David Allen, one of AMA’s Top 30 influential leaders of 2014, is known for the time management system “Getting Things Done,” which centers on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into items on which to take action. Allen sat down with AMA to answer some questions about how innovative leaders get things done, how he uses his own system, and how it’s not all about making lists.
AMA: How do innovative leaders organize themselves, from your observation? Do those who make lists invariably rise to the top?
DA: I think it’s not a matter of making a list. It’s a matter of being able to reserve your creative energies for where they are best used, which is not about remembering and reminding. The best leaders tend to structure their lives so that they don’t have to be involved with decisions they shouldn’t be making; they can basically have a trusted system that allows them to free up their attention to be creative, strategic, and innovative. In other words, if you have to remember where you need to be when, as opposed to having a trusted staff, system, or systematic approach that has already laid that out for you, that’s not the best use of your creative energies.
AMA: Are you saying, in other words, that you shouldn’t have to do everything?
DA: Sure. How much time does it take to be creative? Zero. How much time does it take to be innovative? Zero. How much time does it take to have a good idea? Zero. You don’t need time. You need room. So I think what creative leaders do is structure their life so that their brain is more available for that kind of stuff. Really, it’s not about managing time. It’s managing your attention. You have to manage where you are during the time you have, so time is an important factor. But that’s not something actually that you manage. You can’t manage time. What you can manage are the things that would distract you or take your attention away from being creative and strategic. So, when something is on your mind, it’s usually because there’s some decision you haven’t made, or you haven’t parked the results in some place you trust. Really innovative leaders wind up building systems for themselves so that they don’t have to use their creative energies on things that are not quite as meaningful.
AMA: Where should lists end and the go-with-the-flow hunches begin? And when is it OK to toss aside plans?
DA: Personally, I plan as little as I can get by with. The lists are only there so that my mind doesn’t have to keep rethinking anything more than once. I think the whole time we should be spontaneous and intuitive. In other words, as soon as you think “I need cat food” twice, you’re inappropriately involved with your cat, right? So once you have a thought—a would, could, should, need to, ought to— you need to appropriately deal with what that thought means, park it in some appropriate place. And many times that does mean putting it on a list. But that doesn’t mean you live your life just looking at lists. Heavens no. You live your life so you can trust that, hey, when I need that, I’ll see it at the right time.
It's up to you to learn how to get things done. Find all the tools you need with the help of these AMA resources and seminars: