Getting things done 101: The power of outcome focusing

The solution to big, vague project is to focus on a very small handful of things and maintain the desired final outcome in mind at all times.

Vivek Prakash/Reuters/File
Two young ballerinas pose for a photo during the semi-finals of the Genee International Ballet Competition in Singapore September 10, 2009. Attaining long-term or broad goals, like achieving success as a professional dancer, requires outcome-focused planning.

This is the thirteenth 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.

It is easy to set big, audacious goals for ourselves like “spend more time with our kids” or “get our finances in the right order.” The big problem, though, is that such goals often seem enormous and vague. What can you really do to make these things happen?

Allen touches on this on page 250:

“Create a way to regularly spend more time with my daughter” is as specific a project as any, and equally demanding of a next action to be determined. Having the vague, gnawing sense that you “should” do something about your relationship with your daughter, and not actually doing anything, can be a killer. I often work with clients who are willing to acknowledge the real things in their lives at this level as “incompletes” – to write them down, define real projects about them, and ensure that next actions are decided on – until the finish line is crossed. That is real productivity, perhaps in its most awesome manifestation.

The solution to such a big, vague project is to focus on a very small handful of things.

First, what’s the outcome you want from this? Do you want a better relationship with your children? Do you want to have a grip on the money that’s going in and out of your accounts? You need to spend some time imagining what you want at the end of any idea for life change that you have. The more specific you are, the better.

Next, what’s the next step you can personally take to get there? If you want a better relationship with your children, the first step is to push away from your desk and spend some time with them – and then start doing that regularly. If you want to get a grip on your finances, the first thing you need to do is select a software package to help you figure this out. You need an action step that you can actually do that will start moving this initiative forward.

That really covers it. Just execute that next step, then ask yourself “what comes next?” again and again until you’re there.

What if you have no idea what you want? Allen addresses that on page 251:

As an experte in whole-brain learning and good friend of mine, Steven Snyder, put it: “There are only two problems in life: (1) you know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it; and/or (2) you don’t know what you want.” If that’s true (and I think that it is) then there are only two solutions:

- Make it up
- Make it happen

In other words, if you don’t know what you want, it’s time for some soul-searching. A person without a goal is a person idling and not growing. Even if the things you want are mundane, they’re still goals. You can still focus on them, achieve them, and grow as a person.

On the other hand, if you know what you want and can’t figure out how to get there, start breaking that big thing you want down into smaller bites. Focus on nothing more than the absolute next step you ned to take to get there – something so small you can accomplish it in an hour.

Both of these things might require some help from others during the thought process – and that’s not only okay, that’s encouraged. Others can almost always offer very good help when it comes to figuring out such significant things in our lives.

There’s another interesting problem, too: on our way to achieving any big goal, an awful lot of steps are pretty mundane.

In order to be a great basketball player, you have to spend hours in a gym making shot after shot. You have to run all the time to keep yourself in pristine shape. The end product – being great at a sport you care about – seems wonderful, but the work to get there can be really mundane.

In order to be a great parent, you have to spend a lot of time with your children, not just hovering over them or trying to be their friend, but encouraging their problem-solving skills and their independence. You have to change diapers and deal with disciplinary issues over and over again. The end product – a child who is self-motivated to maximize their own potential – is a great target, but the work to get there is mundane.

To accomplish something big like this, you have to revel in the mundane. You have to know and appreciate how those endless free throws or those infinite diapers or those countless time-out sessions are pushing you towards your goal. Allen riffs on this on page 252:

My clients often wonder how I can sit with them in their offices, often for hours on end, as they empty the drawers of their desks and painstakingly go through the minutiae of stuff tha they have let accumulate in their minds and their physical space. Aside from the common embarrassment they feel about the volume of their irresponsibly dealt-with details, they assume I should be bored to tears. Quite the contrary.

Allen’s big goal is to be a good time management consultant. One of the mundane details of doing this is that he has to sit in people’s offices while they do their collection brainstorm for the first time and sift through mountains of junk on their desks. The thing is, though, that the mundane step here, if executed well, brings him closer to his goal. By focusing on that mundane detail and looking for ways to do it as well as possible, he inches towards something enormous.

One of my big goals is to be a writer that positively affects people’s lives. In order to get there, I have to do a ton of mundane work, from dealing with correspondence to doing interviews to reading contracts. Sometimes, I want to blow it off. Other times, though, I recognize that really nailing this little step helps me build to my dreams. I focus in on that task and get a great deal of personal joy from doing it right.

That’s the power of outcome focusing.

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