“File now, think later”

“The interesting thing about crisis is that it produces a type of serenity,” says David Allen, a productivity expert and the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. During a crisis, people must make quick decisions, prioritize what’s important, and move fast. They must act. But once a crisis ends, extra thoughts flood in and we think about unfinished tasks, getting distracted from the task at hand. So with our endless list of reminders and thoughts about the future, how do we tap into what Allen calls “true survival mode”?

Allen has created a productivity system based on filing important and non-important thoughts effectively. Allen’s advanced version of a to-do list, which is called GTD (very simply, “Getting Things Done”) and has garnered media attention and driven the sale of more than 600,000 of Allen’s books. Through GTD, Allen believes we can clean out the bulk of unfinished tasks in our minds. It’s a system of maps, priorities, file folders, and compartments, of thinking ahead and categories and cleaning. But to start with the basics, “filing effectively” requires dividing your tasks into three types.

First, you should have an archive where you store all the tasks and thoughts you may need one day but can forget about for now. For example, the clothes you’re going to wear to a party, a vacation spot for next summer, and a potential PhD program might all go in your archive. That way, you can feel assured that they’re in the “system”, but your mind can focus on other things for now. Future tests, essay deadlines, and summer job applications can also go in your archive. Allen refers to the old cliché “out of sight, out of mind”. File now, deal with later.

Next, Allen describes a current task list. These are the tasks and thoughts that must be dealt with right now. Every single thing in your current task list must be stored as an action. In other words, writing “English essay” in your current task list just won’t cut it. To make the task doable and less repulsive, you must redefine it as an action verb. You must break it down into something that involves physically moving an arm, hand, finger, or other limb. Instead of “English essay”, write “Open book to page 15 and start reading”. Or “Type email to prof@utoronto.ca and ask for help on thesis”. Instead of writing “Book venue for birthday”, write “Dial (416) 029-2042”. Because we’ve written these tasks as actions, there is immediacy and urgency and we feel more inclined to do them.

Allen refers to his last component of the filing system as a “tickler file”. Think of the tickler file as a reminder, a way to remember which tasks are current and which belong in the archive. For Allen, the tickler file consists of 43 folders of reminders: one folder for each of the next 31 days, and 12 folders for each of the next 12 months. Each day you open a folder and see the tasks you have to complete for that day or month. Tomorrow’s folder might say “Call sister”, while January 2014’s folder might read “Go to bank and pay first instalment of student debt”.

So how exactly do we organize our tasks into these compartments? Mentally, physically, electronically? Allen says we must get these thoughts down in a physical form, whether electronically or on paper, so they can turn into actions. Allen uses Lotus Notes, a software by IBM that helps people organize their businesses through widgets and calendars. But Allen writes that you “still can’t beat markers on a whiteboard”. He also uses a small notebook he calls a “note-taker wallet” in which he writes small lists of tasks. For more passionate followers of GTD, he provides a list of physical tools like baskets for your desk, file cabinets, plastic travel file folders, and desktop organizers. Whatever medium you choose, Allen emphasizes that we should externalize all our extra thoughts about future tasks that could interfere with our present problems.

Allen’s GTD system relies on what psychologists call the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect is described as the tendency to fixate on tasks we haven’t finished. Psychologists call these fixations “intrusive thoughts”. We must free our minds because our attentions have a limited capacity. By organizing every task in terms of priority and writing them down as actions rather than words, our minds adapt to what a BBC article calls “a complete system for self-management, something that will do the remembering and monitoring for you, so your mind is freed up”.

As a 20-something student, I juggle thoughts about my personal life, school, work, and the future. I think about what to eat, drink, say, and write, and I often feel overwhelmed as these thoughts compete for my attention. But through the system of organization and categories proposed by Allen, I might, as he puts it, “know how to discriminate what’s meaningful and what’s not” in my world. In other words, I just might get things done.

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