This is a summary of David Allen’s Google Talk about his book Getting Things Done. The book teaches readers organizational skills and techniques for boosting productivity, achieving goals, and reducing psychic weight.
Allen sees the ability to get things done (GTD) as a martial art. It requires practice, technique, and control. It’s a very important martial art because it helps us accomplish whatever it is we want to accomplish despite the limitations of our evolved psychology.
Our brains aren’t very good at holding commitments. It’s typical for people to take mental notes of tasks to do later – and then forget all about them. The commonsense models we tend to use to stay on top of our many commitments and goals are flawed to the point that they are often disconnected from reality. Have you ever remembered something you needed to do (e.g. take out the garbage), felt bad about not having done it yet, and then done absolutely nothing about it? Our monkey brains say “taking out the trash sucks and I don’t want to do sucky things so I won’t do it.” But reality says, “taking out the trash is weighing on your mind and the longer you ignore it, the suckier the situation will get and the more it will continue to weigh on you.”
These sorts of thoughts and worries pop into people’s heads, doing nothing but stressing them out. There’s usually an inverse correlation between the amount something’s on your mind and the amount of work on that problem that still needs to get done. If you’re worrying about something, you’re probably not making progress on it. All of that other junk – those mismanaged commitments – steal your attention and energy, leaving you with little left to focus on what you really need to be doing. You have a finite amount of psychic RAM. Keep the amount of junk to a minimum.
Allen says that most people have so much mental clutter that it clouds them from engaging with present tasks and making progress. As a result, you usually aren’t available with your full resources to deal with your work. He explains that your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to concentrate. And your ability to concentrate is directly proportional to your ability to eliminate distraction. And most of these distractions come from mismanaged commitments.
If you don’t give enough attention to what demands your attention, it’ll start to take more attention than it deserves. So when things start taking your attention, handle them before they start to bother you even more. A three quarters full trash bag is easier to take out than an overflowing trash bag. Doing the work immediately is actually a kind of laziness – it reduces your overall amount of work and stress. (I once had a super productive professor that referred to this as “future laziness.”)
In order to get things off your mind, you must clarify and organize your commitments, and trust that you’ll engage consciously with those commitments at the right time and place. Most people are most satisfied with their jobs the week before they go on holiday. That’s because it’s a time of organizing, arranging, and making preparations. Vacationers need to make sure the neighbour’s picking up the email, a friend’s watching the cat, their clothes are packed, the flight’s booked, etc. If people did this weekly instead of yearly, they could feel a lot better and be a lot more productive.
There are two key aspects of self-management. Firstly, obtaining methods to maintain the right perspective is critical because things seem drastically different from different perspectives. You need to remember what’s important to you, what needs to get done, what your values are. Having perspective means that your ideas are aligned and clear about your decisions, directions, and priorities.
Secondly, you need to have control over your engagements and actions. You must have a “mind like water,” the ability to appropriately respond to and engage with whatever is present. Martial arts deal with surprise. You could be walking down an alley and four people jump you out of the blue. Now you must defend yourself. So when you train, you’re training yourself to better deal with surprise. Allen thinks that a lot of your competitive edge comes from this skill. When you want to apply for jobs but unemployment makes you so depressed that you instead just lie in bed – that is a loss of control. You have fallen off the wagon. But Allen adds that it’s as easy to get back on the wagon as it is to fall off.
Too much control and no perspective makes you a micro manager. High perspective and no control makes you unorganized. You need both perspective and control to gain mastery of your workflow. At this point, you are calling the shots and not just letting life happen to you, which is the default mode.
Five keys to gaining control of your workflow:
- Collect everything that has meaning to you (needs to be done, changed, or is in process).
- Process things – get them done rather than putting them off.
- Organize a reminder to do things that aren’t able to get done.
- Review your commitments and to-do lists.
- Do whatcha gotta do.