Productivity is a hot topic, and with good reason – we have less time it seems (it’s debatable), and more things to divide our attention on. I find myself luridly drawn to those Inc. and FastCompany articles that appear almost daily, telling us how to get a grip on our time management. But recently I read the big Kahuna of personal productivity. Here’s what I got from it.
Dave Allen’s book Getting Things Done is considered the modern day bible for productivity and personal effectiveness, and not only because of its widespread influence upon knowledge workers and executives of the 21st Century, particularly those based in Silicon Valley, but also because of its comprehensive and fastidious nature. It’s an epic.
You cannot fail to be impressed. Allen, a productivity expert and consultant to high flying execs, dives into the finer details of managing your time and your tasks. He also does it in a familiar, almost avuncular tone – he’s funny, on point, and positively simple about the changes you need to make.
Despite the detail, the key for me was in the first chapter, this is where I gained 80% of the value. Allen starts with the problem many of us face:
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.
Allen also makes it clear right off the bat that there is simply no single solution that works, you will have to pick and choose the pieces that work for you, and adapt it accordingly:
I can attest that there is no single, once-and-for-all solution. No software, seminar, cool personal planner, or personal mission statement will simplify your workday or make your choices for you as you move through your day, week, or life.
There is no single solution, but looking for a solution is not even the first thing we need to address. The biggest problem is in the way we even consider our workload. We think of work as one thing, with to-do lists, project plans, reminders and so on. And we think of family life as another, exercise and personal development as another. For Allen though, we must treat everything which we have to do as the same, they are simply items in the same list, to be decided upon and actioned.
Freeing the cluttered mind
The amount of things we are dealing with today is cluttering our mind, and the trick is simply to free the mind of this burden, and from there we can become productivity masters. He provides an analogy between the mind and martial arts:
A tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key. Anything that causes you to overreact or under-react can control you, and often does.
Thus the first thing we must do is ensure the mind is not carrying the weight of too many simultaneous tasks, whether it is to finish a presentation at work, pay a bill at home, speak to your wife about something, call the golf club, book a doctors appointment, or buy petrol. They must all be removed so that our mind is no longer tense trying to hold and remember all of these items.
The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my ‘stuff’ in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind. And that applies to everything – little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not. Everything.
It’s a simple but profound idea. I got excited about the prospect of listing every single thing I had to do. And I can say once you’ve sat down and made that complete list, you feel a whole lot more relaxed about it all.
A tool you can trust
The next task is to have a reliable place to hold all of these items. Allen doesn’t prescribe any particular tool, but he stresses the importance of being able to rely on it completely, it needs to be simple, and you need to truly be able to trust it. If it lets you down, it will break the habit you are trying to form. He talks about the individuals he coaches who suffer because of the tool choice:
They still have a vague sense that something may be missing. That’s why the rewards to be gained from implementing this whole process are at least geometric: the more complete the system is, the more you’ll trust it.
There are many tools out there which are based on the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, and I’ve used a few – most notably Things for the iPhone and Mac, which I used for several years. I’ve also used a lot of methods not related to GTD. I ended up making my own system in Google Sheets after reading the book, which has been the best system I’ve used to date, I’ll come to that at the end of the post.
The weekly review
But before that, there are two more critical aspects. First is the weekly review:
…a behavior critical for success: the Weekly Review… All of your open loops (i.e., projects), active project plans, and ‘next actions’, ‘agendas’, ‘waiting for’, and even ‘someday/maybe’ lists should be reviewed once a week.
The many years I’ve spent researching and implementing this methodology with countless people have proved to me that the magic key to the sustainability of the process is the Weekly Review.
Allen is really serious about this one. You must spend significant time going through everything you have captured – clearing it out, checking it is still valid, re-prioritizing. The quality and validity of the backlog must be maintained. How often you need to do this is dependant upon how well your system is running. Some people may need help forming the habit, so doing it daily could be necessary. Here’s the guideline:
Review your lists as often as you need to, to get them off your mind.
If there are still nagging tasks cluttering your mind, you’re not reviewing enough. Or, you don’t have trust in your system yet.
After using my system for six months, I can attest that this review step is the hardest thing to do well. I can review the immediate items with no problem, but clearing through everything in the backlog and ensuring my mind is free just isn’t that easy. But I can see that it is the habit I need to perfect the process.
Next action decision making
One final critical step is the next action decision. This is simply a great behavioural improvement that anybody would benefit from. One thing that keeps us procrastinating, is that we cannot easily see what the next thing to do is on a task, we merely worry about the whole task. For example, take the task of getting cheaper car insurance. As a single task this is an unappealing one (although the result is good), and one to keep putting off – but the idea of ‘get that cheaper car insurance’ lingers in the back of your mind. Here’s what you should be doing:
There should be a column next to the task on the list, stating what the next actual step is for it. For this task, let’s think about it. Most probably the next action is to find your existing car insurance documents, because you probably don’t even remember who you are insured with today, and you can’t go calling around anywhere without that knowledge. OK, then this is the task, forget about the whole project of getting cheaper car insurance, just nail the next action. Suddenly, it becomes a 30 second task to rummage through your drawers, rather than a potential 2 hour job of many unknown steps.
Other productivity gurus call this ‘chunking’ – breaking bigger tasks down into smaller pieces – but I like Allen’s focus on asking the specific question, what’s the next action on this? It’s practical, and can be used in every situation. For me it relates to Tom Peters’ bias for action characteristic, from In Search of Excellence. It’s highly effective.
Allen gives many examples of this sort of thing, from everyday tasks like getting insurance, to more complex ones at work. The power of always asking, what’s the next action on that? is profound. Imagine how many meetings you attend where there is circular debates, and nobody lands on the question of, what exactly is it we must do next – and precisely, not vaguely? Tasks become much easier when you know a precise step you can take right now. After repeatedly practising this behaviour, things may start to change for you:
One of the greatest challenges you may encounter is that once you have gotten used to “What’s the next action?” for yourself and those around you, interacting with people who aren’t asking it can be highly frustrating. It clarifies things so quickly that dealing with people and environments that don’t use it can seem nightmarish.
He’s not kidding either. It’s damn true. Some rather painful meetings are fresh in my memory.
The little tricks you need
The book dives into great detail about project management principles, and even how to construct a filing system for your papers (a tickler file!), and how to handle documents on your desk. The middle part of the book is perhaps the toughest going, but by the time you come out the other side, Allen has provided so many little tips and tricks that you feel massively empowered to go stratospheric in productivity. These little tricks are often the most important things for him (and us):
Sometimes just one good trick can make it worthwhile to range through this information … To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives.
He talks about his passion for using stationary and how beneficial a pencil and notepad can be, and his Palm organizer (I’m sure he doesn’t still use that):
One of the great secrets to getting ideas and increasing your productivity is utilizing the function-follows-form phenomenon – great tools can trigger good thinking. (I’ve come up with some of my most productive thoughts when playing with my Palm organizer in an airport, waiting for a flight!) … If you aren’t writing anything down, it’s extremely difficult to stay focused on anything for more than a few minutes, especially if you’re by yourself. But when you utilize physical tools to keep your thinking anchored, you can stay engaged constructively for hours.
Checklists for everything, and other useful ideas
Allen is a big advocate of checklists – create a checklist for anything you need, it serves the benefit of getting everything off your mind:
Be open to creating any kind of checklist as the urge strikes you. The possibilities are endless – from “Core Life Values” to “Things to Take Camping.” Make lists, ad hoc, as they occur to you, is one of the most powerful yet subtlest and simplest procedures that you can install in your life.”
And one that I particularly love is the idea of storing up items in a checklist which can be done when you have very little energy left in the tank. I like it because I’m often coming across moments where I just can’t do anything useful any more, and I can dip into my list of low-energy items:
I recommend that you always keep an inventory of things that need to be done that require very little mental or creative horsepower. When you’re in one of those low-energy states, do them.
There are sections in the book that urge you to look at your life from different levels, called the six levels model for reviewing your work and life:
- 50,000+ feet: Life
- 40,000 feet: three to five year vision
- 30,000 feet: one to two year goals
- 20,000 feet: areas of responsibility
- 10,000 feet: current projects
- Runway: current actions
This is where he crosses over with self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, imploring you to set outcomes for everything you want in life. Similarly, he offers advice for detangling your mental stress at work – this following statement had me nodding in agreement:
If you’re not totally sure what your job is, it will always feel overwhelming.
He offers comfort for those who feel utterly useless at times due to this lack of control over their tasks and priorities:
It’s really the smartest people who have the highest number of undecided things in their lives and on their lists. Why is that? … Bright people have the capability of freaking out faster and more dramatically than anyone else … Who doesn’t procrastinate? Often it’s the insensitive oafs who just take something and start plodding forward, unaware of all the things that could go wrong.
Right, I’ll take that as justification for my procrastination! So given all this I took Allen’s advice and created a system I could finally trust in. I thought why not just make a spreadsheet – keep it really simple? With Google Sheets I can access it from anywhere, on the laptop, mobile, and even offline.
The Google Sheets system
I added the tabs I thought I would need most (the checklists). Firstly there are the core ones which align to Allen’s basic process:
- Only the immediate things I want to work on right now. A small list, which is constantly being updated to remove completed tasks, and bring new ones in.
- A bigger list of things I need to do next. I choose the items from this list and promote them to Now. All of this is done with rudimentary Cut+Paste.
- An even bigger collection of stuff which I want to free my mind of, but has no real priority right now. I trust in my weekly review to look after this lot.
(My Google Sheet tabs)
Then I added some more after initial use. Some are more important than others, but all of them have a place:
- Just small things to flag, and check once a day. Such as remind my wife that her mum called earlier.
- Blog Topics
- A special list because I keep coming up with blog topics for work. They need their own space to avoid cluttering other lists.
- This is the equivalent of Allen’s ‘Someday’ list. Just things to consider, and go back over later. He talks a lot about the importance of capturing ideas, and how best to manage them.
- Low Energy
- The great idea mentioned above by Allen. Keep some low horsepower things for those opportune moments.
- Static reminders, like check HBR.org for interesting articles. Or keep listening to the latest audiobook (I often forget about them!).
- List of projects, with no action, just a placeholder for everything, started or not.
- This is somewhat special, as it’s nothing to do with tasks per se. I often find good articles to read but don’t have time, so I add them here and flag them when done. I must admit I’m moving over to Pocket now and not using this tab so much.
- A list of books to read, flagging them as I go, and giving them a priority.
- For Others
- Because I’m also a manager, I have tasks I need to delegate. I put them here and cross them off once handed over.
- This is the nicest tab of all. Everything that is completed gets copied and pasted in here, and I type the date on it.
All tabs have the same column structure – the titles might be slightly different, but not much. This is so that any one row can be copied and pasted from any tab, to any other. For example these are the Now tab columns:
And this is the Archive tab. The sort tab is no longer needed here, instead I type in the date completed.
The sorting tab is arbitrary. I just use it to put in 1, 2, 50, 100 – whatever – and then sort the columns. It makes it fast and easy to re-prioritize. For example here is my Now list:
Productivity and control of my focus has improved with this system. Its rudimentary nature, including having to copy and paste items around, has actually been a benefit over the more slick apps and programs I’ve previously used.
It’s an on-going battle to be more effective, more productive. As a reminder, I need to check-in with the advice of the master himself once in a while:
To consistently stay on course, you’ll have to do some things that may not be habits yet: keep everything out of your head; decide actions and outcomes when things first emerge on your radar, instead of later; and regularly review and update the complete inventory of open loops of your life and work.
For more inspiration, check out Dave Allen talking at a TedX event: