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Keep your backlog at zero: David Allen

Interview with Productivity coach and author of the bestseller Getting Things Done

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David Allen

Raghu Krishnan 

David Allen

The bigger your backlog, any surprise, interruption or change will put you off. If you don't have a backlog, you sense new opportunity, David Allen tells Raghu Krishnan

Do business leaders, irrespective of the market they operate in, have similar concerns about productivity? Has the penetration of technology aggravated their concerns?


I see no cultural, gender or industry bias. There is clearly a mindset of people who are attracted to this and you see this as universal. Everybody has got what I call the stress of opportunity. There are so many choices and options of what to do, it is pretty easy for someone to get stressed. Technology has been a seductive way to look at us, to get distracted. It is very easy to get addicted to the tones, rings and the dopamine rushes of WhatsApp and other mobile messengers. It is not the medium. If you know what you are doing, it is a great time to be alive. If you don't you are a toast.

Are you suggesting leaders should keep phones on silent mode and focus on executing strategy? Won't that be counterproductive when your competitors are using technology wherever possible?

I have done spiritual practices and meditation for over 45 years. There is nothing that beats shifting gear and being able to lift your attitude. It is very easy to get distracted and not do that. It is not just meditation, (it is also) turning off your phone and going off-site with your team. You can get distracted there also - by the motorcycles, by nature - but it is that the digital world makes getting distracted so easy and it is right there in your pocket. It is the primary factor for creating addiction - which is random positive reinforcement.

So what is the formula to improve productivity?

People have all kinds of things in their backlog. They are constantly checking their inboxes, checking their iPhones, just not to miss anything because they are sitting with a huge backlog of things that are swamped. It is tough. I discovered that radical approach. Keep your backlog at zero. Practically, the bigger your backlog, any surprise, interruption or change will put you off. If you don't have a backlog, you sense a new opportunity, you will say, influence my world.

I think people are addicted to stress. I think life is a lot more complex than you think. If you like to cook, how should your kitchen be? Clean. Then, you are more productive when you have the freedom to do a creative mess. But if you are in a mess, you can't be creative. If you want the freedom to be creative. clean up the mess. What you expect in your kitchen, you apply that to your consciousness. It takes time to adapt.

You spoke about the stress of opportunity. What could managers do to reduce stress and mitigate the effects of stress?

A lot of our work is on how you optimise your intersections. You intersect with your life partner, your colleagues in the office etc. In all these intersections you commit - "I said I would". If you say I would do and then you don't you break the trust. Trust is the key. I have agreed with myself to agree with you. That is the source of all the stress - because people are breaking those agreements. Most people haven't got a clue of how many things they have committed to. And when you don't keep your own commitment, you undermine your self-esteem, undermine your energy, you do all kinds of things and you project that on all kinds of people. The world is not overwhelmed or confused. It is only our engagement with it. That you can control.

What is the reason? One would expect a certain level of prowess and understanding when someone has risen so far up the ranks.

I don't know. If they had figured it out, I would have had another job. But we are not born doing that. We are not born and asking hi mom, what are the next set of things I need to do. Those are key questions. You actually have to use cognitive force power in order to do the things you to need to do, to get clear, to manage the intersections for the agreements to happen. It doesn't happen automatically. A lot of people haven't realised the price they are paying if they have not managed those things really well. Most people have tried to use their head as their office and scrap yard.

So how should managers train themselves not to take bad decisions and, to borrow a phrase from you, manage those intersections?

If you are playing soccer, there are only two things in mind - you have the goal post and the next player. You may have a strategy, but you may not know what will happen next until you take the next action. But you keep going on. Outcome and action are the zeros and ones of productivity. Your head is for having ideas and not for holding it. Anything that occurs to you twice is indication that you are not appropriately engaged with whatever it is.

You have suggested that to be able to achieve one's productivity goals one has to be clear in one's mind. But isn't that something many wise people have suggested before - be calm, cleanse your mind of bad thoughts, meditate?

Sure. But if you still need cat food and you are trying to meditate, the cat food will pop in your head. So you better keep pen and paper handy. Because as you start to relax, a lot of those things would surface that you haven't captured. It is good idea to make a note.

Your prescription in Getting Things Done are largely focused on individuals. Can they be stretched to help an organisation?

If anyone person starts to implement this, it affects everyone because it affects the intersections. In a meeting, if you ask the questions, what are you trying to accomplish with this meeting and by what time, the meeting is not going to start till you get that clarity.

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First Published: Mon, March 28 2016. 00:09 IST
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