Key to Personal Productivity: Just Do It


Business has begun to take off for David Allen, 52, a time-management and productivity consultant based in Ojai. After years of conducting workshops, coaching individual executives and giving speeches under the aegis of various entities, Allen hung out his own shingle last year as David Allen & Co. and has captured some national attention.

Allen, who will be a featured speaker at The Times’ Small Business Strategies Conference Oct. 17 and 18, credits an article about him in the business magazine Fast Company for a spurt of new clients, including a deal to work in Saudi Arabia. His time-management system got a plug in Fortune magazine last fall from a venture capitalist who was interested in a software company Allen co-founded, Auctioneer Inc. of San Francisco, which is designing software based on his system. Allen is also at work on a time-management book for Viking Press that’s due out next year. Not bad for a man with no formal training in psychology or business. Allen spoke with The Times recently about his business and personal-productivity methodology.

Question: How did you get involved in consulting?

Answer: I got attracted to consulting as a way to really bring to bear a lot of the self-development information and methodologies I had experienced personally along with an interest in business and organization and how they work and an interest in providing value to people in an educational and coaching context.


Q: How did you get involved in time management?

A: For many years I was on more of a learning-about-myself and personal-growth track, if you will. And my professional world was more just to pay the rent and keep things stable while I did a lot of personal exploration. It turns out that I had, almost in spite of myself, wound up learning a lot about businesses, particularly small businesses. And discovered also that I like to assist people in achieving their objectives and helping to establish systems and processes that improve the quality of their work life and their personal life.

So I made one of those transitions where “Six months ago I couldn’t spell it, now I am one.” . . . And I had several excellent mentors over the years and early on was asked to help a large corporation design some training for their managers to assist their productivity.

Q: Are you a natural time manager or has it been a struggle?


A: That’s a good question. I probably run a good balance between those two. That’s probably why I teach. I am not a naturally organized person. My desk and my toolshed and my life get out of control regularly.

I think an important factor early on is I had discovered and developed an interest in and a love of peace of mind, and an ability to focus with clarity on whatever I wanted to do. So most of what I teach emerged out of a need to maintain that clarity and peace of mind as my life got more and more complex and I was giving myself much more incomplete, ambiguous and noble things to do.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Make more money, write a book, create a company, design software.

Q: What is the main characteristic of a successful time manager?

A: I think one would be an ability to maintain a clear focus on whatever they want to focus on without being distracted mentally, emotionally, by incomplete, unfinished or unclear things in their world. . . . [That distraction] winds up taking more energy to deal with than if they objectified [their tasks], captured them, made the appropriate decisions about them and organized the results on the front end.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: For instance, most people who would be reading this, since they woke up this morning, have probably thought about a number of things they needed to do that they still haven’t done. My question is, have you had that thought more than once? If so, I suggest that it is a waste of your creative mental energy, because having the thought about it didn’t make any progress on it.


Q: What is the alternative?

A: Capture the thought when you have it on an external system, decide what the action step is, put a reminder in a system that you trust you will look at when you can actually take the action.

Q: You have developed software to do that?

A: I am co-founder of a company that is developing products that are based on this methodology. There are many products you can use and lots of different types of hardware that can work, from low-tech to high-tech. I can show you how to set up a fabulous personal-management system for less than $15 at Staples: seven tab dividers and some loose-leaf paper. I can also suggest ways to spend thousands of dollars if you are a serious gear freak and want to utilize the high end of technology.

Q: Do these lessons in action management last?

A: In my seminars, I define the game, not make you good at it. In my coaching work and consulting work one on one, we get the chance to do intensive training. That can make someone a lot better at it, but ultimately it comes down to simple behaviors that need to become habits.

Q: Any new developments in your field?

A: There have been two major camps in the time-management field. One has focused on a top-down approach and ensuring that you are living your life according to your priorities and values. And another approach is about organizing tips, tricks and tools. . . . But there has been a lack of creating an integrated methodology that is sustainable with the kind of volume of transactions and commitments and decisions that the typical professional has to manage these days. I suggest that people be responsible for externally tracking and managing all the details of their life, little and big, and then internalize an intuitive choice process about what to do, when.


Q: What do you mean?

A: Daily to-do lists haven’t worked since the telephone and I recommend a total life to-do list available all the time, and that you then take the responsibility for moment-to-moment decisions about what you do, when. Sometimes the most important thing to do is water your plant.

Q: Why do people come to your seminars?

A: Most professionals that I interact with are seeking an experience of relaxed control and ability to focus on the work at hand and the positive state of being productive, when time disappears, while ensuring that things are actually moving forward in their life that are meaningful to them.

Most people are feeling pretty stressed and out of control, frankly, and an admonition to “simplify” their lives sounds good, but because we are so values-oriented as a culture and as a generation, the reality is that people are continuing to have and make commitments to bigger and more meaningful things in their lives. Focusing on your values does not simplify your life. It gives direction and meaning but it is often the source itself of lots to do that we care about getting done. We need new skills to maintain those standards.