Getting things done 101: Making the best action choices

Determining the context, time availability, energy output and priority of the actions necessary for a series of tasks is crucial in deciding how to proceed with a project.

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    In this photo taken on June 26 Wayne Lupher, right, cuts off a piece of plywood as Fred Hostetler watches on, Saturday afternoon at the Habitat for Humanity site in downtown Newark, Ohio. Lupher is a veteran and is helping build his house. Taking on major projects like building a home requires taking decisive action. How you plan and prioritize those action choices is crucial in the success of your project.
    Gavin Jackson/ Columbus Dispatch/ AP Photo
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This is the ninth entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

Over the last four articles, we’ve reviewed four of the five major components of getting things done:
1. Collecting all of the stuff you need to do
2. Processing that stuff down
3. Organizing that stuff into appropriate places
4. Reviewing to make sure you’re keeping things going

Today, we’re going to focus on the fifth step: actually doing stuff.

Allen offers up three models for determining how to decide what to do next.

The Four-Criteria Model
On page 192, Allen spells out this concept:

Remember that you make your action choices based on the following four criteria, in order:

1 | Context
2 | Time available
3 | Energy available
4 | Priority

You have your day’s to-do list. On that list are some errands, some things to do at your desk, some things to do in the kitchen, and so on. When you look at that list and decide what to do next, you’ll naturally want to do most of the desk things in a group, the errands in a group, and so on. That’s context.

Within each context, though, you might be boxed in by time. It’s noon, you have an appointment at 2, and you have three hours’ worth of stuff to do in the kitchen. Which tasks get done and which ones do not? That’s time available.

It’s 8 in the evening and you’re starting to run out of steam. One task involves carrying a bunch of heavy boxes. The other one just involves sitting on a chair as you clean out the fridge. Which one gets done? That’s energy available.

You’re at your desk. You have plenty of time and all of your tasks require about the same amount of energy. Which of your desk tasks do you do next? That’s all about the priority.

My method for handling these things usually comes at the start of the day when I assemble my to-do list. As I mentioned before, I maintain a Word document that contains my to-do list, adding to it every time I process my inbox. At the start of each day, I go through that list and organize it by context – errands, work tasks, personal tasks, and household tasks are usually the big four groups. Within each group, I usually list the things I need to do by priority. I then print off that list and, as I accomplish the items throughout the day, I cross them off.

Whenever I’m in a particular context, I usually just scan the things that need done, recognizing that they’re listed by priority but not necessarily following that priority with any strictness. For example, if I’m running errands, I’ll usually run them based on what things are near each other rather than by how important they all are.

I just cross things off as the day goes on and at the end of the day, I revise my Word document by deleting all of the completed tasks (and usually adding more that have built up throughout the day, to be done tomorrow).

The Threefold Model
Allen lays out this model for work on page 196:

As I explained earlier, during the course of the workday, at any point in time, you’ll be engaged in one of three types of activities:

- Doing predefined work
- Doing work as it shows up
- Defining your work

Sometimes, during the day, I follow my to-do list. Sometimes, I’m taking care of impromptu stuff, like unscheduled phone calls and other little emergencies. At other times, I’m reviewing my to-do list or processing my inbox or something like that.

I find that when I put these three elements into very separate boxes with as little overlap as possible, I find the most success. I unplug the phone to prevent “work as it shows up.” I turn off my email program. I put away my to-do list and ignore my inbox.

This allows me, along with knowing that all of the stuff I need to remember is safely recorded in my system, to quickly get into a “flow state” at my desk, which is incredibly productive time.

The Six Level Review Model
On page 200, Allen touches on the six levels of review:

The six levels of work as we saw in chapter 2 (pages 51-53) may be thought of in terms of altitude:

50,000+ feet: Life
40,000 feet: Three- to five-year visions
30,000 feet: One- to two-year goals
20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
10,000 feet: Current projects
Runway: Current actions

Obviously, each of these levels should be in line with and enhance the levels above it. The current things you’re doing should fulfill current projects. Your current projects should be in line with your areas of responsibility. Your areas of responsibility should build toward your one- to two-year goals. Your goals should be the building blocks of, well, your life as a whole.

In other words, every action you take should ideally have some impact on the larger vision of your life. Even if you don’t see it directly, it should become clear if you sit back and think about it in terms of these levels of work.

For me, thinking about my work in this way, particularly during my weekly review, helps me minimize the unnecessary work and maximize the valuable work. The time I spend thinking about each of these levels really helps me figure out what’s actually important in my life and what I can be doing with regards to that.

I’ll use an example to show how a simple action echoes through every level of my life, connecting my current action to my overall life goals.

One of my major overall life goals is to be a good father. To me, that means teaching my children how to have self-control and how to be self-reliant (five year visions). This involves teaching them things like how to go to the bathroom themselves, how to be patient and not cry when they want things, how to behave in an appropriate way around others, and so on (two year goals). I’m responsible for encouraging their good behavior in these areas and discouraging their bad behavior (areas of responsibility). One of my current projects is to teach my daughter to listen to instructions instead of just ignoring them when she’s doing something else (current project). When she doesn’t listen, I focus on getting her attention and if she refuses, I penalize her in some simple fashion, such as putting her in the “time out” chair, getting down at her eye level, and talking to her seriously about it (current action).

So, my immediate action leads (slowly) to an improved ability to follow directions, which helps her grow as a socially functional young person. This is part of self-control and self-reliance, lessons which I view as an essential part of being a good father.

What I generally find is that the more direct the connection between my current action and a major life goal, the more powerful and genuinely important that action is. The above connection is very straightforward, but sometimes they’re not all that straightforward – or at least not all that impactful. This is how I often prioritize my tasks. Not by urgency – if something is urgent but unimportant, I’ll often blow it off – but by genuine importance to what’s central in my life.

This is all very much a thought exercise. However, it is this kind of thinking – hand in hand with a trusted system that records all of the stuff you need to do – that creates an efficient and very fulfilling life, both professionally and personally.

On Thursday, we’ll talk about applying these ideas to getting project planning under control.

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