’re here to do on the planet and everything in between” – all those different levels of would-could-should-need to – most people haven’t a clue how many things they’ve committed to. And when you’re not keeping track and responsible – and I use that word judicially, response-ABLE. If I’m not able to respond to all the levels of commitments I have with myself in some objective appropriate way where I can step back and see them all and make good objective choices about what I’m doing and what I’m not doing – you will then be caught up in the latest and loudest, almost unbearably. You will over-commit like crazy and that’s the thing that starts to create huge amounts of subliminal drag on the system.

Obviously this doesn’t replace a great idea or the most strategic thing you need to do, that’s not what this is about. It’s about your capacity to be able to move on that and move toward that or to even recognize it to begin with, and then your ability to be able to maintain control and focus as you tread through or navigate the rough waters.

Mike: You’re mentioning capacity. I know that you said that the brain isn’t meant for holding commitments. But there are a lot of people out there that don’t seem to write things down. What’s your take on why is that? What’s the value in writing things down?

David: I think it’s scary for people to externalize the stuff in their head. Control is one of the biggest fears – lack of control or feeling like I might lose control – those are probably the greatest fears on the planet – so I think people keep stuff embedded in their psyche as a false sense of control. Like, “I can’t let go. I barely trust any of my systems, anyway” and “wow, I don’t want to get it out of my head, what if I lose it?”

I understand most people don’t have a good intact system, so getting it out of your head doesn’t really get it out of your head, unless getting it out of your head is appropriately managed in terms of capturing and clarifying and organizing what that stuff means in some intact way with a system that you engage with regularly.

In Part 2 we will share what consultants need to do to stay productive and make sure the goals they set are followed through on.

For more detailed interviews with some of the top consultants in the world see The Masters of Consulting Interviews.

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  • Anonymous

    Another great post Michael. I loved “To really speed up you need to slow down…” That is so so true. Slowing down and spending some time planning could save you alot of running about later on. Thanks for the interview. Thanks David for sharing the knowledge.

  • I’m so glad you’re interviewing David Allen in your post, Mike. I’ve always found his work thought-provoking. In his interview with you, he talks about the tactical stuff, which is always of interest to me, but he also alludes to our deeper purpose when he says, “you need to make sure you’re doing the job you need to do on the planet…” That goes way beyond time management. That’s life management. And I’m very intrigued. I hope you and David touch on that deeper piece some more in part 2.

    Thanks,
    David Ackert

  • Getting a trusted system where I could get everything out of my head into one place that I could rely on was one of the most important steps for me (done after reading Getting Things Done years ago). not only did it make me more productive – but more relaxed too!

    Ian

    • Ian – couldn’t agree more. It’s a very simple step yet incredibly powerful.

  • David – thanks for the comment. Stay tuned for Part 2 next Monday.