This article originally appeared at Gen-i’

David Allen has become a bit of a legend of productivity and time management. His book, Getting Things Done, has been showered with praise since its publication in 2001, and has been credited by The Guardian and Time Magazine as potentially life-changing. So, take it on good authority that this book’s method works – and listen up.

For Allen, to optimise productivity and effectively execute the task you need a feeling of calm. That feeling is the symptom of utter presence, complete engagement, in a task, project, or situation. In moments of crisis, paradoxically, stress will produce that feeling. It clears your mind. It needs to have that effect on your body and head. In a crisis, you need to focus – otherwise, you’d be overwhelmed, paralysed, and panicky. Not a place to be productive!

Allen’s question is how do we get that feeling of absolute focus without the crisis? And his answer is to cultivate a proper engagement with whichever task or process you are performing – and this doesn’t merely mean just getting it done.

Appropriate Engagement

In fact, as Allen argues, getting things done is not really about getting things done at all. Sometimes, an appropriate engagement with a task actually means precisely not getting things done.

The writer, Geoff Dyer, for example, has a book that was intended to be a biography of another writer, D.H. Lawrence. Yet, after a whole lot of procrastination, musings, and bursts of creativity, the book he produced was something quite different: a book about trying to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence. To get to the point, critics said it was the best book on Lawrence – the most illuminating, the most engaged – that they had ever read. If you’re engaged with the subject, results come regardless of whether you are being productive in the more familiar sense.

We are all familiar with staring at a computer screen knowing we have something to do, but somehow unable to motivate ourselves to the task. However, what Allen alludes to is the shift of focus from the completion of the task to a general engagement with the task. Once engaged, you can enjoy the immersion in the task, and the result? Its completion will feel effortless. By engaging, the task will almost complete itself.


It’s difficult to get clarity and focus when you are incessantly bombarded by emails, phone calls, tweets, etc. All this ‘flak’ fills your brain, demands your attention, and can be overwhelming. The predictable result of a feeling of being overwhelmed is to numb out, go ‘crazy-busy’, and beg for more time.

But really, you don’t need more time. As I discussed in my article on Parkinson’s Law, you’re probably not going to use that time effectively anyway: you’d just have more time to be overwhelmed. And think about it: as Allen says, it really takes no time to actually execute the task once you set your mind to it.

It takes no time, but it requires a lot of headspace, the room to mentally manoeuvre. With the bombardment of daily tasks and input, our energy is really used in trying to remember everything, recall it, manage it in our brains. According to Allen, you have about thirty projects on the go at any one time!

I love the mnemonic for FOCUS: Follow, One, Course, Until, Successful. Eradicate all distractions. You can use a variety of tools (I cover some in my other blogs) to help you list, identify, prioritise, schedule and execute any given tasks. Its all about making the space and allowing yourself the time to F.O.C.U.S.

A Creative Mess

In a harassed state, you’re only going to lose focus, perspective, and the freedom to think creatively and act effectively. We have all been there, frantically working hard, but with a niggling sense we are not working at our full potential. Rather, as with Geoff Dyer, your most productive time is when you have the freedom to make a creative mess, when you are allowed to go off-piste a little, immerse yourself fully and engage creatively in completing a task. We all know this is when we do our best work.

This creative mess comes from making ‘in the zone’ your normal state, from making that focused serenity your default setting – rather than something transient. In this state, you’re going to be more able to recognise new ideas or opportunities as they appear and be in a state of mind that can capitalise on them. You’ll enable yourself to exist in what Allen calls a ‘sophisticated spontaneity’, a mental state of productive readiness.

How to get there

Allen’s method is disarmingly simple. To allow this creative mess, you need to create headspace. You need to see differently everything that is bombarding you, and you need to make it manageable. There are three steps to this:

Get it out of your head

The first step demands that you seize back that headspace. So, anything that is meaningful, or potentially meaningful, write it down. This might feel a little awkward at first, a little unnatural, but you are clearing space inside your head, by simply externalising the things that are overwhelming you.

I call this a ‘brain-dump’, when I feel harassed, out come the big piece of paper, pens and my favourite music playlist, and I ‘dump’ EVERYTHING out of my head. Then you can take a moment to stop, review, prioritise what you have in front of you.

Make outcome & action decisions

For each little thing that you have written down, you need to decide what you are going to do with them. An interesting question: are you committed to finishing them? If your answer is No, cross it out and move on. Eradication will form part of this process.

We are all guilty of adding things to the list that really aren’t that important! It is important to remember the Important/Urgent quadrant when reviewing the list. What is actually important and will take me closer to my ultimate goal?

Use the right maps

Now, once you have collected all this information, once it is all there in front of you, you need to work out how on earth to manage it all. This is about ACTIONS. For each ‘task’, write down what you need to DO in relation to that specific task, to get closer to your goal?

Remember BE SPECIFIC. If one of the tasks is to lose weight for example, an action would be 1. Exercise more. However, this will not be effective. A specific action plan would be:

  1. Research diet plan and select one to commit to for eight weeks.
  2. Exercise each Monday, Wednesday, Friday for at least one hour.
  3. Drink three litres of water a day etc. etc.

They are SPECIFIC actions.

This methodology is a skill you need to develop (and then teach to your team), to ensure you effectively implement any improvements, execute any tasks, and improve your productivity. Without action, tasks will remain just ideas. I covered this in my article on the Obstacles to Implementation.

We have all visited conferences and come away with 101 ideas, but how many actually became a reality? Businesses that harness this ability are more productive, constantly improve, and, importantly, grow!


  • Nicola MacPhail

    Change Expert, Author & Facilitator


    A consultant, writer and facilitator. Based in Cumbria I coach clients across the UK and internationally. I write extensively on ‘The HOW Skill Set’ in addition to offering workshops, training and consultancy. Born from a passion to help others ‘Make Change Happen’, I help people make effective implementation plans, be more productive and leverage habits to implement vital changes and thrive in life and work!