Keys to Personal Productivity

It’s a new year: time to start acting on those resolutions. For many busy executives, one of those might be to better manage time and increase productivity. Old habits die hard, but if being more productive is one of your resolutions, says former Vistage speaker and productivity consultant David Allen, a few simple adjustments to your daily routine can dramatically — and painlessly — boost your output.

  • Introduction 
  • Commit, Focus, Take Action 
  • Managing the Flow 
  • The Collection System 
  • Additional Resources                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Introduction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           On any given day, an executive can expect to be interrupted 150 to 300 times a day, “not counting e-mails,” says Allen. How can you manage your time in the face of constant detours? “You can’t,” he says. “Instead, you have to manage your ‘doing,’ your productivity. And productivity has nothing to do with hard work — you can work very hard without getting anything done. Productivity is all about completion and feeling in control, relaxed and focused.” If you already keep a “to-do” list, you’re ahead of the game, but Allen is quick to point out that most to-do lists need more thinking about what needs to be on them and still leave key decisions to be made.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Commit, Focus, Take Action
  • Once you get an idea that something needs to happen to produce a change, you have work to do. Allen defines work as “everything that you think needs to be different than what currently is — personally or professionally, little and big and everything in between.” To effect change and manage work, he uses three manageable steps:
  • Managing commitment
  • Focusing on outcomes
  • Deciding on appropriate action steps
    Once you’ve committed to a task, you need to manage it. Managing commitment isn’t about making promises to other people; it’s about making commitments to yourself. “Objectify it, clarify it, track it, and make sure you feel okay if you’re not doing it,” he counsels. “A large part of how well you manage yourself has to do with how comfortable you feel about the other several hundred things you aren’t doing at any one time.”Rather than trying to juggle those other tasks, he says, find a place to “park” the information outside of your brain where you can access it when you need it. Getting “incompletes” off your mind frees up tremendous reserves of energy and attention. “There is an inverse proportion between how much is on your mind and how much is getting done,” Allen says. “The more a task is on your mind, the more it gets stuck in terms of decisions and actions.” To clear the decks, answer the following critical questions:
  • What is it?
  • Is it actionable?
  • If so, what is the next action?
    Says Allen, “You don’t get to be a CEO unless these steps are ingrained in your thinking and communicating. Today, it’s a matter of keeping up with countless calls, messages and personal interactions. And you can’t manage all that information in your head.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Managing the Flow
  • Workflow management starts the minute something hits one of your in-boxes — the one on your desk, or a message, e-mail or reminder that could pop up anywhere, anytime. Decide what it’s about, and then decide if it’s actionable. If not, you can either toss it or put it in a tickler or reference file. If it is actionable, ask, “What’s the next step?”

    “Here again,” says Allen, “you have three options: do it, delegate it, or defer it. If it’s something that takes two minutes or less, do it right then and there. It would take longer to file, track and look at it again than to do it the first time through. This greatly reduces the volume of ‘stuff’ around you. But if it would take longer than two minutes to complete, don’t do it immediately. An important rule of workflow management is to not spend discretionary time doing anything unless your in-box is clear.”

    If you can delegate the task, do so — you might be surprised at how much you can hand off, especially via e-mail. If you can’t delegate it, defer it to an “action reminder” list and onto your calendar. “Form follows function,” says Allen of the list. “By collecting action items, processing the list, deciding what action to take and distributing the results of those actions, you’re not organizing the incoming. Instead, you organize the outgoing. By doing so, your creative mental processes get used for intuitive decision making, not figuring out what your options are.” The process makes everything objective and takes it off your mind, greatly reducing stress.

    The Collection System

    The action management system Allen describes begins with collecting everything that requires action. How do you know what to collect? The short answer is to gather everything you consider incomplete in your life, anything that causes you to feel, “I would, should, could, need to, ought to….” Then realize that you don’t engage in projects, but actions. “A project is a vision of the world that looks different from current reality. If you take enough of the right actions, you reconfigure the world so it looks like you think it ought to, to match that vision,” Allen says. “You might not realize how much personal energy is taken up by trying to ratchet through all the internal agreements with yourself. But incomplete actions keep mounting up until you feel burnt out and stressed.”

    To get all the “stuff” out of your head, collect everything on your mind by writing it down. As you do, you will likely feel one of two emotions: either guilt that you’ve left so much undone or relief that you’re starting to take action. Understanding where those feelings come from can help you deal with it.

    Allen illustrates this point. “Look at trust in a relationship: when you break an agreement with someone, trust disintegrates. Everything on your list represents an agreement with yourself, and the trust issue there is no different than in any other relationship.” Guilt comes not from having so much to do, but from breaking agreements with yourself — and that isn’t a productive feeling. Making the list makes it easier to renegotiate agreements with yourself, as you become aware of what you’re not doing instead of having it in the back of your mind.

    Your options for collection are many, and you can take a portable “in-box” with you anywhere. Use as many forms of collection as you need but as few as you can get by with — and above all, don’t scatter your notes. “That creates a serious leak in the collection system,” Allen says.

    Here are a few suggestions for collecting your “stuff”:

  • Take notes on a legal pad, note pad or notebook.
  • Take notes electronically, if you’re so inclined.
  • Use your own voice mail, answering machine and e-mail to leave messages and reminders to yourself.
  • Carry a miniature tape recorder to capture ideas when you can’t write them down (but make sure you empty them into another medium for easy retrieval, Allen suggests).
  • More than anything else, use the in-box on your desk. Every time you walk into your office, unload notes from your pockets and note pads to force yourself to process the information.
    Even when you’re away from work, you should be prepared to jot down an idea or contact. “Always be ready to capture information low-tech,” Allen suggests. “If necessary, write on hotel pads, restaurant napkins or whatever, and throw them in your in-box when you get back to the office.”Speaking of in-boxes, Allen suggests you keep three: one in the office, one in transit and one at home. “The one at work should be on your desk, within hand’s reach, and a top basket so you can hit it from three feet away or put big files into it,” he says. “For traveling, use an indestructible red folder and let it live in your briefcase. This keeps new stuff together, and you can immediately grab it and empty the contents into your desk in-box. At home, use the same kind of in-box as at work — otherwise, your house becomes your in-box.”Office setup is another important component of organization and productivity. Have a waste basket, tickler file and reference system right at hand. Also, have a “waiting for” list, an action list, calendar, project list and project support materials organized by theme, topic or project. This gives you a “cockpit of control” that allows you to take things in, make decisions about them and sort the results according to where they go — and is a sustainable model regardless of how many transactions you deal with.

    Finally, Allen suggests you keep five key lists:

  • Two for outcomes: One for projects you intend to do, personal and professional, and one for projects you can’t do now but might want to do later
  • Two for actions: One for actions that must be done at a specific day and time, and one running list of actions that can be done as soon as you can do them
  • One for actions and projects other people are doing: For example, things you have ordered by mail but haven’t yet received, things your assistant is supposed to get back to you about, things your spouse and children are supposed to be doing, etc.
    “Keeping a system for reminding yourself of what you need to do keeps the little things from sapping your energy,” says Allen. “When the world comes at you, being relaxed and knowing the issue is handled allows you to be fully present in the moment. You don’t get distracted by thoughts of, ‘Don’t forget, that’s a very important thing to do.'”

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