Are Smartphones Triggering a Productivity Boom? A Q&A with David Allen


Five years since the iPhone set off the smartphone boom, “boom” now seems like a gross understatement:  Nearly half of American adults today (and more than two-thirds between the ages of 18 and 29) have one in their pocket.  At the same time, all that mass adoption has fueled a silly but persistent myth: that these are primarily personal playthings — for texting, Facebooking, reading, music streaming, gaming, photos, video, and so on.

Truth is, smartphones have also become a workhorse – for emailing and messaging, calls and calendaring, mobile document and data sharing, and dozens of other emerging tasks and applications. (And it doesn’t matter whether you “bring your own” or not.) The utopian concept behind all that? That legions of mobile-powered, 21st-century knowledge workers will get a lot more done.

But does that assumption truly gybe with human behavior? Is a sales manager with an Android or iPhone 5 more likely to succeed than her predecessor from a decade ago with a land line and a PC? Are mobile devices driving a boom in productivity — and in work-life balance —  not just a boom in Apple’s share price?

Who better to tackle those questions than the shaman of “Getting Things Done,” bestselling author and longtime productivity coach David Allen (@gtdguy) – who had some surprising takes on how mobility is changing work. A few highlights from our conversation:

Where have smartphones made the biggest impact in ‘getting things done’?

I mean, sure, people have been able to migrate their organizational systems so that they can get email and calendar on their phones, and are able to manage communications between the lines a lot easier and faster.  That’s made a difference.  But it’s not that big of a deal. I mean, the smaller the device gets, the more constrained you are in terms of your productivity.

So a lot of it kind of depends on the nature of your work.  It’s great if you have mobile tools to be able to utilize weird whims of wait time — waiting to pick up kids at school for example — and you’re sitting there on your iPad and you can do all kinds of cool stuff. It’s a cool time to be alive with all this great stuff in hand.

But how much it’s affecting productivity? I think it’s as much adding to the distraction factor as it is to the leverage factor — and that’s always been true. That was true of the telephone when it showed up.  So, in a sense, there’s nothing new under the sun. Smartphones have essentially made you more accessible 24/7, but that depends on whether you see this as half empty or half full proposition, bad news or good news. If you work for yourself,  it’s nice to be virtual — you can be out on your sailboat and nobody knows it, and still get your work done. That gives you the freedom to be on the sailboat.

Are smartphones and tablets changing the ways people communicate and collaborate?

It’s become the medium of choice for people under 30 for sure. And they’re texting more than they’re talking. I think that’s fine. You are probably closer to who you connect with on your smartphone than your nextdoor neighbor.  So it’s just a way  of reconfiguring the global village. In terms of people getting work done, ever since laptops showed up I don’t there’s anything new under the sun there in terms of being virtual – being anywhere and still be able to manage work.

I remember schlepping around my first laptop – it weighed about 16 lbs. and I pretended that was a portable computer. What’s different about that? Think about it — there is not a lot of important work you’d actually want to do on a smartphone. Would you want to sit on your phone and compose this article? Write a proposal? I doubt it.

OK – but on some of the bigger smartphones and tablets you might easily do that.

I do have a friend who has a Samsung tablet who swears by it because he doesn’t take any paper-based notes because he can write on the tablet just like he writes on paper. And all that with character recognition and he can send his notes right away. It has absolutely boosted his productivity.  The fact that he can whip that out with a stylus, do exactly what he did with pen and paper, but then have it digital – I think that will change personal productivity. That said, there haven’t been a lot of major inflection points in productivity compared to how much technology is out there.  The spreadhsheet was one; the relational database was one; word processors certainly were one; email was one.

Wouldn’t tablets and phones qualify on that standard?

I think it’s coming. There may be something now where the form factor gets to some place we’ll make a jump. You can’t deny that that’s more and more going to happen. Ultimately you’ll be able to walk into a room and go, say, get Bob on the phone and boom – a hologram shows up of you there, all kinds of options where I can go and walk over and squeeze that little bubble and it explodes out into what their favorite color is, what their birthday is, what their astrological sign is. So that’s where we’re going – the ability to be able to have decision support wherever you are.

At a time when mobile devices follow everyone around 24/7, where do you draw the line between the right kinds of digital and in-person communication?

Depends on the context.I know a senior management consultant who deals with CEOs who sometimes have to manage huge layoffs in their companies. He’s got a lot of deep expertise in that. His major concern was, a lot of the kids showing up now, growing up and taking on more senior roles in organizations, they don’t have experience yet to know that the bandwidth of email and the bandwidth of the smartphone is insufficient for critical kinds of communication. If you’re going to communicate to your staff a change in policy, you damn well better do that in person.

On the flip side, Webex and virtual meetings are actually making the virtual space much more intimate. So in a way, those things allow for some people who would not speak up in a meeting and are overridden by people with larger egos and charisma — they actually get more space sometimes and feel more comfortable playing when they don’t have to compete with egos.

What important work habits do today’s 24/7 mobile workers possibly need to re-learn?

Think way back to a time when a guy was sharpening his quills and writing by candlelight — squinting at it, knowing that it would take three weeks to get there on horseback.  He’s not going to write the kind of crappy email that you regret the next day. A lot more conscious thought went into what we’re doing. So that’s kind of the good and bad. The fact that we’ve become so ubiquitously connected to everyone also allows for non-thought.

If you know where you’re going and what you’re doing, these tools simply help you get there. One of the great benefits of mobile technology and devices is that they can make it really obvious when you don’t know what you’re doing — it’s forcing a whole lot of people to be executives about their own lives. Executives have always had the problem of I have too much information, I have to triage, make some sort of order out of all this.  That’s always been true, it’s just that now you probably have half the workforce  — not just 1 percent – that has to do the same thing.

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