Skip Navigation

Interview with Productivity Expert David Allen (Part 2)

By Michael Zipursky

We’re back with Part 2 of our interview with David Allen. You can also check out part 1 with David on consulting productivity.

Mike: Consultants often decide that they want to achieve a goal, let’s say, getting a speaking opportunity. However, almost without fail, things come up – distractions, other work – and they never actually get around to getting things done. Why do people so often fail to get the things done that they know they need and want to do?

David: Oh, there could be a lot of reasons, probably as many different reasons as there are people. Ultimately, it probably boils down to a self-esteem issue – “gee, if I don’t feel capable of doing it, I’m a little scared to hop off”.

Again, that feeling of losing control is the greatest human fear. What we don’t want to do is get involved in something that we’re not sure will be successful. So it becomes a lot easier to allow yourself to be seduced by familiar patters – “look, I know how to do that”, “I know how to feel overwhelmed” – those are all familiar tracks for me that make me feel semi-worthwhile. As opposed to being bored or numb, at least I’m engaged.

But it’s a scary world. If you have a big phone call, it’s like some scary opportunity. We’re as afraid of success as we are of failure. But the real fear is stepping into unknown territory and not trusting yourself. The more that you trust yourself, the greater sense of self-worth, self-trust – “I’ll be okay, no matter what” – then the more you’ll probably find it easier to be engaged in those things. It also helps, too, to really get clear about what you really want and what’s really important to you. If your kids show up and interrupt you and you get bothered by that – hey, you’re the one who had kids. How important are they and how important is spending quality time with them? You know, a lot of times, you just have to go, “Look, don’t be unrealistic.” If you don’t consider that 40% of your day is going to be an interruption or a surprise, grow up. So you kind of need to plan for the unknown.

Mike: Let’s say you need to make a sales call or you need to confront a situation that inside you’re not that confident about, what has worked for you to get you past that?

David: You always need to think about what is the next action? Because no matter how big scary or ambiguous or weird something is, it all comes down to “pick up phone, punch number, boot computer, hit key, open mouth, say word”. It all comes down to really a simple, visible, physical action, and if you could just stay focused on that, that’s something you can probably figure you can do pretty well.

Oftentimes, it’s because people don’t figure out what the very next physical step is and they let their mind run off. A great acronym of fear – FEAR – is Fantasized Experience is Appearing Real. That’s why the people who tend to procrastinate the most are the most sensitive, creative, and intelligent people, because they can make stories up in their head in a quarter of a second that would freak anybody out.

Mike: Most definitely!

David: If you can somehow intelligently dumb yourself down until you could just stay focused and go, “Excuse me, can I just pick up the phone and punch the numbers and then we’ll see what happens”, then at least you get going and get engaged. The main trick is to get engaged and the big trick there is to define what “engaged” looks like and where it happens, i.e. what’s the next physical action I need to take and to stay focused on that.

Then give yourself a break. Until you figure out the next action, your mind knows that there’s some void and something you haven’t yet figured out or finished planning. But once you get the next action, you don’t need to know anything past that. You need to know where you’re going, so “What’s the outcome I’d like to achieve? Gee, I’d like to have a successful phone call with this person.” Great. What’s the next step? Pick up phone. But the next step might not be picking up phone. It might be, “Wait a minute. Let me surf the web and see who this person is, or get a little bit more data on them.” But you need to get that granular and that grounded and once you do that, a lot of stuff starts to come together.

Mike: That’s a very good point. For people that are really stuck, maybe they’ve written down what’s on their mind, how do they go forward, what should they do to work towards achieving their goals?

David: The best way to get a sense of that is to actually do it. That means it’s not going to take you 30 seconds right now. As you are reading this right now, ask yourself what’s most on your mind? What most, aside from reading this interview, what is most on your mind? As a matter of fact, where has your mind gone while Michael and I have already been talking?

Wherever that is, write that down. Maybe it’s Mom, maybe her birthday’s coming up. Maybe you have a big project. Maybe something’s offered to you. Maybe you got some meeting coming up. I don’t know. Whatever it is, write down something that represents that, and don’t do anything else until you sit down and say, “Okay, now wait a minute, what exactly is my commitment to finish this?”

In other words, what’s the project here? If it’s Mom, “Oh, yeah, I need to give Mom a birthday party.” Fabulous, you now have a project – celebrate Mom’s birthday with a party. And what’s the next step? What’s the very next action on Mom’s birthday party – “I should probably call my sister and see what Mom wants.” Cool, now you have a very next physical step – pick up phone and call sister. Now you have two things that you need to track – finalize her birthday party and call your sister about it.

Now that one thing is an example of capturing, clarifying, and then organizing, which are the three primary steps to getting things under control. That’s just one thing. If you did that with everything that has your attention – it will take you somewhere between an hour and three hours to actually identify every single thing that has your attention, if you’re a typical professional, because most people, as I mentioned earlier, haven’t a clue. They just make a commitment or they have that thing around in their psyche, they know that something should be done, but they didn’t track it.

You just need to capture all of those things, and then walk yourself through that decision-making process now – “What outcome, if any, am I committed to, and what’s the next action?”

Once you’ve done that, you will have generated somewhere between 30 and 100 projects and 150 to 200 next actions. That’s quite an inventory. Don’t get mad at me, by the way. People get mad at me for their list. I’m saying, “I’m sorry. Look, I didn’t make the commitments. Those are yours.” Your only choice is whether you want to keep those undecided, unclarified, and uncaptured in your psyche, and that’s what’s eating people alive.

Write that down, decide an action, decide an outcome, put things in a list, step back, look at the list, and make a choice about what to do. It’s not rocket science unless you’re building rockets.

Mike: Let’s talk about priorities. How do you suggest that people wrap their heads around figuring out what a priority should be and what it shouldn’t be? Are there any guidelines that people can use?

David: Well, it’s not quite as simple as ABC-123-high, medium, and low priorities. The simplest answer is, what thing, if you go do it, will give you the highest personal pay-off if it’s finished?

One of the simplest ways to determine this is to go up to what I call “20,000 feet” and create a checklist of all the areas of focus and responsibility about your job and work and your life.

Figure out what are the five or six things that you are responsible for in your job. Your top five or six hats you wear in terms of your life, relationships and your career development.

You then step back and take a look at that, then you can evaluate your projects and your actions against those things. When I lead people through that exercise, they generate three, four, five, eight, ten projects that are actually more important because they’re more subtle and they’re not so obvious in front of you, like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve really been thinking about that. I really need to upgrade my performance review process for my staff”, or “I’ve really been thinking. I really need to think about my next career move and get my resume out there.”

That’ll start to awaken a little more of a consciousness about what’s really important to you and what kinds of things will pay off to you if you actually get them done. Then you can go up to 30 and 40 and 50,000 feet – you know, where do you want to be by the end of next year, what’s your vision of success in your life and career five years from now, why are you on the planet, what’s really important to you.

You ultimately can’t get away from those kinds of conversations. It’s just that usually we don’t start there with people. Because if you try to start there before people get control of their 75 projects that are right now on their plate, they’ll just glaze over. They’re not going to be very conscious about it. So we could go backwards with working with people to get clear about the runway and 10,000 feet, that are the actions and the projects that are driving them right now that are in your psyche and in your world right now, and you need to get grounded and feel like, are you getting a handle on those before you’re really going to give yourself permission and freedom to go up to the more subtle elevated levels of horizons.

In Part 3 David will share with you how he deals with email and what he sees as the biggest danger consultants face that is holding them back from success. Don’t miss it!

8 thoughts on “Interview with Productivity Expert David Allen (Part 2)

  1. Pavel Rossi says:

    Really enjoying this interview. Thank you!!

  2. Jennifer says:

    David I appreciate the informatoin on priorities. It’s always been a challenge and this helps clear it up.

  3. So true that the mental energy we spend on unclarified, uncaptured thoughts results in a whole lot of unnecessary stress – and hinders productivity. Appreciate the practical hints.

    • Melissa – welcome! Thanks for commenting and glad you enjoying the interview.

  4. David Ackert says:

    The connection between self-esteem and time management is critical (and not obvious). Thank you, David and Michael, for bringing it to light.

Leave a Comment, Join the Conversation!