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

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.

But the final paradox about all this that wraps all that together is that some very specific but seemingly mundane behaviors 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 some hows, how to do that.

But what’s the problem? The problem is when you’re not in crisis, there’s a more subliminal crisis that happens. Why? The whole world now is allowed into your psyche. Boom! You now get to experience all the stuff that you would/could/should/ need to/might/ought to, all the stuff piling up in your in-baskets and emails while I am speaking right now. All of that now floods into your psyche, and 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 from you.

And then, you usually respond to that by either numbing out or getting in the crazy busy. And then you blame that stress on the lack of time, “Oh! I just have… Oh! God! All I need is more time!”

Well, I’m sorry. Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein, Mother Teresa, they only had 24 hours. Johann Sebastian Bach only had 24 hours. I know he didn’t have email but he had 20 kids.

And you say, “Just give me two more hours! David, two more hours, please!”

You know what you’d do with two more hours? You’d have two more hours of overwhelming 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 and take advantage of? Zero time.

Time is not the issue for those things. There is something required for those things. What’s that? Psychic bandwidth. You need space to think. Believe me. Every executive I coach, once I put those words on, “Oh yes! I need room to think. I need space to be able to be creative, be innovative, all that stuff I am being tasked to do, to be a leader, all that stuff. I just need a room!”

And 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 on an elevator, you can have a cool idea and have a fabulous relationship with somebody that moves the needle.

So this is the real key issue here – is the lack of the bandwidth to be able to engage with that appropriately. Even worse than that is that our creative energy is then not available to be creative. Our creative energy is being used to try to patch up, and handle, and try to remember, and remind, and try to do all 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’m in is when I have the freedom 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. It is when you have that kind of freedom to do that.

However, folks, if you’re already in a mess, you’ve no 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 a brainstorm with ideas. If your email is backed up on you with 1,000 unprocessed emails and you got 3,000 other things going on in your head, you have no space to take advantage of discretionary time that may show up in terms of being creative, in terms of your energy.

The results of that, if you’re trying to use your psyche to manage that mess and you never get out of it is that you get the results of two things that are the critical elements of self and organizational productivity. You’ll lose perspective, that is, you’ll lose the ability to put your focus where you need it on exactly 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, that is, 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 on it when I do.

So those are the two key elements. Folks, you can’t manage time. You don’t mismanage five minutes and come up with six. The only time that you think you need time management is when one or both of these two dynamics are sub-optimal. Either things need to be more under control or more properly focused.

If you map those two things together, what do you get? If you are on the bottom left here where you got no control and no focus – Ever been there? – that’s your basic victim experience. You know, driven by the latest and loudest. For the most part, most of us are thrown there by our own over-commitments and creativity in which you can’t even try to come up for air.

Now if that part of you shows up that has high focus and perspective but no control, now you’re the mad scientist, now you’re the desperate artiste, now you’re the crazy maker with all kinds of crazy ideas and no constraints of what you do; and you have nothing very well-organized. In the middle the morning, you decide to go buy the new iPhone but your IT department won’t support.

On the other hand, if you get down in the weeds and say, “I need to get 10,000 things organized, I need to get all this cleaned up and even;” and now you are getting into micromanagement. If you don’t have appropriate focus, you can get down in those weeds and hung up in them like crazy. And you spent a lot of time doing a lot, trying to get organized about things that may not be that important.

Like in the morning, you were a crazy maker getting the new iPhone, in the afternoon, you spent two hours of what could be a strategic afternoon, trying to set up the right ring tones.

Here’s what’s true about all three of those folks. You’d better get ready for what’s coming towards you.

You will be sub-optimal in terms of your ability to handle the surprises, and they’re coming. Good, bad, or indifferent. They’re coming. Trust me. And you want to be optimally available for those things, when they come to you.

Everybody says, “I’m doing OK.”

And I doubt if many of you in here will feel motivated enough to go do what I’m talking about because some part of you may not be feeling that it is that bad. Of course, you got a job. You are doing fine. You’ve got relationships. You have got money. You are doing OK. I’m suggesting though if thousands of people would implement what I’m sharing with you here, they could be a whole lot better.

How sustainable is your life and workstyle 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 and take advantage of them? And it could be a whole lot better.

What would better actually look or sound like? Well, let’s use a metaphor from nature. Nature seems to get a whole lot of stuff done but it is not stressed neither worried. You know, there just seems to be a sort of natural rhythm about how things happen here.

So, 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 that I got the stability to focus on that, and then to execute on it, now you’re in the captain commander modality, which, by the way, is very cool, because that’s the place that you’re then going to be able to engage with life and your creativity and what was designed for, which is using your creative intuitive intelligence, you know, in the new frontiers, you’re going to much more be in your zone as a normal state as opposed to an exceptional state. And you are going to be a whole lot more capable of dealing with surprise and change as it is coming at you. And, by the way, it’s coming faster and faster. That’s what’s new about the world; it is how frequently everything is.

Be ready for that. Basically, I refer to it, I use a martial arts term which is “mind-like water”. A body of water responds to physical forces around it totally appropriately. It doesn’t over-react, it doesn’t under-react. You throw in a pebble, it does pebble. Back to calm and balanced again. You throw in a boulder. What does it do? it does boulderness. It does it very dispassionately. It doesn’t tense up of what the rock hits it. It doesn’t get all mad at the rock for having disturbed its calmed life. Back to calm and balanced again.

Out of these metaphors from nature, I’ve got a couple lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson number one is, “Hey folks, flexibility trunks perfection. Way, way, way beyond.”

Life is not static, folks. There is no perfection. Or if there is, it means I’m 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, out, up, down, quickly. You know, in 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 given its appropriate due. Most people are taking one meeting to the next. Most people would take it home to work and work to home. That’s not “mind like water”.

Here’s what you are really after. You want the ability to be able 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!

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.

So you have to apply a process to be able to get the 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’s potentially meaningful, write it down.

So I’ll challenge all of you: to pick 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, just get it all out. You don’t have to do anything with it. Just capture anything that’s pulling on your psyche, that’s going on, that it is not on cruise control. And I guarantee you, if you do that process, that 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 are more appropriately engaged with what they’re doing, not what they should be doing. That is just stage one.

Stage two, which is necessary, because once you do stage one, you’ll still see a bunch of stuff on that list that still needs more thinking. Most to-do lists are incomplete lists with still unclear things, by the way. What you see on to-do lists are things like budget, mom, dog, babysitter. Well, I understand that sort of probably indicates something, you’ve got to do something about, but what exactly is the work you need to do?

And that’s going to be the second thing you need to do, is to take those things that you’ve identified that are yanking your chain, and you need to make some really specific decisions about what does the work involve. And there are two key questions you need to ask about everything on your list: “What outcome am I committed to finish?” so that you can define that target out there. What’s the project about the budget? About the dog? About the babysitter? And identify those; and then, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the very next action step that I need to take to move forward on that, if I were to going to move on it?”

Outcome and action: zeros 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 appropriately engaged with anything yanking your chain out there.

The late great Peter Drucker, you folks should know about, would tell every one of his knowledge workers, the toughest admonition; your toughest work is defining what your work is. He’d put it in broad terms, this is very specifically what he’s talking about: what is the work embedded in that? And getting very clear about it.

I guarantee you that if you sat down and take at least a few of the things off your list and make these decisions: What’s the project? Write it down. What’s the action step? Write it down. You will feel exponentially more appropriately engaged with your world. Never seen an exception to that.

Then, of course, that’s going to feel great, but then you’re going to be up against another wall because you’re going to look at all 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.

So, you’re 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’re going to need are maps. You need the appropriate maps of all the projects, you need the maps of all the actions you have, and there are other maps you’ll probably need to have. What’s 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 on a regular basis? That’s another great map.

So, you need to build maps of all of this, so that you can step back and see the whole “gestalt” of what your life is involved in, so that then, you can make good intuitive decisions about what to do.

By the way, 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 significant projects to their list they needed to; they were already there but they were just more subtle, more strategic; they had not identified them yet.

So, I guarantee you those three things. Now I may have just jumped you back into reality, and maybe reminded you that you’re not a productivity ninja yet. That’s OK. It doesn’t take you long to get to where you want to get to about this.

Very simple folks! Just write stuff down. Decide actions and outcomes embedded in 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, “OK, here’s the course that we’re going to go on.”

You then launch the ship on a trusted course on to the short term, as well as on the long horizon that you’re moving on. And then, on some regular basis, you need to reassess, “OK, we need to take in new data, clean up, recalibrate, and refocus for the next leg of the journey.” It’s 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.

So, my wish for all of you is, for all of those adventures coming towards you, and they’re coming towards you. In order to take maximum advantage of them, find your own ways to be appropriately engaged.

Thanks for listening.


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