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David Allen on The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Full Transcript)

David Allen at TEDxClaremontColleges

Full text of David Allen, Author of Getting Things Done,  on The Art of Stress-Free Productivity at TEDxClaremontColleges conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen at TEDxClaremontColleges


The art of stress-free productivity is a martial art.

I’ll start with a quick little story. 1990. I took an overnight sailing trip with my girlfriend at the time to Santa Cruz island, that’s part of the Channel Islands, at 26 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. It’s a rugged, beautiful island but the coast is very rugged, sheer cliffs, a lot of rocky outcroppings.

We anchored in a tiny little cove, there are not many of those, we anchored in one as it was getting dark. We went below to make dinner, and the wind suddenly came up to a howl as it does in this area, by the way, pretty easily.

As I’m making dinner, I got the queasy feeling our boat was moving and sure enough, our anchors were losing their grip. That’s very uncool. In a tiny little cove, where the wind is howling, and about 50 yards away, at the end of the cove, a very nasty seed is brewing; so we ran up top, turned on the motor so we could get some control of the boat and, sure enough, I ran over the rear anchor line, which chokes the prop.

We now no longer have control of the boat. We are now at the mercy of wind which is actually whistling down that canyon and blowing us out of the cove into the open ocean, but then down along that coast, right close to those cliffs, I radioed the Coast Guard. They let us know it would be three hours before their heavy weather rescue boat would get there.

So we’re pretty much at the mercy of all of this. We got our dingy ready to go overboard in case we hit the rocks. The boat and even our lives were at risk.

And almost simultaneously, we both looked up at one point, and noticed the most incredible, dramatic, beautiful full moon. And amidst all that chaos, we actually had the experience of this wonderful Zen-like peace.

I tell you that story because everyone of you has something similar, I’m sure, in your history, where you were in something you might, in retrospect, call a crisis and somewhere along the line you found yourself “in your zone”. Time disappeared. You were fully present. You were totally engaged with what was happening. You were in a productive flow.

And 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.

See, interestingly, crisis can actually produce a kind of calm that’s rare to find sometimes. Why? It demands it. Because it’s 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 that was “live”, instantly making intuitive action decisions and taking actions, being meaningfully engaged toward that outcome.

And everything else in our life was put on the back burner, so that we would be totally present about what was happening. And you probably experienced that too. And maybe you had this sense of that peace.

Wouldn’t it be nice, by the way, if you could experience that kind of peace that kind of productive engagement, without having the danger or 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’s really about being appropriately engaged with what’s 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’s some key, there’s 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.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack about this idea of appropriate engagement. I’ll hit the highlights of it, but a few indicators of this would be — think about: are you appropriately engaged right now with the project you are on? With the paper you need to write? With your cat? With the holiday 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 might be I might/would/could/should/want to do that? Do you have appropriate engagement with that?

An indicator, by the way, that you don’t have to go very far to find opportunities to be more appropriately engaged is to just notice what’s on your mind. Any of you have anything on your mind aside from listening to me? Any of you have any strategic and important stuff on your mind?

Well, interestingly, the more it’s on your mind, the more it’s not happening, the more you are inappropriately engaged with it. Why it’s not on cruise control? It’s only on your mind because you know there’s still some thinking or some decisions about 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 to get them off your mind, but there are very specific things that you do need to do about that.

So there’s a number of paradoxes, by the way, that happen about all this material; there some counter-intuitive things about what I’m going to be sharing with you in the next few minutes. You are going to need to get 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 of all the stuff of your life in order to manage that you just need three core principles that you understand and apply. It’s not about a new smartphone. It’s not about a new elegant planner. It’s 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 make your own system.

A second paradox here is that the initial moves, and behaviors, and best practice of this may very likely, for many of you, initially, feel very awkward, very unnatural, and even unnecessary. It’s exactly like learning moves in a martial art, which I did years ago.

If you want to learn how to maximally produce power with the karate punch, you’re 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’ll 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’s going to feel unnatural, awkward, and unnecessary.

Every single thing you’re 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 your commitments that you are involved in, you need to clarify those and park those in appropriate places that you’ll see those actions on a regular basis. That’s going to feel awkward, unnatural, and unnecessary.

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