Last week I wrote about Personal Productivity Improvement (PPI) and the fact that the methodology I’d developed assumed people were good at managing their workflow, and just needed help using the knowledge, technology and learning resources at their disposal to do so more effectively. The book Getting Things Done by David Allen convinced me (it didn’t take much) that this was a wrong assumption, and that my PPI methodology needs to include one-on-one workflow management assistance as a key component. As promised, I’ve now read the book and have started incorporating personal workflow improvement into PPI. But, just as I didn’t jump on the blogging bandwagon until I’d tried it out myself, I’m going to apply the process in Getting Things Done myself, and see how it improves my personal productivity.
So, this weekend, I’m going to suspend the current chaotic processes I use to manage my information and my time, and start using Allen’s much more disciplined process. Here’s a quick overview of that process, which is illustrated in the truly ugly chart above. Note that this synopsis won’t save you reading the book — there’s a lot in the book, especially the arguments for doing things the way he recommends, which anticipate and explain why all the alternative ways of doing things don’t work. It’s in paperback and quite cheap, and if he gets enough royalties from the book maybe he’ll put the whole thing online free so those who can’t afford it can benefit from it too.
The process has five steps:
My “set-up weekend” will pull together all of the “stuff”, the lists and documents and other information that has some bearing on things I have to do, a lot of which is clanging around in my head being constantly forgotten, and reallocating it to a place in one of the eight sets of buckets. I have lots of lists, so much of the job is already done — the challenge will be getting down (clearing my head of) the “stuff” that isn’t on any lists.
The “What is it” step on the chart above is taking the time to understand the essence of each item that comes into your “inbox” (e-mails, documents, snail mail, phone messages, chores, lifelong ambitions etc.) so that you can decide (a) the outcome that this information should ultimately lead to, and (b) the next step that you need to do to work towards that outcome. The answers to these two questions determines which bucket the item should go into. If it’s actionable (i,e. is there some action needed now), then you decide what is the next action that needs to be done. If there’s more than one action needed, it becomes a Project — you put its outcome on the Project List (bucket #1) and enumerate the other actions that will be needed in the Project Plan (bucket #2). If the next action can be done in less than two minutes, you do it immediately, and you’re finished. If the next action is most effectively done by someone else, you delegate it (send a message and track it in the Waiting For file — bucket #3). Otherwise, you defer it. If this next action must be done on a particular day (deadline) or at a particular time (appointment), it goes on the Calendar (bucket #4). Otherwise it goes into a set of Next Action ASAP files (bucket #5), organized by context (i.e. the place or situation that lends itself to that action e.g. Calls, Errands, Staff Meeting, Meeting with X, Online, At Home).
For the “stuff” that does not require any short-term next action, there are three additional buckets: Tickler File (bucket #6) for longer-term items that you’d like to do someday, Reference Files (bucket #7) for information that may be useful in the future (we’ve all got tons of that), and Trash (bucket #8) for everything else. The book goes into how to organize and index each of the seven non-trash buckets. Several of the buckets are designed to prompt you by automatically “pushing forward” next actions to the top of the bucket as they become more urgent, or if they are particularly important.
So now you have these eight buckets, not of “stuff”, but of clearly articulated next actions. The fourth step is to review the contents of each bucket, just in time, in a disciplined way. Allen suggests reviewing your calendar each morning, and the other buckets (plus any “stuff” you haven’t got around to processing, to clear your mind again) early each Friday afternoon, moving next actions between buckets as appropriate. Then whenever you have openings in your calendar, you select from the next actions based on (a) context (are you in the right place with the right tools to do this), (b) time available (be able to finish what you start), (c) energy available (right frame of mind) and (d) priority (relative importance). Then just do it.
There’s more to the book. Allen talks about dealing with the urgent/important quandary, making time for longer-term goals and projects, effective project planning, and why bright people are the worst procrastinators, among other things. He stresses that this system is not a ‘time management’ system, but an information management system and more importantly an action management system. And he talks about how using the system not only makes you more productive, but makes you feel less stressed, more creative, and better about yourself. And one of the things I like about the process is that it doesn’t make any distinction between Getting Things Done in your personal and in your professional life. Those distinctions have blurred too much to be meaningful in the 21st century. Work/life balance is about learning to do both more productively.
Allen makes good arguments for the use of fairly rudimentary and old-fashioned manual tools for constructing the buckets — file folders with labels made with a label-maker, filing cabinets etc. As I started to plan my “set-up weekend”, I realized that I’m in a somewhat unique situation: I have no paper in my “inbox”. The only hard-copy I receive is books and magazines, which I quickly prÈcis and/or blog, and file on a shelf, probably never to be touched again. On projects for customers I always get soft-copy as well as printed copies of all project materials. And I only print stuff out for friends and customers, never for myself. That may allow me to create each of the eight buckets entirely on my laptop. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but I’m motivated — I have carried everything I need for work on my laptop for twenty years, the last time I was tied to a physical “office”. I’ll let you know if this works or not. If you’ve read the book and found PC-based tools that work for you for any of the buckets please point them out (Allen’s site sells and recommends some). Now that I have Google Desktop and Picasa and can find stuff on my laptop, this has a good chance of working.
Whether or not I become more productive and feel better about myself, I think this will be a useful learning experience both for making my Personal Productivity Improvement service better, and for articulating more clearly the Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) meta-applications that I’ve been trying to talk the big software vendors into developing. Allen’s process really is an optimized PKM system that works whether you have a computer or not. Now if we could get Microsoft, IBM, Google and Yahoo to design their tools around Allen’s PKM system, instead of having to try to make PKM work with these unintuitive and awkward tools, that would be something. I’m convinced the willingness of one of these big vendors to rethink and redesign tools around intuitive processes in this way, could make them the odds-on favourite to win the battle for the desktop, and at last bring the 80% of the population on the other side of the digital divide into the fold of power computer users.