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Capture and Make Time for Processing
Getting Things Done
Feel the flow of the Action Method.
Feel the flow, from creativity to capturing the elements, processing them, and then managing them by project.
Identify your collective in-box.
Dynamic creative projects—
Keep an Eye on Your Energy Line
Place your projects along an energy line according to how much energy they should receive.
Reconciling Urgent vs. Important
^ It is impossible to complete two Action Steps at once, which would suggest that “multitasking” is a myth. However, you can easily focus on more than one project at once if the Action Steps in all of your projects are defined and organized. You should aim to jump quickly between projects with as little unproductive downtime as possible. The secret is fully breaking down the elements of each project.
As you move through your day of meetings, brainstorms, and other occasions of creativity, you will start to accumulate Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.
Handouts, random pages of notes, e-mails, and social network messages will build up all around you. Often these items will get buried in notebooks, pockets, online in-boxes, and computer files almost as soon as they are created or received.
Ideally, in your written notes you will have kept your Action Steps separate from everything else. However, you will still need time for processing—going through all of your day’s notes and communications and distilling them down to the primary elements.
For those who still take paper notes and appreciate tangible project management, you will want to use a tangible in-box—a general pile of stuff that has yet to be classified.
Most productivity frameworks—like David Allen’s ^ —suggest such a central clearing-house for all of the stuff that you accumulate but can’t immediately execute or file. This in-box is not a final destination, but rather a transit terminal where items await processing. During a busy day of meetings, you will not have time to start taking action or filing things away.
How about all of the digital stuff that flows in every day? Your e-mail in-box is the primary landing spot, but information also flows into other online applications. While your tangible in-box, sitting on your desk, is singular, the digital equivalent is becoming more of a collective. Ideally, you should set your settings in social networks to forward messages to your e-mail in-box for the sake of aggregation. When you commit time for processing, you’ll want to limit the number of places you need to visit. If you can’t aggregate the flow of e-mails and other digital communications in the same place, then you need to define the various pieces of your collective digital in-box. For example, my collective digital in-box includes my e-mail program (which receives messages from all other networks), a Twitter aggregator, and the in-box in my task management application (where I accept/reject stuff sent from my colleagues who use the same application—and then manage this information by project). When the time comes for processing, these are the three digital places I need to visit, along with the tangible in-box full of papers on my desk.
As you can see, the “in-box” of the twenty-first century varies for everyone. You must concretely define your collective in-box before you start processing. Peace of mind and productivity starts when you know where everything is. The combined in-box says, “Don’t worry, all of your stuff (and the Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References contained within) are in a defined place, waiting for you and ready to be sorted.”
If you live a digital lifestyle, your ability to process your in-box may be at particular risk without some sense of discipline. The reason: in the era of mobile devices and constant connectivity, it has become all too easy for others to send us messages. As such, our ability to control our focus is often crippled by the never-ending flow of incoming phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and in-person interruptions—not to mention messages from other online services. Thus it is important that you avoid the trap of what I have come to call “reactionary work flow.”
The state of reactionary work flow occurs when you get stuck simply reacting to whatever flows into the top of an in-box. Instead of focusing on what is most important and actionable, you spend too much time just trying to stay afloat. Reactionary work flow prevents you from being more proactive with your energy. The act of processing requires discipline and imposing some blockades around your focus. For this reason, many leaders perform their processing at night or at a time when the flow dies down.
Time spent processing is arguably the most valuable and productive time of your day. While processing, you will sort everything and distinguish Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. With Action Steps, you will decide what can be done quickly and what must be tracked over time by project—and possibly delegated. With other materials, you will make judgments about what can be thrown away and what must be filed.
As you start to tackle your collective in-box, you will realize that any in-box, on its own, is a pretty bad action management tool. It is difficult to keep your Action Steps separate from References and other noise. The constant stream of e-mail certainly doesn’t help. In addition to e-mail, you may also receive other types of incoming communications in the form of Tweets, Facebook messages, etc. Some are actionable, or contain actionable elements, while others are simply for reference (or for fun).
Given the unyielding flow of communications, you will want to capture and manage your Action Steps separately. Despite the many tricks involving “action subfolders” and other ways to manage and prioritize Action Steps within an e-mail system, there is nothing better than giving Action Steps their own sacred space to be managed by project. The Action Method suggests that Action Steps should be managed separately from communications. The solution can be as simple as a spreadsheet or to-do list where all Action Steps are tracked (and can be sorted by project name or due date). You can also make use of more advanced project management applications that manage Action Steps and support delegation and collaboration. What you want to avoid is a mishmash of actionable items amidst hundreds of verbose e-mails and other messages scattered in various places.
For teams that manage Action Steps via e-mail, actionable e-mails should have “Action” as the first word in the subject line. For Reference e-mails, you should start the e-mail’s subject line with “FYI.” By establishing a common language with your colleagues, everyone will be able to sort their e-mail in-box and view Action Steps using these keywords.
^ Every new day generates more ideas, notes, and communications that flow into your collective in-box. At periods of the day that you designate for processing, you break everything down into Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. You associate each item with a project, whether it is personal or work-related. As you are doing this, quick actions are being completed while longer-term Action Steps are being added to the appropriate project’s task list or your task management application—with a project name (and due date if necessary). Backburner Items are added to the appropriate folder or list. And Reference materials are either being discarded or stored by project or perhaps in a chronological file.
Capture! Capture Action Steps relentlessly. During a brainstorm or a meeting, or on the run, you will generate ideas, and those ideas will disappear unless they are broken down into concrete verb-driven Action Steps. Collect them using whatever notebook or technology option you desire—but try to keep Action Steps separate so they stand out amidst your References and Backburner Items. Some people e-mail themselves throughout the day, while others capture tasks on a mobile device that automatically syncs with an online task management tool. Whatever method you choose, it is critical that your Action Steps stand out and can be managed separately from all of the other stuff.
If you find yourself with extraneous scraps of paper or unfiled e-mails containing Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References, place them in your in-box for processing.
^ In addition to your physical in-box, you also have your e-mail in-box among other digital sources of information. Identify and then consolidate the number of digital in-boxes that you need to manage.
Process! Take a few hours each day (or a minimum of a few nights per week) to process the contents of your in-box. As you review the pile (or list of e-mails), discern what is actionable and what is not.
• If actionable, identify the Action Steps. For Action Steps that can be accomplished quickly (like make a short phone call or pay a bill), do them right away. David Allen calls this the “two-minute rule”—if it can be done in under two minutes, it should be done right away. After all, it will take a minute or so just to enter it into your system, so why not just take care of it already?
• Whatever action management system you use, Action Steps should be recorded in a consistent way, assigned to a project, and given a due date (when applicable). By doing this, you are setting yourself up for ultimate productivity.
• Place Backburner Items in your Backburner folder, labeled with the appropriate project name.
• Try to discard as many References as you can, because most handouts and notes will ultimately never be used. For those References that must be stored, file them away by project or use the chronological pile approach.
Managing Your Energy Across Life’s Projects
^ as well as cumbersome logistical projects — become more manageable when they are broken down into elements. Once we are able to approach our work (and life) as a series of Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References, we will have to decide where to start. We must prioritize because we can only focus on one Action Step at a time. Prioritization should help us maintain both incremental progress as well as momentum for our long-term objectives. Prioritization is a force that relies on sound judgment, self-discipline, and some helpful pressure from others.
I spent one afternoon a while back with Max Schorr, the publisher of GOOD, a monthly magazine focused on doing good, and his team. A group of true idealists, the staff found themselves constantly overburdened and overextended—striving to do everything while also striving for perfection. As Schorr put it, “At GOOD we hate to waste anything, and given our surplus of idea generation, the one thing we waste tons of is energy.”
If you have lots of ideas, you probably have the tendency to get involved with or start lots of projects. Projects can require tremendous amounts of mental energy, from capturing and organizing the elements to actually applying your creative talents to solve problems and complete Action Steps. Energy is your most precious commodity.
Regardless of who you are, you have only a finite amount of it. Just as a computer’s operating capacity is limited to the amount of memory (or RAM) installed, we all have our limits.
As you decide where to focus your precious energy, visualize all of your projects along a spectrum that starts at “Extreme” and goes all the way down to “Idle.” How much energy should your current projects receive?
At any given point in time there may be a couple of projects that you should be extremely focused on, while others may be semi-important or perhaps idle for the time being. If you were to place projects along the spectrum, the extremely important projects would be placed on the “Extreme” end of the spectrum and the others would be placed accordingly farther down toward “Idle.” Keep in mind that you are not placing your projects along the spectrum based on how much time you are spending on them. Rather, you are placing your projects according to how much energy they should receive based on their importance.
A project placed at the “Extreme” end of the energy line should be the most important for the time being—worthy of the majority of your energy. Projects should be placed according to their economic and strategic value. The concept of the Energy Line is meant to address our tendency to spend a lot of time on projects that are interesting but perhaps not important enough to warrant such an investment of energy.
Viewing your projects along an Energy Line prompts certain questions: How much of your time are you spending on what? Are you focused on the right things?
Amidst the everyday craziness of a creative enterprise, it is hard to keep track of energy and where it’s being used. The Energy Line is a simple mechanism to help us measure and adjust a team’s energy allocation. We have seen many people use similar concepts to help themselves visualize the projects in their lives according to priority. After considering your Energy Line for just a few minutes, you can get a sense of whether your energy for that week, day, or even that hour is being managed properly.
The Energy Line exercise is also a helpful way for teams to agree on prioritization. Some teams will gather around a corkboard or whiteboard and, together, write the names of all of their major projects on small cards. The team will then place the cards along the Energy Line according to their importance and how much collective focus each project should get from the team. At first, you may find that too many projects are being placed near the “Extreme” zone of the spectrum. This is a natural tendency because each project solicits different levels of interest from different members of the team. Such disagreements are great because they help the team prioritize collectively.
As you consider your Energy Line, you will want to make the tough decisions about what projects need to live on low energy for a while. Whether or not you use the Energy Line exercise, all teams should discuss and debate how their energy is allocated. Energy is a finite resource that is seldom managed well.
If every Action Step belongs to a project and you have your projects spread across a spectrum of how you wish to allocate your energy—then you will have clear direction on which Action Steps you should do first and how you should budget your time.
While the Energy Line perspective can help us allocate our energy across projects, we are still bound to drift off course as soon as unexpected and urgent items arise. When something is urgent, we rush to do it. Even if it can wait—or is someone else’s job—our tendency is to hoard urgent items because they always seem more pressing than stuff associated with longer-term projects. As leaders of creative projects, we feel an impulse to solve everything quickly. I call this “Creator’s Immediacy”—an instinct to take care of every problem and operational task, no matter how large or small, as soon as it comes up, similar to a mother’s instinct for the care of a newborn baby. However, it becomes nearly impossible to pursue long-term goals when you are guided solely by the most recent e-mail in your in-box or call from a client.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage the urgent stuff without compromising progress on long-term projects. The capacity to do so starts with compartmentalization, shared values, and the power of clarity.
If you’ve ever used Priceline.com, an ATM, or a cell phone, then you’ve used technology developed and patented by Walker Digital. Primarily a research and development outfit, this seventy-person company has developed and successfully patented a variety of ideas across technological industries. As an intensely creative company, the Walker Digital team is constantly developing new ideas and is liable to suffer from Creator’s Immediacy. Nevertheless, the company’s leadership takes pride in its ability to operate efficiently on a daily basis while also innovating with the future in mind.
At any given moment, half the company is dreaming up new ideas while the other half is managing and licensing the patented ones. In such an environment, one might expect the urgent operational needs of the business to quickly compromise the energy allocated to multiyear research projects. But they don’t. Walker Digital’s track record suggests that it has been able to maintain a focus on long-term projects despite the growing operational demands.
President Jon Ellenthal admits how difficult it is to develop new ideas and operate a business at the same time. “Development and operations are fundamentally different burdens,” Ellenthal explained to me. “The gravitational pull over an operator is nearly impossible to escape. When faced with a choice of what to do next, what must be done today will always trump what might be developed for tomorrow.” In other words, there is a great tension between the urgent operational items with current projects that arise every day and the more important (but less timely) items that are liable to be perpetually postponed. Without some sense of discipline, the company would drown in the everyday “urgent items” to the detriment of the company’s success over time.
Walker Digital’s distinctive culture may help explain its ability to consistently focus on long-term projects. For starters, the company is privately owned. “No normal investor would ever have the patience for turning ideas into patents,” explains Ellenthal. The time and expense invested in the patent side of the business might scare away ordinary investors, but for the Walker Digital employees, it has only reinforced the value of ideas.
“The amount of energy we invest in turning ideas into commercial assets encourages people to maintain their ideas—and keep them top of mind. . . . Everyone knows how valuable an idea may become for us.”
A shared respect for the potential of ideas empowers people to speak up when day-to-day operations start to interfere. Ellenthal and his executive team take particular pride in the company’s straightforwardness. His colleague and chief marketing officer, Shirley Bergin, elaborated: “Our value for clarity overcomes the risk and fear of speaking up when something doesn’t make sense.” For a company that is entrenched in both operations and long-term innovation simultaneously, the aspiration for clarity maintains a constant, healthy debate around energy allocation.
Walker Digital’s shared value for ideas—and a culture that constantly seeks clarity —empowers people to quarantine themselves for extended periods of time while researching long-term projects. The company is even structured to allow half the company to engage in long-term pursuits while the other half oversees the legal and operational side of managing the patents. Through a finely tuned culture, Walker Digital is able to keep long-term pursuits alive.
Whether you work alone or within a team (or company) full of people, the first step is to discern what is urgent versus what is important in the long term. Especially in the creative environment, important projects often require substantive time and mental loyalty. The constant flow of “urgent” matters that arise for you—the daily questions from clients, the bills to pay, the problems and glitches—threaten to interfere with your longterm objectives. The challenge is compounded for projects that you created yourself. As the creator, you feel a sense of ownership and, with it, a heavy impulse to address every task or problem immediately.
There is too much focus on “fixing.” How can you maintain long-term objectives rather than suffer at the mercy of urgent tasks? It is called prioritization. And to prioritize, you must become more disciplined and use methods that prompt compartmentalization and focus.
Here are some tips to consider:
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