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

David Allen was in San Francisco on September 7, 2012, to lead a paid seminar on the principles in Making It Work, the sequel to his 2001 bestseller Getting Things Done. I interviewed him after the seminar.

Among other things, we talked about the nature of work and ways to think about e-mail overload. Allen also shared a preview of today’s news about an agreement between Allen’s company and Bellevue, WA-based Intentional Software to develop mobile software tools to help followers of the Getting Things Done methodology.

Here’s a transcript of our talk.

Xconomy: I’ve read Getting Things Done a couple of times, but that was right after it came out, which was more than 10 years ago now. Have you ever felt that times or technology have changed to the point that you might need to go back and start revising the model?

DA: No, it works just as well as it always did.

X: But isn’t the method tied to the ways people get and process information?

DA: It is, but I didn’t just suddenly one day make this up. This is 30 years of testing the model itself in terms of the principles.

I think the difference technology will make is in decision support. Not in the basic principles, but in terms of adding value so that technology is going to make it possible to say, “I just had a dream about my niece,” and suddenly a hologram will show up in my living room with a connected map about my niece—all of the things I want to see about “niece.” Anything of interest. It will be a combination of the brain and mind mapping, so that any thought that is potentially relevant, potentially meaningful, wil be tied in, so that I can create context for myself and generation actions I might not think about otherwise. The technology will allow much more creative, expansive thinking and the result will be, what do I want to get my niece for her birthday.

My smartphone will buzz when I walk by the store. But the smartphone is not where I will do my thinking.

X: I guess what I was really getting at is that the velocity of information is so much faster now, because of the Internet and email and these devices. As you wrote in the New York Times recently, we are all drowning in more information.

DA: That intensifies the need. It doesn’t change the principles. What it changes is moving [the method] from a nice-to-have to a must-have, if you want to survive. If you want to navigate in that world without turning to toast, and if you want to be optimized in terms of your energy and creativity, you’re going to have to do it faster, and you’re doing to have to do more of it.

Q: Have you seen an uptick in demand or outcry for the method?

DA: It’s not an overnight thing. It’s not a breakout piece of software that’s suddenly got a million users out there. I just spoke with Drew Houston [CEO of Dropbox] and with Phil Libin [CEO of Evernote]. They’re all GTDers. I’m thinking about, how come GTD is not really a breakout thing. Well, Phil doesn’t want to position Evernote as a productivity tool, because you don’t reach a billion people with a productivity tool. You reach it with something that just has a cool factor to it, that enables you to do stuff that is intuitive, and that is how stuff breaks out. [GTD] is not like that.

The strange paradox is that the people who need it the least are the people who are most attracted to it. If you don’t know what it is, you don’t want it. You don’t think about it, you don’t say intuitively, “Wow, that is something I need.” But everybody needs it. Everybody who has more than one thing that they can’t keep track of needs it to 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 rewrite the subject line so that it’s clear what it is. You are still going to have to manipulate it. It’s not just automatic.

The guys out there who are trying to build some level of AI into how you filter your email shouldn’t bother, because you’re still going to need to think about how you’re going to think about what you need to think about. You’re still going to need to think about how you’re going to think about what you need to think about. You just want to see a flat list and make a quick executive decision and park it based on that result. I keep watching to see if anybody is coming up with anything that is a game changer, and I haven’t seen anything.

But I’m now partnered with a pretty deep-bench software crew. It’s Charles Simonyi, at Intentional Software. His CEO, Eric Anderson, is a big GTD fan, and he turned Charles on to GTD, so the two of them have got a deep bench of very, very cool folks. And we’re not promising a product. What we have is a deep bench collaboration about what’s missing. What pain needs to be solved that’s not being solved by what’s out there? Instead of the Balkan Wars of all of these things being so distributed, how do we begin to integrate them? This company has an expertise in how you build meta-systems around systems.

They’re the only people that came to me tabula rasa and said, “David, we don’t have a product, but you have something that could fit into the methodology we have built.” That’s what they were looking for, a good IP that could utilize their value-add. Which is building meta-systems, building a knowledge dashboard for any kind of a knowledge base, and giving the people who input to the knowledge base the opportunity to reconstruct and reconfigure it so they don’t have to bring programmers in every time they want to change that knowledge base. A change is replicated throughout the system and every piece of hardware, so they don’t have multiple fronts every time you try to make a change to how knowledge is being configured or viewed. You don’t have to change anything but that and it’s all connected together. It’s hard for me as a lay person to understand what they’re doing but these guys are doing some deep work with some big organizations.

X: There wasn’t an official GTD app five years ago, or one year ago, so what’s changed? It sounds like you feel this company has made an advance here in the science of knowledge management or databases?

DA: It could be. Again, the jury is out. The reason I hadn’t picked anybody is that everybody who came to me already had a product. They just wanted me to endorse it and to say good things about it. Whatever. The guys who did the Outlook add in, they did have the GTD imprimatur. We looked at that and it’s a cool way to do it, but even then we said it’s not required. These guys came to me tabula rasa and said “We don’t know what’s needed, but we think we have a technology that could be utilized to help knit together a lot of this stuff.”

X: You mentioned Evernote. And OmniFocus is really popular. And Siri is changing the game in how you get data into the phone and back out of it. With all those advances, do you really feel like we haven’t gotten any closer to that “magic GTD thing”?

DA: No, it’s just speeding it up. None of it is game-changing. You could do all of this before. There will come a point where yes, there will be a step change. I think it was Windows 3.1 where it hit a sweet spot where now I could maneuver between my applications much as my minded wanted to, and that was game changing. There has not been a lot of game-changing stuff, really, in terms of really changing how we think. It more just speeds up how we slice and dice information. I’m talking about game-changing in the sense that word processing and spreadsheets were game changing. Like relational databases. Those things truly changed the games, in terms of, Wow, we can now do and think about things differently than before we had that tool.

X: And are you thinking about this new collaboration in that way?

DA: Yes. I’m hoping that. That’s their dream, to figure out how can they do that.

Q: I want to read you a quote from our last interview in 2006, for Technology Review. You said, “If I had a billion dollars I would build a thing that could do a customized weekly review. It would trigger the right questions and make me think about the results. For instance, it would say ‘You’re going to New York. Would you like me to get theater tickets?’” That sounded interesting to me because you’ve often said that the weekly review is one of the trickiest, most difficult things to carry out. Do you see anything happening in that area?

DA: All of that is part of the blueprint of what would a real thing look like. I need the map of “what do I need to look at once a week,” and here’s your map. “I’m now going to talk to my boss.” Here’s your boss map. What are the questions you need to ask so that you’re appropriately engaged with whatever you’re engaged in? So if you’ve just been to a meeting and you need to clear your head, punch the Clear Your Head button and boom. By the way, after I come back from the meeting you’re going to want to say, “Here are the questions I want to ask myself.”

So you’re going to be able to template in, how do I most appropriately engage with X, Y, and Z. You’ll be able to template that yourself. You’re processing your e-mail. Is there a project tied to that, yes or no? Yes. Great. As soon as I’ve identified a project, I’ve set it up so that it instantly brings Mind Manager on to the screen and gives me two minutes with an alarm for me to just dump right then what’s on my mind about that project. And go longer if I want. And if not, stop, it goes ding, what’s the next action. And it will let me know which projects don’t have next actions tied to them. It will be very visual if you want to see it. Basically all the stuff you need to see if you want to be totally appropriately engaged with your world.

All these other guys have come up with their list managers, with bells and whistles. You need that—you do need a good list manager. But you don’t have an intelligent way to start to work those things that you could then program in. You want to be able to hit F12 and clear your head.

X: It sounds a little bit like taking the graphics and flowcharts you distribute for GTD and actually bringing them alive.

DA: Exactly. And not just alive, but personalized to you and the moment you’re in, with incredible depth and breadth. You can take this as deep as you want it. How much more do you want to think about this. Where would that go. How would it tie into X, Y, and Z. Every time I think I about these things, I want the ties to all of that.

X: So that’s the kind of thing that might also show up in the new collaboration?

A: Absolutely. That will be part of it. Obviously if we were going to build a real thing out there it will have to be an agile startup with a minimum viable product that is unique. How do we crowdsource this? We’re at the stage right now of trying to figure that out.

X: To circle back to where we started, I had an intuition that with the advances in thinking about software and interfaces, there must be an attempt underway to repackage everything you’ve done over the years and make it even more relevant and more powerful on our mobile devices. It sounds like the model and the basic process hasn’t changed, but the devices are so much more powerful in terms of the ability to move information around with the touch of a button, that you can finally think about getting a full GTD system onto a phone or a tablet.

DA: But that’s still just moving information around. That’s why I say no game changers have happened. It’s just finer ways to slice and dice your data. That’s all you’re talking about. The problem with technology is it’s seducing everyone into thinking you can actually fix this. It doesn’t. But it’s not because of the information. It’s because of the behavior. We are in the behavior change business. I can give you the model. I can help you install the model. You are going to have to implement the model and keep it going.

X: So if it turned out that a little paper notepad in your wallet was all you needed to keep track of your commitments, then that would be the place to stop your search for new technologies?

DA: Yeah, if you were just trying to maximize and optimize what you’re doing in terms of your own productivity, then you’d stop. But if you’re interested in what else is going on, you keep looking.

I’ve been trying to free myself up operationally from my business so that I could have time to spend with Charles and the Intentional group because this is really, really fun. What if we found a way to give you an intelligent system for what to see, when, and why, andmaybe build some education in that’s not Naziware, that is facilitating by its very structure. That would be the ideal. Not everybody just junking up their computer with all kinds of stuff that’s dispersive rather than integrative.

That’s why Dropbox and Evernote were so cool, they began to pull things back together. Instead of having things in multiple different places they began to bring things back together. That is the trend that’s going to win, and needs to win, and we’re just trying to do that with a little more intelligence. And with a larger “meta” scope of what that might look like. And we have no idea whether, or when, or in what way. First we just need to know where the holes are.

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

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