Review: Ready For Anything

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Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

Ready 4 AnythingGetting Things Done was a true watershed in personal productivity books – in fact, it was the first personal productivity book I reviewed in detail here. Getting Things Done was the first truly great personal productivity book of the information age because it understood that we’re constantly deluged with stuff to do in so many different ways – and this deluge of information was cluttering our minds and workspaces and preventing us from really … well, getting things done.

As a person who fell in love with Getting Things Done, I really looked forward to reading this follow-up, Ready For Anything, and when I first opened the cover, I read it for the first time all in one sitting, much like Getting Things Done. And much like the first book, it basically had little impact on me the first time through it, mostly because I thought it was nothing more than a GTD rehash.

It took another read-through and some careful thinking on the topics inside before I understood this book. Was it as worthwhile as the predecessor that I loved so much? Before I answer that, let’s dig into the meat between the covers.

Digging Into Ready For Anything

As is stated on the cover, the book contains 52 productivity principles, which are divided into four sections of thirteen principles each. Rather than going through all fifty two of them and boring you to tears, I picked out five from each section that made me think; that’s not to say the others aren’t worthwhile. The goal is to give a good idea of the material in the book by presenting the pieces that had the most impact on me, and you can probably conclude from those whether you want to read more of Ready For Anything.

Part I: Clear Your Head For Creativity

1. Cleaning up creates new directions
Prepared for the Unknown?
Right off the bat, Allen posits the idea that sometime in the next month, something unexpected will happen that will make you feel more out of control than you do right now. Are you ready to deal with this unexpected change? For many people, it will be just another big stress on top of a lot of pre-existing organizational chaos. Allen’s solution? Spend some time once a week going through areas of your life that are disorganized and organize them. Make it a regular appointment. Then, when an unexpected situation or opportunity arises, you’re able to deal with that rather than also battling the chaotic cruft that’s built up.

6. Two commitments in your head create stress and failure
Getting Things Done: Reactive or Responsive?
The idea of just getting everything you need to do out of your mind and down on paper seems at first to be merely a reactive solution to organization. There’s no big plan to it, no focus on priorities or anything else. It has one big advantage, though; instead of having all of this junk clogging your mind causing stress and potential failure, you have it on paper somewhere to annotate as you see fit. Then, when you’re focusing on a task, there’s no reason for these things to keep popping up in your mind; they’re all already recorded and organized.

7. Priorities function only at the conscious level
The Danger of “Not as Important” Projects
Think about the projects that you’d like to do, but they just don’t seem as important as other things and so you keep putting them off; for me, for example, it’s learning French. How would it feel if you were to actually accomplish it? For most of the projects that come into my mind, I’d feel thrilled if I were to accomplish the goal. So why am I not accomplishing it? Allen advises taking a few of the most exciting “not as important” projects and breaking them down so that a first step is apparent, and then just take that step. I’m actually going to go do that – I’m going to the library to check out a CD audio course on spoken French.

9. If it’s on your mind, it’s probably not getting done
The ABCs of Psychic RAM
For most of us, we have a certain amount of memory that we can use to process tasks and store information about other tasks. The more items we stick in there to store for later, the less mindshare we have to focus on important tasks. Instead of storing a lot of that junk in mind, just write it down, whether it be specific pieces of information, tasks to be done, anything. Keep a notebook with you at all times to jot down whatever’s in there so that you can instead spend your time – and your mind – really focusing on the specific task at hand.

13. You are not your work
The Big Secret About My Lists
So, obviously, writing things down is a good thing, but most of the best moments in life aren’t ones that are written down and dumped from memory. So why put effort into actually implementing such strategies? By doing them, you can free your mind to truly enjoy such spontaneous moments – and also increase your available time to enjoy them. Since I started really using GTD, I found that it really does free me to just walk away for a while and go play with my son, knowing I don’t have to worry about remembering what I was working on – the system handles it for me.

Part II: Focus Productively

16. Working hard enough is impossible
Is It Overtime All the Time?
Most people feel overworked when they invest a lot of their time in “busy work,” meaning they fill their time just trudging through unrelated task after unrelated task and never feel like they’re really accomplishing anything at all. Instead of doing that, take everything you have to do and arrange it into sensible groups (but do the very quick tasks – two minutes or less – immediately). Once you’ve done that, go through each group individually until it’s empty and you’ll find your time automatically synergizing and feeling more efficient.

18. The clearer the purpose, the more ways to fulfill it
Are You Living In Your Living Room?
Take some time and look at the things you do routinely in your life. Where do you find yourself feeling as though time is wasted? Where do you find yourself feeling most natural and productive? The book gives an example of this, where the individual finds staff meetings to be a waste of time and finds his kitchen to be very productive. So, then, why not find ways to minimize or eliminate the inefficient times (suggest reducing the length or frequency of staff meetings or eliminating them altogether) and maximize the efficient times (work in your kitchen or your living room when reasonable).

22. You have to think about your stuff more than you think
Productivity Doesn’t Happen By Itself
This is essentially the philosophy behind the idea of an inbox as it should work. Every item in your environment that isn’t in its natural place needs some sort of attention given to it, so instead of just letting this clutter build up and become overwhelming, spend blocks of time focusing on clearing out all of the things that are out of place. In other words, deal with the stuff in your environment and suddenly your life will feel less cluttered and chaotic.

25. Only one thing on your mind is “in the zone”
How Important Is Anything but the Most Important Thing?
It really doesn’t matter how truly useful your system for keeping track of things is if you are unable to really focus on whatever task is at hand. All an organizing system really does is give you a way to eliminate as much stuff from your mind as possible, opening the door to that kind of focus. That’s why organizing systems work well for some and don’t really work well for others – some are able to truly trust in the system and let things go, while others have not yet captured that skill.

26. The value of a future goal is the present change it fosters
To Do or to Be? Or Is That the Question?
Are you better off being a completely centered person or a person with a long list of accomplishments? It’s a false dichotomy because being centered means that you are more capable of accomplishing things – they’re interconnected. That’s why goal setting is so effective: by setting a goal for yourself, you can then set immediate actions and behavior changes that you can do right now, making you feel much more centered in life because you’re actually doing something and moving towards something greater.

Part III: Create Structures That Work

27. Stability on one level opens creativity on another
Organization and Creativity: Friends or Foes?
Many people believe organization and creativity to be mutually exclusive, yet that’s not true at all. Think of a painter, for example; he/she organizes his/her paints, but they don’t view it as “organization” – they just do it as part of being a painter. Done right (meaning not being rigidly entrapped within an “organizational scheme”), organization enhances creativity because it allows your mind to focus on the creative task instead of countless other things – like a painter not needing to wonder where his red paint and wide brush are.

29. Your system has to be better than your mind for your mind to let go
Can Your Mind Keep Its New Job?
Having your thoughts and ideas organized and out of your head can be a very heady experience – it’s as if a weight has been lifted from your mind and suddenly you can see things from a wide, new perspective. However, this perspective can fall apart over time if you don’t put in the effort to maintain the organization. Getting all the clutter out of the way once is incredible, but it’s not that useful if the clutter just returns again, so make an effort to regularly keep the clutter and chaos from building up.

30. Response ability improves viability
The Disorder Drug
For many people, having a huge collection of unfinished tasks around them becomes something of a defensive fortress, because all the work on their desk makes them seem extremely busy, and thus often important (in some ways) in the eyes of others. However, by doing this, you’re continually not coming through for the people that need you; by being organized and processing these unfinished tasks, you become more useful, vital, and important to the people around you because they’re no longer left hanging by your unorganized “busy-ness.”

32. The effectiveness of your system is inversely proportional to your awareness of it
System Success: Silent Running
If you have to spend time thinking about your organizational system once past the startup phase, there’s something wrong with it. A truly worthwhile system should be almost automatic – if it’s not, then you need to find something else. Allen uses the example of using hanging folders to sort all of your documents; it works well for a while, but eventually the folders become overfilled and nothing makes sense any more. Instead of doing this, Allen recommends one file per folder and labeling the folders clearly, so that when you browse through a drawer, you can find what you need quickly without digging through immense, overstuffed hanging folders, plus the individually labeled folder collection can keep expanding as long as you have drawers.

38. You are thinking more valuably than you may think
Freedom and Form Fun
Most of us have spare moments where we’re not really doing anything: we’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room waiting for an appointment, for exmaple, or we’re waiting for our dinner companion. Use these free moments to brainstorm; keep a notebook and a comfortable writing utensil with you (I love my Moleskine reporter’s notebook and Fisher space pen, for example) and simply use those spare moments to brainstorm or simply dump everything that’s floating around in your mind to process later on, then enjoy whatever it is you’re waiting on knowing that you’ve used that spare time for something worthwhile.

Part IV: Relax and Get In Motion

41. Too controlled is out of control
Are You An “Organizing Groupie”?
Some people get obsessed with their organizing system and it begins to spiral out of control because they must “maximize” the system and end up spending way too much time on the system itself. Once you reach that point, it’s no longer an effective system of organization. In fact, the best system for you is the one where you don’t have to spend time at all “maximizing” it – if you need to keep trying to hone it, it’s not really something for you.

43. Trusting your action choice requires multilevel self-management
It’s 9:45 in the Morning, What Should I Do?
Ask yourself this question: what would you do if you suddenly had thirty uninterrupted free minutes where you wanted to get something accomplished? Do you have any idea? A system with a consistent flow of material to work on should be able to immediately answer this question for you, never leaving you with situations where you’re sitting around wondering how to fill time.

44. Your power is proportional to your ability to relax
The Freedom/Productivity Equation
Some people believe that any organizational system is a form of entrapment: it sucks you into a situation where there’s always something more that needs to be done. In fact, that belief is merely a frame of mind: being organized should instead make you feel like you’re accomplishing a lot, making it possible for you to enjoy free time without stress. In other words, organization isn’t a lack of freedom, organization is merely a lead-in to productivity which opens the doors to freedom.

46. The longer your horizon, the smoother your moves
The Rhythm of Things
In everyone’s life, there are routines that used to be vital and exciting and now seem drab and boring. Perhaps there was a magazine that you used to faithfully read, but now gathers dust on your desk. Maybe there’s a friend you used to really enjoy spending time with, but now you just don’t enjoy talking to any more. Instead of letting those things build up and bother you, you’re better off simply moving on to new activities and routines that make you feel fulfilled. Don’t let those things that used to thrill you hang around out of a feeling of routine or necessity, because they’re merely dragging you down.

49. Small things, done consistently, create major impact
The Critical 20 Percent
When you want to get ahead, you often keep taking on things until you can really only finish 90% of what you want to do, and because of that lack of ability to cover everything, you feel like crap. On the other hand, if you can get ahead of the game by just 10% (by being highly productive at some areas), you walk away feeling great. The difference between the two is only 20% of your effort, so how do you maximize that 20%? There are different answers for everyone: eliminating some tasks entirely so you can focus on what remains, redefine what you need to do to be successful, and so on. Don’t design a game that you can never win at.

Part V: Remind Yourself of the Fundamentals

This final section is a ten page compression of the material presented in Getting Things Done. Rather than just rehashing it again, I strongly invite you to read my detailed review of Getting Things Done, as most of the information in these final ten pages of Ready For Anything is encapsulated in that review.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

A better title for Ready For Anything would have been 52 Essays on the Getting Things Done Philosophy, because that’s exactly what this book is. It takes specific points from Getting Things Done and hones in on them, explaining why they’re important and fitting them into a context of broader life. For anyone who reads it, some of the essays will seem obvious, while others will make you think just a bit. The ones that fall into each category will vary from reader to reader.

So should you read Ready For Anything? If you’ve never read Getting Things Done, it’s a great place to get your toes wet without jumping into the deep end of the pool. If you’ve read Getting Things Done and enjoyed it, then it’s also a good read (though simple in a few places) because it polishes and analyzes some of the key concepts from the book.

The group that shouldn’t really buy this are the ones that read Getting Things Done and simply didn’t like it at all – this book espouses much of the same philosophy, and if you don’t find any value at all in the philosophy, then you won’t find any value in reading Ready For Anything.

I felt that Getting Things Done was the stronger book and it would probably be my first recommendation to the uninitiated in the Getting Things Done philosophy, but Ready For Anything is a great supplementary work and a nice place to dip in your toes a bit to feel the water.

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