I have a new guru: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. At first glance, it’s just another self-help/management book, with a lot of sane advice about keeping the desk tidy, looking at your diary at the beginning of the day, and putting in place some kind of reliable filing system. Some of his best tips are simple enough to put on a post-it note. How do you empty your in tray? ‘Do it, delegate it, defer it, or drop it.’
But there is an idea at the heart of Allen’s strategy that I have found enormously helpful and psychologically quite profound. Most of us feel anxious and stressed about the never-ending list of things we have to do. We think that this stress comes from having too much to do, and if only we could get through the list and finish all the jobs, we’d find that peace that we long for on the other side.
Allen takes a different view. He says that most people live within a great cloud of half-acknowledged and ill-defined responsibilities. There is all this ‘stuff’ (a technical term for Allen) that we want to do, or ought to do, or promised to do, or feel pressured into doing. We can’t deal with it all, so we push it to the back of our minds, where it festers. The anxiety and panic come when this stuff forces itself back into consciousness — either because of an internal prompt (a thought, a memory) or an external reminder (a phone call, the discovery of a handwritten note). And even then, when we are staring into these responsibilities, we are still paralysed, because we haven’t worked out how to take things forward, how to act – so we push them into the background again.
The secret, says Allen, is first to acknowledge all these hidden demands, to ‘collect’ them. And you do this by writing them down. Simple! The writing down and the keeping an unmissable note in front of you means that this ‘stuff’ is out of your mind and on the table. Immediately, you feel a bit less stressed and a bit more in control.
Then, you need to decide for each of these responsibilities, big or small, what is the next physical action that will allow you to move this forward just one step: making a phone call, going to the shop, sitting down to think, or whatever. So the stuff on the table in front of you is not just an amorphous cloud of open-ended responsibilities, it is a collection of manageable activities.
You haven’t actually done anything yet! But you know what needs doing, and you know how to begin doing it — one step at a time. And you feel a new peace about what you are not able to do, because you are forced to consciously put it on hold, or to make that hard decision about dropping it completely.
As I write this, it sounds a bit simplistic and a bit artificial. But I have felt a great sense of relief from working through his book. I’ve looked into this ‘cloud’ of things that need doing, and forced myself to make some realistic decisions about what steps I need to take to move them forward. And now, as Allen promised, I am feeling more energised and enthusiastic, not less, about getting things done. Because at heart I do actually enjoy doing things!
Buy the book. And remind me to post about this in two months to see if it has really made a lasting difference.