Renegade Writer Q&A: David Allen
David Allen is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Penguin, 2002) and Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life (Viking Adult, 2003). These books have changed the way I juggle all the tasks of being a freelance writer — and a busy person — from research to marketing to scheduling home repairs. I spoke with Allen about how to solve organizational and motivational problems that are particular to freelancers. [lf]
Can you give a brief overview of the “Getting Things Done” system for people who might not be familiar with it?
It’s a set of best practices that I researched, tried out, and synthesized into a methodology of how you process and manage the things that have your attention, and it turns out to be a way to maintain control. If I get out of control, how do I get back into control? How do I get the right perspective when I seem to have lost perspective on things?
We’re living in a world where a lot of people get thrown out of control or lose perspective many times a day — I still do, too — but there are tools and techniques we can do to help clear our heads and stay focused. That’s really what the book is about. They’re the sort of things we already know how to do, but I think most people haven’t understood the power principles behind them. Once you catch that, there are some really good things you can do — and do more consistently — that will allow you to surf on top of this game called “work and life” instead of feeling buried by it. It’s not free, you don’t get there by just kind of hoping it works, but there are some pretty easy things to do.
Can you tell us a little bit about the power principles?
If you want to get control, the first thing you have to do is grab hold of everything that has your attention and objectify it and get it out of your head. Everybody, I’m sure, has at some point felt overwhelmed, buried, confused, frustrated, and stressed, and sat down and made a list and probably felt a little bit better. If you understood why and how that works, you would never keep anything in your head again. So that’s the principle. Objectifying your stuff so that you can look at it, think about it more clearly, think about it in perspective and in the context of all your other agreements so that you can implicitly re-negotiate with yourself regularly — that’s the principle of how you get stuff off your head and take the pressure away. Your head is a phony place to keep things, and it creates a subliminal pressure that’s not required.
In Getting Things Done, you talked about the subliminal pressure of needing to do many things at once and not being able to. Can you describe that?
If you’re parking stuff in your head — I’ve gotta call Mom, I need to buy nails, I need to take this to the bank, I need to write this e-mail, I need to draft this article — the part of you that is hanging onto all that, what I call psychic RAM — a sort of short-term memory space — has very limited space and it also has no sense of past or future, so as soon as you park something in there, there’s a part of you psychologically that actually thinks that you should be doing it all the time. So, if you think about that, as soon as you park two things in there you’re probably going to experience some level of failure and stress because you can’t do it all at once and a part of you thinks you should be. So that’s why we feel distracted, because some part of us is trying to do it all. It’s kind of like, “Look, I’m your servant, you gave me this job to remember and remind so I’m trying to remember and remind.” It just doesn’t know when to stop. It keeps going; it’ll wake you up at 3:00 in the morning with them.
You’re a freelancer yourself, right?
Well, yes. I now have a company with 40 people so it turned into something; I turned around and suddenly I had a company. But my writing is still my own thing.
What challenges do freelancers face that 9-to-5ers don’t face when it comes to managing their time and getting things done?
I do live in that space myself because my office is where my house is, so I have no office I go to. I don’t have any edges to my workspace, either in time or space, and it can be quite challenging. You don’t have an automatic, “get me away and have different perspective” kind of space. You get to sleep with your boss, essentially. Your boss is inside your head, you can’t get away from it.
Do you have any tips on how to overcome that challenge, besides getting an outside office?
It’s very, very important for people to have a work space. Most people should think about having two kinds of work spaces: There should probably be a life management space where you pay bills, and do e-mail, and all that kind of stuff, and a writing space. When I’m in my “home and office” environment, I’ve found that I may have 100, 200, 300 e-mails that I’m cranking through…but when it’s time to write, if I’ve got an essay that I want to crank out, I will unhook from that day-to-day operational kind of office space and go sit somewhere else, where I have different horizons.
I think when writing, at least for me personally, it’s important to have different horizons that your mind can go to. You just cranked on a sentence and you spent ten minutes editing it and you rewrote it and you kind of got it right, and when you back off, you need the opportunity for the brain to relax. It’s kind of like working out with weights: You’ve got to have interval time. When you’re writing, in that interval it’s much more relaxing to have multiple horizons to look at. It’s very relaxing for your brain, especially when you’re in intensive thinking and creative work, to have different environments to go to visually. Some people like to have a different kind of music in the background or other things like that. The main point is that you need to be conscious about space, and what kind of space allows you to do that kind of work and pace yourself while you’re doing it.
I think writers will be very relieved to know that they don’t have to have two official office spaces, one for writing and one for doing business work…that they can go outside or go to a café or wherever helps them get their writing done.
Sure. It probably even depends on what kind of writing you’re trying to do. When I’m trying to do creative writing, I really have to think, and thinking is a rare commodity. It actually takes horsepower. It’s not just regurgitating information, which is just the computer stuff the brain does — it really is tapping the intuition, the intelligence, the creativity. When I’m in that space, that’s when I need to be able to relax. It’s interesting because I think you need a combination of both the ability to relax and something that will keep you focused. If you get too relaxed you just kind of zone out.
What helps keep you focused?
I think part of it is the environment. I’m sort of the bright bubble baby — if I suddenly see solitaire on my computer, I will go play it. So I have to be careful what I put in front of me. A good friend of mine says “I can resist anything but temptation,” so what I try to do is limit my temptations. A good way to do that is to put yourself in the right kind of environment and don’t let yourself be distracted by the things that will likely pull you into them.
You mention in Getting Things Done that we all need a basic efficient work space. What does that look like for a freelance writer?
It’s hard to say. Not having a particularly cluttered space to work is important, though neat and organized are really not the same thing. Sometimes people need clutter around them because it helps clear their head. They like to be reminded of several things out there and they like a kind of cognitive dissonance or creativity that the piles sometimes create, so I’m not an anti-pile guy. The problem is what a lot of people have in those piles is unclear commitments that they’ve got and that can produce a distraction. So I would say, it needs to be clean psychologically; that’s not necessarily neat physically. People will have to just figure out what that means to them. It’s not a bad idea to clear the space; of course, sometimes you clear the space you feel so good you don’t feel like writing. Then you feel like surfing the web or playing solitaire or something.
You talked about minimizing distractions. Because we don’t have bosses looking over our shoulders all the time, that’s a huge problem for us freelancers. Do you have any other advice?
Deadlines are great. That’s not necessarily directly on your point, but in a way it is, because you force yourself to focus. Everybody, I think, resists decision-making, and writing is just full of decision-making: “How do I say it?”, “Do I say that?”, “How much do I say?”, “Did I say it right?”, “Is there a better way to say it?” Writing is, to a large degree, editing. I have to give myself the freedom to just dump everything out, and then have the discipline to come back and edit, and that’s a huge decision-making process.
By the way, I think when you collapse those two things — the creative and the editing side of it — that’s also going to create a lot of procrastination. Because people want to express themselves, but then they know it’s got to be right and they’ve got to be perfect, they will tend to balk and procrastinate, especially when they’re writing about what they consider sensitive issues. If you’re just trying to write instructions on how to use a paperclip, that’s probably not the same thing as trying to write your autobiography and your particular take on the meaning of life. With the latter, there are all kinds of things that will start to surface that you’re going to have to deal with, and demons you’re going to have to fight. But if you give yourself permission to say, “Okay, now it’s time to just write a bad draft”…well, as you know, the best way to write a book is to write a really bad first draft. You’ve got to get started and move things forward, so anything you can do to help you kick-start getting going is a big key. Hitting the first key is the toughest one, as you know. You need to be able to do it.
So, back to your point, how you keep yourself from getting distracted is to get going. Let yourself get distracted by your own thinking and by your computer and by the keys and the screen, and the flow.
I’ve always said you need tricks. If I’m going to get myself to exercise, the best thing to do is go get out of whatever clothes I’m in and put on exercise clothes; even if I don’t feel like exercising right now, it’ll start moving me in that direction. So, putting yourself in the right environment, putting on the right clothes, putting your writing hat on (even a physical hat), getting your cup of coffee, going through the rituals, those are keys as well.
In terms of the business of the business, you need to make sure those things are “parked” [recorded] so they’re not distracting you. That’s a lot of what we teach: How do you get distracting thoughts off your mind? You’re not going to be able to sit there and wish them away. If something keeps popping into your head, you need to write it down: Throw it in your own in-basket, put it somewhere you trust you’ll see it again, or leave it on your own answering machine. Then your brain will start to be able to let it go and not keep beating you up about it. Again, that comes back to objectifying your thinking, capturing those ideas. It’s always nice to have tools for capturing ideas that are not relevant to what you’re writing or thinking about, so you can just keep the flow going. If you suddenly have an idea about a project that you’re working on, as opposed to what you’re writing right then, go ahead and capture that idea, especially if you have the tools with you right there. Write it on another piece of paper and put it somewhere. It’s kind of like sitting down to do meditation or contemplative work or reflection…it’s always a good idea to have a pad and pen because as you start to relax, oftentimes the layers of your attention start to unpeel and stuff starts to bubble to the surface. “Oh yeah, I need thumbtacks at the hardware store”; “Oh yeah, I told Marcy I was going to call her.”
And once you capture those ideas, in Getting Things Done you say that you put them on contextual to-do lists. Can describe what those contextual to-do lists are?
There’s another step you’re missing: Once you capture the idea, at some point you need to get a little more discrete about what the next action step is. Many times you’ll write down “Mom,” but what are you going to do about Mom? “Oh, well, it’s her birthday.” Great, what’s the next step? “Well, I guess I could call her, I could buy her a card….” Which? Decide! “Okay, I’m going to call Mom.” Great, now you’ve got an action item. Just the fact that you wrote “Mom” doesn’t mean that you want to put “Mom” on the list and just keep it there. You need to keep going and decide the action. Then you need to ask yourself, when would you need to be reminded of that if you don’t want to call her right now? Well, it would probably be a good idea to see that when you’re at a phone and you have time, and it would be nice when you get to a phone and you have time to see a list of all the phone calls you need to make. So it’s just good old practical common sense that once you’ve figured out all the action steps you need to take about all the stuff in your life and work, if you organize them by where that action happens or by the context required to do that action, it makes it a little bit easier and a little bit more motivating to get them done.
In other words, I don’t want to be reminded of stuff to do at the computer when I’m not at the computer. When I get to the hardware store, I want to see all the at-hardware store stuff. Then, when my wife and I sit down to talk about the business of life, I want to have in front of me all the stuff I’ve decided I need to talk to her about.
If you had only 12 actions to keep track of, just one list of all of them is probably fine, but most people that we have coached and worked with have over 150 next actions. People have five, eight, fifteen phone calls, ten, twenty, thirty things to do at their computers, six or seven errands to run, eight things to talk to their spouse about. If you’re going to keep all that stuff out of your head, which is what we recommend, you need a pretty good system to keep track of those things; basically, you need a way to keep lists that you can see at the right time and place.
It sounds like you can make up different contextual to-do lists depending on your lifestyle and your work style and where you go; are there any contextual to-do lists that are appropriate for a freelancer?
Actually, there are. There have been times where my creative writing inventory has backed up on me. I just have so much writing to do, as well as a lot of other things because writing is not my day job. So I’ve found it very useful for me to have a context called “Creative at the computer,” and that’s different than just e-mails to send or documents of other sorts I need to draft. I have an at-computer list, but I also found it’s useful to have a grouping of all of those next actions that happen to be creative writing actions.
If you’re only working on one thing that may not be necessary; for example, if you’re writing a book and that’s the only thing you’re writing, the next action is truly just to keep working on the next chapter. But it is a good idea oftentimes to get a little more granular. You don’t want to have as the next action, “Publish the great American novel”…you want to have “Draft outline to introduction.” When you get it down to more discrete things, some part of you says, “I think I can handle that,” and you don’t freak out because the project is bigger than you know how to tackle. Getting down to bite-size chunks is obviously a very useful thing to do on your list. If you have a lot of other things, a very busy life in addition to the creative writing that you want to do, you may find it useful to have a “creative at computer” context because that way you can stay focused. Say you now have four hours blocked off this morning for writing time. Look at those six writing projects, or however many you’ve got, and see those discretely. Which one of those would make the biggest difference to you if you made some significant progress on it today?
So do you decide when to do which thing on the list depending on how much it will affect you that day?
There’s no specific algorithm or formula other than my gut or my intuition. Which thing has the loudest internal noise to me that I want to quiet? Which one would make the biggest difference to me if I made progress on it right now? There could be a lot of reasons for that: one may be a deadline, or I’ve got an agreement with somebody. Sometimes I’ve got a big writing project for the next book that’s going to take ten months to finish, and if I don’t start on it right now I’m going to be dead in terms of trying to kick-start my thinking on the process. But I think that just comes from experience and maturity in terms of knowing how much is going to surface that you’re going to have to deal with between here and your deadline.
You don’t list your next actions according to priority, A,B,C, and so on?
I don’t. Those priorities change so often and so regularly, I figure I either want to get it done or I don’t. So if I want to get it done, it’s on the list, and I have to evaluate that almost moment-to-moment, or day-to-day, against all the other things on the list, because things change. I don’t want to nail that down too hard because then I’ll feel bad, and the truth is that priorities really do shift. What I highly recommend that people do on a weekly basis is look at everything that you’re committed to do, all your open loops, all your projects, all the action items you’ve got, so that at least on a weekly basis you’re bringing up the rear guard, if you will.
Can we talk a little bit about motivation? Freelancers are very deadline-oriented, but if we don’t have a deadline setting a fire underneath us, sometimes we have trouble getting started.
The trouble again comes back to decision-making. Most people don’t want to make the wrong decision, so the nice thing about deadlines is that they force you to have to make decisions. When you think about it, what if you turned in an article early? That would mean that it would have to be perfect — right? — because you had more time to work on it. So one of the reasons to wait until a deadline is that you can always pretend that it could have been perfect had you had enough time. You don’t have to deal with the fact that this was the best you could do. You never have to produce the best you can do as long as you wait until the deadline. That’s a deep-seated reason that a lot of people wait for deadlines.
Also, I think it truly is the decision-making process. It’s like what I discovered when I’m packing for a trip, and I’m going to some place that may have very changeable weather. If I give myself any longer than about 40 minutes to pack, I will go through the biggest agony in the world trying to decide, Should I take that sweater? Should I not?. I’ll fill up with agonizing decisions and choices whatever space of time I give myself. So one trick is to only start packing 40 minutes before I need to go out the door. It will absolutely force me to have to make the decisions about what I’m going take, and I won’t spend that much time agonizing about it. I think you can relate; that’s one reason that waiting until deadlines becomes such an attractive thing, simply because it relieves all the agonizing decision pressure.
Now, I’ll tell you a trick. One of the most frustrating things about waiting until deadlines is that if you wait until a deadline and you crank the thing out, sure, it’s going to be good and you focused really well, but then three days after you turn it in, you get a cool idea that you wish you had added. What happened was that your unconscious, now that you’ve concentrated on the thing in the way that you needed to in order to turn it in, actually planted a seed in the unconscious that made some unconscious subliminal connections that you needed to cook on for two or three days. So one of the things I’ve learned over the years is to give myself essentially a false deadline. I’ll tell myself that this has got to be turned in by Friday. It’s not due until Tuesday, but I want to finish it by Friday so that I can really finish it by Tuesday — does that make sense? I give myself the fake deadline that allows me to know that I will then have the freedom to relax and let potentially very cool and creative ideas pop in that I would want to include in that piece of work. It took me a long time to understand that. I was putting up with so much pain of having missed so many good ideas because I had them after I turned the thing in, and it taught me that lesson.
Do you have any new books coming out?
I’m working on book number three. I’ve been cooking on that for a couple of years, asking myself what is the next message that’s growing inside of me. I really feel like there needs to be something to say that’s unsaid in the first book.
Do you have the topic set?
I do. It’s basically the principles behind the principles in the first book. The first book talked about collecting what has your attention, so you write things on pieces of paper and put them in your in-basket. But the whole concept of getting hold of things that have our attention has a whole lot more implication and application to it than just that practical thing of writing it down. A lot of that comes from my background as a management consultant and working with a lot of people as a process facilitator and a process consultant, where I come in and help people clarify and improve situations. If you start to pay attention to what has your attention, there’s a lot of subtlety to that and also a lot of power people have untapped…so that’s a lot of what the next message is going to be about.