INTERVIEW GTD Author David Allen: Part 1, Health and Stress


For most web workers stress is an inescapable fact of life – and sometimes death. The links between stress and serious, you-are-so-screwed illness are real and the news is anything but good:

Many people report experiencing physical symptoms (77 percent) and psychological symptoms (73 percent) related to stress in the last month. Physical symptoms of stress include: fatigue (51 percent); headache (44 percent); upset stomach (34 percent); muscle tension (30 percent); change in appetite (23 percent), teeth grinding (17 percent); change in sex drive (15 percent); and feeling dizzy (13 percent). Psychological symptoms of stress include: experiencing irritability or anger (50 percent); feeling nervous (45 percent); lack of energy (45 percent); and feeling as though you could cry (35 percent). In addition, almost half (48 percent) of Americans report lying awake at night due to stress.” – APA study.

For me, the single biggest stress reduction tool I’ve found this decade has been David Allen’s Getting Things Done: A Guide to Stress Free Productivity book and what’s become something of a movement among web workers: Getting Things Done (GTD).Earlier this month, I interviewed David Allen with an eye towards finding out how he stays healthy. Excerpts from that conversation:

Bob Walsh: I wanted to focus on three things that go together: stress, online work and GTD. Part of the motivation of this article is both Om Malik’s heart attack that he survived, and Mark Orchant’s heart attack he did not. You run a sizable business and you travel constantly…and run an online/offline do you stay healthy?

David Allen: I don’t have some facile answers for that, but I won’t be glib. I’d say enough coffee, enough alcohol, enough humor and you can handle anything. But, that’s actually not true. To a large degree, sometimes I forget because it’s just so much a part of my lifestyle that I practice what I preach. I have managed to eliminate or certainly get to manageable levels, the source of most stress for most knowledge workers, which is basically getting everything out of my head and managing externalized systems so that my extended brain is kept pretty intact and current. That frees up a lot of focus. I think that to a large degree, it’s not the prime thing, but it keeps me all right.

Frankly, I don’t like feeling tense, so a lot of how GTD got created was because I didn’t like the pressure that kind of stuff created, so I spent a long time fine tuning how you get rid of that. It’s actually easier if you’re dealing with physical stress. If you’re out chopping wood, it’s easier to deal with that than it is having the same things over and over and over about your Mom, or about the strategic plan, or about your bills to pay. They don’t physically beat you bloody, but it’s that psychological drain that I think reduces your ability to deal with a lot of other things.

Bob: Do you exercise? I know you were into karate many years ago.

David: Not as regularly as I can. I do a little bit of yoga, and try to work out a swim at the gym when I can. Sometimes that goes by the wayside when I’m wall to wall doing other things, like writing my manuscript for my book right now. A lot of things have been sacrificed when I have to get down to it that way. I have a pretty active lifestyle: I walk dogs, get on planes, all that work. You know, one of my biggest “A ha’s!” that was a big surprise to me, was nutrition. I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I lived a disposal life, just “open mouth insert food.” In the travel I was doing in my life, I thought if I exercised enough that would handle it.

I was quite surprised at how I almost serendipitously discovered a naturopath, a nutritionist I knew back east that my wife and I saw right before I published “Getting Things Done”. Long story short, that was end of 2000, like seven or eight years ago I discovered a nutritional program that made a lot of difference. Since then, I’ve reduced to almost zero cold and flu. It allows me a lot more stable energy, I think, than the highs, ups and lows and downs that I’ve been expecting before.

Bob: Who is this person?

David: A guy named D’Adamo, James D’Adamo. He’s in his late seventies, I think. He and his son [Peter], they did the “Eat Right for Your Type” books. His big discovery over the last 20-30 years was how much your blood type affects your metabolism and your ability to process various different types of foods.

Anyway, I don’t know how much of that, you can get into that detail, but that was a big “A ha!” The typical alternative medicine nutritional admonition is, if you’ve cut out sugar, wheat and dairy, you’re probably going to feel better. I haven’t eliminated those; certainly reducing them has made a huge difference in terms of my energy. I think probably a big key is not so much doing things to relax, it’s just doing things that on an ongoing basis allow your constitution and your system to be stronger and not drained, so that you can attack all the stresses that come out of you with a better constitution. That’s probably the key.

Bob: I have yet to meet anyone who spends most of their time on the web working, that isn’t stressed. Is there something about being a web worker that’s more stressful than being your office/knowledge worker?

David: I don’t think so, Bob. I don’t know because I’m not a web worker, so it’d be hard for me to speak from experience. I guess there are factors, I’d just be guessing like you would probably guess, I’m not speaking with any kind of authority on that. It’s kind of like writers can often seem highly stressed because, jeez, how good could it be? It can always be more, it has to be good and everybody’s going to be looking at it. It’s a highly visible thing, and obviously you’re putting your signature on it, everybody’s going to know you based upon that.

Then you’ve also got deadlines. I don’t think it’s really any different than any kind of an author or artist that works under deadline, because there’s usually a high perfectionism working inside of all that.

Bob: In a word, web worker tends to combine dealing with lots and lots of people online, and actually fewer people face to face. Does that have an effect, do you think?

David: It might.I think a lot of that depends on peoples’ personality styles. If you’re an introvert, you’re happier not meeting people people face to face. If you’re an extrovert you’ll go crazy if you can’t somehow engage with people in some way if you’re juiced that way. One of the problems that’s endemic with the younger generation people who have grown up with computers and with email they make the assumption that email is a fine medium for communicating anything and everything.

But one of the things we’ve learned is that if you try to communicate something that requires a broader bandwidth of communication, in other words I actually really need to see what you look like when I say something and how you respond to it. Otherwise you might very easily misunderstand what was going on.

For people that are trying to do strategic or sensitive or complex things through email and it’s the wrong pipe to be using, that’s very easy to blow a fuse. In terms of the stress, the misunderstandings, the conflict, the sort of lack of fulfillment or lack of getting a result that may occur because of it. But that may be more of a sidebar to what you’re talking about. That is, that’s a factor with anybody who assumes that email is the communication media of choice.GTD is certainly not the end all answer for good health. But if one allows the kind of stress that GTD alleviates to linger, it certainly would diminish your ability to, as I said, you won’t have as strong a constitution to be able to then engage with the world in a healthy way. So I would say it is certainly a critical factor.

Related Resources:

Ed note: Part 2 (of 3) of Bob’s conversation with David, focusing on GTD and the web worker, can be read here. Part 3 is here.

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