As part of my settling in to a new place and new routine, I’ve been rethinking my habits of organisation and work. It turns out that, in the first few weeks of my marriage, despite feeling happy and optimistic I wasn’t getting much done on my thesis, and my failure to accomplish the work I’d hoped to do was turning my newlywed bliss into anxiety and frustration.
I raided my husband’s book collection to read Getting Things Done by David Allen, a book on productivity. It’s a subject that interests me, but all the things I’d read previously had settled into my mind in the form of a few standard ‘types’ of productivity advice:
- How to work more efficiently so you can do EVEN MORE STUFF
- Specific systems for organising clutter
- How to play psychological tricks on yourself to get yourself to work more
All these have their place. But what if what you want is not just to know where stuff is, or to do more faster, but simply to do your work intelligently, calmly, and without constant anxiety and sense of failure? This is where Allen’s method really hits the core of the problem: he pays attention to the link between our stuff (mental and physical), what we need to do, and the mental state that’s tied to both. I wish I had read this book at the beginning of my PhD, because I think it’s necessary reading for anyone engaged in ‘knowledge work’, and who has any reasonable responsibility for deciding on and implementing their own projects.
Allen’s system is based on five steps, designed to be part of an ongoing cycle which keeps the whole system moving, so that nothing ever becomes stagnant and therefore lost.
- Collect: This is where you gather everything into a central ‘inbox’. What you gather is basically anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be, as it’s supposed to be, and this includes papers, broken things that need repairing, to-do lists, and unfinished projects. You also ‘purge’ anything that’s on your mind as an unfinished or ‘need to do’ item, and write it down to put in the inbox. This includes anything related to your job or personal life.
- Process: This is basically a decision-making process in which you go through each item in your inbox and decide where to put it: file as reference, put on the calendar, pass on to someone else, do whatever action is needed about the item, or form into a ‘project’ – this is something which needs more than one action to accomplish.
- Organise: This is what it sounds like: putting your stuff into the correct groups and categories so that you can take action on it as appropriate. You need to break down any projects into individual actions. Then these actions can be sorted into lists of things to do. Allen advises organising these by context, for example a list of calls to make, emails to send, reading to complete.
- Review: This is what keeps your lists and folders from becoming stagnant. If you set up a regular schedule of reviewing everything in the system, you will have an accurate picture of what’s in progress and won’t have to worry you’ve forgotten something or be afraid of a ‘dead’ list which hasn’t seen the light of day for three months and might contain important items undone.
- Do: The whole goal of this system is to enable you to make trustworthy and confident decisions about what to do and when. Because your system contains everything that needs to be done, you can do one thing at a time without worrying about the things you’re not doing because the system ‘remembers’ them even when your mind isn’t on them. And because you know the specific next steps for each project, and any crucial deadlines, you can make smart decision about what’s most important to do or what is the best use of your current time and energy.
I’d like to consider two aspects of Allen’s approach that I find unusual and especially helpful. These are his approach to decision-making and his use of ‘renegotiation’ to avoid feeling failure about things you can’t manage to do.
First of all, one thing that emerges throughout his book is the importance of enabling yourself to make effective decisions about what to do. Looking through my own work-related clutter, I realise that it’s the decision-making where I get hung up. For example, when I sorted through my emails recently I had more than a screen’s worth of starred items. Much of the time, these were items which I knew needed something from me – action, reading, remembering, filing – but I felt too overwhelmed to decide what and so just starred them; ostensibly, I was ‘trying not to get distracted’ from other work. But, as Allen warns, allowing this kind of ‘pile’ to build up makes you immune to the pile, so that you avoid it and it becomes useless. I had emails from months ago about events that are now over. In other words, I could no longer trust my starring system, because some of the stuff in it didn’t need action from me anymore; the starring was meaningless. Moreover, I felt anxious whenever I looked at my starred items, because I no longer knew what they contained and what I might be missing. I was paralysed by my own system, because I delayed on making initial decisions about important emails and the system itself then hampered my ability to make decisions thereafter.
Allen’s regular routine of review forces you to process your items and decide the next action required on any given item before shoving it aside for dealing with later. That way, if something is starred, you know what needs to be done with it: you already know it needs to be read, or filed, or you need to respond to it. Having decided this and transferred the specific action to a separate list, it becomes much easier to clear the item itself out of the queue. Then you aren’t faced with a pile of decisions, only a list of actions to take.
Another unusual aspect of Allen’s approach is his attention to the psychological causes of anxiety and their connection to working methods. He suggests that, at a basic level, all sense of guilt, failure or anxiety about work is due to perceiving an agreement which we have broken. Any item that enters our mind that we want or intend to do registers as an agreement. For example, writing ‘Buy milk’ on my to-do list constitutes an agreement with myself (and perhaps others) that I will buy milk today. Failing to do so, even for a good reason (getting too busy, being ill), registers in my mind simply as a broken agreement. We make these agreements with ourselves all the time: ‘I’m going to clean that closet this weekend’; ‘I’m going to remember to call my friend’; ‘I’m going to finish this thesis on time’. One way of avoiding guilt over failing to keep these agreements is simply not to make them, or else to ensure that we complete them all. But this is unrealistic – we can’t do everything, situations change, and some things we can’t just say ‘no’ to.
What can we do if we’re going to fail in our agreement? Allen explains that one valid way out of guilt is simply to renegotiate an agreement we can’t keep. For example, if you realise you won’t be able to clean the closet on Saturday, decide a different day to do it; if your evening fills up and you can’t call your friend, don’t ‘beat yourself up’ but send a text to ask if you can call a different time; if you anticipate not finishing your thesis on time, redefine your finish date, or redefine the scope of your work and decide you’ll write four chapters instead of five. You can renegotiate any aspects of the work you can’t complete, and once you renegotiate your agreement in new terms you enable yourself to keep it. A situation of guaranteed failure becomes one in which success is possible, and you don’t have to feel the failure and guilt of letting yourself (or someone else) down.
I’m embarking on a project of revising my methods of work on my PhD, as well as how my husband and I handle the administration of our household and personal projects. Keep following the blog to hear about how it goes!