Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)
The Power of the Key Principles
The Power of the Capturing Habit
Demonstrating integrity in managing internal and external agreements optimizes all of your relationships.
THERE’S MUCH MORE to these simple techniques and models than may appear at first glance. Indeed, they offer a systematic method to keep your mind distraction-free, ensuring a high level of efficiency and effectiveness in your work. That in itself would be sufficient reason to implement these practices.
But there are even greater implications for the fundamental principles at work here. What follows in the next three chapters is an accounting of my experience, over the past thirty years, of the subtler and often more profound effects that can transpire from the implementation of these basic principles. The longer-term results can have a significant impact on you as an individual, and they can positively affect larger organizational cultures as well.
When people with whom you interact notice that without fail you receive, process, and organize in an airtight manner the exchanges and agreements they have with you, they begin to trust you in a unique way. More significantly, you incorporate a level of self-confidence in your engagement with your world that money cannot buy. Such is the power of capturing placeholders for anything that is incomplete or unprocessed in your life. It noticeably enhances your mental well-being and improves the quality of your communications and relationships, both personally and professionally.
And when organizations expect and reinforce this best practice of allowing nothing to fall through a communication crack, with everyone accountable for resulting actions, and commitments clarified and tracked by the appropriate persons, it can significantly increase a culture’s productivity and reduce its stress.
The Personal Benefit
How did it feel to go through the collecting and downloading activity? Most people say it feels so bad, and yet so good. How can that be?
If you’re like most people who go through the full capturing process, you probably felt some form of anxiety. Descriptive terms like overwhelmed, panic, frustration, fatigue, and disgust tend to come up when I ask seminar participants to describe their emotions in going through a minor version of this procedure. And is there anything you think you’ve procrastinated on in that stack? If so, you have guilt automatically associated with it—“I could have, should have, ought to have done this before now.”
At the same time, did you experience any sense of release, or relief, or control as you did the drill? Most people say yes, indeed. How does that happen? Totally opposite emotional states showing up as you’re doing a single exercise, almost at the same time—anxiety and relief; overwhelmed and in control. What’s going on here?
When you understand the source of your negative feelings about all your stuff, you’ll discover, as I did, the way to get rid of them. And if you experienced any positive feelings from collecting your stuff, you actually began the process of eliminating the negativity yourself.
The Source of the Negative Feelings
The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.
Where do the not-so-good feelings come from? Too much to do? No, there’s always too much to do. If you felt bad simply because there was more to do than you could do, you’d never get rid of that feeling. Having too much to do is not the source of the negative feeling. It comes from a different place.
How have you felt when someone broke an agreement with you, told you they would meet you Thursday at four p.m. and never showed or called? How did that feel? Frustrating, I imagine. The price people pay when they break an agreement in the world is the disintegration of trust in the relationship—an automatic negative consequence.
But what are all those things in your in-tray? Agreements you’ve made or at least implicitly accepted with yourself—things you somehow have told yourself you should deal with in some way. Your negative feelings are simply the result of breaking those agreements—they’re the symptoms of disintegrated self-trust. If you tell yourself to draft a strategic plan, when you don’t do it, you feel bad. Tell yourself to get organized, and if you fail to, welcome to guilt and frustration. Resolve to spend more time with your kids and then don’t—voila! anxious and overwhelmed.
How Do You Prevent Broken Agreements with Yourself?
If the negative feelings come from broken agreements, you have three options for dealing with them and eliminating the negative consequences:
· Don’t make the agreement.
· Complete the agreement.
· Renegotiate the agreement.
All of these can work to get rid of the unpleasant feelings.
Don’t Make the Agreement
It probably felt pretty good to take a bunch of your old stuff, decide that you weren’t going to do anything with it, and just shred, recycle, or toss it into the trash. One way to handle an incompletion in your world is to just say no!
You’d lighten up a lot if you would just lower your standards. If you didn’t care so much about things being up to a certain level—your parenting, your school system, your team’s morale, the software code—you’d have fewer things to do or have attention on.*
I doubt you’re going to lower your standards. But once you really understand the consequences, you’ll probably make fewer agreements. I know I did. I used to make a lot of them, just to win people’s approval. When I realized the price I was paying on the back end for not keeping those agreements, I became a lot more conscious about the ones I made. One insurance executive I worked with described the major benefit he derived from implementation of this system: “Previously I would just tell everyone, ‘Sure, I’ll do it,’ because I didn’t know how much I really had to do. Now that I’ve got the inventory clear and complete, just to maintain my integrity, I have had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that, I’m sorry.’ The amazing thing is that instead of being upset with my refusal, everyone was impressed with my discipline!”
Maintaining an objective and complete inventory of your work, regularly reviewed, makes it much easier to say no with integrity.
Another client, an entrepreneur in the personal coaching business, recently told me that making an inventory of his work had eliminated a huge amount of worry and stress from his life. The discipline of putting everything he had his attention on into his in-tray caused him to reconsider what he really wanted to do anything about. If he wasn’t willing to toss a note about it into “in,” he just let it go!
I consider that very mature thinking. One of the best things about this whole method is that when you really take on the responsibility to capture and track what’s on your mind, you’ll think twice about making commitments internally that you don’t really need or want to make. In my many years of working with people to get their list of Projects clear and current, every single person has decided that something was not worth doing that they thought they were committed to. Not being aware of all you have to do is much like having a credit card for which you don’t know the balance or the limit—it’s a lot easier to be careless with your commitments.
Complete the Agreement
Of course, another way to get rid of the negative feelings about your stuff is to just finish it and be able to mark it off as done. You actually love to do things, as long as you get the feeling that you’ve completed something. If you’ve begun to take less-than-two-minute actions as they surface in your life, I’m sure you can attest to the psychological benefit. Most people I work with feel fantastic after just a couple of hours of processing their piles, simply because of how many things they accomplish using the two-minute rule.
Out of the strain of the doing, into the peace of the done.
—Julia Louise Woodruff
One of your better weekends may be spent just finishing up a lot of little errands and tasks that have accumulated around your house and in your personal life. Invariably when you capture all the open loops, little and big, and see them on a list in front of you, some part of you will be inspired (or creatively disgusted or intimidated enough) to go knock them off the list.
We all seem to be starved for a win. It’s great to satisfy that by giving yourself doable tasks you can start and finish easily. Have you ever completed something that wasn’t initially on a list, so you wrote it down and checked it off? Then you know what I mean.
There’s another issue here, however. How would you feel if your list and your stack were totally—and successfully—completed? You’d probably be bouncing off the ceiling, full of creative energy. Of course, within three days (if not three minutes!), guess what you’d have? Right—another list, and probably an even bigger one, with more potentially daunting things to do on it! You’d feel so good about finishing all your stuff you’d likely take on bigger, more ambitious things to do.
Not only that, but if you have a boss (or a board), what do you think he or she or they are going to do after noticing the high levels of competency and productivity you’re demonstrating? Right again—give you more things to do! It’s the irony of professional development—the better you get, the better you’d better get.
So, since you’re not going to significantly lower your standards or stop creating more things to do, you’d better get comfortable with the third option, if you want to keep from being stressed out.
Renegotiate the Agreement
Suppose I’d told you I would meet you Thursday at four p.m., but after I made the appointment, my world changed. Now, given my new priorities, I decide I’m not going to meet you Thursday at four. But instead of simply not showing up, what had I better do, to maintain the integrity of the relationship? Correct—call and change the agreement. A renegotiated agreement is not a broken one.
It is the act of forgiveness that opens up the only possible way to think creatively about the future at all.
—Father Desmond Wilson
Do you understand yet why getting all your stuff out of your head and in front of you makes you feel better? Because you automatically renegotiate your agreements with yourself when you look at them, think about them, and either act on them that very moment or say, “No, not now.” Here’s the problem: it’s impossible to renegotiate agreements with yourself that you can’t remember you made!
The fact that you can’t remember an agreement you made with yourself doesn’t mean that you’re not holding yourself liable for it. Ask any psychologist how much of a sense of past and future that part of your psyche has, the part that was storing the list you dumped: zero. It’s all present tense in there. That means that as soon as you tell yourself that you should do something, if you file it only in your short-term memory, that part of you thinks you should be doing it all the time. And that means that as soon as you’ve given yourself two things to do, and filed them only in your head, you’ve created instant and automatic stress and failure, because you can’t do them both at once, and that (apparently significant) part of your psyche will continue to hold you accountable.
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got some storage area at home—maybe a basement that you told yourself a while back (maybe even ten years ago!) you ought to clean and organize. If so, there’s a part of you that likely thinks you should’ve been cleaning your basement twenty-four hours a day for the past ten years! No wonder people are so tired! And have you heard that little voice inside your own mental committee every time you walk by that area? “Why are we walking by the basement? Aren’t we supposed to be cleaning it?” Because you can’t stand that whining, nagging part of yourself, you never even go into that area anymore if you can help it. If you want to shut that voice up, you have three options for dealing with your agreement with yourself.
I’m quite sincere about this. It seems that there’s a part of our consciousness that doesn’t know the difference between an agreement about cleaning the basement and an agreement about buying a company or improving our personal finances. In there, they’re all just agreements—kept or broken. If you’re holding something only internally, it will be a broken agreement if you’re not moving on it in the moment.
The Radical Departure from Traditional Time Management
This method is significantly different from traditional time-management training. Most of those models leave you with the impression that if something you tell yourself to do isn’t that important, it’s not worth it to track, manage, or deal with. But in my experience that’s inaccurate, at least in terms of how a less-than-conscious part of us operates. It is how our conscious mind operates, however, so every agreement must be made conscious. That means it must be captured, clarified, and reviewed objectively and regularly in full conscious awareness so that you can put it where it belongs in your self-management arena. If that doesn’t happen, it will actually take up a lot more of your internal energy than it deserves.
In my experience, anything that is held only in your head will take up either more or less attention than it deserves. The reason to collect everything is not that everything is equally important; it’s that it’s not. Incompletions, uncaptured, take on a dull sameness in the sense of the pressure they create and the attention they tie up.
How Much Capturing Is Required?
You’ll feel better collecting anything that you haven’t captured yet. When you say to yourself, “Oh, that’s right, I need to get butter the next time I’m at the store,” and you write it on your grocery list, you’ll feel better. When you remember, “I’ve got to call my financial adviser about the trust fund,” and you write that down someplace where you know you’ll see it when you have a phone and time, you’ll feel better. But there’s still a light-year’s difference when you know you have it all.
When will you know how much you have left in your head to capture? Only when there’s nothing left. If some part of you is even vaguely aware that you don’t have it all, you can’t really know what percentage you have collected. How will you know when there’s nothing left? When nothing else shows up as a reminder in your mind.
When the only thing on your mind is the only thing on your mind, you’ll be “present,” in your “zone,” with no distinction between work and play.
This doesn’t mean that your mind will be empty. If you’re conscious, your mind will always be focusing on something. But if it’s focusing on only one thing at a time, without distraction, you’ll be in your “zone.”
I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and situations, not creating stress by simply reminding yourself they exist and you need to do something about them. To fully realize that more productive place, you will need to capture it all. It takes focus and a change of habit to train yourself to recognize and download even the smallest agreements with yourself as they’re created in your mind. Doing the capturing process as fully as you can, and then incorporating the behavior of gathering all the new things as they emerge, will be more empowering and productive than you can imagine.
When Relationships and Organizations Have the Capture Habit
What happens when everyone involved on a team—in a marriage, in a department, on a staff, in a family, in a company—can be trusted not to let anything slip through the cracks? Frankly, once you’ve achieved that, you’ll hardly think about whether people are dropping the ball anymore—there will be much bigger and better things to occupy your attention.
Having to bail water in a leaky boat undermines your ability to direct it and move it forward.
But if communication gaps are still an issue, there’s likely some layer of frustration and a general nervousness in the relationship or the culture. Most people feel that without constant babysitting and hand-holding, things could disappear in the system and then blow up at any time. They don’t realize that they’re feeling this because they’ve been in this situation so consistently that they relate to it as if it were a permanent law, like gravity. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I have noticed this for years. Good people who haven’t incorporated these behaviors come into my environment, and they stick out like a sore thumb. I’ve lived with the standards of a clear head and hard, clean edges on in-trays for more than three decades now. When a note sits idle in someone’s in-tray unprocessed, or when he or she nods, “Yes, I will,” in a conversation but doesn’t otherwise capture that in some way, my “uh-oh” bell rings. This is unacceptable behavior in my world. There are much bigger fish to fry than worrying about leaks in the system.
I need to trust that any request or relevant information I put in an e-mail, on a voice mail, in a conversation, or in a written note will get into the other person’s system and that it will be processed and organized soon, and available for his or her review as an option for action. If the recipient is managing voice mails but not e-mail and paper, I have now been hamstrung to use only his or her trusted medium. That should be unacceptable behavior in any organization that cares about whether things happen with the least amount of effort.
When change is required, there must be trust that the initiatives for that change will be dealt with appropriately. Any intact system will ultimately be only as good as its weakest link, and often that Achilles’ heel is a key person’s dulled responsiveness to communications in the system.
I especially notice this when I walk around organizations where in-trays are either nonexistent or overflowing and obviously long unprocessed. These cultures usually suffer from serious “interrupt-itis” because they can’t trust putting communications into the system. I come across executives whose calendars are insanely overbooked but who, when they begin to give timely responses to their e-mails, experience a dramatic relief from that pressure. When their staff and others are getting what they need in terms of appropriate feedback and decisions through that virtual medium, they no longer need the kind of face-to-face time they previously tried to get with meetings.
Where cultures do have solid systems, down through the low-tech level of paper communications, the clarity is palpable. It’s hardly even a conscious concern, and everyone’s attention is more focused. The same is true in families that have installed in-trays—the parents, the children, the nanny, the housekeeper, or anyone else with whom family members frequently interact. People often grimace when I tell them that my wife and I put things in each other’s in-trays, even when we’re sitting within a few feet of each other; to them it seems cold and mechanical. Aside from being an act of politeness intended to avoid interrupting the other’s work in progress, the practice actually fosters more warmth and freedom between us, because mechanical things are being handled in the system instead of tying up our attention on the relationship.
Organizations must create a culture in which it is acceptable that everyone has more to do than he or she can do, and in which it is sage to renegotiate agreements about what everyone is not doing.
Unfortunately, you can’t legislate personal systems. Everyone must have his or her own way to deal with what he or she has to deal with. You can, however, hold people accountable for outcomes, and for tracking and managing everything that comes their way. And you can give them the information in this book. Then, at least, they’ll have no excuse for letting something fall through the cracks.
This doesn’t mean that everyone has to do everything. I hope I have described a way to relate to our knowledge-based world that provides room for everyone to have a lot more to do than he or she can do. The critical issue will be to facilitate a constant renegotiation process with all involved, so they feel OK about what they’re not doing. That’s real knowledge work, at a more sophisticated level. But there’s little hope of getting there without having bulletproof capture systems in play. Remember, you can’t renegotiate an agreement with yourself that you can’t remember you made. And you certainly can’t renegotiate agreements with others that you and they have lost track of.
When groups of people collectively adopt the 100 percent capture standard, they have a tight ship to sail. It doesn’t mean they’re sailing in the right direction, or even that they’re on the right ship; it just means that the one they’re on, in the direction it’s going, is sailing with the most efficient energy it can.