In Merlin Mann’s Productive Talk interview series with David Allen, one of the most discussed segments was David’s dismissal of the need to link next actions to projects. He argued that if action and project lists are being reviewed regularly, there’s no need to nest action items underneath project headings to reaffirm their relationships. I came to the same conclusion very early on. I found that by using hierarchical lists, I wasn’t so much reviewing as continually rethinking my projects, which defeated the purpose of externalizing them in the first place.
While David’s comment got the most notoriety, the standout observation for me came from Merlin immediately beforehand:
I think what you’re ultimately saying is that if these things are truly priorities in your life, then the time to think about them is not when you’re sitting in front of a telephone. It’s at a time when you’re making much more strategic decisions about how you want your life to be working. And if you’re thinking about these priorities as part of a tactical approach every single morning, you may not actually be getting the things done that you need to be getting done. You need to give this the respect and the time to firewall time to make this part of your process.
Defining work as working time
The most strategic time to think about the actions you need to take is not when you need to perform them, but beforehand, when you have perspective. When you execute from an inventory of predefined tasks, you can act rather than react, and your menu of options is much easier to prioritize.
If the actions in the system you review daily authentically map to your long-term horizons of focus, it shouldn’t be necessary to review those larger purposes each time you look at your actions. The purpose behind each action has already been clarified, so it’s only necessary to look at the actions rather than think about why they’re necessary.
But in order to have predefined work, you have to define it, which is simple in theory but generally not done. Most people short-change themselves of the time needed to process their inbox and their in-basket. More accurately, they fragment the processing time throughout the work day, thinking about each task the moment it needs to be performed, rather than batching the thinking time into one processing session.
Defining work is procedurally simple but emotionally difficult, because it goes against the grain of activity-focused work culture. By setting aside time to think about the work that needs to be done, you have to avoid actually doing that work. All good managers come to realize that the time they spend doing work that they should be delegating results in time spent not managing.
The same principle applies to self-management. You’re delegating tasks to your future self. This requires accepting that the time spent defining work is as much a part of your work as the bulk of your time spent on execution.
Distributing cognition for thinking and doing
Processing and reviewing require wearing a “thinking” hat. Put the “doing” hat on afterward. Mixing modes is occasionally necessary, but generally frustrating, distracting and inefficient. I used to spend three hours doing weekly reviews until I disciplined myself to write down my next actions rather than act on them — even if they were two-minute actions (a friend recommended keeping a “Two Minute Actions” list while doing a weekly review, working off the list after finishing the review — a good tip).
When people are critical of using lists, it’s usually on the grounds that a list can’t hold the complexity of real life issues. That’s exactly right, which is why the purpose of a list isn’t for thinking about issues, but for holding the inputs or outputs of that thinking. We think on the inputs and act on the outputs.
Consider the input side. Instead of trying to think of several aspects of a situation or project simultaneously, we make a list or a mind map to capture each aspect as a separate input. Once the aspects are in front of us, we can see them objectively and think about them relationally to integrate, separate and prioritize with far less overhead than trying to do the same thing as an entirely mental process.
The same applies to output. Instead of trying to mentally unspool one’s totally inventory of work each time an action choice has to be made, hoping that we haven’t missed anything, we simply scan the results of our thinking, from a list that holds it all for us. The decision process is a matter of comparing line items, unburdened by retrieval.
Distraction Buster Number Zero
There’s never a shortage of tips for eliminating distrations. Never check email in the morning. Close your office door if you’re lucky enough to have one. Keep a list of three must-do items per day. Turn off message notifications. Anything that helps firewall attention can increase productivity, but they’re all secondary to clarifying your work. If you have to keep rethinking your projects from moment to moment, than any interruption will be perceived as a distraction rather than just another input that needs to be processed appropriately. Email becomes a scourge instead of just “stuff” from which to extract actions and reference items.
Lucidity, not activity, should be the primary focus of productivity. Unclear work by definition can never be finished, and is almost equally impossible to start. Integrate explicit processing and review times into your workflow, and resist the temptation to dismiss thinking time as spending more time on system than working. Don’t sublimate the anxiety of an unclear workload by engaging in unclear action. The goal should be to spend less to working for the same results.
(Photo credit: visualpanic)