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March 2013

One On One: David Allen

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor
tomorrow.

What is your map?

I use a good list manager. That's probably the most basic map you can have. A calendar [in Outlook or other office software] is a list — it's a chronological list. So there's the calendar and all the stuff I need to do in and around the calendared stuff. And those are just action lists as well as a list of all the projects I've got. I [also] have a list of all the areas of accountability, in terms of my work and also my life. I have some of the bigger goals that I'm going toward. Those are all different kinds of maps that I have. But primarily, the most functional, operational ones are just good lists.

I use mind maps a good bit. I use MindManager [now Mindjet], which is a nice mind-mapping program on the computer. That's got kind of a map of my maps. So the first thing I look at if I pull up a mind map is, okay, David, do you need to think about strategic projects? Do you need to think about big events coming toward you that you need to be planning for? Do you want to think about your job accountabilities? I've got a map that gives me that. It's relatively crude, but it's a whole lot better than what most people are working with.

It seems that a lot of this anxiety that people feel doesn't necessarily come from what they have to do but rather from not knowing how or when to do it.

It's common-sense stuff, but, yeah, you're right. And most people have no clue how complex their life really is. I've spent thousands of hours sitting deskside with some of the best and brightest businesspeople on the planet, and they're blown away by how many things they actually have their attention on, that they're committed to. And almost nobody is even close to having appropriate maps. ... You have to be willing to say, “I've got to get it out of my head. I've got to make some action and outcome decisions. And I really do need to build a trusted system that I keep current.” Otherwise my head starts to take that job, and then my creative energy is being used for something it doesn't do very well.

All your event planners, they wouldn't be in that business if they didn't have some sort of a map that says, “Look, here are the events coming toward me — what's my critical path there, what do I need to make sure happens. I've got the speaker there and we have audiovisual.” I would imagine that they all have some version of that. The truth is, though, the problem only comes when they've got more than one. How much do you orient yourself in terms of everything coming toward you on the horizon?

When people are actually attending a meeting, how should they be approaching GTD?

You are having experiences and you are getting input, so you deal with it how you deal with it. Generally speaking, you are probably going to have note-taking devices and you are going to be gathering all kinds of crap and schwag we are giving you in those kinds of things. At some point, you need to go back and throw that all in your in-basket and then clean it up within 24 to 48 hours after you get back from that meeting. Like, okay, which business cards actually mean something? What are you going to do about those notes? Are there any actions or projects that you can identify out of all that?

How can meeting planners help make meetings less overwhelming for their attendees?

Conferences usually have some rigor. People know why they are going to the conference, and the conference has some sort of theme. Of course, you can always get a lot more refined: “Well, this is a conference about neurology of right- and left-brain seizures.” Well, fabulous. What do you want out of this? You know, so there's always going to be the individual relationship to whatever the designated purpose of the conference is.

Are there specific things that a planner can do to help alleviate the anxiety that attendees might feel from being away from the office?

Sure. Just make sure you have 30-minute breaks instead of 15, so they can check their voicemail and stuff like that. And just acknowledge that a lot of people are kind of out of control and all that stuff is banging on the head, and try to give them room to park all that. Like when I'm working with a client one on one — I've got a whole day or two days, and I'm going to be deskside with them — the first thing I ask them is, “What are you going to have to handle before I walk out of here today that doesn't have anything to do with me?” We get that identified and I say, “Can we handle that right now?” and I just give them an hour. So that then they are present while I'm there, so they can utilize me for what they're paying me big bucks to do.

I'm not quite sure how that would translate in terms of a conference, but the principle is there: “Hey, guys, we understand [you have responsibilities back at the office], so we're going to give you a long break.” Maybe the first morning. I think that'd be a great thing to do.

Sidebar: Three Sure-Fire Productivity Tactics From David Allen

  1. Keep a notepad with you at all times. “The best ideas show up in the weirdest places. Not only that, you don't know what the best ideas are. You just have ideas, and only over time will they emerge as good ones or bad ones. You have to have the raw data to begin with.”
  2. Make a decision. “A lot of people take notes, and then they just spread them all over God and creation and it doesn't help either. You've got to process those so you can throw them away, but the only way you can throw them away is once you've gleaned what's actual, what's not, what's referenced, what do I need to keep, what's trash to get rid of. I know this sounds mundane, but it's down in the mundaneness where the action really happens on this. As a matter of fact, if you don't get the mundane, you're screwed.”
  3. Conduct a weekly review. “You better have a one- to two-hour block [every week] where you are not answering emails over the phone and not dealing with anything else, but you're actually stepping back and managing the forest instead of hugging the trees. Which basically means, get your maps current. Step back and take a look at the 45 projects you have, take a look at your calendar for the next two months, take a look at all the stuff you need to. Take a look at the right maps and orient yourself so that you're not just driven by the latest and loudest. And that's the biggest tactic and behavior that's most lacking and most needed right now.”

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