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Some Reading Notes from Getting Things Done

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I love to read and I love to take notes about what I read.  Today I thought I’d share some notes from one of the most important books I read in the past year: Getting Things Done by David Allen.

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).

Commitment Isn’t the Starting Point

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In Make Waves, I wrote “If you’re passionate about something, and you can’t motivate yourself to take that first step, then your first step is probably too big.”

This was a point I made earlier on a recent episode of The Minimalist where we answered questions from callers about goals.

When Ryan & Josh posted that quote on Twitter, someone asked the following question: “What if you’re passionate about nothing and still can’t take the first step?”

This is a question I hear a lot. So I thought I’d tackle it here on my blog where I don’t have to abide by the character limitations on Twitter.

Here’s what I would say to anyone who doesn’t know what to do because they’re too overwhelmed by the process of trying to sort out what their life passion is:

Don’t force yourself to be too specific too soon.

Before you try to figure out what you love, take some time to follow up on what you like. Instead of seeking a big epiphany about what you want to do for your entire life, make a small effort to explore a few things that seem interesting to you right now. Commitment isn’t the starting point for creating your life. Curiosity is.

Too many people place an unrealistic pressure on themselves to find their “one true calling” while overlooking the wisdom and directional clues to be gained from cultivating a sense of wonder towards everyday life. We approach the process of finding our life path as if it’s supposed to be like falling in love at first sight when it’s really more like figuring things out on a first date.

If you’re not passionate about anything, then your first step is to release yourself from the pressure to be passionate about some single specific thing. Then give yourself permission to playfully explore whatever you’re curious about without feeling the need to marry it or monetize it right away. Repeat that process again and again until your knowledge of self begins to manifest in the form of creative impulses that you can’t resist expressing.

Exploring your curiosities is like pouring water into a cup. If you keep doing it, the water will eventually spill out in every direction and you’ll have a condition called “overflow.” Being passionate about something is the result of creating a condition of “personal overflow” by consistently nurturing your sense of wonder. When you consistently pour into your creative self, you’ll start spilling over with projects and proposals at every turn. And the best part about this state is that it’s really difficult to suppress. You go from asking “What should I do with my life?” to asking “How am I ever going to find enough time to do all these fascinating things?”

My favorite description of the overflow state comes from Ray Bradbury:

If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.

What Bradbury, a prolific Science Fiction writer, describes here is the total opposite of stressing out over ideas for what he should write about. He spends so much time pouring into his creative cup that he’s always working from a state of overflow.

Here’s the thing about “finding your passion”: Life isn’t going to just walk up to you and say “Hey, here’s a single specific passion that I’m going to assign to you and this will provide you with all the insight you’ll ever need about what to do for the rest of your life.”

Life gives you questions. It sends a bunch of experiences your way and some of these experiences resonate with you. You can feel that resonance as the sensation of intrigue. At various moments, you’ll find yourself intrigued by certain types of conversations, stories, topics, hobbies, games, styles, etc. And you’ll find yourself asking all sorts of questions about how those things work. When those moments happen, your job is to follow your curiosities just as Alice in Wonderland followed the white rabbit: all the way down the rabbit hole until your life begins to intersect with the characters and adventures that seem uniquely designed for you.

In What You’ll Wish You’d Known, Paul Graham writes:

You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That’s why he’s so good. If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was when he looked at Maxwell’s equations and said, what the hell is going on here?

It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name “mathematics” is not at all like what mathematicians do. The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn’t like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting– only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly.

When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.

And not only in intellectual matters. Henry Ford’s great question was, why do cars have to be a luxury item? What would happen if you treated them as a commodity? Franz Beckenbauer’s was, in effect, why does everyone have to stay in his position? Why can’t defenders score goals too?”

No one has all the important answers about what they’re supposed to do, but everyone has interesting questions they know how to pursue.

If you focus on getting all the important answers too soon, you’ll stunt the development of character, competence, and creativity that only chasing your curiosities can provide.

So the key is this: Prioritize the challenging questions that make you come alive over cookie-cutter answers about how to make a living.

Passion is like a flower. Curiosity is like a seed. Your dream of building a wonderful garden will never be realized until you’re willing to patiently nurture your small seeds of curiosity even though they look far more fragile and unflattering than the beautiful end goal you have in mind.

Starting Small is the Opposite of Staying Small

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Here’s a quick tip for getting started on a project when you feel afraid:

Reduce the size of your fear by reducing the size of your first step.

The thing about courage is that it increases with competence.  It’s like the scene from Man on Fire where Creasy tells Lupita “There’s no such thing as tough. There’s trained or untrained.” By starting small, you gradually build the confidence to go big.

Some would say “be fearless.” I say “fear less by doing a little bit less of what you fear.”

Use what you know you can do as a bridge to get to what you fear you can’t do.

You can’t force yourself to be bold any more than you can force yourself to bench press an amount of weight that’s greater than your level of conditioning.  You have to start with what initially seems to be a shameful size and you leverage your existing strength as a way to gain greater strength.

You don’t get stuck by lifting small weights. You get strong by lifting small weights. The people who get stuck are the ones who don’t lift any weights at all because they’re ashamed to be the person lifting the little weights.

Just like muscular strength, boldness is built bit by bit. Instead of forcing yourself to be fearless, use your already existing boldness to gradually nudge yourself beyond your comfort zone.

You won’t get stuck by starting small. You’ll get stuck by refusing to start at all.

Make Waves

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If you’re passionate about something, and you can’t motivate yourself to take that first step, then your first step is probably too big.

If you love running, for instance, and you’re struggling to get back into a steady routine, don’t make it an all or nothing enterprise by pressuring yourself to run five miles right out of the gate.

Reduce the action steps you need to take to the tiniest amount you can think of. Make it ridiculously easy for yourself to start. Find an amount you know you can do. Then cut that in half. Then shave off a little more. Then try that.

Small first steps will eventually give rise to big waves of momentum. Then you can ride those waves to new heights of creative inspiration and expression.

Don’t invest in your goals. That’s way too overwhelming. Invest in the process of building momentum. Then you can let the momentum carry you through the uninspired days.

Your Feelings Are Not the Enemy

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Feelings are not demons to be exorcised. They’re muses to be channeled.

When it comes to so-called “negative” feelings, I prefer the aikido method: Redirect the energy instead of resisting it.

That is, find a way to channel the energy of your mood along creative and constructive lines rather than treating it as an unquestionable indication of impending doom.

Each feeling is like a distinct kind of friend. Some friends are great at making us smile and laugh. Others are better at making us think deeply. Negative feelings are like those friends who aren’t the most fun, but who challenge us to seriously confront the things that hold us back. Sometimes they make us uncomfortable, but they usually make us better in the process.

When you resent your feelings, you resist the unique form of wisdom that your feelings can provide.

Instead of forcing yourself to be positive about your negative emotions, free yourself to be philosophical about them. In a spirit of open-minded inquiry & non-judgmental compassion, ask yourself “What are my feelings teaching me?”

You have to let your feelings BE before you  can let your feelings GO. You can’t release what you resent. You can’t process what you push away.

An uncomfortable emotion is not a sin. It’s a sign. It’s your soul’s way of signaling its need to be heard, nurtured, and affirmed.

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