Episode #29 – David Allen GTD® Keynote in Milan – Part One

In this first installment of a two-part episode, David Allen shares an in-depth, sweeping overview of GTD® to an audience in Milan, Italy.  Learn best practices, as well as what you can expect to have happen in your life once you start applying them.

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ANDREW MASON: You’re listening to Getting Things Done, the official podcast of the David Allen Company, with David Allen giving a GTD Keynote in Milan, Italy.

Welcome everyone to Getting Things Done, GTD for shorthand. My name is Andrew J. Mason, and this podcast is all about helping you on your journey, practicing the art of stress-free productivity.

Today we’re excited to bring you part one of a two part episode in Milan, Italy. David shares an in-depth sweeping overview of what GTD is, some of the best practices, as well as what you can expect to have happen in your life once you start applying it. The complete keynote audio is over 90 minutes in length, so we’ll be sharing part one in this episode and concluding next time with part two.

And now, without further ado here’s David Allen giving a GTD Keynote in Milan, Italy.

DAVID ALLEN: Bon giorno. I’m delighted to be here.

I’m gonna share some information with you that basically I developed or uncovered over the last 30 – 32 – 33 years. What I’ll be sharing with you will seem a little simple in a way. The methodology that I uncovered is actually quite powerful, but it doesn’t require you to do any behaviors that you’re not already familiar with. This is not like some new foreign language or some new technology. It’s actually quite common sense, and over these years what I discovered was when things really for us, there’s usually a principle that we’re applying and if you understand that principle, you can get more things done with less effort, but most people are not that aware of that these principles are it seems.

Let me give you an example: Have any of you ever felt slightly confused or overwhelmed and you sat down and you made a list and you felt at least a little bit better? Now invariably when people actually get stuff out of their head, they feel more in control, more focused, better about their world. And if you understood what goes on when you do that. Nothing changed in your world out here and yet you felt better about things. If you understood the principle at play there, you’d never keep anything in your head the rest of your life – and I don’t. Maybe that will be evident soon, I don’t know. Not much going on up here, except this: Now I’ll suggest that the head office that most people are using is not an office out here but this. The problem is this is a really crappy office. If you’re keeping something just in your head in terms of things to be reminded of, things you need to be aware of, or even what your priorities are, how things relate to each other and it’s just in here, you will not give it the appropriate attention it deserves. It will either bother you more than it should or you will not give it the strategic attention that it deserves. I’ve never seen an exception to that.

Now the scientists who have studied, particularly in the last 10 or 15 years, the cognitive function – how we think, have discovered that the way the brain developed over many, many, many thousands of years, your brain developed to do something very, very brilliantly so it could survive. You’re using it right now and that is long term history and pattern recognition.

So when you came in this room you said, “Oh lights, people, chairs – there’s a screen”, as opposed to just vibrations of light and sound. So your brain is actually brilliant in the present at seeing patterns and making sense out of it. And yet, you go to store to buy lemons and you come back with six things and no lemons, or you forget where you left your keys. Your brain does not do that very well. As a matter of fact, guess how many things your head can hang onto and function appropriately with that information based on new scientific information? Four things: oh, there’s a tiger over there; there’s a storm coming; I need to build a fire; the baby’s crying. That’s about it. As soon as you add any more than that, you will lose perspective on the whole game. They used to think that short term memory could handle seven things, plus or minute two from a study done in 1959. Now it’s four, but it doesn’t do this very well. So there’s a basic principle here that if you want to get stuff done with less effort, more elegance, you need to understand that your mind is for having ideas but not for hanging onto them. Why does this make such a difference?

Well when you walk back out of here, back out into your world, it’s not gonna show up in a nice pretty package. It’s gonna show up like this. That’s more than four things, by the way. During any ten minute period in your work day, imagine how many things you have to deal with. Marcelo mentioned that all the information stuff that we’re having to deal with, but think about a typical 15 minute period. You get a phone call from an angry client. Your printer just broke. You get a text from your mother. You have a staff person walk in that’s got a new problem you never heard of before. And that’s just in ten minutes. So give yourself eight hours or ten hours of that. At the end of the day how do you feel; on top of your world or buried by it?

Now I will suggest there is a way to surf on top of this world and I take an image from the martial arts. I did get a black belt in karate many years ago and I’m familiar with much of the material that martial artists deal with and there is an image in the martial arts that goes like this: mind like water. What does that mean? Well water does appropriate engagement with its world. Water doesn’t overreact, it doesn’t under-react. It deals exactly with the world as it is.

Now, in the martial arts, at the higher levels oftentimes there are many kinds of meditative kinds of practices, clearing your head. Now there may be a spiritual component to it, but there’s a very practical component to it, because if four people jump you in a dark alley, you do not want to have 2,000 unprocessed e-mails sitting in your head. You need to be clear, no residue, no drag on the system.

So much of this is about how do I keep a very clear head so I can be optimal in my performance. But if you’re taking one meeting into the next psychologically or you’re taking work to home or home to work in your head, that is not mind like water.

Now I will suggest that most people thing, “Ah – if I just had more time I could get to this state.”

Ha, ha. It’s really a good thing that there’s only 24 hours in the day. If you had two more hours, you’d have two more hours of what you’ve got. I suggest it’s not time that you need.

Come on, Leonardo Davinci had 24 hours, Mother Theresa had 24 hours. Johann Sebastian Bach had 24 hours. Now I know Bach didn’t have e-mail, but he had 20 kids – take your pick. And he still got a lot done. You don’t need time but you do need something. What’s that? You need room, you need space.

How much time does it take to have a good idea, by the way? Zero. How much time does it take to be creative? Zero. How much time does it take to be loving and present with your kids or your staff? Zero. Those do not require time. What do they require? Clear space. If you’re distracted, if you’re worrying, if you’ve got your head wrapped around something, it’s very hard to be present. It’s very hard to be innovative; it’s very hard to be strategic. And those are usually the things that people are after.

By the way, what would you do if you had nothing pulling on your mind right now? What would you do if you had clear space in there, how would you use it? I mean, imagine if you had the freedom to just be as creative as want, and I have a lot of people that have implemented this methodology of Getting Things Done, in the creative fields; movie directors, actors; musicians and so forth. And for them, creating this kind of space allows them to be that much more creative.

One of my coaches that works with us with this material is coaching Robert Downey Junior right now. One of my biggest fans, in the U.S. anyway is probably one of the best known radio personalities – a man named Howard Stern. These are folks who just found – wow – there’s a lot more ability to be creative if I can get rid of a lot of that stuff going in my head.

There’s quite a number of people that I’m working with that are using this space to be able to see from a higher perspective on a daily basis, in other words, being more strategic in their decision making and in their thinking, as opposed to be reactive.

And a lot of people would just like to be more present, tucking their kids into bed at night or watching their kids play football instead of being on their I-Phone. What you do with space will be quite individual to you. If you suddenly had more space, you would probably use that differently than the people sitting next to you. They would use it in a different way too. But room is what most people want. Can you get there? Yes you can.

There is an art to managing the flow of life’s work and this is not just a simple tips or tricks and I’ll give you some tips and tricks, but I want to remind you that this is really an art. How do I manage the flow of life as it’s coming at me? And I use work in a very broad sense – anything you want to get done that’s not done yet. And actually you’re all utilizing one of the core principles of Getting Things Done and that is – well let me check this out. Have you ever taken work home or material home from work that you had to bring back the next day? Do not forget this! This is critical stuff, but maybe you needed to review it or edit it but you had to bring it back the next day. Do not forget this! What strategies did you employ to make sure that you would not forget that material in the morning? Did you ever put stuff on your keys? Any of you ever put anything in front of the door? For this you got an advanced university degree? Actually it is quite elegant. Why? Well the night before, some part of you was smart enough and conscious enough to realize that whoever was gonna try to go through the door in the morning may barely be conscious of it all. “What the hell is this? Oh – that’s right. I have to take it with me.” What a class act.

Actually it is and believe it or not, there’s a real key principle at work here and that is you need to use your mind and your intelligence appropriately, make really good decisions and then park the results of that in such places that you don’t have to be that smart to do smart things.

I’ll say that again in another way. When you do make good decisions about things and you don’t finish them in that moment, but you park reminders of that in appropriate places, there’s a part of you that does not have to be that smart or intelligent consistently. It’s the really smart people in this room that realize you’re only smart and inspired at random moments. And when you are smart and inspired, capture that and then put place holders so that you don’t have to be that smart and inspired to do smart inspired stuff. And it’s about putting things in front of the door, it’s just the door of your mind, not necessarily the door of your house.

What do you need to be aware of before you walk into the board meeting? What do you need to put in front of the door of your mind when you’re going home with your families in terms of the issues and opportunities your family members are dealing with? What do you need to look at before you start your week? In other words, how do I structure my life so that I put the appropriate information in the right place, so I can see it at the right time, orient myself in space and time and do smart stuff?

Now I know this may sound a little abstract. I will get much more concrete about how you do that, but the key issue and the key challenge and the key opportunity is what needs to be in front of the door of your mind – when? What do you need to see? What do you need to be aware of? What do you need to put your attention on?

Now, I will suggest that getting to that clear space, getting the kind of in control experience that you might want to have can actually be done with five steps. There are five steps or stages that we all go through when you take any situation to get it more under control – to get it more stable. Now when I say control, I’m not talking about controlling your boss or your kids or the weather. I’m talking about having something under control, like your car or a meeting, or your head.

Now these five steps I did not make up. I just identified them. First thing that you need to do, if you want to get something under control is start to recognize what’s not on cruise control, what’s not on automatic pilot. You need to capture or recognize what’s pulling on your attention right now? Then you need to clarify exactly what that stuff means and what you’re gonna do about it, if anything, what you then need to organize in terms of some sort of a systematic way to park reminders in appropriate places so that you can step back and review and reflect on the whole Gestalt or the whole scenario so that then when you engage your attention and your activity it’s done from a trusted place.

Have any of you ever had your kitchen out of control? Ever come home and it looks like somebody had attacked your kitchen and yet you have guests coming over in an hour. Oh my gosh! What did you do?

Well, what’s the first thing you did? The first thing you did was notice what’s not right here? You identified stuff that is not where it needs to be, the way it needs to be. That’s the capture step.

Then what did you do about it? Well you said, “Oh that’s a dirty dish, that’s good food, that’s bad food – that’s a space.” You then determined and clarified what the contents were of these things that were not necessarily in the right place the way they need to be.

And then what did you do with them? You put dirty dishes in the dishwasher; you put spices where spices go. In other words, you organized based upon how you clarified what the stuff was.

And then what did you do? Well you stepped back, looked at the whole scene, looked at the time, “Well I got some time, okay here’s what I’m gonna cook.” and then you pulled out butter and melted it. This is how you get your kitchen under control, it’s how you get your company under control, it’s how you get your consciousness under control. There’s just a lot more than a kitchen in your head, but it’s still the same process. And I’ll unpack these in some detail for you to let you know what this would look like. And this is information that comes from literally thousands of hours I have spent desk-side one-on-one with some of the busiest, bright, best people on the planet, actually implementing this process.

So let’s take each one of these steps. First of all, step one would be identifying the things that are pulling on your psyche, identifying things. Do any of you have anything on your mind, by the way, besides listening to me? Yeah, most people would say, “Yo – yes! I’ve got stuff, other things on my mind.”

Well let me find out. How many of you, even since I’ve been talking, how many of you have had your mind go somewhere that has nothing to do with what you’ve been talking about? Anybody had your mind go somewhere? Now, that’s not right or wrong. By the way, if where your mind went was doing creative developmental thinking down tracks your brain has never been before that was adding value to what you were thinking about, I’d say, “Hey dude – stay there!” Great place for your mind to be, but I’ll bet that’s not where most of you went when your mind left. When your mind left, it probably went to something that you still haven’t finished thinking about or haven’t made a decision about or you haven’t parked the results in a trusted place. That’s why things are on your mind. So, the first thing to do is start to identify what are those things that have your attention?

Now I’m gonna invite you to take two minutes, in a minute, and empty your mind. So hopefully you have a pen and paper somewhere and this is an exercise we refer to as a mind-sweep, that is let’s just clear out what’s in there. Now you don’t need to share what you write down with anybody, so be honest with yourself and the trick here is not to make a commitment about any of these things, but simply to recognize what’s on my mind, little things, big things, personal things, professional things. It doesn’t matter. So this might look like: I need cat food, or I need to call the doctor. I need a life. I need a new printer. I need to research a new mobile phone app – whatever it is. I need to hire an assistant. I need tires on my car. The next holiday coming up – so write fast, somewhere and see how many things you can grab that are actually on your mind, real things. Take two minutes and do that.


Okay, how many of you came up with at least four or five things; anybody? How many of you have a sense there’s a lot more sitting in there? Once you leave here, what might you do differently? I would highly recommend, if you have not done something like this lately that you complete that mind-sweep for yourself. Guess how long that usually takes? When we sit one-on-one with mid to senior level professionals, guess how long it takes just to identify the stuff that’s on their mind; not to do anything with it, not to organize it, not to prioritize it, nothing – just to identify it? Typically it takes one to six hours.

I had it take 16 hours for a guy one time. Finally, I just told him, “Well you get the idea. Ha, ha.” He wasn’t stupid. This was the chairman of two companies. But he was, as we say, a crazy-maker. He’d get halfway through something and then suddenly get inspired about something else and leave that go on to the other thing. The problem was he was semi-retired, so now he didn’t have 12 staff following him around and picking up all the balls he’s throwing in the air. He’s just throwing them in the air and running into them. And that is typical.

If you really wanted to do this, it means you also need to walk around and look in all of your closets and storage areas and all the drawers of your desk and all the stuff piled up around you. Anything that doesn’t belong where it is permanently is something in process, something that you probably have some attention about. And just that experience is extremely powerful for most people to do if you haven’t done something like that lately. Highly recommend that.

Now, each one of these stages has its own best practices and its own worst practices. The worst practice on this one is just keep stuff in your head. Again, it is really, really bad office in there. Your head is for having those ideas, but not for hanging onto them. The best practices, of course, is to get it out of your head, capture it, get it out in some trusted place anyway. Quite simply – write it down. There are lots of ways you could capture it, you just need to make sure you capture it in some trusted place. Now, there are a lot of capture tools out there now, but the best one you’ve got right in your hand – pen and paper. Though I’m a pretty high tech guy, I have to tell you that most of the really cool things that I’ve decided to do and come up with, got captured right here – pen and paper; no WIFI required, no batteries needed.

Now that’s not my organization system, that’s simply a capture system and I’m sure many of you walk around with note pads or cards or some sort of thing to capture this stuff, so just make sure you’ve got a good capture tool.

Physical in tray, I use mine more than anybody, because I need a place to be able to just throw mail or throw notes that I’ve taken or receipts or business cards I’ve collected. I just need to gather all that together in one place and not have it spread all over the place.

So the low tech I would suggest is usually the most effective way to capture things. Now you can capture in the high tech functions too. I have a little app on my I-Phone where I can just punch a button, talk to it and it automatically sends that to my e-mail so it doesn’t get lost in the phone, which is kind of neat. It’s called Braintoss, if you’re interested. The problem with the computing world is that it’s so wonderfully new every day and the apps that they give you, it is very easy for all of the high tech stuff to become a serious black hole that you’ve got stuff in there but forgot where it went. All of that can work, recording things, writing things down, that can all work, as long as you work them.

Now, once you collected all this stuff, you can’t just leave it there. If you did, you’ll become one of those compulsive list makers and you’ll have lists all over God and creation, everywhere. That’s not gonna help either because the stuff will crawl back up into your head, if you’re not appropriately then dealing with what these things are you’ve captured. So even though I throw stuff into the in-tray, I need to get that in-tray empty every 24 to 48 hours.

By the way, a lot of things are being captured for you right now. Things are landing in your e-mail as I’m speaking. Things are landing in your social media as I’m speaking. If you’re still using voice mail, you’re getting those kinds of things or answering machines. Those are all collecting things for you into sort of the in-tray areas where those things are. But if you let them just lie there, then that’s not gonna help either, oftentimes that just creates more pressure. So you need to move it to the next two stages.

The next two stages are really, really critical in terms of your thinking process and in terms of getting clarity. ‘Cause the next thing you need to do is you need to clarify what those things are that you just wrote down. So I’ll be inviting you to keep in front of you the list you just made and you’re gonna need to decide what exactly did I just write down and what exactly does that mean to me?

Now there’s a fairly simple algorithm or formula that you will apply and for this, I need you just to focus on one or two things on your list, because, by the way, if I were coaching you one-on-one, you would not have been making a list as such. Each one of those items that you wrote down, I would have you write on a separate piece of paper and then those would all be piled up into your in-basket. Again, that might take somewhere between one to six hours just to gather that inventory of stuff and then the rest of two days, which is usually what our coaching implementation requires. The rest of those two days would be spent going through each one of those items and putting it through this following drill.

The first question I would ask you about anything you wrote down or anything in your in-baskets is what is it? Now I know that seems like a silly question but have any of you ever received a big e-mail from let’s say Human Resources with six attachments and you’ve been cc’ed on this about the policies of the protocols and the conference coming up and the registration and the forms. You ever had the tendency to put that back in the huh stack? You all know what the huh stacks are? You open it up, you go, “Huh!” and you close it up again. That’s the huh stack. So you need to determine what specifically is this thing in my e-mail? Are they asking me to do something? What is it?

Now, the first key question you really need to make a distinction about, about any of these things that you’ve captured is: Is it something that you are committed to move on? Is it action-able? There are two optional answers to this folks: Yes and no. I know this is really keep but stick with me. Most of you have a bunch of stuff in your life and in your head, you have not made that simple distinction about. Is it something that you are going to move on or not – yes or no?

Now we get a lot of things in our world that would be on the no side. You get three kinds of things actually that there’s no action about. The first one would be just trash or stuff that you don’t need, spam or now that you’ve seen it you don’t need it, so throw it away.

There are some things we get, as a matter of fact, a lot of things we get, especially in e-mail, there’s no action on it, but you need to keep it for the information embedded in it in case you need to refer to it – that’s reference. No action required, but it’s potentially useful information that I might need later on.

And then there’s a third type of thing that has no action on it, and the third type of thing is the things you say, “You know, there’s no action on it now, but there might be later.” Incubate. Maybe you heard about a training program coming up but it’s six weeks away and you have some other pending items so you’re not ready to commit to it yet, until some other things get clarified. That would be on hold. Or things you say, “Well you know I might want to do that, but I don’t have the resources right now to do it, but I don’t want to lose the idea.” What we call someday/maybe.

So there are quite a number of things that have no action and they would fall into those subcategories. Now I imagine most of the things you wrote down, maybe even all of the things you wrote down a few minutes ago on your list would be actionable, because they were top of mind probably for you, but we just need to make that clear. Are you committed to move on whatever you wrote down there? Are you committed to do that or do something about that? And if you say yes, the first thing to ask you, this is gonna show up as a little tiny question or a little tiny text and it ought to be in thousand point type. It is such a critical question to ask and answer and that is: What’s the very next action on this?

I’m gonna suggest that most of you for most of what you wrote down is not yet the next action to take on it. So look at what you wrote and see: What’s the very, very next thing you would need to do to make progress on the first thing you wrote down, or any of them? When I say next action, I mean physical, visible activity. Is it a phone call to make, is it a website to surf, it is a conversation to have with your partner, is it something you need to do at your computer, a document you need to draft? What’s the very, very next thing? If you had nothing else in your life to do but finish whatever you wrote down, number one thing, and you walked out the door, where would I see you go and what would I see you do? Absolutely critical question to ask and answer right on the front end to help clarify what exactly this means to you and to start to create appropriate engagement with it.

Now once you make the next action decision you have some options there, actually there are three options. The first option would simply be to take the action and that’s The Two Minute Rule. And that’s sort of become famous in my methodology. If you get nothing more out of me talking today, then The Two Minute Rule and start to apply it – if you haven’t done that already, it’d be worth putting up with me all day, just for that. The Two Minute Rule simply says, if it would take less than two minutes to finish an action when you think of it, wherever you are, if you’re ever gonna do that action at all, do it right then, because it would actually take you longer to organize it and review it than it would be finish it the first time it’s in your face. In a high e-mail environment, probably 30-40% of your actionable e-mails have a less than two minute action to turn them around, assuming you can type.

Now if it takes longer than two minutes to do whatever the action is, then you need to ask yourself, are you the right person to be taking this action and if not, you need to hand it off. That is it needs to be given to somebody else who’s a more appropriate person to be taking that action. Most of the executives that I work with one-on-one, when I start to coach them, I have to go warn all of their direct reports that laxative is about to hit their boss’s brain and just because they get 62 e-mails that afternoon tasking them to do stuff, is not because the boss just made it up, it’s because the boss is the bottleneck.

Folks things constipate uphill not down – trust me. I have yet to coach an executive and I’ve coached some of the best that didn’t have at least four or five major initiatives that they were hung up about because they hadn’t made the next action decision on it and they were the bottleneck and that’s understandable because the higher up you get, the more complex these things are, if you haven’t noticed yet; any of you yet to discover that as you graduate, it doesn’t get easier? See if all you’re doing is cranking widgets as we say, that’s not hard to figure out how to spend your day, but if you’ve been tasked to implement diversity among 2,000 widget crankers, that’s pretty easy to avoid.

So ask yourself on the things you wrote down a few minutes ago, what’s the very, very next action and I would suggest that you make that decision sooner than later.

Now, if you can’t hand the action off to somebody else and it takes longer than two minutes to do that action, then you need to park a reminder of that action, you need to take, whenever you can take it, appropriately and that will be your inventory of actions that you need to keep track of.

By the way, most of you will have between 120 and 220 next actions of that nature, if you did a complete mind-sweep and completely clarified your commitment to move on things. That’s a typical inventory by the way.

Now there’s one other question that you need to ask and answer to get clarity about whatever it is you wrote down or about anything you’ve collected and that is: Will that one action finish this thing? And if not, you have a project and you need to identify the outcome that you’re committed to do.

By the way, most of you have between 30 and 100 projects right now. That’s a typical inventory given the broad definition that I have of a project. A project being basically anything that one action will not complete that you can finish within the next year. So get tires on your car – that’s a project. Hire the assistant – that’s a project. Handle your next holiday trip – that’s a project. Get your watch fixed – that’s a project. Buy the company – that’s a project. They will look like a wide range of things, but keeping track of that inventory is gonna be absolutely critical to be able to surf on top of your game. What are all those projects that you had?

Anybody have any body projects – projects about your bodies? I’ve got a big one right now: get my eyes fixed. ‘Cause I have mild glaucoma, had cataracts and I have another little weird thing on one of the membranes. So that’s a big project. I’m gonna get all that onto cruise control as we say. Probably take about six months to get all that done. Hey, come on – when you’re 71 you’ll notice things start to fall apart a little bit. So …


Is that because I made it to 71? Ha, ha.

Now most people’s to-do lists – how many of you have something that looks kind of like a to-do list? Anybody got a to-do list out there? Okay, great. Well 99% of every to-do list I’ve ever seen is still an incomplete list of still unclear things and it actually creates as much pressure as it relieves. Why? Because when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at things that you still haven’t finished making the right decisions about. Typical to-do list kinds of things: Mama. Right, well I’m sure you had one. Why did you put it on the list?

Oh, her birthday’s coming up.

Ah – what are you gonna do about mama’s birthday?

I don’t know what I’m gonna do.

Bank. Yeah, there are some – why did you put it on the list?

Well I thought we might want to – might maybe a credit line – huh.

So that’s the problem with what most people have done is they’ve simply captured, not only not captured everything, but even what they captured is still not clear.

By the way, every single thing on any one of your lists right now is either attracting or repulsing you psychologically every time you look at it; there’s no neutral territory folks. You’re either going, “Wow! Okay! Wonder when I can get that done?” or you’re going, “Ah – there’s still thinking and decisions I haven’t made about this. I don’t have the energy to think and decide right now. Stop reminding me I’m overwhelmed.”

Now, which is more attractive to look at? Which one of these lists do you think would be more attractive to see – the one on the left or the one on the right that clarifies what exactly your commitments are and what you’re gonna do about them? Again, this is the result of smart thinking that makes good decisions, parks those things in appropriate places, so you don’t have to be that smart again to do smart stuff, because if you only wrote down one thing, on that list that you made before, then you’ve missed potentially at least one, perhaps two still clarifying contents. You may not have the next action yet and you may not have identified the final project is done when what’s true. So the secret to getting things done – what does done mean? I get to mark it off as complete when what’s true? That’s the project. And what does doing look like and where does it happen – that’s the next action.

And as simple as this may sound or seem to you, this is extremely profound when people actually make those decisions about most of the stuff that they’ve got and most people have not done that yet. I would be very surprised, unless you’ve already implemented my methodology and quite well implemented it, I would be surprised if any of you in here have a complete project list right now, with you. And that’s gonna be an absolutely key inventory for you to review on a weekly basis to stay sane.

The late, great Peter Drucker, and we saw a quote from Peter, and I knew Peter. One of the things he would tell you, “As knowledge workers”, he was really the first person to really popularize that idea of knowledge work. What is knowledge work? You have to think to figure out what to do. You have to think about that e-mail about what to do about it. That’s knowledge work and he would tell every one of us in the room right now, “Your biggest job is defining what your work is.” He didn’t tell you how to do that, but that’s how you do it. He just warned you that that was gonna e the biggest issue you will have is determining exactly what your work is.

So, clarifying your mind-sweep: The worst practice is wait ‘til the pressure forces you to make these decisions. You’re gonna decide what to do about mom and you’re gonna decide what to do about the bank at some point, but when and why – when it first shows up on your radar or when the heat on the situation gets so hot somebody has to make a decision about it.

In your companies by the way, when would you guess the vast majority of action decisions are made, when things first land on somebody’s radar or when the heat on the situation from the customer, the boss or the situation forces people to make that decision.

And if you say, “Well it tends to be that”, I would say, “Welcome to the club.” I’ve done all kinds of seminars and speeches in many of those companies that are supposed to be the best companies to work for and they all say, “Oh my God, you’ve been here.” Most organizations have a major improvement opportunity in terms of clarify, stability and control and focus by simply making these decisions on the front end instead of on the back end. It doesn’t mean that you need to take the action now, but don’t avoid it because you don’t know what it is. The biggest source of procrastination that I’ve seen is people avoiding making a next action decision about something and then they’re thinking there’s too much to do, it’s too complex and they don’t start, but once you get used to deciding the very next action on something, I mean down to the very granular, physical, visible activity, you’ll see that those are not that hard to do.

Have any of you ever been in meetings where the outcome of the meeting was not clarified. “Excuse me, what are we trying to accomplish here, by what time?” If that information is not clear, I wouldn’t even go to the meeting because you will not know how to frame the conversation or the thinking. And many meetings that talk about all kinds of things and have visions and ideas and so forth, but any of you ever walk out of those meetings with this vague sense that something probably ought to happen because of that meeting? You just hope it’s not you. Because what question do people tend to avoid asking, especially in collaborative companies? “Excuse me Jose, is this mine or yours to take the action on this?” And that question is often avoided because people say, “Hmm, no – no we’re a team.” Right, at some point you’ll find out who had the next action on what you talked about and not in a highly collaborative way.

Real collaboration says, “God we’re all up to here. Can we decide where the locus of focus is and who’s got the ball on this right now, so we all don’t have to feel that pressure?” No kidding. We have seen whole cultures change, corporate cultures, divisions, departments, change their culture simply by buying into these two questions a lot more: What are we trying to accomplish, what’s the next action? What are we trying to accomplish, what’s the next action? If that becomes part of your corporate or business vocabulary, it’s gonna make a big difference, if it’s not there already.

Okay, well let’s suppose you’ve captured everything and clarified everything, then you need to park reminders where they need to go. Any of you feel like just tearing up the notes you just took – throwing them away? Probably not. Why not? “I need to keep reminders for myself of the work I have defined.” That’s right. Where are you going to keep them? Probably not on those note pads that you were taking notes.

So now, the third stage is to move to creating categories that you park this information in that work appropriately for you. Quite simply, organize means put stuff where it goes. You know, it’s a simple definition but organization simply says: once I determine what something means I put that where those things go. In your kitchen, where do spices go? Where spices go. Where do dirty dishes go? Where they go. Where does a list of your projects go? Where does reminders about phone calls you need to make go? Where do reminders about things you need to buy at the hardware store go? Where do you park things to talk to people about when you’re in next meeting with them?

For the most part, once people start to catch this process and this methodology, all you really need are lists. So any kind of a list manager can work well to keep track of these things and it doesn’t have to be that complex an event. As a matter of fact, you can have a pretty simple system that you can then park reminders of these things in appropriate places. For the actionable items on your list or that you determine, you do need one project list, at least one. I have all of my projects all on one list. It’s about 35 or 40 right now; just one list. I don’t need to look at that every hour, every day, but once a week that gives me stability, gives me clarity, make sure that I’m not losing the ball on anything; sometimes more often than that. But one project list for most of you in here would probably be sufficient.

Now some people like to organize different kinds of project lists. If any of you were doing major sales and you are accountable for selling to lots of customers and clients, many times sales people like to keep a separate list of their sales projects, so in case their boss wants to ask them the status of things, they already have that sorted.

I know some people that keep a list of all the projects their boss has given them on a separate list, so they’re not surprised at any point when the boss shows up and they know exactly what are the things that he or she is expecting of you. Some people like to split personal and professional on two separate lists. Any and all of that is fine. There’s no right or wrong way to do that, but making sure that you have both determined the projects and then parked them somewhere that you can review that inventory on a consistent basis is critical.

Then you have actions that you need to take – the next actions you need to take about things and that comes in two flavors. The first kind of action would be actions that need to happen specifically on days or at certain times on certain days and that’s obviously where your calendar comes into play. So if I need to call Bill on Thursday, I didn’t set an appointment but I just need to call him on Thursday, he won’t have the material until Wednesday night but he’s leaving town on Friday. Sometime on Thursday I need to reach Bill – that will go on my calendar, so that when I get to Thursday I see, okay got to call Bill today. That’s the window I have. So appointments, obviously, meetings, but also things that need to happen specifically on that day, not necessarily tied to a time, those all go on calendars.

Now most of the actions you and I have are not calendar actions. They’re actions that you need to take in and around your calendar from the things that you have already committed to in terms of time. All the rest of your actions, calls you need to make, things you need to do at the computer, things you need to buy at the store, things you need to talk to your life partner about – those things just need to be kept somewhere that you get to them as soon as you can get to them and you’re not re-writing lists every day. You should not be re-writing lists every day. You want to just have the inventory. So you could do that just one next action list. The problem with that is most of you have over a hundred of those and if you put all of those on one list, that can feel a little overwhelming and a little bulky to work with. So people, over the years, have found what’s very helpful is to sort those action reminders based upon context and that’s usually based upon the tool required for the action or the location required for the action.

In other words, I have a list of stuff to do at home. I don’t need to see that until I’m at home. I don’t need to bother that with me while I’m on this trip and I’m flying to Moscow tomorrow. So I’ll be gone for a few days, I don’t need to see that stuff. I have the list available to me to add to it as I might have an idea of something I need to do at any point in time, it will go on that list, but I don’t need to review it along with all the other stuff until I’m there.

People often like to create a separate calls lists – calls I need to make. Obviously it’s helpful to keep lists of the meetings and people that you intersect and interact with, especially the more senior of you in here, professionally. You’ll notice, you probably have already noticed that much of your work gets done through interacting with other people. Things you need to talk to your assistant about, things you need to hand off to your direct report. That’s then very useful to keep a list for each one of those people and each one of those meetings because many times the next action on something is something that you need to bring up as an agenda item in the staff meeting. Or the next action on something is something you need to talk to your wife or your husband about the next time you’re talking about business of life stuff. So nice to then sort those things in ways that make sense to you and people often then customize the system.

If you read my book Getting Things Done, you’ll see in there a number of suggestions that we found over the years that people have found to make that a little more useful. Sometimes your system needs to be a little more complex to make things simpler. That happens to be a cybernetic principle by the way. If you’re trying to manage something very complex with too simple a system, it will make it even more complex. So most people actually are trying to manage a very complex life with simply a calendar and a to-do list – too simple. You don’t need to get it much more complex to get it much more under control, but you need some – there needs to be some discrete ways to sort this stuff so that it is manageable and you need to keep track of stuff you’re waiting on to come back from other people – very important list.

Before I close today, I’m gonna share with you a few of the key behaviors that most executives that we coach walk away with right immediately and one of those is keeping track of stuff that they’ve handed off to staff – a waiting-for list. So again, the more senior in here, you’re gonna use agendas, that is things to talk to your staff about and then you need to keep track of the things that you’ve asked them to do that you care about; hugely beneficial lists, especially for the more senior of you in here. True for actually anybody, but I’ve noticed particularly much of the stress of many of the executives that I work with comes from the fact that they have not kept track of things they’ve asked staff to do and they follow-up when it blows up as opposed to regularly renegotiating that with themselves and other people.

Now the non-actionable things – that’s pretty self-evident; trash goes where trash goes. Many of you probably need to clean up a little bit because simply by the passage of time, certain things become trash. Have you discovered that trash self-generates, it does not self-destruct. Any of you have a drawer at your desk, a center drawer? Everything in that drawer probably belonged there at one point. The problem is that those ballpoint pen refills in there, perfect place for them when you had that pen. Ha, ha. So again, oftentimes you need to regularly clean house for the things that have become irrelevant to you, whether that’s drawers in your desk, trunks of your cars.

Do any of you have one of those mystery electronic drawers? Anybody got one of those drawers that has collected all of those things? Because the appliance died but this charger, I might need that. Right. I’ve got one of those drawers. All that stuff is in there and I usually clean it when I can’t get anything else in there; nothing wrong with that. Again, this idea of putting things where they go based upon what they are – I’m gonna give you a silly little example, but it makes a point.

How many of you in here have a whole bunch of crap you just don’t want to deal with? Anybody got a bunch of just stuff you just don’t want to deal with? You know how you can get clear of that? Get yourself a big box and a big marker and label the box Crap I Don’t Want to Deal With and put it all in there; you walk free! Why? That’s all the crap I don’t want to deal with. Now there is a little bit of an implicit agreement with yourself that you will regularly look through that and make sure that’s okay that you’re not dealing with it. I know that sounds a little silly but that’s actually the truth. If you put stuff where it goes, where those things are, then you get to be clear of it. The problem is, is most people have crap they don’t want to deal with spread all over their life and then it starts to add this pressure to you. So put it all in one place; very helpful.

The second piece is obviously reference material and I have good suggestions about that other than a regular purge, maybe yearly of wherever you’re holding reference information. I have reference information strewn all over my computer. I still have paper based reference files, not nearly as many because of scanning and PDFs these days, there’s still paper based stuff you still are gonna need to capture and I’ve got some suggestions in my book about just how to keep that nice and simple. If you don’t have a good filing system, either in your computer or even a paper based filing system, then things that should be filed aren’t and they start to stack up all around you and then create a gray haze in your offices and your lives, so you need to have a good system for that.

So worst practice: blend all of these categories together. Best practice: make sure you’ve got nice clean edges to this stuff.

I’ll bet most of you in here have at least one pile of your own stuff you’ve gone psychologically numb to and the reason would be because there are different kinds of things in that one pile. Oftentimes, it’s reading material. Some things in there just need to be reference, some things you might still be telling yourself you want to read, some things may be out of date and when those things start to blend together, your mind has to shut it out because it’s too complex to keep rethinking what’s in there.

Now these first three steps of capture, clarify and organize sound simple and you already do all these kinds of behaviors from time to time, but once they’re done completely it can be transformative. A current client I’m working with now, a guy in Chicago, it’s taken us five days to just capture, clarify and organize. Now he’s one of the brightest people, most successful people you would ever meet. He’s a – what they call a unicorn, a billion dollar high tech start-up. Four years ago he had 35 people, he now has 750. Five years ago he was doing 33 million, last year he did a billion. He teaches entrepreneurial at the University of Chicago. He’s on five boards. He’s one of the sharpest, fastest people I’ve met. Now his presenting issue to me was he said, “David I feel like I’m just hitting my stride, but I’m up to here. I have no more room.”

So it’s been quite an education for him to go through this process, the space that it’s been able to give him has been tremendous. Now what you do with this is again what you do with this. And most of you have a system already, but I will suggest you might want to consider some refinements, if this has rung your bell, as we say.

ANDREW J. MASON: Well we do hope you were able to capture any value you’ve gotten from that session and we’ll be returning back next episode for Part Two, the conclusion of this keynote, where David gives the best practices on the reflection stage, horizons of focus and other helpful thoughts as you continue to practice. If you’ve missed any previous podcasts do feel free to catch up at GettingThingsDone.com/podcast.

Well that’s gonna do it for me, but until next time, I’m Andrew J. Mason asking you, now that you’ve listened to this episode, what’s your next action?


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