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David Allen’s Digitized Organization Man

Today’s time management guru reveals how technology might help you get things done.
April 20, 2006

David Allen is author of the best-selling Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and one of the nation’s leading gurus of personal time management. His time-management system emphasizes acting on incoming information right away – either by completing the action, if it can be done in a few minutes, delegating it, or filing it away in specific to-do and follow-up folders for a time set aside for larger tasks. (Indeed, Allen has a few disciples here at Technology Review.)

When we caught up with Allen this week, we asked him what he thinks of the latest technological tools for tracking tasks and commitments, such as Google Calendar, which was launched last week (see “Google’s Time Keeper”).

Technology Review: Computers and the Internet let us do more things, but can they really help us get more things done? How does technology fit into a good time-management system?

David Allen: First of all, you don’t manage time. Time is time, and it can’t be managed. What you manage are commitments. The calendar will let you manage, at a maximum, three or four percent of what you have to do. What you really need is a way to keep track of your commitments. Then you start to get a sense of the huge volume of commitments you’ve made, and you are able to review those commitments.

The vast majority of gadgets do nothing more than speed up how you slice and dice this information. There is no difference between having your calendar in your pocket or having it on the Internet. I have a Palm, and I wouldn’t even use that unless it had a month-at-a-glance feature, which is the only reason that Palm is a little better than a lot of the other gadgets for handling digital information. But it has an equal downside: Out of sight, out of mind.

Often, you need to look at the list of calls you have to make when you’re at your phone and when you have some time. If a computer makes that information more ubiquitous and easier to access, then, to that degree, it helps.

But a computer can also give you the illusion that you are organized – when all you are really doing is keeping track of placeholders. In the geek world, a lot of people love my stuff, because it supercharges what you can get done. But if you are overworked, you are going to be just as tired if you’re using an electronic or online calendar as if you’re using a paper one.

TR: How do you keep track of your own commitments?

DA: Frankly, all I need is lists. One of those lists is a calendar, and the others are lists of things that hold potential options, things I can point myself to go and do depending on where I am, like “@work,” “@home,” etc. I don’t need anything but these eight or nine flat lists. Anything that manages lists works fine for that. I used a paper planner in exactly this way. It’s just a little easier to carry a Palm. But I could look through the planner more easily than I can look through the PDA.

TR: What about smart phones like Palm’s Treo, with calendars, e-mail, and so forth? They let you keep to-do lists and make calls from the same device.

DA: My Sony-Ericsson phone is much more fun to have in my pocket than a Treo, which lots of people like, but PDAs are clunky little things. I’d rather mix and match my Palm and my phone than smash them together. If one goes down I want the other one to work. And the phone’s tiny form factor is a plus. I was just out for a walk in Boston. I put the cell phone into my pocket. I didn’t want to take the Palm. If I had a Treo, I’d have to take them both with me, and then I’d have that big clunky thing in my pocket.

Also, a lot of PDAs are becoming like tiny computers, where you have to go through two or three clicks to find your lists. If you’re trying to map 43 different categories in Outlook on your Windows Mobile device, but you just want to make a quick call, how many places do you have to look? I understand that if you’re really geeky this becomes a habit – then you’ve broken down your unconscious resistance. And a lot of this stuff works on our own inner geeks when we’re at home on Saturday fooling around with the gadgets. But when you’re in the throes of reality, when you’re recovering from the flu and you feel like crap, it had better be real simple and real accessible to you.

TR: What would a truly useful kind of personal-organizer technology look like to you?

DA: We could build in some reasonably savvy intelligence, much like Mitch Kapor [founder of Lotus] originally did with Agenda. [Agenda was a DOS-based personal information manager program marketed by Lotus in the late 1980s and early 1990s; it allowed free-form entry and categorization of small items into a database, and is still used by many of its devotees. -Eds.] If I were able to just jot down “Call Bill” on a PDA screen and it instantly appeared on my call list, and there it is when I’m in the airport and I have time to make a few calls, that’s going to make things a lot more convenient.

When the day comes that I’m sitting here talking to you, and I realize that I need batteries for my camera, and I just say that to my PDA, and then when I go out on errands it’s already on my list – if it’s quick and bullet-proof and seamless and shows you the data you want to see in whatever context your in – then computers will ultimately become useful tools, because they will get us the data we want quicker and quicker.

Tablet PCs [laptops with pen-based interfaces] are getting close. People on my technology team and other people I know are tablet PC freaks and they love them. They like the touch and feel of paper, but the tablet is a powerful way to digitize that. It’s kind of funny. As the computer gets really, really, really good and powerful and fast, then it will start to match paper.

But if you’ve gotten far enough into GTD [Getting Things Done], you know that your biggest challenge is doing the weekly review [time set aside for evaluating and winnowing lists and determining what the next action should be for each item]. If I had a billion dollars, I would design a thing that would do a customized weekly review. It would trigger the right questions and it would make me think about the results. For instance, it would say, “You’re going to New York. Would you like me to get theatre tickets like you did last time you were there?” There is a lot of cool stuff that one could build into a real personal manager.

WR: The ultimate goal of “getting things done” is to help people have, as you say, a “mind like water” – so they can actually offload things to their lists, and have some down time when their heads aren’t filled with all the things they have to do. Does technology get us any closer to that kind of nondoing?

DA: I want to do nothing as often as I can. That’s why I constantly get my e-mail inbox as close to zero as I can, and try to close all those loops. Most people spend the whole week before they go on vacation just trying to manage this stuff and not be managed by it. But 90 percent of the work of GTD is just being able to look up very quickly what I [should] be doing right now.

Home page image courtesy of the David Allen Company. (Photo is of David Allen.)

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