Best selling author David Allen on how to be more productive

July August 2015 Expert Productivity David Allen Getting Things Done Author

David Allen, author of productivity bible Getting Things Done, and Todd Brown, who helps execs adopt Allen’s philosophy – offer their tips for achieving more and being more productive

The P-word has been a hot topic of late. While the economy continues to recover and median household income returns to pre-crisis levels, it is the productivity of Britain’s workforce that has brought negative headlines. The UK is a fifth less productive per worker than the G7 average and 40 per cent behind the US.

Personal productivity guru David Allen, author of bestselling self-help book Getting Things Done, has helped companies including Microsoft to address the productivity of their executives. Now he’s on a mission to help UK leaders get more results for their effort, with help from Todd Brown, co-founder of consultancy Next Action Associates. Here, they offer tips on how business leaders can boost their output…

How have demands on SME leaders changed since your book was first published?
David Allen The most obvious day-to-day one is [the emergence of] 24-7, always connected, bright bubbles of digital things that can very easily distract you, become addictive and pull you away from what ought to be your focus. It’s the stress of opportunity – it’s a great time to be alive if you know what you’re doing. But if you don’t, it’s tough, and all the digital stuff will just add more pressure and frustration. For directors of smaller businesses this can be more intense – the smaller you are, the more hats you have to wear and the more nimble you need to be to recalibrate limited resources and stay afloat.

Todd Brown Nobody becomes a business leader because they believe it will be an easy life, right? You know there are going to be challenges. But for a lot of leaders today, the levels of stress go up when they believe ‘well, this is just the way it’s got to be, there’s no way out of this’. So they stay busy – there’s always something to focus on – but they don’t have the confidence to focus on the right things, so they end each day feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, late home and then up early the next day to do it all again.

How much is the dreaded email inbox contributing to this?
David Allen New research is showing that the pains of the digital world are creating an addiction, and email is absolutely ripe for that. One of the best ways to create an addiction is random positive reinforcement – have you ever played golf? One good stroke in 120 will keep you coming back – you’re hooked, you’re dead! With email it’s the same thing, there are landmines and goldmines in there. If you never clean up your backlog you’re constantly in emergency scan mode, which then creates the addiction or fosters it.

Todd Brown A lot of reports in the UK show that, while the economy is growing, productivity is not. I can’t draw a line between that and what David is saying, but my suspicion is that a lot of business leaders are settling for busy. Busy is good enough until you have that meeting with the board and they ask, ‘how are we doing with moving towards those strategic outcomes we want to achieve?’

If directors have a brilliant new idea but no time to develop it, what can they do?
David Allen You don’t need time, you need room. How much time does it take to have a good idea? Zero. How much time does it take to decide what you need to do next on something? About 10 seconds if you’re slow! Interestingly, most people say, ‘I don’t have enough time to do that’. But then the question is, ‘do what?’ We advocate that people get real about the stuff that’s in their face. If you’ve got six emails you’re avoiding, that’ll take up all the space in your head. We get people to focus on the non-critical, non-strategic, non-crisis stuff first – it’s taking up a lot more of your bandwidth so you can’t focus on the meaningful stuff. If you zeroed out your in-basket – email as well as everything else – every 24 to 48 hours, then there’s not the necessity to keep it in your head. Then you won’t need a lot of time to start moving on a new idea.

Is a reluctance to delegate holding many leaders back?
Todd Brown Leaders are particularly susceptible to that disease. One cause of this reluctance is that many just don’t have the mechanisms in place to keep track of the things they delegate. They quick-send an email, it goes off into the ether, and you can almost see a piece of their brain tries to go along with it, thinking, ‘Oh, I really hope they come back to me’.

David Allen Often it’s important to realise that you can’t delegate the whole outcome – if you’re responsible for improving your company’s credit line, you’re accountable for that – but the next step [down] could be delegated… Clearly defining roles and accountability in your business makes it easier to see which elements of your project list could be handed off, and it becomes an easier conversation once people understand what’s really on their plate.

What one thing could leaders do now to start boosting their productivity?
David Allen Reflect. I spent an hour recently interviewing Theo Compernolle, who wrote the [cognitive science] book Brain Chains. In one of his surveys, he asked 1,200 managers and executives, ‘how much time do you spend reflecting on a daily basis?’ Almost nobody spends any time in reflection. If you stop and take 45 minutes to do nothing apart from think about what’s going on – that’s the most dramatic and easiest way to beat the ‘busy’ cycle.

David Allen’s 5 steps to better productivity

1. Capture… everything that’s potentially meaningful in your head: small projects, big projects, personal and professional. Record it on a voice recorder or in a notepad.
2. Clarify… sooner rather than later. Go through each thing you’ve captured and ask ‘is it actionable?’ If it isn’t, trash it. If it is, decide on the next action – if it takes less than two minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it or note when you can do it.
3. Organise… put results into a trusted system – lists of categorised tasks with reminders of what to do by when.
4. Reflect… review your lists often to decide what to do next. Ensure a weekly review to update lists and clear your mind.
5. Engage… take actions with confidence. Then you have the rest of your life to practice.


Who David Allen
Role Productivity consultant
Previous positions Growing up in Louisiana, Allen claims to have had 35 jobs before he was 35 – including magician, karate instructor, glass-blower, moped salesman and travel agent. He began working for Lockheed in the 1980s, offering his perspective on productivity to the US aircraft manufacturer’s executives.
Bestselling book In 2001, Penguin published Allen’s book outlining his time-management system – Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity. It became a bestseller and was lauded by Time magazine, Wired and the Wall Street Journal. An updated edition was published in March. Allen works with London-based Next Action Associates to share his philosophy with businesses across the UK and continental Europe.

To find out more about David Allen’s method of boosting productivity, visit

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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