A New Practice for a New Reality - The Art of Getting Things Done - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)



The Art of Getting Things Done


A New Practice for a New Reality

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give … our attention to the opportunity before us.

—Mark Van Doren

IT’S POSSIBLE FOR a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control. That’s a great way to live and work, at elevated levels of effectiveness and efficiency. It’s also the best way to be fully present with whatever you’re doing, appropriately engaged in the moment. It’s when time disappears, and your attention is completely at your command. What you’re doing is exactly what you ought to be doing, given the whole spectrum of your commitments and interests. You’re fully available. You’re “on.”

This is an operational style now critical for successful, high-performing professionals; a necessary mode for the sanity of anyone experiencing overextended life situations; and a fundamental platform to allow all of us the freedom to involve ourselves optimally in our most meaningful endeavors.

You already know how to do everything necessary to achieve this healthy, high-performance state. If you’re like most people, however, you need to apply these skills in a more timely, complete, and systematic way so you can get on top of it all instead of feeling buried. And though the method and the techniques I describe in this book are immensely practical and based on common sense, most people will have some major habits that must be modified before they can fully enjoy the benefits of this system. The small changes required—changes in the way you clarify and organize all the things that command your attention—could represent a significant alteration in how you approach some key aspects of your day-to-day activities. But the results are often reported as transformational.

The methods I present here are all based on three key objectives: (1) capturing all the things that might need to get done or have usefulness for you—now, later, someday, big, little, or in between—in a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind; (2) directing yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a workable inventory of “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate in the moment; and (3) curating and coordinating all of that content, utilizing the recognition of the multiple levels of commitments with yourself and others you will have at play, at any point in time.

This book offers a proven method for this kind of high-performance workflow management. It provides good tools, tips, techniques, and tricks for implementation. As you’ll discover, the principles and methods are instantly usable and applicable to everything you have to do in your personal as well as your professional life.* You can incorporate, as many others have before you, what I describe as an ongoing dynamic style of operating in your work and in your world. Or, like still others, you can simply use this as a guide to getting back into better control when you feel you need to.

The Problem: New Demands, Insufficient Resources

Almost everyone I encounter these days feels he or she has too much to handle and not enough time to get it all done. In the course of a single week, I consulted with a partner in a major global investment firm who was concerned that the new corporate-management responsibilities he was being offered would stress his family commitments beyond the limits; and with a midlevel human resources manager trying to stay on top of her 150-plus e-mail requests per day fueled by the goal of doubling the company’s regional office staff from eleven hundred to two thousand people in one year, all as she tried to protect a social life for herself on the weekends.

A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It’s as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. The plethora of options and opportunities brings with it the pressures of decision making and choices. And most people are to some degree frustrated and perplexed about how to improve the situation.

Work No Longer Has Clear Boundaries

A major factor in the mounting stress level is that the actual nature of our jobs has changed much more dramatically and rapidly than have our training for and our ability to deal with work. In just the last half of the twentieth century, what constituted “work” in the industrialized world was transformed from assembly line, make-it-and-move-it kinds of activity to what the late Peter Drucker so aptly termed “knowledge” work.

In the old days, work was self-evident. Fields were to be plowed, machines tooled, boxes packed, cows milked, crates moved. You knew what work had to be done—you could see it. It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished. Increasing your productivity was all about making the work process more efficient, or simply working harder or longer.

Almost every project could be done better, and an infinite quantity of information is now available that could make that happen.

Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects. Most people I know have at least half a dozen things they’re trying to achieve or situations they’d like to improve right now, and even if they had the rest of their lives to try, they wouldn’t be able to finish these to perfection. You’re probably faced with the same dilemma. How good could that conference be? How effective could the training program be, or the structure of your executives’ compensation package? How well could you manage your kids’ education? How close to perfect is the blog you’re writing? How motivating is the staff meeting you’re setting up? How healthy could you be? How functional is your department’s reorganization? And a last question: How much available data could be relevant to doing those projects “better”? The answer is: an infinite amount, easily accessible, or at least potentially so, through the Internet.

On another front, the lack of edges can create more work for everyone. Many of today’s organizational outcomes require cross-divisional communication, cooperation, and engagement. Our individual office silos are crumbling (or at least need to be), and with them is going the luxury of not having to read cc’d e-mails from the marketing department, or from human resources, or from some ad hoc, deal-with-a-certain-issue committee. Add to that the increasing pull on your engagement with friends and family as distance from them disappears, with even aging parents taking to the Internet and their smartphones to “stay connected.”

The ever-new communication technologies have exponentially magnified the lack of clear limits to our commitments and our lives. The second decade of this century witnessed an explosion of concern about the always-on conundrum, fueled by globalization (“half my team is in Hong Kong, and another key person in Estonia”), virtual work and connection capabilities, and not the least by the addiction to engaging with gadgets in our pockets and on our wrists that have more capacity than a room full of computers did in 1975.

So, not only are work and its cognitive boundaries more ambiguous and ill defined, so are the time and space within which we can (and often should) be engaged with it, along with the continuing explosion of potentially meaningful and accessible data that could add value to our lives.

Our Jobs (and Lives) Keep Changing

The disintegrating edges of our projects and our work in general would be challenging enough for anyone. But now we must add to that equation the constantly shifting definition of our jobs, as well as the frequent changes in responsibilities and interests in the broader scope of our lives.

Most of us have, in the past seventy-two hours, received more change-producing, project-creating, and priority-shifting inputs than our parents did in a month, maybe even in a year.

I often ask in my seminar, “Which of you are doing only what you were hired to do? And how many of you have not had any significant change in your personal life in the past year?” Seldom do I get a raised hand. As amorphous as edgeless work may be, if you had the chance to stick with some specifically described job long enough, you’d probably figure out what you needed to do—how much, at what level—to stay sane. And if you could keep life in general more in check—no residence moves, no relationship changes, no emerging health or lifestyle issues for you and for loved ones, no financial surprises, no motivational programs generating inspiring new directions, no career shifts thrust on you—you might be able to create a rhythm and system of managing it that would allow for some relaxed stability.

We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem; we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling.

—Eric Hoffer

But few have that luxury, for three reasons:

1 | Organizations are now almost universally in morph mode, with ever-changing goals, products, partners, customers, markets, technologies, and owners. These all, by necessity, shake up structures, forms, roles, and accountabilities.

2 | The average professional is more of a free agent these days than ever before, changing careers as often as his or her parents once changed jobs. Even forty-and fiftysomethings hold to standards of continual growth. Their aims are just more integrated into the mainstream now, covered by the catch-all arena of “professional, management, and executive development”—which simply means they won’t keep doing what they’re doing for any extended period of time.*

3 | The relative speed of changes in our cultures, lifestyles, and technologies are creating greater necessity for individuals to take more control of their unique personal situations, more often. Suddenly needing to handle eldercare for a parent, dealing with a kid now back at home without a job, grappling with an unexpected health issue, or integrating a major change one’s life partner has decided to initiate … all such seem to be happening with greater frequency, with larger consequences, than ever before.

Little seems clear for very long anymore, as far as what to do at the office, at home, on the plane, in the car, and at the local café—on the weekend, on Monday morning, on waking at three a.m., and on “vacation”; and what or how much input may be relevant to doing it well. We’re allowing in huge amounts of information and communication from the outer world and generating an equally large volume of ideas and agreements with others and ourselves from the inner world. And we haven’t been well equipped to deal with this huge number of internal and external commitments.

Nothing is really new in this high-tech, globally wired world, except how frequently it is. When the pace of change in life and work was much slower, once people got past the inevitable discomfort of the new, they could hang out on cruise control for greatly extended periods of time. Most of us are now living in a world that does not afford that time-out kind of luxury. It’s changing while you’re reading this. And if, while you have been reading this, you’ve been distracted by your mind wandering to other things going on in your life, or you’ve felt impelled to check e-mail for potentially meaningful new input, you’re experiencing a manifestation of this don’t-miss-the-train syndrome.

The Old Models and Habits Are Insufficient

Neither our standard education, nor traditional time-management models, nor the plethora of digital and paper-based organizing tools available has given us a viable means of meeting the new demands placed on us. If you’ve tried to use any of these processes or tools, you’ve probably found them unable to accommodate the speed, complexity, and changing priority factors inherent in what you are doing. The ability to be focused, relaxed, and in control during these fertile but turbulent and often unstructured times demands new ways of thinking and working. There is a great need for new methods, technologies, and work habits to help us get on top of our world.

The traditional approaches to time management and personal organization were useful in their time. They provided helpful reference points for a workforce that was just emerging from an industrial assembly-line modality into a new kind of work that included choices about what to do and discretion about when to do it. When time itself turned into a work factor, personal calendars became a key work tool. (Even in the 1980s many professionals considered having a pocket calendar the essence of being organized, and many people today still think of their calendar and possibly their e-mail and text in-boxes as the central tools for being in control.) Along with discretionary time came the need to make good choices about what to do. Creating “ABC” priority codes and daily “to-do” lists were key techniques developed to help people sort through their choices in some meaningful way. If you had the freedom to decide what to do, you also had the responsibility to make good choices, given your priorities.

What you’ve probably discovered, at least at some level, is that a calendar, though important, can really effectively manage only a small portion of what you need to be aware of to feel on top of your world. And daily to-do lists and simplified priority coding have proven inadequate in dealing with the volume and variable nature of the average person’s workload. More and more people’s jobs and lives are made up of hundreds of e-mails and texts a day, with no latitude left to ignore a single request, complaint, order, or communication from company or family. There are few people who can (or even should) expect to code everything based upon its priority, or who can maintain some predetermined list of to-dos that the first telephone call or instant message or interruption from their boss or spouse won’t totally undo.

The Big Picture vs. the Nitty-Gritty

The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.

—Edward Gibbon

At the other end of the spectrum, a huge number of business books, models, seminars, and gurus have championed the “bigger view” as the solution to dealing with our complex world. Clarifying major goals and values, so the thinking goes, gives order, meaning, and direction to our work. In practice, however, the well-intentioned exercise of values thinking too often does not achieve its desired results. I have seen too many of these efforts fail, for one or more of the following three reasons:

1 | There is too much distraction at the day-to-day, hour-to-hour level of commitments to allow for appropriate focus on the higher levels.

2 | Ineffective personal organizational systems create huge subconscious resistance to undertaking even bigger projects and goals that will likely not be managed well, and that will in turn cause even more distraction and stress.

3 | When loftier levels and values actually are clarified, it raises the bar of our standards, making us notice that much more that needs changing. We are already having a serious negative reaction to the overwhelming number of things we have to do. And what created much of the work that’s on those lists in the first place? Our values!

Focusing on primary outcomes and values is a critical exercise, certainly. It provides needed criteria for making sometimes-difficult choices about what to stop doing, as well as what most ought to have our attention amid our excess of options. But it does not mean that there is less to do, or fewer challenges in getting the work done. Quite the contrary: it just ups the ante in the game, which still must be played day to day. For a human resources executive, for example, deciding to deal with quality-of-work-life issues in order to attract and keep key talent does not make things simpler. Nor would there be less to do for a mother recognizing the importance of providing valuable experiences for her teenage daughter in the few vacations left they may take together before she leaves home for work or college. Upping the quality of our thinking and commitments does not diminish the quantity of potentially relevant and important stuff to manage.

Chaos isn’t the problem; how long it takes to find coherence is the real game.

—Doc Childre and Bruce Cryer

There has been a missing piece in our culture of knowledge work: a system with a coherent set of behaviors and tools that functions effectively at the level at which work really happens. It must incorporate the results of big-picture thinking as well as the smallest of open details. It must manage multiple tiers of priorities. It must maintain control over hundreds of new inputs daily. It must save a lot more time and effort than are needed to maintain it. It must make it easier to get things done.

The Promise: The “Ready State” of the Martial Artist

Reflect for a moment on what it actually might be like if your personal management situation were totally under control, at all levels and at all times. What if you had completely clear mental space, with nothing pulling or pushing on you unproductively? What if you could dedicate fully 100 percent of your attention to whatever was at hand, at your own choosing, with no distraction?

It is possible. There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged. In fact, you have probably already been in this state from time to time.

Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.

—Nadia Boulanger

It’s a condition of working, doing, and being in which the mind is clear and constructive things are happening. It’s a state that is accessible to everyone, and one that is increasingly needed to deal effectively with the complexity of life in this century. More and more it will be a required condition for any of us who wish to maintain balance and a consistent positive output in our work and outlook in our life. World-class rower Craig Lambert has described how it feels in Mind Over Water (Houghton Mifflin, 1998):

Rowers have a word for this frictionless state: swing… . Recall the pure joy of riding on a backyard swing: an easy cycle of motion, the momentum coming from the swing itself. The swing carries us; we do not force it. We pump our legs to drive our arc higher, but gravity does most of the work. We are not so much swinging as being swung. The boat swings you. The shell wants to move fast: Speed sings in its lines and nature. Our job is simply to work with the shell, to stop holding it back with our thrashing struggles to go faster. Trying too hard sabotages boat speed. Trying becomes striving and striving undoes itself. Social climbers strive to be aristocrats but their efforts prove them no such thing. Aristocrats do not strive; they have already arrived. Swing is a state of arrival.

The “Mind Like Water” Simile

In karate there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. 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 underreact.

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.

Water is what it is, and does what it does. It can overwhelm, but it’s not overwhelmed. It can be still, but it is not impatient. It can be forced to change course, but it is not frustrated. Get it?

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused “pop” at the end of the whip. That’s why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn’t take calluses or brute strength; just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind to being open and appropriately responsive is the key.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your e-mail, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a mind like water.

Can You Get into Your “Productive State” When Required?

Think about the last time you felt highly productive. You probably had a sense of being in control, you were not stressed out, you were highly focused on what you were doing, time tended to disappear (lunchtime already?), and you felt you were making noticeable progress toward a meaningful outcome. Would you like to have more such experiences?

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open for everything.

—Shunryu Suzuki

And if you get seriously far out of that state—and start to feel out of control, stressed out, unfocused, bored, and stuck—do you have the ability to get yourself back into it? That’s where the methodology of Getting Things Done will have the greatest impact on your life, by showing you how to get back to mind like water, with all your resources and faculties functioning at a maximum level. A challenge for many may be the lack of a reference point as to when they fall out of the productive state. Most people have lived in a semistressful experience so consistently, for so long, they don’t know that it could be quite different—that there is another and more positive place from which to engage with their world. Hopefully this book will inspire you to raise the bar about how much pressure you will allow yourself to tolerate, knowing you have the techniques to reduce it.

The Principle: Dealing Effectively with Internal Commitments

A basic truism I have discovered over decades of coaching and training thousands of people is that most stress they experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept. Even those who are not consciously “stressed out” will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the “open loops” of their lives.

You’ve probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them—big or little—is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the “incompletes,” or “open loops,” which I define as anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is. Open loops can include everything from really big to-do items like “End world hunger” to the more modest “Hire new assistant” to the tiniest task such as “Replace porch lightbulb.”

Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an “open loop,” which will be pulling on your attention if it’s not appropriately managed.

In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and capture all those things that are “ringing your bell” in some way, clarify what, exactly, they mean to you, and then make a decision about how to move on them. That may seem like a simple process, but in reality most people don’t do it in a consistent way. They lack the knowledge or the motivation, or both, and most likely because they aren’t aware of the prices paid for neglecting that practice.

The Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments

Managing commitments well requires the implementation of some basic activities and behaviors:

· First of all, if it’s on your mind, 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 tool, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.

· Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.

· Third, once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

You must use your mind to get things off your mind.

An Important Exercise to Test This Model

I suggest that you write down the project or situation that is most on your mind at this moment. What most bugs you, distracts you, or interests you, or in some other way consumes a large part of your conscious attention? It may be a project or problem that is really “in your face,” something you are being pressed to handle, or a situation you feel you must deal with sooner rather than later.

Maybe you have a holiday trip coming up that you need to make some major last-minute decisions about. You just read an e-mail about a new and pressing issue in your department. Or perhaps you just inherited six million dollars and you don’t know what to do with the cash. Whatever.

Got it? Good. Now, describe, in a single written sentence, your intended successful outcome for this problem or situation. In other words, what would need to happen for you to check this project off as “done”? It could be as simple as “Take the Hawaii vacation,” “Handle situation with customer X,” “Resolve college situation with Susan,” “Clarify new divisional management structure,” “Implement new investment strategy,” or “Research options for dealing with Manuel’s reading issue.” All clear? Great.

Now write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward. If you had nothing else to do in your life but get closure on this, what visible action would you take right now? Would you call or text someone? Write an e-mail? Take pen and paper and brainstorm about it? Surf the Web for data? Buy nails at the hardware store? Talk about it face-to-face with your partner, your assistant, your attorney, or your boss? What?

Got the answer to that? Good.

Was there any value for you in those two minutes of thinking? If you’re like the vast majority of people who complete that drill in our seminars, you’ll be experiencing at least a tiny bit of enhanced control, relaxation, and focus. You’ll also be feeling more motivated to actually do something about that situation you’ve merely been thinking about till now. Imagine that motivation magnified a thousandfold, as a way to live and work.

Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.

—Henri Bergson

If anything at all positive happened for you in this little exercise, think about this: What changed? What happened to create that improved condition within your own experience? The situation itself is no further along, at least in the physical world. It’s certainly not finished yet. What probably happened is that you acquired a clearer definition of the outcome desired and the next action required. What did change is the most important element for clarity, focus, and peace of mind: how you are engaged with your world.

But what created that? Not “getting organized” or “setting priorities.” The answer is, thinking. Not a lot; just enough to solidify your commitment about a discrete pressure or opportunity and the resources required dealing with it. People think a lot, but most of that thinking is of a problem, project, or situation—not about it. If you actually did this suggested exercise, you were required to structure your thinking toward an outcome and an action, and that does not usually happen without a consciously focused effort. Reacting is automatic, but thinking is not.

The Real Work of Knowledge Work

The ancestor of every action is a thought.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Welcome to the real-life experience of “knowledge work,” and a profound operational principle: you have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you’re afraid you might. As Peter Drucker wrote: “In knowledge work … the task is not given; it has to be determined. ‘What are the expected results from this work?’ is … the key question in making knowledge workers productive. And it is a question that demands risky decisions. There is usually no right answer; there are choices instead. And results have to be clearly specified, if productivity is to be achieved.”*

Most people have a resistance to initiating the burst of energy that it will take to clarify the real meaning, for them, of something they have let into their world, and to decide what they need to do about it. We’re never really taught that we have to think about our work before we can do it; much of our daily activity is already defined for us by the undone and unmoved things staring at us when we come to work, or by the family to be fed, the laundry to be done, or the children to be dressed at home. Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes and requisite next actions is something few people feel they have to do (until they have to). But in truth, it is the most effective means available for making wishes a reality.

Why Things Are on Your Mind

Most often, the reason something is on your mind is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:

· you haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is;

This consistent, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy.

—Kerry Gleeson

· you haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or

· you haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

That’s why it’s on your mind. Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will access and think about when you need to, your brain can’t give up the job. You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind. It knows whether or not you’ve come to the conclusions you need to, and whether you’ve put the resulting outcomes and action reminders in a place that can be trusted to resurface appropriately within your conscious mind.* If you haven’t done those things, it won’t quit working overtime. Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve a problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you park a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look. It will keep pressuring you about that untaken next step, usually when you can’t do anything about it, which will just add to your stress.

Your Mind Doesn’t Have a Mind of Its Own

At least a portion of your mind is really kind of stupid, in an interesting way. If it had any innate intelligence and logic, it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them.

Do you have a flashlight somewhere with dead batteries in it? When does your mind tend to remind you that you need more batteries? When you notice the dead ones! That’s not very smart. If your mind had any innate intelligence, it would remind you about those dead batteries only when you passed new ones in a store. And ones of the right size, to boot.

Rule your mind or it will rule you.


Between the time you woke up today and now, did you think of anything you needed to do that you still haven’t done? Have you had that thought more than once? Why? It’s a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on. And it only adds to your anxiety about what you should be doing and aren’t.

Most people let their reactive mental process run a lot of the show, especially where the too-much-to-do syndrome is concerned. You’ve probably given over a lot of your “stuff,” a lot of your open loops, to an entity on your inner committee that is incapable of dealing with those things effectively the way they are—your mind. Research has now proven that a significant part of your psyche cannot help but keep track of your open loops, and not (as originally thought) as an intelligent, positive motivator, but as a detractor from anything else you need or want to think about, diminishing your capacity to perform.

The Transformation of “Stuff”

Here’s how I define “stuff”: anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined what, exactly, it means to you, with the desired outcome and the next action step. The reason most organizing systems haven’t worked for most people is that they haven’t yet transformed all the stuff they’re trying to organize. As long as it’s still stuff, it’s not controllable.

We need to transform all the “stuff” we’ve attracted and accumulated into a clear inventory of meaningful actions, projects, and usable information.

Almost all of the to-do lists I have seen over the years (when people had them at all!) were merely listings of stuff, not inventories of the resultant real work that needed to be done. They were partial reminders of a lot of things that were unresolved and as yet untranslated into outcomes and actions—that is, the real outlines and details of what the list maker had to do.

Typical things you will see on a to-do list: “Mom” “Bank” “Doctor” “Baby-sitter” “VP Marketing” etc. Looking at these often creates more stress than relief, because, though it is a valuable trigger for something that you’ve committed to do or decide something about, it still calls out psychologically, “Decide about me!” And if you do not have the energy or focus at the moment to think and decide, it will simply remind you that you are overwhelmed.

Stuff is not inherently a bad thing. Things that command or attract our attention, by their very nature, usually show up as stuff. But once we allow stuff to come into our lives and work, we have an inherent commitment to ourselves to define and clarify its meaning. In the professional world, our jobs require us to think, assess, decide, and execute—minute by minute—whether about an e-mail or our notes from the morning’s strategy meeting. That’s inherent in your job. If you didn’t have to think about those things, you’re probably not required to. And personally, we will shortchange ourselves when we allow issues in our daily lifestyle—home, family, health, finances, career, or relationships—to lie fallow in our consciousness because of lack of definition of the specific outcomes desired and actions required.

Thought is useful when it motivates action and a hindrance when it substitutes for action.

—Bill Raeder

At the conclusion of one of my seminars, a senior manager of a major biotech firm looked back at the to-do list she had come in with and said, “Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!” That’s the best description I have ever heard about what passes for organizing lists in most systems. The vast majority of people have been trying to get organized by rearranging incomplete lists of unclear things; they haven’t yet realized how much and what they need to organize in order to get the real payoff. They need to gather everything that requires thinking about and then do that thinking if their organizational efforts are to be successful.

The Process: Managing Action

You can train yourself, almost like an athlete, to be faster, more responsive, more proactive, and more focused in dealing with all the things you need to deal with. You can think more effectively and manage the results with more ease and control. You can minimize the loose ends across the whole spectrum of your work life and personal life and get a lot more done with less effort. And you can make front-end decision making about all the stuff you collect and create standard operating procedure for living and working in this millennium.

Before you can achieve any of that, though, you’ll need to get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind. And the way to do that, as we’ve seen, is not by managing time, managing information, or managing priorities. After all:

· you don’t manage five minutes and wind up with six;

· you don’t manage information overload—otherwise you’d walk into a library and die, or the first time you connected to the Web, you’d blow up; and

· you don’t manage priorities—you have them.

Instead, the key to managing all of your stuff is managing your actions.

The beginning is half of every action.

—Greek proverb

Managing Action Is the Prime Challenge

What you do with your time, what you do with information, and what you do with your body and your focus relative to your priorities—those are the real options to which you must allocate your limited resources. The substantive issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real work is to manage our actions.

That may sound obvious. However, it might amaze you to discover how many next actions for how many projects and commitments remain undetermined by most people. It’s extremely difficult to manage actions you haven’t identified or decided on. Most people have dozens of things that they need to do to make progress on many fronts, but they don’t yet know what they are. And the common complaint that “I don’t have time to ____” (fill in the blank) is understandable because many projects seem overwhelming—and are overwhelming because you can’t do a project at all! You can only do an action related to it. Many actions require only a minute or two, in the appropriate context, to move a project forward.

Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because what “doing” would look like, and where it happens, hasn’t been decided.

In training and coaching many thousands of people, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what associated next-action steps are required. Clarifying things on the front end, when they first appear on the radar, rather than on the back end, after trouble has developed, allows people to reap the benefits of managing action.

Getting things done requires two basic components: defining (1) what “done” means (outcome) and (2) what “doing” looks like (action). And these are far from self-evident for most people about most things that have their attention.

The Value of a Bottom-Up Approach

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down, first uncovering personal and organizational purpose and vision, then defining critical objectives, and finally focusing on the details of implementation. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective.

Getting current on, and in control of, what’s in your in-tray and on your mind right now, and incorporating practices that you can trust will help you stay that way, will provide the best means of broadening your horizons. A creative, buoyant energy will be unleashed that will better support your focus on new heights, and your confidence will increase to handle what that creativity produces. An immediate sense of freedom, release, and inspiration naturally comes to people who roll up their sleeves and implement this process.

Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.

—Václav Havel

You’ll be better equipped to undertake higher-focused thinking when your tools for handling the resulting actions for implementation are part of your ongoing operational style. There are more meaningful things to think about than your in-tray, but if your management of that level is not as efficient as it could be, it’s like trying to swim in baggy clothing.

Many executives I have worked with during the day to clear the decks of their mundane stuff have spent the evening having a stream of ideas and visions about their company and their future lifestyle. This happens as an automatic consequence of unsticking their workflow.

Horizontal and Vertical Action Management

You need to control commitments, projects, and actions in two ways—horizontally and vertically. Horizontal control maintains coherence across all the activities in which you are involved. Imagine your psyche constantly scanning your environment like a police radar; it may land on any of a thousand different items that invite or demand your attention during any twenty-four-hour period: the drugstore, your daughter’s boyfriend, the board meeting, your aunt Martha, an incoming text message, the strategic plan, lunch, a wilting plant in the office, an upset customer, shoes that need shining. You need to buy stamps, figure out what to do about the presentation tomorrow, deposit that check, make the hotel reservation, cancel a meeting, and watch a movie tonight. You might be surprised at the volume of things you actually think about and have to deal with just in one day. You need a good system that can keep track of as many of them as possible, supply required information about them on demand, and allow you to shift your focus from one thing to the next quickly and easily.

Vertical control, in contrast, manages thinking, development, and coordination of individual topics and projects. For example, your inner “police radar” lands on your next vacation as you and your life partner talk about it over dinner—where and when you’ll go, what you’ll do, how to prepare for the trip, and so on. Or you and your boss need to make some decisions about the new departmental reorganization you’re about to launch. Or you just need to get your thinking up-to-date on the customer you’re about to call. This is “project planning” in the broad sense. It’s focusing in on a single endeavor, situation, or person and fleshing out whatever ideas, details, priorities, and sequences of events may be required for you to handle it, at least for the moment.

The goal for managing horizontally and vertically is the same: to get things off your mind and get them done. Appropriate action management lets you feel comfortable and in control as you move through your broad spectrum of work and life, while appropriate project focusing gets you clear about and on track with the specifics needed.

The Major Change: Getting It All Out of Your Head

There is usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.

There is no real way to achieve the kind of relaxed control I’m promising if you keep things only in your head. As you’ll discover, the individual behaviors described in this book are things you’re already doing. The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my stuff in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind. And that applies to everything—little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not. Everything.*

I’m sure that at some time or other you’ve gotten to a point in a project, or in your life, where you just had to sit down and make a list. Subsequently you felt at least slightly more focused and in control. If so, you have a reference point for what I’m talking about. Nothing externally changed in your world, and yet you felt better about it. What did change, significantly, is how you were engaged with your world. That always happens when you get potentially meaningful things out of your head. Most people, however, do that kind of list-making drill only when the confusion gets too unbearable and they just have to do something about it. They usually, though, only make a list about the specific area that’s bugging them. But if you made that kind of externalization and review a characteristic of your ongoing life-and work style, and you maintained it across all areas of your life (not just the most “urgent”), you’d be practicing the kind of mind like water management style I’m describing. In my experience this process always improves our perspective and our experience. Why wait?

There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.

I try to make intuitive choices based on my options, instead of trying to think about what those options are. I need to have thought about all of that already and captured the results in a trusted way. I don’t want to waste time thinking about things more than once. That’s an inefficient use of creative energy and a source of frustration and stress.

Any “would, could, or should” commitment held only in the psyche creates irrational and unresolvable pressure, 24-7.

And you can’t fudge this thinking. Your mind will keep working on anything that’s still in that undecided state. But that kind of recursive spinning in your mind has now been proven to reduce your capacity to think and perform, and there’s a limit to how much unresolved stuff it can contain before it blows a fuse.

The short-term-memory part of your mind—the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized stuff—functions much like RAM (random-access memory) on a computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much stuff you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed and performance diminished by their own internal mental overload. Recent research in the cognitive sciences has now validated this conclusion. Studies have demonstrated that our mental processes are hampered by the burden put on the mind to keep track of things we’re committed to finish, without a trusted plan or system in place to handle them.*

For example, in the past few minutes, has your mind wandered off into some area that doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re reading here? Probably. And most likely where your mind went was to some open loop, some incomplete situation that you have an investment in. That situation merely reared up out of the RAM part of your brain and yelled at you internally. And what did you do about it? Unless you wrote it down and put it in a trusted collection tool that you know you’ll review appropriately sometime soon, more than likely you worried, or at least reinforced some unresolved tension, about it. Not the most effective 'margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent: 16.3pt;line-height:normal'>A big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means as soon as you tell yourself that you might need to do something, and store it only in your head, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time. Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, it thinks you should be doing right now. Frankly, as soon as you have two things to do stored only in your mind, you’ve generated personal failure, because you can’t do them both at the same time. This produces a pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pinpointed.

It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.

—Sally Kempton

Most people have been in some version of this mental stress state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it. Like gravity, it’s ever present—so much so that those who experience it usually aren’t even aware of the pressure. The only time most of them will realize how much tension they’ve been under is when they get rid of it and notice how different they feel. It’s like the constant buzzing noise in a room you didn’t know was there until it stops.

Can you get rid of that kind of stress and noise? You bet. The rest of this book will explain how.