When enough reminders, scribbled notes for project ideas and unpaid bills have piled up on your desk, a tiny piece of paper reading “pick up cat food” can trigger a meltdown. That’s because sitting on a mountain of potential to-do items often causes feelings of shame, exhaustion or defeat, which can turn the simplest of errands into a seemingly Herculean task.
It might seem like the only way to the other side of the mountain is to process every piece of paper on your desk, check off every line on your to-do list and follow through on every random note, but productivity consultant David Allen suggests a more rational and efficient way to reclaim your sanity: Simply clarify your relationship to all the things that are vying for your attention.
Do that, says the author of Getting Things Done (Penguin, 2002) and Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life (Penguin, 2009), and you’ll be able to turn items cluttering your desk into concrete, actionable tasks. You’ll also be better equipped to jettison items that you don’t need and free up mental (and often physical) space.
This is the second in a series of five Experience Life articles about Allen’s organizational methodology. In the first installment, which describes the collecting stage (“Getting Things Done: ‘Collect’” January/February 2013), Allen recommends creating a comprehensive list of all the decisions and action items you face — from must-do, urgent obligations and pesky household tasks to someday-maybe dreams and get-rid-of-it garbage.
In this, the processing stage, you’ll go about the business of making basic, clarifying executive decisions about each item you’ve captured. What is it? Is it actionable and worth pursuing? What’s the next step? “This is the role of the processor: evaluating the raw inputs against all sorts of constraints and criteria,” Allen says.
For instance, in the course of rifling through all the items on your desk, you may have come across an invitation to a college friend’s wedding. In the processing stage, you’ll decide whether the invitation is actionable (awaiting your RSVP) or not (if the invitation dates from several years ago, it just belongs in the trash).
Ask the Right Questions
Oftentimes, the toughest thing about having a laundry list of unfinished projects is knowing where to start whittling away, and how.
The first question to ask about any matter that has snagged your attention, Allen suggests, whether it’s an unpaid bill or the possibility of remodeling the kitchen, is simply whether or not the item or possibility is actionable at this time. Your answer will inevitably be either “yes,” “no” or “not yet.”
If the answer is yes, Allen offers two follow-up questions: (1)What is the desired outcome or accomplishment?; and (2)What is the next action step required to move me toward this goal?
Maybe you’ve always wanted to start a photography business, but you haven’t made any concrete decisions about it for years. Now, after asking yourself, what’s the desired outcome, you realize that you want to turn a longtime passion into a steady stream of income.
Great, so what’s the next action step that will help you start moving toward your goal, even if only incrementally? Perhaps you can start by calling a friend with her own business and asking for advice. Or you can offer free portraits to a few friends to build up your portfolio. Or you can look into what it would cost to establish a workable studio space.
The key here is establishing some small and concrete next steps you’re willing to take in the direction of your goal. The very first next-step action might take just moments to complete, says Allen, “but it can be a light year of psychological space.”
When and How to Say No
So what if the answer to the “is it actionable” question is “no” or “not yet”? While it may be a relief to realize not every item on your desk involves action at this time, that doesn’t mean your work on “no” items is through. This is where some key distinctions are called for.
According to Allen, any items on your work surface or in your storage coffers that are not currently actionable fall into one of three categories: (1) items to deal with later; (2) reference material; or (3) trash.
In that third category, notes Allen, are items like invitations, sale flyers and directions for events that have already passed, or junk emails that are just cluttering your inbox. These are the easy items to get rid of. Others are a little more challenging.
Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that you’ll never read that copy of Ulysses that’s been on your nightstand for months. While this conclusion may feel disappointing, facing it directly now can free you from ever having to think about it again. The alternative — leaving it there to torment you indefinitely — is “psychic quicksand,” Allen says.
A “not yet” is basically a qualified “no” to something that might be an important or desirable action for the future. These may include commitments to yourself, like taking music lessons or writing a novel, or upcoming obligations like planning for an aging parent’s care.
For many people, says Allen, this holding tank of someday-maybe items is quite a bit bigger than their lists of current and active projects — which is fine. He simply suggests that the “holding tank” be routinely reviewed and refreshed (and that related items be appropriately filed or trashed) so the list doesn’t become a giant source of clutter and angst.
The goal here is to get to a new level of forthrightness with yourself, says Allen, and to consciously review each item on your list, making responsible decisions about whether you really can or must get to those actions soon.
The key to the processing stage, Allen emphasizes, isn’t simply to toss (or keep) as much as possible. Rather, the purpose is to judge and locate the appropriate status and place for things.
When you keep too many objects on your desktop (or in your purse, or in the kitchen drawer) while refusing to thoughtfully define them or assess next steps, they become oppressive clutter. But once you clarify the value and purpose of the objects you decide to keep, you reclaim your rightful relationship to them. You can start to use your things, rather than having them use you and your home as a storage locker.
“As soon as you determine what’s reference, what’s trash, what’s an item you need to move on . . . you can collect as much as you care to, and it won’t be disturbing to your clarity of focus,” he says. “It’s not about volume. It’s about coherence in your relationship to what it is.”
In the third part of this series, we’ll explore how to organize what you’ve collected and processed. But you’ve already accomplished a great deal with these first two powerful steps toward “getting things done.” As Allen notes, “Collecting and processing what has your attention is a pivotal step to getting things under control.”
This article originally appeared as “Distill Your To-Do List” in the March 2013 print edition of Experience Life.
Erin Peterson is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.