Your Personal Effectiveness Program (Part 2-GTD)

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Your desk is a mess. Your closet’s a mess. Heck, your life might even be a mess. But it doesn’t have to be that way. All you need is a little nudge (and a plan) to get you moving in the direction you want to go.

Today you continue your journey to improve your Personal Effectiveness by getting more stuff done quicker. This can be a pretty wide topic, so I will try to keep it focused and to the point.

You may have heard of David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. He is the guru of gaining control of tasks, time, and next actions. If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to read his book, Getting Things Done.

Just go to Amazon and buy it. It’s totally worth the investment. I’ve read it twice and have put a number of his ideas into practice. And they work great!

Since I know you’re busy, I’m going to get right to the heart of the matter and share David Allen’s first three steps to getting things done.

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize

These steps will get you engaged and moving towards getting more stuff done quicker. But to be successful, you’re going to need some office supplies: note pads, folders, and sticky notes.

Getting things done is all about putting your process into practice, so let’s explore those first three steps of the process!


Collect what has your attention. This first step requires you to take a look around and start gathering up everything you can see on your desk, in your cube or office, and in your life. I know it sounds like a lot, and it is, but if you want to be more productive, you have to be that thorough.

You want to make a pile of all the notes, papers, books, magazines, receipts, photos, lists, whatever you might pick up, look at, and put back down again. You also need to capture all of your to-dos, tasks, and projects, so you’ll need to write those down on paper in your note pad.

Your mind is for having ideas,
not holding them.

– David Allen

All of those things are taking up valuable space in your brain and they shouldn’t. They need to be listed and classified. Don’t make your brain work so hard trying to remember everything in your life. Get it down on paper!

Do you know why you make a grocery list? Because it’s easy to forget lists of things, and paper is the perfect answer to that challenge. Use the right tool for the right task.

Now, once you’ve got everything captured, you’ll be exhausted, but don’t stop now. It’s time to move to step two. So take a deep breath and get ready to make some sense of it all.


You’ve gathered a bunch of paper and you’ve written down a big, fat to-do list, maybe a few of them. Good job!

Now it’s time to start asking questions. For every item you’ve captured or written down, ask this question first.

Is it actionable?

If no, then trash it, incubate it, or file it as reference.

If yes, figure out the very next action required.

This is critical. You need to clarify exactly what needs to get done next; not every step, not the entire timeline, just the next action. Writing the next action stimulates your brain to fire off chemicals that motivate you to actually do something. Plus, when you come back to this item later, you’ll already know exactly what to do next.

For the overachievers: If it will take you less than two minutes, do it right now, get it out of the way and never look back.

If you can’t do it in two minutes, delegate it if you can, or put it on a list to do later. It’s important to stick to this clarifying process. If you don’t identify each item as actionable or not, you won’t know what to do next. And if you don’t know what to do next, you’re going to find yourself stuck in a whirlwind of uncertainty, wasting energy looking at it again and again and again.

Ok, now that you know what to do next, let’s put things in order.


This step is no easier than the last two. In fat, it may be tougher to follow over the long haul, but it is worth the effort. And for those of you who enjoy collecting, scrap-booking, or filing, this will be fun and energizing!

You’ve captured and clarified all of your items, whether they be paper, electronic, tasks, projects, to-dos, whatever. Now it’s time to put them in their proper place.

Here is where your folders and sticky notes come to work.  Use your folders to categorize all the stuff you’ve collected and clarified. In that pile of stuff, you’ve probably got a stack of magazines to read.

Quickly skim through them and tear out just the articles you really want to read. Then put them in a folder and label it “articles to read”, and throw the rest of the magazine away. (Your spouse, partner, housemate will thank you!)

Do the same for any other random paper you have on your desk. File them away into a folder and appropriately label that folder (maybe something like “crap that’s been on my desk for too long”).

Now for all those intangible items, like phone calls, errands, and to-dos, make a list for each category. Put action headers on those lists. For example, create lists like “calls to make”, “errands to run”, “emails to send”. (Notice the verbs: make, run, send. They make all the difference.)

Using action headers primes your brain to actually do something about it.

Before we wrap things up, let’s go back and talk about “next actions” for a moment.

You may not realize this, but every single thing you do starts with a next action. Your job is to figure out what it is and write that next action on a sticky note and slap it on that item in the list.

For instance, let’s say you have to take your car in to get the oil changed. What’s the next first action? No, it’s not make an appointment. It’s find the phone number. Because you can’t make the appointment without the phone number.

Remember to start small, start simple, and start smart.

Break it down into baby steps. Always determine the very next action. Because that will get you closer to completion. You know if you just write “get oiled changed” you’ll read that over and over, day after day, and you’ll keep telling yourself, “I really need to get my oil changed.”

But, on the other hand, if you have the phone number staring you down like a bully who wants your lunch money, you’re much more likely to just pick up the phone and dial it right away.

Now these lists and next actions may all may sound quite silly, but you have to understand that your brain should be used for what it’s good at: creative thinking and critical thinking.

Let’s face it, our brains are just not very good at keeping lists of things.

You know what is good at keeping lists?

And writing on paper provides the added benefit of inspiring commitment to reach completion. When you write something down, you are more likely to commit to that task and see it through to the finish. And paper allows you the satisfaction of taking a pen and checking it off (or as I like to do with a big fat marker and boldly striking through) another accomplished task.

Man, that feels good!

Before we wrap up, I encourage you to do a weekly sweep to get current on new collectibles, keep your lists clean and polished, and keep yourself honest.

Next time, we will tackle that out-of-control inbox of yours and learn how to better manage your email. Until then, just remember:

If you want to get more stuff done quicker, learn to be a list maker, folder user, sticky note sticker.

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