David Allen is the founder of the David Allen Company, which focuses on productivity, action management and executive coaching. Allen is known as the creator of the time management method known as "Getting Things Done,” and is the author of three books on workplace practices. Over 30 years of research, coaching and education has earned him Forbes' recognition as one of the “Top five executive coaches” in the United States. Allen spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.

What are some of the biggest productivity problems that leaders face?

A lot of stuff banging around in their heads; and if not captured, you’ll be driven by the latest and loudest. Even if you’ve captured everything, but you don’t decide what it means quickly enough, then you become a compulsive list-maker. You’re still not getting anything done, and you’re just wasting time making lists. People must ask: What does this mean? Is this actionable or not? What is the outcome that I am committed to?

Many people make decisions when they blow up instead of when they show up. Even if you’ve decided what the next step is, you must be organized. And, even if you’ve captured, decided and organized, you will still face problems if you don’t step back, review and reflect on your decisions. The worst practice is to fall off of any of those steps and start working out of hope.  

What advice do you have for the busy federal executive?

Capture tools. First, nothing beats paper and pen — the batteries never run out. Second, it helps to put everything in an in-basket until you have time to make a decision. Your email and your voicemail are two examples of in-baskets. It is important to make sure that you are collecting things in as few places as possible, and then you can put yourself through the executive rigor of decision-making.

Key is to learn to make decisions sooner rather than later. After coming back from a meeting, put all of your notes in your in-basket. Before 24 or 48 hours go by, go through all of your notes and make determinations: What do I need to do about this? What actions do I need to take?

What do you suggest for federal leaders who are bombarded regularly by a high volume of emails?

Clean house on some regular basis. You need to start working from a zero base instead of a 3,000 base, because your efficiencies go way down when you have to keep rethinking and relooking. If it has gotten really insane, then the best thing to do is an emergency scan of all of your mail and see if there are any landmines that are about to blow up. Once you pull those away, take the rest of your emails, drag them into an archive folder and chip away.

How can federal employees create effective project lists?

You need to have your project lists, but also build in a regular review process. Ask questions like, what happened this week? What do I need to add to my project list? Getting control day to day has a lot to do with dealing with the incoming stuff quickly. “What’s the next action?” becomes a critical question. If you can do it in two minutes, do it right then. If you wait, it is going to take you longer to organize it and review it than it would have if you finished the task when you first saw it.

What is your advice to a federal leader who is confronting a problem and ready to throw in the towel?

It’s so easy to be wrapped around the axle. When you most need to plan is when you least feel like you have time to do it. When you’re feeling most out of control is when you most need to back the world off and stop, sit down and work on your own process.

Do you have any leadership role models?

Visionaries. People who have a vision and invite people to play. I just did an interview with the head of leadership development for Siemens. I asked him, are there any universal attributes that contribute to good leadership? He said there are two: structured thinking and the courage to make decisions before they’re perfect and without always getting other peoples’ input. By structured thinking, he meant the ability to sit down and organize your thought process. When it comes to having the courage to make decisions, he explains that you must have the ability to trust your own inner wisdom and make good intuitive judgments.

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