He’s the much-lauded business guru who reck­ons he can clear your work­load, in­crease your out­put and give you more free time. Sound too good to be true? Colin Drury talks to David Allen to find out...

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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? Wrong. 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 fail­safe 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 lifechang­ing,” 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.” He pauses. “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 top­five 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

Stress can be­come a thing of the past, anx­i­ety will dis­ap­pear – you’ll even get time­with the kids

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.

‘Just be­ing or­gan­ised like this saves you time and helps you get more free time. It’s that sim­ple’

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