Mar 212012

This is what my desk looks like now

One thing David Allen teaches in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is the importance of Getting Clear. Let me tell you, I am not clear right now. Life creeps up and soon the tidal wave of “stuff” overtakes me. As you can see from the picture I took just before sitting down to write, I have a problem.

Getting Clear means to have an organized space in which to work, both physically and mentally. Clearly I am failing on the physical front. If I could take a picture of my mental space, it would probably look much like my desk. I have let things go. In their great book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition), Tom DeMarco and Timoth Lister discusses how much clear space a person needs to perform work. They say an office should have 100 square feet of clear desk space. While I have never had the luxury of 100 sq. feet, I think I am currently operating on two, just so I have a place to put my elbows while typing.

How does one get clear? The best way is to get a box or a basket. Everything goes into the box first. Even garbage. Why? The act of putting everything in the box does two things: it gets the desk clear immediately and it puts everything in a stack, a natural order for being dealt with one at a time. I remember as a kid when my mother would decide to attack her desk. She would clean for two days straight, just trying to find a few inches of clear space. If she would have moved everything to boxes (it would have taken much more than one), she could have had the space she wanted immediately and not of had to shift papers around constantly, looking for a place to put things while cleaning.

Once everything is in a box, take out the top item and decide what to do with it. Does it need action? Filing? Disposal? Do it and move on to the next. One beauty of the box is this part does not need to be done in one sitting. The box will obediently sit to the side, waiting for the next opportunity. Meanwhile, the desk is clear, inviting Great Work.

Yes, even the iPad went in the box. Better already!

Getting clear mentally works a little differently. I do a mind sweep. Get a pad of paper, a good pen or pencil and a comfortable chair. Start writing everything on the mind, every thought, to do item, commitment or random musing. Write as fast as possible and let the mind vomit up everything that is piled around. Don’t worry about order, priority or clarity. Get it down. When the ideas stop flowing, get up, stretch, take a quick walk around the house, garage, yard or office. Take the pad of paper with. Something along the way will trigger some more things. Write those down as well. Consider all the people in your life. What do you owe them? That will trigger more thoughts.

Like the desk, it may take more than one session to get totally clear. Just keep at it. No doubt there will be pages filled. Don’t despair. The more pages you have, the more clear you will be and it will feel great. The pages will be filled with the myriad of commitments floating around, clogging up the pathways of the mind, getting in the way of accomplishing the important tasks.  They will be out of your head where they can be dealt with methodically.

Once the mind is clear, the pages can be organized, prioritized and divided into task lists for getting things done. Just remember they don’t all have to be done today, tomorrow or even next week. Some of the items may never get done. I put most of these items on a Someday/Maybe list. It’s okay. They are on a list, out of the head, stored for later. When the time is right, I’ll pull them off a list and do them.

Getting Clear is one of the most refreshing experiences I have ever experienced. I have to do this exercise occasionally. I should be doing it weekly in my Weekly Review session, but that has been sliding off my plan for a few weeks. When that happens, I have to get drastic; I have to get clear. When I do, it is one of the best feelings around. Try it. I’m willing to be you’ll like it.

Jan 292012

Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done–Now!  by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig

Ah, business training parables. I have read too many of them. I guess I am more than a little cynical when I pick one up anymore. Most are contrived stories, about 100 pages of large font type, teaching some simple concept with the care and tenderness of a treasured faberge egg. While they teach the principle in an format that is easily digested, they don’t delve into the topic enough to provide much knowledge, background or depth. They tend to be like a quick sugar hit, the Krispy Kreme of the self improvement world.

Juggling Elephants follows this same format. We are told the story of a man who takes his daughter to the circus even though he is overwhelmed with everything in his life pressing down on him. He has so much to do, he feels guilt for taking time to take his daughter out for the evening, but knows he should be spending more time with her. As “luck” would have it, he ends up sitting next to a ringmaster from another circus, there to check out how a friend’s troupe is doing. The ringmaster instantly reads him and suggests that he needs to stop “juggling elephants” and get his “circus” in order. Naturally, the ringmaster invites the man back the next day to teach him the secret of being a ringmaster.

The rest of the story lays out how a ringmaster controls the show and how it applies to managing personal lives. The man quickly adopts the practices and becomes a master of controlling everything around him, becoming hyper-productive and accomplishing all his wildest dreams. He even loses all the weight he has always wanted and improves his marriage. Amazing.

The book is filled with little “pearls” of wisdom, each on its own page with a nice picture of an elephant. Some of these include:

The result of juggling elephants is that no one, including you, is thrilled with the performance.
The ringmaster cannot be in all three rings at once.
The key to the success of the circus is having quality acts in all three rings.
Every act must have a purpose.
Intermission is an essential part of creating a better circus performance.

So why did I give this short book four stars? I usually won’t give this type of parable more than two at best. Well, to my surprise, I learned a concept I find useful. I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. In order to have good performance, I should have a prioritized list of acts (multiple meanings to this word… get it?) for each ring of my life and be able to move between them with speed and ease. A ring represents an area of focus, such as career, relationships and self. GTD teaches this as well, using the weekly review as a mechanism to plan and prioritize the task lists. I like the concept of grouping the many areas of focus into three rings, though. That is a number I can keep in my head easier. Lining things up by priority puts the most important things on stage first. That is good thing to remember.

Juggling Elephants is a short read, a couple hours or so long. I think this one may be worth it.

Nov 182011

Originally posted in October 2009 on Mind Like Monkey, another blog I wrote for a time with two great friends, Tara Robinson and Augusto Pinaud. I am struggling a bit with email again. Time to reread my medicine.

As I talked about before, email can become all-consuming of our day. Too easily, I become a slave to email and lose focus on the important things in my job and life. How did I break the habit? I too drastic action and did something few dare to do. I shut down Outlook.

I went to David Allen’s Road Map Seminar to get ideas on implementing GTD better. One of the suggestions he had was to only process email three times a day. By blocking out time to do email, it would leave more time for other important things. It sounded good, but could I do it? After all, I was a self-admitted email junkie, hitting F9 for my next fix.

I decided I needed to give it a try. I set up three recurring 30 minute meetings, at 8:30am, 11:30pm and 3:30pm each day to process email. As best I could, I would limit myself to these times and shut Outlook down in between.

The first stumbling block I hit was my calendar. I didn’t have Outlook running to remind me when meetings were about to start and I missed a few. I solved this by printing my schedule out first thing in the morning and putting it on the desk, right in front of my monitor. That way I could keep track of what was coming up on my schedule.

It was a struggle at first. I worried what others would think. A friend of mine saw my calendar and expressed his shock that I would dare ignore email throughout the day. “Oh, I couldn’t do that! What if [the Vice President] sent me one of his famous ‘I need this right now’ emails?” I didn’t have an answer for him, but since I wasn’t on the VP’s list of ‘I need this right now’ list, I didn’t have to worry about it.

My boss was another big question for me. He was on the VP’s list and occasionally passed those tasks on to me. How would he react? I tried it for two weeks without saying anything to him and he didn’t say a word. I still got the requests and filled them quickly, right after processing my email. A couple of weeks later, we happened to be looking at my calendar for something and he noticed the three email meetings and asked about them. I held my breath and explained the concept to him. He thought it was a great idea and started using it himself. Whew!

Why does it work? Well, what happens when I’m in a meeting and get an email? Or while I am talking with my boss? Or working on something for the VP? I don’t respond to email at those moments and no one complains. They assume I am doing something important. If it is critical (the VP REALLY needs this now!), they wouldn’t leave it to email anyway. They would call. They would come by my cube.

Nearly a year later, not one person has complained. Several have adopted the practice. I have more time to spend on other important tasks. I still have those days when I revert back to my bad habits, but they’re getting fewer all the time. It has been a big time saver for me.