Productivity guru David Allen: ‘Your head’s a crappy office, write everything down’


What are the rules when there are no rules? And what does it take to survive in the startup world? David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done, the Art of Stress-free Productivity, who was in Bengaluru recently, answers these questions.

“Much of the stress that people feel doesn't come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they've started.” David Allen

Understanding this simple statement is the art of stress-free productivity. And what better time to revisit how individuals and organisations can refocus on their productivity than the beginning of the year.

David Allen

Productivity guru David Allen, whose bestselling book Getting Things Done, the Art of Stress-free Productivity, which has sold over two million copies in 30 languages, was in India recently to share his productivity secrets.

Since it was first published 15 years ago, the book has evolved into a methodology that has been adopted by one million people and over 1,000 corporations, including 40 percent of Fortune 100 companies.

For someone who dreamt of becoming the President of the United States, 71-year-old Allen has had an interesting career path, which has included jobs as a magician, waiter, karate teacher, landscaper, vitamin distributor, glass-blowing lathe operator, travel agent, gas station manager, U-Haul dealer, moped salesman, restaurant cook, personal growth trainer, manager of a lawn service company, and manager of a travel agency.


“When you have a lot of friends who are starting different businesses you end up becoming the second guy,” explains Allen, on how he managed to get his fingers in so many pies. Talking to YourStory on the sidelines of a coaching session with some top executives in Bengaluru recently, he said while he was helping friends, he found out that there were people who did such things formally and they are called corporate trainers.

The right coach

Allen is today recognised as one of the top five executive coaches in the US and has spent over 30 years talking about the importance of getting “stuff” off our minds and into a trusted external system.

In an interaction with YourStory, he threw light on how entrepreneurs can overcome challenges and focus on things that matter, and the art of delegation. He also talked about what are the rules when there are no rules? And what it takes to survive in the startup world?

“The master key to managing yourself or any situation is to be appropriately engaged with it, no matter who it is,” Allen tells me. “Individuals need to ask themselves, 'how do I appropriately engage with what I am committed to doing now?'.”

The essence of productivity is action and outcome. “So, you need to ask what would 'done' mean and what does 'doing' look like,” Allen explains the starting point for anyone struggling with productivity and outcomes.

He suggests writing it all down -- what is one trying to accomplish? The plan need not be perfect. They can change it as one goes along, but there should be a starting point.

“Clarifying the next step is the best practice. What outcome are you after? Asking yourself what’s the next step is the most important aspect of getting things done. Get engaged with the task at hand. Be agile,” he says.

When they are starting out, an entrepreneur is spinning a lot of plates.

“You are wearing a lot of hats, you have to wear the party hat, the business hat, the developer hat. It can be crazy. Thus it becomes really important that you write everything down. Get a whiteboard. Get it out of your head. Externalise your thinking. This often helps clear things out a lot. Then, find people you trust who have been that road and can help you out. Buy them dinner. Say, ‘hey, what would you do if you were me?’ Don’t be shy about that.”

Stay clear

Allen says that though all this is common sense often when people confront complex things, they lose their way.

“The methodology I have devised is how do I stay clear when things are complex. When there is a surprise. Certainly, entrepreneurs have to deal with a lot of surprises. They need to recalibrate fast when they get new data and not let critical stuff fall through the cracks,” he adds.

He emphasises taking care of the sub things rather than going after the big game. “If a startup wants to scale, what are the sub things that need to be taken care of? It will be the finance, staffing, tech, and so on. Focus on those. Make sure you have that list and keep it current.”

But, most importantly, Allen calls for building regular reflection time so that one does not burn out. “When you are in the harbour, you need a detailed map so that you do not hit a rock. But if you are sailing on the sea, you need a different kind of map that is showing you the directions. So, figure out which maps are relevant to you at what point in time. What are the goals and parts I need to have in place,” he says.

No doubt, I am feverishly jotting down all these pointers making mental notes to help my productivity. But hey, no mental notes. Write them down.

  • Everyone wants to control the big things. But you need to control the daily.
  • Control and focus. Capture, clarify, reflect, organise, and engage -- that’s how you get the kitchen under control.
  • Write everything down -- but you cannot do it here (points to the head). Your head’s a crappy office. It does not give you the ability to renegotiate.

Here are some more gems from David Allen that I found and should be worthwhile to share.

  • Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it's not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.
  • Suffice it to say that something automatic and extraordinary happens in your mind when you create and focus on a clear picture of what you want. 
  • Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined.
  • The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.


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