09 November 2005

Tasks Over Time

One of the simplest and most powerful guidelines The Jenius ever received for personal productivity was "You don't manage time: you manage tasks."

The current guru of productivity is David Allen, whose "Getting Things Done" has spawned a veritable revolution in the art--yes, art--of personal management.

The book falls in that small category of "life changers," for what it preaches is simple, focused and very effective. As with all methods, patience and persistence do pay off, so expecting miracles in 24 hours is not the right attitude. But focusing well for 24 hours will inevitably lead to "miracles."

From a 1998 article in Fast Company, Allen gave basic ideas of what originated his GTD method:

We clutter our minds with vague promises about what we should do, what we could do. But there is always more to do than there is time to do it. Most of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do - it comes from not keeping agreements they’ve made with themselves. When you tell yourself you ought to do something and then don’t do it, you experience self-doubt and frustration. You can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool yourself for a second.

Think about it: what Allen is defining here is the "gnawing sense of anxiety" so many of Us live with every day. The feeling of "being pulled in different directions," overwhelmed by work, family, community and personal "commitments" We make with little restraint and fulfill with minimal success.

Allen sees the solution: "The degree to which things gnaw at our minds is usually the degree to which they are 'stuck' in some way," he says. "You get things off your mind by making progress on them."

Sounds simple, right? Obvious, even. So why aren't We doing it? Why do We continue to let Our lives spin out of control with anxiety eating away at Our creativity, productivity and quality of life? Allen indicates that "Productivity is about completion. (The) system is based on identifying all the 'incompletes' in your life - from mundane tasks to pressing responsibilities - and isolating the simplest next step to complete them."

In other words, focus on managing tasks in a methodical way.

Oooh. Sounds hard. Sounds like "discipline." Sounds confining. If you think that way, get over it. Confining is what you feel right now, trapped and overwhelmed, out of control. Here's the gist of Allen's method to give you back that control you deserve, need and must have to achieve your best:

1. Make (certain kinds of) lists.
I suggest making five lists, which together make up what I call a "Total Life To-Do List."

-- The "Projects" list tracks big-picture outcomes: Conduct performance reviews. Install new tires on the Volvo.
-- The "Next Actions" list itemizes next steps on all active projects: Read research report. Call Elizabeth about next week's meeting.
-- The "Waiting For" list records activities that depend on someone else.
-- The "Calendar" tracks time-specific appointments and day-specific actions.
-- The "Someday/Maybe" list records discretionary tasks: Go scuba diving in Fiji.

2. Don't let your inbox box you in.
An inbox is a place for capturing the chaos that comes across the transom. But that doesn't mean you should treat it as a black hole. Get to the bottom of your in-basket once a day. Take just one thing out of it at a time; don't look at the second item until you've determined an action for the first. And once you remove an item, never put it back in. [Jenius note: Your "inbox" doesn't have to be a physical object: it could be your own mind. Discipline yourself to go one item at a time and complete each item properly before moving on to the next.]

3. Remember the two-minute rule.
Any time you're confronted with an action item that will take less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately.

4. Always do a weekly review.
Take 30 minutes every Friday afternoon to review and update your lists, process loose papers and notes, and think about upcoming events.

"Getting Things Done" is the kind of investment in yourself that pays off with greater returns the more you use it. Take a look at it now. Your future will be glad you did.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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