We live in a world full of stress, commitments, massive amounts of information, to-do lists that are always growing, and emails multiplying in our in-box. All of these things and more are true among church leaders. especially those who are engaged in new church start-ups. In order to help us think through these challenges, we talked with David Allen, who Fast Company magazine calls a “personal productivity guru” and “one of the world’s most influential thinkers on productivity”. He has written the best-selling book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 2001), as well as a more recent follow-up, Ready For Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life (Viking, 2003). Articles about Allen have appeared in Fortune magazine. the Wall Street Journal. Wired magazine. NPR. and the BBC Allen has coached top executives at Microsoft, the World Bank, the U.S. Navy, and scores of Fortune 500 companies. He now travels throughout the world consulting, coaching, and teaching public seminars on organizational workflow and personal productivity. We spoke with him from his home in Ojai, California.
So, What are the key concepts that you would want someone who is coming to your material for the first time to grasp?
I think the key concept is capturing, clarifying and managing the massive number of commitments a person makes at multiple horizons-with themselves and everybody else. Most people simply don’t realize how many commitments they have made, and the level of stress and distraction they live with when they are not responsible to them. They’re trying to sit on top of this horse, but they find themselves being driven by the horse instead of guiding it.
So they have all sorts of things spinning around in their heads as a result of these various commitments, and need a way of capturing them.
Not only do you need to capture them, but you also need to clarify what exactly they mean to you. So, for example, you go outside and say, “The yard needs mowing.” Now, a yard that needs mowing lets you know very easily what you need to do. But if you walk out and say, “I think I might need a gardener,” now you have just stepped into a whole different world. Now you actually have time to think. Now you have a project called “research gardeners” to see if you actually want to get one, and if so, how. Now, every time you walk out into your yard, you feel a certain pressure. That’s the difference between “mow your yard” and “ do I get a gardener?” Most people don’t realize that this involves knowledge-work, and it takes real effort. It’s the concrete moves of actually having to think. You actually have to sit down and think about what “done” means for this project, and you also have to decide what “doing” looks like. That’s how you get things done: you define what “done” means and you decide what “doing” looks like. Neither one of those conclusions show up already prepared for you.
A lot of people, I’m guessing, handle these decisions by pushing them off to the side and trying to ignore them.
Most people finally decide what “doing” looks like and what “done” means in crisis. In fact, productive behaviors actually show up in crisis. In a crisis you have focus, lack of distractions, you’re highly engaged toward the desired outcome-that’s high performance behavior. The problem is that it’s coming out of fight/flight, your forebrain has shut down and you’re not living with any kind of relaxed intelligence. Now you are living your life in highly reactive, knee-jerking way. Most people, for example, make decisions about what to do with elder care for their parents when the heat forces them to, not when they first become aware that this is going to be an issue. So, the big paradigm shift required is this: learning to make decisions about capturing and clarifying stuff when it first comes to your attention as opposed to when the heat forces you to.
Is one of the things unique about modernity that we’ve made so many more commitments than in generations past?
Most people reading Cutting Edge have, in the last 72 hours, taken in more change-producing, project creating and priority-shifting information than their parents got in a month, some of them even in a year. The truth is that when things change, that impacts all of your projects and priorities. Most people haven’t trained themselves to look around and ask, “Which priorities can I get rid of?” If they don’t do that, it’s a formula for blow-up. People simply have a limited capacity to manage a certain number of commitments. So what’s different about modernity is that, first, a lot more input is coming at us that generates more potential commitments and, second, a great deal more of intense thinking is required to clarify how we want to respond to those commitments.
A lot of time management systems say that the key is getting a better big picture, or clarifying your values, and that the appropriate responses will follow.
You do need to do those things. But those are not the only horizons. “My purpose is to serve God” is not going to help you with deciding which of the 2,000 emails you’ve got backed up should be answered first. It will help a little bit. It will help you define some objectives and goals you set to make sure you are expressing your work for God, which is going to help you define the thirty to a hundred projects you actually have in the real world to make that happen, and that’s going to help you a lot in finding the 160-200 next action steps you’ve got for any of those projects. But, by the way, how’s your health? And
how are your family relationships? And, by the way, how is the yard? And, oh, by the way …. So, yes knowing that you are serving God is at least going to give you the motivation to sit down and say, “Gee, I’m burning the toast and I’m yelling at my spouse, which doesn’t seem like a Christian thing to do”, which may turn you back around to say, “How then do I deal with this practically?” with some internal standards about quality of life. The most spiritual people I know are some of the most grounded, practical, get-it-done people the planet.
For the person who is saying, “What you’re talking about is exactly what I need to do,” what are the basic tools he or she needs to start working with?
You need an in-basket and a pen and paper, so you can first of all capture all the stuff you commit to when you make the commitments. You need “capture-buckets” where you can capture these commitments in retrievable ways. That’s because the most irretrievable place for filing something is in your brain. The mind retrieves things based on how recent it was and how much emotional content you have tied to it, and that’s a crappy way to run a filing system. Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.
Everybody has felt themselves up against the wall where they have so many things in their head that they feel forced to sit down and make a list. If they actually understood why that helps, they’d never keep anything in their heads again! If you use your brain for filing. you end up not finishing things when you think of them. And the older you get, the ideas you have for what to do with your church aren’t going to come to you at church; they are going to leak out at the beach, on the bus, and in other strange places. You need to have toots to capture ideas, commitments, things to do, things you then need to think about and decide what they mean.
You need to then train yourself- once you’ve learned to capture things in an in-basket or a list-to go down each one of these things and decide much more discreetly what exactly each one of those things means to you and what your commitments are about them. Is this item a crazy that you might want to do someday? Or is it something you are committed to move on right high performance behavior. The problem is that projects. And now? Is it trash? Is it reference material? This is the point where you sit down and get more discreet about what things mean to you.
And you have to set aside blocks of time to do that.
For the typical professional these days, it takes somewhere between 30 to 90 minutes a day just to do that. It takes on average about half a minute per item to decide and organize. Then, once you’ve decided what to do with it, if you aren’t going to act on it right then, you need to keep track of it somewhere. If I’ve decided I now need to make a call about my new gardener, but not right now, I need to have an organizing tool for keeping track of things like calls that have to wait until I am near a phone or have time. The process of picking the thing up, deciding that the next step is to make a phone call, and then putting it into some list of phone calls to make whether you type it into a category in Outlook, or write it on a page in a planner, or throw it into a file folder called “Calls to Make” – that takes about half a minute per item, if you average it all out.
But in some ways, you are still talking about something different than the person who has tried prioritizing things in their Daytimer.
Nearly every to·do list I’ve ever seen is usually nothing more than an incomplete list of still· unclear stuff. It’s either attracting or repulsing you every time you look at it. The problem with most to-do lists is that you did not finish the thinking so every time you look at it, you are reminded subliminally that you’ve got thinking to do that you haven’t done yet. And all that does is stress you out even more! And the list is incomplete to begin with. So your head ends up being the only system you trust, and now you’ve got this extra thing out there that you trying to keep up but you are not really keeping it up, so it’s out of date. And all it’s doing is creating guilt and beating you up every time you look at it.
That’s the problem. The problem is not the tool. The problem is that people are populating these tools with information that’s incomplete, inconsistent, and only half thought-through. Therefore it’s not a system. A system is complete, current and consistent. Every phone call you need to make in your life needs to be listed someplace you can see when you are at phone and have time. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a system.
Most people don’t worry about where they need to be and when because they trust that they can look at their calendar. The problem is that 95% of their life is not calendared! If they understood the principle they use with their calendar, they’d realize they could get everything else out of their head just like they got the stuff for their calendar out of their head, and put that information in a place they trust the same way they trust their calendar.
You mentioned in the book that one of the things you’ve done with some executives is just taken them out and buy them a good filing cabinet.
Yes. One of the first people 1 coached 25 years ago didn’t even have a desk. He was one of these people who had such a low ego-he was a chiropractor running an alternative health clinic-that he didn’t want to have an office because he didn’t want people to think he had a Big Office. So he didn’t have anyplace to even plop a piece of paper down. The first thing we did was buy him a desk, put some stakes in the ground and give him a place to sit down.
Do you find that when you consult with people, the surface level issues mean that you actually have to work with them at deeper levels in terms of what they want to be about, what they want to be doing?
Well, it all rolls downhill. Ultimately, if you don’t care about what you are doing or you don’t know why you are doing it, you will find every excuse in the world to avoid doing these things. If actually attempting to proactively manage your time and commitments is going to force you to deal with things that are closer to your soul, you may avoid it like the plague as well. Getting organized would force you to step up to that thing you need to do! The truth is that I am very behavioral, as a consultant. I say, “Hey, we don’t have to deal with that if you don’t want to.” We work with work flow.
Why are you on the planet? That’s your primary work. Everyone has one project-to fulfill their destiny. That’s your game, and ultimately until you get the answer to that and orient your life around it, you are going to have something gnawing at you. All of that is central to consult with people about, if they will look at it. But most people don’t have the bandwidth, the capacity, to work at that level. Vision will get you into the ballpark, but if you get your pant leg caught in the bicycle chain on the way in, you’ll curse the vision that got you into the park! Somebody loves God, that’s what got him involved in the church. But then when he fee ls like the world is being pulled out from under him, he may start blaming the wrong source.
Let me give a couple of scenarios. Someone is leading a church in the start-up stages. They don’t have a team to delegate to; they are doing the marketing, the sweeping up, everything. What are some of the unique challenges that you work on with somebody who’s doing that?
Well, they are wearing so many different kinds of hats that require very different kinds of personalities to engage with things. If your brain is still wrapped around the pennies your check register was off by, it’s hard to go party and have your church social. The ability to be able to compartmentalize your work and define it and get control of it makes it a lot easier to switch hats real fast, which is what people in those stages have to do. If you carry one meeting into the next, or one role into the next, you are never fully available and engaged.
Another issue to deal with is, how do I make decisions about who to start to bringing in to help? How do you start to build support? You need to understand what your own weaknesses are and how to create your own system. The problem is that people often have such trouble delegating because they cannot manage their own systems and they won’t give away anything they can’t control.
How about pastors of large churches of 500 to 1,000 or more?
I don’t think the issues are all that different, actually. Start-ups feel the issues more keenly because they are having to meet them so fast, presuming that the start up is successful. But in both cases you find yourself with a whole lot more to do than you can do, because each one of the things you are doing demands more of your time to do well.
You emphasize in Getting Things Done how important certain “tricks” are to making these things work. Are there certain tricks that turn the lights on for people again and again?
Well, the Two Minute Rule is worth its weight in gold. It says, any action you are ever going to take at all that will take less than two minutes, you should do the first time you see it, because it’ll take you longer to track it and file it than it will take to just do it the first time it’s in your face. If people get nothing more out of the book than that. they’ll add an extra six months to their life! It also gets people thinking, “Wow, how can I get closure on this?” Most people haven’t trained themselves to get value out of closure. And yet everyone experiences the value of doing that. So training yourself to get quick closure on some things begins training you to think about that whole process more consciously. So it’s not just the Two Minute Rule. It’s learning to ask, “How can I get this off my plate?” It trains people, for instance, to throw out a lot more mail on the front end instead of dumping it on the counter. Just simple little things like that can change how folks approach their lives.
What are some of the most important ways of dealing with email?
The big thing there is to not let email pile up into this enormous blob in your in-basket without getting it reviewed and sorted in some way. You’ve got to make an executive decision about what exactly emails mean to you. Deleting the ones you can, filing the ones that you have no action step for but want to keep, handling the two-minute ones right away, will leave you with only two kinds of emails-ones that take longer than two minutes to read, negotiate and manage, and ones that represent something for which you are waiting for more input from somebody else. A quick way to manage that is to create two folders, one called Action and one called Waiting For, and file the remainder accordingly. That gets your in-box empty. The only problem with that is that people have never seen their in-box empty, and they get so excited that they never go back and open the actual folders called Action and Waiting For. No trick is going to get rid of the necessity of going back and looking at stuff and making executive decisions about them, which people are often avoiding. But it makes it a lot easier to train yourself to use a system to sort things, so you are left with 16 emails that require actual work, and relieves you of having to keep re-opening, re-thinking and re-deciding the ones that don’ t.
Nothing is going to replace taking time to sit down and actually think.
Yep. I’m sorry, but hard thinking is required to get things done.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress· Free Productivity by David Allen Ready Far Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life by David Allen One of the best websites on personal productivity and time management which incorporates much of the principles found in Getting Things Done is WWW.43folders.com. For information about productivity seminars and executive coaching with David Allen, or to listen to audio interviews, visit his website at www.davidco.com