|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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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. (http://www.davidco.com/) Copyright (c) David Allen, 2000. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.
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