Reflecting: Keeping It All Fresh and Functional - Practicing Stress-Free Productivity - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2003)

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



Practicing Stress-Free Productivity


Reflecting: Keeping It All Fresh and Functional

THE PURPOSE OF this whole method of workflow management is not to let your brain become lax, but rather to enable it to be free to experience more elegant, productive, and creative activity. In order to earn that freedom, however, your brain must engage on some consistent basis with all your commitments and activities. You must be assured that you’re doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s OK to be not doing what you’re not doing. That facilitates the condition of being present, which is always the optimal state from which to operate. Reviewing your system on a regular basis, reflecting on the contents, and keeping it current and functional are prerequisites for that kind of clarity and stability.

If you have a list of calls you must make, for example, the minute that list is not totally current with all the calls you need to make, your brain will not trust the system, and it won’t get relief from its lower-level mental tasks. It will have to take back the job of remembering, processing, and reminding, which, as you should know by now, it doesn’t do very effectively.

All of this means your system cannot be static. In order to support appropriate action choices, it must be kept up-to-date. And it should trigger consistent and appropriate evaluation of your life and work at several horizons.

There are two major issues that need to be handled at this point:

· What do you look at in all this, and when?

· What do you need to do, and how often, to ensure that all of it works as a consistent system, freeing you to think and manage at a higher level?

A real review process will lead to enhanced and proactive new thinking in key areas of your life and work. Such thinking emerges from both focused concentration and serendipitous brainstorming, which will be triggered and galvanized by a consistent personal review of your inventory of actions and projects.

What to Look At, When

Your personal system and behaviors need to be established in such a way that you can see all the action options you need to see, when you need to see them. This is really just common sense, but few people actually have their processes and their organization honed to the point where they are as functional as they could be.

When you have access to a phone and any discretionary time, you ought to at least glance at the list of all the phone calls you need to make, and then either direct yourself to the best one to handle or give yourself permission to feel OK about not bothering with any of them. When you’re about to go in for a discussion with your boss or your partner, take a moment to review the outstanding agendas you have with him or her, so you’ll know that you’re using your time most effectively. When you need to pick up something at the dry cleaner, first quickly review all the other errands that you might be able to do en route.

A few seconds a day is usually all you need for review, as long as you’re looking at a sufficient amount of the right things at the right time.

People often ask me, “How much time do you spend looking at your system?” My answer is simply, “As much time as I need to feel comfortable about what I’m doing.” In actuality it’s an accumulation of two seconds here, three seconds there. What most people don’t realize is that my lists are in one sense my office. Just as you might have Post-its and stacks of documents that represent work to do at your workstation, so do I on my Next Actions lists and calendar. Assuming that you’ve completely collected, processed, and organized your stuff, you’ll most likely take only a few brief moments here and there to access your system for day-to-day reminders.

Look at Your Calendar First …

Your most frequent review will probably be of your daily calendar, and your daily tickler folder if you’re maintaining one, to see the “hard landscape” and assess what has to get done. You need to know the time and space parameters first. Knowing that you have nonstop meetings from eight a.m. to six p.m., for example, with barely a half-hour break for lunch, will help you make necessary decisions about any other activities.

… Then Your Action Lists

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues.

—Ayn Rand

After you review all your day-and time-specific commitments and handle whatever you need to about them, your next most frequent area for review will be the lists of all the actions you could possibly do in your current context. If you’re in your office, for instance, you’ll look at your lists of calls, computer actions, and in-office things to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will be doing anything on those lists; you’ll just evaluate them against the flow of other work coming at you to ensure that you make the best choices about what to deal with. You need to feel confident that you’re not missing anything critical.

Frankly, if your calendar is trustworthy and your action lists are current, they may be the only things in the system you’ll need to refer to more than every couple of days. There have been many days when I didn’t need to look at any of my lists, in fact, because it was clear from the front end—my calendar—what I wouldn’t be able to do.

The Right Review in the Right Context

You may need to access any one of your lists at any time. When you and your life partner are decompressing at the end of the day, and you want to be sure you’ll take care of the “business” the two of you manage together about home, family, and/or personal life, you’ll want to look at your accumulated agendas for him or her. On the other hand, if your boss pops in for a face-to-face conversation about current realities and priorities, it will be highly functional for you to have your Projects list up-to-date and your Agenda list for him or her right at hand. When you suddenly get a text invitation for an unplanned but highly strategic lunch meeting with a potential client who just showed up, how fast can you “clear the deck,” print relevant data, and renegotiate other commitments to be fully present for that engagement, which, if it goes well, may extend into the afternoon?

Updating Your System

To make knowledge productive, we will have to learn to see both forest and tree. We will have to learn to connect.

—Peter F. Drucker

The real trick to ensuring the trustworthiness of the whole organization system lies in regularly refreshing your thinking and your system from a more elevated perspective. That’s impossible to do, however, if your lists fall too far behind your reality. You won’t be able to fool yourself about this: if your system is out of date, your brain will be forced to fully engage again at the lower level of remembering.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Once you’ve tasted what it’s like to have a clear head and feel in control of everything that’s going on, can you do what you need to do to maintain that as an operational standard? The many years I’ve spent researching and implementing this methodology with countless people have proved to me that the magic key to the sustainability of the process is the Weekly Review.

The Power of the Weekly Review

If you’re like me and most other people, no matter how good your intentions may be, you’re going to have the world come at you faster than you can keep up. Many of us seem to have it in our natures to consistently entangle ourselves in more than we have the ability to handle. We book ourselves in back-to-back meetings all day, go to after-hours events that generate ideas and commitments we need to deal with, and get embroiled in engagements and projects that have the potential to spin our creative intelligence into cosmic orbits.

You will invariably take in more opportunities than your system can process on a daily basis.

That whirlwind of activity is precisely what makes the Weekly Review so valuable. It builds in some capturing, reevaluation, and reprocessing time to keep you in balance. There is simply no way to do this necessary regrouping while you’re trying to get everyday work done.

The Weekly Review will also sharpen your intuitive focus on your important projects as you deal with the flood of new input and potential distractions coming at you the rest of the week. You’re going to have to learn to say no—faster, and to more things—in order to stay afloat and comfortable. Having some dedicated time in which to at least get up to the project level of thinking goes a long way toward making that easier.

What Is the Weekly Review?

Very simply, the Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again and get oriented for the next couple of weeks. It’s going through the steps of workflow management—capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reviewing all your outstanding commitments, intentions, and inclinations—until you can honestly say, “I absolutely know right now everything I’m not doing but could be doing if I decided to.”

From a practical standpoint, here is the three-part drill that can get you there: get clear, get current, and get creative. Getting clear will ensure that all your collected stuff is processed. Getting current will ensure that all your orienting “maps” or lists are reviewed and up-to-date. The creative part happens to some degree automatically, as you get clear and current—you will naturally be generating ideas and perspectives that will be adding value to your thinking about work and life.

Get Clear

This is the initial stage of gathering up all the loose ends that have been generated in the course of your busy week. Notes taken in meetings, receipts and business cards you’ve collected, notices from your kids’ schools, and all the miscellaneous inputs that, in spite of yourself, have accumulated in all the weird little pockets and places in your purse, briefcase, smartphone texts, jacket, and on your dressing-room counter, in addition to what’s shown up in your standard input channels like your e-mail in-tray and social media.

Collect Loose Papers and Materials Pull out all miscellaneous pieces of paper, business cards, receipts, and so on that have crept into the crevices of your desk, clothing, and accessories. Put it all in your in-tray for processing.

Get “In” to Empty Review any meeting notes and miscellaneous scribbles on notepaper or in your mobile devices. Decide and list any action items, projects, waiting-fors, calendar events, and someday/maybes, as appropriate. File any reference notes and materials. Get the “in” areas of e-mails, texts, and voice mails to zero. Be ruthless with yourself, processing all notes and thoughts relative to interactions, projects, new initiatives, and input that have come your way since your last download, and purging those not needed.

Empty Your Head Put into writing or text (in appropriate categories) any new projects, action items, waiting-fors, someday/maybes, and so forth that you haven’t yet captured and clarified.

Get Current

You need to “pull up the rear guard” now and eliminate outdated reminders in your system and get your active lists up-to-date and complete. Here are the steps:

Review “Next Actions” Lists Mark off completed actions. Review for reminders of further action steps to record. Many times I’ve been moving so fast I haven’t had a chance to mark off many completed items on my list, much less figure out what to do next. This is the time to do that.

Review Previous Calendar Data Review the past two to three weeks of calendar entries in detail for remaining or emergent action items, reference information, and so on, and transfer that data into the active system. Grab every “Oh! That reminds me … !” with its associated actions. You will likely notice meetings and events that you attended, which trigger thoughts of what to do next about the content. Be able to archive your past calendar with nothing left uncaptured.

Review Upcoming Calendar Look at further calendar entries (long-and short-term). Capture actions about projects and preparations required for upcoming events. Your calendar is one of the best checklists to review regularly, to prevent last-minute stress and trigger creative front-end thinking.* Upcoming travel, conferences, meetings, holidays, etc. should be assessed for projects to add to your “Projects” and “Next Actions” lists for any of those situations that are already on your radar but not yet on cruise control.

Review “Waiting For” List Any needed follow-up? Need to send an e-mail to get a status on it? Need to add an item to someone’s Agenda list to update when you’ll talk with him or her? Record any next actions. Check off any already received.

Review “Projects” (and “Larger Outcome”) Lists Evaluate the status of projects, goals, and outcomes, one by one, ensuring that at least one current kick-start action for each is in your system. Browse through any active and relevant project plans, support materials, and any other work-in-progress material to trigger new actions, completions, waiting-fors, etc.

Review Any Relevant Checklists Is there anything else that you haven’t done, that you need or want to do, given your various engagements, interests, and responsibilities?

Get Creative

This methodology is not simply about cleaning up and getting closure. Those are critical factors, to be sure, to utilize for clarity and focus. Ultimately, though, the prime driver for my own exploration in this field has been creating the space to catalyze and access new, creative, and valuable thinking and direction. To a great extent, that’s actually not something you need to exert a lot of energy to achieve, if you have gotten this far in implementing this methodology. We are naturally creative beings, invested in our existence to live, grow, express, and expand. The challenge is not to be creative—it’s to eliminate the barriers to the natural flow of our creative energies. Practically speaking, it’s about getting your act together, letting spontaneous ideas emerge, capturing them, and utilizing their value. If you, in the process of reading and applying any of these techniques, have had any kind of “Aha! That reminds me …” or “Hmmm, I think I might want to … ,” because you externalized your thinking and reflected on it, then you’re already demonstrating the naturalness of this process.

“Point of view” is that quintessentially human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum… . In a world of hyperabundant content, point of view will become the scarcest of resources.

—Paul Saffo

As I said, there may not be anything you need to focus on at this point, since probably most of your creative thinking will have already shown up and been integrated in this process. However, there are a couple of additional triggers that you might find valuable to finish off this process.

Review “Someday/Maybe” List Check for any projects that may have become more interesting or valuable to activate, and transfer them to Projects. Delete any that have simply stayed around much longer than they should, as the world and your interest have changed enough to take them off even this informal radar. Add any emerging possibilities that you’ve just started thinking about.

Be Creative and Courageous Are there any new, wonderful, harebrained, creative, thought-provoking, risk-taking ideas you can capture and add into your system, or “external brain”?

This review process is common sense, but few of us do it as well or consistently as we could, which means as regularly as we should to keep a clear mind and a sense of relaxed control. Granted, its scope is daunting, especially if you haven’t yet structured and populated your personal system to have reasonably current and complete data. And even if you have a decent center of control, given the pressures and demands of your day-to-day world, seldom is it obvious or easy to make this kind of reflection and recalibration event happen.

The Right Time and Place for the Review

The Weekly Review is so critical that it behooves you to establish good habits, environments, and tools to support it. Once your comfort zone has been established for the kind of relaxed control that Getting Things Done is all about, you won’t have to worry too much about making yourself do your review—you’ll have to, in order to get back to your personal standards again.

Until then, do whatever you need to, once a week, to trick yourself into backing away from the daily grind for a couple of hours—not to zone out, but to rise up at least to the horizon of all your projects and their statuses, and to catch up with everything else that relates to what’s pulling on your attention.

If you have the luxury of an office or work space that can be somewhat isolated from the people and interactions of the day, and if you have anything resembling a typical five-day workweek, I recommend that you block out two hours early in the afternoon of your last workday for the review. Three factors make this an ideal time:

· The events of the week are likely to be still fresh enough for you to be able to do a complete postmortem (“Oh, yeah, I need to make sure I get back to her about …”).

· When you (invariably) uncover actions that require reaching people at work, you’ll still have time to do that before they leave for the weekend.

· It’s great to clear your mental decks so you can go into the weekend ready for refreshment and recreation, with nothing else pulling on you unnecessarily.

You may be the kind of person, however, who doesn’t have normal weekends. I, for example, often have as much to do on those days as I do midweek. But I do have the luxury(?) of enduring frequent long plane trips, which provide an ideal opportunity for me to catch up. Many people have tailored their own Weekly Review habits to fit with their lifestyles, ranging from a standard time at their favorite coffeehouse every Saturday morning to the time on Sunday they sat in the rear of their church during their daughter’s choir practice.

Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation. To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment. Go some distance away, because work will be in perspective and a lack of harmony is more readily seen.

—Leonardo da Vinci

Whatever your lifestyle, you need a weekly regrouping ritual. You likely have something like this (or close to it) already. If so, leverage the habit by adding into it a higher-altitude review process.

The people who find it hardest to make time for this review are those who have constantly on-demand work and home environments, with zero built-in time or space for regrouping. The most stressed professionals I have met are the ones who have to be mission-critically reactive at work (e.g., high-level equities traders and chiefs of staff) and then go home to a couple of under-ten-year-old children and a spouse who also had a hard day at work. Some of them fortunately have a one-hour train commute.

If you recognize yourself in that picture, your greatest challenge will be to build in a consistent process of regrouping, with your world not directly in your face. You’ll need to either accept the requirement of an after-hours time at your desk on a Friday night or establish a relaxed but at-work kind of location and time at home.

Your best thoughts about work won’t happen while you’re at work.

Executive Operational Review Time I’ve coached many executives to block out two hours on their calendars at the end of their workweek. For them the biggest problem is how to balance quality thinking and catch-up time with the urgent demands of mission-critical interactions. This is a tough call. The most senior and savvy of them, however, know the value of sacrificing the seemingly urgent for the truly important, and they create their islands of time for some version of this process. One of our clients, head of executive development for one of the largest companies in the world, suggested that building in quality time for review and regrouping in order to trust one’s intuitive decision making is both critical and sorely lacking in the higher echelons of his organization.

Thinking is the very essence of, and the most difficult thing to do in, business and in life. Empire builders spend hour-after-hour on mental work … while others party. If you’re not consciously aware of putting forth the effort to exert self-guided integrated thinking … then you’re giving in to laziness and no longer control your life.

—David Kekich

Even the executives who have integrated a consistent reflective space for their work, though, often seem to give short shrift to the more mundane review and catch-up process at the Horizon 1 (Projects) level. Between wall-to-wall meetings and ambling around your koi pond with a glass of wine at sunset, there’s got to be a slightly elevated level of review required for operational control and focus. If you think you have all your open loops fully identified, clarified, assessed, and actionalized, you’re probably kidding yourself.

The “Bigger Picture” Reviews

Yes, at some point you must clarify the larger outcomes, the long-term goals, the visions and principles that ultimately drive, test, and prioritize your decisions.

What are your key goals and objectives in your work? What should you have in place a year or three years from now? How is your career going? Is this the lifestyle that is most fulfilling to you? Are you doing what you really want or need to do, from a deeper and longer-term perspective?

Trying to create goals before you have confidence that you can keep your everyday world under control will often undermine your motivation and energy rather than enhance them.

The explicit focus of this book is not teasing out those Horizon 3-to-5 levels. Urging you to operate from a higher perspective is, however, its implicit purpose—to assist you in making your total life expression more fulfilling and better aligned with the bigger game you’re all about. As you increase the speed and agility with which you clear the Ground and Horizon 1 levels of your life and work, be sure to revisit the other levels you’re engaged in, as needed, to maintain a truly clear head.

How often you ought to challenge yourself with that type of wide-ranging review is something only you can know. The principle I must affirm at this juncture is this:

You need to assess your life and work at the appropriate horizons, making the appropriate decisions, at the appropriate intervals, in order to really come clean. That’s a lifelong invitation and obligation to yourself, to fulfill whatever your unfinished destiny or intentionality happens to be.

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.

—Albert Camus

Over the years I have discovered, through my own experience as well as being intimately involved with scores of people in their day-to-day worlds, that getting ultimately grounded and in control of the mundane aspects of life produces a rich field of natural inspiration about our higher-level stuff. It is because of our deeper drives and inclinations that we have embroiled ourselves in the complexities and commitments that often create confusion and the sense of being overwhelmed. You felt a profound need to have children; now you’ve got them, and each one is a major business to manage for at least two decades. You’ve felt impelled to be creative and produce recognized (and monetized) value in the world; so you’ve built a business or committed to a lofty professional career, and you’re now buried in many more things than you feel you can handle. More goals may not be necessary for you now—you need comfort with the ones you’ve already put in motion, and the confidence that you can execute elegantly on any new ones.

We can always use a refreshed view of our visions, values, and objectives, indeed. But in my experience you’ll resist that conversation with yourself if you don’t think you’re handling the world you’ve already created for yourself very well! How long does it take to change a goal or picture of what you want? Not much time, if any. How long will it take you to feel confident that you can deliver to yourself the outcomes you commit to? My experience is that it will be at least two years of implementing and habituating this methodology to get to that level of self-confidence. That’s not bad news—it’s just news. The good news is that getting more control at the more mundane and operational levels of your life and work is immediately available as you start to apply these best practices, and it will likely open up real aspects of your bigger game that you wouldn’t be able to recognize or leverage without it.

The world itself is never overwhelmed or confused—only we are, due to how we are engaged with it.

An additional aspect of this future-thinking dynamic is the value of staying immensely flexible and informal about goal setting. A significant change in this area has been pioneered in the software world, as “agile programming” has become the norm for successful start-ups. Have a vision, do your best to imagine what it might look like, get cranking on producing something as a viably marketable first iteration, and then “dynamically steer,” maturing both your vision as well as how to implement it, based on real feedback from your real world. The message is: positive future thinking is critical and fabulous, but it’s most effectively manifested when it is tied to a confidence of execution in the material world, with responsiveness and course correction built in.

Which brings us to the ultimate point and challenge of all this personal capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reflecting methodology: It’s 9:22 a.m. Wednesday morning—what do you do?