This is a great GTD Summary (Getting Things Done) at a TEDx talk, and it’s given by David Allen, who developed this terrific time management system.
It’s classic David Allen.
He says that when we are in crisis we are really focused and often have the ability to make quick decisions. However, we are under stress.
The best outcome for Getting Things Done, as far as David Allen is concerned, is being just as decisive all the time – and without any of the stress.
Let’s Reduce Stress
As he makes clear in this GTD summary, his whole GTD theory revolves around reducing stress. He has said that the biggest problem the executives have is dealing with this stress which comes from not writing their tasks down.
This, he says (after working with thousands of executives over the years) is by far the biggest cause of stress.
That’s why it’s so important to get everything out of your head and written down in a system you trust – as I describe in this post.
Some of the ideas in the book Getting Things Done seem a little dated now – it was published in 2001 – so it’s really good to see David Allen recorded live where he can bring the ideas in GTD to life.
This is an excellent GTD Summary by David – don’t miss it.
The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – David Allen at TEDx Claremont Colleges
The art of stress-free productivity is a martial art. I’m going to start with a quick little story: 1990. I took an overnight sailing trip with my girlfriend at the time to Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands, about 26 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. It is a beautiful island, but the coast is very rugged: sheer cliffs and lots of rocky outcroppings. We anchored in a tiny little cove. There aren’t many of them, but we anchored in one, and as it was getting dark, we went below to make dinner.
The winds suddenly came up to a howl as it does in this area, by the way. It can pretty easily. As I’m making dinner I got the queasy feeling that our boat was moving. Sure enough, our anchors were losing their grip. That is very uncool. We’re in a tiny little cove where the wind is howling, and about 50 yards away at the end of the cove, a very nasty sea is brewing.
So we ran up top, turned on the motor so we could get some control of the boat, and sure enough ran over the rear anchor line which chokes the prop. We now no longer have control of the boat. We are at the mercy of the wind which is actually whistling down that canyon and blowing us out of the cove and into the open ocean, but then down along that coast, right close to those cliffs.
Radioed the Coast Guard, and they let us know it would be three hours before their heavy weather rescue boat would get there, so we are pretty much at the mercy of all of this. We’ve got our dinghy ready to go overboard in case we hit the rocks. The boat and even our lives were at risk.
Almost simultaneously, we both looked up at one point and noticed the most incredible, dramatic, beautiful full moon. Amidst all of that chaos, we actually had an experience of this wonderful Zen-like peace.
I tell you that story because every one of you has something similar, I’m sure, in your history where you were in something you might in retrospect call a crisis. Somewhere along the line you found yourself in your zone. Time disappeared, you were fully present, and you were totally engaged with what was happening. You were in a productive flow. If you had the luxury to stop for a minute, you may have then had the experience of a wonderful sense of being present, like my girlfriend and I did that night.
Interestingly, crisis can actually produce a kind of calm that is rare to find sometimes. Why? It demands it because it is the calm that comes from those behaviors that create the kind of positive, productive, engaged experience that moves us into our zone, very clear on the outcome for us. Instantly making intuitive, active decisions, taking action, being meaningfully engaged toward that outcome, and everything else in our life was put on a back burner so that we were totally present about what was happening.
You’ve probably experienced that too, and maybe you had a sense of that peace. Wouldn’t that be nice? By the way, if you could experience that kind of peace, that kind of productive engagement without having the stress of a crisis force you to; it actually is possible.
Let me give you a little secret. Getting things done is not about getting things done. It is really about being appropriately engaged with what is going on. Appropriate engagement is the real key here. Many times not getting something done is how to appropriately engage with it. Every one of you hopefully is appropriately not engaged with every single thing else aside from listening to me right now.
So there is some key, there is something unique about being appropriately engaged. Why does a crisis get us there? Because it forces us to do those behaviors that get us there.
There is a lot to unpack about this idea of appropriate engagement. I will hit the highlights of it, but a few indicators of this would be to think about: are you appropriately engaged right now with a project you are on? With a paper you need to write? With your cat? With the holidays coming towards you? Are you appropriately engaged with your health? Are you appropriately engaged by the way with all the stuff you’ve heard so far today that “Oh! I might should, could, would want to do that”?
Do you have appropriate engagement with that? An indicator, by the way, of the fact that you don’t have to go very far to find opportunities to be more appropriately engaged is just notice what is on your mind. Do you need to have anything on your mind besides listening to me? You need to have any strategic or important stuff on your mind?
Well, interestingly, the more it is on your mind, the more it is not happening, the more you are inappropriately engaged with it. Why? It is not on cruise control. It is only on your mind because you know there is still some thinking or some decisions about it that you haven’t made, or you haven’t parked the results of that into some trusted systemic process that you trust will be triggered at the right time in the right way.
You actually don’t have to finish those things, folks, to be appropriately engaged and get them off your mind. But there are some very specific things that you do need to do about them.
There are a number of paradoxes, by the way, that happen about all of this material. There are some counter-intuitive things about what I’m going to be sharing with you in the next few minutes, and you need to be comfortable with that if you want to get to this place of productive engagement without a crisis forcing you to do that.
The big paradox is that all the complexities and all the stuff of your life, in order to manage that, you just need three core principles that you understand and apply. It is not about a new smartphone. It is not about a new elegant planner. It is not about a new piece of software. Those are cool tools, but only insofar as you use them to apply those key principles. Once you get those principles, you can make your own system.
A second paradox here is that the initial moves and behaviors and best practices of this will very likely for many of you initially feel very awkward, very unnatural, and also very unnecessary. It is exactly like learning moves in the martial arts, which I did years ago. If you want to learn how to maximum-ly produce power with a karate punch, you are going to have to spend hundreds of hours doing something that feels very awkward and very unnatural as a movement. Hundreds of hours doing that. Once you do that, by the way, you will never go back to anything less in terms of producing power.
Some of the things I’ll be recommending will be just like that. For instance, don’t keep anything in your head the rest of your life. That is going to feel unnatural, awkward, and unnecessary; every single thing that you are committed to finish that takes more than one step to finish it, you need to clarify exactly what that outcome and project is and put that on a project list that you look at at least once a week.
Every single next action you need to take about any of the commitments you are involved in, you need to clarify those and park those at appropriate places so that you are going to see those actions on a regular basis. That is going to feel awkward, unnatural, and unnecessary.
The final paradox about this, to wrap all of that together, is that some very specific but seemingly mundane behaviors that when applied, produce the capacity for you to exist in a kind of sophisticated spontaneity which in my experience is a key element to a successful life.
Now I’m going to reinforce why I think this is critical, what it would look like if you were wildly successful doing this, and I’m going to give you some hows, how to do that.
What is the problem? The problem is when you are not in crisis, there is a more subliminal crisis that happens. Why? The whole world is now allowed into your whole psyche. [Explosion] You now get to experience all the stuff you would, could, should, need to, might ought to, all the stuff piling up in you in-baskets and emails while I am speaking right now; all of that floods into your psyche.
That could easily create a sense of overwhelm, a sense of confusion, a sense of conflict. Every single thing seems to demand equal kind of attention for you, and then you usually respond to that by numbing out or getting into crazy busy.
Then you blame that stress on the lack of time. “All I need is more time.”
Well, I’m sorry. Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein, Mother Theresa, they only had 24 hours. Johann Sebastian Bach only had 24 hours. I know he didn’t have email, but he had 20 kids.
You say, “Just give me two more hours, David! Two more hours, please?” You know what you would do with two more hours? You’d have two more hours of overwhelm and stickiness.
Actually, for most of you it’d be a good thing you don’t get two more hours. Because the issue is not time. How long does it take to have a creative idea? Zero time! How long does it take to be inspired? Zero time! How long does it take to recognize an opportunity you could leverage, take advantage of? Zero time!
Time is not the issue for those things. There is something required for those things. What is that? Psychic bandwidth. You need space to think. Believe me, every executive I coach, once I put those words out there, the response is “Yes! I need room to think! I need space to be able to be creative, innovative, and all that stuff I am being asked to do to be a leader. All of that stuff, I just need room!”
If you don’t have psychological space, you could have two hours of free time and waste it. If you do have psychic bandwidth, two minutes in an elevator and you can have a cool idea and have a fabulous relationship with somebody that moves the needle.
This is the real key issue here is the lack of bandwidth to be able to engage with that appropriately. Even worse than that is that our creative energy is not available to be creative. Our creative energy is being used to patch up and handle and try to remember and remind and try to do all of that stuff that most people are trying to manage—all the details and stuff of their life in their psyche instead of in a system.
Just trying to keep up with the mess, and by the way, life is messy, if you haven’t noticed. Actually, mess is cool. Actually, the most productive times I have are when I have the time to make a creative mess. You, too.
I need room to be crazy, to make some mistakes to brainstorm, to be chaotic, go a little off the edge. That is going to be your most productive time is when you have that kind of freedom to do that. However, folks, if you are already in a mess, you ain’t got room to make one.
If your kitchen is a mess, you don’t have time or the energy to have a creative dinner for your friends. If your desk and your office are a mess, you don’t have room and space to be crazy about some new project and spread out and have brainstorms with ideas.
If your email is backed up on you with a thousand non-processed emails and you’ve got 3000 other things going on in your head, you have no space to take advantage of discretionary time that could show up in terms of being creative, in terms of your energy.
The results of that, if you are trying to use your psyche to manage that mess, and you never get out of it, is you get the results of two things that are the critical elements of self and organizational productivity: you’ll lose perspective, that is you will lose the ability to put your focus where you need it on actually the thing you need it at the horizon you need it, and/or you may be experiencing the results of what happens when you lose control. I now don’t have stability, and I don’t have the freedom in my head to be able to put the appropriate attention and execute it when I do.
Those are the two key elements. Folks, you can’t manage time. You can’t mismanage five minutes and come up with six. The only time that you think you need time management is when one of both of these two dynamics is sub-optimal. Either things need to be more under control or more appropriately focused. If you map those two things together, what do you get? On the bottom-left here when you’ve got no control and no focus, ever been there? That is your basic victim experience driven by latest and loudest.
For the most part, most of us are thrown there by our own over commitments and creativity. We are just trying to come up for air. If that part of you shows up that has high performance and perspective but no control, now you are the mad scientist. Now you are the desperate artiste. Now you are the crazy maker with all kinds of crazy ideas and no constraints with nothing very well organized.
Middle of the morning you decide to go buy the new iPhone, but your IT department won’t support it. On the other hand, you can get down in the weeds, and say, “Oh, boy! I need to get ten thousand things organized! I need to get all of this cleaned up!” and now you get into micromanagement. If you don’t have appropriate focus, you can get down on those weeds and hung up on them like crazy. You spend a lot of time doing a lot of trying to get organized about things that may not be that important.
In the morning you’re a crazy maker and said, “Get the new iPhone,” and in the afternoon you spend two hours of what could be a strategic afternoon trying to set up the right ringtones.
Here’s what’s true about all three of those: Folks, you ain’t ready for what is coming towards you. You will be sub-optimal in terms of your ability to handle the surprises, and they are coming. Good, bad, or indifferent, they are coming, trust me. You want to be optimally available for those things when they come to you.
Now, everybody says, “I’m doing okay,” and I doubt if many of you in here will feel motivated enough to go do what I am talking about because some part of you may not be feeling that it is that bad because you’ve got a job, or you’re doing fine; you’ve got relationships, you’ve got money, you are doing okay.
I am suggesting though for thousands of people who have implemented what I am sharing here, it could be a whole lot better! How sustainable is your life and work style right now in terms of the long haul? How available are you to all kinds of creative things that are right around you right now, but you don’t have the bandwidth to recognize them or take advantage of them, and it could be a whole lot better?
What would better look and sound like? I use a metaphor from nature. Nature seems to get a whole lot of stuff done, but it ain’t stressed and it ain’t worried. There just seems to be sort of a natural rhythm about how things happen here.
If you go back to our matrix and say, “Look, if I had just the right amount of perspective AND just enough structure, just the right amount so I’ve got the stability to focus on that and then to execute on it, now you are in the Captain Commander modality, which by the way is very cool because that is the place that you are then going to be able to engage with life, and your creativity, what it is designed for which is using your creative, intuitive intelligence into new frontiers.
You are going to much more be in your zone as a normal state than as an exceptional state, and you are going to be a whole lot more capable of dealing with surprise and change coming at you, and by the way, it is coming faster and faster. That is what is new about the world is how frequently everything is and being ready for that.
Basically I use a martial arts terms for it: mind like water. A body of water responds to physical forces around it totally appropriately. It doesn’t overreact, it doesn’t underreact. If you throw in a pebble, it does pebble. Back to calm and balance again: you throw in a boulder, and what does it do? It does boulderness. It does it very dispassionately. It doesn’t tense up before the rock hits it. It doesn’t get all mad at the rock for having disturbed its calm life. Back to calm and balanced again.
Out of these metaphors from nature, I’ve got a couple of lessons I’ve learned. Lesson number one is flexibility trumps perfection, way beyond. Life is not static, folks. There is no perfection, or if there is, it means I have now married myself and matched myself to the dynamics of life and its activity.
The second lesson I’ve learned is I need the ability to be able to shift my focus rapidly, in and out, up and down, quickly. In a very few minutes I might deal with a family issue, and then take out the garbage, and then be dealing with a business negotiation, and not take one to the next but be fully available for each thing, give it its appropriate due.
Most people are taking one meeting to the next. Most people are taking home to work and work to home. That is not mind like water. Here is what you are really after. You want the ability to put your focus exactly where you need it, in the way you need it and not use your mind to be trying to accumulate stuff and avoid it. Big key. Folks, if you don’t give appropriate attention to what has your attention, it’ll start to take more of your attention than it deserves, so the weird, strange thing here is you actually have to use your mind to get stuff off your mind.
You have to apply a process to be able to get that stuff out of there. It won’t happen by itself. How do you do that? Key number one: get it out of your head. Simple, but boy is that a big habit for most adults to change!
Anything and everything that is potentially meaningful, write it down. I’ll challenge all of you. Take the next 24 hours. Keep a pad and pen with you if you don’t have it already, and don’t have a thought twice. Little, big, personal, professional: you don’t even have to do anything with it. Just capture anything that is pulling on your psyche, that is going on there that is not on cruise control. And I guarantee you that if you do that process, the thousands of people that we’ve had do that process absolutely would guarantee that once they’ve done it, they have a whole lot better sense of control and perspective and can more appropriately engage with what they are doing and what they should be doing.
Now that is just stage one. Stage two which is necessary because once you do stage one, you will still see a bunch of stuff on that list that still needs more thinking. Most to-do lists are incomplete lists of still-unclear things. What you see on to-do lists are things like “budget”, “mom”, “dog”, or “babysitter”.
I understand those probably indicate something that you’ve got to do something about, but what exactly is the work you need to do? That is going to be the second thing you need to do, take those things that you’ve identified that are yanking your chain, and you’ve got to make some very specific decisions about what the work involves.
There are two key questions you’ve got to ask about everything on your list. “What outcome am I committed to finish?” so you can define that target out there: what is the project about the budget, about the dog, about the babysitter? Identify those. Then you need to ask yourself, “What is the very next action step I need to take to move forward on that if I were going to move on it?”
Outcome and action: zeroes and ones of productive behavior. What are we trying to accomplish? How do we allocate resources to make it happen? But you need to apply that very specifically if you want to be very appropriately engaged with anything yanking your chain out there.
The late, great Peter Drucker—you folks should know that—would tell every one of us as knowledge workers the toughest admonition: Your toughest work is defining what your work is.
He put it in broad terms, but this is specifically what he is talking about: What is the work embedded in that and getting very clear about that? I guarantee you that if you sit down and take just a few of the things off your list and make these decisions—what is the project? Write it down. What is the action step? Write it down—you will feel exponentially more appropriately engaged with your world. I’ve never seen an exception to that.
Then of course that is going to feel great, but then you are going to be up against another wall because you are going to look at all of that—by the way, most of you have between 30 and 100 projects right now, and most of you have between 150 and 220 next actions right now. You are going to very quickly leave mind like water when you look at that immensity unless you start to put it all together.
So in all of that, what you are going to need are maps. You will need appropriate maps of all of the projects, you need the maps of all of the actions that you have, and there are other maps you probably need to have. What is my job? Key areas of focus and accountability. What are the things in my personal life I need to watch and manage and take care of on a regular basis? That is another great map.
You need to build maps of all of this so you can step back and see the whole gestalt of what your life is involved in. Then you can make good intuitive decisions about what to do. Once you experience that—I’ve never had anybody make that list and not come up with “Oh, that reminds me…!” and at least add three or four or five projects to their list that they needed to that were already there but they were just more subtle and more strategic. They had not identified them yet.
I guarantee you those three things—I may have just jumped you back into reality and maybe reminded you that you are not a productivity ninja yet, but that’s okay. It doesn’t take you long to get to where you want to get to about this.
It’s very simple folks: just write stuff down. Decide actions and outcomes embedded within them, get yourself a map of all of that so you can step back and take a look at it, and then basically you use the map to decide, “Here’s the course that we are going to go on,” then launch the ship on a trusted course for the short term as well as the long horizon that you are moving on, and then on some regular basis you need to reassess, “Okay, we need to take in new data, clean up, recalibrate, and refocus for the next leg of the journey.”
It is that simple.
By the way, my girlfriend in that adventure did not stay my girlfriend very long. She quickly became my wife, and for the last 22 years, we’ve experienced and enjoyed lots of planned and unplanned adventures.
My wish for all of you is for all of those adventures coming toward you, and they are coming toward you, in order to take maximum advantage of them, find your own ways to be appropriately engaged. Thanks for listening.
What is GTD? – My own GTD Summary.
Perfect Time Management – the time management system I use which combines GTD with Evernote.