Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Hour of Hard Thinking: David Allen's Getting Things Done


David Allen wrote Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity in 2001, and Ready for Anything in 2003. Together, they have inspired a heavily-trafficked website, a popular blog, hundreds of seminars and an almost cult-like devotion to the “GTD” (Getting Things Done) process.

I’m not big on cults, either joining or messing with, but Allen’s work on time management and productivity has some real nuggets. The beauty of the books, too, is that you can read one on a cross-country flight, and the other on the return home.

Allen sprinkles his books with dozens of interesting quotes about work, effort, focus and productivity. Perhaps the quote that sums “the point” best is this one, from David Kekich:

An hour of effective, precise, hard, disciplined, and integrated thinking can be worth a month of hard work. Thinking is the very essence of, and most difficult thing to do, in business and life. Empire builders spend hour after hour on mental work. . .If you’re not consciously aware of putting forth the effort to exert self-guided, integrated thinking, if you don’t act beyond your feelings and you take the path of least resistance, then you’re giving in to laziness and no longer control your life.

It sounds a little bit like blather until you consider: How many times in the past week have you been able to work on a “thinking” task for a full, uninterrupted hour? My guess is “not once.” How about the last month? My guess again is “never.” And some of it is because you are interrupted by outside forces, but MUCH more of it is because you interrupt yourself. With phone calls. With checking on email. With Blackberries. With wondering if you’ll remember to pick up your shirts, or by seeing the third page of next Monday’s presentation out of the corner of your eye and thinking about how to present the market data differently. By staring out the window wondering if it’s warm.

In fact, spending an hour alone thinking about one problem or opportunity is a little daunting—too much “togetherness,” if you know what I mean.

So, here’s the deal, and here’s the nugget I derive from David Allen:

Once you have an easy, foolproof system for capturing all of the “stuff” in your life—personal, professional and everything else—then, and only then, can you finally relax and focus on one thing at a time. Think about it: every call, errand, meeting, deadline, goal and responsibility captured in one system.

That’s how you get an uninterrupted hour of thinking. “Your power is proportional to your ability to relax,” Allen says. Your ability to relax is related in large part to being able to shut out all of the constant noise for a bit of time.

Allen has an big, hairy system for doing this, but is mercifully flexible in the tools he allows. So, if you like paper, you get paper. If you like tablets and OneNote and PDAs and Google calendars, you can use all that, too. It’s the principles and not the tactics that are important.

Here’s a little checklist on how you might order your mental "stuff":
1. What are your current tasks? Most people have, believe it or not, 100+. It’s no wonder we don’t focus well.

2. What are your current projects? You might have 3 or you might have 30. These projects have multiple tasks, only some of which may be known at any one time.

3. What are your current areas of responsibility? This maps well into Stephen Covey’s First Things First: Spending a little time being a good father or mother or friend isn’t a task or project, but it sure is important. And it’s one of the first things that goes when the deadline-driven stuff appears.

4. What are your longer term personal, organizational and professional goals? All work and no play makes Jack a twenty-first century American.

5. Why are you on this planet? To swim the English Channel? To do something, God forbid, for someone else? Better capture that stuff, too.
David Allen has an interesting passage where he clearly shows that his system is intended to be all-encompassing, and not just about getting to the next box on today's work “to-do” list:

I forget to focus on my friends. I forget to think about giving random presents. I forget, believe it or not, about having fun. I forget about what constructive things I would do given my position with our office staff next week. I forget about a zillion things that would be way cool to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon. And, yes, I forget to dream. So I put reminders in my personal-management system, and I see them in my weekly review. Few people I know really grasp the power of the basic weekly review. This is the black-belt personal management for the twenty-first century person: consistently clearing your head, identifying outcomes and actions, organizing and updating lists, to maintain a clear head and proactive frame of mind.

Allen is not the only guy who believes that the week is the perfect planning horizon. Covey says that 15-30 minutes spent reviewing the week in advance is among the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. (I don't do everything prescribed in First Things First, but the "week in review" on Sunday evening has saved me more than once.)

Maybe there’s something to this “thinking for an hour” and “planning over a week.” Allen says, “Once a week, do a thorough review of all of your projects in as much detail as you need to. If you do, your systems will work. If you don’t, no system will work.”

I cannot do justice to all of the ideas in a single article. But one of the strengths of Ready for Anything, in particular, is the set of questions asked at the end of each chapter. There are over 50 of them, and I've mapped ten of them (just click for a better view) that, I promise, if you act on them (pick one each day this month) you’ll have a few better days in front of you.


So, try this: Take these questions, go off by yourself (with maybe a pad of paper and a pencil), and think about them, hard, for a full hour. See what you come up with.

I'm betting you can't do it. If so, David Allen might be able to help.