I read a lot of articles and books on productivity and getting organised. Everyday I read five or six blog posts or newspaper articles and I have at least one productivity book on the go at anyone time. I do this, not because I am masochistic in anyway, but because I have an intense interest in the subject and have done so since I entered the workforce some twenty-five years ago.
All this reading has resulted in a great deal of things learnt. Not just the good and the great, but also the poor and the abysmal. There is a lot of advice out there on the wonderful worldwide web and while a lot of it is of a high quality, there is also a lot that is rather poor in quality. Poor quality because the advice is just far too complex and smacks of a brain that has over thought the problem. Being productive and knowing where everything is at any one time is simple, very simple. Once you go into the realms of steps and procedures and processes you take a simple thing and turn it into a complex process that turns off the vast majority of people. That’s not helpful at all. Indeed it’s heartbreaking.
Being productive and organised is so simple, all you need is a piece of paper and a pen. That’s it.
If I were to help someone over a period of 12 months to get themselves organised this is what I would do:
Give them an A5 notebook and a pen and tell them to write all their ideas, commitments and todos down in the book. I would allow them the option to divide each side of paper in two — one for work and one for their home. Then for the next month I would have them get in to the habit of writing everything down as and when it occurs to them. Each day, put the date at the top of a new page and just write everything down. Once they have done a task, cross it off. The point here is that to get yourself organised, you really need to develop the habit of writing everything down first. Far too often we recommend apps to people and tell them it will change their life. It won’t. It won’t because they haven’t developed the habit of writing things down first. Without this habit, any attempt to get organised is doomed.
I notice when David Allen does his one on one coaching with a client, he does something similar. Before developing any ‘system’ he has the client ‘capture’ everything that is in their heads. This ‘capturing’ is essentially writing everything down. You really are going to get nowhere without this basic skill. This skill needs to be a habit. Something you do unconsciously before you can move on to any other ‘step’ in getting yourself organised.
And that is why so many people fail at getting organised. They try to move on to the next ‘level’ if you like, before mastering the essential basic step of writing everything down. To create writing things down every single time as a habit requires time — at least three weeks — and it is the step everyone thinks they can do without thinking. That’s just not true. One slip, one thing not written down, will result in you failing at getting organised. As David Allen has consistently said: your brain is not a good place to store things. And I can tell you, that statement is true. If I don’t write down everything, I will forget it.
Once the writing things down habit (or “capturing in GTD speak) has been embedded, then, and only then, are you ready to move on to projects and contexts. Without this basic skill GTD is not going to work. When I review the Getting Things Done book (which I do every December) David Allen spends a lot of time explaining the importance of getting ‘stuff’ out of your head and into a trusted system. The book does not spend a lot of time on the applications, software and other such gimmicks that are available. Those things are much less important than the single, simple step of capturing everything.
So, if you are new to GTD and are looking for the ‘perfect’ system. Stop. Just go out and buy yourself a nice new notebook and pen and spend a month getting in to the habit of capturing everything that crosses your mind. This one habit will give you everything you need to become a GTD black belt and will be the one thing that transforms your life.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century.