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January 3, 2007 » 2:53 pm

Getting Things Done

Last year, I reached a point where I wasn’t managing my time and tasks to my satisfaction, so I decided to check out the Getting Things Done bandwagon. I went to Green Apple to buy David Allen‘s book, but I couldn’t find it in the business section. I asked a salesperson for assistance, and to my horror (and amusement), they suggested I check the self-help section.    (LPB)

Getting Things Done is indeed a self-help book of sorts, but it’s also full of good advice on information management. More importantly, the philosophy it espouses not only has important implications on task management but also on collaboration.    (LPC)

The problem it seeks to address is, how do we manage our day-to-day, overcommitted lives in this age of information overload? Allen’s solution is simple. Keep your mind in a relaxed, ready-for-action state, which he compares to the “zone” that athletes often experience. In martial arts, if the body is tense, it will not react quickly or powerfully. Keeping your body relaxed is what separates the masters from the novices.    (LPD)

Easier said than done, right? Allen’s method for getting your mind into this state is two-fold. First, get things out of your head into a system you trust. Second, frame tasks as something actionable. Starting with managing the nitty gritty in your life will free your mind to do the higher-level thinking we all wish we had more time to do.    (LPE)

The ready-state and trust are critical concepts. Much of our day-to-day tension is the result of trying to balance all of the things we need to do in our head. The brain is not good at this sort of thing. Once you move all those tasks into a system you trust, you relieve your brain of that stress.    (LPF)

Allen cited one of his clients, who said that she never stressed about forgetting about a meeting, even though she had a lot of them, because she knew that information was in her calendar. Whenever she scheduled a meeting, she immediately off-loaded it into her calendar, so she knew that it was always current. She wanted a similar trusted system for managing other types of tasks.    (LPG)

Allen also noted that just as we feel guilty about breaking agreements with others, we also feel guilty about breaking agreements with ourselves. If you tell yourself you’re going to eat a salad every day, but you keep eating cheeseburgers, you’ve broken an agreement with yourself, and you’re going to feel bad about it. Even worse, you’ll lose trust in yourself, or at least, your system, and so continued use of that system will make you even antsier.    (LPH)

How do you resolve this? By acknowledging that you are in fact making an agreement, and treating it as such. Just as you would call a friend to reschedule, you need to explicitly renegotiate the agreements you make with yourself.    (LPI)

Explicitness is critical. The act of framing a task as an action is an important, but oft-neglected step. “Eat better,” is not actionable. “Eat fish three times a week,” is. The act of writing down an action item makes it both real and subject to renegotiation.    (LPJ)

In keeping with his philosophy, Allen’s book is full of concrete actions you can take to improve your information management. These have been covered in great detail elsewhere, so I’ll just point out a few that I’ve found useful:    (LPK)

  • Keep your file cabinets two-thirds full.    (LPL)
  • Use a label-maker on your file folders.    (LPM)

(For a more comprehensive list of my GTD implementation and some other tips and tricks, see Life Hacks.)    (LPN)

These sort of tips sound trivial, but when performed with the larger framework in mind, they are extremely effective. One of the things I really like about Allen’s book is his emphasis on environment, which parallels my philosophy on collaborative spaces. How you structure your workspace will have a great effect on whether or not your work processes are successful.    (LPO)

Allen doesn’t spend much time on the implications of Getting Things Done on collaboration, but he does reiterate the importance of trust in groups. When you have a list of action items, and you’re not getting them done, others who are depending on you are going to lose trust. Since trust is the foundation of good collaboration, it behooves you to to be good at Getting Things Done.    (LPP)

This is essentially the Personal Information Hygiene point that I made last year, although I like how Allen explicitly incorporates trust into his explanation of its importance. However, I also think it’s an oversimplification. One of the inherent advantages of a team over an individual, is that you can compensate for individual weaknesses. I’ll write more about this in a later post on Group Information Hygiene.    (LPQ)

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