Author: David Allen
For a while now I’ve been hearing about this book. A lot of computer programmers are into it and aspects of it — like the whole “Inbox Zero” concept — are catching on worldwide. I finally had to check it out. It is extremely impressive. The writing itself is fairly routine, and the book rambles and repeats more than I’d like, but the overall concept is brilliant. Basically Allen starts with the premise that keeping track of projects in your head is a terrible idea because while your conscious mind forgets things, your subconscious does not. Consciously you might forget that you promised to trim the roses or sort those tax receipts or schedule your annual eye doctor appointment, but your subconscious knows and worries and frets in the background. Ever have one of those days (or weeks or months) where you feel like you worked hard and were busy and got nothing done? Or have you ever found it difficult or impossible to relax and watch a movie or something because you felt guilty and depressed about all this vague “stuff” you needed to be doing? Well, that’s your subconscious at work, reminding you of all the things you have left unfinished. I’m extremely guilty of this and I’ve felt like crap about work for a few years now. There are just so many projects I start and want to do, but it’s hard to keep up with everything. It’s so easy to let things slip and get behind and then projects feel like mountains. Allen has some great tips on coping with these problems. There’s nothing earth-shattering about these ideas: most are simple things like filing papers away, having a systematic structure to your workflow and life, etc., but what’s different about Allen’s approach is he reveals the benefits of being organized. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and crappy because you’re so far behind on things, imagine feeling refreshed, revived, energized, creative, and inspired. That’s what happens when you’re organized.
Now most of us have tried to be organized, but we fail, and Allen covers the reasons for these failures. For instance, have you ever made the same “To Do” lists over and over, rewriting the list for a new day after you didn’t finish most of those things the previous day? Well that happens because we don’t know how to make proper To Do lists. First, To Do items (which Allen calls “Action” items) don’t go on a calendar (are not tied to day) unless they really are date/time dependent. Calendars are sacred for date/time related events. Regular To Do items (action items) need to go on your Action Lists, and here Allen has another simple but brilliant idea: you separate your Actions into categories based on the type of task. For instance, have a “Calls” list, an “Emails” list, a “At Home” list, an “At Work” list, an “At Computer” list, etc. This makes much more sense than grouping unrelated tasks together at random on a traditional “To Do” list. This way when you find you’re at the auto shop with 20 minutes to kill while your oil is changed or your colleague called and will be a few minutes late for a meeting, you can pull out your “Calls” list and make a few quick phone calls. You basically can match your environment and your energy level with your tasks. Haven’t you ever been exhausted and though you just wanted to crash, but felt guilty because you knew there was work to be done but the thought of the huge project was too much to tackle right then? With David’s system, if you looked at your list and saw you just needed to send a quick email or check a website for some information or make a phone call, you might decide you’ve got enough energy to do that, and thus the project moves forward a little.
Another great example of the practical nature of David’s system is by grouping tasks by type you are able to only look at the tasks that are physically possible right now. If you are at a restaurant waiting for a date to show, it’s not like you can be doing filing at the office. But you might be able to make some calls or send an email (if you have an email-capable phone). David suggests you create an “Errands” list, which I find incredibly helpful. Here you put every kind of errand you need to do at some point: stop at the bank, go to the post office, pick up light bulbs, groceries, refill the BBQ’s propane tank, get a prescription at the pharmacy, etc. By grouping the errands and checking the list before you go out, you’ll see efficiencies and make several stops in one trip instead of multiple trips. Haven’t you ever gone out and gotten home only to realize you didn’t pick up the dry cleaning right next door to where you just were?
All of David’s ideas are simple, but the benefits are dramatic. The key is that he’s very honest about how completely you must devote yourself to your system. If you rely on your brain to remember things, it will know it can’t be trusted and will do things to remind you, like leaving things out instead of putting them away. Don’t you do that? I have a paper on my coffee table right now that’s been sitting there for over a month. It’s there to remind me to make a phone call, but I have not done it. I only notice the paper at weird times, like at night, when I can’t make the call. And the paper adds clutter and chaos to my home. Wouldn’t it make more sense to file the paper away and add the call item to my action lists?
This is a terrific book and it has inspired me. I’m tackling my own home/life reorg of massive proportions. More on that in a future update!