Are you reeling under the weight of endless to-do lists, bewildered by heaps of unfiled papers, stacks of folders, magazines, brochures? Does a bottomless queue of unanswered emails and voicemails keep you awake at night? A tangle of unfulfilled commitments rattle around in your head continuously?
This, it seems, is our stressed-out post-modern reality. But it doesn’t need to be this way, according to productivity consultant David Allen. Control and focus can get you out of this mess.
“You’ll never finish everything; you just want to feel like you’re on top of it, instead of it on top of you,” said Allen, whose international bestseller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity has been published in 28 languages.
“It’s all about making hard choices about how you allocate your resources, your focus, your time and your money.”
The key to productivity is following a system. A system provides direction, so you can feel confident that you’re focusing on the right task at the right time. This alleviates the stress created by the sense there’s something more urgent you should be doing.
“You need to capture. You need to clarify. You need to organize. And you need to review and reflect on the options,” Allen said, summing up his system.
Travel Market Report asked Allen to show readers how to implement his method for staying on top of things – including how to get started and best practices for travel agents.
Allen has some experience in the travel agency arena. In the mid-1970s, he helped a friend launch a travel agency in West Los Angeles, serving as his “righthand person” for about 18 months.
#1. Capture potentially meaningful input
“First of all, you just need to capture stuff that is potential work, i.e. write it down,” Allen said.
“I might want to be aware of a new cruise line. I might want to be aware of that person I met at a cocktail party who might be interested in having me help them plan their next vacation. Those kinds of things.
“So the first best practice is to make sure you’ve haven’t lost anything, and the best way to lose it is keep it in your head. Everybody feels better when you make a list.”
You’ll have to do more than make lists, Allen warned. “That will help initially, because at least you know you’ve got it somewhere that’s potentially retrievable. But all that stuff crawls up into your psyche if you don’t move it to the next stage.”
Best practice: a daily practice
Plan on spending about an hour a day to keep current with new inputs, Allen said. “That means zeroing out your in-basket. Checking your voicemail, zeroing that out – all those messages, email, notes you’ve taken on a phone call with a client, all of that.”
What you’re doing is “dealing with new inputs of potentially meaningful stuff and putting it through this process of deciding what it is and what you’re going to do about it, then putting it where it goes.
“If you trusted that you were actually going to process your stuff, at least once a day or every other day – then you don’t feel sucked into the emergency modality.”
Tip: two-minute rule
“One great tip is the two-minute rule. Once you decide what the next step is, if it takes less than two minutes to do it, do it right then. If it’s going to take you more time to track it and stack it then it would to actually just do it, finish it right then.
#2. Clarify what it means
The next step involves figuring out what, if anything, you want do with each new piece of information you capture – the email from a colleague, a supplier’s brochure, information about an upcoming conference, etc.
This involves determining what that thing means for you, then defining the work that follows, Allen said. “It’s deciding. Is it an actionable thing? What does it mean to me? What outcome am I committed to finishing about this, and what action step needs to start moving it forward?
“Thinking in terms of outcome and action is the productive thought process.”
Brochures: a case in point
Allen illustrated with an example.
“You get a brochure from a new vendor, cruise line, what have you. You have to decide what that brochure means to you before you know where to put it.
“Is it reference? Do you need to put it in a folder of cruise lines and categorize it appropriately, so you can pull it up when somebody wants that kind of cruise?
“If that brochure is a reminder to surf the web, you might have a ‘surf the web’ folder or box on your desk. You can toss all that stuff in there. That’s a reminder that you have that action.
“Deciding what it means to you starts to inform your organization. Being organized means that where something is matches what it means to you.”
Best practice: decide now
“You’ll decide what to do about that brochure – it’s just when and why. The best practice is to make those decisions when it shows up, The worst practice is to wait until it blows up.
“To make proactive executive decisions about what things mean and what you’re going to do about them – before you have to – that’s a big paradigm shift.”
#3. Organize the work at hand
“Now I need to keep an inventory of that work, i.e., here are the16 phone calls I need to make; here are the 14 things I need to do online, that kind of stuff. That’s the work at hand, and that just needs to be organized.
“Basically you need lists and files, digital and paper versions. Any tool will work, anything that can take discrete items, put them on a list, create a title for that list. You can keep folders with pieces of paper in them.”
Loose-leaf notebooks are among the best tools, Allen said. Hundreds of software apps are available as well, including, for instance, Outlook’s Lotus Notes for Mac users.
#4. Review the big picture – weekly
The next stage is to “step back to see and review the whole inventory of possibilities and reflect on the options,” Allen said. This should be a weekly practice.
“You need at least one to two hours, at least once a week, to do what we call the weekly review, where you step back and look at the whole game – all your projects, all the actions you’ve accumulated – and bring up the rear guard, clean house.”