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A Mislabeled Problem


“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.


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