Punching the “Clear Your Head” Button: The Xconomy Q&A with David Allen

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optimize their cognitive management. If you are using your head to manage all the reminding, that is sub-optimizing. So everybody needs it, and I’d love to find something that, ta-da, everybody runs at it. I haven’t found that yet.

X: To me one of the most obvious irritants today is e-mail. The average number of emails that an office worker gets is around 125 a day and is going up at 15 percent per year. Do you feel that your system is capable of coping with that level of incoming volume?

DA: As opposed to what? Stopping getting it? Or letting it pile up and blow up on you? What are your options?

X: It just seems to me that e-mail overload presents an opportunity for innovation.

DA: Well, here’s another spin that you could put on this. People ask, is GTD for the individual, or do you have GTD for the organization? It is actually a false question. GTD for the individual is for the individual’s intersections with everybody. If you are the last person on the planet, you don’t need GTD. You only need it to manage your intersections.

It gets subtle—it’s your intersections not just with other people, but with projects, with things to do, and with yourself. It’s really about how do I manage those kinds of intersections. If you improve all of your intersections, it moves all of those up the food chain at least slightly. All of those e-mails simply represent intersections. If you are allowing yourself to have all of those interesections now, are you going to deal with all of them? If you don’t want them to take up more of your psyche than they deserve, then don’t handle them. In other words, if you don’t give more of your attention to that e-mail that doesn’t deserve your attention, it won’t take more of your attention than it deserves.

All I did was discover the algorithm about, what does appropriate attention require so that it does not take up any more psychic space. Because you only have a certain amount. You are not going to take on any more. You can’t do that. You either need to lower your standard about this, or get better keyboard skills. It takes less energy to maintain a backlog of zero than it does to maintain a backlog of 3,000.

X: Agreed, but have you ever had this experience where you’ve spent three hours zeroing out your inbox, and you’ve finally replied to every message, but then you go back in and find 100 replies from the people you just replied to?

DA: That’s right. Work is happening, the needle is moving, and if that’s shitty stuff why are you bothering? It either is your work or it’s not. That’s how work happens now. That’s what the virtual world is. So even if it took you seven of your eight hours a day to do e-mail, that is your work! It’s like complaining about answering the phone when picking up the phone is your job. What? Who are you kidding?

X: Yeah, but isn’t the bigger point that you have to ask whether you really want that to be your job? At what point did answering e-mail become my job?

DA: Well, at what point did answering anything—your mail, having conversations in your hallway—become your job? It’s all your job. You just have to decide what your work is. As the late, great Peter Drucker said, that’s your biggest job, is to define what your work is.

So how do you define what your work is, and therefore should you be doing that? Which list do you need to get off of? The good news about this overwhelm is that it’s forcing people to make executive decisions that they never felt like they had to make before. “I need to do everything that comes my way.” No, you can’t anymore, sorry. You are going to have to do triage. That means you are going to have to have a conversation with your boss. You are going to have to show up with a list of everything he or she has given you and have a conversation. “Gee, thanks for these new things, can we talk? Because I am not going to be able to do them all.” It’s forcing those kinds of conversations.

That’s why people have this attraction/repulsion to GTD. It ain’t lightweight stuff. If you are really going to work this, that’s what’s going to start to show up.

X: And it will force you, if you’re managing things right, to say no more often. Which I am intensely uncomfortable with, and most people probably are.

DA: Exactly. But you’re saying no all the time by default if you’re not replying to something. Everything is “someday/maybe” by default. This is a half empty or half full world. You can only do one thing at a time. So you either feel really shitty about all the stuff you’re not doing, or you feel good that the thing that you are doing is the thing you really needed to do, given all the other stuff you could be doing.

X: Good point. Moving on: One thing I’ve tried to do is pay attention to what kinds of tools and plugins and add-ons people are using to make their e-mail and other online actions conform with GTD. You’ve worked with Microsoft and you’ve come up with filters for Otulook. One company I’ve written about called Taskforce came up with a way to take an incoming email in Gmail and, with the touch of a button, transform it into an item on a to-do list. That’s one of the processing steps you talk about: do something about every incoming item, even if it’s just adding something to a list. Have you ever found a tool this that you really like?

DA: In terms of that kind of stuff, yeah, it’s the one I use, called eProductivity. It’s an add-on to Lotus Notes. My friend Eric Mack built it. Eric worked for me for 15 years and I slapped him around for 10 of those years to get it right in terms of what he needed to do.

Of course you can drag an email and make it into a call. He put stuff in there that makes it a lot easier to do this. But once you get really good at this, you just need really simple lists. It is nice to be able to drag an e-mail, it’s an obvious improvement if you can just drag the thing, but then you still need to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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