Last month, I summarized David Allen's Google Talk explaining the ideas from his book, Getting Things Done. The talk motivated me to read the book. Here is my somewhat more in-depth summary of GTD.
Work and play are famously believed to be in tension with one another. David Allen says they don’t have to be.
You can keep up on your personal life, handle everything you need to handle, and you can do it without falling behind at work, losing sleep, or becoming more stressed. Allen’s method isn’t based on sheer willpower – it’s a system that breeds efficiency and relaxed productivity, making you get more done in the same amount of time, while keeping your cool.
As Allen puts it, “There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a ‘mind like water’ and top athletes refer to as the ‘zone,’ within the complex world in which you're engaged”.
How does the surface of a pond react to the drop of a pebble? Perfectly appropriately. A pond doesn’t overreact or underreact. Ripples form according to the mass of the pebble and the force of the drop. Nothing else.
In karate, students are trained to emulate the pond in this way. Stay relaxed, stay balanced, apply techniques, and don’t overreact or underreact. Allen carries this metaphor over to self-management. People are constantly giving either more or less attention to things than they deserve: whether it’s their boss’s comments or the growing pile of dishes in the sink. Be like the pond. Still like water. Neither overreacting or underreacting. Respond perfectly appropriately.
Think back to the last time you were highly productive. Were you stressing out or did you feel in control?
While you were reading this summary, your mind probably wandered, at least once, to something else, maybe something that you need to get done later or that’s been bothering you for a while. During the time that you had these thoughts, did you make any progress on them? Probably not. If something’s on your mind then you probably aren’t making any progress on it and, by definition, your mind isn’t clear.
If nothing else, these distractions are wastes of time and attention. An organizational system that takes these tasks off our minds is the first step toward greater focus and productivity. Items stay on your mind because (1) you haven’t thought of the next action you can take to handle that item, (2) you are unsure about the intended outcome you’re seeking, or (3) you haven’t put reminders of the action and outcome in a place where you’ll see them at the right time.
TIP: The first lesson to learn from GTD is to write things down, even when you don’t feel like you need to. If your brain had a brain, “it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them”. But you’re on your own with a piece of equipment that remembers you need milk when you’re in the shower but not when you’re in the grocery store. So get things on paper. I recommend using an app like Evernote to send yourself reminders at specific times (e.g. when you know you’ll be home).
Work of the past used to be clear-cut and physical. Fields needed ploughing and crops needed harvesting. Nowadays, most jobs are much more ambiguous. The organizational tools of the past (calendars, to-do lists, and ABC prioritization) don’t map perfectly onto contemporary jobs where employees are buried in email, must interact with other departments, pick up the slack of their coworkers, etc.
We need new tools that are better suited for modern day jobs and people.
It’s typical of motivational speakers and gurus to preach “the big picture:” the self-reflexive clarification of fundamental goals and values. Finding meaning and order in life. Allen instead preaches the little picture: next actions and outcomes. He’s not outlining a philosophy of How To Live A Meaningful Life – he’s looking at what works for getting things done.
Almost everyone feels as if they have too much on their plate and not enough time to do it all. This is because they don’t have a proper system for managing their “open loops”. Taking mental notes and then doing what comes to mind is not a system. It’s letting life happen to you. What works is taking charge of the commitments you need to get done. They range from household chores, to things you want to buy, to places you need to tidy, to emails you need to check, to people you agreed to meet. Anything you intend or intended to do that hasn’t been accomplished yet is an open loop.
Allen offers a five-step system for workflow mastery:
The process begins with the collection of all your commitments. Go through your calendar, your files, the papers lying around your house, etc. Gather up all your to-do lists, write down all your appointments and things that need to be bought, moved, or handled in any way. Once these commitments are all one in place, you have the beginning of a system that you can trust. If your system is incomplete, your brain won’t trust it. But if you know that all your commitments are in one folder, you’ll never need to look for them anywhere other than in that folder. Open loops won’t weigh on your mind so much once you know exactly where they’re filed and when you’ll get to them.
Once you’ve collected all your commitments into one place, it’s time to process them. There is a specific process for sorting open loops.
If something can be done in less than 2 minutes, do it now. If it can’t, ask yourself if you’re the right person for this job and consider delegating it. If you are the right person, defer it. Schedule a specific time for it to get done. Make a note on your calendar. Treat your calendar as sacred and resist the impulse to postpone actions once you’ve reached the date marked for them on your calendar.
Allen also suggests a folder for reference materials, as well as a Someday/Maybe file for things that you might want to accomplish one day but that aren’t pressing.
Reminders will be useless if they aren’t seen at the right time and place. For easy reviewing, place tasks in a calendar, “Next Actions” list, “Projects” folder, and/or a “Waiting For” list (for tasks that require something else to happen before you can take your next action).
Group your next actions into bunches that can be completed successively. So your “Calls” list should include all the phone calls you need to make. Once you’re in phone mode, you might as well stay there. And “Errands” should include all the things you need to do once you’re out. Other suggested list headings are “At Computer,” “At Office,” “At Home,” “Agendas,” and “Read/Review.”
Non-actionable items can be stored in a “tickler file.” The tickler file holds physical reminders that you want to see on specific dates – like a three-dimensional calendar. Imagine a folder containing documents filed for different dates. Basically, it’s the same idea as sending emails to your future self except that it utilizes physical documents.
And whatever needs to be trashed, trash. You probably have a lot of junk hanging around that clutters up your workspace. Throw out everything except supplies, equipment, decorations, and reference material.
When it comes to selecting next actions in the moment, consider four criteria:
Context – Where are you and what tools do you have at your disposal?
Time – How much time do you have available?
Energy – Which actions do you have the required energy level to deal with?
Priority – What is the most important and urgent remaining action for me to take?
The doing phase is self-explanatory on its surface: get things done. Remember to work smarter, not harder. It often takes a lot of time and effort to close loops. But that doesn’t mean maximizing your time and effort spent is the best way to speed the process up. Formalizing your decision process with a planning model can help you generate action steps with minimal effort in just a few minutes.
THE FIVE PHASES OF PROJECT PLANNING:
To accomplish virtually any task, your mind has to go through 5 steps:
- Defining purpose and principles - what you want to do and why
- Outcome visioning – envision what it’s going to be like and what you’ll get out of it
- Brainstorming – asking yourself questions about when, where, how, to go about it
- Organizing – sort your brainstormed ideas and questions into a prioritized list
- Identifying next actions – go through a list of actions according to your priorities
You identify a need, imagine a way to fill it, generate ideas about how to fill this need in the optimal way, sort these ideas into a structure, and then use that structure to guide actions that turn your ideas into real outcomes. Allen calls this the naturalistic planning model. The planning stage isn’t done until every action step has been outlined except for those that cannot be determined until some other event occurs.
It’s rare for people to actually go through all these steps in an organized way. In real life, meetings often start with the question: “What’s a good idea for this?” Allen only recommends asking this question 80% of the way through your planning process.
People aren’t good at planning ahead. In elementary school, kids learn to write an outline for their reports. But often, the students write the report and then base the outline on what’s already written. This inability or unwillingness to structure ideas lasts into adulthood.
When shit hits the fan, the natural planning model gets done in reverse. In an emergency, people find ways to get the work done. Then when they realize there’s a problem, they try to get organized. This leads to an unproductive brainstorming session. Which may lead to an introspective clarification of what they’re really trying to get done and what purpose it serves. No matter what, you’re going to have to go through the five steps to realize your goal, so you might as well get it done in advance in a structured, safe way.
Notice that this process requires no new skills. You already have the ability and tools to go through all five steps on your own.
Allen: “You can try it for yourself right now if you like. Choose one project that is new or stuck or that could simply use some improvement. Think of your purpose. Think of what a successful outcome would look like: where would you be physically, financially, in terms of reputation, or whatever? Brainstorm potential steps. Organize your ideas. Decide on the next actions. Are you any clearer about where you want to go and how to get there?”
TIP: Allen gives an example of his own trick for getting himself to exercise: costume. Putting on exercise clothes makes him feel like exercising. If he doesn’t put the clothes on, he’ll feel like doing something else. Another example is putting something in front of the door, or attaching it to your keys, if it’s something that you need to remember to take with you. These are very simple actions you can take that will let your System 2 win the tug of war with your System 1.
When most people go through Allen’s comprehensive collecting process, they describe themselves as “exhausted”, “overwhelmed”, or “fatigued”. Yet upon completion, they use words like “relieved” or “in control”. How does it work that the same task creates such opposite emotions? Is organization enjoyable or exhausting?
First, Allen asks us to locate the source of the negativity. He says that the negative emotions associated with his organization process come from the collection of broken commitments. The “in” basket fills up with tasks you committed to but never actually got done. This is damaging to your self-trust. You want to be able to trust yourself to do the tasks you’ve laid out for yourself.
When you hold commitments only in “psychic RAM", you’ll probably dedicate either too much or too little attention to them. When you remember something you need to do and write it down, it feels good. But when you trust yourself and your system enough that you believe everything you need to worry about is written down where it needs to be then it will feel even better. You’ll no longer have to spend time thinking of your commitments (reminding yourself about them) instead of thinking about them.
Another source of negativity is imagination. When we contemplate doing our taxes, we imagine scenarios of how grueling a process it is and how confused and frustrated we’ll end up. The solution to our own creativity is to intelligently dumb things down by focusing on the next action. “Doing taxes” is difficult but specific actions are easily completed. You’ll get much more of a boost of positive energy at the thought of sitting down for an action you’re confident you can accomplish.
TIP: Every week, do a Weekly Review. Go through the five phases of workflow management, organize your loose papers, process your notes, check the upcoming dates on your calendar, review your files and folders, and empty your head.
Allen uses the metaphor of altitudes to describe the various levels at which one can think about goals.
50,000 feet: Life
40,000 feet: 3-5 years
30,000 feet: 1-2 years
20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
10,000 feet: Current projects
Runway: Next actions
At each of these levels, you have open loops that need to be closed. Allen suggests starting from the bottom up, at the level of next actions. Figuring out your higher level goals and values won’t necessarily lead to concrete next actions you could take to approach those long-term goals. Next time you end a meeting, ask: “What’s the next action?”
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