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“From Clutter to Clarity”
by Tom Goodman
May 26, 2005

Last Sunday as I spoke on time management, I suggested a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done.  Below is an abridged review of the book by Marshall Allen (no relation).  The review first appeared in “Boundless,” an online journal for young adults sponsored by Focus on the Family.  You can find Marshall Allen’s full article at www.boundless.org/departments/pages/a0001025.html.

David Allen wants to turn everyday mortals into gurus of productivity.  Allen, who is not related to me, is the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.  His goal is to help people manage their lives so they achieve more without losing their minds, or sacrificing their personal values.

He expects his devotees to complete every unfinished task.  The messy workspace you’ve been meaning to clean?  The phone call you were supposed to make a month ago?  He wants to take these items that constantly pop into our heads and help us finish them, so we enjoy the psychological satisfaction of stress-free efficiency.  Sound impossible?  Well, let’s just say that Allen has a system—a detailed super-system—to make it happen.

Getting Things Done explains that old-school time management tactics are irrelevant in today’s “knowledge-based” society.  We live in a world where the number of tasks has increased exponentially.  Work has no clear boundaries and people are trying to accomplish multiple projects at once—writing essays or memos, attending staff meetings or making decisions about conferences to attend.  And with each task, infinite information is available on the Internet for doing things “better.”

To keep track of our tasks, we often rely on short-term memory, which functions like a computer’s RAM, Allen says.  While our focused mind thinks about two or three things, all the incomplete items we have yet to accomplish are still filling the short-term memory.  “Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams,” he writes.  “They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own mental overload.”

David Allen has helped thousands of people turn overflowing e-mail inboxes, desk drawers and garages into portraits of proper organization.  Some of you free-spirited messy ones may be rolling your eyes: This guy sounds uptight, obsessive and humorless.  Doubters beware—Allen has an infectious can-do attitude.

“You can train yourself, almost like an athlete, to be faster, more responsive, more proactive and more focused in knowledge work,” he says.  “You can think more effectively and manage the results with more ease and control.  You can minimize the loose ends across the whole spectrum of your work life and personal life and get a lot more done with less effort.”

The disheveled doubter might shrug and retort:  Who cares?  According to Allen, we should care because when we operate in the “zone” of stress-free productivity we accomplish more with less effort, giving us more time to do the really important things in life.  We become more trustworthy at work and in personal relationships, he says.  Others will notice and will praise and promote us accordingly.

Getting Things Done is nothing more than “advanced common sense,” Allen says.  New behaviors, not new skills, are what we need to increase productivity.  We should proactively consider every obligation to decide the next necessary action to complete a task.  “What’s the next action?” is the key question in knowledge work.

Getting control of your life requires learning the five stages of mastering workflow.  We collect things that command our attention; process what they mean and what to do about them; organize the results, which we review as options for what we choose to do.

Collecting involves “capturing and organizing” 100 percent of life’s projects, responsibilities, tasks and obligations—personal and professional, urgent or not—on paper, or in a device like a Palm Pilot.  Much like making a giant to-do list, Allen says we need to free our psychic RAM by doing a brain dump.

Once the “stuff” is gathered, we need to first determine if it’s actionable.  If not, we should immediately trash it, or put it in a tickler file (hold for future review), or file it as reference.  If action is necessary, we need to ask Allen’s favorite question: “What’s the next action?”  If a single action will accomplish the task—like answering an e-mail—we should do it immediately if it will take less than two minutes.  If it takes longer, we should delegate it or defer it for later by putting it on our calendar or list of “next actions.”

I need his system more than ever.  With a growing family and career, I’m ready to move from always doing to done.

Important Notes:

Vote on the Schedule Proposal, Sunday, June 5, 6:30 p.m.  In the last Quarterly Business Meeting, the congregation passed a motion from one of our members asking the staff to schedule another consideration of our schedule proposal.  The accepted motion was to ask the staff to bring a recommendation in just ONE area of last year’s schedule proposal: Adult Sunday night programming.  If you remember last year’s proposal, the staff recommended that the Sunday night service be moved to Wednesday night.  The only adult program on Sunday night would then be a ninety-minute slot of classes called the Hillcrest Institute.  Last year, one of our members volunteered to lead a time of gospel music for those who did not want to attend the classes.  This option is still available for members who want to lead and/or participate in gospel singing.  Please make an effort to add your voice and vote to this important proposal.

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