I’ve been attempting to implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to ‘stress-free productivity’ for about 5 years now.
The gist of Allen’s approach is that your brain is a horrible place to keep track of your projects, tasks, and calendar specific reminders.
Therefore, we should all create what amounts to an external brain – an external hard-drive – that relieves us from the duty of having to remember what we’ll have to do tomorrow morning when we get into the office or the next time we run errands or to remind our colleague of the deliverable she owes us in a month.
One of the requirements of this methodology is to capture everything that comes our way and make sure it gets into our system, that we intentionally place that thing into our external brain so it doesn’t create that gnawing sense of ‘Isn’t there something I’m forgetting to do?’
Whether you go buy David Allen’s book or not (which was just updated and rereleased, we’ll assume without references to Palm Pilots and PDAs), there’s one very important element of his system that might help you take a step toward having less stress about the tasks and projects represented by the items in your inboxes (paper inboxes, voicemail inboxes, and email inboxes):
You must learn to capture all the work that comes into your world and handle it appropriately.
Here are six questions to help you at the tactical and mindset levels. They represent six habits that will help you deal appropriately with everything that comes into your inboxes (defined as any email, phone call, or piece of paper that comes your way and makes it into any of your inboxes).
1. How do you define the ‘work’ represented by any given piece of paper, email, or voicemail that enters into your world?
Each piece of input requires you to assess what needs to be done. Every email is a request for your attention. You must define the work that each thing requires. The work might simply be to read a few paragraphs. The work might require an errand for your spouse or children. The work might be the next deliverable on a sales project. The work can be any number of things.
You must develop the habit of identifying what task or project is represented by each item that comes into view.
2. What does ‘done’ look like for that piece of work?
The second question is to ask what does ‘done’ look like for that piece of work. Is it a purchase at The Home Depot? Is it a call back to clarify a delegated task? Is it a difficult conversation or a reminder that you need to place in your calendar for 3 months from now?
You must develop the habit of defining what ‘done’ looks like for each thing in order to help you more easily close open task and project loops.
3. Who should be actually doing the work to get that thing done?
The third question requires you to remember that just because it comes into your world, a request for time or work doesn’t mean that you are responsible for that thing getting done. You must determine who should be doing this work and getting it to ‘done.’
If you’re like me, I assume that just because a task comes to me via email, that somehow I must actually do that task. That’s a time and energy-sucking perspective on one’s inbox. Just because it comes to you does not mean that you are ultimately responsible for getting it done.
You must develop the habit of delegating to the very best person in the world to get that work to completion.
4. How do you capture it and make sure it gets into the workflow?
After identifying the work represented, defining what ‘done’ is, and determining who is best responsible to do that work, you must make sure that you capture the task and put it into some kind of workflow or reminder system.
This piece is the most difficult part for me. Most pieces of work do NOT need to be done immediately. As a matter of fact, that is another killer of creative productivity. If you assume you must do each thing that comes into your inbox immediately, you will never pull yourself above administrative work into the world of creative work. Yet if you neglect the stuff in your inbox, your creative work will suffer because of the gnawing realization that you have a bunch of tasks that haven’t been defined sitting in your various inboxes.
Without diving too deeply into the weeds, you must set up a workable system that captures each piece of work and places it in your external brain and, thus, into your workflow. David Allen recommends having three basic places that you put your tasks:
- Lists separated by context: These would be lists such as ‘Errands’, ‘At Computer’, ‘Phone Calls’, ‘At Home’, ‘Colleague Name’ (for items you delegate and need to follow back up on), etc. The idea here is that when you find yourself in each of these contexts, you can pull out your list (or pull it up on your phone), and make a wise decision about which item you should tackle. You’ll make sure to review these lists regularly to make sure that every item is accounted for, finished, or deleted if you decide it’s not worth worrying about anymore (some stuff feels like necessary work and becomes expendable).
- A Tickler System: Some tasks don’t need to be done at any given time, but they do need to be done generally on a certain day or in a certain month, i.e. signing a child up for soccer might be 3 months out. Having a place where you can put tasks that don’t need to be addressed for a while gets them out of your brain and into a trusted system that you will check once that time period comes around (I have hanging folders set up by month, with individual 1-31 folders for when my tasks will need to be addressed or given a deadline within the specific month).
- A Calendar: The most specific place to capture a task is on your calendar. When you have appointments or tasks that need to be done on specific dates and at particular times, use your calendar.
Each of us work differently. Some prefer paper. Some prefer doing all things electronically. Either way, this habit of capturing each item and placing it into a consistent system is vital to make sure that you actually trust that you won’t forget or neglect tasks and following up on delegated items.
Develop the habit of putting each item into your system.
5. Can you get comfortable with deleting as much as possible?
This question addresses a mindset issue. David Allen’s system is wonderful, but my bone to pick is that many of us have so much input coming into our inboxes that any system starts to buckle under the pressure.
The only solution I’ve found is to ask the question, “Does anything need to be done with this email, piece of paper, phone call, at all?” You must learn to throw stuff away and delete things in order to give yourself some freedom.
The habit of ‘saying no’ is vital to any personal productivity plan.
Say it often. Clarify your priorities and be violently loyal to those priorities. Slowly move things off your plate to others who would gladly take on those tasks and projects (if you’re in sales, this means having a target market and not selling to folks just because they can breathe and fog a mirror).
6. How comfortable are you with learning to capture ALL things?
This mindset is also important. Your ability to capture all things is directly proportionate to the decrease in stress in your life.
As you capture and delete or put into your system, you’ll feel a greater sense of control and peace. You will worry less about things going undone. You’ll be able to make better decisions about things that actually need to be done as you’ll become much more realistic about the time you have to get things done.
This final question represents the mindset habit of realizing that capturing all things eventually leads to doing fewer tasks.
It’s counter-intuitive, but the more you define all things, the less work you’ll feel responsible for. You will be forced to define your area of responsibility and make sure nothing that is NOT in your area of responsibility makes its way into your system.
This might sound selfish, but in the long run, everyone is served better when you are not worrying about doing things that you shouldn’t be worried about doing.