The Five Secrets to Getting Things Done

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To spread his productivity gospel, David Allen is writing a third book on how to get things in order. Here are some of his top tips, whether you're an executive or an artist-in-the-making

1 — Mix Business with Pleasure

Most people keep separate lists of things they have to do at home and their professional or school tasks. That's a mistake, Allen says. You're the same person at home and at the office (or school). It's more effective to maintain a unified list of all of your tasks. Keep it on paper, not in your overloaded head. Organize tasks by context rather than according to whether they're professional or personal. In other words, if you have calls to make, whether to work colleagues or to the babysitter or cable guy, tag them in your to-do list as things to do when you've got a few minutes and a phone handy. Next time you're in a cab or waiting room, you'll appreciate only having to look in one place for the calls you have to make, whether they're for work or not.

2 — Step Away from the Stapler

When your schedule is packed with meetings and tasks, it's easy to lose sight of your broader goals and responsibilities. Break away once a week and take stock of the projects you're working on and your long-term objectives, Allen advises. That will ensure that important items on the distant horizon don't fall by the wayside. In Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, the "weekly review" is the most important element, according to devotees. It's easy to avoid and hard to commit to, but Allen says building it into your routine helps systemize effective planning.

3 — Evaluate Your System

Whether you're a scraps-of-paper person or a Filofax fanatic, chances are you've developed your own way of organizing your calendar, tasks and contacts. Most of us, though, have holes in our organizational buckets. Things routinely fall out. And while your system might be comfortable, it should get a tune-up from time to time. "I thought I was a productive, well-organized person," says Kim Hagerty, CEO of The Hagerty Group Management Group, a specialty insurance company, describing how surprised she felt after a consultation session on David Allen's system. She realized there were many things she had forgotten to plan for, mostly because they hadn't required her immediate attention. The advantage of the GTD system, or others like it, Allen says, is that once you've written everything down and gotten it off your brain, your mind can relax and your imagination can soar.

4 — Ask Yourself: Should This Be Here?

Keep tabs on your working space just as you manage your mental space. "The things that belong are supplies, reference material, decoration and equipment," Allen says. "Everything else is in process." In other words, if random chotchkes are gradually taking over your desk despite being neither functional nor sentimental, neither useful nor amusing, observe that and do something about it. Set your own standards, Allen says, but once you've recognized that something is out of place, do something about it to improve your peace of mind.

5 — Decide On Your Mission

At some point, your tasks and projects have to draw on some larger goal, Allen says. Even if you don't yet know what that is, set aside time to think about it once in a while. So where does he stand on that? Now that he's gotten organization down pat, what's next for the master of productivity? Allen would rather dream than draw up a business plan. "I'm a reluctant entrepreneur," he says. The productivity guru likes to think of himself as a "researcher, educator and an evangelist," who helps people weave order into their complex lives. But because Allen would rather help people gain control of their frazzled lives than figure out new ways to make millions off of his ideas, he's still struggling to decide whether to focus on corporate consulting or the world of self-help. And what's the right scale and scope for The David Allen Company? "This could be a $30 to $60 million business," he says, "but I'm personally not that ambitious."