Interview With David Allen
David Allen is widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on personal and organizational productivity. He’s also the bestselling author of my favourite book on productivity, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. If you want to become more productive and focused in the new year, I can’t recommend his book highly enough.
I recently had the opportunity to interview David Allen about how you can become more productive in the new year and keep your New Year’s resolutions. Our interview covered a wide gamut of topics, but all of David’s points hammered at essentially the same nail: in order to keep your New Year’s resolutions, you’ve got to be kind to yourself. David isn’t a motivational author in the traditional sense, but in an interesting way, everything he writes about centres around showing more respect for yourself.
I’ve pulled my four favourite nuggets from our interview, including: why you should make recollections in addition to resolutions, how you can make changes more automatic through habits, why you should set shorter-term, ‘process’ goals, and how you should capture and deal with all of the open loops in your life. All of these approaches will get you to show more respect for yourself in the new year, and they’re below!
In addition to making New Year’s resolutions, make New Year’s recollections
After I spoke with David, I couldn’t stop thinking about one statistic he mentioned: that 80% of what you say to yourself in your head is negative. “From the stuff I’ve read, about 80% of a typical adult’s self-talk is negative. ‘I can’t do this, this is hard, this is going to be difficult’, etc. That matches another statistic that I saw years ago where if you were brought up in a healthy home in the U.S., about 80% of your feedback was negative and critical. ‘Don’t do that, you’re going to hurt yourself,’ etc. It’s understandable that we internalize most of the critical thinking and instruction is we could.”
That’s the basis for David’s New Year’s ritual of making New Year’s recollections, instead of resolutions. “Anything we can do to affirm and say, hey, I’m an okay person, I can actually make things happen, will really serve you in good stead. I think that kind of inner strength is really what you need if you’re trying to make some changes and trying to install new habits.”
Every New Year’s, David and his wife Kathryn take about an hour and go over things that they had some conscious effort in making happen that hadn’t happened before, like what they accomplished, places they traveled to, and things they did that they hadn’t done before.
According to David, people need to acknowledge their efforts a lot more than they do. “I think most people don’t realize that we need a lot of self-acknowledgement. We’re all starved for that. It’s really nice to pull up the rear guard, and get some completion on a lot of those things.” Recalling all of the things you accomplished throughout the year is the perfect way to do that.
Set shorter-term, ‘process’ goals
David also talked about how important it is to set shorter-term goals. “I think there have been a lot of studies over the years [that show that] when you set a long term goal, it’s demotivating. Because with a long-term goal you say, ‘oh, that’s years out. I don’t have to do anything today’, so your energy will tend to crash and burn. I might be initially motivating, but it’s not ultimately motivating.
“Then they discovered, if you set some shorter term objectives to your longer term goals, they found that will create a lot more motivation if you have a shorter term goal toward your bigger one.”
But not only should your goals be shorter-term, they should also be directly tied to what you need to physically do to accomplish your goal. David recommended creating ‘process’ goals; goals that deal directly with what you have to do to accomplish a goal. For example, if your New Year’s resolution is to lose 15 pounds, you could create a process goal to run for 15 minutes at a 5mph pace. As David put it, “motivation will die if you don’t have the actual activity that you need to engage in that will improve your golf score, lose weight, or run faster”.
Make changes automatic through habits
When I asked David why so many people fail at their New Year’s resolutions, he touched on how hard it is to make real, lasting changes to your life. “I think most people aren’t that aware of how difficult it is to change a regular habit and behaviour. We’re really creatures of habit, and if you don’t have the habit already, it can take a while to build it so it becomes automatic. … One of the things most people don’t realize is that your willpower and your focus on a new behaviour is only as good as you can consciously hold onto it.”
“That’s what slips most people up. They don’t realize that most of the day you’re going to be running on automatic pilot, so the whole idea is: how do you build little incremental changes and habits that start to change that automatic pilot thing internally so that when you let go of your conscious focus and willpower, you don’t slide all of the way back to something else.”
To understand and change your habits, David highly recommended Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. (Here’s my interview with Charles on how you can use habits to keep your New Year’s resolutions.) You can deplete a lot of your energy and willpower to make changes to your life, so making new habits and behaviours automatic is the key to making them stick.
Get stuff out of your head and into an external system
David created the Getting Things Done (GTD) system of personal productivity around a core principle: that the more to-dos you move out of your head, the less you fill your short-term memory with useless crap that prevents you from focusing on bigger and better things throughout the day.
David mentioned that the GTD methodology is powerful for a simple reason: your brain sucks at keeping a lot of things in your head at once. “As soon as you have more than one or two things in your head, you’ve created instant failure and stress because you can’t do them both at the same time, but a part of you psychologically is trying to. That part of you will wake you up at 3 in the morning and remind you of something you can’t do anything about while you’re laying in bed.”
“What we’re learning is that your mind is not for holding ideas, it’s for having ideas. People are still trying to use their psyche as their office and their reminder system, and it doesn’t work–it’s not designed for that. In an evolutionary way, your brain is brilliant at being able to look at things and recognize patterns and tie that into long-term memory, but it can’t remember worth a hoot.”
David’s GTD methodology tackles this problem head-on. It’s difficult to summarize the GTD system in a few paragraphs (it spans over 200 pages in book form), but on a very basic level the GTD method has two stages: first, get all the to-dos in your head into an external system, and second, deal with that stuff.
1. Capture all the stuff in your head
To capture all of the tasks and projects you have floating around in your head, David says that you don’t gave to go far. “Capture whatever’s on your mind, aside from what you’re currently doing. Get a pen and paper and just start jotting it down: that you need cat food, your strategic plan, the next holiday you’re going on, changing the oil in your car. Just start to dump it all out. I’ve never met anybody who at one point didn’t feel overwhelmed or confused and sat down and made a list and didn’t feel better, and more in control and more focused.”
2. Deal with it
After you capture everything, you have to deal with it. “You can’t leave it there. If you leave it there, then you become sort of a compulsive list maker and you’ve got lists everywhere and things will still crawl back up into your head and bother you.
“What you need to do is take all of those things and one at a time, discipline yourself and ask yourself: is this something I’m actually going to do something about? If yes, then what’s the very next think you need to do to move that forward?
“That decision doesn’t necessarily show up by itself. You have to think to decide what the next step is, whether it’s to surf the web, make a phone call, [or] draft a document on your computer.
“That granularity–getting it down to the next physical, visible action, is a really powerful thing to do.” It’s also the basis of the GTD system. The more you get out of your head and into an external system, the more head space you will have to think about bigger and better problems throughout the day, instead of bogging down your mental RAM with distracting bullshit.
When I asked David what one productivity tip he would give to someone making New Year’s resolutions, he told me: “empty stuff out of your head, decide sooner than later the actions and outcomes embedded in them, and step back and trust the intuition of your choices”. I can personally vouch for the methods behind David’s madness. The more to-do’s, tasks, projects, and other stuff you empty from your head, the freer your mind is to think about much more important things.
Mind like water
In the very first chapter of Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about his “mind like water” way of thinking about productivity. “Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact. … Anything that causes you to overreact or under react can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like.”
A lot of people are incredibly hard on themselves when New Year’s rolls around, and vow to completely overhaul their life and change into a completely different person through sheer willpower alone.
But that doesn’t work. Especially when an astounding 80% of your self-talk is negative, there has never been a better time to show more respect for yourself. The kinder you are to yourself, by making making recollections in addition to resolutions, making changes automatic through habits, setting short-term, process goals, and capturing and dealing with all of the open loops in your head, the more productive you’ll be in the new year.