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June 2, 2006

Getting Things Done

Read this article if you'd like to be able to get loads of stuff done, have lots of creative ideas, be overwhelmed with free time, feel calm and relaxed, and have your life just how you want it.

Even though I have a master's degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, I don't hold a PhD. I'd like to do a PhD and I'd like to have a PhD. But my profession is equivalent to performing continual post-doctoral work; so I already have experience equivalent to many PhDs. I have four granted US patents and twelve in the pipeline. I once attended a presentation by a PhD candidate at Stanford who was talking about his dissertation, which is called a thesis in the UK. He had spent a couple of years designing and studying an asynchronous circuit; I would do something like that in a couple of weeks. Aren't I arrogant? No. By the way, a normal, or synchronous, digital circuit has a "clock" which is equivalent to the percussion in a piece of music. An asynchronous circuit has no clock, like a song with no percussion. It operates as quickly as the musicians can play: sometimes fast, sometime slow, depending on the complexity of the piece.

I'm tooting my own horn and it does have a very nice sound; I'm enjoying it a lot. I don't have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do but I am a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do. I have a red belt, which is one belt below a black belt. I spent years training very intensely and I'm more accomplished that some black-belts. My problem was perfectionism. I didn't do the gradings because I thought that I wasn't good enough although I've jumped over the roof of a saloon car and executed fourteen consecutive successful breaks with different techniques. I am a black-belt; I certify myself. And first degree black-belt is just the beginning, it's not a goal, it's a start; everything is a start.

I am also a black-belt in stress-free productivity; I certify myself. I've been practicing the style of life organization as taught by David Allen every day for more than two years. David Allen wrote Getting Things Done (GTD): How to Achieve Stress-Free Productivity. I've read this book at least five times and I've been to one of his weekend seminars in London. But the real power is in the practice: I've lived this for over two years. I am very stress free and also very productive. David calls it "mind like water". A still pond always responds appropriately, whether to a leaf or to a pebble. Something dramatic could happen right now that requires my attention and I am able to know what it means to me relative to everything else in my life. I have the big picture and I have the little picture, both at the same time. And now I will stroll calmly into the kitchen and make a cup of tea.

Something relatively big did happen! A lady just phoned and told me very sternly that I am abusing my mother emotionally and financially. I told her that she was abusing me, wished her well, and gently put the phone down. Thank you for the example universe; I can see just how that fits into my plans.

I was explaining some GTD concepts to a friend at work, a senior manager, and he asked me how long I'd been practicing it for. I told him two years. He was amazed because I've been at that firm for ten years and he said that I was the most organized person that he knew. The difference now is how I feel inside: I am organized, effective, and very, very happy.

I learned about this because I had to. I had to or I would have gone insane. That was my choice: have a nervous breakdown or become a black-belt in stress-free productivity. In late 2001, while continuing to study part-time for my master's degree, I became a manager and technical leader of a team of fourteen design engineers and architects.

Shortly after becoming a manager, I became pregnant. I spent a lot of time reading about pregnancy, going to weekly childbirth classes, visiting our midwife, and practicing massage and deep breathing. I couldn't figure out why the midwife was not examining me. Now that my wife is angrily divorcing me, she seems unable to remember my presence during our pregnancy, so I reciprocate in kind.

After I had prepared the birth space, we gave birth naturally at home, and then I became the cleaner, cook, and bath-runner. This was all great but very challenging because my wife was going through post-natal depression, asking me to do three things at once, and getting upset a lot.

In the spring of 2002 my wife decided to take our three-month-old son and leave the USA. I probably should have called the police, but I'm such a nice guy that I just relocated to the UK. I worked from a shed in my garden, still managing and technically leading my team of fourteen in California. While working, studying, going to adult children of alcoholics meetings, and having a lot of psychotherapy, I bought a second house in the UK, had it remodeled, and moved our contents in a forty-foot-long shipping container half-way around the world.

There was actually enough space remaining in the back of the container to ship my Porsche for free but my wife wouldn't allow it because she was ashamed of our wealth and didn't want me driving around in an expensive car in the UK. So after having waited for nine months for it to be manufactured, I sold it after owning it for only two years, and for half the price that I had paid for it. Am I an idiot? No. I have been unwise and I am now remembering who I am.

For a couple of years, I was living partly in the UK and partly in the USA, transcontinental commuting, spending four months in California each year. My tax affairs were so complex that they took me a whole working week each year and ran-up annual accounting fees greater than some people's annual income.

In early 2005, and while still working, I sold the house and remaining car in California, shipped another crate to the UK, and relinquished my permanent resident card, also called a green card, which had taken me five years and masses of legal paperwork to acquire. I did this in an attempt to simplify my life. People keep telling me that they have never met anyone like me before; one of these friends told me that I cannot have a simple life because I am not simple.

There have been years when I have earned fourteen-hundred US dollars per hour, every working hour. That's about two-and-a-quarter ounces of gold per hour. I'm not just showing off; I'm showing that my time is valuable. But it's even more valuable than money; my time is essentially priceless. I love to be here on Earth. I love to be alive and I enjoy life so much. That's why I woke up naturally at 5:30 a.m. today after sleeping for six hours. I'm so excited. I love to do things with passion, to be creative, and to express myself. I love to experience things. Where I place myself and I how I spend my time is extremely important to me.

As I am breaking free of the outer and inner shackles, I believe that in a few years, my time will be worth at least ten-thousand dollars per hour; that's a pound of gold per hour. I can think of so many different ways for it to be so, but I choose to allow the universe to make it manifest without my constraint on the particular vehicle; it's more fun that way. It's also impossible for me to figure it all out.

I intend to live, fit and well, to an age exceeding one-hundred-and-fifty. I'm going to live a life of peace and happiness, benefiting from all that I've remembered. I intend to spend each hour of that life fully and completely.

You might want to take a break now and make yourself a cup of builder's tea. Or if you live in England, you could take a print-out to your local greasy-spoon café and have your tea made by a real-life builder.

How did I execute all of that while remaining physically and mentally healthy? Getting Things Done is a framework for dealing with commitments both internally and externally. It enables me to gain a big picture of all of my commitments, to be able to see their relative importance in, and relevance to, my life goals. It enables me to get stuff done but still chill-out a lot.

I just talked with a friend on the phone who is reading a book about Kabbalah. She told me that it says that every obstacle, when not reacted to, but instead when consciously faced and responded to, results in spiritual development, increased remembering; remembering leads only to blissful peace. The first part of GTD is to face everything.

David Allen calls them "open loops"; unresolved commitments. They're karmic seeds that have been planted and are in some stage of development short of bearing fruit. The idea is to collect together, to harvest and to hoe, to till the soil, and to find all the seeds, bushes, and plants, to find all the physical representations of open loops as well as the loops that are held in the mind as nagging, repetitive thoughts.

All of these things are then put into one thing which he calls an inbox. Then you go through and look at each thing for a brief period of time and you decide what you want to do with it. There's a whole flow-chart that he has for what to do with things and I don't want to recreate that here. The idea is that you get the inbox empty and that you empty it every day. You ruthlessly get it empty. Then your inbox is always there ready to receive incoming information, from you or from someone else. You're always ready to re-negotiate everything else based on the new information. This is very freeing because now you don't get stressed when new stuff comes to you. You don't have to do anything, you just have to look at it and choose.

The back-end of the inbox, where stuff goes, is really important. During inbox processing, stuff ends up being done, put in the bin, put on a list of projects and next actions, or filed in some way. It's important that all of these things are as simple as possible but not too simple; this makes it fun and easy to use — it's enjoyable using GTD.

The list of projects is a list of specific outcomes which require more than one physical action. The list of actions is a list of specific physical next actions that take less than ten minutes but more than a couple of minutes; anything that takes less than a two minutes should be done while processing the inbox. You have one to-do list and it's not a list of problems: "Wart on Foot, Tax return, Holiday in Vienna, ..." It's a list of do-able actions: "Search on web for wart cures, Email James with my tax return questions, Call Sarah (123-456-7890) about going to Vienna with me, ..."

Then you just do things on the list and cross them off; it's easy and satisfying. You can partition the action lists into types of actions; a list of calls for example, so that you can make them when you're near a phone. I have a relatively sophisticated way of using Microsoft Outlook for the action lists; some of them automatically transfer to my PDA. But you can just use paper for the lists.

Filing is critical. It's important that things are easy to store and easy to find. There's more than one simple and effective way of doing this with emails, digital files, paper materials or just about anything else. David Allen explains how he does this with the most commonly occurring objects, such as pieces of paper.

The final skill is to review everything once a week. During that review you tidy up, remember, re-negotiate, and make sure that each project has a next action. David has very good guidelines about what to review. I have my own way of reviewing weekly and monthly.

Being conscious of incoming stuff and what it means to me and my life has made me aware that I do not need to be overwhelmed by this influx of information, the three-hundred relevant emails per day, and the torrent of ideas that I'm having. I can harness the power of that information and channel it into the creation of amazing things; my overall life being the most amazing. I am able to re-negotiate commitments with myself and others, partly because I am now more aware of those commitments and partly because I can see that it's necessary to do so. I am not a slave to commitments and lists anymore; commitments and lists are tools that I use to make my life even cooler than it would be otherwise.

Part of the beauty of GTD is its openness and simplicity; I have made it my own. Because I understand the underlying principles and because I have experienced over-doing things as well under-doing things, I am able to operate on-the-fly with those concepts: to recognize when there is stuff coming at me, when I need to capture things, when I need to process stuff in order to clarify commitments and next actions. It's helped me to say no and to realize how overloaded I was doing things that were not very important to me.

GTD has enabled me to be much more creative and to break out of limiting ideas such as there being a lack of time or a lack of resources. I am able to capture creative ideas and use them to recreate my life. It's not just GTD that has fueled my growth and development over the past few years but it has been an integral part of my program.

So now I've bitched about the wife and told you something of GTD let me give you an offer: if you read Getting Things Done and want a piece of my mentoring, I'll offer it to you at the bargain price of $190 per hour (or £100 per hour). That's fifty-two times cheaper than it will be in a few years time.

"Duncan, thank you. I love the way you write; it flows; it's very matter-of-fact." — Julia

"Bravo!" — Trish


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