How David Allen increased Drew Carey’s Productivity

David Allen

Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”

Allen’s system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”

When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”

Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.


Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.

Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.

Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Until recently we thought this was the brain’s way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.

[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won’t be sedated by vague good intentions.”

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey’s organizational problems.

“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”

Still curious? Follow up with Getting Things Done and Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

The Wisdom of Crowds and The Expert Squeeze

As networks harness the wisdom of crowds, the ability of experts to add value in their predictions is steadily declining. This is the expert squeeze.

As networks harness the wisdom of crowds, the ability of experts to add value in their predictions is steadily declining. This is the expert squeeze.

In Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, Michael Mauboussin, the first guest on my podcast, The Knowledge Project, explains the expert squeeze and its implications for how we make decisions.

As networks harness the wisdom of crowds and computing power grows, the ability of experts to add value in their predictions is steadily declining. I call this the expert squeeze, and evidence for it is mounting. Despite this trend, we still pine for experts— individuals with special skill or know-how— believing that many forms of knowledge are technical and specialized. We openly defer to people in white lab coats or pinstripe suits, believing they hold the answers, and we harbor misgivings about computergenerated outcomes or the collective opinion of a bunch of tyros.

The expert squeeze means that people stuck in old habits of thinking are failing to use new means to gain insight into the problems they face. Knowing when to look beyond experts requires a totally fresh point of view, and one that does not come naturally. To be sure, the future for experts is not all bleak. Experts retain an advantage in some crucial areas. The challenge is to know when and how to use them.

The Value of Experts
The Value of Experts

So how can we manage this in our role as decision maker? The first step is to classify the problem.

(The figure above — The Value of Experts) helps to guide this process. The second column from the left covers problems that have rules-based solutions with limited possible outcomes. Here, someone can investigate the problem based on past patterns and write down rules to guide decisions. Experts do well with these tasks, but once the principles are clear and well defined, computers are cheaper and more reliable. Think of tasks such as credit scoring or simple forms of medical diagnosis. Experts agree about how to approach these problems because the solutions are transparent and for the most part tried and true.


Now let’s go to the opposite extreme, the column on the far right that deals with probabilistic fields with a wide range of outcomes. Here are no simple rules. You can only express possible outcomes in probabilities, and the range of outcomes is wide. Examples include economic and political forecasts. The evidence shows that collectives outperform experts in solving these problems.


The middle two columns are the remaining province for experts. Experts do well with rules-based problems with a wide range of outcomes because they are better than computers at eliminating bad choices and making creative connections between bits of information.

Once you’ve classified the problem, you can turn to the best method for solving it.

… computers and collectives remain underutilized guides for decision making across a host of realms including medicine, business, and sports. That said, experts remain vital in three capacities. First, experts must create the very systems that replace them. … Of course, the experts must stay on top of these systems, improving the market or equation as need be.

Next, we need experts for strategy. I mean strategy broadly, including not only day-to-day tactics but also the ability to troubleshoot by recognizing interconnections as well as the creative process of innovation, which involves combining ideas in novel ways. Decisions about how best to challenge a competitor, which rules to enforce, or how to recombine existing building blocks to create novel products or experiences are jobs for experts.

Finally, we need people to deal with people. A lot of decision making involves psychology as much as it does statistics. A leader must understand others, make good decisions, and encourage others to buy in to the decision.

So what are the practical tips you can do to make the expert squeeze work for you instead of against you? Here Mauboussin offers 3 tips.

1. Match the problem you face with the most appropriate solution.

What we know is that experts do a poor job in many settings, suggesting that you should try to supplement expert views with other approaches.

2. Seek diversity.

(Philip) Tetlock’s work shows that while expert predictions are poor overall, some are better than others. What distinguishes predictive ability is not who the experts are or what they believe, but rather how they think. Borrowing from Archilochus— through Isaiah Berlin— Tetlock sorted experts into hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing and try to explain everything through that lens. Foxes tend to know a little about a lot of things and are not married to a single explanation for complex problems. Tetlock finds that foxes are better predictors than hedgehogs. Foxes arrive at their decisions by stitching “together diverse sources of information,” lending credence to the importance of diversity. Naturally, hedgehogs are periodically right— and often spectacularly so— but do not predict as well as foxes over time. For many important decisions, diversity is the key at both the individual and collective levels.

3. Use technology when possible. Leverage technology to side-step the squeeze when possible.

Flooded with candidates and aware of the futility of most interviews, Google decided to create algorithms to identify attractive potential employees. First, the company asked seasoned employees to fill out a three-hundred-question survey, capturing details about their tenure, their behavior, and their personality. The company then compared the survey results to measures of employee performance, seeking connections. Among other findings, Google executives recognized that academic accomplishments did not always correlate with on-the-job performance. This novel approach enabled Google to sidestep problems with ineffective interviews and to start addressing the discrepancy.

Learning the difference between when experts help or hurt can go a long way toward avoiding stupidity. This starts with identifying the type of problem you’re facing and then considering the various approaches to solve the problem with pros and cons.

Still curious? Follow up by reading Generalists vs. Specialists, Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, and reviewing the work of Philip Tetlock on why how you think matters more than what you think.

Why Our Relationship With Ourself is the Most Important of The Three Marriages

“We are each a river with a particular abiding character,
but we show radically different aspects of our self
according to the territory through which we travel.”

The Three Marriages and Mastering Yourself

The most difficult of David Whyte’s three marriages, found in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, is the marriage to the self, which lies beneath both the marriages of work and relationships.

Work, Self and Relationships: Together these form The Three Marriages.

What is heart-breaking and difficult about this inner self that flirted, enticed, spent time with and eventually committed to a person or a career is that it is not a stationary entity; an immovable foundation; it moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit.

In the midst of a life where we work hard to put bread on the table and foster a relationship, we often neglect “the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside.”

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.


If we are involved in the outer world in ways that betray our conscience or deeply held beliefs, then even simple internal questions can become very difficult to ask. As if we intuit that drinking from the well will clear our eyesight and help us see what is real in the outer world and that once we have built that outer solid wall, brick by brick over long years through equally long effort, the gift of seeing that reality is the last gift in the world that we want.

We can easily become afraid of the internal questions and the silences that illuminate them — which is why of the three marriages the marriage to oneself is the hardest.

The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.

In a world that doesn’t sleep, where we are bombarded from morning to night, this is the most difficult marriage.

To the outward striver— that is, most of us— it can seem as if this internal marriage is asking for a renunciation of the two outer marriages. Feeling this can come as almost a relief, a way out, for in the name of our many responsibilities and duties, we can use it as the perfect excuse not to look inside at all, feeling as if our outer world will fall apart if we spend any time looking for the person who exists at the intersection of all these outer commitments.


The Need for Silence

All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us.

Equanimity, in the Buddhist tradition, roughly translates into “to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.”

Almost all of our traditions of instruction in prayer, meditation or silence, be they Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim advocate seclusion or withdrawal as a first step in creating this equanimity. Small wonder we feel it goes against everything we need to do on the outside to keep our outer commitments together. Intimate relationships seem to demand endless talking and passing remarks; work calls for endless meetings, phone calls and exhortations. In the two outer marriages (work and relationships) it seems as if everything real comes from initiating something new. In the inner world we intuit something different and more difficult. It can be disconcerting or even distressing to find that this third marriage; this internal marriage, calls for a kind of cessation, a stopping, a fierce form of attention that attempts to look at where all this doing arises from.

For the busy, Whyte argues, it is nearly impossible to stop and read the following:

In the beginning of heaven and earth
There were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately sees the surface
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.
Tao Te Ching (translation by Witter Bynner)

In an argument reminiscent of the one I made in my webinar on being more productive, Whyte says:

“Thank you,” we say, “but I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, surely, then, there’ll be time enough to spare.” Trying to be equal to Lao Tzu’s opening remarks in the Tao Te Ching when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from that spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.

The third marriage to the internal self seems to be to someone or something that in many ways seems even less open to coercion or sheer willpower than an actual marriage or a real job. Not only does this internal marriage seem to operate under rules different from those of the other two outer contracts but it also seems to be connected to the big; we might even say unbearable, questions of existence that scare us half to death and for which we have no easy answer. Like a skittish single unable to commit to the consequences of a full relationship, we turn away from questions that flower from solitude and quiet.

The marriage with our self is the most difficult. It’s “connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away.” In our world of non-stop busyness, the cracks of silence that open can reveal an unfamiliar character. Developing this inner relationship, “we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth.”

This is where we live. This is where we die.

The sudden absence of our partner waits for us. The end of our work or our retirement waits. The hospital bed waits. Right now, in some obscure medical appliance company in a corner of a bleak industrial estate, the very bed on which we will lie, trying to get the great perspective, is perhaps being manufactured as we read. We don’t want to know, of course, but all our great contemplative traditions concerned with this marriage, say, this willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence, are not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait, especially until your faculties have atrophied or your youth has gone, or you have lost confidence in your self? Why wait, to be, as the poet Mary Oliver says, “a bride to wonder”? To become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

Whyte’s book is a fascinating exploration of the three marriages that challenges our conventional notions of balance.

Garrett Hardin: The Other Side of Expertise

From Garrett Hardin’s mind-blowingly awesome Filters Against Folly.

In our highly technological society we cannot do without experts. We accept this fact of life, but not without anxiety. There is much truth in the definition of the specialist as someone who “knows more and more about less and less.” But there is another side to the coin of expertise. A really great idea in science often has its birth as apparently no more than a particular answer to a narrow question; it is only later that it turns out that the ramifications of the answer reach out into the most surprising corners. What begins as knowledge about very little turns out to be wisdom about a great deal.

So it was with the development of the theory of probability. It all began in the seventeenth century, when one of the minor French nobility asked the philosopher-scientist Blaise Pascal to devise a fair way to divide the stakes in an interrupted gambling game. Pascal consulted with lawyer-mathematician friend Pierre de Fermat, and the two of them quickly laid the foundation of probability theory. Out of a trivial question about gambling came profound insights that later bore splendid fruit in physics and biology, in the verification of the causes of disease, the calculation of fair insurance premiums, and the achievement of quality control in manufacturing processes. And much more.

The service of experts is indispensable even if we are poor at ascertaining under which circumstances they add value, when they add noise, and when they are harmful. Hardin cautions that each new expertise introduces “new possibilities of error.”

It is unfortunately true that experts are generally better at seeing their particular kinds of trees than the forest of all life.

Thoughtful laymen — that’s us — can, however, “become very good at seeing the forest, particularly if they lose their timidity about challenging the experts. … In the universal role of laymen we all have to learn to filter the essential meaning out of the too verbose, too aggressively technical statements of the experts. Fortunately this is not as difficult a task as some experts would have us believe.”

Filters Against Folly is Hardin’s attempt “to show there …. (are) some rather simple methods of checking on the validity of the statements of experts.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment


This except from Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition encapsulates Philip Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment:

Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, did an experiment in 1971 that ranks with Asch and Milgram in exhibiting the power of the situation. To start, Zimbardo advertised for volunteers in a two-week-long prison experiment, offering $15 a day. He ran the seventy applicants through psychological and physical tests and ended up with twenty-four healthy, mentally stable, middle-class, male students from the Palo Alto, California, area.

By a flip of a coin, Zimbardo assigned half the volunteers to be prisoners and the rest to be prison guards. One morning, a Palo Alto police car picked up the prisoners, “charging” them with armed robbery and burglary. The guards were assigned to work one of three eight-hour shifts.

With the help of prison consultants, Zimbardo built a prison in the basement of the building that housed Stanford’s psychology department. On arrival at the jail, the guards and warden took steps to humiliate, dehumanize, and oppress the prisoners.

Although Zimbardo randomly designated the roles, the situation clearly shaped behavior. He noticed that the volunteers (and he himself) started to act out their assigned roles. The prisoners tried various tactics to gain advantage over the guards and tried to escape, while the guards schemed to keep the prisoners in check. Concerned that the guards were heaping too much abuse on the prisoners, Zimbardo questioned the situation’s morality and ended the study after only five days.

Zimbardo explains the factors that make the situation so forceful:

First, situational power is most likely in novel settings, where there are no previous behavioral guidelines. Second, rules— which may emerge through interaction or be predetermined— can create a means to dominate and suppress others because people justify their behavior as only conforming to the rules. Third, when people are asked to play a certain role for a prolonged period, they risk becoming actors who can’t break from character. Roles shut people off from their normal lives and accommodate behaviors they would generally avoid. Finally, in situations that lead to negative behavior, there is often an enemy— an outside group. This is especially pronounced when both the in-group and out-group stop focusing on individuals.

In his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Zimbardo offers tips for “resisting the pull of unwelcome social influence.”

The Three Essential Properties of the Engineering Mind-Set

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think

In his book Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, Guru Madhavan explores the mental tools of engineers that allow engineering feats. His framework is built around a flexible intellectual tool kit called modular systems thinking.

The core of the engineering mind-set is what I call modular systems thinking. It’s not a singular talent, but a melange of techniques and principles. Systems-level thinking is more than just being systematic; rather, it’s about the understanding that in the ebb and flow of life, nothing is stationary and everything is linked. The relationships among the modules of a system give rise to a whole that cannot be understood by analyzing its constituent parts.

Thinking in Systems

Thinking in systems means that you can deconstruct (breaking down a larger system into its modules) and reconstruct (putting it back together).

The focus is on identifying the strong and weak links—how the modules work, don’t work, or could potentially work—and applying this knowledge to engineer useful outcomes.

There is no engineering method, so modular systems thinking varies with contexts.

Engineering Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is different from coding the Microsoft Office Suite. Whether used to conduct wind tunnel tests on World Cup soccer balls or to create a missile capable of hitting another missile midflight, engineering works in various ways. Even within a specific industry, techniques can differ. Engineering an artifact like a turbofan engine is different from assembling a megasystem like an aircraft, and by extension, a system of systems, such as the air traffic network.

The Three Essential Properties of the Engineering Mind-Set

1. The ability to see structure where there’s nothing apparent.

From haikus to high-rise buildings, our world relies on structures. Just as a talented composer “hears” a sound before it’s put down on a score, a good engineer is able to visualize—and produce—structures through a combination of rules, models, and instincts. The engineering mind gravitates to the piece of the iceberg underneath the water rather than its surface. It’s not only about what one sees; it’s also about the unseen.

A structured systems-level thinking process would consider how the elements of the system are linked in logic, in time, in sequence, and in function—and under what conditions they work and don’t work. A historian might apply this sort of structural logic decades after something has occurred, but an engineer needs to do this preemptively, whether with the finest details or top-level abstractions. This is one of the main reasons why engineers build models: so that they can have structured conversations based in reality. Critically, envisioning a structure involves having the wisdom to know when a structure is valuable, and when it isn’t.

Consider, for example, the following catechism by George Heilmeier—a former director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who also engineered the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) that are part of modern-day visual technologies. His approach to innovation is to employ a checklist-like template suitable for a project with well-defined goals and customers.

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost? How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

This type of structure “helps ask the right questions in a logical way.”

2. Adeptness at designing under constraints
The real world is full of constraints that make or break potential.

Given the innately practical nature of engineering, the pressures on it are far greater compared to other professions. Constraints—whether natural or human-made—don’t permit engineers to wait until all phenomena are fully understood and explained. Engineers are expected to produce the best possible results under the given conditions. Even if there are no constraints, good engineers know how to apply constraints to help achieve their goals. Time constraints on engineers fuel creativity and resourcefulness. Financial constraints and the blatant physical constraints hinging on the laws of nature are also common, coupled with an unpredictable constraint—namely, human behavior.

“Imagine if each new version of the Macintosh Operating System, or of Windows, was in fact a completely new operating system that began from scratch. It would bring personal computing to a halt,” Olivier de Week and his fellow researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out. Engineers often augment their software products, incrementally addressing customer preferences and business necessities— which are nothing but constraints. “Changes that look easy at first frequently necessitate other changes, which in turn cause more change. . . . You have to find a way to keep the old thing going while creating something new.” The pressures are endless.

3. Understanding Trade-offs
The ability to hold alternative ideas in your head and make considered judgments.

Engineers make design priorities and allocate resources by ferreting out the weak goals among stronger ones. For an airplane design, a typical trade-off could be to balance the demands of cost, weight, wingspan, and lavatory dimensions within the constraints of the given performance specifications. This type of selection pressure even trickles down to the question of whether passengers like the airplane they’re flying in. If constraints are like tightrope walking, then trade-offs are inescapable tugs-of-war among what’s available, what’s possible, what’s desirable, and what the limits are.

Applied Minds: How Engineers Think will help you borrow strategies from engineering and apply them to your most pressing problems.