Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cult-Like Programs I’ve Embraced, Part II: Getting Things Done

Tacked to my office wall at work is a flowchart that never fails to elicit a chuckle from unbelievers. At the top it says “stuff,” and it points down from there.

To me, it’s a work of art. Encapsulated within that flowchart is a process for organizing the giant slurry of items – physical and mental – that takes up psychic space in my life. Subject your “stuff” to a series of bite-sized questions and easy decisions, and it transforms from a giant primordial stew of undifferentiated, anxiety-causing matter into a system of simple actions organized into a manageable number of easily-reviewed lists.

Such is the beauty of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. From chaos, order. From fear, hope. From a pile of crap shoved into drawers and sliding off of credenzas, to file cabinets, labelled shelves and designated spaces. Ahh.

A project-management consultant handed the book to a colleague, but I snatched it first. The title alone: Getting Things Done. Ahh. I started reading it and was skeptical at first, as anyone would be who has an Everest of tasks, a baby on the way, a house to sell and another to seek out and buy, and a hatred of deadlines that goes back generations. Who the hell has time for this kind of time-management consultantygobbledy—heeeeyyyy. This describes my problem perfectly!

Early in the book, Mr. Allen takes readers through a very simple experiment: 1) think of the one major project that is right this second most on your mind. Write it down. 2) Think of the outcome of that thing – what would make it “finished”? Write that down. 3) What is the next simple physical step necessary to get closer to completion? Write that down.

There. Didn’t that help, just a little?

That simple exercise started to convince me. I tore through the rest of the book, pulled my office to pieces and took two days to re-organize per David Allen’s recommendations. OMG. So great. Labels. Folders. Lists.


The basic idea is to identify projects (a project is anything that requires more than one physical step to complete: everything from “launch the new website” to “get some baseboards in here” to “send sympathy card to Carol”), then break it down into its component tasks until you arrive at the very next physical step that needs to occur to bring it closer to completion (“email Paul to request hi-res images of premises,” “look up ‘handyman’ in phone book,” “buy sympathy card”). Then you write that action on a list. And when you’re in the context in which you can execute it (at the office, sitting within reach of the phonebook, driving past the Hallmark store), you do it.

It’s not much more complicated than that, although you have to work up to it. There are some basic premises:
  • you can’t do a project; you can only do the next step
  • you can’t simultaneously think about two things at once
  • you won’t garner peace of mind from your system unless you trust it implicitly, which means making sure it’s complete
  • multi-level review, from a weekly detailed visit with your lists, to greater introspection about your longer-term goals, is crucial

In the initial process, you’ll physically collect everything that’s sitting in The Giant Inbox of Your Life (my title). That means your physical inboxes, your disorganized files, your email inbox, your broken and functional appliances, spare plastic forks and spoons, your wallet, the little wicker basket on the table at the bottom of the stairs, the kitchen junk drawer that catches the bank receipts you’re not sure whether to shred, the papers sliding off the credenza, all your office supplies and your poor, overburdened mind. Since we’re talking work and home, these are two separate processes, although they’ll both take less time than you fear. Once it’s all collected, you subject it to the flowchart I was talking about earlier. Ask “what is it?” “Is it actionable?” “Is it part of a multi-step process?” “What’s the next action?” “Should I do it, delegate it, or defer it?” Then make lists and start doing.

Here’s the cult-like part. This shit takes over your brain. As with Weight Watchers, Jesus and the first Matrix, everything gets viewed through the new prism. You look at piles of paper differently. When you’re discussing work — “work” is anything you want to change — you’re concentrating on the goals and the strategy, and always calculating “what’s the next action?” Pointless deadlines become suddenly transparent, because you learn to prioritize based not upon the calendar, but upon what tasks you can complete in your current context, what immediate "emergency" tasks require of you, and upon the status of delegated or dependent-upon-others tasks. David Allen’s review processes cause you to look at your activities from the crap on your desktop to your five-year goals to your self-identity and vision of yourself for your whole life. At one point, he describes sitting home with his wife and discreetly placing an action into her inbox (if you take my meaning). THAT one always causes unbelievers to laugh. And yet…it makes sense, if she’s watching Grey’s Anatomy or paying the bills, and you don’t want to forget the thing.

GTD is a demanding discipline. It becomes harder to juggle multiple tasks mentally, because you realize you can’t win. So you list. Your reflex becomes “get that on paper.” And while that sounds like a drag, it’s far easier than the Old Way You Practiced Before You Achieved GTD Wisdom. That way, you were suffering — beginning one task only to abandon it because you were neglecting the Important Stuff, panicking and rushing through things, angstily avoiding commencing work at all. This way, you have stepped off the wheel.

Alas, I am but a lowly acolyte. You can always be a better Scientologist, or a more loyal Moonie — so with GTD. It really requires new physical and mental habits that are hard to craft. Especially at home. So, often, instead of swimming placidly and productively in mid-stream, one with the flow of work, I flounder along at the edge, doing it half-right (which is far better than doing it all wrong), but feeling like I’ve got it all wrong.

And meanwhile, things get done.

GTD Online
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Bill Braine said...

...and if anyone can advise me on how to clear out the too-tight leading introduced by that bulleted list, I'd be grateful.

Magpie said...

To fix the leading, add the paragraph tag after your last item on the list - that's worked for me, though I couldn't tell you why. Blogger won't let me type the tag into the know what I mean though, right?

Is that the book that's got the two minute rule - if you can do it two minutes, then just do it? I try to live by that rule.

Bill Braine said...

When you first assemble all your stuff and compile your lists, you do everything that will take two minutes or less -- but you don't always do that thereafter.

Bill Braine said...

Magpie, thanks for the tip, totally worked.

Anonymous said...

As a former project manager you brought a tear to my eye with this post.