Get Out of Strife and Index Your Life

If you’re super busy, the work pile is growing and in your dreams you’re always running naked, late for a train, Technologist Joseph Smith has the cure. Listen to David Allen’s book on Getting Things Done and build your own personal management system for scale.

By Joseph Smith

Picture me, ten years earlier. I had just found my limit in the volume of tasks and threads I was trying to manage. Smart phones had just been released. It was 2006.  I was working with a great start up that had experienced massive year-on-year growth and our success was crippling me. I had systemised our operations out of the gates to work at highly automated levels. I understood scale and how to build our services for it. What I didn’t do so well was build my own management system for scale.

A great colleague and even better mentor, who had recently joined our organisation saw me struggling and asked whether I had read any literature on how to get things done.  Of course, I said no. I was too stewing in the soup of my thousands of emails and deftly working on my inevitable breakdown.

For context, I’ll briefly describe my life during this period.  I literally would get to work every day, work on what I thought I should do, and dealt with inevitable escalations and disappointments I caused by not delivering.  I was totally interrupt driven and what I found so disheartening was that although my pile grew bigger like some sort of ironic homage to Moore’s Law my output and effectiveness went into wholesale decline.

So, when someone threw me a lifeline, I clung to it. I listened to a ten-hour unabridged audio book by David Allen. I even forked out the extra ten bucks for the edition that he himself narrated and it was without a doubt – life changing. In fact I measure my career after this book on a before and after BC/AD kind of transformation. If the below sounds like you then I recommend taking some time out on your daily commute to hear what David Allen’s book on Getting Things Done:

  • Feeling completely overwhelmed by the amount of information that you are dealing with
  • No matter how hard you work you seem to go backwards
  • You find it hard to focus on the task at hand because you are worried you should be doing something else
  • Your work seems to evolve so dynamically that lists don’t seem to work; and
  • You have hundreds of emails in your inbox read or unread.

We tend to list tasks as an outcome of what we want to achieve, which is fine, however not very useful. Combine that with a list mentality, and sure, I want to solve the world’s clean energy production just so I can stick it to that smug Elon Musk, if I put that on a list – it really doesn’t make it any closer to getting me started on the path.  However, what if a dynamic component was added to the list, by way of categorisation and a note on what the very next step is needed to do to complete a task?

I will try to condense what I took Allen’s book and hope to do his system justice.  My suggestion for anyone dealing with information and input overload is to read or listen to this book but here’s the Atkin’s All Protein attempt to summarise Allen’s approach and key principals:

Become action oriented

What you learn when you setup your categories is that there isn’t really much more than 6-10 types of things you do to keep a task moving. Typically to move something forward you need to either:

  • Call someone
  • Organise a meeting
  • Attend a meeting
  • Read something
  • Be online or connected to your work network
  • Follow up someone
  • Write and email
  • Write a document

If you add a section to your list and categorise it based on the next task you are now orientating yourself towards actions which lead to the outcome you want.

Actions aligned to what you can do at any point in time

You now have the second part of the benefit you can now orientate your actions to what you can do at any given point in time e.g. no point remembering you need to approve leave requests when you are mid pacific on a 12 hour long haul flight and can’t connect your VPN to the SAP system and approve them (I love how technology is going to make that statement untrue very shortly but it mostly holds true for now); or no point remembering you need to read a 500 page overview of a new accounting standard and its implications for your business line 15 minutes between brushing teeth and bedtime. Very neatly you can quickly do the things you can do with the resources and energy you have at hand and be productive with all your time. Just imagine if you unexpectedly had 20 minutes to kill, you could go to your call list and knock off a few without having to think twice about this gift from heaven.

Track and capture everything and I mean every single thing

Now even if you run lists do you really have every unfinished task on that list? If you don’t you lend yourself to doubt and not having a full handle on all the things you need to keep track of this leads to: never fully committing your mind space to the task at hand because you are worried about what you are forgetting; or remembering something that you don’t have on your list and are worried you are going to forget about it; OMG if I forget, I’m going to get my ass fired, piss off this person, let down someone I really respect…oh wait, what was I working on again…? You get the point. For systems to work they need to be all encompassing or otherwise you lose cycles and head space trying to hold onto and track everything, which makes it hard to mentally relax and commit to the immediate task at hand.

Your inbox is not your to do list

Your inbox is an input for tasks that haven’t been captured and categorised yet only. Let me play the tape on anyone who keeps hundreds and thousands of emails in my inbox. You keep something important in your inbox because you have to do something about it… the day arrives, and what you had to action is sitting underneath hundreds of unimportant emails like the one from HQ on XYZ.

The four D’s of speed

Do it

When something comes to you whether in your inbox on the phone or through sentient command if you can get it done in < 5mins ish’ then just do it there and then. Never finish a meeting with ‘we need to check with Billy on XYZ and we can just move forward’. Chances are you’ll walk away and forget about it. Call Billy there and then and resolve it, or if you get an email that only needs a yes/no or simple answer, don’t track it just do it.

Dump it

If your inbox is like mine, although large and impressive, is mostly made up of informational type CC or other items that you want but only from a filing perspective, or if you wanted to review it on an event driven activity e.g. new corporate standard on procurement process may be handy when you need to do it, however not something you are going to read without the immediate need, take all these emails, create a folder on or offline called ‘processed’ and move everything that doesn’t need you to do something into this folder as soon as you possibly can.

Delegate it

Delegate with vigour and speed. If you are like me I don’t take any pleasure in delegating crappy tasks which means sometimes I hold on to them for too long (if you have no conscious move on nothing to read here) but, if you actually like the person you are delegating too then you are not doing them any favours by delaying giving them the task you are ultimately going to do anyway, what you do is shorten their runway to get the job done.

Delay it

Say you get an email from someone you want to speak with or are interested in a follow up with but just not right now, respond and delay it. Ask them to contact you in a week or two when you are ready if it’s something you want to do periodically, then perhaps reassess your motive and put it in your follow up folder.

Treat your calendar like irrefutable record of what has and will happen

Your calendar is only for things you do – not things you think you should do.

I have run some variation of this since I learnt the Jedi way in 2006 and subsequently have been able to utilise these techniques to progress my career, finish an MBA, renovate a home and raise a young family…I recommend it to anyone.

Scaling it

Recently, I found that while my system was effective, my team was struggling with some of the same issues I used to face. As my career progressed, my delegate list became larger. I noticed I could output quick, but the team wasn’t keeping up so I convinced my team to give it a go at a team level. Like all good cults, I requested they read the teachings and take on the tools, and spread the word…

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