Free your mind, and the rest will follow

Do you remember the feeling you had at work just before you embarked on your last vacation? One executive I spoke to recently worked diligently to tie up loose ends, clearing her desk, e-mail and voice mail. She left the office with a clear head except for a picture of a warm sunny beach.

David Allen, personal productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done asks us to reflect on how we feel after completing a task like clearing off our desk, our e-mail inbox or any other stuff roaming our minds. Allen believes that to be properly productive in the information age, one must have a clear picture in mind of what success would look, sound and feel like when goals and outcomes are realized. His view is that the mountain of stuff in our heads is what needs to be addressed.

Allen defines stuff as “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 the desired outcome and the next action step.” The promises, deadlines as well as the “need to” and “shoulds” continuously

overwhelm the mind, which wants to remember everything. Allen believes these “open loops” are what cause workplace stress. Interestingly, Allen’s book places more emphasis on reducing stress and anxiety by getting organized rather than solely becoming a productivity machine.

A key requirement for Allen’s action oriented management system is to get everything out of your head. He suggests five common sense principles to manage information: collect, process, organize, review and do.

The first principle involves collecting or capturing everything into a bucket or any collection device such as a physical inbox, an

e-mail inbox, a notebook or voice mails that needs to be emptied once a day. Not emptying your buckets is analogous to garbage cans overflowing.

The second principle is to process your various “in” boxes by following a strict item-by-item workflow starting from the top. If an item is not actionable, file it for reference, throw it away or incubate it in a someday/maybe “tickler” file. If a task is actionable, do it immediately if it takes less than two minutes. If the actionable item takes more than two minutes, delegate it to someone else or defer it to a specific date in your calendar or to your next actions list.

Thirdly, organize by categorizing items that await your attention. Categories that are actionable include creating a master list of pending projects, project support material files, a calendar for specific date and time actions and the next actions list of reminders.

The next action list is a crucial part of Allen’s daily action-management system, as people find it easier to procrastinate because they don’t know where to begin. In his seminars, he asks attendees to list for each goal or project the next specific step they can take to get started.

The weekly review principle is a critical success factor to prevent stuff from re-entering your head. It gives you a chance to review open loops such as projects and lists that include “next actions,” “waiting for” and “someday/maybe.”

It allows you gather and process your stuff and update your lists. It also gives you the opportunity to clean up, close up, clarify and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. Coincidentally, much like our executive heading for the beach, many apply this effectively only before a vacation.

Lastly, Allen suggests if you can keep things simple, easy and fun when processing and organizing, then applying the last principle of doing can help anyone overcome procrastination.

Flavian DeLima is a career and business coach and consultant.
[email protected]

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