David Allen on the 3 Reasons Your To-Do List Keeps Getting Longer

Last Updated Nov 30, 2010 1:50 PM EST

At 10:59 a.m. one day last week, I told my daughter I expected the phone to ring in one minute. I was about to interview a personal productivity expert who makes his living helping people get things done, I explained, and he was scheduled to call at 11 a.m.

I didn't actually think the phone would ring in 60 seconds. I'd interviewed time management and personal organization gurus before, and I knew they were about as likely as anybody to run late.

Not David Allen. My desk phone jingled precisely at the scheduled time, validating my half-ironic prediction.

Mindful that I was dealing with the author of the near-iconic "Getting Things Done" personal management system and book first published in 2001, and the subsequent slew of products and services built around it, including the 2008 book "Making It All Work," I didn't make a big deal of his promptness, or indulge in chitchat. I explained what the article was about and started in.

The Debunker: What are some misconceptions people have about time management and personal productivity?

Allen: The main one is, if I organize my time, I'll be organized. But you can't manage time. You don't manage five minutes and come up with six minutes -- or four and a half minutes. Time is an important resource, just like money and space. But managing time isn't the issue. It's an inappropriate framing of the issue. That's why there haven't been a lot of good solutions. It's not about managing time, it's about managing your attention and focus.

The Debunker: What's another myth?

Allen: The second one is, if I just have a calendar and to-do list, that will do it. It's sort of productivity porn: "My new app will get me organized. This is going to be the perfect app that will do it for me." But personal organization tools don't get you organized.

And another is that you can simplify prioritizing by using A-B-C, 1-2-3, high-medium-low. It's much more complex than that. I want to get everything done on my list. I'm constantly making judgment calls about which one will give me the highest payoff now given the time, context, and energy. That's much more subtle than a simple set of priorities.

The Debunker: Is it going to get any easier? Will technology help?

Allen: It's getting worse, in the sense that it's getting more evident when people don't handle this well because it's coming at them so fast and in such volume. All the technology is doing is making it easier to have a lot more potentially meaningful stuff coming at you. But you have to decide what's meaningful and create a systematic way to manage that.

The speed and volume are forcing people to have to come to grips with what they're about and what's important and what's a good systematic way to manage that. That's why my stuff has hit a nerve. It's the thought process about what you have to do to capture meaning. You can capture all this stuff. But you still have to decide what it means to you. There's no technology that does that.

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

To-do list image courtesy of Flickr user Florian, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.