As you might imagine, I do a lot of research on attention. I believe that mastering control over your attention is the key to not only getting things done, but to living the life you choose. And I am finding myself once again at odds with David Allen, Productivity Guru and author of the book from the late nineties called Getting Things Done.
I have admiration and respect for David Allen, there is no doubt he is a productivity master. I learned a lot from him early in my career and I’m sure he doesn’t remember, but I started my career in productivity at Time/System International in the early nineties when David Allen still had a relationship with them. I’m told that much of his Getting Things Done methodology came out of the time he spent working with TSI. And I owe much of my Empowered Productivity System to what I learned working there as well. So I do agree with David on many basic principles of peak personal productivity.
But I recently discovered one of his articles and while I acknowledge that it was written a few years ago, I believe it illustrates a fundamental challenge with his teachings. They were developed in the late 80’s and 90’s, in a vastly different technology landscape than the one we are currently living in.
In this article, “Pay Attention to What Has Your Attention,” David Allen writes, “what usually most needs your attention is what most has your attention.” I take his point that in one sense, everything that grabs your attention is equally important. I think he means, in the moment that it steals your attention. That is, if something has stolen your attention, you must take it back.
However, he goes on to talk about “starting where you are,” and that you can’t achieve the higher level goals if the little things are taking up all your mental energy, and you should therefore give in to them. He is addressing the internal mental distractions that we all deal with, but he’s ignoring the reality of the constant interruptions that we are subjected to on a daily basis from technology and communication tools. Usually what steals our attention is the curiosity about the new and novel, that calls our attention from Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, email, instant messenger, or one of a hundred other ways. It also ignores the endless stream of procrastination opportunities provided by the variety of screens facing us on our computer, iPhone, iPad, television, etc.
Before you can deal with the internal distractions, as he advises, you must first set yourself up to support your attention and focus, rather than sabotage it, as we often do by enabling these communication tools to be too accessible and interrupt us with bells, ringers, and vibrations.
I believe that Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working offers much more practical and relevant advice in his article for Harvard Business Review, “Take Back Your Attention,” as he more accurately describes the lure of the immediate gratification constantly available to us in a thousand different formats. It is difficult to resist and “paying attention to these things taking our attention,” as David Allen advises, only puts us deeper in the hole and ensures that we spend too much time in the quadrant of “seemingly urgent but not important” and not enough time in the quadrant of “important but not urgent.”
The key to control is a workflow management system that effectively handles all the details necessary to run your life smoothly. David Allen’s GTD process is such a system, but again reflects its origins in the 90’s: it’s very paper-heavy. Even if you could figure out on your own how to apply it to some electronic tools, it still takes weeks or months to implement. In fact it takes days just to begin! His book has excellent advice but it is cumbersome, time-consuming, and challenging for the average person to implement.
My Empowered Productivity System is lean, fast, and is easily adaptable to the most current technology. I’ve written about this as a key to success in the past, and I plan to tackle it in more depth in the coming posts. I hope you’ll come back. In the meantime, if the topic interests you, perhaps you’d like to check out my upcoming seminar in Austin, TX. Thanks for reading!