A little while ago I had the privilege of interviewing David Allen. If you haven’t heard of him, then I highly recommend his resources. David is the father of productivity, and I was thrilled that he agreed to be interviewed with I’m a New Teacher. As a new teacher, in your first few years you will have to quickly learn how to prioritise tasks, handle (often) conflicting deadlines, and manage commitments and expectations. In this interview David discusses how to: effectively manage commitments, recognise overwhelm before its too late and how to achieve more by focusing on important tasks. Read on for my instructive interview with David Allen:
It is impossible to handle two things simultaneously with concentrated focused attention.
M: First of all, can you tell my readers little bit about your ‘Getting Things Done’ approach?
D: Sure, it’s primarily about getting all of your commitments out of your head and out of your head so that you can evaluate what they are. We live a life that is so much more complex than most people really realise, in terms how many things have their attention and how many things they compete with. So a whole lot of it is just about getting very explicit about things that are rolling around in everybody’s psyche. When you do that, you are able to stay more in control and appropriately focused. So that’s really what it is about. I just uncovered one of the best practices that allow you to sort of get that stuff out of your head so that you can manage it effectively.
M: One of the biggest complaints and one of the greatest concerns that I hear from recent teaching graduates is that there is just too much to do and not enough time to do it. So many teachers have a real sense of overwhelm and a real sense of just difficult to handling the complexity of day-to-day profession. Why do you think it is so important for professionals to get a handle of the GTD approach?
D: Well, I think there is a huge amount of stress and huge amount of distraction and a huge amount of insufficiency in terms of our focus and our energy. Certainly teachers have enough to deal with in terms of the surprises and in terms of the interruptions, in terms of unexpected stuff and the challenges that they have. Being able to manage what you can manage optimally so that you have that creative energy that’s available for dealing with problems, dealing with situation, dealing with opportunities. I am sure a lot of teachers would just beat themselves up because they would love to, one of the reasons that they entered the profession because they want to be caring and creative and do good, but to get the bandwidth to be able to step back and be creative and have creative thoughts and projects and to spend the quality time with the students that they know they should. You know, that’s a huge issue and so you know every little bit of time if you could get an extra half an hour a day and not just time, it’s really more about psychic bandwidth because even if your brain is just overloaded, you are fried in terms of just the things that you would better, grabbing your attention and distracting you, even if you have an extra hour, all you do is add another hour of destruction and frustration to your life. It’s really not about time, but if you have a clear head, there is nothing on your mind other than whatever is on your mind, you could have two minutes for the student and have quality interaction that’s worth the whole day. So it’s really about getting the space to be able to be creative and put your creative energies in your focus you know where you want and when you want.
M: Obviously your principles span across multiple different professions and these are really fantastic principles in terms of as you said really simplifying your life making sure you free yourself up for three important things and what places are becoming increasingly more complex in today’s society?
D: It’s not that is more complex. It is just the complexity is changing so fast. You know there is nothing new except how frequently everything is new. We are probably getting more inputs in the last 2-3 days than your parents got in a month, may be even in an year. So their life was still as complex; it is just that it got more stable for longer periods of time so they could cruise a lot longer. These days we don’t have time to cruise and so if you back up, you know, you cannot afford to get behind the curve in terms of stuff coming out. You know the technology has certainly made it a lot easier to get cc’d on gazillion e-mails, and you know have all kinds of inputs out there that could very easily be distracting and can easily be what you would consider potential meaningful stuff. So the issue is not too much information because if that was the case you walk into a library and blow up.
M: So why do you think it is important to identify actionable items as they arrive on your desk. What you think generating a workflow diagram is so important in today’s society?
D: Well, the reason you are letting things come into your world, into your in-basket, into your mind, into your note taking, into your voice mail, into your e-mail is because some part of you says, there is potential meaning in there and if you sit there and left that just pile up without deciding what the meaning is? It will own you instead of you owning it. That’s the whole idea to the workflow diagram is. Okay, what is the algorithm, what is the formula that I need to decide about this thing so it does not own me and I own it, and that’s a very simple you know set of decisions you need to make. The GTD methodology became popular in the tech world because somebody said, “I just described all the subroutine you need to run to get your in-basket empty and you don’t just move stuff around without making decisions on it.” You have to pick each item up one at a time and ask yourself, look is there any action requires on this, yes or no. If no, then you either toss it as trash or you trigger it for later reminder or you file as a reference and if it is actionable then you need to make two very very important distinctions. You need to decide is there some outcome for project that letting this thing in my life you know has got me committed to do. Does this email mean by opening this e-mail, there is just now something I could do or to do something about is going to take more than one step. So determining, you know, teasing out, what is the outcome here if any on my inputs and if even whether it is an outcome or even just a single action to decide. What’s the very next action you need to take on that? It is a decision most people avoid until the pressure forces them to make all those decisions, where as when you make that decision when you first see that email. Oh! this is a phone call I need to make. Oh! This is something I need to talk to my life partner about. Oh! this is something I need to buy at hardware store. If you make that decision right then, it does not mean you to have to take the action right then but it means I have now essentially determined the meaning of what the stuff is so then I am now sitting on in charge of it as opposed to not wanting to deal with things I have let in my life.
M: What would you do specifically for the professionals that are feeling that sense of overwhelm. How would you suggest developing systems and process to handle their ‘to do list’ and daily jobs they need to do?
D: Well, there are probably three key things. First of all you need to keep stuff out of your head so that means you need capture tools to able to do that so writing things, keep pads around wherever you are, wherever you might have ideas and that’s pretty much anywhere. I carry a pad with me and my little wallet you know that is here most of the inputs show up is in random, weird moments. You need to have a physical in-basket or in-tray so that you can throw notes in there, you can take notes and now have to decide what to do with them yet but it is a great parking lot so you need a parking lot to be able to externalise stuff out of your head. The second thing is that you need to get some sort of list manager where you can park the results going through the cleaning up your in-baskets. So once you clean up an in-basket, a lot of things you can finish in two minutes. The two minute rule is great. You probably learned that anything you can finish in two minutes once you decide what the action is. You should do it right then because it will take longer to organise it and look at it again then it would be to finish it right then. But anything you cannot finish in two minutes, you need to keep tracker, and what you don’t want to do is use your in-basket or your capture tools for being a tracking mechanism in terms of reminders of what to do. You need to have that in a separate place. The capture tool is just for random stuff until you decide the meaning. Once you decide what they mean, what you are going to do about them then you need to park those in appropriate places and pretty much any kind of list manager will work. You can use a loose-leaf notebook, a paper planner; you can use a lot of digital tools. There are hundred of digital tools out there where you can make the list and keep them in the devices. You can use commuters and lots of ways that you can track but you do need to decide what things are and you need to make sure you have got some appropriate lists. You need for instance a list of all your projects so that means anything that you cannot finish with just one action. You need to keep track off, until they are finished. Most people, by the way, most professionals have between 30 and 100 of those so a list of those is going to be critical and a list of the action items that you need to take about them. You know these are the phone calls I need to make. Theses are things I need to do on the computer. These are things I needed to at my home and you need to keep track of everything you are waiting and they will come back for somebody else, so a list called waiting for, you know, is great one to have. You know those are the simple tools and it is easy to get started. The most people have versions of all that already so this is not going to be like rocket science. You wouldn’t be a teacher if you did not know how to write things down if you did not have some sort of organisation and categorisation of things you are keeping track of, but usually it is the non-teacher stuff that would get in your way so teachers have their own systems for managing their courses and managing their curriculum and managing their lesson plans and things like that. You can always improve on those kind of things but for the most part is, all the other stuff oh I need tyres in my car, oh I need my aunts having birthday, oh you know I need to go the doctor and checkup. You know those kinds of thinks sort of outside of your professional groove that can often disturb your professional groove like crazy. So you need to make sure you have total life system to manage all of that as well.
M: Do you think that the multitasking is a myth? Do you think it is difficult or impossible to handle multiple things in one go? What is your view on that?
D: Well it is impossible to handle two things simultaneously with concentrated focused attention. You do multitasking all the time, your breathing, pumping all blood, you are doing all kind of unconscious habitual things so you know if you have ever drove home and then wonder who drove because you were somewhere else while you were driving that is real multitasking and you are consciously focused on it. You are able to unconsciously let your habitual and unconscious grooves you know manage that. So that multitasking happens all the time but consciously focused attention on more than one thing at a time is impossible. You can switch rapidly. You can switch in a second. I can focus on you then I can focus on somebody that just walk into my office but I cannot do them simultaneously.
M: Thank you so much for taking the time. Your work is a huge inspiration and I really believe that through your website and through this interview, there are lot of new teachers that you helped today.
One of the most challenging components of the teaching profession is handling complexity and prioritising tasks. I hope that you found the interview useful and that it helps you to simplify your day.
What strategies do you use?