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Getting Things Done

January 4th, 2004 · 3 Comments

Browsing through John Porcaro’s blog recently, this quote caught my eye and inspired me:

Controlling something with lots of variables, details, and horizons requires a matching number of parts and processes to control the whole. If you try to manage something complex with too simple a system, you will do nothing but add to the complexity. An elegant dinner requires multiple tools (pots, pans, plates, utensils) and procedures (recipes, cooking, serving) for its preparation and enjoyment. Trying to cook a six-course dinner with nothing but one pot and a spoon would get quickly out of control. Having all the tools, content, and processes that map to all the moving parts of an event, and having them at the ready, as needed, is critical for elegant simplicity with an experience.

The quote came from David Allen , author of Getting Things Done . Ted had read the book and it had somehow migrated from his desk to mine, ending up in a stack of stuff nearly hidden by a big box of Christmas cards. I didn’t know how long it had been there or how long it would stay there. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read it.

I had seen what this book had done to Ted. I had seen what Ted had. He had a big tickler file full of papers. He had a big list he checked every Friday afternoon. I wasn”t sure I was ready for all that. I wasn’t sure I needed all that organization. I didn’t know if I wanted to read a whole book and re-organize my life. Hey, I didn’t even have time and energy to do that. In fact I had even tried FlyLady earlier this year and after a while, it wasn’t working completely and I’d gone back to my old ways instead. Heck, I was skeptical.

After all I was doing all right, getting by. I’m just a mom at home, no need for fancy organization. It’s a simple life, not much to manage. I can almost do it all in my mind.

I don’t know if my mind was younger or my life simpler but I think I used to do okay without much organization. Of course, that was in college and before kids. But I’ve noticed myself here and there, especially this fall and during the Christmas season, messing up. Making mistakes. Forgetting to do important things. Forgetting a gift or getting too many. Rushing to the post office to pay a bill that’s almost late. Running out of oil, sugar and flour, even tissues and toliet paper.

Then the quote above caught my eye. I realized my life sometimes feels like that six-course dinner. It’s complicated.

When I think about it, what I have to do at times is quite complex. I’ve got three busy little people to manage. I’m Head Teacher at the School for Little Leungs. I’m responsible for Recreational Activities and I’m also Stuff Manager. I am the Medical Care Coordinator for our family, and at times an Administrator of various forms and papers. I help run the Finance Department. I do the ordering and bill paying for our family of five. I take inventory and manage the stock. I help schedule Hospitality and Social Activities. I coordinate Operations, getting the house repaired and maintained. I’ve got correspondence, paper and electronic, that requires my attention….

So if I think my life isn’t complex, I’m kidding myself. And if I think that I can get away with using a spoon and one pot to cook this six course supper, then I’m going to get in trouble. As I have. With piles of papers in and on my desk. Being unable at times to find what I need. Some days remembering things when it is almost too late to do them. Oops!

For a while, I’ve been living with a constant feeling that I’m always falling behind, always one or two steps back from where I want to be. But I thought it was just life with three little kids. I thought it was the way it was.

But since reading Allen’s book these past couple weeks – I picked it up after reading Porcaro’s blog – I’ve realized that I don’t have to live like that. Even as a mom I can manage my life better. Ted and I remarked how Allen’s system is flexible – not a rigid daily schedule routine but more a way of life, something that can adapt to however life leads in a day: perfect for the unpredictability of parenting.

So far though I am enjoying the feeling of being more organized and more simplified in my life. For some reason I’ve always resisted having an “in” box – I guess I felt it would take up too much space on my desk. But what did I need that space for? For piles of papers to accumulate? Now everything goes in the In box. It’s much better than getting deliveries on top of my laptop keyboard. And now the girls know where to put the presents they make me.

As Allen suggests, I also got rid of my hanging file folders – well as many as I could until I ran out of manila folders. That does use the space more efficiently.

Experimenting a bit, I have made new folders, changing them as I feel I need to do, and moved around the ones I had so they are more accessible. Right now I have a dozen or so on my desk in a small file, and I have about close to 100 files total at my desk, in two file drawers and another shelf. I am using the files on my desks instead of lists – for example, if I think of someone to call, I write it on a scrap of paper and put it in the “to call” folder. Then if I have a moment to make a phone call, I know where to go and what to do.

I don’t have a PDA to use for this. I’m not sure it would be that helpful for me. Since some items come only on paper, there will always be paper in the process, at least at this point in time. And I like having most of my system in one medium, rather than trying to coordinate the PDA with paper.

I even went through my email In box and sorted through 3000 emails or so, putting them into 40 folders. It’s amazing to me how wonderful it feels to look in my In box and see how neat it is. That was another thing I had given up on.

So I feel inspired already by the cleanliness of my desk. And I’m learning new ways to help it stay that way. Asking myself “What’s the Next Action?” as Allen suggests is helping me be more efficient, whether I’m talking to Ted about a family adventure or processing the mail.

Allen writes that it “clears the psychic decks” to work bottom-up “allowing your creative attention to focus on the more meaningful and elusive visions that you may need to challenge yourself to identify”. Since I’ve been reading Getting Things Done, and been able to get a few more things done, I’ve found time and energy to think about other visions in my life, such as homeschooling and my writing. I think I’m learning a little what it means to have a “mind like water”.

In order to hang out with friends or take a long, aimless walk and truly have nothing on your mind, you’ve got to know where all your actionable items are located, what they are, and that they will wait. And you need to be able to do that in a few seconds, not days. p 155

I think the above quote can also apply to mothering. In order to hang out with your children and spouse, or to go play at the playground with nothing on your mind as a mom, you need to have life in order, to know that all is where it needs to be at the moment, not frantically racing or scraping by. Too often I find myself going for a jog in the morning and thinking about all the things “to-do” that day, hoping I’ll remember to write them down when I get back in the door. Or I find myself sometimes hurrying to pack up the kids, grabbing things to take for a trip to a store, trying to do some crucial (forgotten!) business before the doors close at 5.

Although this book might seemed tailored more towards business professionals I think it works great for moms at home also. I appreciated his attitude, principles and philosophy and they fit me more than FlyLady’s more feminine-homemaker- -purple-puddles-style. FlyLady did help me with learning how to clean my home more efficiently, but Allen is guiding me through managing my mind better.

Well, I’m still doing the “Mind-Sweep”, here and there, learning to scribble things down and put them in my In box – still trying to break the habit of hoarding them in my head and hoping they’ll happen somehow. I’m still not completely Getting Things Done. But I’m grateful I’ve got a good beginning in a new way in a new year.

Tags: books

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 tania // Jan 5, 2004 at 11:58 am

    don’t even get me started on why i think people should cut moms especially moms of 3 flack. i think you’re doing an amazing job! you’re not in debt, your kids are healthy, they’re eating SOMETHING in the kitchen and you can find each other in your house! : )
    you’re doing great!

  • 2 Katherine // Jan 17, 2004 at 9:21 am

    I remember someone saying that if at the end of the day the children are still alive and the house is still standing, it was a successful day…

    But I do use a PDA for my to-do lists (in folders of where the action needs to be taken, like phone, computer, desk, house, out-of-the-house) and shopping/errand list. The only problem with the shopping is that I keep a list in two places: on the refrigerator (for other family members to add items or for me to jot down something in a hurry while cooking), and in my Palm HandyShopper application. Sometimes I leave the house without the fridge list (often not expecting I will have time to shop, or else just forgetting to take it). That can be frustrating.

  • 3 Mad Times // Apr 29, 2004 at 12:13 am

    Getting Things Done by David Allen

    I got this from the library after reading about it in Seedlings & Sprouts. The book describes a methodology for keeping all your commitments outside your head where you can keep an eye on them and don’t have to think…