Keeping track of everything you need or want to do in a reliable and effective system is utterly critical to successfully negotiating a world in which you are bombarded by information from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. Getting Things Done, both quickly and effectively, has never been more important.
This is the argument which David Allen puts forward in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (ISBN 978-0-349-40894-1). Getting Things Done is a whole system and I will only be covering some small areas of it. However, in the book, David himself suggests that if you take only some of the ideas from the book and apply them, then you will improve your productivity.
This is the first of a series of blog posts on the method and if you find them useful then I really do recommend you purchase the book. There is so much more to the book than the tips I will be sharing with you.
Like all methods, Getting Things Done does have a learning curve and this can make it feel a bit of a challenge to start out with. Just like the latest productivity app, it does add some time to your day before it takes it away again, but when you have made it your own, it really does work.
The idea is to capture all of the things that you need to act upon or remember, all the things you want to do in future, and any half thought out ideas, in a trusted capture device. The recommendation is to use a loose-leaf folder or notebook for the capture device. You could use an electronic tool rather than paper and a pencil, but writing the lists longhand is the recommended method. Alternatively, you can write each thing on a separate piece of paper. This has the advantage of allowing you to deal with each item separately, shuffle the paper into themed piles and easily add items to themed lists.
This initial Brain Dump, which I won’t lie to you, does take time to do properly, captures every single thing that is swirling around in your head. All you have to do is sit down with a notepad and a pen and write down anything that comes into your head, both professional and personal, that either needs doing, or you would like to do. Even those big goals that you hope to achieve at some point, such as climbing Everest or buying a sports car. Big ideas and small ones. Even really small things like get a lightbulb for the bathroom or brush the dog. It doesn’t matter what it is, just dump it all out. If you find it easier, you can put it onto separate sheets of paper headed things like work, family, goals, house, garden. Whatever works for you. It’s your list after all.
Once you have everything captured initially it needs to be organised into sections so that you can find things easily on your lists. Loose leaf files work well for this reason.
I can hear people grumbling as they read. “So, you want me to create an immense list of stuff to do? A list that will mainly remind me of all the stuff I haven’t done? Have you been sniffing the highlighters again and lost your mind entirely?”
But wait. I promise it will all make sense in a moment. Firstly, you won’t need to look at that immense list every day. Secondly, there is a scientific reason why this process works.
A Russian psychologist, Zeigarnik, discovered that the brain can more easily recall incomplete tasks. Knowing you will want to finish the task at some point, your brain works hard to keep that information available to you. Once the task has been done it will breathe a sigh of relief and instantly forget that particular thing. So, if you have lots of unfinished stuff swirling around your head, then your brain is always cursing and swearing at you, having to hold on to much more information than it was designed to hold. It will drop some of it because there isn’t room in there for the sheer quantity of stuff that we are exposed to in the digital era. It will also make you feel stressed, upset and on edge all the time as it constantly tries to remind you of all the things you have left undone.
Later research by Baumeister and Masicampo showed that tasks we have not completed will actively distract us from other activities. This is why we become less productive if we have a lot of things that we are trying to juggle. However, they also showed that distraction evaporates once we have noted down a plan for completing the distracting task at a later date.
In short, dumping stuff out of your head brings calm. Calm allows focus. And focus enables productivity.
The lists work because they become an external hard drive for your brain. Once your brain realises that it is all written down it can let go of all that stuff that is swirling around in your head making you feel stressed.
For those of you who are already terrified about just how long your list will be, I’ll cover the organisation step in the next post because that part is critical.