Get-it-done guru's formula: take small steps, and relax

Productivity gurus have been around since the late-19th century, when Frederick W. Taylor observed factory workers in England, and then designed techniques and tools to save them time.

Today they're called management consultants, and they're more likely to count keystrokes than coal shovels.

David Allen is one of the most sought-after experts in the field. He's consulted with organizations from Microsoft to the Justice Department.

In his first book, "Getting Things Done" (Viking Press), Mr. Allen offers advice to help the average worker become more at ease and efficient both at work and at home.

Allen recently stopped by the Monitor's offices to discuss the basics of his philosophy.

What are some simple steps toward better productivity?

There are two questions you need to ask yourself about everything that lands on your desk, or even something to take care of at home. What is the outcome that I'm trying to accomplish here - the purpose of this letter, meeting, or e-mail? Second, what's the very next step I would need to take to make that outcome happen? Is that an e-mail, a phone call, buy something from the store? That's essentially the thought process.

But often people try to take on too much at once?

Yes, they see the whole task and freak themselves out with all the possibilities of all the options, and don't choose one to focus on to get it going. You need to train yourself to make those decisions on the front end when they emerge. It is quite a new behavior set. People know how to do it, but they only make the decision when a crisis forces them to make it. You really only need about 20 seconds to think about what the project is - and what [is] the next action you need to take to move it to closure.

Is it more difficult to remain focused in our current work environment?

In the '50s, most people made their living making things and moving things. When you walked away from work it was visibly evident what you left. We now have a work culture that is work you have to think about. I don't know anyone who shows up at their job and is handed a list with the projects they have to do, and a list of the actions they need to take to move them forward. It is not visibly self-evident what those projects are. It's subtle because we think it's clear, except when you really get down to it, oftentimes the clarity is not there.

And the Internet only makes that tougher?

There's always the question: How good could this project be? How much research could you do for it? You could surf on the Web for hours getting additional information for it. There's almost an infinite amount of information to add value to it. If you only had one project, that would make [your job] easier, but if you're like most people on the planet you have 30 projects going at the same time. So you have to learn to manage your time.

What tools are essential to take care of small tasks?

The first things you've got to have are pen, paper, and an in-basket. Just so you can jot [down] ideas and capture input. You want to give yourself permission to not have to make a decision about something when you first have the idea. [Later, when] you've made the decisions about what to keep and act on, ... you can use organizers, a folder or notebook, or [personal digital assistants], or desktop software.

But you have to use the tools effectively?

An in-box can get out of control because people don't put everything in there, so it sort of spreads all around the office and the house. Often the reason it spreads is because people ... start dropping things in what I call the "huh?" stack - on the side of their desk, on the floor, in the drawer, on the refrigerator, on the visors of their car, and in their pockets. So right on the front end there are huge leaks, because they aren't collecting these loose ends into a seamless, leakproof place.

You've said that rigorous organizing leaves us time to relax, which helps us function. But doesn't high performance require a certain intensity?

Many people think that inner peace is something that would be anathema to high performance in a professional environment. But if you [look at] sports or martial arts, you see there is a great deal of inner work. In the martial arts, it's a physical truth that your ability to generate power is proportional to your ability to relax. People are beginning to discover that that applies to work, also.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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