Getting Things Done: 5 Things I Learned From David Allen

Everyone I coach struggles at some point with how to get more done and focus on what’s most important for their life or career. I’ve learned a lot from one of my long-time clients about David Allen’s approach to Getting Things Done. This client has a typically complex life and work role that requires him to track a myriad of small details, manage projects that require short and long-range thinking, while still maintaining a strategic focus. Sound familiar?

One of my client’s main goals is to feel really masterful in his productivity and focus. It’s been impressive to hear how Allen’s approach keeps my client focused, on task and able to track the full complexity of his job.

I confess to not being much of a systems person. I’ll probably never embrace Allen’s systems quite as fully as my client. But I am finding real value in some of the foundation principles of the book.

Here’s two highlights and three useful details:

Get everything out of your head. This is the key to having relaxed control, with your mind available for being creative and strategic. Get everything (large or small) off your mind and into a tracking system so your mind is clear for the important stuff. I loved Allen’s side bar about this: “There is no reason to ever have the same thought twice unless you like having that thought.” Where to put your mental “stuff”? Into whatever set of collection tools work for you: in-basket, notebook, PDA, electronic file, digital recorder. I have a dear friend who captures everything on post-it notes. Her computer screen has post-it note fringe. It works for her.

Be clear on how to take action. You know those important items on your to-do list that you keep putting off? (Recently procrastinated items from my own to-do lists: Learn Twitter, Do taxes!, Find blogs, Party invite!) Here are three new things that can make a difference in actually getting them done:

  1. Make them a project. Allen calls anything that takes more than one action step a project. Initially, I rebelled at the idea of cluttering my world with more projects. But the project concept has become my favorite new tool. The shift in frame puts your focus on two things you always need to know about a project: goal and action steps.
  2. Give your project a goal. What is the outcome you want to achieve? Identifying exact outcome has created a surprising amount of traction for me. I had Party invite on my list for weeks. It gnawed at me but always seemed less important than today’s emails, appointments and fires. Until I identified my desired outcome for that item: get the invitation out before people’s summer schedules filled in. The priority of this item shifted immediately for me.
  3. List the next action. The great flaw of most to-do items is that they aren’t actually doable as written. Breaking things down into small specific action steps gets you into action and helps you map a path to completion. I had Do taxes! on my list, with stars and highlights to motivate me and focus me on its importance. It seemed so…doable. Clearly important and deadline driven. Why wasn’t I doing them? Yes, I hate bookkeeping, but that wasn’t the issue. Every time I looked at that to-do item, I knew there were several other steps to catch up on backlogged bookkeeping before I could do my taxes. But those steps weren’t on my task list! As soon as I wrote out all the action steps to Do taxes, I started weaving in these more doable tasks into my day. When I wrote out next actions for Party invite, I realized an obvious but overlooked first step that wasn’t on my list: research and book a venue for the party, which I also broke down into small do-able substeps.

Need help getting more done? A good coach can spot areas for improvement and help you develop systems that really work for your personal style. Contact Jane for a complimentary coaching session to learn more.