|Sensei for the
David Allen says work in the knowledge
economy requires a new kind of mental calisthenics.
Information management is not a science but an art -- a
martial art -- and it's time to start training.
by John Hoult
Enter "information overload" into Google.com and, in
.09 seconds, you'll have 257,000 results. Case in point.
Amazon.com offers at least 10 books to combat the problem. Change
agents and free agents alike cite it as one of the chief perils of
the new economy. But David
Allen, a self-management consultant, will tell you otherwise.
"Information overload is not the problem," Allen says. "If it
were, you'd walk into a library and die. The problem lies in the
amount of information you allow into your life without deciding what
it means and what you're going to do with it." Allen says fighting
the overload battle on so many fronts -- whether email, voicemail,
paperwork, meeting notes, or reading material -- isn't a science,
it's a martial art, and you need a black belt to thrive. Here's his
1. Get everything out of your head.
Any information in your head is in the wrong place. Either it
bugs you more than it should, or you're not able to give it the
attention it deserves. Collect all the ideas you can -- but not in
your head. Carry a notepad, a tape recorder, anything. Keep
everything: ideas, emails, project notes, and must-read paperwork in
one inbox for processing.
According to Allen, people tend to file all their projects into
their psychic RAM -- the "I would/could/should/need to" space in
their brain. Psychic RAM is timeless: As soon as you tell yourself
you should be doing something, a part of you thinks you should be
doing it right now. To cut down stress, get everything out of your
head and into a system your mind can trust.
2. Decide on the goal. Decide on the next
Most stress stems from people failing to decide instantly on the
next step. You must first define your desired outcome for a project,
a phone message, or a newspaper clipping. Then define the next
action that will bring you closer to that outcome -- delegating a
presentation, returning a call, or filing a clip in a background
file. Finally define the context that will foster that action.
First, define victory: Ask yourself what result you want and how
you'll know when you've reached that outcome. Then, ascertain the
next step toward that goal. If you had no other responsibilities,
what would you do to push this along? Don't overplan. If your list
reads, "Call Fred. If Fred's dead, call Sue," that's overplanning.
Keep your eye on the goal, make your next step, and remain flexible
to what arises.
Finally, figure out what you need to achieve that next action. Do
you need a computer? A phone? A car? Your boss's feedback?
3. Organize the thinking, not the
Some next steps you can do right away; others require planning.
Organize the ideas, not the paper. Take the decisions you just made
-- the outcome, the next action, and the context in which you can do
it -- and put them into a system that you review regularly. Keep
lists of projects underway and those still in planning. List them by
the outcome desired. Track the next steps and the things you're
waiting on for each.
4. Review the details. Review the plan. Review the
Review on at least three levels. On a daily basis, you need to
know, and deal with, the minutiae of your life. Weekly, you need to
update your project plans. What landed on your plate this week, and
how does it fit in with what's already there? And in the long term,
you must understand the big picture -- how does each step fit in
with the life-long priorities you've set? Spend time detached from
the daily grind to avoid getting ground up by details.
Reviewing allows you to renegotiate with your boss, with your
spouse, or with yourself. When something new comes up, renegotiate
right away: "That's cool, but something's going to have to slip. Is
that okay?" Have the uncomfortable conversations up front to avoid
the painful ones later on. To do that, you need to know your
Four questions to help you determine your next steps:
Context: What can you do? Without a phone, you can't make
phone calls, so relax and pick something you can move ahead on.
How much time do you have? Don't try to do a major project
review in the seven minutes between meetings. Use that time to check
voicemail, return a quick email, prepare for the upcoming meeting,
or just to dump notes from the past one into your inbox for later
How tired are you? Save lists of low-brainpower chores and
do them when you're exhausted -- that's productivity! If you're not
wiped out, put your efforts into plowing through your next steps,
putting out fires ( there will always be fires ), or defining the
outcomes and next steps for new or continuing fires.
What's the priority? Trust your gut on this. You'll know
what to do next so long as you know all the choices you have.
To read more about David Allen's philosophy, check out You Can Do
Anything - But Not Everything from FC issue 34. To contact David
Allen, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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