A Mislabeled Problem

Posted by: David Allen on July 03

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“Too much stuff to deal with” is the typical presenting issue declared by most professionals who lament their stress and fatigue. That’s an inappropriate diagnosis, though, and one that leads to “organizing” as an incomplete if not ineffective solution. The problem is not volume of incoming detail – it’s too much “potential meaning.”

A large quantity of input is actually relaxing. Nature, for instance, is soothing because of its volume and variety of data and almost infinite complexity. An empty, monochrome room is much more stressful, as is any kind of sensory deprivation. The difference between nature and a thousand e-mails, however, is that whereas the contents and relevance of everything you notice in a walk in the woods are self-evident, the substance and meaning of each e-mail is still undetermined. What to do about berries, bears and bugs is straightforward. What to do about a note from your mom, an FYI from your boss, and an urgent(!) message from a client is still undetermined - there could be berries, bears, and bugs in ANY e-mail.

If the problem was simply the volume of things with which to engage, then, indeed, organizing (or eliminating) them would be the only solution. But in my experience, what passes for “being organized” for most people is an incomplete list of still unclear things. Simply rearranging stuff you don’t know what to do about merely compounds the issue.

The critical factor is quickly deciding what things mean – is it trash, is it reference, is it actionable? If it’s something to move on, what’s the outcome you’re committing to, and what’s the next action? Making those operational decisions when things show up, versus when they blow up, is the most important self-management behavior. Maintaining, reviewing, and renegotiating a complete and current inventory of your commitments, at multiple levels, is crucial to feeling OK about what you’re doing. That’s the only way you can really be OK about what you’re NOT doing. But your commitments about all the inputs are not self-evident – they must each be determined. Thinking and decision-making are the primary success behaviors – organizing simply parks the results.

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David Allen is an expert on productivity and the author of the popular book, Getting Things Done.

Reader Comments

Terri Carey

July 15, 2008 02:14 PM

A quick thought on this – my life coach suggested I ask whether something is urgent or important – because there is a difference. This has been very helpful in determining which actions to take. Though there is a place for organizing things, the actions you take are what gets things done and the majority of your time should be spent there.

Terri Carey
Virtual Assistant for Coaches
TLCServicesOnline.com

Julie

July 9, 2008 01:46 PM

Getting the email to 0 everyday is a terrific trick. It takes about 5-10 minutes a couple of times a day. It is huge not to have hundreds of emails to shift through. It is one less giant pile in my life. You can clear out the email wherever you are- it is great for those 5-10 minute gaps.I can remember when it took me hours to go through my in box- it was a drag. This is one of those classic GTD moments.

Laura R

July 7, 2008 02:49 PM

Todd V -

The tags you mention are actually the context, not the next action, so you are absolutely correct that they are just a means of organization.

To realize the benefit David speaks of, you must determine the next action (CALL the vet for an appointment, REVIEW the powerpoint for the exec mtg, etc.) for each item and then 'park' a reminder / task in the right context (@Calls, @Computer Work) in your trusted system so you can act on them when you have the appropriate tools at hand (i.e., your phone, your work laptop).

It's all in David's Getting Things Done book - and it changed my life!

Laura

Todd V

July 3, 2008 08:11 PM

I wonder if the recent trend of tagging digital documents with a location context (e.g. @ Online, @ Office, @ Home, etc.) adequately determines one's commitment to them; or whether a completely tagged system is another example of an incomplete list of still unclear things?

William

July 3, 2008 06:50 PM

This explains why so many people leave hundreds or more emails in their inboxes. They just don't decide the meaning and what action to take the first time they open an email. I gotta email this link to some people, hoping the meaning will be obvious.

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About

Julie Morgenstern, Linda Stone, and David Allen Productivity guru Julie Morgenstern teaches us how to get organized, save time, and reclaim our sanity. Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive and frequent speaker and consultant, helps us learn to manage our attention. And David Allen, the widely followed author of the popular book Getting Things Done, helps us accomplish things more efficiently.

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