It’s a modern phenomenon experienced by so many of us – there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. In 2014 – and especially in big, go-getting cities like Dubai – it’s a common complaint to feel constantly overwhelmed in both our professional and personal lives.
There are always emails to answer and phone calls to return. The advent of conference calls means more (virtual) meetings to attend than ever before. Deadlines seem to get tighter as companies push for greater productivity. Smartphones ensure we are never truly away from the office.
And that’s just work.
At home the 21st century is even more a mass of pressures and competing priorities.
Children have more clubs to be ferried to than ever before. Even the wide social circle that many UAE residents pride themselves on having creates its own issues, with too many conflicting commitments. And, at some point, you really should start organising flights home for that family wedding next weekend…
We’re continually firefighting jobs that crop up. Survey after survey tells us our stress levels are at an all-time high. And it’s going to stay like that – at least until someone invents a 25-hour day. Right?
That’s according to David Allen, 69, a productivity consultant who lands in the UAE this month. The acclaimed author of self-help book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity claims that he’s come up with a fail-safe solution for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ they have to get through.
Follow his principles, he reckons, and you will not only be able to keep on top of your to-do list, organise your work-life balance more effectively and pursue long-term goals efficiently, but you’ll also get a load more free time.
Stress can become a thing of the past. Anxiety will disappear. Heck, maybe you’ll even get to spend time with your children and to socialise every weekend.
“The principle behind this is very simple,” says David. “It’s basically asking yourself: ‘What do I need to do to get this stuff off my mind so I don’t have to worry about it until the appropriate time?’ It’s a systemic approach that has been refined over 25 years – and it works.”
“So, what exactly is this system?” we hear Friday readers cry. How can I get more of my life back from the never-ending cycle of tasks and responsibilities? And just why exactly are so many business leaders around the world enthralled by the ideas of a man who, it turns out, was once a street magician?
When it comes to promoting his principles of self-help, no one could ever accuse David Allen of being modest.
“Welcome to a gold mine of insights into how to have more energy, be more relaxed, and get a lot more accomplished with much less effort,” is how Getting Things Done begins.
More than 100,000 copies sold, boasts the front cover of the book. “Nothing short of life-changing,” screams a pull quote.
“The only feedback I’ve ever had about this system has been entirely positive,” the 68-year-old American tells Friday down the phone from his home in Amsterdam. “People say it re-energises them. They email me saying it’s changed their life.”
“Maybe there are people out there it hasn’t helped,” he concedes. “But I’d be lying if I said I’d heard of them.”
Like all the best ideas, David’s system is simple yet, he reckons, thoroughly effective.
It starts with the generally accepted principle that most stress is caused by people having too much on their minds.
Every little (and not so little) job you need to do – from planning a work presentation to returning a call from your mother – creates an open loop in your brain until it gets done. And when these loops remain open, they subconsciously add to your anxiety.
“The key is to get them out of your mind,” says David, who was once named one of the top-five executive coaches in the US by Forbes magazine.
“Now, the most effective way to do that is to just go ahead and do the job but, clearly, that’s not always practical. You can’t plan a presentation you need to wow your boss with at 2am when you suddenly start thinking about it. Same as you can’t call your mother at that time. So, you need to cheat.
“You need to get that guy out of your brain so you can go to sleep, and you need to put it in a place that will allow you to think about it when the time’s right.”
The way to do that, he says, is with a five-step process that can be applied to every aspect of life: collect, process, organise, review, do.
The ‘collecting’ part is essentially gathering everything you need to do into an initial inbox. Whether that be putting up shelves or one day writing a novel, you should gather all your to-do things in a safe place, perhaps an in-tray or a digital box.
“There should be nothing that doesn’t go in there,” says David, “because if it’s not on the list it’s in your head; and if it’s in your head it’s causing you stress.
“Martial arts experts have a phrase for it: you should have a mind like clear water. Nothing should be causing ripples. If there are, you can never be at your most alert or content… So you need to get everything out. The first time you do it, purge every part of your life. Go round your office and your home looking for all the things you’ve said you need to do at some point. Go everywhere – there might be something. If you own a boat in Dubai Marina, go and look around that too. Include small jobs and long-term goals, and stick them in that inbox.”
This collection of things should then be ‘processed’ on a regular basis using a ‘do, delegate, defer or drop’ method. So, pick the top item from your inbox. If you can do it in a couple of minutes, get it sorted and get it out of your head forever. If you drop it (meaning you decide it’s not that important and simply doesn’t ever need to be done) or delegate it (meaning you give it to someone else to do), the same applies; all those loops are now closed. “Follow that and I estimate you’ve already taken away 40 per cent of the things that were playing on your mind,” says David.
Deferring (meaning you leave it until a later time to do it) something – perhaps you only have an hour so you can’t plan that presentation just yet – leads to ‘organise’.
Anything that can’t be done at present should either be placed on a calendar to be done at a specific time on a specific date (“and then forgot about until then”) or be put in a projects file.
The latter is for big multitask jobs – laying a garden patio, perhaps – that have no specific deadline but need doing.
That brings us on to ‘review’. Your inbox, calendar and projects file must all be reviewed on a regular – daily, preferably – basis so nothing in there gets missed.
All of these steps then leave you free to ‘do’ all your jobs at the appropriate times.
“Which means,” concludes David, “when you’re not performing any of these five steps, you don’t have to worry about anything because you know you have everything under control. You know it’s all stored somewhere for you. You don’t have to stress that you should be doing something you’ve forgotten. You can relax.
“And just being organised like this, saves you time and helps you get more free time. It’s that simple.”
Simple it may be, but business brains, company bosses and department directors have all become disciples of David’s work.
He says he’s shown the top brass at some of the world’s biggest companies how to get organised, get efficient and be less stressed. Client confidentiality, unfortunately, prevents him sharing just who has been on his roster.
Nevertheless his credentials are impressive. He was named “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” by Fast Company, a magazine that focuses on technology, business, and design.
And the bestselling author Daniel Pink is one of David’s biggest advocates. “His entire approach has boosted not only my productivity but also my wider well-being,” Pink told the Wall Street Journal.
Not bad praise, all in all, for a guy who up until his mid-30s was, by his own admission, a drifter. His career flitted for some years and he says he had 35 jobs before the age of 35. They included street-magician (“while I was a student”), waiter, karate teacher, landscaper, vitamin distributor, glass-blowing lathe operator, travel agent, petrol station manager and moped salesman.
By the early Eighties, however, he’d started to recognise his own ability for solving workflow problems and he took up consultancy work (although he has no specific qualifications in this area).
He set up companies, which would later become David Allen Company, to focus on productivity, and then made his name by winning the contract to design a programme for executives at Lockheed, the vast American aerospace company.
The theories behind Getting Things Done – which was first published in 2001 but has gone into several reprints since – started to come together around the mid-Eighties.
He was collaborating with fellow consultant Dean Acheson, who worked with several small American companies, when the pair realised that if you could get everything out of your mind and somehow into the physical world, it would reduce stress and make you more productive.
“From then on, I was just coming up with a practical system that would allow everyone to do that in reality for every area of their life,” he says, as we begin to wrap up our interview.
The end result, almost three decades down the line, is a system that is still winning plaudits. Here is a man, it seems, who might just be able to de-stress Dubai.