In today's overworked, overachieving world, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 288 pages; $24.95), has developed a large following for his approach to personal productivity improvement. The Ojai, Calif., author, speaker and coach provides a system for organizing all one's tasks, projects and personal goals into a closed-loop workflow. Allen's methodology promises to help people manage their workloads and accomplish more, partly by easing their anxiety about the scores of items on their to-do lists.
Information technology also promises to boost personal productivity, of course—PDAs can be a great place to keep to-do lists. But Allen is a tough critic of the way people use personal technology. Yes, IT helps people connect, he says, but it often adds more stress than it alleviates. E-mail, instant messaging, blogs and knowledge bases speed up the flow of information, but they do nothing to help people decide what to do with that information, or who is accountable for acting on it. And while PDAs and digital organizers can be useful for people who start out well organized, they do little for those who don't. In fact, he told CIO Insight Executive Editor Allan Alter, some of the technologists who operate Second Life's virtual world rely on 3 by 5 cards to keep themselves organized via his methods.
An edited version of the interview follows.
CIO Insight: Companies have spent billions of dollars on personal technologies like PDAs, BlackBerries, cell phones and organizers. After all this money, are we more productive than before?
Allen: Yes and no. On one level, you have a lot more opportunities to get more done with fewer resources. To say the computer hasn't improved productivity would be like saying the telephone hasn't improved productivity.
I can tell you that if you took all my technology, my productivity would crash and burn. But in a way, both the computer and telephone are two-edged swords. If you are unproductive to begin with, technology will add something else you are unproductive about. If you are highly productive, you can certainly use technology to facilitate work.
What I've researched are the fundamental thought processes and behaviors required for productive behavior. The computer, for the most part, does not facilitate that. What it does is speed up the input coming to you that you need to make decisions about, and it facilitates, once you've made the decision, the ability to distribute that information or conclusions in very elegant and rapid ways. But when it comes to the decision-making process, I don't care how good it is: The computer is not going to tell you whether to call Fred or draft the e-mail. You still have to do that.
Do people think if they spend money on technology, they'll automatically be more productive? Or do people understand they have to change their behavior, too?
Most people don't yet understand that they need to change their behaviors. There's still the old idea that if we speed things up, everybody's going to be more productive. Speeding things up doesn't mean things are going to get better. The faster my laptop gets, the longer it still takes to boot up because there's more stuff in it. It's kind of funny how that works.
Take a CIO who now has to deal with virtual teams, and has a project manager in Boston whose team is in India. Obviously, that couldn't even happen if you weren't connected technologically. But we still need to sit down with each other and grapple with basic behaviors: Who's accountable? Who's doing what? What are the outputs we've agreed upon, and the actual steps that need to be taken to move toward them? Those do not show up self-defined.
Sometimes, productivity will go down simply because you lose perspective. Back when you had to sit down and write a letter, letters tended to be a little more elegant and take a higher perspective, compared to e-mails shot back and forth in the heat of the moment. That doesn't mean a quick e-mail or instant message is a bad thing. What it does mean is when you are down in the weeds all the time, you often lack that larger perspective. You need to back off and say, Wait a minute, what are we really trying to accomplish? What people do we need to have in this conversation?
People often ask me what's new about stress and productivity? I say there's nothing really new except how frequently everything is new. The biggest problem with a lot of the technological tools out there is they're fine until you get the exception.
It would be tough enough if you were only doing one project, but everybody has ten big projects now. You start moving on one, and suddenly the client changes its mind, you have to go back to the farm, regroup totally, and refocus your team. Technology, to a large degree, just adds to the complexity. It does not offer a solution unless you know how to thread through all those changes and stay focused on critical outcomes. There's no technology that can facilitate that.