A typical question I get is, “What’s the one thing that we do that gets in the way of us being productive?” It’s not one thing, but five, all wrapped together: People keep stuff in their head. They don’t decide what they need to do about stuff they know they need to do something about. They don’t organize action reminders and support materials in functional categories. They don’t maintain and review a complete and objective inventory of their commitments. Then they waste energy and burn out, allowing their busy-ness to be driven by what’s latest and loudest, hoping it’s the right thing to do but never feeling the relief that it is.
I merely just bottom-lined the worst practices for the five steps of managing workflow—capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. None of these is the ONE problem. Obviously most people keep stuff in their head, which short-circuits the process to begin with. But lots of people write lots of things down—they just don’t decide the next actions on them, which keeps the lists operationally dysfunctional. But even if they think about the actions required, they don’t organize the reminder somewhere that they’ll see when they are in the context to do the action. And even if they did that in a burst of productivity inspiration, most let their systems quickly become out of date and inconsistent. And without the care and feeding and constant utilization of their objective executive thinking tools, that function slips back into psychic RAM. Life and work become reactive responses instead of clearly directed action choices.
So, what do we need to do instead?
It’s a combined set of the five best-practice behaviors. Get everything out of your head. Make decisions about actions required on stuff when it shows up, not when it blows up. Organize reminders of your projects and the next actions on them in appropriate categories. Keep your system current, complete, and reviewed sufficiently to trust your intuitive choices about what you’re doing and what you’re not doing at any point in time.
I suppose I could have gotten it even simpler: “Focus on positive outcomes and continually take the next action of the most important thing.” But who doesn’t know that? Consistent implementation of that principle, totally integrated with every aspect of our life, is the big challenge. And that’s easier than you’re afraid it is, but not as easy as it sounds.
This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.