Important decisions require concentrated attention.
One obstacle to effective decision-making is the inability of decision-makers to carve out the time required to give the decision due consideration. It is far too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of running your organization (and life).
If you are constantly distracted by your “to do” list, you will never find the time for the analysis and reflection your major decisions deserve. A clear head is an essential prerequisite for effective decision-making. If you don’t have your basic workload under control, the quality of your decisions will suffer.
If you find that you need some help in getting your day-to-day responsibilities under control, there are numerous “personal productivity” solutions in the marketplace. At Decision Mechanics we’ve adopted David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. It’s comprehensive and pragmatic.
The basic premise of “Getting Things Done” is that you need “de-clutter” your mind. If you’re relying on your memory to manage your “to do” list you’re keeping it occupied with information you’re not ready to act on. Our minds have a limited capacity to keep information in the foreground, so you’re wasting valuable mental resources that could be used on your major decisions.
To allow your mind to let go of things you must convince it that they will be dealt with, appropriately, at some point in the future. And to convince your mind of this you need repositories (e.g. folders, lists) that you store all your stuff in and review on a regular basis.
As stuff (e.g. letters, emails, ideas, appointments, tasks) enters your field of attention, it is placed in an “in basket”. This may actually be an in basket on your desk…or it may be a box file containing scraps of paper…or the inbox of your email client… In fact, you are likely to have more than one of these “in baskets”. For example, you may have an in tray at the office, a box file at home and your email inbox. The idea is to collect all your stuff in as few places as possible.
The next stage of the process is periodically (e.g. once a day) reviewing the stuff in your “in baskets”. You go through the items in strict order of when they were placed in the repository (no cherry-picking) and decide whether something is actionable. If not, you file it (as a reference, or as something to be prompted about in the future).
If an item is actionable—i.e. you need to do something about it (beyond throwing it away or filing it)—and that action can be completed in less than two minutes, complete it and discard the item. Completing one action may result in another task. In this case, add the new task to one of your “in baskets” (e.g. as a scribbled note).
An actionable item that takes longer than two minutes to complete will either:
- need to be done by a set date (implied by the action), in which case you put it on your calendar;
- need to be done as soon as possible, in which case you put it on your “next actions” list; or
- need to be delegated, in which case you make a note on your “waiting for” list.
Some tasks, such as projects, may require multiple actions to complete. In which case, you place the overall task on a “projects” list and add the next thing to be done on that project to your “next actions” list.
Your calendar, “next actions” list and “waiting for” list then contain your main tasks. When you find yourself with time available, you can return to one of these lists and choose an item to work on. The item you choose will depend on the time available, your frame of mind, etc.
The key to making the “Getting Things Done” process work for you is being disciplined in your review process. You must review all your repositories/lists religiously. If not, your mind will start holding onto things again. The one person you can’t fool is yourself.
This has been a necessarily brief introduction to Allen’s ideas, but we unreservedly recommend his book and website to those looking to organize their professional (or personal) lives so that they can place more focus on the decisions that really matter.