If you feel overloaded by all you have to do, there is hope. “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.” So says David Allen in the opening line of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
The way to have that relaxed control, he says, is to have only one thing on your mind — the work at hand. The question I had was, how do you do that? How do you eliminate distracting thoughts and worries about everything else?
David Allen’s answer has two parts. First, thinking about an issue can get it off your mind. Specifically, you should think through a task far enough to figure out the next physical action to take on it. Then write down that next action in your organizer; that will get the task off your mind. Second, this thinking should be done as part of a regular planning session, which keeps your organizer up-to-date.
The key step is to record the next physical action to take. Suppose I wanted to set up a meeting to review a design for a project at work. The next physical action might be to call the project manager to arrange a time. That call, not a generalized goal like “set up design review,” should go on my “to do” list.
Putting next physical actions on my “to do” list makes the list easier to use. In the past, when I didn’t know exactly what I needed to do on a task, I put a generalized “to do” item on my list. Later, when I read the item on the list, I would wonder vaguely, “how am I going to do that?” and I would feel resistance to starting it. An amorphous task seemed too big to tackle without spending a lot of time, so I would put it off.
With the new system, when I look at my “to do” list, I see only a number of clearly defined actions. I can make a simple decision about whether or not to do a task now. If the task is “call the project manager,” and I have five minutes and a phone, I can make the call; if not, no. It’s easier to start, so more gets done.
In addition, generalized “to do’s” no longer distract me. In the past, that vague thought, “how am I going to do that?” would percolate in my subconscious as an unresolved issue. This all but guaranteed that I would be interrupted later, interrupted by thoughts and worries about how to do the amorphous task. The idea “I should call the project manager” might occur to me while I was reading an important report. Or while I was trying to fall asleep, I might worry, “how will I get the drawings done in time for the meeting?”
Now, thanks to David Allen’s advice, I resolve the issues in advance. I already know how I am going to do each task — I know the next action to take — so I don’t worry in the background about what is required.
This is the double benefit of David Allen’s organizational system. 1) You are ready to act, when you have an opportunity, because you completed, in advance, the necessary thought. 2) When you need to concentrate on something, your mind is free to do so.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to make more effective use of his time and energy. David Allen’s fundamental idea is simple: you need to think through every issue at least far enough to decide the next action. On this base, he has built a complete time-management system that has dramatically increased many people’s productivity, including mine. He’s done it, not by squeezing more hours into the day, but by showing us how to achieve “a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”
Book Information: David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin, 2002.