David Allan advocates allocating your limited time by managing your resources, workplace and actions. To begin, identify what you need to do well in advance of when you need to do it.
Many people today take on more projects than they can handle, David Allen argues, thereby increasing their stress. Continual change and fuzzy boundaries hamper many projects, he explains, so you may not be sure when you’ve even finished a job. This lack of borders creates added work and spurs unnecessary, frequent memos and discussions. “If it’s on your mind,” the author writes, “your mind isn’t clear.”
Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.David Allen
An author, lecturer and founder of his own management consulting, coaching, and training company, Allen has another bestseller to his credit, Ready for Anything. He is a popular speaker on personal and organizational effectiveness. He explains that to accomplish your projects effectively and efficiently, you need to reach two goals. First, capture everything you need to do, now or in the future, in a logical, organized, reliable system that records everything outside your memory, so you don’t have to think about these issues until you are ready. Second, discipline yourself to make advance decisions about how much information and instruction you need to facilitate planning what you’re doing and to change plans as necessary.
You probably have a complete calendar, Allen recognizes, but he warns that it’s not a sufficient organizing tool – it shows only a small portion of what you have to organize. Instead, he advocates a thorough, all-encompassing organizational system that combines everyday details with “big-picture thinking.”
To put yourself in the right mental state to get things done, Allen offers an attractive metaphor: imagine that you have a mind like a body of calm water. If you throw a pebble into it, the water reacts appropriately. The ripples created on the surface, he reminds you, are in proportion to the pebble’s mass and impact, and once the water has absorbed the impact, it returns to a calm, tranquil state.
How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or under react.David Allen
Allen urges you to approach tasks with this level of awareness, so you give each task appropriate attention and effort. Efficiency, he underscores, means managing your commitments appropriately, so don’t make too many promises that add to your stress. If something is unfinished, release it from your mind. Put it in a trusted collection system so you can sort the information when you’re ready. Once you decide what actions to take, set up a system of reminders and check it regularly. To test this approach, Allen suggests with signature practicality, pick the project or situation that concerns you most at the moment. Write a list of everything you need to do to move it along. This should give you a sense of control, relaxation and focus. Then tuck the list away to get it out of your mind literally and metaphorically until you’re ready to deal with it.
Managing Your Actions
Clarify each project’s action steps before you start, rather than proceeding and having to spend more time dealing with problems as they develop.
The key ingredients of relaxed control are clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly.David Allen
Allen finds that most people are so involved in day-to-day commitments that they lack the time and breathing room to focus on the big picture. The cure: get yourself up-to-date and in control of issues that concern you now, and then broaden your view. Plan and manage your commitments, projects and actions with horizontal or vertical controls. Horizontal controls coordinate your actions across your activities. Vertical controls guide your thinking through individual topics and projects, such as a sequence of tasks. With these controls, Allen insists you can get things off your mind and do them in sequence to gain control of your work and your life.
Mastering Your Workflow
Allen outlines five steps for managing the horizontal aspect of your life by putting everything into an organized system. The first step is collecting. In one of his more powerful and practical metaphors, he tells you to get everything out of your head and into a “collection” system. Pick your tools – from a physical in-tray to an electronic system – and sort things into as few buckets as possible. To empty these buckets regularly, take step two and process their contents. With each item, ask yourself “What is it?” and decide whether to deal with it now, defer it or discard it. If you are going to act now, decide whether to do it yourself or delegate it.
Then, you’re ready for step three, organizing. This might be Allen’s most basic recommendation, but it abounds in common sense and clarity: Set up an organizing system, such as putting non-actionable items in categories called “trash,” “incubation tools” or “reference storage.” Categorize your action items, perhaps with a list of projects, plans and materials, a calendar and a reminder check-list. Contain each category physically or electronically. Then, review your identified actions and options weekly and update your lists, so you feel clear, current and complete. The culminating step is to decide what you are actually going to do. Check four criteria: your context (location and tools), time, energy (physical and mental), and priorities. With those factors aligned, Allen assures you, you can decide which action matters most to do now.
Natural Project Planning
Allen then walks you through the vertical component of productivity. He lays out five more steps (he’s a list guy) that, he believes, reflect how people unconsciously think and plan relatively easy tasks. He understands that not many people follow these steps when consciously planning a project. Thus, Allen concludes, informal, “natural planning” often garners better results. It reflects the real thought process people use to address daily tasks, like getting dressed.
The real issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real issue is how we manage actions.David Allen
Begin by “defining your purpose and principles.” Determine what methods work for you, align your resources and motivate yourself to act. Then focus so you can generate ideas and set goals. Brainstorm with tools that help you visualize and grapple with your options, such as mind mapping or listing ideas to analyze later. Don’t judge or criticize; emphasize quantity not quality. His next two steps are entirely logical. Organize the pieces you need for each project and sort them into their components, processes or priorities. Finally, note your follow-up actions and jobs you’re waiting for others to complete.
Allen encourages you to put his basic principles into practice by carving out the time, space and tools you need. Create a block of time and prepare a workstation with the necessary space, furniture and gear. Allen treats his readers a bit like schoolchildren as he details the necessary tools and supplies. Gather and organize your stuff and tidy your cubbies. Keep a running list of projects to start, projects underway, commitments, budgets, pending communications, seminars to attend, and so forth. Put loose items in your inbox, and work through it until it’s empty. Discard anything you don’t need, complete quick actions, delegate, add ticklers to your system and consolidate larger projects. Allen reiterates his thesis: now that you’re organized, you have the clarity to know what to do next.
Sound Ideas, Somewhat Obscured
David Allen can get in his own way, and this can obscure his worthy, practical advice. His observations about stress, productivity and how the mind works complicate his useful time- and task-management techniques. The popularity of this manual and it’s 2015 update probably owes a lot to people’s stress levels. However, his method has genuine, wide-ranging value. He argues for using common sense and dealing with physical and mental clutter through a series of do-able deeds. As Allen recognizes, the discipline of adhering to his methods can add greatly to your efficiency – and your peace of mind.