I’ve always uncharitably stereotyped people who are meticulously organized or highly dedicated to task management systems. I have no admirable justification for being this way. It’s mostly the by-product of a tendency to romanticize approaches to work that are primarily fueled by inspiration, creativity, and spontaneity. In a single fell swoop, David Allen destroyed that stereotype for me while also making workflow management seem like something that didn’t need to come at the expense of my affinity for inspiration, creativity, and spontaneity.
The central premise of the book is that a personalized and efficient system of organization is the foundation for creative work. What I love most about Allen’s system is that it’s primarily philosophical in nature. That is, Allen doesn’t really care if you use Evernote or Trello or Asana or digital folders or file cabinets or whatever. What’s most important to his system is that you capture the proper mindset and use the tools that are right for you.
Here are three insights from the book I found most valuable:
1. The mind is for having ideas, not holding ideas: The mind is at its best when it’s making connections and generating ideas, not when it’s struggling to remember where things have been placed and what need’s to be done. Being organized is not an end in itself. It’s a way of facilitating flow. Once you you decide to do something, your mind creates an open loop. An open loop is any task, obligation, or plan that hasn’t been properly defined and delegated. When we have open loops, our mind uses lots of energy to nag us about them. This hinders creative thinking and creates cognitive overload. When you close your open loops, you free the mind up to do what it does best. Close open loops by building an external brain. An external brain is a well organized and reliable system for capturing, clarifying, organizing, reviewing, and executing your open loops.
Related quote: “Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax. Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an “open loop,” which will be pulling on your attention if it’s not appropriately managed. In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and capture all those things that are “ringing your bell” in some way, clarify what, exactly, they mean to you, and then make a decision about how to move on them…if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection tool, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through. You must use your mind to get things off your mind. “
2. If it has your attention, capture it. Once you’ve captured it, clarify it. Once you’ve clarified it, organize it: Your capturing system is the place you “hold” your ideas until you clarify them. Your clarification process is what you to do in order to decide what you’re going to do with what you’ve captured. Your organizing system is where you “hold” stuff after you’ve decided what you’re going to do. When I buy groceries, I capture them by placing them in a bag, putting them in my car, and placing them on the counter when I arrive home. I clarify each item by defining what it is and determining what needs to be done with it. Once I clarify the items, I organize them by placing them in their proper places (ie the fridge, the freezer, the medicine cabinet, the bathroom cabinet, etc.). Don’t start with organization. Instead, start with asking yourself “What are the things that command and demand my attention?” Then ask “What needs to be done about those things, who needs to do them, and what does it mean to be done?” Then ask, what’s the best place for me to put my action items in order to ensure they are remembered and completed?
“Related quote: “If you don’t empty and process the stuff you’ve collected, your tools aren’t serving any function other than the storage of amorphous material. Emptying the contents does not mean that you have to finish what’s there; it just means that you have to decide more specifically what it is and what should be done with it, and if it’s still unfinished, organize it into your system. You must get it out of the container. You don’t leave it or put it back into “in”! Not emptying your in-tray is like having garbage cans and mailboxes that no one ever dumps or deals with—you just have to keep buying new ones to hold an eternally accumulating volume. What do you need to ask yourself (and answer) about each e-mail, text, voice mail, memo, page of meeting notes, or self-generated idea that comes your way? This is the component of input management that forms the basis for your personal organization. You can’t organize what’s incoming—you can only capture it and process it. Instead, you organize the actions you’ll need to take based on the decisions you’ve made about what needs to be done. What’s the Next Action? This is the critical question for anything you’ve captured; if you answer it appropriately, you’ll have the key substantive thing to organize. The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing toward completion.”
3. Review your system regularly: Every week you need to review the things you’ve captured, clarified, and organized to make sure you’re clear and concrete about whatever you need to be clear and concrete about. Periodic review is essential for building trust in your system. If you don’t establish and stick to a routine of review, your mind will stop trusting you and it will take back the job of trying to remember everything. Much of your day-to-day life is spent up close and in the weeds handling details. The weekly review allows for the opportunity to step back and view the big picture. What’s working? What’s not working? What needs to be cleaned up? What needs to be reconfigured? The weekly review will help with this.
Related quote: “For most people the magic of workflow management is realized in the consistent use of the reflection step. This is where, in one important case, you take a look at all your outstanding projects and open loops…on a weekly basis. It’s your chance to scan all the defined actions and options before you, thus radically increasing the efficacy of the choices you make about what you’re doing at any point in time. All of your Projects, active project plans, and Next Actions, Agendas, Waiting For, and even Someday/Maybe lists should be reviewed once a week. This also gives you an opportunity to ensure that your brain is clear and that all the loose strands of the past few days have been captured, clarified, and organized. Most people don’t have a really complete system, and they get no real payoff…for just that reason: their overview isn’t total. They still have a vague sense that something may be missing. That’s why the rewards to be gained from implementing this whole process are exponential: the more complete the system is, the more you’ll trust it. And the more you trust it, the more complete you’ll be motivated to keep it. The Weekly Review is a master key to maintaining that standard.
Here are three simple action items anyone can follow based on the above three insights:
1. Get it all out of your head — capturing the data that demands your attention must become a part of your lifestyle. Go all the way with this. Don’t hold some things in your head and other things in your capturing system. This will simply negate the power of your capturing tools. You must build a system you trust and trust the system you build.
2. Minimize the number of capturing systems you use — keep it simple and avoid using more apps, tools, files, etc than are necessary. This will just overwhelm you and produce disorder. Use tools that are simple, accessible, and versatile enough to meet your needs.
3. Empty your capturing tools regularly — Failure to empty your capturing tools is like failing to take out the garbage. It makes everything stink and it stops your tool from doing what it’s designed to do. Emptying your capture tools does NOT mean finishing everything you capture. “Emptying” simply means having a periodic review period where you clarify the things you’ve captured and then move them out of your inbox (capturing system) and into their proper files/folders (ie. calendars or action lists).