A month or more ago I attended a day-long class about improving my productivity through organizing my tasks and information in Outlook. In fact, I began organizing my email with the 4 D’s using the techniques from the class. I’m really digging it. I decided to take the class a few steps further and see what else I can do in my life to get more organized so I went to our group’s organizational expert for some advice. He pointed me in the direction of David Allen so I picked up Getting Things Done and started reading.
I liked it and found a lot of value. Honestly, it was another pretty easy read. I didn’t do too many of [read that as ‘none of’] the exercises in the book and was able to finish it in less than a week. I figured with my first read through I would just try to digest the overall concepts and then see where/how I could fit them into my life. It helped solidify several of the concepts I pulled out of the day-long class.
Here are some specific areas that I found interesting and helpful:
Allen bases his methodology on two key objectives:
Capturing all the things that need to get done — now, later, someday, big, little, or in between — into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind.
Disciplining yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the ‘inputs’ you let into your life so that you’ll always have a plan for ‘next actions’ that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment.
Both of these objectives really rang true for me. I have always been organized, but with a bad habit of procrastinating with my decisions. Forcing myself to make decisions up front [like applying the 4 Ds when processing email] has been a tremendously positive change.
If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear.
Allen discusses a zen-like approach to clarity of thought and how it leads to drastic advances in our thought processes. The gist of it is that if your mind is freed from having to keep track of grocery lists, project to-dos, meeting reminders, etc. then you can let it work on the bigger issues in your life like how to design a new product or what it really might take for you to go on that dream vacation to Europe. If you write it down (physically or electronically) and store it somewhere you trust, the mental benefits/gains are exponential.
The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my ‘stuff’ in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind. And that applies to everything — little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not. Everything.
I have started doing this using Outlook tasks and it really is refreshing to know that I have one place to go whenever I need to look up notes, lists or next-actions. It takes a certain amount of discipline to capture everything, as David does, but it really is liberating after awhile.
What’s the Next Action? … The ‘next action’ is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.
This is often an elusive thing when dealing with projects or even worse, multiple projects at the same time. Simplifying a project down to the single next action that needs to take place in order to move forward can provide clear direction…not only for yourself, but others you are working with. I see way too many project meetings that end without any clear action items and these are the projects that inevitably stall and then fizzle into nothing. Months later you find yourself asking someone ‘whatever happened to project X?’ Ugh.
The Natural Planning Model
- Defining purpose and principles
- Outcome visioning
- Identifying next actions
I see so many projects that exclude, ignore or forget one or more of these pieces and they always seem so unorganized. In fact, just a few weeks ago I was in a 3 hour meeting that included loads of brainstorming. Early in the meeting I became confused [I am a late-comer to the project] and asked for # 1 or 2 above to give me some clarity. I got blank stares in return. D’oh! How can we effectively brainstorm a design or concept if we don’t even know what the purpose and vision are?
Don’t be afraid to ask why. Why are we meeting? Why am I in this meeting? Why are we trying to accomplish this? Why do the requestors think they need this solution? Yada-yada-yada… Here are Allen’s listed benefits of asking “why?” and I couldn’t agree more:
It defines success.
It creates decision-making criteria.
It aligns resources.
It clarifies focus.
It expands options.
Mind-mapping as a brainstorming exercise. This looks pretty interesting.
On filing systems:
The lack of a good general-reference system can be one of the greatest obstacles to implementing a personal management system, and for more of the executives I have personally coached, it represents one of the biggest opportunities for improvement.
I’m a pack-rat when it comes to documents and such. I had a huge file cabinet full of stuff going back 20+ years. A lot of it was irrelevant, but more importantly it was filed very inefficiently. The system only made sense to me and was cumbersome. In a nutshell, Allen recommends making your filing system as simple as possible. Start with a simple set of folders labeled A-Z and only make specific-labeled folders for those things you need. So I spent a weekend purging my files and re-organizing them. Not only was I able to shred 65% of the files, but I simplified the system so that everything is easy to find. Bills are under B instead of a separate folder for each company, house information is in H, medical stuff is under M, etc. That was a big monkey off my back.
Organizing action reminders – I’m still working this one out to find a way that works well for me, but Allen gives a lot of good suggestions. Basically, if something needs to be done on a certain date/time then put it on your calendar. Other next actions should be organized by context, whatever context makes the most sense to you (phone calls, errands, office, read/review, at computer, etc.).
Weekly review – Probably one of the most important aspects to implementing Allen’s system! Once you start collecting all of your thoughts/ideas/actions in a trusted place you need to review them regularly so they’re not missed. The weekly review is one such point-in-time where you spend a few hours organizing the loose things (email, papers, notes, lists, etc.), reviewing your next actions, clearing your mind and double-checking yourself. Here are the things that Allen suggests for a weekly review:
- Process all loose papers.
- Process your notes from journal entries, meetings or scribbled reminders.
- Review past calendar dates for remaining action items, reference information, etc.
- Look at future calendar events for any prep work you might need to do.
- Clear your mind by writing down all of your project ideas, action items, etc.
- Evaluate your projects for status and any action items.
- Review your lists (next actions, waiting for, someday/maybe) for any items that can be marked as finished or needs to be updated.
Your negative feelings are simply the result of breaking those agreements.
Allen is referring to our agreements with ourselves when we have something in our ‘inbox’ or tell ourselves we will do something, but then we don’t complete it.
If you tell yourself to draft a strategic plan, when you don’t do it, you’ll feel bad. Tell yourself to get organized, and if you fail to, welcome to guilt and frustration.
We are our own worst critic, right?
Interesting quotes from the book:
It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head. – Sally Kempton
It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do. – Elbert Hubbard
Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim. – George Santayana
The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas. – Linus Pauling
If you’re not totally sure what your job is, it will always feel overwhelming. – David Allen
Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning. – Winston Churchill
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them. – George Bernard Shaw
The thing I really liked about this book, besides all of the organizational tips/suggestions, is that Allen’s basic premise is to find a system that works best for you. The same system will not work for everyone and he states that frequently. He suggests you use his processes, but also realizes that you might want to take a hybrid approach [what I have done] and is ok with that. He writes the book with an open mind which, in my opinion, makes him even more credible.