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Interview

"People are getting hooked onto social media and sub-optimising their cognitive
Productivity expert David Allen talks about the need to keep things simple

Amsterdam, where he is now based has great weather but productivity consultant David Allen has seen a lot of sunshine in California, where he lived for most of his life. Allen hit the big-time in 2001 with his best-seller Getting Things Done. The steps outlined in the book not only became a byword for improving personal productivity, Allen still continues to consult top corporate chieftains on making the most of their day. He recently wrote a revised editon and in the first of a three-part interview talks about why the basic principles of GTD are timeless.

How has the world changed since you first wrote Getting Things Done?

The most obvious thing is the digital flood or the always-on 24/7 social media. To deal with that, there are all this really cool apps that are showing up and doing all kind of neat things. If you know what you are doing, it is a great time to be alive. If you don’t, it is overwhelming and potentially frustrating. Figuring it out and threading through it can add another new project to your life.

You mentioned new apps. Are there any new apps that have got your attention in terms of enhancing productivity?

No, not really. All the apps have been essentially been copying the GTD methodology. They are basically just list managers with different kinds of bells and whistles. A list manager is something that everyone needs and ought to have if they are going to be productive. But any of them will do and pen and paper are still effective. There is nothing particularly dramatic or game-changing about what I have seen.

Is there something you look forward to deal with this digital flood?

If I could design the future, I don’t really need new apps or any new operating system. You need a dashboard that can manage or monitor all of them and weave them together appropriately. You are not going to replace Evernote, Dropbox or things like that. It would be nice to design another app on top of all that and have it do really smart things. But there is nothing out there that can do that yet. If Moore’s Law continues and maybe even speeds up, we might be able to do that.

You are talking about a dashboard that combines both your personal life as well as your workspace?

Sure, you need to combine as long as you need it combined. There are certain things that you don’t need to be reminded of unless you are specifically in that context. If you are still doing paper based bill paying – not many people in the world are still doing that – but if you were, you just go to the basket or the file that has all the bills and pay them at the end of the week. You don’t need to carry a reminder because you only need it on Saturday afternoon at your desk.

But if you decide to run errands during lunch hour, your list of errands need to be available to effectively optimise your time and resources. You just need them together if you can use them together. A lot of people, by the way, just can’t for office political reasons. They think they might be fired any day and if the company is going to grab their computer, they don’t want their personal information on that. That is understandable. But that is just a constraint of the environment. That is not about productivity.

All this digital flood; does it make getting to clear space much more difficult or is it up to the individual to decide how to get to a clear space?

Yes, that’s true. That said; there is new data out in a great book called Brain Chains by Theo Compernolle. It is an aggregation of cognitive science research which shows that a lot of people are getting hooked onto highly addictive social media and sub-optimising their cognitive function. That is something that can easily undermine someone’s productivity and clarity simply because of the nature of how your brain can get addicted to the digital world. It fully supports the GTD idea that you need to compartmentalise so that your mind doesn’t keep spending all its energy on all kinds of things when it can’t do anything about them. So that principle of cognitive science has just validated the GTD methodology. If you are trying to be clear, don’t wrap yourself around stuff that will get wheels spinning in your head.

If you truly capture and organize everything to a trusted place, your head gets to be quiet. The problem with a lot of the digital world is that people aren’t really processing all that digital stuff, so it is lurking in their psyche all the time. It can be highly addictive to be constantly wondering what’s there. Compernolle actually quotes a study that shows even just carrying your smartphone with you and wondering what is happening on it actually leads to a dopamine rush in the head. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the digital world. It is just that it makes it so seductive to have your brain to not do real thinking and not be very clear because of how seductive it is to be involved in that world.

Click on the link to read part two and three

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