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Cleaning Up

Cleaning Up

Getting tasks done so we can have more time for all the things we want to do in our professional and personal lives can be a daunting chore. With a little information and practice, however, we can clear the clutter.

David Allen, founder and president of the David Allen Company, has spent over 25 years researching and implementing high performance methods in personal and organizational productivity. A consultant, executive coach, educator and motivational speaker, Allen has conducted numerous workshops in performance enhancement for more than 500,000 professionals. He is the author of two books: the international best selling "Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress–Free Productivity," and "Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life."

The Actuary was fortunate to catch up with Allen, who travels nearly 150 days a year. He shared some of his methods for stress-free performance, mastering the workflow and getting projects under control.

What are the first steps in getting organized?
If by "getting organized" you mean getting relaxed and in control, it actually involves five steps, only one of which is actually the specific "organizing" component. 1) Collect the work. Corral everything that has potential meaning for you. 2) Process the collected work and associated notes. What specifically do they mean in terms of your commitments about them? What can you toss? What are the actions required on what you keep? 3) Organize the results of what you've collected and processed into retrievable lists and groupings. For instance, when you're at a phone you should be able to see all the calls you need to make. 4) Keep things current-which involves a weekly review. What are your outstanding commitments and agreements? What new ones have emerged? 5) Decide what you want to do. Make a choice about how to allocate your resources, and feel comfortable about that decision.

How do you deal with priority items?
What do you mean by priority? Things that have to get done this minute, this hour, this year? You have to establish what priority means to you. Is this a have–to–read–today because I have a meeting about it tomorrow? Or is this, "Gee I'd like to read it, if I wasn't doing anything else today, because it's very interesting to me." Which?

That's why people have piles of stuff all around them and their brains are constipated. They haven't answered those questions. If something has to be done right now, do it now. If it has to be done by the end of the day, put it in a folder of things to do by the end of the day. Keep in mind though, that your priorities can change in a heartbeat–an urgent phone call, an unscheduled meeting, an unplanned project–that's why my calendar only shows things that die if I don't do them–meaning I have no other option but to do them today.

This organizational process applies to both professional and personal aspects on one's life, correct?
It applies to anything that you want to get done. When you're focused on one thing, whether it's personal or professional, you don't want anything else, whether it's personal or professional, on your mind. So, the point of this is to be fully available–whether it's on the first tee of the golf course, in the middle of an intense audit or playing with your dog. You don't want to be on the golf course thinking about your audit or in the audit playing golf in your head.

How can you focus on one thing and prevent other information from barging in?
You can't stop thoughts from invading–just don't have them invade more than once. I mean, why should you ever have the same thought twice? The only reason is you didn't deal with it the first time based upon what it meant to you. There's nothing wrong with thinking of it more than once, if you like thinking of it. But ask yourself, is it productive?

Could you explain your two–minute rule?
Well, if you're ever going to do something at all, and it takes less than two minutes, you're best to do it right then, as soon as you recognize it, because it'll take you longer to stack it, track it and look at it again, than to handle it when it's in your face.

You also said that making the right choice is a true vigilant process. How?
You need control and you need perspective to be organized. If you're out of control, there's no way you can have the appropriate perspective, and if you don't have appropriate perspective at some point, you will lose control.

In "Getting Things Done," you wrote that it takes an hour each day to process new information.
It generally takes an hour a day to process new input appropriately. Collect it, decide what it means to you and organize it. Given all the paper you receive, the input you get, the thoughts you have, the e–mails, the voice mails, the phone calls, the conversations in the hall, the meetings, it's just going to take an accumulation of at least 60 minutes of your time to think and to decide what things mean and to organize them.

What low– and high–tech solutions do you suggest to get things done?
A low tech way to manage a list of phone calls you need to make is to keep pieces of paper for each phone call in a folder labeled calls. That works really well. A mid tech way to do that would be to keep a list of calls you need to make on a page in a planner that indicates calls–to–make and keeping them there until you've made them. A high tech way would be a category of to–dos or tasks in Outlook or Lotus Notes or something similar, utilizing a digital organizing tool that says calls and you make the task and categorize it as a call and then view your categories.

People have a lot of telephone calls to make and should have a system in place for organizing those calls. For example, you make the calls you absolutely have to and you process the others and get to them sequentially.

So if you're heading out the door at the end of the day, and you didn't get to the 25 telephone calls you had to make, is it bothersome?
It's somewhat bothersome, like your light blinking on your answering machine. The trick is in how we approach what we have to get done. The biggest problem is that most people know subliminally that there are decisions they need to make about things and people don't like to have to think. But thinking is required, right? You have to think about that e–mail and what it means and how you should respond. You don't want an e–mail that is such a bear sitting in your inbox staring at you. It needs to be answered, so do it.

Attitude also has a lot to do with how we interpret all that needs to be done. If we come into work and there's 100 e-mails waiting, there are two ways to approach it–close your e-mail and choose to ignore them or think, "Wow, there's probably some helpful and interesting information in some of those!"

Believe it or not, making that decision to ignore the e–mails or plow through them is difficult for many people. That's because they haven't trained themselves to be black belts in the art of collecting, processing and organizing information rapidly as it's coming in. But we can all learn it and learn to get good at it. It's kind of like learning to drive. It's scary to get behind the wheel of a car for the first time and drive it down the street, but what a great feeling it is to have that license in hand and know you can go it alone without the help of an instructor.

When did you adopt this way of working/thinking? What was the event that caused you to develop better ways to organize and enhance your performance?
This has been a long journey for me. It took me 61 years to get where I am. Working with various workflow models, my experience as a consultant, making mistakes and coaching business professionals has helped me to discover new and improved ways of organizing. The great thing is that I keep looking for the best answer, which means experimenting with and fine-tuning processes already in place to find better ones to replace them.

Do you multi-task?
Multi–tasking is okay, but you don't have to multi–task if you can rapidly refocus. You can get better and better at that, as long as you have placeholders for calls and e–mails and projects, etc. For example, if I was in the middle of a project and someone called me about an emergent work situation, I could comfortably stop what I'm working on, take the call and do what I needed to do to rectify the situation, and then go right back to my project without skipping a beat. Learning how to deal with the unexpected and being able to refocus is a talent that you have to work on every day.

It's a very practical system when you really think about it. We need to get a lot more discreet about determining the meaning of things, have better personal systems set up, so that we have the ability to be able to park things, bookmark them, know where they are, where we left off and go back to them quickly and easily. If at the end of the day, you can say to yourself that you made appropriate decisions and that stuff has been sorted in appropriate places, well, that's quite an achievement.

The cover of your book says, "The Art of Stress Free Productivity." Are you stress free?
Pretty much. You don't ever get rid of stress. And you'd never have any growth if you didn't feel stress. The up–side is that all productivity is stress reduction. How we manage stress is directly correlated to how we manage our agreements and our commitments with ourselves. How much time do we want to spend at work? When do I carve time out for my kids? How important is your health? It's a package deal and we have to deal with the whole package in terms of organization.

Who benefits the most from your system?
That's a tough question. I will say that the people who are most interested and seem hungriest for my message are the people who are the most productive people already. A lot of my stuff is about eliminating drag on the system, both physical and mental drag. The people who are even aware of drag are people who are moving. For people who are in their comfort zone, getting rid of drag is a drag. Why should I do anything if I'm not even aware that I'm in quicksand? The people who are actually getting the most done are the people who are most interested in getting it done better, faster, easier, classier, but with much less effort.

You travel quite a bit and you still manage to get everything done?
Of course not. I have a year's list of things I've never gotten to yet. But I'm comfortable with all the stuff and that's the big key. But until you know what you're not doing, you can't feel comfortable about it. You know that old saying about the glass being half empty or half full–you're either going to feel fabulous about what you're doing and what you're not doing, or you're going to feel uneasy because you're not sure of all the stuff you should be doing and you're just being driven by the latest and loudest.