Making It All Work – Getting Control: Clarifying

This is the sixth entry in a twenty part series discussing the wonderful time and priority management book Making It All Work by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings through December 10.

making it all workEarlier this week, we talked about the idea of “capturing” – getting everything that’s taking up space in your head out of your head and into some sort of external form where you can manage them.

That kind of “capturing” is actually a pretty tall order. When you walk through all of the stuff in your life that can be captured and collect it all in one place, you’re going to have a mountain of stuff in front of you.

What’s next? You’ve got to deal with that mountain. You have to put some sort of order on that mountain of stuff so that you can actually use it effectively, because without some order, you’ll never succeed.

Some of that stuff are things that need to be immediately dealt with. Some of that stuff refers to larger-scale projects. Some of that stuff refers to life goals. Some of that stuff might never be dealt with at all.

The Organizer as Therapist
In our natural course of life, things we want to do but don’t have the resources (time, money, energy) to accomplish right now build up. It builds up in our mind, on our desk, and in our lives. Allen talks about this a bit on page 105:

In recent years the whole arena of “personal organizing” has experienced quite a heyday. One article in the U.S. national press focused on the phenomenon of the “organizer as therapist,” citing anecdotal evidence of how people had begun to express their vulnerabilities and core life issues when confronted with how to deal with the things that they had accumulated around them. […] There is a logical explanation for this phenomenon. Usually things remain disorganized when people don’t confront their meaning. To actually decide what you’re going to do with or about something demands that you deal with how you relate to its context, your agreements about it, and how it fits into the rest of your world.

This really hits on a big fundamental truth I’ve found about getting my stuff out of my head and organized. It’s very, very therapeutic. It simply feels good to get all of it out of my head. It also feels good to go through all of it, make some sort of order out of it, and make some calls about what’s actually important and what isn’t.

It moves you from a sense that your life isn’t moving forward very much to a sense that your life is moving forward in a lot of dimensions. That’s transformative. It fills you with hope and energy and a sense of accomplishment and it lets you feel in touch with areas of your life that you’ve felt out of touch with.

Dealing With “Stuff”
During the “collection” discussed last time, we collected everything in our minds, our homes, and our workplace that needed to be addressed. That ends up being a big pile of “stuff.” In allen’s words (page 107):

Basically, “stuff” is everything in the giant in-basket of your work and live, only a tiny fraction of which most people have actually funneled into their working capture lists or trays. Most is floating around the house, office, and psyche, still uncollected, much less clarified.

That stuff “floating around the house, office, and psyche” is a constant drain on you. It reduces your focus. It reduces your positive mental energy. It distracts you, often at inopportune moments. Often, these undone things come back and bite you when you least expect it.

That negative weight is dealt with when you collect all of that stuff and deal with it in a productive way.

Is It Actionable?
This is really the fundamental question you need to ask yourself about every single item in your giant stack of “stuff.” From page 112:

There are two possible answers here – “yes” and “no.” “Maybe” is actually “no, but the item might require action later,” with the assumption that you are clarifying meaning at this moment in time to you.

Go through everything in that giant collected pile and sort it into three groups: stuff you can take action on right now, stuff that doesn’t need an action (they probably need filed or thrown away, then), and stuff you’ll take action on later (probably a calendar entry and possibly a file). Anything that takes less than five minutes that you can take action on now should be done immediately.

Just doing this will take a long time, but it’ll blow through a ton of your inbox and leave you feeling like a productive world beater.

The Fundamental Process
Of course, you’re then left with a big pile of larger actionable stuff (both now and later). To these things, you must apply two fundamental questions (from page 114:

* What’s my desired outcome? What am I committed to accomplishing or finishing about this?
+ What’s the next action? What’s the next thing I need to do to move toward that goal?

What you’re doing is two distinct things.

First, you’re taking that item, whatever that is, and transforming that into a specific goal. Many things are ready-made goals, like “get a birdhouse” or “clean the pool.” Other things are far more nebulous, like “Lisa” (one of my recent notes). What does “Lisa” even mean? What am I wanting to accomplish there? You’ve got to clarify it into a goal – something specific that you want to accomplish that’s very clear in terms of knowing that you’ve achieved it.

The next part is figuring out what the first or next step is for that goal. What can you do right now to move forward with that goal? Maybe it’s something you can do all at once. Maybe it’s something very big that needs further reflection.

What I usually end up with after doing this (and I do it pretty often) is a big list of goals and projects, each of which is ready to produce a series of action steps until I’ve reached that goal.

Success Comes Back to Action
The key to all of this is to clarify what actions you need to be taking right now to deal with all of the stuff going on in your life. On page 119:

As all roads lead to Rome, all success comes back to action. It is the final of the five stages of gaining control, and the ultimate expression of all six horizons of maintaining perspective. If you simply took every item that has your attention, on any level, and forced yourself to determine the very next step to be taken on each of them, moving it toward some closure, you would be amazed at the clarity you would achieve.

This really is about getting stuff done – simply taking care of all of the open things in your life. Doing so really, really makes a difference.

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