15-21 Story 1: Getting Things Done: Hints on how to do it better

 

Synopsis:  Does it ever seem like the more you try to get stuff done, the less you accomplish? It may be that you’re expending too much energy on doing and not enough planning ahead of time.  We talk to two experts in the field about some simple strategies you can use to make more of the time you have to get things done.

Host:  Gary Price.  Guests:  David Allen, productivity consultant and author of Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity; Steve McClatchy, founder of Alleer Training and Consulting, author of Decide: Work smarter, reduce your stress and lead by example.

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Getting Things Done

Gary Price: How many times have you said to yourself, “I just can’t get stuff done”? It’s a common problem in our fast-paced lives with so many distractions to take us away from the task at hand. At work and at home, there’s just too much of a demand on our time and not enough hours in the day to do all of the big and little tasks that have to be done, not to mention the fun things we want to do. We talked to two experts on the topic and found a few ways to think about and structure activities so you can do what needs to be done without all the stress of being overwhelmed. David Allen is a productivity consultant and author of the best-selling book, “Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity.” He says that in order to get things done, we have to first decide what “done” means…

David Allen: In other words what’s the outcome you’re committed to, and what’s the very next physical, visible activity that needs to go on in order to get there? And, believe it or not, most people avoid those two decisions like the plague. When things show up they don’t show up in nice, pretty packages like that. In other words, when you open that email, it’s not saying, “Well, gee, now that you’ve opened this email here’s the outcome you’re now committed to finish and here’s the next action you need to take to get from here to there. You have to do that. So making those kinds of executive decisions, “what does this mean? What does this mean to me?” that’s the biggest reason I see that people aren’t getting things done is because they haven’t defined what “done” means and what “doing” looks like, and where it happens. They’ve just got this stuff pulling on their psyche, but they don’t sit down and actually unpack it on that level of both granularity as well as specificity.

Price:   There are the “to-do lists,” but Allen says that there’s usually no specific action involved. What does “mom” mean on a list? Or “cat food”? One of the keys is to capture and clarify what it is that you need to accomplish…

Allen: It’s pretty simple. You know, something pops into your head, “Oh, I need cat food.” Write it down, unless you’re going to buy cat food that very second. All right, so get it out of your head. So that’s the capture piece, basically write down anything that’s got your attention and make a note about it. And then the clarify step is decide, okay what exactly am I committed to finish about that, if anything. Is there a project here I need to identify? And, if so, what’s the project? Oh, I need to give mom a birthday party. Okay, fine. Then put that on a project list. And then what’s the very next action on mom’s birthday? Oh, you know, I ought to call my sister and see what she thinks about that. Great. So “call sis.” If you don’t call your sister right then, then that needs to be parked somewhere that, when you get to a phone, you’ll see that as a reminder of something that you can do then. So that’s the capture and clarify. And the organize step is just park those things in places that you’ll see at the right time.

Price: Organizing what needs to be done is also important. Allen says that things fall into two groups: projects and single actions…

Allen:   Project, have a very broad definition, as anything that’s going to take more than one step. One step is not going to finish whatever your commitment is about this. So that can include a lot of things: get tires on your car, hire an assistant, your son’s birthday party, your next holiday. All those are what I would call a “project” because one action is not going to finish them. And the reason for that broad definition is, if you take an action towards something buy you haven’t got some reminder that there’s still something incomplete here, then the stuff crawls back up in your head. So you need to make sure you’ve identified sort of your “finish lines” of all of these things. So defining a project…and a lot of things are not necessarily a project….I need to go pick my dad up at the airport. I mean there’s more than one step, but that’s not something you need to probably be reminded about on a weekly basis, about how you’re doing about that. So anything you can finish in one sitting pretty much I would just call a single action.

Price: Even the best-laid plans are subject to interruptions. How do you deal with the ad hoc things that pop up while you’re busy getting your projects done?

Allen:   The ideal is to have as small a backlog of unprocessed stuff as possible. If you’ve got 3,000 emails with all kinds of hidden things embedded in them, that you know you need to deal with, anything feels bad as new input that comes in, especially that’s unplanned. If you’re “in basket” is zeroed out, as mine is fairly regularly, then when new stuff comes in you can evaluate that against all the other options and possibilities. You can either do it because it’s more important than any of the rest, which means that’s just smart. Or you can not do it right then because there are more important things to do at this point, but you then keep a placeholder of that so you don’t have to feel bad about that. Actually, there are no interruptions, there’s only mismanaged input.

Price:   Allen says that using those three processes – capturing, clarifying and organizing – can reduce the stress of thinking about all of the things you have to do. He also says that there’s just so much energy your brain can invest in making decisions, that you need to choose the best times to tackle the really important things…

Allen: A lot of the cognitive science research in the last few years has validated the fact that your brain can actually get tired making decisions – the whole idea of “decision fatigue.” There is the forebrain is actually the part of the brain that if you’re using that a lot, it needs rest. You need to be able to stop and relax. Part of the methodology and one of the cool things about the “Getting Things Done” methodology is when you have an inventory of all of the stuff you might need to do, a lot those do not require the same kind of cognitive horsepower as many of the others. Even if you’re not feeling really well, or you’re energy is, you know, down, or you’re tired or you’re just resting and relaxing, there are probably a lot of things that you could still be productive about, but you need to map and match whatever you’re trying to do with the kind of energy you’re throwing at it.

Price:   Brainpower also figures prominently in Steve McClatchy’s process for accomplishing things. McClatchy is the founder of Alleer Training and Consulting and author of the book, “Decide: Work smarter, reduce your stress and lead by example.” He says that there are two types of activities we need to get done: maintenance and improvement. Maintenance things are the everyday activities of living, such as buying milk. You don’t have to do it right now, but it still needs to be done to prevent pain later. Improvement tasks are those things that will move your life forward, like finding a better job. The key is to balance the two, but McClatchy says it’s not always easy to do.

Steve McClatchy: When improvement and maintenance are next to each other, your brain gives a higher priority to the maintenance item every time. Why? Maintenance items represent survival to your brain. The number one priority of your brain when it’s making decisions is survival. And we don’t appreciate survival anymore. I mean, we’re in artificially temperatured rooms, with artificial lighting, and we don’t think about a cheetah. We don’t get to work and arrive at work in our car and think about a cheetah. But for 6 million years of evolution our brain can’t stop thinking about that cheetah. Your brain is ten times more sensitive to a survival path than it is joy, happiness and satisfaction. So the key is how do we do both? I mean if we can get both each day, that would be the goal.

Price    So how do we balance those improvement and maintenance items? McClatchy says there are two tools: the to-do list and the calendar…

McClatchy: We treat things on the calendar significantly different than the way we treat things on a to-do list, without even thinking about it. So if I said to you, “hey, let’s get together Monday night,” what’s the first thing you would check?

Price: Most of us would check to see if we were free at that time…

McClatchy: That’s huge. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but you’re going to check something before you make a decision. Checking before. Think about that activity throughout your entire life. Well let me check something before I make a decision about this. Whatever you’re checking is going to significantly influence the decision you’re about to make. See a to-do list you don’t check. A to-do list is for adding to after the decision is made. So if I was sharing with you this great article I just read, and you said “Hey, Steve, can you send me that article when you get a chance?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll shoot it right over.” I just made a decision, I didn’t check anything. I added to my list after I make the decision. But for a calendar, you’re going to check it before. So now you go to check it and you say, “Oh, I can’t do Monday night. I can do Tuesday or Wednesday.” Now look at the priority you just gave what you put on Monday night. You scheduled something for Monday night, then, when it came under attack, you defended it.

Price    Because we have commitments on our calendars that we don’t like to change, McClatchy says we’ll fall behind on some of the maintenance items, but that’s okay. It’s a way to prioritize what we do so we can balance the improvements with the more mundane things. And if you get a bit too far behind on the things that others can do as well or better than you can…delegate…

McClatchy: There’s a big difference between “delegation” and “dumping.” And a lot of people get hung up with delegation because they view it as dumping. Dumping is I’m giving you to do something that I would never do myself. Delegation is while you’re doing this, I’ll do this. And we take advantage of the opportunity cost of that time. It’s the reason you’re paying somebody else to mow your lawn. Because you’re going to work on master something with that time. If you’re going to, as a company, delegate your website to another company, and with that time you’re going to get better and faster at what you do, delegate.

Price:   Then there’s the problem of procrastination whenever you’re facing a task that you’re not crazy about doing. McClatchy says that it’s not always bad and, in fact, can get you fired up to get stuff done…

McClatchy: All of a sudden, we get to the point of where if we don’t do it, we don’t take out the trash right now, we’re about to deal with the consequences, the pain, of not doing it. And all of a sudden we look at not doing as actually more work at this point than doing it. And what happens? We get scared. Now we get scared and adrenalin releases, so fear releases adrenalin, adrenalin contains pain killers, and pain killers are where all the energy comes from to do a task we didn’t like.

Price:   He says it’s the brain’s way of doing things it doesn’t like to do, and eventually your body creates the energy to get going. McClatchy says there’s also another benefit to putting things off…

McClatchy: You stay focused. I mean, if you’ve left only an hour to do it, and your phone rings? Well, you don’t take the call. And now this thing you don’t like is only in your life for one hour, not an hour and a half, so it does keep us focused, and it keeps things we don’t like in our life for less time. So that’s another benefit. Another benefit of it is, when you have something big that you’re procrastinating on, like a big project, well now all of a sudden your expense report is not that big a deal. So sometimes it gives perspective to the little things that bother us, and we run around doing little things with energy, knowing we’re really procrastinating this big thing, and that’s a benefit, ‘cause you didn’t want to do those little things either.

Price:   Although adrenalin is great for getting the smaller things done, McClatchy says it doesn’t work well when you have to tackle big goals…

McClatchy: You can’t use procrastination to learn the piano, because you could probably put that off forever, because it doesn’t have a deadline. So in order to work on any goal you desire in life, you’re going to need a different energy source and that’s endorphins. The hardest part about learning a new language, getting an MBA, writing a book, running a marathon, is getting started. Once that sense of accomplishment, “Hey, I did something! Nobody else made me do it. I made a decision today that I made alone. And no one would have brought it to my attention if I didn’t do it.” They’re the tasks and activities and choices we get the most energy from. And when that chemical, endorphin, gets in your body, they call it the happiness chemical, now you see everything from a different perspective. You can use endorphins and adrenalin to do maintenance tasks, but you can’t use adrenalin for your goals. It has to be endorphins. And understanding that says “I need to get started.” And what is our way to get started? The calendar. We schedule it, we defend it, it has a deadline, it comes under attack, we defend it, and then we fall behind on maintenance while we work on it. And if we really improve our lives, it gives us energy to go back and do all the maintenance items that we’ve been falling behind on.

Price:   McClatchy says that the people he’s taught say that learning to accomplish goal has also helped in their home lives and has strengthened relationships with loved-ones and friends. Allen says getting started with your project is the hard part. He says it’s very important to write tasks down – both big and little – to get them out of your head so you can focus. And with his system, you can start anywhere…

Allen:   The book is written such that if you actually wanted to walk yourself through the process, Part 2 of the book actually is the coaching process. It’s a blow-by-blow. If you hired me to sit desk-side with you and walk you through the implementation of the process, I actually wrote that in the book, so if you wanted to follow directions it’s in there. And you can just skip around, you know, pick one or two things. This is not running with scissors, nothing in there would hurt, if you did it. Heck, if you just kept a pad and pen by your bed, if you don’t already, you’ll sleep better. So you don’t have to implement a whole lot of this to get a lot of value out of it.

Price:   You can read up on David Allen’s system in his book, “Getting Things Done,” available at stores and on his website, Gettingthingsdone.com. Steve McClatchy’s book, “Decide” is also available in stores and online, and he invites listeners to his website at Alleer.com. For information about all of our guests you can log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

 

 

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