David Allen – GTD system – Practical Personal Productivity

“Use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and people, not simply reminding yourself they exist.”David Allen

We live in a world that is full of demands, requirements, deadlines and disruptions.

How can someone overcome the challenges this posits and enjoy the benefits?

One way is by developing a sound system of personal productivity (so-called,Action Management) that allows for macro-planning but at the same time for getting the everyday tasks done towards achieving our goals in life.

A great system that be-frees our potential can be found in David Allen’s – Getting Things done (GTD).

The system cannot be explained in one blog post so, I will try to provide an introduction here.

Keep on reading if you want to find out the basic tenets and thinking about this system as well as a presentation that goes through and additional resources for putting a concrete Action Management system in your life.

David Allen

David Allen

 

INTRODUCTION

Action Management can be defined as the process of creating a system in your life that helps you stay on top of your tasks, projects, aims and maintain an excellent work effort.

 

GTD system’s basic tenets

“You can do anything, not everything” David Allen. 

 

David Allen GTD system is formed around two basic axes:

1) Capture your thoughts.

The idea is that we are burdened by the constant flow of thoughts and actions that come to our minds.

As you may have noticed these may be in irrelevant random order or in sequence.

Worrying about forgetting something to be done, relying purely on memory alone is quite a stress in itself.

Tests have provided strong indications that the average person can retain around the 7 items in a list. Check this out when you test your memory when going to the supermarket. Some details can be found here.

In modern Western societies especially when we are constantly dealing with conflicting demands the magical number 7 is really low when compared to the amount of tasks one needs to retain to accomplish his /her goals.

Moreover, when the focus and stress is on retaining the menial tasks that need to be done to get by, one may lose the opportunity to create the necessary “mindspace” to think about the grander picture.

So, capturing your thoughts is very handy and be-freeing.

2) Focus on the Next Action

David’s system does not subscribe to the ABC rule (see here) but breaks down the projects in individual tasks (a task may be defined as something that can be accomplished in 20 minutes or less) and then urges us to focus only on the next step – next action towards achieving our goal.

As Master Yoda might say “do, or do not” – there is no priority C.  🙂

Of course, the system can be modified to use e.g. the Pomodoro technique for focus management (considering accomplishment of individual tasks) and the ABC method  to plan your projects and what comes first during your weekly/ monthly / yearly reviews. You can use SCAMPER for this (see here and here)

Working in small chunks is aligned with the idea elaborated before in the blog post “how to eat an elephant” and is used extensively by successful professionals.

Whatever productivity system you choose to work with, focusing on the next action in an invaluable tool.

 

PRESENTATION

The below presentation is elaborating on the GTD system and its main tenets.

 

 

 

Special thanks to Beth Wilton for collaborating in the development of the presentation.

 

If you are interested some further reading have a look at multitasking and ways to approach it (here).

 

 

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Image courtesy of http://www.thelegacyproject.co.za

 

Stoicism and Stephen Covey – You don’t need to worry anymore!

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things” The Enchiridion, Epictetus (translation by William R Connolly)

How would you feel if you did not have to worry again? Is this attainable? The Stoics certainly thought so.

More recently, Stephen Covey revisited this theme and provided a mental model to approach about such situations.

It becomes amazing how, sometimes, key tenets of Ancient Philosophy find their way into modern popular handbooks and practical how-to guides.

It is useful to occasionally revisit and embrace the transformative nature of these tenets, in combination with their modern variations, in an effort to lead more meaningful, productive and fulfilling lives (professionally and in the private sphere).

Let’s look at one of these tenets and mental schemes in action.

 

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

 

STOICISM

Stoicism is a movement that started with Zeno of Citium at the early 3rd BCE. Other major philosophers involved in this movement were Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (you can find more information here).

The basic tenet of the movement was “apatheia” (equanimity). Stoics posit that one way to attain this state of mind is by recognizing what lies within our power or influence and what is outside. Thereafter, come to terms with this realization.

Meric Casaubon elaborated on this thought in his translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as follows:

“Two points in the Stoic system deserve special mention. One is a careful distinction between things which are in our power and things which are not. Desire and dislike, opinion and affection, are within the power of the will; whereas health, wealth, honour, and other such are generally not so. The Stoic was called upon to control his desires and affections, and to guide his opinion; to bring his whole being under the sway of the will or leading principle…..” (Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Meric Casaubon)

 

Stephen Covey

 

STEPHEN R. COVEY

Stephen Covey mentions more or less the same theme but expands on it providing a mental scheme enabling us to better visualize how to go about this basic idea.

His mental scheme consists of concentric circles that portray our circle of influence and our circle of concern (see picture below).

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE

Stephen contends that we should first reflect on “where we focus our time and energy” and then consciously refocus our efforts to what we can influence, in an effort to increase our effectiveness.

Specifically, usually, we tend to worry or be concerned about many things such as, our health, our children, problems at work, the national debt, nuclear war. These concerns can and should be separated based on our mental and emotional involvement but also based on those for which we have some real control over and those that we cannot influence at all.

Thereafter, by focusing our time and energy in influencing those that we have some kind of control over we succeed and hence, we may also increase our circle of Influence further. We see people who embrace this behaviour being positive and empowered.

CIRCLE OF CONCERN

On the other hand, we see others that focus their time and energy on things they have no real influence over. These tend to blame and accuse circumstances or people and use reactive language. Eventually, the Circle of Influence of these people will shrink. I am sure you can think of a few people who embrace the one or the other behaviour and can possibly reflect on the consequences of their stance in life.

Like the ancient Stoics, what Stephen rightly highlighted is that we have to look at our attitude towards these situations and change our perspective so we can be “highly effective” in our lives. This happens if we do not waste time and energy on worrying about things we cannot control or influence but instead focus our energy to influence those that we can.

You can read more about this mental scheme here.

 

SCIENCE ABOUT THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF A POSITIVE ATTITUDE

Until recently this could have been described as a feel good and  useful belief. More recent scientific studies though have started to test even such esoteric beliefs.

I have written here about an insightful talk from Kelly McGonical which details a recent study that looks at the link between attitudes and cardiovascular disease.

In particular, this study links the attitude we have against stressful situations to specific responses our body has and the associated risk for development of cardiovascular disease.

 

CONCLUSION

People respond to different challenges in a different way and develop their own defense mechanisms to deal with the vicissitudes of life.

Practical philosophy such as the ideas described in this blogpost provides an extremely useful guide to think about things and be-free oneself from behaviours that damage productivity, happiness and the attainment of fulfillment in life.

A great resource to continue this journey with is Alain De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (an easy to read and immensely entertaining book or DVD).

Maya Angelou who recently passed away put it succinctly when she said:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”, Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter:

What are the tenets, beliefs or thoughts that help you to get through the day?

 

Multitasking, a misused term! How to put your real multi-tasking power to good use!

“Do not multitask. I’m going to tell you what you already know. Trying to brush your teeth, talk on the phone, and answer e-mail at the same time just doesn’t work. Eating while doing online research and instant messaging? Ditto. If you prioritize properly, there is no need to multitask. It is a symptom of “task creep”—doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less. As stated, you should have, at most, two primary goals or tasks per day. Do them separately from start to finish without distraction. Divided attention will result in more frequent interruptions, lapses in concentration, poorer net results, and less gratification”  Tim Ferriss – The 4hr workweek

Multitasking is a term I constantly find people overuse and misuse.

I have seen this especially with people who are eager to prove that they have the ability to do everything at the same time.

Recent research highlights that “trying to focus on more than one thing at a time causes a 40% drop in productivity” (see below infographic for more research outcomes on the effects on this kind of  “multitasking”).

Moreover, the outcomes of “multitasking” is usually outcomes that are sub-optimal in quality. This of course creates more work negating the perceived “benefits” of saving time through Tim Ferriss’ described “multitasking” anyway.

The art of focus management is very important. More so, when you are working in an open office environment where distractions are very common and beyond anyone’s control.

Let’s see what the right way to think about multitasking is and a few tips on how to avoid disruptions as well as a presentation explaining a popular productivity method that can assist towards better focus management.

caffeinating, calculating, computerating

MULTI-TASKING

So, do we not focus on multitasking as a key skill for the modern professional?

Of course we do, but we need to redefine the term.

“MULTI-TASKING can be defined as the ability to work on multiple projects within the same span of time e.g. Have multiple projects on the run, but not at the same time”.

Good organisational skills, good action and project management skills are essential to achieve this.

It is obvious that the quality of work is in the effectiveness and efficiency by which we approach a task or project. Hence, we have to always look at these two terms working in tandem.

Efficiency means that you choose the right steps to the desired result and effectiveness is the fact that you get to the result.

Remember good old Einstein:

Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler”.

STEPS FOR INCREASING EFFECTIVENESS FOR MULTI-TASKING

1. Focus Management – Select periods to work on specific projects and tell your colleagues that you do not want to be disturbed during this time. Select symbols to denote that this is your “mental focus time” e.g. A do not disturb sign always works 🙂

2. Become aware of where you dedicate time during the week. Eliminate the tasks that do not have an effect on the business and are just noise (meetings you do not need to attend and email people copy you in for the shake of been copied in are just some examples).

3. Work on your ABCs i.e

  • A- Tasks that are URGENT and IMPORTANT come first,
  • B- Tasks that are IMPORTANT but not URGENT come next and
  • C- the rest can wait.

4. Set out a time to review tasks and prepare a list of steps that need to be done (David Allen’s Getting Things Done method is highly recommended). The below presentation briefly describes this method:

 

OTHER RESOURCES

The below infographic gathers some research that proves that the multitasking as described by Tim Ferriss above is not efficient nor effective.

 

Multitasking

The Perils of Multitasking – infographic by onlinecollege.org

 

Image courtesy of Ryan Ritchie / flickr.com

If you want something complex done well, give it to a busy person!

We have all heard the phrase “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. We all felt that there is some truth in it.

Research done by Dijksterhuis and van Olden recently seems to take this insight to another level.

The research was performed on how Decision Making and the likelihood of  Regret are linked and produces some very interesting results. Let’s look into it.

THE EXPERIMENT

As mentioned in Richard Wiseman’s book 59 Seconds, a few years ago Dijksterhuis and van Olden conducted a study whereas, subjects were shown five posters and were asked to use three different techniques to make a decision. At the end of this process the subjects were given the poster of their choice and a month later the researchers called them and asked them how they felt about their decision and what amount of money would it take to part with their originally chosen poster. The results are surprising.

At the time of the experiment the researchers broke the subjects into three groups.

  1. The first group was asked to immediately choose the poster they liked the most.
  2. The second group was asked to study the posters well, list what they liked and did not like about them. Only then, to make a decision and choose a  poster.
  3. The third group was quickly shown the posters and then they were asked to do anagram puzzles for 5 minutes. Only after this process, they were asked to choose a poster.

At the end of the experiment, all subjects from all three groups were handed over the poster of their choice, and then a month later they were asked how much they liked the poster then and how much they would sell it for.

Surprisingly, at the time of the experiment the subjects in Group number 2 (the ones that were asked to carefully consider the pros and cons) were the most confident they had made the right decision.

A month later though, it was a completely different story.

Group number 3, (who was shown the posters quickly and then did puzzles before eventually making a choice), were the most attached to their chosen poster and wanted more money to part with it.

WHY GROUP NUMBER 3? THE THEORY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS THOUGHT

The explanation of this behaviour is attributed to what is called, the theory of the Unconscious Thought.

A good summary of it can be found here and below.

Unconscious thought theory (UTT) was first presented by Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran Nordgren in 2006. UTT posits that the unconscious mind is capable of performing tasks outside of one’s awareness, and that unconscious thought (UT) is better at solving complex tasks, where many variables are considered, than conscious thought (CT), but is outperformed by conscious thought in tasks with fewer variables. This is a countercurrent position, as most research on UT since the early 1980s has led to its being characterized as simple and incapable of complex operations. Dijksterhuis’ and Nordgren’s theory is based primarily on recent findings from a new experimental paradigms.

The interesting article, titled, The Beautiful Powers of Unconscious Thought by Dijksterhuis himself (here), elaborates on the facts and nuances of these important findings.

PUTTING THEORY IN PRACTICE

So, what does this mean in practice for everyday work life?

Well, I think that this data supports the position that managers, supervisors and organisations need to make an effort to fill the days of their teams with meaningful projects and try to engage them (ideas on how to do this can be found here and well as a method on innovation here and here).

Moreover, as mentioned here we have to move one step forward from being busy to becoming productive as, the key question is not if we are “doing” something but if we are “effective” in what we aim for.

Hence, the organisations need to create an environment conducive to best utilise the theory of the Unconscious Thought aiming of course the more complex of projects. I trust that more research will be done on these important findings in the future that will verify and expand our understanding in this important field.

How did you handle your last complex task allocation?

 

Image of Ap Dijksterhuis courtesy of Radboud University Nijmegen / www.ru.nl