In today’s busy world, a lot of us are dealing with a baseline level of stress, burnout, and overwhelm.

It’s so normalised to be busy or juggling a million different things at once, and dental practice owners know this all too well!

When I had the opportunity to sit down with productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done, David Allen, he described this as “ambient anxiety.”

It’s not anxiety that comes from an immediate crisis like being in a burning building, but it’s a level of background stress that happens when we know we have a lot to accomplish but never seem to truly be “done”.

“People have a lot more of a complex life than they usually realize,” David explains. “So, a lot of what I’ve done over these years is discover how do we externalize all of those commitments, the things that have people’s attention.”

And it’s true, we tend to feel pulled in a million direction at once with many external factors competing for our time and attention.

So, how do we eliminate that ambient anxiety?

David warns that “a lot of people think they need to work harder to get rid of the ambient anxiety, but working harder is not what you really need and so you can never work hard enough – speed up by slowing down.”

What this productivity expert wants you to know about multi-tasking


It can seem a bit counterintuitive to do less to get more done. But here’s why that’s actually the solution…

“Most people have a very sub optimal habit of keeping their world in their head, and your head is just a really crappy office. As a matter of fact, I discovered this 35 years ago when I began to uncover these best practices. But now the last 10 years, the cognitive sciences have basically validated the number of things you can actually hold in your head to remember, remind, manage relationships between them and prioritize them is four,” says David.

Anyone hoping to boost productivity by multi-tasking is bound to be disappointed.

“As soon as you try to manage more than four things in your head, you’re going to stop optimizing your cognitive abilities, you’re not going to be able to take a test as well, you’re not going to be able to do your dentistry as well, you’re not going to be able to cook spaghetti as well, you’re not going to be able to do anything as well, because your cognitive real estate is going to start to be taken up by spin that has no sense of past or future. And you’re as likely to be waking up at 3:00 in the morning by I need cat food, or I need the vice president.”

And I’m sure, we can all relate to the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night, suddenly remembering something that we forgot to do, or that we need to do tomorrow.

David further explains that no matter how big or small the task is, “they’ll take up about the same amount of cognitive real estate until you externalize them, and then go through a process of capturing those ideas, getting them out of your head, clarifying what you’re going to do about them, if anything, and then having some sort of a trusted external system that’s reminding you of all of your commitments, the outcome is action, that you then use that system.”

So, in practice, what would a system like this look like? When I asked David this very question, he held up a notepad and pen.

Simply writing down tasks and reminders as they appear is a great way to get things out of your head and into some sort of planner where you can prioritise and action accordingly. You can also take voice notes or write things on Post-It’s to come back to later if something pops up while you’re in the middle of something else.

Once it’s captured and recorded, then you can go through the process of priotising, delegating, finding time, or simply getting it done.

The power is all in the act of transferring things out of your head and into an alternative system. This is how you free up more mental real estate, increase your productivity, and get rid of ambient anxiety.

If you enjoyed learning about this concept and want to hear more of David Allen’s advice, be sure to check out our full podcast episode below.

307. Maximum Productivity, Minimum Stress with David Allen

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