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Interview

"Twitter to me is like a cocktail party. Step in and walk about"
In the second part of a three-part interview, productivity expert David Allen says that more than time, people need to make space

Is there a balance, because it certainly helps in outreach? You have a million followers on Twitter!

As I said, if you know what you are doing, it is a great time to be alive. The rest of the world is wired and you lose your competitive advantage if you are not. If you were the only person in the world with a processor or spreadsheet you would win. But now everybody has them. With Skype you can hold a meeting anywhere. I have all those Twitter followers but Twitter to me is like a cocktail party. I will step in and walk about. It is extremely useful if you are trying to network. I don’t know if it is a matter of balance. It is a matter of what is useful to you. Is it improving your world or is it detracting from it.

You talk about clear space. Clearly getting to clear space it easier said than done. So how can individuals get to a clear space?

The GTD methodology elucidates the five critical steps of how you get something under control and how you quieten down. That is capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. Those five steps have their own best practices and their own best tools. You need to identify and capture what has your attention. Then you need to decide very specifically why it has your attention and what you need to do about it. That is the clarify step.

If it is not something that needs to be finished then you need to park it somewhere so that you don’t have to keep rethinking about it. Once you have parked it in the appropriate place then you have to still make sure that you are reflecting and reviewing the contents and the inventories of those commitments at different levels. Step five is where do I put my intention, my involvement right now? If you have done steps one, two, three and four appropriately then you will be making a trusted choice about what you will do as opposed to ‘I hope this is right’. It sounds simple but it is challenging for people to change their habits to actually do that consistently.

Does it work the same way for organizations? How does one address their inherent complexity?

If you are just cranking widgets or stacking boxes or where the work shows up physically, that is not that complex. You don’t need to figure out what to do, what you need to do is obvious. But if you have been tasked to initiate a program to implement diversity amongst your box stackers, it gets complex.

When I was first did this 30 years ago I thought that the more sophisticated and the higher up I would go in terms of management the less they would be interested in this because they would be already doing it. And I found just the opposite. The higher up I got, the more pain they were in and the more value they got out of applying this stuff.

It is funny that the people who need GTD the least are the most attracted to it. So I get to work with some of the best and busiest and brightest people. They are the ones who are the most sensitive. It used to puzzle me and what GTD does is that it creates clear space and relieves drag on the system. The people most interested in relieving drag on the system are the fastest people. It is a big deal for the executive to suddenly be able to leave work an hour earlier and be present when their kids play football or just be present in their life. Everybody thinks they need more time, but they don’t need time, they need space.

How can executives create space?

First, they need to build reflection time: a two hour review at the end of every week. You better close the door and catch up. It is really about orienting yourself.  What do you need to look at before you spend time with your board or what do you need to be reminded of when going home to spend the weekend with your family? The fact that people look at their calendars is an indicator that they know their head can’t do it. They can’t keep a calendar just in their head. They need to step back and review and reflect on it to sort of locate themselves in space and time.

How often should executives be looking at their strategic plan? How often should they be rethinking the purpose of their company or their core values? How often should they be looking at key projects that they are committed to complete? How often should they be looking to delegate to their key lieutenant and following up on those? The answer is as often as you need to get that stuff off your mind. But taking a couple of hours to reflect on the weekend is a must. It is extremely valuable but it is one of the toughest habits to instill because nobody feels like they have time to stop and reflect.

Can organisations put policies in place to enable that?

I don’t know whether you can create a policy that requires executives to close their doors and turn off emails for two hours. I don’t know if anybody will be willing to do that. It is impossible to legislate systems or methodologies for people. All you can do is hold them accountable to the outcome. We do a lot of in-house training and many times that’s because the top customers are very senior or very influential people, they get the value-add. But if you slip back to old habits, it is pretty easy to fall off this wagon.

Anything potentially significant that affects how you think and operate is going to take time. It takes two years to learn to tango or speak Italian or cook. God only knows how long it takes to be a good parent. We are starting to work with kids now and kids get these pretty fast. They don’t have all the bad habits to change. With adults it takes most people a couple of years to stop doing something in their heads even if they want to change that habit.

Click on the link to read part one and three

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