A Productivity Expert Wants You to Do Nothing

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Large man lying on grass, wearing shorts, elevated view
This guy knows.Photo: Robert Daly/(c) Robert Daly

David Allen, author of the best seller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, recently gave an interview to Fast Company’s Ciara Byrne in which he mentioned one of the biggest misconceptions about his five-step productivity method. It’s not just about endless checklists and perpetual productivity, he argues; sometimes, it is about deciding to do nothing. Sweet, sweet nothing.

The five steps, in case you are unfamiliar, are these: capture (“collect what has your attention”), clarify (“process what it means”), organize (“put it where it belongs”), reflect (“review frequently”), and engage (“simply do”). Once you’ve worked your way through this list, Allen argues, you can figure out exactly what it is you need to do and how best to do it. And sometimes, you may decide that what you need to do is nothing at all. “A hallmark of how well you can do this methodology is how well you can do nothing,” Allen tells Fast Company. “How well can you actually have nothing on your mind?”

You do have to earn your nothing — your daydreaming, napping, meditating, or what have you — by first handling all the nagging little things that truly do need to get done. “If you still need cat food, you can’t fully focus in an undistracted way and you can’t stop and relax,” Allen said.

Allen, Byrne notes, made all of these comments while sipping white wine in Amsterdam, at 10:47 in the morning. This is clearly a man who knows about nothing.