The Art of Stress-Free Productivity: David Allen at TEDxClaremontColleges


Translator: Martin Laclaustra
Reviewer: Denise RQ The art of stress free productivity
is a martial art. I’ll start with a quick little story. 1990. I took an overnight sailing trip
with my girlfriend at the time to Santa Cruz island, that is part of the Channel Islands, at 26 miles off the coast
of Santa Barbara. It’s a rugged, beautiful island
but the coast is very rugged, sheer cliffs, a lot of rocky outcroppings. We anchored in a tiny little cove,
there are not many of those, we anchored in one as it was getting dark. We went below to make dinner, and the wind suddenly came up to a howl as it does in this area,
by the way, pretty easily. As I’m making dinner, I got the queasy feeling
our boat was moving and sure enough,
our anchors were losing their grip. That’s very uncool. In a tiny little cove,
where the wind is howling, and about 50 yards away,
at the end of the cove, a very nasty see is brewing;
so we ran up top, turn on the motor so we could get
some control of the boat and, sure enough, I ran over the rear
anchor line, which chokes the prop. We now no longer have control of the boat. We are now at the mercy of wind which is
actually whistling down that canyon and blowing us out of the cove
into the open ocean, but then down along that coast,
right close to those cliffs, I radioed the Coast Guard. They let us know it would be three hours before their heavy weather
rescue boat would get there. So we’re pretty much
at the mercy of all of this. We got our things ready to go overboard
in case we hit the rocks. The boat and even our lives were at risk. And almost simultaneously,
we both looked up at one point, and notice the most incredible,
dramatic, beautiful full moon. And amidst all that chaos, we actually had the experience
of this wonderful zen-like peace. I tell you that story because
everyone of you has something similar, I’m sure, in your history, where you were in something
you might, in retrospect, call a crisis and somewhere along the line
you found yourself “in your zone”. Time disappeared. You were fully present. You were totally engaged
with what was happening. You were in a productive flow. And if you had the luxury
to stop for a minute you may have then had the experience
of a wonderful sense of being present, like my girlfriend and I did that night. See, interestingly, crisis can
actually produce a kind of calm that’s rare to find sometimes. Why? It demands it. Because it’s the calm
that comes from those behaviors that create the kind of positive,
productive, engaged experience that moves us into “our zone”. Very clear on the outcome
for us that was “live”, instantly making
intuitive action decisions and taking actions, being meaningfully engaged
toward that outcome. And everything else in our life was put on the back burner, so that we would be totally present
about what was happening. And you probably experienced that too. And maybe you had
this sense of that peace. Wouldn’t it be nice, by the way, if you could experience that kind of peace
that kind of productive engagement, without having the danger
or stress of a crisis force you to? It actually is possible. Let me give you a little secret. “Getting things done”
is not about getting things done. It’s really about being
appropriately engaged with what’s going on. “Appropriate engagement”
is the real key here. Many times, not getting something done
is how to appropriately engage with it. Every one of you, hopefully,
is appropriately not engaged with every single thing else
aside from listening to me right now. So there’s some key, there’s something unique
about being appropriately engaged. Why does a crisis get us there? Because it forces us to do
those behaviors that get us there. Now, there’s a lot to unpack
about this idea of appropriate engagement. I’ll hit the highlights of it,
but a few indicators of this would be… think about: are you appropriately engaged right now
with the project you are on? With the paper you need to write? With your cat? With the holiday coming towards you? Are you appropriately engaged
with your health? Are you appropriately engaged, by the way, with all the stuff you’ve heard
so far today that might be I might/would/could/should/want
to do that? Do you have
appropriate engagement with that? An indicator, by the way,
that you don’t have to go very far to find opportunities
to be more appropriately engaged is to just notice what’s on your mind. Any of you have anything on your mind
aside from listening to me? Any of you have any strategic
and important stuff on your mind? Interestingly, the more it is on your mind,
the more it’s not happening, the more you are
inappropriately engaged with it. Why it’s not on cruise control? It’s only on your mind because you know
there’s still some thinking or some decisions about that
you haven’t made or you haven’t parked the results of that
into some trusted systemic process that you trust will be triggered
at the right time, in the right way. You actually don’t have
to finish those things, folks, to be appropriately engaged
and to get them off your mind, but there are very specific things
that you do need to do about that. So there’s a number
of paradoxes, by the way, that happen about all this material; there some counter-intuitive things about what I’m going to be sharing
with you in the next few minutes. You are going to need
to get comfortable with that if you want to get
to this place of productive engagement without a crisis forcing you to do that. The big paradox is
that all the complexities of all the stuff of your life in order to manage that you just need three core principles
that you understand and apply. It’s not about the new smartphone.
It’s not about a new elegant planner. It’s not about a new piece of software. Those are cool tools, but only insofar as you use them
to apply those key principles. Once you get those principles,
you make your own system. A second paradox here is that the initial moves, and behaviors,
and best practice of this may very likely, for many of you,
initially, feel very awkward, very unnatural, and even unnecessary. It’s exactly like learning moves
in a martial art, which I did years ago. If you want to learn how to maximally
produce power with the karate punch, you’re going to have to spend
hundreds of hours doing something that feels very awkward
and very unnatural as a movement. Hundreds of hours doing that! Once you do that, by the way,
you’ll never go back to anything less, in terms of producing power. Some of the things I’ll be recommending
will be just like that. For instance, don’t keep anything
in your head the rest of your life. That’s going to feel unnatural,
awkward, and unnecessary. Every single thing
you’re committed to finish that takes more
than one step to finish it, you need to clarify exactly
what that outcome and project is and put that on a project list
that you look at, at least once a week. Every single next action you need to take
about any of your commitments you are involved in, you need to clarify
and park those in appropriate places that you’ll see those actions
on a regular basis. That’s going to feel awkward,
unnatural, and unnecessary. But the final paradox about all this
that wraps all that together is that some very specific
but seemingly mundane behaviors when applied, produce
the capacity for you to exist in a kind of sophisticated spontaneity which, in my experience,
is a key element to a successful life. Now, I’m going to reinforce
why I think this is critical, what it would look like
if you were wildly successful doing this? And I’m going to give some hows,
how to do that. But what’s the problem? The problem is when you’re not in crisis. There’s a more subliminal crisis
that happens. Why? The whole world now
is allowed into your psyche. Boom! You now get to experience all the stuff that you would/could/should/
need to/might/ought to, all the stuff piling up in your in-baskets
and emails while I am speaking right now. All of that now floods into your psyche, and that could easily create
a sense of overwhelm, a sense of confusion, a sense of conflict. Every single thing seems to demand
equal kind of attention from you. And then, you usually respond to that by either numbing out
or getting in the crazy busy. And then you blame that stress
on the lack of time, “Oh! I just have… Oh! God! All I need is more time!” Well! I’m sorry! Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein, Mother Teresa, only had 24 hours. Johann Sebastian Bach
only had 24 hours. I know he didn’t have email
but he had 20 kids. (Laughter) And you say, “Just give me two more hours!
David, two more hours, please!” You know what you’d do
with two more hours? You’d have two more hours
of overwhelming stickiness. Actually, for most of you, it’d be a good thing
you don’t get two more hours. Because the issue is not time. How long does it take
to have a creative idea? Zero time! How long does it take to be inspired? Zero time! How long does it take
to recognize an opportunity you could leverage
or you could take advantage of? Zero time! Time is not the issue for those things. There is something required
for those things. What’s that? Psychic bandwidth.
You need space to think. Believe me. Every executive I coach,
once I put those words on, “Oh yes! I need room to think. I need space to be able
to be creative, be innovative, all that stuff I am being tasked
to do, to be a leader, all that stuff. I just need a room! And if you don’t have psychological space you could have two hours
of free time and waste it. If you do have psychic bandwidth, two minutes on an elevator,
you can have a cool idea and have a fabulous relationship
with somebody that moves the needle. So this is the real key issue here. Is the lack of the bandwidth to be able
to engage with that appropriately. Even worse than that is that our creative energy
is then not available to be creative. Our creative energy is being used
to try to patch up, and handle, and try to remember, and remind, and try to do all that stuff
that most people are trying to manage: all the details and stuff of their life
in their psyche instead of in a system. Just trying to keep up with the mess. And by the way, life is messy
if you haven’t noticed. Actually, mess is cool. Actually, the most
productive times I’m in is when I have the freedom
to make a creative mess; you too. I need room to be crazy,
to make some mistakes, to brainstorm, to be chaotic,
go a little off the edge. That is going to be
your most productive time. It is when you have
that kind of freedom to do that. However, folks, if you’re already
in a mess, you’ve no room to make one. If your kitchen is a mess,
you don’t have time or the energy to have a creative dinner
for your friends. If your desk and your office are a mess, you don’t have room and space
to be crazy about some new project and spread out,
and have a brainstorm with ideas. If your email is backed up on you
with 1,000 unprocessed emails and you got 3,000 other things
going on in your head, you have no space to take advantage
of discretionary time that may show up in terms of being creative,
in terms of your energy. The results of that,
if you’re trying to use your psyche to manage that mess
and you never get out of it is that you get the results of two things that are the critical elements
of self and organizational productivity. You’ll lose perspective, that is, you’ll lose the ability
to put your focus where you need it on exactly the thing you need it
at the horizon you need it, and/or you may be experiencing the results
of what happens when you lose control, that is, I now don’t have stability,
and I don’t have the freedom in my head to be able to put the appropriate tension
and execute on it when I do. So those are the two key elements. Folks, you can’t manage time. You don’t mismanage five minutes
and come up with six. The only time that you think
you need time management is when one or both of these
two dynamics are sub-optimal. Either things need to be more under control
or more properly focused. If you map those two things together,
what do you get? If you are on the bottom left here
where you got no control and no focus – Ever been there? – that’s your basic victim experience. You know,
driven by the latest and loudest. For the most part,
most of us are thrown there by our own over-commitments
and creativity in which you can’t even try
to come up for air. Now if that part of you shows up that has
high focus and perspective but no control, now you’re the mad scientist,
now you’re the desperate artiste, now you’re the crazy maker with all kinds of crazy ideas
and no constraints of what you do; and you have nothing very well-organized. In the middle the morning,
you decide to go buy the new iPhone which your IT department won’t support. On the other hand, if you get down
in the weeds and say, “I need to get 10,000 things organized, I need to get all this
cleaned up and even;” and now you are getting
into micromanagement. If you don’t have appropriate focus, you can get down in those weeds
and hung up in them like crazy. And you spent a lot of time
doing a lot, trying to get organized about things
that may not be that important. Like in the morning, you were
a crazy maker getting the new iPhone, in the afternoon, you spent two hours
of what could be a strategic afternoon, trying to set up the right ring tones. Here’s what’s true
about all three of those folks. You’d better get ready
for what’s coming towards you. You will be sub-optimal in terms
of your ability to handle the surprises, and they’re coming. Good, bad, or indifferent.
They’re coming. Trust me. And you want to be optimally available
for those things, when they come to you. Everybody says, “I’m doing OK.” And I doubt if many of you in here
will feel motivated enough to go do what I’m talking about because some part of you
may not be feeling that it is that bad. Of course, you got a job.
You are doing fine. You’ve relationships.
You have money. You are doing OK. I’m suggesting though if thousands of people would implement
what I’m sharing with you here, it could be a whole lot better. How sustainable is your life and workstyle
right now in terms of the long howl? How available are you
to all kinds of creative things that are right around you right now,
but you don’t have the bandwidth to recognize and take advantage of them? And it could be a whole lot better. What would better
actually look or sound like? Well, let’s use a metaphor from nature. Nature seems to get
a whole lot of stuff done but it is not stressed
neither worried. You know, there just seems to be
a sort of natural rhythm about how things happen here. So, if you go back
to our matrix and say, “Look! If I had just the right amount
of perspective and just enough structure,
just the right amount, so that I got the stability
to focus on that, and then to execute on it, now you’re in
the captain commander modality, which, by the way, is very cool,
because that’s the place that you’re then going to be able
to engage with life and your creativity and what was designed for, which is using
your creative intuitive intelligence, you know, in the new frontiers, you’re going to much more be in your zone as a normal state
as opposed to an exceptional state. And you are going to be
a whole lot more capable of dealing with surprise
and change as it is coming at you. And, by the way,
it’s coming faster and faster. That’s what’s new about the world;
it is how frequently everything is. Be ready for that. Basically, I refer to it, I use a martial arts term
which is “mind-like water”. A body of water responds
to physical forces around it totally appropriately. It doesn’t over-react or under-react. You throw in a pebble, it does pebble. Back to calm and balanced again. You throw in a boulder.
What does it do? it does boulderness. It does it very dispassionately. It doesn’t tense up whatever the rock is. It doesn’t get all mad at the rock
for having disturbed its calmed life. Back to calm and balanced again. Out of these metaphors from nature,
I’ve got a couple lessons I’ve learned. Lesson number one is, “Hey folks,
flexibility trunks perfection. Way, way, way beyond.” Life is not static, folks.
There is no perfection. Or if there is, it means
I’m now married myself and matched myself to the dynamics
of life and its activity. The second lesson I’ve learned is: I need the ability to be able
to shift my focus rapidly; in, out, up, down, quickly. You know, in very few minutes
I might deal with a family issue, and then take out the garbage, and then be dealing
with a business negotiation, and not take one to the next, but be fully available for each thing
given it is appropriate due. Most people are taking
one meeting to the next. Most people take home to work
and work to home. That’s not “mind like water”. Here’s what you are really after. You want the ability to be able
to put your focus exactly where you need it
in the way you need it, and not use your mind to be trying
to accumulate stuff and avoid it. Big key! If you don’t give appropriate attention
to what has your attention, it’ll start to take more of your attention
than it deserves. So, the weird, strange thing here is you actually have to use your mind
to get stuff off your mind. So you have to apply a process
to be able to get the stuff out of there. It won’t happen by itself.
How do you do that? Key number one. Get it out of your head. Simple, but boy, is that a big habit
for most adults to change! Anything and everything that’s
potentially meaningful, write it down. So I’ll challenge all of you:
to pick the next 24 hours. Keep a pad and pen with you,
if you don’t have it already. And don’t have a thought twice. Little, big, personal,
professional, just get it all out. You don’t have to do anything with it. Just capture anything
that’s pulling on your psyche, that’s going on,
that it is not on cruise control. And I guarantee you,
if you do that process, that thousands of people
that we’ve had do that process absolutely would guarantee
that once they’ve done it, they have a whole lot better sense
of control and perspective, and are more appropriately engaged
with what they’re doing not what they should be doing. That is just stage one. Stage two, which is necessary, because once you do stage one,
you’ll still see a bunch of stuff on that list that still needs
more thinking. Most to-do lists are incomplete lists
with still unclear things, by the way. What you see on to-do lists are things
like budget, mom, dog, babysitter. Well, I understand
that sort of probably indicates something, you’ve got to do something about, but what exactly
is the work you need to do? That’s the second thing you’ll need to do. It is to take those things you’ve
identified that are yanking your chain, and you need to make
some really specific decisions about what does the work involve. And there are two key questions you need
to ask about everything on your list: “What outcome am I committed to finish?” so that you can define
that target out there. What’s the project about the budget?
About the dog? About the babysitter? And identify those; and then,
you need to ask yourself, “What’s the very next action step I need
to take to move forward on that, if I were to going to move on it?” Outcome and action:
zeros and ones of productive behavior. What we’re trying to accomplish? How do we allocate resources
to make it happen? But you need to apply that
very specifically, if you want to be appropriately engaged with anything yanking
your chain out there. The late great Peter Drucker,
you folks should know about, would tell everyone of us his knowledge
workers are the toughest admonition; your toughest work is
defining what your work is. He’d put it in broad terms, this is
very specifically what he’s talking about: what is the work embedded in that? And getting very clear about it. I guarantee you that if you sat down and take at least a few things off
your list and make these decisions: What’s the project? Write it down. What’s the action step? Write it down. You will feel exponentially more
appropriately engaged with your world. Never seen an exception to that. Then, of course,
that’s going to feel great, but then you’re going to be
up against another wall because you’re going to look at all that– By the way, most of you have
between 30 and 100 projects right now. And most of you have
between 150-220 next actions right now. So, you’re going to very quickly
leave “mind like water”, when you look at that immensity. Unless you start to put it all together. So, in all of that,
what you’re going to need are maps. You need the appropriate maps
of all the projects, you need the maps
of all the actions you have, and there are other maps
you’ll probably need to have. What’s my job?
Key areas of focus and accountability. What are the things in my personal life I need to watch, and manage,
and take care on a regular basis? That’s another great map. So, you need to build maps of all of this,
so that you can step back and see the whole “gestalt”
of what your life is involved in, so that then, you can make
good intuitive decisions about what to do. By the way, once you experience that, I’ve never had anybody make that list
and not come up with, “Oh! That reminds me!”, and at least add three, or four,
or five significant projects to their list they needed to; they were already there but they were
just more subtle, more strategic; they had not identified them yet. So, I guarantee you those three things. I may have just jumped you
back into reality, and maybe reminded you
that you’re not a productivity ninja yet. That’s OK. It doesn’t take you long to get
to where you want to get to about this. Very simple folks! Just write stuff down. Decide actions
and outcomes embedded in them, get yourself a map of all of that, so you can step back
and take a look at it. And then, basically,
you use the map to decide, “OK, here’s the course
that we’re going to go on.” You then launch the ship
on a trusted course on the short term, as well as on the long horizon
that you’re moving on. And then, on some regular basis,
you need to reassess, “OK, we need to take in new data,
clean up, recalibrate, and refocus for the next leg of the journey.” It’s that simple. By the way, my girlfriend in that adventure
did not stay my girlfriend very long, she quickly became my wife, and for the last 22 years,
we’ve experienced and enjoyed lots of planned and unplanned adventures. So, my wish for all of you is, for all of those adventures
coming towards you, and they’re coming towards you, In order to take
maximum advantage of them, find your own ways
to be appropriately engaged. Thanks for listening. (Applause)

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