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How I Got a Grip on My Workweek

How I Got a Grip on My Workweek

Ellen Joan Pollock, Editor, BusinessWeek

The goal: 10 extra hours in my week.

The plan of attack: none.

That’s pretty much where I was when Marian Bateman, a productivity coach with the David Allen Co., walked into my office. As executive editor at BusinessWeek, I’m responsible for getting the print edition into your hands each week, and I spend a lot of hours doing it. Just how many I’d rather not see in print.

I knew I had a time management problem. Recently I’d noticed my 11-year-old was wearing capri-length pants on even the coldest of days. I didn’t know whether that was the result of a laundry mishap, a growth spurt, or neglectful parenting. It had been months since I’d been inside a gym.

Marian didn’t flinch at my 10-hour goal. She eyed my messy desk as though she’d seen it all before. Happily, she didn’t notice the take-a-number machine my team had installed outside my office as a joke (more or less). She set to work sorting through the piles on my desk and diving into my file cabinets. She took everything and tossed it into three cardboard file boxes. Marian called this “collecting.” Then she instructed me to make a list of all the pesky tasks and projects on my mind. With apologies to the environment, we put each item on a separate sheet of paper and threw them into my now-empty in-box. Marian called this a “mind sweep.”

By now BusinessWeek staffers had begun to snicker at the chaos as they passed my door. Marian brushed it off. “I don’t want to overemphasize the physical,” she explained. She recalled working with an executive who was guiding a global initiative for her company. Her office was pristine. But the mind sweep took two and a half hours as Marian helped her empty her head onto paper.

That, pretty much, is the heart of the David Allen program. Putting everything on paper sounds basic, Marian noted. But the goal is to “get everything out of your head, clarify your agreements to yourself, and put it in a trusted system.” That allows a “conscious choice about how to spend your time and resources” and keeps projects from becoming what Marian calls “amorphous blobs of undoability.”

Allen’s acolytes, mostly busy executives, think in terms of “altitude maps.” You start on “the runway” and eventually reach the lofty point where, according to Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, you have the “big picture view.” But before you reach 50,000 feet in the GTD system you have to “collect” and “process.” If you can accomplish a task in two minutes, you do it. Otherwise you delegate or defer it. If an item can’t be turned into a “next action,” you stick the paperwork into a “reference” or “someday/maybe” folder.


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