Monday, October 01, 2007

Self Help

There is an interesting article in Wired here about Self-Help Guru David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” technique to enhance personal productivity.

Despite being a Self-Help Guru Allen is apparently a boring, analytical person – he has even been accused of “going overboard with elaborate schemes.” The big problem with Self-Help from my point of view is that is relies too much on inspirational-sounding but meaningless catchphrases and the charisma of the Guru and not enough on the application of methodical methods to help people in their daily lives. Allen seems to have spotted this problem, and exploited the gap in the market.

The basic rules are:

1. Collect and describe all the stuff [anything we want or need to do]. Everything must be inventoried without distinction or prejudice. Errands, emails, a problem with a friend: It all must be noted for processing. Small objects, such as an invitation or a receipt, go into a pile. Everything else can be represented with a few words on a piece of paper ("find keys," "change jobs"). Once the stuff is collected, processing begins. Anything that requires two minutes or less is handled on the spot. The remainder is governed by the second rule.

2. All stuff must be handled in a precise way. Allen offers dozens of clever tricks for classifying, labeling, and retrieving stuff. Expert users of GTD never leave old emails cluttering their inbox, for instance. Nor do they have to rifle through a bunch of paper to see if there's anything crucial they've left undone. Emails to be answered are in a separate folder from emails that merely have to be read; there's a file for every colleague and friend; stuff that must be done has been identified and placed on one of several kinds of to-do lists. Allen calls his to-do lists next-action lists, which are subject to the third rule.

  1. Items on next-action lists should be described as concretely as possible. Breaking down stuff into physical actions, Allen says, is the key to getting things done.

This puts me in mind of an excerpt from The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett. The protagonist, Masklin, has the task of dragging a rat across two fields. This is an impossible task for a twelve centimetre-high Nome (what – you didn’t know he was a Nome? Go read the books, they’re brilliant…), so he applies implacable Nome logic to the problem, from Truckers by Terry Pratchett:

“The way to deal with an impossible task was to chop it down into a number of merely very difficult tasks, and break each one of them into a group of horribly hard tasks, and each one of them into tricky jobs, and each one of them... {and so on}”

The key to happiness in to define the problems you have, write them down, and deal immediately with those that can be dealt with immediately. Then proceed to the other problems, break them down into a series of actions, whilst retaining the ultimate goal.

I have to say that for a *ahem* Self-Help Guru, Allen speaks a lot of sense.

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