Interview with Productivity Expert David Allen (Part 3)

This is the final part in our 3-part interview with productivity expert, consultant, author and speaker David Allen. If you missed the previous parts of this interview you can fin them here Part 1, Part 2. Enjoy the rest of the interview…

Mike: David, you’re considered one of the world’s leading experts on productivity. Looking back, what were the two things that played the biggest role in your success?

David: Two things in terms of productivity – probably my willingness to just sit down and vision and kind of make up the life and lifestyle that I wanted to live – that’s the 40,000 feet kind of stuff – that’s probably the first one. The next one is willingness to engage even though I don’t have it right or perfect. My willingness to sit down – as I mentioned before – just figure out the next action and start moving on and be willing to course-correct as I get different or better data in one way or the other. Those are the two that come to mind.

Mike: What role did your first book play in your success?

David: Oh, it was great. It obviously shifted gears a lot. It didn’t really change the kind of work I was doing. It just changed the scope and the reach of it. It also helped validate that what I had come up with in 25 years was pretty bullet-proof, the fact that if you’re willing to put it out in print and say “that’s it”, and I didn’t write just a piece of it – I wrote the whole thing. If you’ve read Getting Things Done, my first book, it was really a manual that I wrote to basically capture as best I could everything that I’ve learned in 25 years of spending thousands of hours out there with the best, brightest, and busiest people on the planet, and have seen what really worked and what didn’t work, and formulating and synthesizing that set of best practices.

Obviously, writing the book helped synthesize it even more. If you ever try to write a book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It really takes you to a new level of depth and understanding. Actually, it takes you to a deeper level because it requires you to be simpler. That cleared up a lot of static in my mind by tasking myself to write the book. But it took four years from the time I pulled the trigger on that, until it was on the shelf. That was an agonizing process, trust me.

Mike: How was your experience dealing with publishers? Did people accept it right away or did you have to go knocking on a lot of doors?

David: I had some good advice from people and got a good agent. They did all the heavy lifting for that. The coaching to me was that if I thought this was going to be a nationally distributed book as opposed to just a niche market, that the best thing to do was get somebody who really knew the business, and they’re certainly worth their 15%.

Mike: I know that you talk about the power of what we envision and the effect that it can have on our lives. What do you mean by that?

David: Visualizing is what we’re doing all the time. If you talk to yourself, you’re constantly visualizing. You can’t stop visualizing if you’re conscious. It’s like, “Well, where are you visualizing? Are you walking into a meeting or are you going home or got another damn meeting, big waste of time?” Or “, Gee, here’s what I want to have true by the end of the meeting.”

So we’re constantly choosing to hold various pictures – good, better, and different – about whatever it is that we’re engaged in or moving toward. It’s how you get out of the room as you see yourself out of the room and then you fulfil your picture.

The power of that, everything from all the pop psychology and everything from Abraham Maslow forward in terms of the new positive psychology that says, “Look, let’s just not study sick people. Let’s study really healthy high-performing people and see what’s true about them that we can emulate”. And one of the things that are commonly true is that people who are high performers have high levels of vision and pictures in their mind, in their psyche, about where they’re going and what they’re doing. It could look like written goals. That is oftentimes a common denominator, but oftentimes, it’s just a positive self-talk and the positive self-image, as I mentioned before.

By the way, one of the reasons of getting things done and my methodology is so powerful is because it’s really all just about focus.

Mike: People are most productive when they get into that zone. When everything around them becomes blurred out and they really focus on their task at hand. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations on how people can get into that zone where they are most productive?

David: Sure. Get rid of everything that prevents you from being in your zone. In other words, you can tackle it by saying, “Look, what do I need to do to get it out of my head? What is it that’s distracting me from being able to be fully on?” Well, that’s how I actually generated and came up with the whole GTD set of best practices. I’ve experienced early on what I call the strategic value of clear space. In martial arts, that’s very dramatic – clearing your heads and four people jump you in a dark alley – you don’t want to have 1500 unprocessed emails in your psyche. You need to be really clear.

So the idea of being very clear – you know, what gets in the way? And I started getting involved in the professional world, I started to find out how very easy it is for the complexity and variables and the ambiguities of our commitments in the professional world can very easily start to prevent your mind from being in the zone. Now, obviously you can get in your zone if you’ve fully, fully concentrated and focused on anything. You can get in your zone if your house suddenly catches on fire. Believe me, you’re not going to be distracted by your email if you’re just trying to live. But the ability to be ready for anything – that was my second book. The title of it was really about, you know, it is a lot easier to engage with surprise and change and things I don’t expect if there is no residue, as opposed to a big pile of still-on-process stuff.

That’s why I say when in doubt, clean your drawer. Clean up. Everybody needs to clean up. Because interestingly, you’ll find that your zone will tend to emerge naturally when you get rid of a lot of the residue and distraction that’s in the way.

Mike: This continues to come up and you’ve mentioned it many times, a lot of people are wondering about this email. It’s destroying and overwhelming a lot of people these days. Can you offer a technique or approach to best deal with it?

David: Yeah. Give yourself an hour a day to just stay current.

Mike: What’s the right way to deal with it?

David: Do what you feel like doing. What you want to do is make it a conscious exercise, not because it’s some knee jerk reaction and you don’t want to be doing something else. Some days I’m watching it as it’s coming in. Look, if you’re waiting to hear about a $200,000 contract that a client is about to say yes or no, I’m going to be looking at my email every 30 seconds.

But for the most part, most people are letting themselves get addicted by that distractibility because it’s a lot easier. And unfortunately, email is highly addictive because it provides round and positive reinforcement, which is key to actually creating addictive behavior. In other words, that’s the one golf shot that keeps you coming back. You might get 99% spam and crappy emails that you don’t need, but the one that was really cool will still keep you coming back and keep you seduced into that game – there might be something cool, interesting, fun, profitable, valuable, or whatever – embedded in all that.

I think you need to manage and monitor that addiction. And it’s a good idea if you zero out your email every 24 to 48 hours. Then you’re not so driven to keep looking at an emergency scanning. Most people, unfortunately, are living in emergency scanning mode, which means they’re looking at it but they’re not processing it. So they just keep checking for the latest and loudest land mines, fires and crises, or cool jokes or links to go look at, or YouTubes, as opposed to looking at it once, decide what it means, either file the sucker, finish it if it’s a two-minute one, or park it as an action to do later. Once you do that, you then won’t feel so driven to constantly stay in and on that all day long. That would be like going or checking your answering machine every 30 minutes. That’s kind of silly. You probably do it once a day because you zero it out. So just think about it much like you would think about your answering machine or even your voice mail.

Mike: That’s great. Those are the kinds of ideas that I was looking for, perfect. To end off the interview, I’d love to get your thoughts on success. What do you see as the biggest mistake or danger holding back most consultants and independent professionals? And how can they deal with it to become more successful?

David: That’s a good question, and if I had an answer to it I would say that probably keeping a vision about what they want to be experiencing and at the same time getting very grounded about next actions and moving toward it and just being engaged, and then being willing to course-correct.

The one operational thing that is probably most needed that starts to make everything work when you do it and everything starts to fall apart when you don’t, is what I refer to in my book as the weekly review.

Once a week to be able to pull up the rear guard and sit down and spend one to two hours – probably give yourself two hours at the end of a workweek or the beginning of your week – and take that time not to process your email, not to pick up the phone, but close the door and get control down on the runway in the 10,000ft level and to do just some reflective thinking.

I think the lack of reflection and contemplation essentially about your work. About the 18 phone calls you have and what other ones you need to make, and the 35 projects you have, and yes, that’s a project now that has emerged in the last four days and now you would identify that as such.

The reflective process on all these different horizons, that’s the most lacking and the most needed out there. Because even if you got everything out of your head and clarified it and organized it, if you’re not reviewing it regularly and keeping it current and using it as a way to galvanize your internal intuitive focus, the stuff will still crawl back up in your head and you’ll still be driven by latest and loudest and feel bad.

It’s really about keeping a big vision focused, keeping an engagement focused in terms of moving forward on things and course-correcting, and then mid-range there, building in a regular review and reflection process for yourself about your life and your work. Those are big keys.

Mike: That’s great advice. David, thank you so much for doing this interview. I really do appreciate your time.

David: My pleasure, sir.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this interview with David Allen. For more expert interviews with consultants check out the Masters of Consulting Interviews.

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