David Allen: Why you should keep things off your mind to get into “the zone”

What is productivity? Many would describe it as the time you spend in “the zone” when you get things done. The time you are fully present, totally engaged with what happens, time you spend in the productive flow. But how to get there? David Allen, one of the responsible people that elicited my interest in researching productivity, talked about his time-management method getting things done in on TED a few years back.

Being appropriately engaged with what is going on

The secret to stress-free productivity, according to Allen, is to be totally committed and engaged with just a single thing at a time. The more that is on your mind at the same time, the more inappropriately you are engaged, and the less you can focus on just doing the thing you should be doing. It may sound counter intuitive or even awkward, but the key to being able to fully engage with the current project/task is to park everything unrelated to the task on a separate list that you regularly revisit in the right time and trust that it lets you never forget a thought or idea.

Everything you cannot immediately complete and get off your mind (i.e. resolve within max. 2 minutes), you should put on a list and continue with what you actually committed to do at that time. Only then, you can use the full potential and capacity of your mind and only then, you will be maximize your focus on productivity!

“I only need two more hours!”

Similarly to what I’ve argued in my blog post on managing your time with priorities, Allen argues that we’ve all got the same 24 hours. Da Vinci, Einstein and Bach, who’ve all done incredible things, didn’t have more time than all of us. Probably, the only difference is that they didn’t have email, a major distractor of our time. Btw, did you know that Bach had 20 kids?

“The issue is definitely not time”, argues Allen, as it takes zero time to have a creative idea, be inspried or recognize an opportunity. The issue is that we have our minds full of other things, that we cannot use our full psychic bandwidth: our space to think is cluttered with those other things that prevent us from being innovative and creative! That’s why, if you have two more hours of work, you waste the time if you don’t have this creative bandwidth.

Make room for a “creative mess”

Emphasizing this point even more, Allen mentions that we need the freedom to create a mess, be creative, have crazy ideas and brainstorm. That’s when we are the most productive. If your head, your desk or your kitchen is a crazy mess, is cluttered with all the necessary stuff that you could easily move away, we don’t have room to create one (i.e. a creative mess). The result is that we lose perspective, our ability to focus, we feel stressed, spend more hours at work and are potentially threatening our health.

How to get stuff of your mind to get stuff done

First, Allen suggests to get rid of perfection, as it interferes with our flexibility and is never achieved anyways. Also, we should train our ability to shift our focus rapidly from one thing to another and just be fully focused on the one thing. We shouldn’t take things with us to the next meeting, from work to home or from home to work.

To get stuff of our minds, we should write everything down that goes through our minds, even if it doesn’t feel like it is important at the moment. When we revisit our lists (do this regularly, e.g. once a week!), we should clarify what outcome we are committed to finish and what the very next action step is. Finally, we need to create maps and hierarchies of these lists and direct actions, plan them for the short- and long-term and constantly reassess them. That’s how we get things done!

How I am getting things done

Since I’ve read the book a couple of years ago, I try to follow the principle of writing everything down and getting it off my mind. I am using Outlook Tasks for my immediate short-term tasks (up to 4 weeks), and have lists of project notes and long-term tasks in OneNote. I use both lists to plan my work days and work weeks in advance, and I regularly visit them to retrospect how they advance my goals. I feel that this principle has really helped me to better use my time freely and focused on just one thing. Still, it’s difficult to do and requires constant re-learning on my part ;).

 Watch David Allen’s TED talk on YouTube or read the book: