This week, Life Training Online will be reviewing Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen, the third of fifty-two books in the 52 Personal Development Books in 52 Weeks series.

This is where we get to put Allen’s principles to the pavement and discover if they truly have some merit for our lives. In this the second part of his book, Allen disects in detail exactly how you go about implementing these concepts. So without skipping a beat, let’s dive in:

Getting Started: Setting up the Time, Space and Tools

First of all, if you think you can grab a mocca latte and curl up next to Fido while scanning through this chapter, you’re sorely mistaken. Allen stresses that this chapter — as well as the entire second part of his book — requires action. In fact, he suggests doing these exercises on a weekend where you can dedicate an entire two days, back-to-back, to get started.

The first thing you’ll need, in order to create an effective personal management system, is a proper working area. Preferably, one that you can call your own. This doesn’t have to be super fancy, just make sure that you have a writing surface as well as room for an in-box.

The next step is having the right tools. Without the right tools, you’ll perform like a hair stylist with hedge-clippers — doing some serious work without providing any benefit (unless of course, you’re going after that Edward-Scissorhands look ;) ). This includes some typical processing tools such as: paper-holding trays, plain paper, post-its, paper clips, a stapler, a labeler that is yours and yours alone, letter size file folders (nothing special — the manilla ones will do), a calendar, wastebasket/recycling bins, and possibly an organizer to “manage your triggers externally” (such as a planner or a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)).

Lastly, setup a good general-reference filing system. This is key to the success of a personal management system. For successful filing, use these tips: keep files at hand’s reach, use one A to Z alphabetical filing system, have lots of fresh folders, keep the drawers less than three-quarters full, label folders with an auto labeler, buy high-quality file cabinets, get rid of hanging files if you can, and purge your files at least once a year.

Collection: Corralling Your “Stuff”

After you’ve properly set up your working environment and you’re feeling pretty comfortable, don’t think it’s time to sit down, because the real work is about to happen! This chapter will help you get all your incompletes, all that “stuff” you have all over the place and bring it into your “in-box” where you will process it (covered in the next chapter). Allen says that this initial collection period usually takes from 1 to 6 hours!

There are three reasons Allen has you collect everything in one fell swoop before you can start processing it:

  1. It helps to know just how much stuff you’re dealing with
  2. You know where “the end of the tunnel” is
  3. You won’t be able to process as effectively with the distraction of knowing there is still more stuff to gather

So what are you supposed to collect? Everything but the kitchen sink? Not quite, but you’re not too far off either. Allen says you should gather pretty much everything except for supplies (stationary, staples, paper clips…), reference materials (manuals, take-out menus, dictionaries…), decoration (pictures, artwork, plants etc.), and equipment (computer, fax, printer…). This includes all the crap you’ve been gathering on your desktop and countertops, in your drawers and cabinets and so on. No doubt you’ll have some things that are too large to go in some in-basket. No problem, just make a note on a piece of paper about what it is and stick that in your in-basket. That piece of paper will represent the item.

You also need to do some mental gathering or what Allen refers to as the “mind-sweep”. This is where you take out a stack of paper and for each thought, idea, project or thing that has been hanging out in your “psychic RAM”, you write it out on its own sheet and place it in your in-box.

Now that you’ve got all the stuff in “in” you now will work on getting “in” to empty.

Processing: Getting “In” to Empty”

The processing stage doesn’t necessarily mean completing all the actions on each item that is in “in”; it means figuring out what to do with each item in the “in-box”. At the end of this stage, all of these items will be either trashed, completed (if it takes less than two minutes to do), delegated, identified as a multi-step project, or deferred (recorded in your organizer as a reminder of an action that takes longer than two minutes).

As you go through this processing stage, there are a few rules that need to be followed: First, process the top item first. Second, process each item one at a time. And third, never put anything back into “in”.

As each item is “processed”, your main question should be, “what’s the next action?” If none, the item is trashed, incubated to a “Someday/Maybe” list or “tickler” file, or put in reference material. If there is an action, make it specific. Then do it (if it takes less than two minutes), delegate it (and add it to the “Waiting For” list) or defer it.

Organizing: Setting Up the Right Buckets

Now that you’re done processing, you’ll need a way to organize all those outputs. For this, Allen lists the seven key areas to place your processed items: A “Projects” list, project support material, calandared actions and information, “Next Actions” lists, a “Waiting For” list, reference material, and a “Someday/Maybe list.

Calandared items are those that must be done on a certain day and/or particular time. “Next Actions” should be organized by context — such as, while running errands, calls to be made, at the office, while at home, etc. — and can be done as soon as you get to them, working around your other calendared items. Your “Waiting For” list includes all the items that you have delegate out for which you are waiting on someone else to finish.

The “Projects” list provides a one-stop location where you can review all your open projects. This doesn’t contain any plans or details about the projects themselves, nor does it list any actions associated with the projects. Instead, it is to be reviewed at least weekly so you can extract needed action steps to put in you “Next Actions” list. You continue doing this until the project is completed whereupon you can delete it from this list.

Allen goes on to explain that it is just as important to organize nonactionable items — which includes reference materials and “Someday/Maybe” lists — as it is to manage action and project reminders. Your general reference items are those included in general-reference file folders, rolodexes, libraries, and archives.

If you have items that are not quite ready for action, you can keep them on “Someday/Maybe” lists, trigger them on you calendar or placed in a Tickler File, for later review.

Reviewing: Keeping Your System Functional

In order for you to maintain an effective personal management solution, you’ll need to trust it. This trust is generated when your system is kept up-to-date and reviewed often. Allen suggests that your most frequent review will be your daily calendar and tickler folder. After these, you then move on to the “Next Actions” list.

The real magic that sustains this system is found in the Weekly Review. Every week you go through the five stages of workflow management – collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing (this step), and doing. This will allow you to reevaluate and reprocess those things that you have on your plate, keeping you in balance with your overall purpose. It also sharpens your focus on your important projects as you deal with the flood of incoming tasks and potential distractions.

Doing: Making the Best Action Choices

When your faced with multiple choices of things to do, how do you choose what to do next? In this chapter, Allen focuses on three models that help in making the right choices given our current circumstances (beyond his simple answer of trusting your intuition). Here’s two of them:

The Four Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment uses the criteria of context, time available, energy available, and priority. Based on where you are or how much time or energy you have or what kind of priority that task is, should help you decide what the next best action is.

The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work is related to altitude and is used to get ever increasing levels of perspective on the task:

  • 50,000 + feet: Life
  • 40,000 feet: Three to five-year visions
  • 30,000 feet: One to two-year goals
  • 20,000 feet: Your areas of responsibility
  • 10,000 feet: Your current projects
  • Runway: Your current actions

Starting with a bottom up approach, you begin with the task and ask yourself, as you move ever higher up the altitude, how does this task fit in with my overall project? Then moving up, how does this project fit in my overall area of responsibility? And so on, until you reach your overall life.

Getting Projects Under Control

In the final chapter of the second part of Allen’s book, he explains how to begin organizing and managing the list of projects that you’ve collected.

Instead of using some of the more formal project-planning tools such as a GANTT chart, Allen favors a more informal approach and tools to capture creative and proactive thinking.

For projects that require more planning beyond the next actions that you’ve determined for it, Allen suggests brainstorming and informal meetings as excellent methods for ferreting out additional tasks and requirements.

For the other type of projects where ideas just pop into your head at random places (such as writing a fiction novel) you’ll need tools that support the capturing of those ideas. Carrying around a small notebook, PDA, or even a digital voice recorder is an excellent habit to have if you want to make full use of those “One Million-Dollar Ideas”.

Getting Things Done is the third of fifty-two books in Life Training – Online’s series 52 Personal Development Books in 52 Weeks.

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