Reducing stress caused by information overload is both a science and art.
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a simple, flexible method for managing day-to-day tasks or activities, with the purpose to maximize personal productivity. The intended result is increased capability to maintain a high workflow in a relaxed manner. The main principle is to recognize what is pulling on your mental attention and get into a trusted external memory (file system), so that you can stay focused on what you actually have to do now, rather than on various ideas, plans and commitments that are later. To achieve this, GTD provides a compilation of tips and tools, organized around a central flowchart.
Conventionally, organized people use calendars, to-do lists, note-taking devices, and other tools. What GTD adds is a method or practice for using those tools systematically together. Allen distinguishes five basic phases in our work: We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do with them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do.
The wisdom of GTD identifies three choices of doing different things when you work:
- Pre-defined work is what you would be doing all day if you received no new input or interruptions of any sort
- Ad hoc work (as it appears) at some level defines and requires our total focus beyond the pre-defined work.
- Defining your work is processing and emptying your in-basket, your email, your meeting notes, etc.—assessing the new inputs and making decisions about what needs to be done about them
Allen in GTD recommends,
The key is how efficiently and effectively you know how to process new stuff, and how functional your system is for maintaining and reviewing your inventory of commitments. Then you accept and manage the input processing as a critical component, you review the whole game frequently enough to know (in your gut) how to evaluate the surprises and unexpected work, and you have a sufficiently functional system for capturing and managing all the various rivers and streams of this complex environment, to feel at least OK about what you’re not doing.
In terms of projects, most (about 80%) can be done in your head; about 15% might require a little external brainstorming, etc.; and about 5% may need the deliberate application of one or more clarity—a shifting up towards purpose. Allen proposes a “vertical control”, what he calls the “Natural Planning Model,” a model of creatively planning things in our daily lives.
- Purpose and Principles—Purpose asks the “why?” question. Defines success, creates decision-making criteria, aligns resources, motivates, clarifies focus, and expands options. Principles are the standards and values that define the criteria for excellence in behavior and parameters for action.
- Vision and Outcome—The “what?” question. Having clarity and focus about your vision and outcomes helps your brain’s reticular activating system (RAS) to start making you aware of how it can happen. The RAS is the part of your brain that is responsible for self-fulfilling prophecies, as well as the effect where once you become aware of something you start seeing it everywhere.
- Brainstorming—Can be done internally or externally (mind-mapping, white boards, etc.) but external helps you to see everything without having to remember it all. Keys to good brainstorming: don’t judge, challenge, evaluate, or criticize; go for quantity, not quality; and put analysis and organization in the background.
- Organizing—Identify major pieces and sort by one or more: components, sequences, priorities. And do detail only to the degree necessary to determine next actions.
- Next Actions—All actions that can be taken now should be identified; dependent ones can wait until the steps they depend on have been completed. If you have trouble with this step check that you’ve spent enough time on previous steps to be clear, and that you’re truly committed to the project in general (as opposed to it being a “Someday/Maybe” project).
Source: David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Books, 2003.