The emails awaiting response keep piling up. You just received a last-minute request to book travel for the boss. Payroll needs to be prepared before the end of the day, and it’s your week for afterschool carpool.
If this scenario, or something like it sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Wearing many hats while juggling multiple projects with various deadlines is a reality for many in today’s workforce.
It’s no surprise Americans are more stressed than ever and increasingly feel overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, about 75 percent of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago, and 25 percent view their job as the number one stressor in their lives, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way, says David Allen, productivity expert and author of the worldwide bestseller, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. It’s actually possible to manage all the items on your to-do list, carve out family and personal time and be less stressed. Even better, Allen’s method doesn’t require you to work any harder or faster. The key, he says is learning to “properly engage” with information and tasks. We sat down with Allen to learn more.
Q: What does “properly engaged” mean?
Allen: It turns out our brains aren’t designed to retain everything we hear, learn or need to accomplish. If we’re tracking more than four items of information, we likely feel overwhelmed, unless these things are written down.
Even one or two events that are not properly engaged can be overwhelming. Once you get clear about what those things are, they get off your back. That’s why the first step is to “capture” information.
“Capturing” comes naturally in many business settings, like taking notes during sit-downs with the boss, team meetings, conference calls, etc. Problems arise when we don’t deem information important enough to note, say, remembering to buy cat food or crafting that thank-you note. When these unaccomplished tasks come back to haunt us, we feel failure.
Recording everything—even if you’re not sure if it’s useful—is the first step towards success.
Step 1: Capture – Take notes.
Q: So, say you’ve taken pages of notes from a recent webinar you’ve attended. Now what?
Allen: The next step is to “clarify” by revisiting what’s been collected and to determine what actions are required.
This is where a lot people miss the boat. We don’t go back because we’re not exactly sure what to do with the information.
Perhaps after the webinar, you’re inspired to collaborate with an expert or request more information, but instead do neither because you’re not sure where to start. This is the beginning of “inappropriate engagement,” which leads to feeling overwhelmed.
Instead, consider that all information falls into two camps: actionable vs. non-actionable.
If it’s actionable, ask:
- What’s the very next action that needs to occur?
- Will that one action finish this commitment?
If the answer to the second question is no, you have a project which can be tracked until completion.
If the item is non-actionable, it falls into three categories:
- Incubate, i.e. an action will need to be taken in the future
Roughly 80 percent of what I capture falls into the trash category. Clarifying allows me to see this rather than be burdened by information overload.
Step 2: Clarify – Is it actionable?
Q: How do you keep track of information?
Allen: Once you’ve determined what kinds of information you have, it’s time to park these items on appropriate lists where they can be seen at the right time.
Organizing allows you to store anything and everything that’s floating through your head. This includes work projects and reference materials as well as those aspirational craft projects. You can use plain ol’ pen and paper or get sophisticated with free online tools like Evernote or WorkFlowy. What’s essential is that the system works for you and allows you to store everything in one place.
Q: Do you have suggestions for developing an effective system?
Allen: The one thing that’s crucial is consistency. If you have some lists in email, some in an app and some in actual files, then it’s not really a trusted system. You’ll keep re-thinking where do I put it, or not be able to find things. The best system is the simplest system.
Step 3: Organize – Develop lists.
Q: So now how do you use all of this information?
Allen: Now it’s time for reflection. Reflection allows you to review the micro and macro to get a sense of the big picture. Don’t let your brain be bombarded with thoughts like, “find speakers for upcoming conference, schedule play date, order sticky notes, investigate cheaper wifi options, review tax deductions.”
We call it forest management vs. tree management, and it’s the most important step for feeling in control.
Still, most of us have a false belief that we can keep all our projects straight without relying on an outside resource. This, naturally, is crazy making. Remember our capacity to only hold four things? Spending time each week reviewing and refining all your projects is a big key to feeling less stressed.
Step 4: Reflect – Review.
Q: What’s the final step?
Allen: Now it’s time to act. When you do the first four steps correctly, how and where you spend time comes from a place of trust rather than hope. Each day you’ll have the confidence to discern what to work on when and, most importantly, how to carve out time to focus on the things you really want to do.
Step 5: Engage – Take action.
Ready to get started?
Use David’s tips to manage your to-do list and feel less stress. Remember to use these five simple steps to get more done, reduce stress as you progress towards a better work-life balance:
- Capture – Take notes.
- Clarify – Is it actionable?
- Organize – Develop lists.
- Reflect – Review.
- Engage – Take action.
For a detailed list of the steps, visit David’s website, GettingThingsDone.com
Tell us: What’s your secret to boosting productivity?