David Allen opens his book, Getting Things Don, the Art of Stress Free Productivity, with this statement: “It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control” (p. 3). I don’t know about you, but my immediate reaction was, “Yes please!”
I’m going to give you a partial summary of the first chapter of Mr. Allen’s book. I’ll try to give you enough of a sense of what this book says and what it can do for you (and has done for me) without giving you all it has to offer (both to respect Mr. Allen’s IP and not get myself sued by him or his publisher).1
What do you want to get done?
Mr. Allen defines “work” as “anything that you want or need to be different than it currently is” (4).
So. Are there weeds in the garden? Are there emails in your inbox? Is your air conditioner broken? Do you need to help your kid decide on a college? How many hundreds of things are there in your life that you need or want to accomplish, do, create, or change? We’re going to take a little look at how to do it all.
This isn’t just a system for your job. It’s for your whole life.
What’s in your way?
The basic problem that all of us face is the huge amount of things that are on our minds mind all the time. From when you woke up this morning until now, how many things have flitted into your consciousness that you need to do something about — that you’d like or need to be other than what they are now? Now think about this: where do all those things go when they fly into your head?
For most people, they stay right there, continuing to tug and poke and scream for your attention like vocal, impatient two-year-olds. And how many two-year-olds can you deal with while also focusing on what you’re doing at the present moment?
Why is it instinctive to try to do everything at once? “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” (16, emphasis in original). But it doesn’t. It’s like time doesn’t exist for your mind. This is why you constantly have those rivets popping, toddlers screaming, and bells ringing in your head: if your mind knows that there’s something that’s not getting done, some part of it will be thinking about that thing all the time.
Most people go through their whole lives in this state. Somehow or another, you’ve managed to get some things done throughout your life — but by the time you’ve finished one thing, 10 more have crossed your mind. How do you silence the clamor?
You need to put those two-year-olds in a pen where they can’t break out, where you can’t see them or hear them, but know they’re there and know you’ll return regularly to deal with them one at a time (this has probably stopped being the best analogy).
What I mean by that is: every time anything that you need to do pops into your head, you need to get it out of your head immediately. It needs to go on a paper, or into a file, or in a reminder — somewhere that you know you’ll see it later.
That’s Step 1. Step 2 is deciding what to do about it.
Time is not the issue
“In training and coaching thousands of professionals, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they themselves may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are” (Allen 19).
Once you’ve got your list, it may seem overwhelming, but don’t freak out! Getting it out of your head was the first step; the second is to decide what you want to accomplish and what’s the next step. Each item on the list represents some kind of definite outcome: you need to get a clear picture of what that outcome will be (or in other words, what will be true once you’ve accomplished it) and what will be your very next visible action towards making it happen (see yesterday’s post for more on this).
The key is not magically conjuring up more time. It’s the one thing you can’t beg, borrow, buy, or steal if you need more. The key is not managing your time. The key is trusting yourself that you have a system in place — where everything you need and want to do exists outside your head — and you’ll use that system to get everything done in its proper time.
Endnote, MLA citation, disclaimer
1In consequence, this blog post will probably read like an advertisement — which, in a way, it is, even though I’m not getting paid for it. It’s trying to convince you to “buy into” something, and I’m doing it because I really think it’s worth you buying into.
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2001. Print. On Amazon.
[Just to make it absolutely clear, I think I should re-emphasize my disclaimer that I am not being paid, rewarded, or otherwise compensated by anyone in any way for writing this blog post. The book Getting Things Done was given to me by a mentor (who is also a friend of Mr. Allen), and I'm writing this because I think it's worth sharing.]