The David Allen experience

I had never flown the now defunct America West before flying to Phoenix in the early fall of 1999, but I was aware of its nickname as “America’s Worst”. When I found my seat, I immediately noticed there was no overhead air vent: how cheap does a commercial airline have to be to save on basic ventilation? I was hating this trip before the plane pulled away from the gate.

My brooding was interrupted by the arrival of the person assigned to sit next to me, who was as sanguine and relaxed as I was stressed. I noticed his elegant leather flight bag and his practiced, effortless preparation for takeoff. I had traveled enough by then to know that experienced travelers didn’t usually spend cross-country flights in conversation with strangers, but five hours of complete silence could also be awkward. So when he took his seat, I just said “you must travel a lot”.

He smiled, not expecting the observation, and responded “Here, I’ll show you something you haven’t seen before”. He took out his wallet and removed a United Airlines frequent flyer card, which had Five Million Miles printed on it in raised lettering. Holy crap! I immediately asked “What’s your line of work? And what the hell are you doing on this flight?” He told me he was an executive coach, so he traveled to companies all over the world discussing personal productivity with CEOs and other senior leaders. He was returning from Geneva to his home in Ojai, California, and had missed his connection, so United had arranged the next best thing.

We spent more time talking on that flight than I had expected, and if he found it a bore it never showed. I was riveted. He told me how he worked with CEOs to help them get their minds relaxed and focused so they could solve real problems and not spend all their effort fighting fires. He told me how he enjoyed the diversity of people he worked with and the opportunity to see his impact on their lives. He asked me about my work and my interests. When I got back to Boston I told my wife about this unusual traveler who seemed so relaxed despite this unexpected detour, and how much I’d like to be able to achieve that kind of equanimity and productivity.

A year and a half later I walked into Brookline Booksmith and saw David Allen‘s face staring up at me from the best seller table on the cover of Getting Things Done. I bought a copy, and like countless others found it transformative. Here was a book about personal productivity with plenty of chance for reflection but none of the obligatory moralizing (I’m taking about you, Covey). I wrote Allen a note, thanking him for his book and saying that we had met on a cross country flight a couple of years earlier. I wasn’t expecting an answer, but he replied anyway and invited me for a glass of wine on an upcoming trip of his to Boston. This led to good outcomes all around: I eventually took his seminar myself and arranged for some of my staff to take it. I also introduced Allen to senior HR executives at Millennium, my then employer, who brought his team in for on-site training and arranged 1:1 coaching by Allen himself for selected executives.

To this day, GTD is the productivity system that works when things are clicking for me. When I’m not productive, when I’m losing my balance, the loss of control and mastery is reflected in the growing pile of loose ends. GTD, in its simple way, creates the space for a person’s psychic energy to be directed to less mundane things.

This isn’t a blog about GTD or productivity, but I wanted to relay this story for a reason. I think there’s a sweet spot where the psychic offloading of GTD, the rigor of deliberate practice, the rush of Flow, and the experience of present moment awareness can be sublime, not all at once, but in interplay with each other. This sweet spot isn’t primarily one of productivity, but a kind of fulfillment that resembles productivity when looked at from an angle with a squint.  I was thinking of this sweet spot when I named this blog.

One thought on “The David Allen experience

  1. Hi Greg. Very cool story. Since the start of my chaotic journey into PhD studies and research, I had always felt that I would sort of sink, naturally, into an effective routine of organized productivity. Well, that hasn’t happened. I’ve come to the conclusion that my natural “productive posture” is, well, not that organized, and I need to work on it.

    Besides following Flowmentum, I’ve reserved a copy of Getting Things Done from the library. It should be available in a couple weeks. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

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