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The Power of Deceptive Simplicity
Most people who give advice for a living either offer too much or too little. What moves me most is deceptive simplicity. By that, I mean ideas that may seem obvious at first blush, but whose accessibility turns out to be the product of rigorous thinking, skillful synthesizing, and a commitment to clarity.
I say this because so many of us are so busy and so barraged by information that we're reaching a point of saturation. There's just not much room left in our working memories to deeply absorb anything truly new or complex.
Instead, we end up skittering from one thing to the next, reacting more than we reflect, settling for a snippet of an experience here and a whoosh of sensation there, but rarely staying with anything for very long. We live in the shallows, dancing as fast as we can to keep up. The ironic result is that, while the world keeps changing, we don't.
Technology, for example, has gotten way out ahead of our ability to manage it skillfully. Rather than opening up our worlds, or making us more efficient, our digital devices increasingly just distract and preoccupy us. As the polymath Herbert Simon put it so presciently way back in 1978, "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."
Which brings me to David Allen, whose work I've followed for a decade, but who I only met and came to know during the past year. David is most famously the author of Getting Things Done, which is about as deceptively simple a title for a book as you're likely to run across. But simple as it sounds, the title is bursting with understatement.
How critical and complex is it, after all, to get (the right) things done in a world of endless demands and infinite distractions? I summarize David's ideas at my peril and yours, but here's what they've meant to me:
Since none of us can hold very much in our working memories, the trick is to download everything you need to do in one place — "outside of your head," as David puts it, "so it's off your mind." Next, you need a way to define your commitment for a next action on each of those items, rather than the expectation that you'll complete each one, all at once. And finally, you need a system for regularly reviewing the next actions you intend to take.
At first blush, this sounds like David's advice is little more than making a "to do" list and sticking to it. It's the subtleties that make it more powerful. Writing down everything that's on your mind, for example, turns out to be quite a trick. When David does this exercise with individual clients, it can take a full day, sometimes even two. Clarifying the next action requires first defining what a successful outcome would look like, and then defining in precise terms the next physical action you must take to move the process forward.
It's not my goal to teach you David's system, but rather to bring your attention to the breathtaking insight at its core, which is this: If you're not acting on something that's on your mind, it's consuming time, energy and precious space in your brain that you could be using to do richer and more productive thinking. Or as David puts it, "You'll need to get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind."
What David has done for me is to define a practical path into what athletes refer to as being "in the zone," psychologist Mihalyi Csikszenhmihalyi calls "the flow state," martial artists term "a mind like water," and the Buddhists teach as "mindfulness."
David's system is about clearing out the noise of your mind so you can think free from all the clutter. Imagine being three feet underneath the surface waves in a stormy ocean. You're perfectly aware of what's happening on the surface, but you're in a calm and quiet place, prepared to take the next appropriate action.
In many ways, David and I couldn't be more different. He's a laid-back Californian committed to investing as little effort as possible to get things done. I'm a New Yorker committed to investing as much effort as possible to get things done, in bursts, followed by recovery. David isn't that concerned about the impact his system has on the world. That's the whole game for me.
But here's where we do ultimately agree: To manage the storm around us, we need to quiet the storm inside ourselves. By doing that effectively, we can devote more attention to whatever we decide matters most.
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As a follower of David Allen I absolutely loved this article. Thanks for the reminder on several different fronts. Life can be simple!
by Laura Boderck - TrainingSmart
@ 2011/05/22 08:49:44 PM
Another great post Tony ! Given the nature of my job expectations to achieve and make progress with results that are tracked by week/mnth/QTR and the sheer volume of " things on the truck ", FOCUS is critical. Information is coming at us daily from a fire hose and people are competing internally for our time constantly to push their individual agenda's through us, which may or may not have pertinent value to our clients and help us in achieving results. In my 14 yrs working for this company I have witnessed the pressure AND the distractions just continue to increase year after year. Working and living in the world of the global enterprise with virtual communities and cross-geo collaboration on everything with what seems to be the need to " be on " 24/7/365. With the ongoing proliferation of digital sensors on everything and devices ( like my coveted iphone and ipad ) that many of us cannot seem to keep our heads out of, I suspect that we have somehow re-wired our brains over time to just switch from one task and distraction to another often trying to do 2 or 3 things all at the same time. How often do we see people sitting in meetings supposedly paying attention and contributing to discussion, whilst also doing something on their PC, iphone or blackberry ? or, ... at home watching the TV while also surfing on their ipad or pc ? How often do we see people and especially Gen Y's now on public transport wired to ipods, while either playing a game or looking at something on their device and having a conversation with their friend/colleague ?. This method or way of living now seems to have become the norm rather than the exception. It often feels like I am doing so much more, but actually achieving so much less and especially the things that matter to me most, both in my personal life and at work. I can see the need to better manage myself, my thinking and my focus as the single most important skill I can continue to develop to achieve the fulfillment I want out of life. As you say ... " clearing out the noise of your mind so you can think free from all the clutter ". I can see the need to train my mind to think and act differently so I can remove the noise. The most effective " how " to do this so that it becomes a daily habit is what I'd like to get some further coaching on. I suspect that learning to meditate would be very helpful.
by Ian Thomson
@ 2011/04/29 05:24:57 PM