Tag Archives: David Allen

Here’s Our Assignment for the last days of 2010 – Unclutter! (with insight from David Allen)

(yes, I am writing this for me to follow!)

Here’s the problem. The New Year is about to arrive.  We are all buried in unfinished work, and cluttered space in our minds, on our desks, and in our cars and houses, from 2010.

Here’s the solution: spend as much time as possible uncluttering this week.  Our goal:  a cleared mind, and cleared spaces, to begin 2011 with a “fresh” slate, a cleared mind, and really clean and uncluttered spaces.

Elton Trueblood, who wrote 33 books in 33 years, used to say that you ruin a day the night before.  Well, maybe we ruin a year the year before.  What if we could all begin 2011 in a really fresh, clean, uncluttered way?

Let’s start with some reminders from David Allen’s modern classic, Getting Things Done.

Almost everyone I encounter these days feels he or she has too much to handle and not enough time to get it all done.

What if you could dedicate fully 100 percent of your attention to whatever was at hand, at your own choosing, with no distraction?

Stuff:  anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven‘t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.

We all seem to be starved for a win.  It’s great to satisfy that by giving yourself doable tasks you can start and finish easily.

Here is some imagery he presents in the book: We should strive to work with The “Ready State” of the Martial Artista “mind like water”/ “in the zone”/effortless success…

Clutter defeats this, and defeats us, at every turn.  If we are “buried” in clutter, in our thoughts, in our spaces, then we simply find it hard to be productive.

So, for the next three days, what do we — what do you — need to unclutter?  Your desk?  Your inbox?  Your flat spaces in your bedroom.  Your car?

But, what about all that unfinished work – all those unfinished projects?, you ask.  Well, we at least need to find a “place” to put all of our tasks, our next action steps, out of sight, but easily and quickly retrievable.  In other words, we need to implement the strategy that David Allen made famous in Getting Things Done.  Again from Allen:

Next Step (Next Action): the very next physical action required to move a situation forward!

So, let’s get to it.  It might very well be that the most important thing we can do for a truly productive 2011 is to unclutter in these last days of 2010.


If you have already read Getting Things Done, pull it off your shelf and take a look at your own underlinings and highlights.  If you have not, here ‘s a quick way to get the key themes:  purchase my synopsis of the book, with audio + handout, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

The Jury Is In – We Are, Nearly All, World-Class Time Wasters!

I don’t manage my time well enough.  Do you?

The answer, almost certainly, is “no.” Not many of us do. Spock did – and, I suspect David Allen does. And Peyton Manning. But most of us are mere mortals, and we are: off focused, easily distracted, lazy, following the wrong priorities, following no priorities… We are, to put it simply, world-class time wasting human beings. That’s why the time management section has so many best sellers. It’s kind of like the “diet” section. The reason there are so many best-sellers is that there are so many of us who have so little control. (By the way, as close as I can tell, there is only one way to lose weight – take in fewer calories than you burn – over the long haul! And that is really, really, really hard).

Bob Morris has already reviewed the newest book in the field, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. (Read his review here).

This morning, Slate.com has a terrific article about this book/this problem: A Time-Management Book Changed My Life! (Again.) — A review of Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by KJ Dell’Antonia. But it’s not a “review.” It’s a confessional – for all of us. It is filled with honest, revealing paragraphs. Like these:

Did I, with Vanderkam’s help, come up with a radical new way of thinking about time?
Not even close. What’s remarkable about my experience with 168 Hours isn’t that I gained an extra two hours—it’s that I gained them by following essentially the same advice I could have found in any of the other dozen books in my stack. Every one starts with measurement: The 25 Best Time-Management Tools and Techniques demands that you “Find Out What Time Means to You!” by tracking what you’re doing every five minutes for a week. Sarah Susanka gently encourages seekers of The Not-So-Big Life to “understand our relationship with time” through the use of a multipage time-usage questionnaire. The advice that follows, too, is the same: Eliminate the waste and cease the frittering. “Get rid of non-core-competency work,” says Vanderkam; “Prioritize the important over the urgent,” Time Management for Creative People tells me. Make a list of the things you should do, and the things you have to do, James T. McCay told the Greatest Generation in The Management of Time, published 50 years ago. Now take the list of things you “should do” and throw it away.

Time management is like an American form of Buddhism: a complete and graceful ability to do everything you want to do in precisely the time you’ve been given is our nirvana. Seekers (like me) are happy to read and apply the same advice again and again, because a systematic approach makes that feeling of having as much time as you need seem within reach. “Numbers,” said Gary Wolf, writing about the urge to track our lives for the New York Times Magazine, “make problems less resonant emotionally but more tractable intellectually.” And that’s the sucker punch of the time-management approach: It turns the question of “not having enough time” into a math problem, and allows the real issue to slip under the radar.

And the article ends with this:

The call of 168 Hours is the call of the brief spiritual check-in. “Are we putting enough of ourselves into the stuff that’s most important?” is a question everybody asks once in a while. Some people ask it in church, some in post-yoga Savasana. Millions of Type-A Americans, list-makers and time-trackers all, cloak it in the guise of making the most of our time. But the real issue is the same for everybody: We’re here, and then we’re not. Whatever comes in between those clauses takes more than a little time to figure out.

I have taught time management. I have read so many books. The article lists all of these: 25 Best Time Management Tools and Techniques; The Not-So-Big-Life; Addicted to Stress; Getting Things Done; Never Be Late Again; Managing Life With Kids; The Four-Hour Workweek; Time Management for the Creative Person – and left off the classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein.

I have tried the ideas, implemented the steps – and I still have not come close to mastering this challenge.

If you manage your time really well, you don’t need this book.  And I envy you.  If you don’t manage your time well, this book is probably a great new book to read.

But actually doing it – well, good luck!

The time management problem – for must of us, it is the ultimate knowing-doing gap.

OK, let’s try this again – the secret to time management & mastery is execution – (reflections on why we have so much trouble actually getting things {getting every thing} done)

Getting Things Done – the Unending Quest

Almost everyone I encounter these days feels he or she has too much to handle and not enough time to get it all done.
David Allen, Getting Things Done:  The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I was talking to a man this week who supervises eight other people.  He is responsible for a chunk of geography within a large plant.  He has to keep the people, and the plant itself (at least his corner of it) working well, he has to step up and do triage on all of those crises that pop up EVERYDAY!, and he is always behind.  Always!

So, after quite a lengthy conversation, I finally grasped this:  he has “started” with a very, usable, practical, workable system time and again, but he simply does not stick with his workable system.  So – he then tries another “workable system,” and that doesn’t work either.  So, starts and stops, time and again, and the work still piles up and he still does not get everything done.

Sound like anyone you know?

The issue is simple — we have an “execution” problem when it comes to time management & mastery.  Knowing a system to use is a good first step.  But executing, actually using that system effectively, is really the whole ball game.

You know how the interview goes:

interviewer:  “Why did you not get everything done?”
interviewee:  “Well, we had a great plan — we failed to execute.”

And to make matters worse, so much of our work is “undefined/mushy.”  Allen again, from his book:

In the old days, you knew what work had to be done – you could see it.  It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished.  Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects.  Most people I know have at least half a dozen things they’re trying to achieve right now, and even if they had the rest of their lives to try, they wouldn’t be able to finish these to perfection.

As we talked, I made a simple suggestion.  Will he follow it, I don’t know.  But I know enough to know that if you don’t do this, you will never get on top of things.

Here’s the suggestion:  make a daily appointment with yourself – for the purpose of working, and staying on top of, your system.  (This phrase, “make an appointment with yourself,” is a phrase I heard David Allen say years before he wrote Getting Things Done).    In other words, you have to actually make time to work your system.  A great system left “unworked” is not as good as a mediocre system faithfully worked.

So – if you want to stay on top of things, then carve out that daily meeting with yourself, to work your system.


You can purchase my synopsis of Getting Things Done, with handout + audio, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

A great idea prompted by David Allen’s Getting Things Done

There is one line/one concept that jumps out at you from the seminal book Getting Things Done by David Allen.  It is this:

The highest performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives.

A trick is a little thing that you actually do to remind you what you have to do to get something done.  You know, like putting everything in your briefcase that you need the next day, and then you put the briefcase in front of the door before you go to sleep.

Well, years ago, I was told of just such a trick.  I really don’t remember where I heard it.  (I have a vague memory that I heard it at a time management seminar put on by Time Design.  But I could be wrong).  I told this trick at a recent Take Your Brain to Lunch, where I presented my synopsis of Getting Things Done.  Doug Caldwell has excerpted that portion of the presentation into a brief video.  (Thanks Doug).  It involves a piece of paper, and the names of the four people you most often interact with.  I think it is worth a few minutes of your time.  Take a look.

The Attack of the Killer Stuff — David Allen’s Getting Things Done Suggests a Solution

This is not an appeal re. Apple’s Mac – although I admit that I am an unabashed Apple man.  It is a simple observation about our lives.  We are overwhelmed with too much stuff.

Anne's Stuff is moving to Mac

Anne's taking her stuff back to move it to a Mac

You’ve seen the new Mac commercials.  In one, a woman has her box of stuff, and she is taking the launch of the new Windows version as her opportunity to switch to Mac.  So – she is making the switch, and moving all of her stuff to Mac.

It’s the stuff that grabbed me.  My life is filled with stuff.  There’s stuff in the trunk of my car.  There’s stuff all over my office.  There’s stuff in my closet.  And in my bedroom.  And in my storage space.  And even more stuff in my garage.  Some of this stuff I have not looked at in years.  Some of this stuff I definitely do not need.  And sometimes, there is stuff I do need – but I can’t find it.

At the Take Your Brain to Lunch gathering this week, the second book I presented was David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  I know that I mention his GTD approach frequently on this blog.  (Check out this post:  The Getting Things Done President, and the need to just sit and think…).  And with good reason — this is one of my great challenges.  I have spent a lifetime battling the attack of the killer stuff.  Allen has created quite a following because he points to genuine solutions to the time management/life management challenges of our era.

We don’t get enough done.  We don’t get enough done because we don’t remember, we don’t retrieve our notes to ourselves in a timely manner, we try to remember too much, and we simply let too much fall though the cracks.  His premise is simple – work on only one thing at a time, with great and unflinching focus, and have the next “next action” immediately retrievable in your reminder/to do/next action prompt system.

But it all goes back to “stuff.” And the real stuff problem is not all that stuff stacked and hidden in the nooks and crannies of our physical world.  It is the stuff cluttering our minds, uncategorized, forgotten, and we are unable at key times to remember or retrieve the stuff in our minds, the stuff we need to get done.

Here is Allen’s definition of stuff:
Stuff:  anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven‘t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.  As long as it is still “stuff,” it’s not controllable.  It is “an amorphous blob of undoability!”
The vast majority of people have been trying to get organized by rearranging incomplete lists of unclear things; they haven’t yet realized how much and what they need to organize in order to get the real payoff.

Getting Things DoneGetting Things Done challenges us to really get our stuff off of our mind, and put it in a spot that enables us to know exactly how to retrieve it.

Here’s his two step process:
Step one: Capture everything that you need to get done, now later, someday, big, little, in-between – into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind!
Step two: Discipline yourself to make front-end decisions about all the “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a plan for “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment.

In fact, Allen says that until we implement such a system to handle our stuff, we really won’t get things done as we could and should.

The Checklist – from medicine to Sully and the Hudson River, the ultimate GTD tool

checklistHere’s a question:  do you have a checklist?  It sounds so simple, but it is so profound in its simplicity.  We forget what to do.  And because we forget what to do, we don’t get it (all) done.  We need a checklist.

The idea is vigorously championed by Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Rhodes Scholar, Macarthur fellow, (the Genius Grant) medical writer extraordinaire, and Harvard Professor.  In his article in the New Yorker, The Checklist, Gawande describes in detail the many places and procedures that have gone from dismal failures to amazing successes just by following a checklist.  Here’s a paragraph describing the cardiac unit at a hospital surrounded by the Alps, where people come in “from cardiac arrest after hypothermia and suffocation:

Speed was the chief difficulty. Success required having an array of equipment and people at the ready—helicopter-rescue personnel, trauma surgeons, an experienced cardiac anesthesiologist and surgeon, bioengineering support staff, operating and critical-care nurses, intensivists. Too often, someone or something was missing. So he and a couple of colleagues made and distributed a checklist.”

The checklist meant that people literally were able to live – people with similar injuries that killed the many that came before.  And the reason was clear – the emergency workers were too busy to remember everything they needed to do.  They needed a usable, tangible reminder:  a checklist.

Recently at the New Yorker Festival, Gawande (he writes for the New Yorker) spoke of this, and reminded everyone that the hero of the year, Chesley Sullenberger, is a true believer and a faithful follower of the checklist approach.  (Read the post Captain of the Checklist).  Here’s the key excerpt:

To illustrate, (Gawande) discussed the way in which the media had rapidly mythologized the pilot Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a commercial plane in the Hudson River. “There became questions of who exactly was the hero here,” Gawande said. “Sully kept saying, ‘I want to correct the record. This was a crew effort.’ ”
In saving the plane, Sullenberger and his co-pilot showed daring, but they also methodically went down a list to ascertain their options, and chose the next step until they landed safely. “They adhered to their rigid discipline—they went through their series of checks.”

Did you catch that brilliant simplicity?

• went down a list
• chose the next step

I think that all of the time management insight on the planet boils down to this three step process:

1)  plan the next thing well (so that you always know the next thing to do)
2)  put it on the list
3)  and then do the next thing on the list.

Then — repeat the process…