Getting Things Done: A New Practice for a New Reality

This is the first entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

gtdThe first question a lot of people are going to ask is why am I writing a fourteen part series on a time management book on a personal finance website. Sure, there’s the obvious maxim that time is money, but what does that actually mean in people’s lives?

This book has changed my life radically over the past several years and has made my current life possible. The best way I can think of to explain how it has helped is to use my own life as an example, and so I’ll be doing that over and over again throughout this series.

Right now, I have three young kids at home that each require some time and focus and attention, as well as a wife and a marriage that need care and feeding. I have a writing career that involves having written two nonfiction books in the last two years (and working roughly on a third), writing short stories and polishing them for publication, and kicking around a novel. I also write two articles each day for The Simple Dollar, deal with the cavalcade of email and comments that produces, and manage advertisers and other demands related to that. In order to remain a good writer, I need to read quite a lot, too. I’m on multiple volunteer committees in the local community. My son is in a t-ball league, my son and daughter will soon be in a soccer league, and they’re both in a dance class. I share responsibility for maintaining the house with Sarah, with my part usually focusing on meal preparation (which I take pride in) and general cleanup. I have several friendships to maintain. Over the next three months, I have trips to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Decorah (IA) planned. I also have a series of speaking engagements and book signings and other media appearances related to the book scheduled. I’m also learning the piano with weekly lessons and taking time to practice whenever I can.

Whew. How is all of that even possible? When I write it down, even I can scarcely believe that I pack it all in.

The thing is it’s not possible without a system of time management that actually works. If I didn’t have a good system in place, I simply wouldn’t be able to do all that stuff. Something would have to go, and it would hurt to remove any of it.

Allen sums this up pretty well on page four:

A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It’s as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. And most people are to some degree frustrated and perplexed about how to improve the situation. […] A major factor in the mounting stress level is that the actual nature of our jobs has changed much more dramatically and rapidly than have our training for and our ability to deal with work. In just the last half of the twentieth century, what constituted “work” in the industrialized world was transformed from assembly-line, make-it and move-it kinds of activity to what Peter Drucker has so aptly termed “knowledge work.”

Allen hits on two big factors here.

First, we tend to take on more than we can chew. Modern lives are so full of possibility that many people want to jam them full with as much as possible. We want a great job that pays well, but we also want the freedom to enjoy the rewards of all of that hard work. We feel personal responsibility towards causes, towards our family, and towards improving ourselves. Add that all together and you have days without much breathing room at all.

Another interesting factor is the blurred line between work and personal life. Many, many people are tethered to their jobs. Everyone who works at home, is self-employed, or runs a business can attest to this, as can anyone who carries a work cell phone with them everywhere they go and constantly receives calls about work-related issues. From a writer with a home office to a nurse constantly on call, we all have blurred lines between our work life and our personal life. We mix together work tasks and professional tasks constantly, like answering an urgent call during dinner with friends or picking up a birthday cake during our lunch break at work.

Allen argues that the most effective way to deal with all of this is to find ways to get the most done with minimal effort. He points to the idea of being “in the zone” – and reaching it as often as possible – as the key to success. On page 9:

There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged.

My days are pretty much constantly filled with being “in the zone” or trying to find a way to get there.

What exactly does that mean? I can’t really say what it means for others, but I certainly can describe what it’s like for me.

When I’m in the zone, I usually lose all track of time. That’s a big reason why I maintain my schedule electronically so that when an event occurs, it alerts me in various ways (usually a loud beep) to interrupt me and get me to my appointment. I also somewhat lose track of the mechanics of what I’m actually doing. So, for example, when I’m writing, I will lose all track of the fact that I’m sitting at a computer and typing. I get lost completely in the words and don’t notice anything else for long chunks of time. Also, when I pop out of the zone, I’m usually stunned at how much I’ve accomplished while in the zone compared to the amount of time that has passed.

In other words, when I’m in the zone, I’m incredibly productive, to the point that it’s very useful for me to arrange my other life activities to maximize the amount of time I’m in that state.

Thus, the best time management scheme would be one that is focused entirely on maximizing the amount of time I’m in the “zone.” And that’s exactly the point of Getting Things Done.

The entire idea rests on one core principle: dealing effectively with internal commitments. In other words, if something is on your mind, it’s going to make it much more difficult to get into that zone state. If you’re trying to remember the three things you need to get at the store and also remember to make it to your kid’s soccer game at 6, it’s going to be hard to drill down into the task you need to work on right now.

(There’s also another big factor here: the money. If you’re consistently able to get into “the zone,” you’re going to be much more productive and produce higher-quality stuff. This sets you directly up for better performance marks, pay increases, and the potential for better, higher-paying work. It can also make the non-professional elements of your life work much better – for example, practicing the piano works much better if I don’t have anything else on my mind.)

Allen touches on the basic requirements for managing commitments on page 13:

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 of 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.

In other words, if something’s on your mind, you need to get it out of your mind and into some sort of external system that you trust and that you review regularly. If you don’t, all the stuff you’re trying to keep in mind will make it harder for you to devote your maximum brainpower towards the task at hand, which is really needed to help you get into that “zone” state where your productivity goes up, your quality of work goes up, and your stress about it goes down.

The interesting thing, though, is that all of the stuff we store in our mind boils down to action. We keep facts in our mind to help us with a project (an action). We remember an appointment because we have to go to it (an action). We make a project plan so that we have an orderly flow of actions. It’s all about managing your actions – nothing more, nothing less.

Allen spells it out on page 19:

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. Clarifying things on the front end, when they first appear on the radar, rather than on the back end, after trouble has developed, allows people to reap the benefits of managing action.

The best way I can make this idea clear – and it’s a powerful idea – is to give you an example from my own life.

It’s 2:55 PM. I have an hour-long teleconference at 3 that I’m going to have to focus on. I also need to do a load of laundry, get supper started and in the oven, and get in some piano practice between now and five o’clock, when I have to go to a t-ball game. There is pretty much no way to slot in all of those projects because none of them fit before the conference call and the rest take more than an hour combined (and I have only an hour after the call), so something’s going to have to go.

Or is it? What I can do is simply identify the “next action” for each of these activities.

Finding the sheet music I want to practice with and setting it out on the keyboard is the next action for the piano practice, and it takes a minute or so.
Starting a laundry load, which is the next action in the “do laundry” project, takes about three minutes.
Pulling chicken out of the freezer and putting it on the counter to thaw is the next action for preparing supper, and it takes about thirty seconds.
My next action for the conference call is to get out my note-taking software and dial in. I focus entirely on the conference call and it’s over at four.
I then head downstairs and put the laundry in the dryer, the “next action” on the laundry project, taking about a minute.
I then walk straight to the keyboard, sit down, and am completely ready to begin banging out “Fur Elise,” which I do for twenty minutes or so.
I then go upstairs and proceed into the next action for making supper, in which I assemble a casserole and get it in the oven. It’s ready at 4:40 and the next action is to bake it, so I preheat the oven.
I then go downstairs and pull the clothes from the dryer, folding the items that need to be folded and changing my shirt, taking me until about 4:50.
I go back upstairs, where the oven is preheated, and put the casserole in the oven to bake while I’m at the t-ball game.
I walk out the door and drive to my son’s game, arriving on time with all of the projects completed.

By focusing on the “next action” and not stressing out on the projects as whole items, I was able to accomplish more than I thought.

It goes even further than that, as Allen explains on page 23:

For example, in the last few minutes, has your mind wandered off into some area that doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re reading here? Probably. And most likely where your mind went was to some open loop, some incomplete situation that you have some investment in. All that situation did was rear up out of your [short term memory] and yell at you, internally. And waht did you do about it? Unless you wrote it down and put it in a trusted “bucket” that you know you’ll review appropriately sometime soon, more than likely you worried about it. Not the most effective behavior: no progress was made, and tension was increased.

So, unless you have all of the things you need to do out of your head and somewhere else, the undone things interfere with your progress on the immediate action you’re tackling right now.

So, in that example above, if I don’t have a trusted system for getting all of those plans and next actions out of my head, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate well on that conference call because my mind would wander into those undone things. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my piano practice. I also wouldn’t be able to make a great supper for my family – I’d likely botch something while my brain wandered through the things I need to do.

If I know it’s all recorded and down on paper, my mind doesn’t wander. And if I’ve extracted the next action for each project I’m invested in, I don’t have to worry about those, either. I simply think about the item I’m tackling now on my current to-do list and nothing else has to eat up my focus. I can get in the zone when practicing the piano and really grow my playing skill. I can get in the zone on that conference call and wow the people I’m talking to, which helps my career.

Next time, we’ll look at the second chapter, which covers the five stages of mastering workflow – in other words, how exactly do you take the garbled collection of facts and ideas and things to do that eat up your short term memory and actually deal with them all in any sort of coherent way?

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