You tick one thing off your list, and immediately start to worry about something else. The number of things you have to do appears to be never-ending.
This is so often the case, for so many of us. And the stress of an infinite to-do list can render us, ironically, incapable of getting anything done.
David Allen is most famous for his bestselling book, “Getting Things Done”, a guide to time management and organizational productivity. In his TEDx Talk, Allen focused specifically on mental engagement and our relationship with our to-do lists.
“Getting things done,” he says, “is not about getting things done.”
We can all feel crippled by having too much to do in too little time. Our minds are full of future projects, potential hurdles and half-finished tasks, all jostling for space and making a mess in our heads. Holding all of this in our heads, weighing our minds down with extensive mental filing systems acts like an anchor disabling any action. It creates stress, overwhelms and incapacitates. We rush to complete task, rather than taking appropriate actions and getting things done correctly and with confidence.
Allen argues the issue is not time but psychic bandwidth. We can’t properly engage if we don’t have the room to think. The reality is we can have all of the time in the world and still waste it. Our creativity and productivity are not hindered by time, but by a lack of bandwidth.
So, how do we create this psychic bandwidth? How do we harness the mental capacity to engage appropriately with our to-dos?
There actually is a time when we all access this clarity: During crisis. Once we have entered fight or flight mode, our minds can put all of our previous worries and fears on the back-burner, so we become focused and ready to act.
BUT WHAT ABOUT WHEN WE AREN’T IN THE MIDST OF A CRISIS?
Without a crisis, we have the time to think about our overflowing inboxes, growing to-do lists and other stressors. This floods our psyche and exhausts our bandwidth. How can we put our minds into a similar state, without having to prod a sleeping bear or find the nearest plane out of which to parachute?
Allen’s five steps for applying order to chaos offer a way to remove clutter from our minds, by putting it into a more precise, tangible format outside of our heads. The steps are fairly straightforward: capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. The first four steps require you to create a system for labeling, delegating and prioritizing your tasks. Only the last step requires the actual doing: Once there is tidiness and clarity in our mental foundation, there is space and freedom to make the creative mess from which sparks innovation and problem solving.
A lot of our anxieties and worries are more passive than we realize. They’re a response to an inappropriate engagement with our priorities and to-dos and a result of holding too much in our headspace. Allen’s first step — to capture everything holding your mental attention — reveals the most important takeaway for our associations. What is capturing our attention? What problems, projects and personal targets are occupying our collective to-do lists and crowding our perspective? Which of these burdens are actually standing in the way of action?
If it feels, like it so often does, like your association doesn’t have enough time, perhaps the issue needs to be reframed. How would your organization look if it were to go through this reflective overhaul? What if tasks were adequately categorized and prioritized, and if things were put where they belonged on the to-do list? Our associations, like our minds, need the space for appropriate engagement. If we want to get things done, we have to clean up and clear out our bandwidth.