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AUGUST 24, 2001


Getting Things Done
An excerpt from David Allen's book of practical tips and philosophical guidance on the art of stress-free productivity

Getting Things Done^An excerpt from David Allen's book of practical tips and philosophical guidance on the art of stress-free productivity^^An excerpt from David Allen's book of practical tips and philosophical guidance on the art of stress-free productivity^Getting Things Done

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Who couldn't use some help in finding ways to have more energy, be more relaxed and get a lot more accomplished with much less effort? Most anyone -- and probably almost all people running a small business.

Allen recognizes that there is no single means of perfecting personal organization and productivity, but stresses that there are things we can do to facilitate them. This book is a compilation of thoughts about and practical ways to achieve personal productivity. Allen has gathered these ideas during his 20 years as a management consultant, executive coach and educator. "I have spent many thousands of hours coaching people "in the trenches" at their desks, helping them process and organize all of their work at hand," he says in his introduction. "The methods I have uncovered have proved to be highly effective in all types of organizations, at every job level, across cultures, and even at home and school. After twenty years of coaching and training some of the world's most sophisticated and productive professionals, I know the world is hungry for these methods

The following excerpt is from Chapter 1: The Art of Getting Things Done.

The Principle: Dealing Effectively with Internal Commitments

A basic truism I have discovered over twenty years of coaching and training is that most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept. Even those who are not consciously "stressed out" will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the "open loops" of their lives.

David Allen
You've probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them -- big or little -- is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the "incompletes," or "open loops," which I define as anything pulling at your attention that doesn't belong where it is, the way it is. Open loops can include everything from really big to-do items like "End World Hunger" to the more modest "Hire New Assistant" to the tiniest task such as "Replace Electric Pencil Sharpener."

It's likely that you also have more internal commitments currently in play than you're aware of. Consider how many things you feel even the smallest amount of responsibility to change, finish, handle, or do something about. You have a commitment, for instance, to deal in some way with every new communication landing in your e-mail, on your voice-mail, and in your in-basket. And surely there are numerous projects that you sense need to be defined in your areas of responsibility, as well as goals and directions to be clarified, a career to be managed, and life in general to be kept in balance.


Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought. -- Henry Bergson

You have accepted some level of internal responsibility for everything in your life and work that represents an open loop of any sort. In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and collect all those things that are "ringing your bell" in some way, and then plan how to handle them. That may seem like a simple thing to do, but in practice most people don't know how to do it in a consistent way.

The Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments

Managing commitments well requires the implementation of some basic activities and behaviors:

First of all, if it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you'll come back to regularly and sort through.
Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.
Third, once you've decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

Testing This Model


There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can...give all our attention to the opportunity before us.
-- Mark Van Doren


I suggest that you write down the project or situation that is most on your mind at this moment. What most "bugs" you, distracts you, or interests you, or in some other way consumes a large part of your conscious attention? It may be a project or problem that is really "in your face," something you are being pressed to handle, or a situation you feel you must deal with sooner rather than later Maybe you have a vacation trip coming up that you need to make some major last-minute decisions about. Or perhaps you just inherited $6 million dollars and don't know what to do with the cash. Whatever. Got it? Good. Now describe, in a single written sentence, your intended successful outcome for this problem or situation.

In other words, what would need to happen for you to check this "project" off as "done"? It could be as simple as "Take the Hawaii vacation," "Handle situation with Customer X," "Resolve college situation with Susan," "Clarify new divisional management structure," or "Implement new investment strategy." All clear? Great.

Now write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward. If you had nothing else to do in your life but get closure on this, where would you go right now, and what visible action would you take? Would you pick up a phone and make a call? Go to your computer and write an e-mail? Sit down with pen and paper and brainstorm about it? Talk face-to-face with your spouse, your secretary, your attorney, or your boss? Buy nails at the hardware store? What?

Got the Answer to That? Good

Was there any value for you in these two minutes of thinking? If you're like the vast majority of people who complete that drill during my seminars, you'll be experiencing at least a tiny bit of enhanced control, relaxation, and focus. You'll also be feeling more motivated to actually do something about that situation you've merely been thinking about till now. Imagine that motivation magnified a thousandfold, as a way to live and work.


The ancestor of every action is a thought. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

If anything at all positive happened for you in this little exercise, think about this: What changed? What happened to create that improved condition within your own experience? The situation itself is no further along, at least in the physical world. It's certainly not finished yet. What probably happened is that you acquired a clearer definition of the desired outcome and the next action required. But what created that? The answer is, thinking. Not a lot, just enough to solidify your commitment and the resources required to fulfill it.

The Real Work of Knowledge Work

Welcome to the real-life experience of "knowledge work," and a profound operational principle: You have to think about your stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you're afraid you might. As Peter Drucker has written, "In knowledge work...the task is not given; it has to be determined. 'What are the expected results from this work?' is...the key question in making knowledge workers productive. And it is a question that demands risky decisions. There is usually no right answer; there are choices instead. And results have to be clearly specified, if productivity is to be achieved."

Most people have a resistance to initiating the burst of energy that it will take to clarify the real meaning, for them, of something they have let into their world, and to decide what they need to do about it. We're never really taught that we have to think about our work before we can do it; much of our daily activity is already defined for us by the undone and unmoved things staring at us when we come to work, or by the family to be fed, the laundry to be done, or the children to be dressed at home. Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes is something few people feel they have to do. But in truth, outcome thinking is one of the most effective means available for making wishes reality.

Why Things Are on Your Mind

Most often, the reason something is "on your mind" is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet: -- You haven't clarified exactly the intended outcome.
-- You haven't decided what the very next physical action step is, and/or
-- You haven't put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.


This constant, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy. -- Kerry Gleeson

That's why it's on your mind. Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can't give up the job. You can fool everyone else, but you can't fool your own mind. It knows whether or not you've come to the conclusions you need to, and whether you've put the resulting outcomes and action reminders in a place that can be trusted to resurface appropriately within your conscious mind.

If you haven't done those things, it won't quit working overtime. Even if you've already decided on the next step you'll take to resolve a problem, your mind can't let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look. It will keep pressuring you about that untaken next step, usually when you can't do anything about it, which will just add to your stress.

Your Mind Doesn't Have a Mind of Its Own

At least a portion of your mind is really kind of stupid, in an interesting way. If it had any innate intelligence, it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them. Do you have a flashlight somewhere with dead batteries in it? When does your mind tend to remind you that you need new batteries? When you notice the dead ones! That's not very smart. If your mind had any innate intelligence, it would remind you about those dead batteries when you passed live ones in a store. And ones of the right size, to boot.


Rule your mind or it will rule you. -- Horace

Between the time you woke up today and now, did you think of anything you needed to do that you still haven't done? Have you had that thought more than once? Why? It's a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on. And it only adds to your anxieties about what you should be doing and aren't.

It seems that most people let their minds run a lot of the show, especially where the too-much-to-do syndrome is concerned. You've probably given over a lot of your "stuff," a lot of your open loops, to an entity on your inner committee that is incapable of dealing with those things effectively the way they are-your mind.

The Transformation of "Stuff"

Here's how I define "stuff": anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn't belong where it is, but for which you haven't yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step. The reason most organizing systems haven't worked for most people is that they haven't yet transformed all the "stuff" they're trying to organize. As long as it's still "stuff," it's not controllable.

Most of the to-do lists I have seen over the years (when people had them at all) were merely listings of "stuff," not inventories of the resultant real work that needed to be done. They were partial reminders of a lot of things that were unresolved and as yet untranslated into outcomes and actions-that is, the real outlines and details of what the list-makers had to "do."

"Stuff" is not inherently a bad thing. Things that command our attention, by their very nature, usually show up as "stuff." But once "stuff" comes into our lives and work, we have an inherent commitment to ourselves to define and clarify its meaning. That's our responsibility as knowledge workers -- if "stuff" were already transformed and clear, our value, other than physical labor, would probably not be required.

At the conclusion of one of my seminars, a senior manager of a major biotech firm looked back at the to-do lists she had come in with and said, "Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!" That's the best description I've ever heard of what passes for organizing lists in most personal systems. The vast majority of people have been trying to get organized by rearranging incomplete lists. We need to transform all the "stuff" we're trying to organize into the actionable stuff we need to do.

From Getting Things Done by David Allen. ( Copyright (c) David Allen, 2000. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

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