Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)
The Power of the Key Principles
The Power of Outcome Focusing
THE POWER OF directing our mental and imaginative processes to create change has been studied and promoted in thousands of contexts—from early “positive thinking” books to recent discoveries in advanced neurophysiology.
My own interest has been in applying the principle in terms of practical reality: Does it help get things done? And if so, how do we best utilize it in managing the work of our lives? Can we really use this information in ways that allow us to produce what we want to have happen with less effort? The answer has been a resounding yes.
Focus and the Fast Track
Over the years I have seen the application of the method presented in this book create profound results for people in their day-to-day worlds. As you begin to use it habitually as your primary means of addressing all situations—from processing e-mails to buying a house or a company to structuring meetings or having conversations with your kids—your personal productivity can go through the roof.
Many of the professionals I have worked with who integrated this method now find themselves experiencing enhanced or even new jobs, careers, and lifestyles. These processes really work in the arena of the ordinary things we must deal with daily—the stuff of our work. When you demonstrate to yourself and to others an increasing ability to get things done “in the trenches,” you probably won’t stay in the same trench for very long. Of course, those attracted to implementing Getting Things Done are usually already on a self-development path and don’t assume that they’ll be doing the same things a year from now that they’re doing now, anyway. But they love the fact that this method gets them there faster and more easily. It’s interesting to note that the people who need this methodology the least are usually the ones who engage with it the quickest and the most. That puzzled me for a while until I realized that one of the most important results of its implementation is the relief of drag (as in “retarding force”). Who is the most interested in that? Those who are the most invested in moving themselves forward, quickly and easily.
It’s been inspiring for me to learn and coach others how to deal with the immediate realities down where the rubber meets the road—and how to tie in the power of positive imagery to practical experiences in all our daily lives.
The “fast track” alluded to here is a bit of a misnomer. For some, slowing down, getting out of the squirrel cage, and taking care of themselves may be the major change precipitated by this methodology.* The bottom line is it makes you more conscious, more focused, and more capable of implementing the changes and results you want, whatever they are.
“Create a way to spend more time with my daughter” is as specific a project as any, and equally demanding of a next action to be determined. Having the vague, gnawing sense that you “should” do something about your relationship with your daughter, and not actually doing anything, can be a killer. I often work with people who are willing to acknowledge the real things of their lives at this level as “incompletes”—to write them down, define real projects about them, and ensure that next actions are decided on—until the finish line is crossed. That is real productivity, perhaps in its most awesome manifestation.
The Significance of Applied Outcome Thinking
What I want to emphasize now is how learning to process the details of our work and lives with this clear and consistent system can affect us and others in significant ways we may not expect.
Defining specific projects and next actions that address real quality-of-life issues is productivity at its best.
As I’ve said, employing next-action decision making results in clarity, productivity, accountability, and empowerment. Exactly the same results happen when you hold yourself to the discipline of identifying the real results you want and, more specifically, the projects you need to define in order to produce them.
It’s all connected. You can’t really define the right action until you know the outcome you’re after, and your outcome is disconnected from reality if you’re not clear about what you need to do physically to make it happen. You can get at it from either direction, and you must, to get things done.
As Steven Snyder, an expert in whole-brain learning and a friend of mine, put it, “There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t know what you want.” If that’s true (and I think it is) then there are only two solutions:
· Make it up.
· Make it happen.
We are constantly creating and fulfilling.
This can be construed from the models of yin/yang, right brain/left brain, creator/destroyer, visionary/implementer—or whatever equivalent framework works best for you. The truth is, our energy as human beings seems to have a dualistic and teleological reality—we create and identify with things that aren’t yet real on all the levels we experience; and when we do, we recognize how to restructure our current world to morph it into the new one, and experience an impetus to make it so.
Things that have your attention need your intention engaged. “What does this mean to me?” “Why is it here?” “What do I want to have be true about this?” (“What’s the desired outcome?”) Everything you experience as incomplete must have a reference point for “complete.”
Once you’ve decided that there is something to be changed and a mold to fill, you ask yourself, “How do I now make this happen?” and/or “What resources do I need to allocate to make it happen?” (“What’s the next action?”)
By this point you’ve probably noticed that Getting Things Done is not some new technology or invention—it simply makes explicit the principles at work within what we all do implicitly. But with that awareness, you can then leverage those principles consciously to create more elegant results.
Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of success to another, forming new wishes, and seeing them gratified.
—Dr. Samuel Johnson
Your life and work are made up of outcomes and actions that you engage in more or less consciously. Whether they are merely less-than-conscious responses to your environment or more conscious results of your directed focus is the choice you will always have. If you have any intention to expand your experiences and expressions beyond simply being at the mercy of the world as it comes at you, the opportunity is there to recognize, develop, and master the art of getting things done. The challenge will continually be to apply the two essential elements of this art: defining what done means and what doing looks like. This is not always that easy, especially when dealing with some of the more subtle and sublime areas of your life experience; but without challenges, you would never learn or grow.
Wisdom consists not so much in knowing what to do in the ultimate as in knowing what to do next.
The good news is that when your operational behavior is grooved to engage with everything that comes your way, at all levels, based upon those dynamics, a deep alignment occurs, and wondrous things emerge. You become highly productive. You make things up, and you make them happen.
The Magic of Mastering the Mundane
People often wonder how I can sit with them at their desks, often for hours on end, as they empty their drawers, unpack all their unprocessed e-mails, and painstakingly go through the minutiae of stuff that they have let accumulate in their minds and their physical and virtual spaces. Aside from the common embarrassment they feel about the volume of their irresponsibly dealt-with details, they assume I should be bored to tears. Quite the contrary. Much to my own surprise, I find it to be some of the most engaging work I do with people. I know the release and relief and freedom that sit on the other side of dealing with these things effectively. I know that we all need practice and support and a strong, clear focus to get through them, until we have the built-in standards and behaviors we need to engage with them as they demand. Every time I notice a client identifying something in his environment or mind that is pulling on him and in a few moments he processes it to silence, I know he’s deepening a critically important pattern of behavior. And I know how significant a change these people may then experience in their relationships with their bosses, their partners, their spouses, their kids, and themselves over the next few hours and (we hope) days and years.
It’s not boring. It’s some of the best work I do.
Multilevel Outcome Management
The challenge is to marry high-level idealistic focus to the mundane activity of life. In the end they require the same thinking.
I’m in the focus business. As a consultant, coach, and educator I ask simple questions that often elicit very creative and intelligent responses from others (and even myself!), which in turn add value to the situation and work at hand. People aren’t any smarter after these sessions than they were before—they just direct and utilize their intelligence more productively.
An idealist believes that the short run doesn’t count. A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter. A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run.
—Sydney J. Harris
What’s unique about the practical focus of GTD is the combination of effectiveness and efficiency that these methods can bring to every level of your reality. There are lots of inspirational sources for the high-level “purpose, values, vision” kind of thinking, and many more mundane tools for getting hold of smaller details such as phone numbers and appointments and grocery lists. The world has been rather barren, however, of practices that relate equally to both levels and tie them together.
“What does this mean to me?” “What do I want to be true about it?” “What’s the next step required to make that happen?” These are the cornerstone questions we must answer, at some point, about everything. This thinking, and the tools that support it, will serve you in ways you may not yet imagine.
The Power of Natural Planning
The value of natural project planning is that it provides an integrated, flexible, aligned way to think through any situation. Whereas the basic five-step process of capturing, clarifying, organizing, reflecting, and engaging is a coherent way to achieve stability across the whole spectrum of your life, natural planning produces relaxed, focused control in more specific areas.
Challenging the purpose of anything you may be doing is healthy and mature. Being comfortable making up visions of success, before the methods are clear, is a phenomenal trait to strengthen. Being willing to have ideas, good or bad, and to express and capture all of them without judgment is critical for fully accessing creative intelligence. Honing multiple ideas and types of information into components, sequences, and priorities aimed toward a specific outcome is a necessary mental discipline. And deciding on and taking real next actions—actually moving on something in the physical world—is the essence of productivity.
I respect the man who knows distinctly what he wishes. The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Being able to bring all these ingredients together, with appropriate timing and balance, is perhaps the major component of competence for this new millennium. But it’s not yet the norm of much professional and personal behavior; far from it. It’s still a daunting task to apply this awareness to all the aspects of one’s life. The natural planning model is natural, but in many cases it is not automatic.
But even when only portions of the model are inserted, tremendous benefit ensues. The feedback I’ve gotten over the years with this model has continued to validate that even the slightest increase in the use of natural planning can bring significant improvement. To see brainstorming about almost every aspect of their lives becoming a standard for so many people is terrific. To hear from executives who have used the model as a way to frame key meetings and discussions and have gotten great value from doing so is gratifying. It all just affirms that the way our minds naturally work is what we should focus on to make anything happen in the physical world.
The model is simply the basic principle of determining outcomes and actions for everything we consider to be our work. When those two key focus points become the norm in our day-to-day lives, the baseline for productivity moves to another level. The addition of brainstorming—the most creative means of expressing and capturing ideas, perspectives, and details about projects—makes for an elegant set of behaviors for staying relaxed and getting things done.
Shifting to a Positive Organizational Culture
It doesn’t take a big change to increase the productivity standards of a group. I continually get feedback indicating that with a little implementation by a few key people, immediately things start to happen more quickly and more easily.
The constructive evaluation of activities, asset allocations, communications, policies, and procedures against purposes and intended outcomes has become increasingly critical for every organization I know of. The challenges to our companies continue to mount, with pressures coming these days from globalization, competition, technology, shifting markets, erratic economic swings, and raised standards of performance and production, making outcome/action thinking a required twenty-first-century behavior.
“What do you want to have happen in this meeting?” “What is the purpose of this form?” “What would the ideal person for this job be able to do?” “What do we want to accomplish with this software?” These and a multitude of other, similar questions are still sorely lacking in many quarters. There’s plenty of talk in the big meetings that sounds good, but learning to ask, “Why are we doing this?” and “What will it look like when it’s done successfully?” and to apply the answers at the day-to-day, operational level—that will create profound results.
Commonly the productivity issues expressed at senior levels in companies we work with are centered around e-mail and meetings—too many of both, and too much time having to be spent dealing with seemingly nonstrategic stuff within them. It is very easy for these communication media to morph into an unproductive maelstrom, draining energy. Unfocused meetings lead to unnecessary e-mails, which then produce the need for clarifying meetings, which produce more e-mail, and so on. Both e-mail and meetings are critical to organizational life, but too often they fall into the category of necessary evils, primarily because there is a lack of rigor relative to their purposes and desired outcomes.
A vision without a task is but a dream; a task without a vision is but drudgery; a vision and a task is the hope of the world.
—From a church in Sussex, England, ca. 1730
Empowerment naturally ensues for individuals as they move from complaining and victim modalities into outcomes and actions defined for direction. When that becomes the standard in a group, it creates significant improvement in the atmosphere as well as in the output. There are enough other problems and opportunities to be concerned with; negativity and passive resistance need to continually give way to a focus on the desired results at the appropriate horizons.
The microcosm of how people deal with their in-trays, e-mail, and the conversation with others will be reflected in the macro-reality of their culture and organization. If balls are dropped, if decisions about what to do are resisted on the front end, if not all the open loops are managed responsibly, that will be magnified in the group, and the culture will sustain a stressful fire-and-crisis siege mentality. If, in contrast, individuals are implementing the principles of Getting Things Done, the culture will expect and experience a new standard of high performance. Problems and conflicts will not go away—they remain inherent as you attempt to change (or maintain) anything in this world. The operational behaviors of this book, however, will provide the focus and framework for addressing them in the most productive way.
I am often asked, “How can this methodology improve an organization?” In fact, all the principles I’ve put forward are as applicable to an enterprise as they are to an individual. Capturing what has a group’s attention, getting clarity about the inherent outcomes desired and actions required, regularly reviewing status and incorporating new realities, and consistently recalibrating and reallocating resources—all are core best practices for any team or company. But just like you can’t teach an organization to read, you can’t expect to “improve an organization,” per se, with Getting Things Done. To function at all in a knowledge economy, most organizations need people who read; the culture can provide training and support to ensure that occurs. They will also need people who have mastered the art of effectively getting things done, to operate at the new levels being demanded in this century. When that is manifest in a company through its expectations, training, and modeling, from the top down, the results in organizational output can be profound.