If you’ve been in any bookstore with a business section in the last twelve years, especially one in an airport, you’ve undoubtedly seen David Allen’s phenomenal bestseller from 2001, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. At the time I learned about him, though, his book was a manuscript in the hands of his editor.
It was late 2000. I was surfing the Web one day while working on the Sociology, Religion and Sports desk at Minneapolis Public Library. In a lull between helping patrons I happened upon the home page of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). It just fascinated me that people could earn a living organizing other people’s stuff.
I browsed a list of recorded talks and panel discussions for sale from past NAPO conferences. And one was the keynote speech from the 1999 NAPO annual conference and organizing expo called “The New Time Management: Staying on the Peaceful Edge,” by David Allen. I ordered the audiocassette. When it arrived, I listened with rapt attention.
And still, more than a decade later, maybe once a year while I’m puttering in the sewing domain, I’ll think to pop the cassette back into the player and see if I can hear Allen’s pizzazz-charged speech one more time before the tape finally breaks.
Just like a child who loves to hear a favorite bedtime story told exactly the same way every time, I love to hear Allen say “I want to let you know that one of my outstanding credentials to talk about this material is that you are looking at probably the laziest person you have ever met.”
What a brilliant opening.
“The last person in the world you’d ever want to study anything about personal productivity or organization from is somebody who’s addicted to working hard,” he continues. “‘Cause they’re not gonna be like me, where I have absolutely gone out to the furthest edges of the universe to test the mettle and to research with how little effort you can make something happen.”
Allen goes on to describe how he’s helped his executive clientele, besieged by hundreds of e-mails pouring in daily, to be both productive and relaxed by following the Getting Things Done workflow diagram.
And while I’m no executive, sometimes my flow of ideas feels like hundreds of e-mails pouring into my mind, pestering me for attention and action. It’s no coincidence that I’m always in the sewing domain when it occurs to me to listen to Allen’s speech. It’s where I have the most ideas, most projects, most open loops, and most need for an organizing structure.
So I think Allen is talking to me when he says, “Most of you are run by your creative process. It’s a fabulous servant, but a terrible master.”
“Most people are thinking about how they ought to be thinking about what they think they ought to be thinking about…and never finish the drill.”
I know that feeling.
Allen goes on, “…I call a project any open loop you can’t finish with just one action that you’re committed to do. The way you get them off your mind is not necessarily by finishing them. As a matter of fact, you can finish some things and they can still be on your mind.”
“Huh?” I always ask at this point, even though I know what’s coming.
“There are just two very simple questions you need to ask and answer about every single thing that’s on your mind and put these answers into a system that you trust. Here’s the zeros and ones.”
“‘Hi. What is your intention with this thing? What is the loop that is open here? What is the commitment? What is the project? What’s the successful outcome? What’s the next step?'”
Allen has given us six questions, not two–but who’s counting?
“See, what this does is, when you really ask and answer these questions about everything, is it transmutes ‘stuff.’ You all know what ‘stuff’ is? My definition of ‘stuff’ is anything that has landed into your psychological ten acres that you don’t think belongs there for all eternity. So there’s something that needs to be different, or changed, or moved, or something about it, you just haven’t quite decided exactly what that is or how to do it, so it’s still sitting there…What is your agreement with yourself about what this thing is and what to do with it? And if you haven’t made that decision, it’s still ‘stuff.'”
“You no longer have the edges to your job that the entire culture used to have forty years ago. And so you have to define your own edges. Unfortunately, with no edges there are so many things that could be relevant to what you’re doing. And that’s why they call it information overload–because you just opened a valve and said ‘Come on in, because all of you just might be relevant.'”
At this point I’m imagining the fabrics, patterns, buttons, books, and projects I’ve let in with no agreement with myself and no defined edges. “Stuff” galore.
“You don’t just rearrange ‘stuff.’ You can, but it won’t solve anything, ” Allen says. “Don’t keep not deciding and putting it back in the “in” basket.”
Or, I add to myself, the fabric shelf, the pattern file, or the button box.
So as I continue to evaluate my wardrobe, my sewing projects and supplies, and my workspace, I’m going to ask myself
- What’s my intention?
- What’s the open loop?
- What’s the commitment?
- What’s the project?
- What’s the successful outcome?
- What’s the next step?
And I’ll see how my answers guide me to a more productive–and peaceful–place.