Table Of Contents

Previous topic

Igi Aferojn Finitajn

A New Practice for a New Reality

IT’S POSSIBLE FOR a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control. That’s a great way to live and work, at elevated levels of effectiveness and efficiency. It’s also becoming a critical operational style required of successful and high-performing professionals. You already know how to do everything necessary to achieve this high-performance state. If you’re like most people, however, you need to apply these skills in a more timely, complete, and systematic way so you can get on top of it all instead of feeling buried. And though the method and the techniques I describe in this book are immensely practical and based on common sense, most people will have some major work habits that must be modified before they can implement this system. The small changes required – changes in the way you clarify and organize all the things that command your attention – could represent a significant shift in how you approach some key aspects of your day-to-day work. Many of my clients have referred to this as a significant paradigm shift.

Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.


The methods I present here are all based on two key objectives: (1) capturing all the things that need to get done – now, later, someday, big, little, or in between – into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind; and (2) disciplining yourself to make front-end decisions about all of me “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a plan for “next actions” that you can implement or renegotiate at any moment.

This book offers a proven method for this kind of high-performance workflow management. It provides good tools, tips, techniques, and tricks for implementation. As you’ll discover, the principles and methods are instantly usable and applicable to everything you have to do in your personal as well as your professional life. [*] You can incorporate, as many others have before you, what I describe as an ongoing dynamic style of operating in your work and in your world. Or, like still others, you can simply use this as a guide to getting back into better control when you feel you need to.

The Problem: New Demands, Insufficient Resources

Almost everyone I encounter these days feels he or she has too much to handle and not enough time to get it all done. In the course of a single recent week, I consulted with a partner in a major global investment firm who was concerned that the new corporate-management responsibilities he was being offered would stress his family commitments beyond the limits; and with a midlevel human-resources manager trying to stay on top of her 150-plus e-mail requests per day fueled by the goal of doubling the company’s regional office staff from eleven hundred to two thousand people in one year, all as she tried to protect a social life for herself on the weekends.

[*]I consider “work,” in its most universal sense, as meaning anything that you want or need to be different than it currently is. Many people make a distinction between “work” and “personal life,” but I don’t: to me, weeding the garden or updating my will is just as much “work” as writing this book or coaching a client. All the methods and techniques in this book are applicable across that life/work spectrum – to be effective, they need to be.

A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle. It’s as though their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. And most people are to some degree frustrated and perplexed about how to improve the situation.

Work No Longer Has Clear Boundaries

A major factor in the mounting stress level is that the actual nature of our jobs has changed much more dramatically and rapidly than have our training for and our ability to deal with work. In just the last half of the twentieth century, what constituted “work” in the industrialized world was transformed from assembly line, make-it and move-it kinds of activity to what Peter Drucker has so aptly termed “knowledge work.”

Time is quality of nature that keeps events from happening all at once. Lately it doesn’t seem to be working.


In the old days, work was self-evident. Fields were to be plowed, machines tooled, boxes packed, cows milked, widgets cranked. You knew what work had to be done – you could see it. It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished.

Almost every project could be done better, and an infinite quantity of information is now available that could make that happen.

Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects. Most people I know have at least half a dozen things they’re trying to achieve right now, and even if they had the rest of their lives to try, they wouldn’t be able to finish these to perfection. You’re probably faced with the same dilemma. How good could that conference potentially be? How effective could the training program be, or the structure of your executives’ compensation package? How inspiring is the essay you’re writing? How motivating the staff meeting? How functional the reorganization? And a last question: How much available data could be relevant to doing those projects “better”? The answer is, an infinite amount, easily accessible, or at least potentially so, through the Web.

On another front, the lack of edges can create more work for everyone. Many of today’s organizational outcomes require cross-divisional communication, cooperation, and engagement. Our individual office silos are crumbling, and with them is going the luxury of not having to read cc’d e-mails from the marketing department, or from human resources, or from some ad hoc, deal-with-a-certain-issue committee.

Our Jobs Keep Changing

The disintegrating edges of our projects and our work in general would be challenging enough for anyone. But now we must add to that equation the constantly shifting definition of our jobs. I often ask in my seminars, “Which of you are doing only what you were hired to do?” Seldom do I get a raised hand. As amorphous as edgeless work may be, if you had the chance to stick with some specifically described job long enough, you’d probably figure out what you needed to do – how much, at what level – to stay sane.

But few have that luxury anymore, for two reasons:

  1. The organizations we’re involved with seem to be in constant morph mode, with ever-changing goals, products, partners, customers, markets, technologies, and owners. These all, by necessity, shake up structures, forms, roles, and responsibilities.
  2. The average professional is more of a free agent these days than ever before, changing careers as often as his or her parents once changed jobs. Even fortysomethings and fiftysomethings hold to standards of continual growth. Their aims are just more integrated into the mainstream now, covered by the catchall “professional, management, and executive development”– which simply means they won’t keep doing what they’re doing for any extended period of time.

We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust, ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling.

—Eric Hoffer

Little seems clear for very long anymore, as far as what our work is and what or how much input may be relevant to doing it well. We’re allowing in huge amounts of information and communication from the outer world and generating an equally large volume of ideas and agreements with ourselves and others from our inner world. And we haven’t been well equipped to deal with this huge number of internal and external commitments.

The burner I go, the behinder I get.


The Old Models and Habits Are Insufficient

Neither our standard education, nor traditional time-management models, nor the plethora of organizing tools available, such as personal notebook planners, Microsoft Outlook, or Palm personal digital assistants (PDAs), has given us a viable means of meeting the new demands placed on us. If you’ve tried to use any of these processes or tools, you’ve probably found them unable to accommodate the speed, complexity, and changing priority factors inherent in what you are doing. The ability to be successful, relaxed, and in control during these fertile but turbulent times demands new ways of thinking and working. There is a great need for new methods, technologies, and work habits to help us get on top of our world.

The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.

—Edward Gibbon

The traditional approaches to time management and personal organization were useful in their time. They provided helpful reference points for a workforce that was just emerging from an industrial assembly-line modality into a new kind of work that included choices about what to do and discretion about when to do it. When “time” itself turned into a work factor, personal calendars became a key work tool. (Even as late as the 1980s many professionals considered having a pocket Day-Timer the essence of being organized, and many people today think of their calendar as the central tool for being in control.) Along with discretionary time also came the need to make good choices about what to do. “ABC” priority codes and daily “to-do” lists were key techniques that people developed to help them sort through their choices in some meaningful way. If you had the freedom to decide what to do, you also had the responsibility to make good choices, given your “priorities.”

What you’ve probably discovered, at least at some level, is that a calendar, though important, can really effectively manage only a small portion of what you need to organize. And daily to-do lists and simplified priority coding have proven inadequate to deal with the volume and variable nature of the average professional’s workload. More and more people’s jobs are made up of dozens or even hundreds of e-mails a day, with no latitude left to ignore a single request, complaint, or order. There are few people who can (or even should) expect to code everything an “A,” a “B,” or a “C” priority, or who can maintain some predetermined list of to-dos that the first telephone call or interruption from their boss won’t totally undo.

The “Big Picture” vs. the Nitty-Gritty

At the other end of the spectrum, a huge number of business books, models, seminars, and gurus have championed the “bigger view” as the solution to dealing with our complex world. Clarifying major goals and values, so the thinking goes, gives order, meaning, and direction to our work. In practice, however, the well-intentioned exercise of values thinking too often does not achieve its desired results. I have seen too many of these efforts fail, for one or more of the following three reasons:

  1. There is too much distraction at the day-to-day, hour-to-hour level of commitments to allow for appropriate focus on the higher levels.
  2. Ineffective personal organizational systems create huge subconscious resistance to undertaking even bigger projects and goals that will likely not be managed well, and that will in turn cause even more distraction and stress.
  3. When loftier levels and values actually are clarified, it raises the bar of our standards, making us notice that much more that needs changing. We are already having a serious negative reaction to the overwhelming number of things we have to do. And what created much of the work that’s on those lists in the first place? Our values!
Focusing on values does not simplify your life. It gives meaning and direction – and a lot more complexity.

Focusing on primary outcomes and values is a critical exercise, certainly. But it does not mean there is less to do, or fewer challenges in getting the work done. Quite the contrary: it just ups the ante in the game, which still must be played day to day. For a human-resources executive, for example, deciding to deal with quality-of-work-life issues in order to attract and keep key talent does not make things simpler.

There has been a missing piece in our new culture of knowledge work: a system with a coherent set of behaviors and tools that functions effectively at the level at which work really happens. It must incorporate the results of big-picture thinking as well as the smallest of open details. It must manage multiple tiers of priorities. It must maintain control over hundreds of new inputs daily. It must save a lot more time and effort than are needed to maintain it. It must make it easier to get things done.

The Promise: The “Ready State” of the Martial Artist

Reflect for a moment on what it actually might be like if your personal management situation were totally under control, at all levels and at all times. What if you could dedicate fully 100 percent of your attention to whatever was at hand, at your own choosing, with no distraction?

Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece..

—Nadia Boulanger

It is possible. There is a way to get a grip on it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of your life and work. You can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged. In fact, you have probably already been in this state from time to time.

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.

It’s a condition of working, doing, and being in which the mind is clear and constructive things are happening. It’s a state that is accessible by everyone, and one that is increasingly needed to deal effectively with the complexity of life in the twenty-first century. More and more it will be a required condition for high-performance professionals who wish to maintain balance and a consistent positive output in their work. World-class rower Craig Lambert has described how it feels in Mind Over Water (Houghton Miffin, 1998):

Rowers have a word for this frictionless state: swing ... Recall the pure joy of riding on a backyard swing: an easy cycle of motion, the momentum coming from the swing itself. The swing carries us; we do not force it. We pump our legs to drive our arc higher, but gravity does most of the work. We are not so much swinging as being swung. The boat swings you. The shell wants to move fast: Speed sings in its lines and nature. Our job is simply to work with the shell, to stop holding it back with our thrashing struggles to go faster. Trying too hard sabotages boat speed. Trying becomes striving and striving undoes itself Social climbers strive to be aristocrats but their efforts prove them no such thing. Aristocrats do not strive; they have already arrived. Swing is a state of arrival.

The “Mind Like Water” Simile

In karate there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.

The power in a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle; it comes from a focused “pop” at the end of the whip. That’s why petite people can learn to break boards and bricks with their hands: it doesn’t take calluses or brute strength, just the ability to generate a focused thrust with speed. But a tense muscle is a slow one. So the high levels of training in the martial arts teach and demand balance and relaxation as much as anything else. Clearing the mind and being flexible are key.

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.

—Sbunryu Suzuki

Anything that causes you to underreact can control you, and often does.

Anything that causes you to overreact or underreact can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your e-mail, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about overreact or what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like. Most people give either more or less attention to things than they deserve, simply because they don’t operate with a “mind like water.”

Can You Get into Your “Productive State” When Required?

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can ... give all our attention to the opportunity before us.


Think about the last time you felt highly productive. You probably had a sense of being in control; you were not stressed out; you were highly focused on what you were doing; time tended to disappear (lunchtime already?); and you felt you were making noticeable progress toward a meaningful outcome. Would you like to have more such experiences?

And if you get seriously far out of that state – and start to feel out of control, stressed out, unfocused, bored, and stuck – do you have the ability to get yourself back into it? That’s where the methodology of Getting Things Done will have the greatest impact on your life, by showing you how to get back to “mind like water,” with all your resources and faculties functioning at a maximum level.

The Principle: Dealing Effectively with Internal Commitments

A basic truism I have discovered over twenty years of coaching and training is that most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept. Even those who are not consciously “stressed out” will invariably experience greater relaxation, better focus, and increased productive energy when they learn more effectively to control the “open loops” of their lives.

You’ve probably made many more agreements with yourself than you realize, and every single one of them-big or little – is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you. These are the “incompletes,” or “open loops,” which I define as anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is. Open loops can include everything from really big to-do items like “End world hunger” to the more modest “Hire new assistant” to the tiniest task such as “Replace electric pencil sharpener.” It’s likely that you also have more internal commitments currently in play than you’re aware of. Consider how many things you feel even the smallest amount of responsibility to change, finish, handle, or do something about. You have a commitment, for instance, to deal in some is way with every new communication landing in your e-mail, on your voice-mail, and in your in-basket. And surely there are numerous projects that you sense need to be defined in your areas of responsibility, as well as goals and directions to be clarified, a career to be managed, and life in general to be kept in balance. You have accepted some level of internal responsibility for everything in your life and work that represents an open loop of any sort.

Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, an “open loop” pulling on your attention.

In order to deal effectively with all of that, you must first identify and collect all those things that are “ringing your bell” in some way, and then plan how to handle them. That may seem like a simple thing to do, but in practice most people don’t know how to do it in a consistent way.

The Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments

Managing commitments well requires the implementation of some basic activities and behaviors:

  • First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.
  • Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress toward fulfilling it.
  • Third, once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

An Important Exercise to Test This Model

I suggest that you write down the project or situation that is most on your mind at this moment. What most “bugs” you, distracts you, or interests you, or in some other way consumes a large part of your conscious attention? It may be a project or problem that is really “in your face,” something you are being pressed to handle, or a situation you feel you must deal with sooner rather than later.

Maybe you have a vacation trip coming up that you need to make some major last-minute decisions about. Or perhaps you just inherited six million dollars and you don’t know what to do with the cash. Whatever.

Got it? Good. Now describe, in a single written sentence, your intended successful outcome for this problem or situation. In other words, what would need to happen for you to check this “project” off as “done”? It could be as simple as “Take the Hawaii vacation,” “Handle situation with customer X,” “Resolve college situation with Susan,” “Clarify new divisional management structure,” or “Implement new investment strategy.” All clear? Great.

Now write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward. If you had nothing else to do in your life but get closure on this, where would you go right now, and what visible action would you take? Would you pick up a phone and make a call? Go to your computer and write an e-mail? Sit down with pen and paper and brainstorm about it? Talk face-to-face with your spouse, your secretary, your attorney, or your boss? Buy nails at the hardware store? What?

Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.’

—Henry Bergson

Got the answer to that? Good. Was there any value for you in these two minutes of thinking? If you’re like the vast majority of people who complete that drill during my seminars, you’ll be experiencing at least a tiny bit of enhanced control, relaxation, and focus. You’ll also be feeling more motivated to actually do something about that situation you’ve merely been thinking about till now. Imagine that motivation magnified a thousandfold, as a way to live and work.

If anything at all positive happened for you in this little exercise, think about this: What changed? What happened to create that improved condition within your own experience? The situation itself is no further along, at least in the physical world. It’s certainly not finished yet. What probably happened is that you acquired a clearer definition of the outcome desired and the next action required.

But what created that? The answer is, thinking. Not a lot, just enough to solidify your commitment and the resources required to fulfill it.

The Real Work of Knowledge Work

Welcome to the real-life experience of “knowledge work,” and a profound operational principle: You have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you’re afraid you might. As Peter Drucker has written, “In knowledge work . . . the task is not given; it has to be determined. ‘What are the expected results from this work?’ is . . . the key question in making knowledge workers productive. And it is a question that demands risky decisions. There is usually no right answer; there are choices instead. And results have to be clearly specified, if productivity is to be achieved.”

The ancestor of every action is a thought.

—Ralph Waldo

Most people have a resistance to initiating the burst of energy that it will take to clarify the real meaning, for them, of something they have let into their world, and to decide what they need to do about it. We’re never really taught that we have to think about our work before we can do it; much of our daily activity is already defined for us by the undone and unmoved things staring at us when we come to work, or by the family to be fed, the laundry to be done, or the children to be dressed at home. Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes is something few people feel they have to do. But in truth, outcome thinking is one of the most effective means available for making wishes reality.

Why Things Are on Your Mind

Most often, the reason something is “on your mind” is that you want it to be different than it currently is, and yet:

  • you haven’t clarified exactly what the intended outcome is;
  • you haven’t decided what the very next physical action step is; and/or
  • you haven’t put reminders of the outcome and the action required in a system you trust.

That’s why it’s on your mind. Until those thoughts have been clarified and those decisions made, and the resulting data has been stored in a system that you absolutely know you will think about as often as you need to, your brain can’t give up the job. You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool your own mind. It knows whether or not you’ve come to the conclusions you need to, and whether you’ve put the resulting outcomes and action reminders in a place that can be trusted to resurface appropriately within your conscious mind. If you haven’t done those things, it won’t quit working overtime. Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve a problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look. It will keep pressuring you about that untaken next step, usually when you can’t do anything about it, which will just add to your stress.

This constant, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy.


Your Mind Doesn’t Have a Mind of Its Own

At least a portion of your mind is really kind of stupid, in an interesting way. If it had any innate intelligence, it would remind you of the things you needed to do only when you could do something about them. Do you have a flashlight somewhere with dead batteries in it? When does your mind tend to remind you that you need new batteries? When you notice the dead ones! That’s not very smart. If your mind had any innate intelligence, it would remind you about those dead batteries only when you passed live ones in a store. And ones of the right size, to boot. Between the time you woke up today and now, did you think of anything you needed to do that you still haven’t done? Have you had that thought more than once? Why? It’s a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on. And it only adds to your anxieties about what you should be doing and aren’t.

Rule your mind or it will rule you.

It seems that most people let their minds run a lot of the show, especially where the too-much-to-do syndrome is concerned. You’ve probably given over a lot of your “stuff,” a lot of your open loops, to an entity on your inner committee that is incapable of dealing with those things effectively the way they are – your mind.

The Transformation of “Stuff”

Here’s how I define “stuff”: anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step. The reason most organizing systems haven’t worked for most people is that they haven’t yet transformed all the “stuff” they’re trying to organize. As long as it’s still “stuff,” it’s not controllable.

We need to transform all the “stuff” we’re trying to organize into actionable stuff we need to do.

Most of the to-do lists I have seen over the years (when people had them at all) were merely listings of “stuff,” not inventories of the resultant real work that needed to be done. They were partial reminders of a lot of things that were unresolved and as yet untranslated into outcomes and actions – that is, the real outlines and details of what the list-makers had to “do.”

“Stuff” is not inherently a bad thing. Things that command our attention, by their very nature, usually show up as “stuff.” But once “stuff” comes into our lives and work, we have an inherent commitment to ourselves to define and clarify its meaning. That’s our responsibility as knowledge workers; if “stuff” were already transformed and clear, our value, other than physical labor, would probably not be required.

At the conclusion of one of my seminars, a senior manager of a major biotech firm looked back at the to-do lists she had come in with and said, “Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!” That’s the best description I’ve ever heard of what passes for organizing lists in most personal systems. The vast majority of people have been trying to get organized by rearranging incomplete lists of unclear things; they haven’t yet realized how much and what they need to organize in order to get the real payoff. They need to gather everything that requires thinking about and then do that thinking if their organizational efforts are to be successful.

The Process: Managing Action

You can train yourself, almost like an athlete, to be faster, more responsive, more proactive, and more focused in knowledge work. You can think more effectively and manage the results with more ease and control. You can minimize the loose ends across the whole spectrum of your work life and personal life and get a lot more done with less effort. And you can make front-end decision-making about all the “stuff” you collect and create standard operating procedure for living and working in this new millennium.

Before you can achieve any of that, though, you’ll need to get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind. And the way to do that, as we’ve seen, is not by managing time, managing information, or managing priorities. After all:

  • you don’t manage five minutes and wind up with six;
  • you don’t manage information overload – otherwise you’d walk into a library and die, or the first time you connected to the Web, or even opened a phone book, you’d blow up; and
  • you don’t manage priorities – you have them.

Instead, the key to managing all of your “stuff” is managing your actions.

Managing Action Is the Prime Challenge

What you do with your time, what you do with information, and what you do with your body and your focus relative to your priorities – those are the real options to which you must allocate your limited resources. The real issue is how to make appropriate choices about what to do at any point in time. The real issue is how we manage actions.

The beginning half of every action.


That may sound obvious. However, it might amaze you to discover how many next actions for how many projects and commitments remain undetermined by most people. It’s extremely difficult to manage actions you haven’t identified or decided on. Most people have dozens of is things that they need to do to make progress on many fronts, but they don’t yet know what they are. And the common complaint that “I don’t have time to ____ ” (fill in the blank) is understandable because many projects seem overwhelming – and are overwhelming because you can’t do a project at all! You can only do an action related to it. Many actions require only a minute or two, in the appropriate context, to move a project forward.

Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined.

In training and coaching thousands of professionals, I have found that lack of time is not the major issue for them (though they themselves may think it is); the real problem is a lack of clarity and definition about what a project really is, and what the associated next-action steps required are. Clarifying things on the front end, when they first appear on the radar, rather than on the back end, after trouble has developed, allows people to reap the benefits of managing action.

The Value of a Bottom-Up Approach

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down, first uncovering personal and corporate missions, then defining critical objectives, and finally focusing on the details of implementation. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective.

Getting current on and in control of what’s in your in-basket and on your mind right now, and incorporating practices that can help you stay that way, will provide the best means of broadening your horizons. A creative, buoyant energy will be unleashed that will better support your focus on new heights, and your confidence will increase to handle what that creativity produces. An immediate sense of freedom, release, and inspiration naturally comes to people who roll up their sleeves and implement this process. You’ll be better equipped to undertake higher-focused thinking when your tools for handling the resulting actions for implementation are part of your ongoing operational style. There are more meaningful things to think about than your in-basket, but if your management of that level is not as efficient as it could be, it’s like trying to swim in baggy clothing.

Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.

—Vaclav Havel

Many executives I have worked with during the day to clear the decks of their mundane “stuff” have spent the following evening having a stream of ideas and visions about their company and their future. This happens as an automatic consequence of unsticking their workflow.

Horizontal and Vertical Action Management

You need to control commitments, projects, and actions in two ways – horizontally and vertically. “Horizontal” control maintains coherence across all the activities in which you are involved. Imagine your psyche constantly scanning your environment like police radar; it may land on any of a thousand different items that invite or demand your attention during any twenty-four-hour period: the drugstore, the housekeeper, your aunt Martha, the strategic plan, lunch, a wilting plant in the office, an upset customer, shoes that need shining. You have to buy stamps, deposit that check, make the hotel reservation, cancel a staff meeting, see a movie tonight. You might be surprised at the volume of things you actually think about and have to deal with just in one day. You need a good system that can keep track of as many of them as possible, supply required information about them on demand, and allow you to shift your focus from one thing to the next quickly and easily.

“Vertical” control, in contrast, manages thinking up and down the track of individual topics and projects. For example, your inner “police radar” lands on your next vacation as you and your spouse talk about it over dinner – where and when you’ll go, what you’ll do, how to prepare for the trip, and so on. Or you and your boss need to make some decisions about the new departmental reorganization you’re about to launch. Or you just need to get your thinking up to date on the customer you’re about to call. This is “project planning” in the broad sense. It’s focusing in on a single endeavor, situation, or person and fleshing out whatever ideas, details, priorities, and sequences of events may be required for you to handle it, at least for the moment.

The goal for managing horizontally and vertically is the same: to get things off your mind and get things done. Appropriate action management lets you feel comfortable and in control as you move through your broad spectrum of work and life, while appropriate project focusing gets you clear about and on track with the specifics needed.

The Major Change: Getting It All Out of Your Head

There is usually an inverse proportion between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.

There is no real way to achieve the kind of relaxed control I’m promising if you keep things only in your head. As you’ll discover, the individual behaviors described in this book are things you’re already doing. The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my “stuff” in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind. And that applies to everything – little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not. Everything.

I’m sure that at some time or other you’ve gotten to a place in a project, or in your life, where you just had to sit down and make a list. If so, you have a reference point for what I’m talking about. Most people, however, do that kind of list-making drill only when the confusion gets too unbearable and they just have to do something about it. They usually make a list only about the specific area that’s bugging them. But if you made that kind of review a characteristic of your ongoing life- and work style, and you maintained it across all areas of your life (not just the most “urgent”), you’d be practicing the kind of “black belt” management style I’m describing.

There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought

I try to make intuitive choices based on my options, instead of trying to think about what those options are. I need to have thought about all of that already and captured the results in a trusted way. I don’t want to waste time thinking about things more than once. That’s an inefficient use of creative energy and a source of frustration and stress.

And you can’t fudge this thinking. Your mind will keep working on anything that’s still in that undecided state. But there’s a limit to how much unresolved “stuff” it can contain before it blows a fuse.

The short-term-memory part of your mind – the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff”– functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much “stuff” you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload.

For example, in the last few minutes, has your mind wandered off into some area that doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re reading here? Probably. And most likely where your mind went was to some open loop, some incomplete situation that you have some investment in. All that situation did was rear up out of the RAM part of your brain and yell at you, internally. And what did you do about it? Unless you wrote it down and put it in a trusted “bucket” that you know you’ll review appropriately sometime soon, more than likely you worried about it. Not the most effective behavior: no progress was made, and tension was increased.

It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.

—Sally Kempton

The big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means that as soon as you tell yourself that you need to do something, and store it in your RAM, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time. Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, it thinks you should be doing right now. Frankly, as soon as you have two things to do stored in your RAM, you’ve generated personal failure, because you can’t do them both at the same time. This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pin-pointed.

Most people have been in some version of this mental stress state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it. Like gravity, it’s ever-present – so much so that those who experience it usually aren’t even aware of the pressure. The only time most of them will realize how much tension they’ve been under is when they get rid of it and notice how different they feel.

Can you get rid of that kind of stress? You bet. The rest of this book will explain how.

Getting Control of Your Life: The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

THE CORE PROCESS I teach for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled knowledge work is a five-stage method for managing workflow. No matter what the setting, there are five discrete stages that we go through as we deal with our work. We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do. This constitutes the management of the “horizontal” aspect of our lives – incorporating everything that has our attention at any time.

The knowledge that we consider knowledge proves itself in action. What we now mean by knowledge is information in action, information focused on results.

—Peter F. Drucker

The method is straightforward enough in principle, and it is generally how we all go about our work in any case, but in my experience most people can stand significantly to improve their handling of each one of the five stages. The quality of our workflow management is only as good as the weakest link in this five-phase chain, so all the links must be integrated together and supported with consistent standards. Most people have major leaks in their collection process. Many have collected things but haven’t processed or decided what action to take about them. Others make good decisions about “stuff” in the moment but lose the value of that thinking because they don’t efficiently organize the results. Still others have good systems but don’t review them consistently enough to keep them functional. Finally, if any one of these links is weak, what someone is likely to choose to do at any point in time may not be the best option.

The dynamics of these five stages need to be understood, and good techniques and tools implemented to facilitate their functioning at an optimal level. I have found it very helpful, if not essential, to separate these stages as I move through my day. There are times when I want only to collect input and not decide what to do with it yet. At other times I may just want to process my notes from a meeting. Or I may have just returned from a big trip and need to distribute and organize what I collected and processed on the road. Then there are times when I want to review the whole inventory of my work, or some portion of it. And obviously a lot of my time is spent merely doing something that I need to get done.

I have discovered that one of the major reasons many people haven’t had a lot of success with “getting organized” is simply that they have tried to do all five phases at one time. Most, when they sit down to “make a list,” are trying to collect the “most important things” in some order that reflects priorities and sequences, without setting out many (or any) real actions to take. But if you don’t decide what needs to be done about your secretary’s birthday, because it’s “not that important” right now, that open loop will take up energy and prevent you from having a totally effective, clear focus on what is important.

This chapter explains the five phases in detail. Chapters 4 through 8 provide a step-by-step program for implementing an airtight system for each phase, with lots of examples and best practices.


It’s important to know what needs to be collected and how to collect it most effectively so you can process it appropriately. In order for your mind to let go of the lower-level task of trying to hang on to everything, you have to know that you have truly captured everything that might represent something you have to do, and that at some point in the near future you will process and review all of it.

Gathering 100 Percent of the “Incompletes”

In order to eliminate “holes in the bucket,” you need to collect and gather together placeholders for or representations of all the things you consider incomplete in your world – that is, anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing.

Many of the things you have to do are being collected for you as you read this. Mail is coming into your mailbox, memos are being routed to your in-basket, e-mail is being funneled into your computer, and messages are accumulating on your voice-mail. But at the same time, you’ve been “collecting” things in your environment and in your psyche that don’t belong where they are, the way they are, for all eternity. Even though it may not be as obviously “in your face” as your e-mail, this “stuff” still requires some kind of resolution – a loop to be closed, something to be done. Strategy ideas loitering on a legal pad in a stack on your credenza, “dead” gadgets in your desk drawers that need to be fixed or thrown away, and out-of-date magazines on your coffee table all fall into this category of “stuff.”

As soon as you attach a “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” to an item, it becomes an incomplete. Decisions you still need to make about whether or not you are going to do something, for example, are already incompletes. This includes all of your “I’m going to”s, where you’ve decided to do something but haven’t started moving on it yet. And it certainly includes all pending and in-progress items, as well as those things on which you’ve done everything you’re ever going to do except acknowledge that you’re finished with them.

In order to manage this inventory of open loops appropriately, you need to capture it into “containers” that hold items in abeyance until you have a few moments to decide what they are and what, if anything, you’re going to do about them. Then you must empty these containers regularly to ensure that they remain viable collection tools.

Basically, everything is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your psyche. The fact that you haven’t put an item in your in-basket doesn’t mean you haven’t got it. But we’re talking here about making sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

The Collection Tools

There are several types of tools, both low- and high-tech, that can be used to collect your incompletes. The following can all serve as versions of an in-basket, capturing self-generated input as well as information coming from outside:

  • Physical in-basket
  • Paper-based note-taking devices
  • Electronic note-taking devices
  • Voice-recording devices
  • E-mail

The Physical In-Basket

The standard plastic, wood, leather, or wire tray is the most common tool for collecting paper-based materials and anything else physical that needs some sort of processing: mail, magazines, memos, notes, phone slips, receipts – even flashlights with dead batteries.

Writing Paper and Pads

Loose-leaf notebooks, spiral binders, and steno and legal pads all work fine for collecting random ideas, input, things to do, and so on. Whatever kind fits your taste and needs is fine.

Electronic Note-Taking

Computers can be used to type in notes for processing later. And as character-recognition technology advances, a parade of digital tools designed to capture data continues to be introduced. Handheld devices (personal digital assistants, or PDAs) and electronic legal pads can both be used to collect all kinds of input.

Auditory Capture

Available auditory devices include answering machines, voice-mail, and dictating equipment, such as digital or microcassette recorders. All of these can be useful for preserving an interim record of things you need to remember or deal with.


If you’re wired to the rest of the world through e-mail, your software contains some sort of holding area for incoming messages and files, where they can be stored until they are viewed, read, and processed. Pagers and telephones can capture this kind of input as well.

Higher-Tech Devices

Now you can dictate into computers as well as hand-write into them. As more and more communication is morphed into digital and wireless formats, it will become easier to capture ideas (with a corresponding increase in the amount of data reaching us that we need to manage!).

“Yes, David?”
“I need bread.”
“Yes, David.”

My needed grocery item has been collected. And as the organizing part of the action-management process is further digitized, “bread” will automatically be added to my electronic grocery list, and maybe even ordered and delivered. Whether high-tech or low-tech, all of the tools described above serve as similar in-baskets, capturing potentially useful information, commitments, and agreements for action. You’re probably already using some version of most of them.

The Collection Success Factors

Unfortunately, merely having an in-basket doesn’t make it functional. Most people do have collection devices of some sort, but usually they’re more or less out of control. Let’s examine the three requirements to make the collection phase work:

  1. Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head.
  2. You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by with.
  3. You must empty them regularly.

Get It All Out of Your Head

If you’re still trying to keep track of too many things in your RAM, you likely won’t be motivated to use and empty your in-baskets with integrity. Most people are relatively careless about these tools because they know they don’t represent discrete, whole systems anyway: there’s an incomplete set of things in their in-basket and an incomplete set in their mind, and they’re not getting any payoff from either one, so their thinking goes. It’s like trying to play pin-ball on a machine that has big holes in the table, so the balls keep falling out: there’s little motivation to keep playing the game.

These collection tools should become part of your life-style. Keep them close by so no matter where you are you can collect a potentially valuable thought – think of them as being as indispensable as your toothbrush or your driver’s license or your glasses.

Minimize the Number of Collection Buckets

You should have as many in-baskets as you need and as few as you can get by with. You need this function to be available to you in every context, since things you’ll want to capture may show up almost anywhere. If you have too many collection zones, however, you won’t be able to process them easily or consistently.

An excess of collection buckets is seldom a problem on the high-tech end; the real improvement opportunity for most people is on the low-tech side, primarily in the areas of note-taking and physical in-basket collection. Written notes need to be corralled and processed instead of left lying embedded in stacks, notebooks, and drawers. Paper materials need to be funneled into physical in-baskets instead of being scattered over myriad piles in all the available corners of your world.

Men of lofty genius – when they are doing the least – work are the most active.


Implementing standard tools for capturing ideas and input will become more and more critical as your life and work become more sophisticated. As you proceed in your career, for instance, you’ll probably notice that your best ideas about work will not come to you at work. The ability to leverage that thinking with good collection devices that hand is key to increased productivity.

Empty the Buckets Regularly

The final success factor for collecting should be obvious: if you don’t empty and process the “stuff” you’ve collected, your buckets aren’t serving any function other than the storage of amorphous material. Emptying the bucket does not mean that you have to finish what’s in your voice-mail, e-mail, or in-basket; it just means you have to take it out of the container, decide what it is and what should be done with it, and, if it’s still unfinished, organize it into your system. You don’t put it back into “in”! Not emptying your in-basket is like having garbage cans that nobody ever dumps – you just have to keep buying new ones to hold all your trash.

In order for you to get “in” to empty, your total action-management system must be in place. Too much “stuff” is left piled in in-baskets because of a lack of effective systems “downstream” from there. It often seems easier to leave things in “in” when you know you have to do something about them but can’t do it right then. The in-basket, especially for paper and e-mail, is the best that many people can do in terms of organization – at least they know that somewhere in there is a reminder of something they still have to do. Unfortunately, that safety net is lost when the piles get out of control or the inventory of e-mails gets too extensive to be viewed on one screen.

When you master the next phase and know how to process your incompletes easily and rapidly, “in” can return to its original function. Let’s move on to how to get those in-baskets and e-mail systems empty without necessarily having to do the work now.


Teaching them the item-by-item thinking required to get their collection buckets empty is perhaps the most critical improvement I have made for virtually all the people I’ve worked with. When the head of a major department in a global corporation had finished processing all her open items with me, she sat back in awe and told me that though she had been able to relax about what meetings to go to thanks to her trust in her calendar, she had never felt that same relief about all the many other aspects of her job, which we had just clarified together. The actions and information she needed to be reminded of were now identified and entrusted to a concrete system.

What do you need to ask yourself (and answer) about each e-mail, voice-mail, memo, or self-generated idea that comes your way? This is the component of action management that forms the basis for your personal organization. Many people try to “get organized” but make the mistake of doing it with incomplete batches of “stuff.” You can’t organize what’s incoming – you can only collect it and process it. Instead, you organize the actions you’ll need to take based on the decisions you’ve made about what needs to be done. The whole deal – both the processing and organizing phases – is captured in the center “trunk” of the decision-tree model shown here.

workflow diagram -- processing

Workflow diagram – processing

In later chapters, I’ll coach you in significant detail through each element of the process. For now, though, I suggest you select a to-do list or a pile of papers from your in-basket and assess a few items as we take an overview.

What Is It?

This is not a dumb question. We’ve talked about “stuff.” And we’ve talked about collection buckets. But we haven’t discussed what stuff is and what to do about it. For example, many of the items that tend to leak out of our personal organizing systems are amorphous forms that we receive from the government or from our company – do we actually need to do something about them? And what about that e-mail from human resources, letting us know that blah-blah about the blah-blah is now the policy of blah-blah? I’ve unearthed piles of messages in stacks and desk drawers that were tossed there because the client didn’t take just a few seconds to figure out what in fact the communication or document was really about. Which is why the next decision is critical.

Is It Actionable?

There are two possible answers for this: YES and NO.

No Action Required If the answer is NO, there are three possibilities:

  1. It’s trash, no longer needed.
  2. No action is needed now, but something might need to be done later (incubate).
  3. The item is potentially useful information that might be needed for something later (reference).

These three categories can themselves be managed; we’ll get into that in a later chapter. For now, suffice it to say that you need a trash basket and <Del> key for trash, a “tickler” file or calendar for material that’s incubating, and a good filing system for reference information.

Actionable Thus is the YES group of items, stuff about which something needs to be done. Typical examples range from an e-mail requesting your participation in a corporate service project on such-and-such a date to the notes in your in-basket from your face-to-face meeting with the group vice president about a significant new project that involves hiring an outside consultant.

Two things need to be determined about each actionable item:

  1. What “project” or outcome have you committed to? and
  2. What’s the next action required?

If It’s About a Project ... You need to capture that outcome on a “Projects” list. That will be the stake in the ground that reminds you that you have an open loop. A Weekly Review of the list (see page 46) will bring this item back to you as something that’s still outstanding. It will stay fresh and alive in your management system until it is completed or eliminated.

It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.


What’s the Next Action? This is the critical question for anything you’ve collected; if you answer it appropriately, you’ll have the key substantive thing to organize. The “next action” is the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.

Some examples of next actions might be:

  • Call Fred re tel. # for the garage he recommended.
  • Draft thoughts for the budget-meeting agenda.
  • Talk to Angela about the filing system we need to set up.
  • Research database-management software on the Web.

These are all real physical activities that need to happen. Reminders of these will become the primary grist for the mill of your personal productivity-management system.

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It Once you’ve decided on the next action, you have three options:

  1. Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.
  2. Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, Am I the right person to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.
  3. Defer it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.


The outer ring of the workflow diagram shows the eight discrete categories of reminders and materials that will result from your processing all your “stuff.” Together they make up a total system for organizing just about everything that’s on your plate, or could be added to it, on a daily and weekly basis.

For nonactionable items, the possible categories are trash, incubation tools, and reference storage. If no action is needed on something, you toss it, “tickle” it for later reassessment, or file it so you can find the material if you need to refer to it at another time. To manage actionable things, you will need a list of projects, storage or files for project plans and materials, a calendar, a list of reminders of next actions, and a list of reminders of things you’re waiting for.

workflow diagram -- organizing

Workflow diagram – organizing

All of the organizational categories need to be physically contained in some form. When I refer to “lists,” I just mean some sort of reviewable set of reminders, which could be lists on notebook paper or in some computer program or even file folders holding separate pieces of paper for each item. For instance, the list of current projects could be kept on a page in a Day Runner; it could be a “To Do” category on a PDA; or it could be in a file labeled “Projects List.” Incubating reminders (such as “after March 1 contact my accountant to set up a meeting”) may be stored in a paper-based “tickler” file or in a paper- or computer- based calendar program.


I define a project as any desired result that requires more than one action step. This means that some rather small things that you might not normally call projects are going to be on your “Projects” list. The reasoning behind my definition is that if one step won’t complete something, some kind of stake needs to be placed in the ground to remind you that there’s something still left to do. If you don’t have a placeholder to remind you about it, it will slip back into RAM. Another way to think of this is as a list of open loops.

A Partial “Projects” List

Get new staff person on board R&D joint-venture video project
August vacation Produce new training compact disk
Staff off-site retreat Establish next year’s seminar schedule
Publish book Orchestrate a one-hour keynote presentation
Finalize computer upgrades Get proficient with videoconferencing access
Update will Finalize employment agreements
Finalize budgets Install new backyard lights
Finalize new product line Establish formal relationships with South
Get comfortable with new contact management software American rep
Get reprints of Fortune article Finalize staff policies and procedures
Get a publicist Get a new living-room chair
Finish new orchard planting  

Projects do not need to be listed in any particular order, whether by size or by priority. They just need to be on a master list so you can review them regularly enough to ensure that appropriate next actions have been defined for each of them.

You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.” The list of projects is the compilation of finish lines we put before us, to keep our next actions moving on all tracks appropriately.

Project Support Material

For many of your projects, you will accumulate relevant information that you will want to organize by theme or topic or project name. Your “Projects” list will be merely an index. All of the details, plans, and supporting information that you may need as you work on your various projects should be contained in separate file folders, computer files, notebooks, or binders.

Support Materials and Reference Files Once you have organized your project support material by theme or topic, you will probably find that it is almost identical to your reference material and could be kept in the same reference file system (a “Wedding” file could be kept in the general-reference files, for instance). The only difference is that in the case of active projects, support material may need to be reviewed on a more consistent basis to ensure that all the necessary action steps are identified.

I usually recommend that people store their support materials out of sight. If you have a good working reference file system close enough at hand, you may find that that’s the simplest way to organize them. There will be times, though, when it’ll be more convenient to have the materials out and instantly in view and available, especially if you’re working on a hot project that you need to check references for several times during the day. File folders in wire standing holders or in stackable trays within easy reach can be practical for this kind of “pending” paperwork.

The Next-Action Categories

As the Workflow Diagram makes clear, the next-action decision is central. That action needs to be the next physical, visible behavior, without exception, on every open loop.

Any less-than-two-minute actions that you perform, and all other actions that have already been completed, do not, of course, need to be tracked; they’re done. What does need to be tracked is every action that has to happen at a specific time or on a specific day (enter these in your calendar); those that need to be done as soon as they can (add these to your “Next Actions” lists); and all those that you are waiting for others to do (put these on a “Waiting For” list).


Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder. Three things go on your calendar:

  • time-specific actions;
  • day-specific actions; and
  • day-specific information.

Time-Specific Actions This is a fancy name for appointments. Often the next action to be taken on a project is attending a meeting that has been set up to discuss it. Simply tracking that on the calendar is sufficient.

Day-Specific Actions These are things that you need to do sometime on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time. Perhaps you told Mioko you would call her on Friday to check that the report you’re sending her is OK. She won’t have the report until Thursday, and she’s leaving the country on Saturday, so Friday is the time window for taking the action – but anytime Friday will be fine. That should be tracked on the calendar for Friday but not tied to any particular time slot – it should just go on the day. It’s useful to have a calendar on which you can note both time-specific and day-specific actions.

Day-Specific Information The calendar is also the place to keep track of things you want to know about on specific days – not necessarily actions you’ll have to take but rather information that may be useful on a certain date. This might include directions for appointments, activities that other people (family or staff) will be involved in then, or events of interest. It’s also helpful to put short-term “tickler” information here, too, such as a reminder to call someone after the day they return from a vacation.

Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.


No More “Daily To-Do” Lists Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! I know this is heresy to traditional time-management training, which has almost universally taught that the “daily to-do list” is key. But such lists don’t work, for two reasons. First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The “Next Actions” lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

The “Next Actions” List(s)

So where do all your action reminders go? On “Next Actions” lists, which, along with the calendar, are at the heart of daily action-management organization.

Any longer-than-two-minute, nondelegatable action you have identified needs to be tracked somewhere. “Call Jim Smith re budget meeting,” “Phone Rachel and Laura’s moms about sleepaway camp,” and “Draft ideas re the annual sales conference” are all the kinds of action reminders that need to be kept in appropriate lists, or buckets, to be assessed as options for what we will do at any point in time.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

—Albert Einstein

If you have only twenty or thirty of these, it may be fine to keep them all on one list labeled “Next Actions,” which you’ll review whenever you have any free time. For most of us, however, the number is more likely to be fifty to 150. In that case it makes sense to subdivide your “Next Actions” list into categories, such as “Calls” to make when you’re at a phone or “Project Head Questions” to be asked at your weekly briefing.

Nonactionable Items

You need well-organized, discrete systems to handle the items that require no action as well as the ones that do. No-action systems fall into three categories: trash, incubation, and reference.


Trash should be self-evident. Throw away anything that has no potential future action or reference value. If you leave this stuff mixed in with other categories, it will seriously undermine the system.


There are two other groups of things besides trash that require no immediate action, but this stuff you will want to keep. Here again, it’s critical that you separate nonactionable from actionable items; otherwise you will tend to go numb to your piles, stacks, and lists and not know where to start or what needs to be done.

Say you pick up something from a memo, or read an e-mail, that gives you an idea for a project you might want to do someday, but not now. You’ll want to be reminded of it again later so you can reassess the option of doing something about it in the future. For example, a brochure arrives in the mail for the upcoming season of your local symphony. On a quick browse, you see that the program that really interests you is still four months away – too distant for you to move on it yet (you’re not sure what your travel schedule will be that far out), but if you are in town, you’d like to go. What should you do about that?

There are two kinds of “incubate” systems that could work for this kind of thing: “Someday/Maybe” lists and a “tickler” file.

“Someday/Maybe” It can be useful and inspiring to maintain an ongoing list of things you might want to do at some point but not now. This is the “parking lot” for projects that would be impossible to move on at present but that you don’t want to forget about entirely. You’d like to be reminded of the possibility at regular intervals.

Typical Partial “Someday/Maybe” List

Get a bass-fishing boat Create promotional videos of staff
Learn Spanish Find Stafford Lyons
Take a watercolor class Get a digital video camera *
Get a sideboard for the kitchen Northern Italy trip
Build a lap pool Apprentice with my carpenter
Get Kathryn a scooter Spotlight our artwork
Take a balloon ride Build a koi pond
Build a wine cellar Digitize old photos and videos
Take a trip through Montana Have a neighborhood party
Learn Photoshop software capabilities Set up remote-server access at home

You’ll probably have some subcategories in your master “Someday/Maybe” list, such as

  • CDs I might want
  • Videos to rent
  • Books to read
  • Wine to taste
  • Weekend trips to take
  • Things to do with the kids
  • Seminars to take

You must review this list periodically if you’re going to get the most value from it. I suggest you include a scan of the contents in your Weekly Review (see page 46).

“Tickler” File The most elegant version of holding for review is the “tickler” file, sometimes also referred to as a “suspended” or “follow-on” file. This is a system that allows you to almost literally mail something to yourself, for receipt on some designated day in the future.

Your calendar can serve the same function. You might remind yourself on your calendar for March 15, for example, that your taxes are due in a month; or for September 12, that Swan Lake will be presented by the Bolshoi at the Civic Auditorium in six weeks.

For further details, refer to chapter 7.

Reference Material

Many things that come your way require no action but have intrinsic value as information. You will want to keep and be able to retrieve these as needed. They can be stored in paper-based or digital form.

Paper-based material – anything from the menu for a local take-out deli to the plans, drawings, and vendor information for a landscape project – is best stored in efficient physical-retrieval systems. These can range from pages in a loose-leaf planner or notebook, for a list of favorite restaurants or the phone numbers of the members of a school committee, to whole file cabinets dedicated to the due-diligence paperwork for a corporate merger.

Electronic storage can include everything from networked database information to ad hoc reference and archive folders located in your communication software.

The most important thing to remember here is that reference should be exactly that – information that can be easily referred to when required. Reference systems generally take two forms: (1) topic- and area-specific storage, and (2) general- reference files. The first types usually define themselves in terms of how they are stored – for example, a file drawer dedicated to contracts, by date; a drawer containing only confidential employee-compensation information; or a series of cabinets for closed legal cases that might need to be consulted during future trials.

General-Reference Filing The second type of reference system is one that everyone needs close at hand for storing ad hoc information that doesn’t belong in some predesignated category. You need somewhere to keep the instruction manual for your cell phone, the notes from the meeting about the Smith project, and those few yen that you didn’t get to change at the end of your last trip to Tokyo (and that you’ll use when you go back there).

The lack of a good general-reference file can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in implementing an efficient personal action-management system. If filing isn’t easy and fast (and even fun!), you’ll tend to stack things instead of filing them. If your reference material doesn’t have a nice clean edge to it, the line between actionable and nonactionable items will blur, visually and psychologically, and your mind will go numb to the whole business. Establishing a good working system for this category of material is critical to ensuring stress-free productivity; we will explore it in detail in chapter 7.


It’s one thing to write down that you need milk; it’s another to be at the store and remember it. Likewise, writing down that you need to call a friend for the name of an estate attorney is different from remembering it when you’re at a phone and have some discretionary time.

You need to be able to review the whole picture of your life and work at appropriate intervals and appropriate levels. For most people the magic of workflow management is realized in the consistent use of the review phase. This is where you take a look at all your outstanding projects and open loops, at what I call the 10,000-foot level (see page 51), on a weekly basis. It’s your chance to scan all the defined actions and options before you, thus radically increasing the efficacy of the choices you make about what you’re doing at any point in time.

What to Review When

If you set up a personal organization system structured as I recommend, with a “Projects” list, a calendar, “Next Actions” lists, and a “Waiting For” list, not much will be required to maintain that system.

The item you’ll probably review most frequently is your calendar, which will remind you about the “hard landscape” for the day – that is, what things will die if you don’t do them. This doesn’t mean that the things written on there are the most “important” in some grand sense – only that they have to get done. At at any point in time, knowing what has to get done, and when, creates a terrain for maneuvering. It’s a good habit, as soon as you conclude an action on your calendar (a meeting, a phone call, the final draft of a report), to check and see what else remains to be done.

Review your lists as often as you need to, to get them off your mind.

After checking your calendar, you’ll most often turn to your “Next Actions” lists. These hold the inventory of predefined actions that you can take if you have any discretionary time during the day. If you’ve organized them by context (“At Home,” “At Computer,” “In Meeting with George”), they’ll come into play only when those contexts are available. “Projects,” “Waiting For,” and “Someday/Maybe” lists need to be reviewed only as often as you think they have to be in order to stop you from wondering about them.

Critical Success Factor: The Weekly Review

Everything that might potentially require action must be reviewed on a frequent enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding. In order to trust the rapid and intuitive judgment calls that you make about actions from moment to moment, you must consistently retrench at some more elevated level. In my experience (with thousands of people), that translates into a behavior critical for success: the Weekly Review.

All of your open loops (i.e., projects), active project plans, and “Next Actions,” “Agendas,” “Waiting For,” and even “Someday/ Maybe” lists should be reviewed once a week. This also gives you an opportunity to ensure that your brain is clear and that all the loose strands of the past few days have been collected, processed, and organized.

The affairs of life embrace a multitude of interests, and he who reasons in any one of them, without consulting the rest, is a visionary unsuited to control the business of the world.

—James Fenim ore Cooper

If you’re like most people, you’ve found that things can get relatively out of control during the course of a few days of operational intensity. That’s to be expected. You wouldn’t want to distract yourself from too much of the work at hand in an effort to stay totally “squeaky clean” all the time. But in order to afford the luxury of “getting on a roll” with confidence, you’ll probably need to clean house once a week.

The Weekly Review is the time to

  • Gather and process all your “stuff.”
  • Review your system.
  • Update your lists.
  • Get clean, clear, current, and complete.

Most people don’t have a really complete system, and they get no real payoff from reviewing things for just that reason: their overview isn’t total. They still have a vague sense that something may be missing. That’s why the rewards to be gained from implementing this whole process are at least geometric: the more complete the system is, the more you’ll trust it. And the more you trust it, the more complete you’ll be motivated to keep it. The Weekly Review is a master key to maintaining that standard.

Most people feel best about their work when they’ve cleaned up, closed up, clarified, and renegotiated all their agreements with themselves and others. Do this weekly instead of yearly.

Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.


Every decision to act is an intuitive one. The challenge is to migrate from hoping it’s the right choice to trusting it’s the right choice.

The basic purpose of this workflow-management process is to facilitate good choices about what you’re doing at any point in time. At 10:33 A.M. Monday, deciding whether to call Sandy, finish the proposal, or process your e-mails will always be an intuitive call, but with the proper preplanning you can feel much more confident about your choices. You can move from hope to trust in your actions, immediately increasing your speed and effectiveness.

Three Models for Making Action Choices

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re not resisting any of your “stuff” out of insecurity or procrastination. There will always be a large list of actions that you are not doing at any given moment. So how will you decide what to do and what not to do, and feel good about both?

You have more to do than you can possibly do. You just need to feel good about your choices.

The answer is, by trusting your intuition. If you have collected, processed, organized, and reviewed all your current commitments, you can galvanize your intuitive judgment with some intelligent and practical thinking about your work and values.

I have developed three models that will be helpful for you to incorporate in your decision-making about what to do. They won’t tell you answers – whether you call Frederick, e-mail your son at school, or just go have an informal “how are you?” conversation with your secretary – but they will assist you in framing your options more intelligently. And that’s something that the simple time- and priority-management panaceas can’t do.

  1. The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment At 3:22 on Wednesday, how do you choose what to do? There are four criteria you can apply, in this order:

    1. Context
    2. Time available
    3. Energy available
    4. Priority

    Context A few actions can be done anywhere (like drafting ideas about a project with pen and paper), but most require a specific location (at home, at your office) or having some productivity tool at hand, such as a phone or a computer. These are the first factors that limit your choices about what you can do in the moment.

    Time Available When do you have to do something else Having a meeting in five minutes would prevent doing many actions that require more time.

    Energy Available How much energy do you have? Some actions you have to do require a reservoir of fresh, creative mental energy. Others need more physical horsepower. Some need very little of either.

    Priority Given your context, time, and energy available, what action will give you the highest payoff? You have an hour, you’re in your office with a phone and a computer, and your energy is 7.3 on a scale of 10. Should you call the client back, work on the proposal, process your voice-mails and e-mails, or check in with your spouse to see how his or her day is going?

    This is where you need to access your intution and begin to rely on your judgment call in the moment. To explore that concept further, let’s examine two more models for deciding what’s “most important” for you to be doing.

  2. The Threefold Model for Evaluating Daily Work When you’re getting things done, or “working” in the universal sense, there are three different kinds of activities you can be engaged in:

    • Doing predefined work
    • Doing work as it shows up
    • Defining your work

    Doing Predefined Work When you’re doing predefined work, you’re working off your “Next Actions” lists – completing tasks that you have previously determined need to be done, managing your workflow. You’re making the calls you need to make, drafting ideas you want to brainstorm, or preparing a list of things to talk to your attorney about.

    Doing Work as It Shows Up Often things come up ad hoc – unsuspected, unforeseen – that you either have to or choose to respond to as they occur. For example, your partner walks into your office and wants to have a conversation about the new product launch, so you talk to her instead of doing all the other things you could be doing. Every day brings surprises – unplanned-for things that just show up, and you’ll need to expend at least some time and energy on many of them. When you follow these leads, you’re deciding by default that these things are more important than anything else you have to do.

    Defining Your Work Defining your work entails clearing up your in-basket, your e-mail, your voice-mail, and your meeting notes and breaking down new projects into actionable steps. As you process your inputs, you’ll no doubt be taking care of some less-than-two-minute actions and tossing and filing numerous things (another version of doing work as it shows up). A good portion of this activity will consist of identifying things that need to get done sometime, but not right away. You’ll be adding to all of your lists as you go along.

    Once you have defined all your work, you can trust that your lists of things to do are complete. And your context, time, and energy available still allow you the option of more than one thing to do. The final thing to consider is the nature of your work, and its goals and standards.

  3. The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work Priorities should drive your choices, but most models for determining them are not reliable tools for much of our real work activity. In order to know what your priorities are, you have to know what your work is. And there are at least six different perspectives from which to define that. To use an aerospace analogy, the conversation has a lot to do with the altitude.

    • 50,000+ feet: Life
    • 40,000 feet: Three- to five-year vision
    • 30,000 feet: One- to two-year goals
    • 20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
    • 10,000 feet: Current projects
    • Runway: Current actions

    Let’s start from the bottom up:

    Runway: Current Actions This is the accumulated list of all the actions you need to take – all the phone calls you have to make, the e-mails you have to respond to, the errands you’ve got to run, and the agendas you want to communicate to your boss and your spouse. You’d probably have three hundred to five hundred hours’ worth of these things to do if you stopped the world right now and got no more input from yourself or anyone else.

    10,000 Feet: Current Projects Creating many of the actions that you currently have in front of you are the thirty to one hundred projects on your plate. These are the relatively short-term outcomes you want to achieve, such as setting up a home computer, organizing a sales conference, moving to a new headquarters, and getting a dentist.

    20,000 Feet: Areas of Responsibility You create or accept most of your projects because of your responsibilities, which for most people can be defined in ten to fifteen categories. These are the key areas within which you want to achieve results and maintain standards. Your job may entail at least implicit commitments for things like strategic planning, administrative support, staff development, market research, customer service, or asset management. And your personal life has an equal number of such focus arenas: health, family, finances, home environment, spirituality, recreation, etc. Listing and reviewing these responsibilities gives a more comprehensive framework for evaluating your inventory of projects.

    30,000 Feet: One- to Two-Year Goals What you want to be experiencing in the various areas of your life and work one to two years from now will add another dimension to defining your work. Often meeting the goals and objectives of your job will require a shift in emphasis of your job focus, with new areas of responsibility emerging. At this horizon personally, too, there probably are things you’d like to accomplish or have in place, which could add importance to certain aspects of your life and diminish others.

    40,000 Feet: Three- to Five-Year Vision Projecting three to five years into the future generates thinking about bigger categories: organization strategies, environmental trends, career and life-transition circumstances. Internal factors include longer-term career, family, and financial goals and considerations. Outer-world issues could involve changes affecting your job and organization, such as technology, globalization, market trends, and competition. Decisions at this altitude could easily change what your work might look like on many levels.

    50,000+ Feet Life This is the “big picture” view. Why does your company exist? Why do you exist? The primary purpose for anything provides the core definition of what its “work” really is. It is the ultimate job description. All the goals, visions, objectives, projects, and actions derive from this, and lead toward it.

    These altitude analogies are somewhat arbitrary, and in real life the important conversations you will have about your focus and your priorities may not fit exactly to one horizon or another. They can provide a useful framework, however, to remind you of the multilayered nature of your “job” and resulting commitments and tasks.

    Obviously, many factors must be considered before you feel comfortable that you have made the best decision about what to do and when. “Setting priorities” in the traditional sense of focusing on your long-term goals and values, though obviously a necessary core focus, does not provide a practical framework for a vast majority of the decisions and tasks you must engage in day to day. Mastering the flow of your work at all the levels you experience that work provides a much more holistic way to get things done, and feel good about it.

    Part 2 of this book will provide specific coaching about how to use these three models for making action choices, and how the best practices for collecting, processing, planning, organizing, and reviewing all contribute to your greatest success with them.

Getting Projects Creatively Under Way: The Five Phases of Project Planning

You’ve got to think about the big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.

—Alvin Toffler

THE KEY INGREDIENTS of relaxed control are (1) clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and (2) reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly. This is what I call horizontal focus. Although it may seem simple, the actual application of the process can create profound results.

Enhancing “Vertical” Focus

Horizontal focus is all you’ll need in most situations, most of the time. Sometimes, however, you may need greater rigor and focus to get a project under control, to identify a solution, to ensure that all the right steps have been determined. This is where vertical focus comes in. Knowing how to think productively in this more “vertical” to way and how to integrate the results into your personal system is the second powerful behavior set needed for knowledge work.

The goal is to get or projects and situations off your mind, but not lose any potentially useful ideas.

This kind of thinking doesn’t have to be elaborate. Most of the thinking you’ll need to do is informal, what I call back-of-the-envelope planning – the kind of thing you do literally on the back of an envelope in a coffee shop with a colleague as you’re hashing out the agenda and structure of a sales presentation. In my experience this tends to be the most productive kind of planning you can do in terms of your output relative to the energy you put into it. True, every once in a while you may need to develop a more formal structure or plan to clarify components, sequences, or priorities. And more detailed outlines will also be necessary to coordinate more complex situations – if teams need to collaborate about various project pieces, for example, or if business plans need to be drafted to convince an investor you know what you’re doing. But as a general rule, you can be pretty creative with nothing more than an envelope and a pencil.

The greatest need I’ve seen in project thinking in the professional world is not for more formal models; usually the people who need those models already have them or can get them as part of an academic or professional curriculum. Instead, I’ve found the biggest gap to be the lack of a project-focusing model for “the rest of us.” We need ways to validate and support our thinking, no matter how informal. Formal planning sessions and high-horsepower planning tools (such as project software) can certainly be useful, but too often the participants in a meeting will need to have another meeting – a back-of-the-envelope session – to actually get a piece of work fleshed out and under control. More formal and structured meetings also tend to skip over at least one critical issue, such as why the project is being done in the first place. Or they don’t allow adequate time for brainstorming, the development of a bunch of ideas nobody’s ever thought about that would make the project more interesting, more profitable, or just more fun. And finally, very few such meetings bring to bear sufficient rigor in determining action steps and accountabilities for the various aspects of a project plan.

The good news is, there is a productive way to think about projects, situations, and topics that creates maximum value with minimal expenditure of time and effort. It happens to be the way we naturally think and plan, though not necessarily the way we normally plan when we consciously try to get a project under control. In my experience, when people do more planning, more informally and naturally, they relieve a great deal of stress and obtain better results.

The Natural Planning Model

The most experienced planner in the world is your brain.

You’re already familiar with the most brilliant and creative planner in the world: your brain. You yourself are actually a planning machine. You’re planning when you get dressed, eat lunch, go to the store, or simply talk. Although the process may seem somewhat random, a quite complex series of steps in fact has to occur before your brain can make anything happen physically. Your mind goes through five steps to accomplish virtually any task:

  1. Defining purpose and principles
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next actions

A Simple Example: Planning Dinner Out

The last time you went out to dinner, what initially caused you to think about doing it? It could have been any number of things – the desire to satisfy hunger, socialize with friends, celebrate a special occasion, sign a business deal, or develop a romance. As soon as any of these turned into a real inclination that you wanted to move on, you started planning. Your intention was your purpose, and it automatically triggered your internal planning process. Your principles created the boundaries of your plan. You probably didn’t consciously think about your principles regarding going out to dinner, but you thought within them: standards of food and service, affordability, convenience, and comfort all may have played a part. In any case, your purpose and principles were the defining impetus and boundaries of your planning.

Once you decided to fulfill your purpose, what were your first substantive thoughts? Probably not “point II.A.3.b. in plan.” Your first ideas were more likely things like “Italian food at Giovanni’s,” or “Sitting at a sidewalk table at the Bistro Cafe.” You probably also imagined some positive picture of what you might experience or how the evening would turn out – maybe the people involved, the atmosphere, and/or the outcome. That was your outcome visioning. Whereas your purpose was the why of your going out to dinner, your vision was an image of the what – of the physical world’s looking, sounding, and feeling the ways that best fulfilled your purpose.

Once you’d identified with your vision, what did your mind naturally begin doing? What did it start to think about? “What time should we go?” “Is it open tonight?” “Will it be crowded?” “What’s the weather like?” “Should we change clothes?” “Is there gas in the car?” “How hungry are we?” That was brainstorming. Those questions were part of the naturally creative process that happens once you commit to some outcome that hasn’t happened yet. Your brain noticed a gap between what you were looking toward and where you actually were at the time, and it began to resolve that “cognitive dissonance” by trying to fill in the blanks. This is the beginning of the “how” phase of natural planning. But it did the thinking in a somewhat random and ad hoc fashion. Lots of different aspects of going to dinner just occurred to you. You almost certainly didn’t need to actually write all of them down on a piece of paper, but you did a version of that process in your mind. [†]

[†]If, however, you were handling the celebration for your best friend’s recent triumph, the complexity and detail that might accrue in your head should warrant at least the back of an envelope!

Once you had generated a sufficient number of ideas and details, you couldn’t help but start to organize them. You may have thought or said, “First we need to find out if the restaurant is open”, or “Let’s call the Andersons and see if they’d like to go out with us.” Once you’ve generated various thoughts relevant to the outcome, your mind will automatically begin to sort them by components (subprojects), priorities, and/or sequences of events. Components would be: “We need to handle logistics, people, and location.” Priorities would be: “It’s critical to find out if the client really would like to go to dinner.” Sequences would be: “First we need to check whether the restaurant is open, then call the Andersons, then get dressed.”

Finally (assuming that you’re really committed to the project – in this case, going out to dinner), you focus on the next action that you need to take to make the first component actually happen. “Call Suzanne’s to see if it’s open, and make the reservation.”

These five phases of project planning occur naturally for everything you accomplish during the day. It’s how you create things – dinner, a relaxing evening, a new product, or a new company. You have an urge to make something happen; you image the outcome; you generate ideas that might be relevant; you sort those into a structure; and you define a physical activity that would begin to make it a reality. And you do all of that naturally, without giving it much thought.

Natural Planning Is Not Necessarily Normal

But is the process described above the way your committee is planning the church retreat? Is it how your IT team is approaching the new system installation? Is it how you’re organizing the wedding or thinking through the potential merger?

Have you clarified the primary purpose of the project and communicated it to everyone who ought to know it? And have you agreed on the standards and behaviors you’ll need to adhere to to make it successful?

Have you envisioned wild success lately?

Have you envisioned success and considered all the innovative things that might result if you achieved it?

Have you gotten all possible ideas out on the table – everything you need to take into consideration that might affect the outcome?

Have you identified the mission-critical components, key milestones, and deliverables?

Have you defined all the aspects of the project that could be moved on right now, what the next action is for each part, and who’s responsible for what?

If you’re like most people I interact with in a coaching or consulting capacity, the collective answer to these questions is, probably not. There are likely to be at least some components of the natural planning model that you haven’t implemented.

In some of my seminars I get participants to actually plan a current strategic project that uses this model. In only a few minutes they walk themselves through all five phases, and usually end up being amazed at how much progress they’ve made compared with what they have tried to do in the past. One gentleman came up afterward and told me, “I don’t know whether I should thank you or be angry. I just finished a business plan I’ve been telling myself would take months, and now I have no excuses for not doing it!”

You can try it for yourself right now if you like. Choose one project that is new or stuck or that could simply use some improvement. Think of your purpose. Think of what a successful outcome would look like: where would you be physically, financially, in terms of reputation, or whatever? Brainstorm potential steps. Organize your ideas. Decide on the next actions. Are you any clearer about where you want to go and how to get there?

The Unnatural Planning Model

To emphasize the importance of utilizing the natural planning model for the more complex things we’re involved with, let’s contrast it with the more “normal” model used in most environments – what I call unnatural planning.

When the “Good Idea” Is a Bad Idea

Have you ever heard a well-intentioned manager start a meeting with the question, “OK, so who’s got a good idea about this?”

If you’re waiting to have a good idea before you have any ideas, you won’t have many ideas.

What is the assumption here? Before any evaluation of what’s a “good idea” can be trusted, the purpose must be clear, the vision must be well defined, and all the relevant data must have been collected (brainstormed) and analyzed (organized). “What’s a good idea?” is a good question, but only when you’re about 80 percent of the way through your thinking! Starting there would probably blow anyone’s creative mental fuses.

Trying to approach any situation from a perspective that is not the natural way your mind operates will be difficult. People do it all the time, but it almost always engenders a lack of clarity and increased stress. In interactions with others, it opens the door for egos, politics, and hidden agendas to take over the discussion (generally speaking, the most verbally aggressive will run the show). And if it’s just you, attempting to come up with a “good idea” before defining your purpose, creating a vision, and collecting lots of initial bad ideas is likely to give you a case of creative constipation.

Let’s Blame Mrs. Williams

If you’re like most people in our culture, the only formal training you’ve ever had in planning and organizing proactively was in the fourth or fifth grade. And even if that wasn’t the only education you’ve had in this area, it was probably the most emotionally intense (meaning it sank in the deepest).

Outlines were easy, as long as you wrote the report first.

Mrs. Williams, my fourth-grade teacher, had to teach us about organizing our thinking (it was in her lesson plans). We were going to learn to write reports. But in order to write a well-organized, successful report, what did we have to write first? That’s right – an outline!

Did you ever have to do that, create an outline to begin with? Did you ever stare at a Roman numeral I at the top of your page for a torturous period of time and decide that planning and organizing ahead of time were for people very different from you? Probably.

In the end, I did learn to write outlines. I just wrote the report first, then made up an outline from the report, after the fact.

That’s what most people learned about planning from our educational system. And I still see outlines done after the fact, just to please the authorities. In the business world, they’re often headed “Goals” and “Objectives.” But they still have very little to do with what people are doing or what they’re inspired about. These documents are sitting in drawers and in e-mails somewhere, bearing little relationship to operational reality.

The Reactive Planning Model

The unnatural planning model is what most people consciously think of as “planning,” and because it’s so often artificial and irrelevant to real work, people just don’t plan. At least not on the front end: they resist planning meetings, presentations, and strategic operations until the last minute.

When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.


But what happens if you don’t plan ahead of time? In many cases, crisis! (“Didn’t you get the tickets I thought you were going to do that?!”) Then, when the urgency of the last minute is upon you, the reactive planning model ensues.

What’s the first level of focus when the stuff hits the fan? Action! Work harder! Overtime! More people! Get busier! And a lot of stressed-out people are thrown at the situation.

Then, when having a lot of busy people banging into each other doesn’t resolve the situation, someone gets more sophisticated and says, “We need to get organized!” (Catching on now?) Then people draw boxes around the problem and label them. Or redraw the boxes and relabel them.

Don’t just do something. Stand there.

At some point they realize that just redrawing boxes isn’t really doing much to solve the problem. Now someone (much more sophisticated) suggests that more creativity is needed. “Let’s brainstorm!” – Rochelle Myer With everyone in the room, the boss asks, “So, who’s got a good idea here?” (Thank you, Mrs. Williams.) When not much happens, the boss may surmise that his staff has used up most of its internal creativity. Time to hire a consultant! Of course, if the consultant is worth his salt, at some point he is probably going to ask the big question: “So, what are you really trying to do here, anyway?” (vision, purpose).

The reactive style is the reverse of the natural model. It will always come back to a top-down focus. It’s not a matter of whether the natural planning will be done – just when, and at what cost.

Natural Planning Techniques: The Five Phases

It goes without saying, but still it must be said again: thinking in more effective ways about projects and situations can make things happen sooner, better, and more successfully. So if our minds plan naturally anyway, what can we learn from that? How can we use that model to facilitate getting more and better results in our thinking?

Let’s examine each of the five phases of natural planning and see how we can leverage these contexts.


Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim. George

It never hurts to ask the “why?” question. Almost anything you’re currently doing can be enhanced and even galvanized by more scrutiny at this top level of focus. Why are you going to your next meeting? What’s the purpose of your task? Why are you having friends over for a barbeque in the backyard? Why are you hiring a marketing director? Why do you have a budget?

I admit it: this is nothing but advanced common sense. To know and to be clear about the purpose of any activity are prime directives for clarity, creative development, and cooperation. But it’s common sense that’s not commonly practiced, simply because it’s so easy for us to create things, get caught up in the form of what we’ve created, and let our connection with our real and primary intentions slip.

I know, based upon thousands of hours spent in many offices with many sophisticated people, that the “why?” question cannot be ignored. When people complain to me about having too many meetings, I have to ask, “What is the purpose of the meetings?” When they ask, “Who should I invite to the planning session?” I have to ask, “What’s the purpose of the planning session?” Until we have the answer to my questions, there’s no possible way to come up with an appropriate response to theirs.

The Value of Thinking About “Why” Here are just some of the benefits of asking “why?”:

  • It defines success.
  • It creates decision-making criteria.
  • It aligns resources.
  • It motivates.
  • It clarifies focus.
  • It expands options.
People love to win. If you’re not totally clear about the purpose of what you’re doing, you have no chance of winning.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn.

Celebrate any progress. Don’t -wait to get perfect.

—Ann McGee Cooper

about the purpose of what you’re doing, you have no

It Defines Success People are starved for “wins” these days. We to play games, love and we like to win, or at least be in a position where we could win. And if you’re not totally clear chance of winning. Purpose defines success. It’s the primal reference point for any investment of time and energy, from deciding to run for elective office to designing a form.

Ultimately you can’t feel good about a staff meeting unless you know what the purpose of the meeting was. And if you want to sleep well, you’d better have a good answer when your board asks why you fired your V.P. of marketing or hired that hotshot M.B.A. as your new finance director. You won’t really know whether or not your business plan is any good until you hold it up against the success criterion that you define by answering the question “Why do we need a business plan?”

Often the only way to make a hard decision is to come back to the purpose.

It Creates Decision-Making Criteria How do you decide whether to spend the money for a five-color brochure or just go with a two-color? How do you know whether it’s worth hiring a major Web design firm to handle your new Web site?

It all comes down to purpose. Given what you’re trying to accomplish, are these resource investments required, and if so, which ones? There’s no way to know until the purpose is clarified.

It Aligns Resources How should we spend our staffing allocation in the corporate budget? How do we best use the cash flow right now to maximize our viability as a retailer over the next year? Should we spend more money on the luncheon or the speakers for the monthly association meeting?

In each case, the answer depends on what we’re really trying to accomplish – the why.

It Motivates Let’s face it: if there’s no good reason to be doing something, it’s not worth doing. I’m often stunned by how many people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing – and by how quickly a simple question like “Why are you doing that?” can get them back on track.

It Clarifies Focus When you land on the real purpose for anything you’re doing, it makes things clearer. Just taking two minutes and writing out your primary reason for doing something invariably creates an increased sharpness of vision, much like bringing a telescope into focus. Frequently, projects and situations that have begun to feel scattered and blurred grow clearer when someone brings it back home by asking, “What are we really trying to accomplish here?”

If you’re not sure why you’re doing something, you can never do enough of it.

It Expands Options Paradoxically, even as purpose brings things into pinpoint focus, it opens up creative thinking about wider possibilities. When you really know the underlying “why”– for the conference, for the staff party, for the elimination of the management position, or for the merger – it expands your thinking about how to make the desired result happen. When people write out their purpose for a project in my seminars, they often claim it’s like a fresh breeze blowing through their mind, clarifying their vision of what they’re doing.

Is your purpose clear and specific enough? If you’re truly experiencing the benefits of a purpose focus – motivation, clarity, decision-making criteria, alignment, and creativity – then your purpose probably is specific enough. But many “purpose statements” are too vague to produce such results. “To have a good department,” for example, might be too broad a goal. After all, what constitutes a “good department”? Is it a group of people who are highly motivated, collaborating in healthy ways, and taking initiative? Or is it a department that comes in under budget? In other words, if you don’t really know when you’ve met your purpose or when you’re off track, you don’t have a viable directive. The question “How will I know when this is off-purpose?” must have a clear answer.


Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.


Of equal value as prime criteria for driving and directing a project are the standards and values you hold. Although people seldom think about these consciously, they are always there. And if they are violated, the result will inevitably be unproductive distraction and stress.

A great way to think about what your principles are is to complete this sentence: “I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they. . .”– what? What policies, stated or unstated, will apply to your group’s activities? “As long as they stayed within budget”? “satisfied the client”? “ensured a healthy team”? “promoted a positive image”?

It can be a major source of stress when others engage in or allow behavior that’s outside your standards. If you never have to deal with this issue, you’re truly graced. If you do, some constructive conversation about and clarification of principles could align the energy and prevent unnecessary conflict. You may want to begin by asking yourself, “What behavior might undermine what I’m doing, and how can I prevent it?” That will give you a good starting point for defining your standards.

Another great reason for focusing on principles is the clarity and reference point they provide for positive conduct. How do you want or need to work with others on this project to ensure its success? You yourself are at your best when you’re acting how?

Whereas purpose provides the juice and the direction, principles define the parameters of action and the criteria for excellence of behavior.


In order most productively to access the conscious and unconscious resources available to you, you must have a clear picture in your mind of what success would look, sound, and feel like. Purpose and principles furnish the impetus and the monitoring, but vision provides the actual blueprint of the final result. This is the “what?” instead of the “why?” What will this project or situation really be like when it successfully appears in the world?

For example, graduates of your seminar are demonstrating consistently applied knowledge of the subject matter. Market share has increased 2 percent within the northeastern region over the last fiscal year. Your daughter is clear about your guidelines and support for her first semester in college.

The Power of Focus

Since the 1960s thousands of books have expounded on the value of appropriate positive imagery and focus. Forward-looking focus has even been a key element in Olympic-level sports training, with athletes imagining the physical effort, the positive energy, and the successful result to ensure the highest level of unconscious support for their performance.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

—Albert Einstein

We know that the focus we hold in our minds affects what we perceive and how we perform. This is as true on the golf course as it is in a staff meeting or during a serious conversation with a spouse. My interest lies in providing a model for focus that is dynamic in a practical way, especially in project thinking.

When you focus on something – the vacation you’re going to take, the meeting you’re about to go into, the product you want to launch – that focus instantly creates ideas and thought patterns you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Even your physiology will respond to an image in your head as if it were reality.

The Reticular Activating System The May 1957 issue of Scientific American contained an article describing the discovery of the reticular formation at the base of the brain. The reticular formation is basically the gateway to your conscious awareness; it’s the switch that turns on your perception of ideas and data, the thing that keeps you asleep even when music’s playing but wakes you if a special little baby cries in another room.

Your automatic creative mechanism is teleological. That is, it operates in terms of goals and end results. Once you give it a definite goal to achieve, you can depend upon its automatic guidance system to take you to that goal much better than “you” ever could by conscious thought. “You” supply the goal by thinking in terms of end results. Your automatic mechanism then supplies the means whereby.

—Maxwell Maltz

Just like a computer, your brain has a search function – but it’s even more phenomenal than a computer’s. It seems to be programmed by what we focus on and, more primarily, what we identify with. It’s the seat of what many people have referred to as the paradigms we maintain. We notice only what matches our internal belief systems and identified contexts. If you’re an optometrist, for example, you’ll tend to notice people wearing eyeglasses across a crowded room; if you’re a building contractor, you may notice the room’s physical details. If you focus on the color red right now and then just glance around your environment, if there is any red at all, you’ll see even the tiniest bits of it.

The implications of how this filtering works – how we are unconsciously made conscious of information – could fill a weeklong seminar. Suffice it to say that something automatic and extraordinary happens in your mind when you create and focus on a clear picture of what you want.

Clarifying Outcomes

There is a simple but profound principle that emerges from understanding the way your perceptive filters work: you won’t see how to do it until you see yourself doing it.

You often need to make it up in your mind before you can make it happen in your life.

It’s easy to envision something happening if it has happened before or you have had experience with similar successes. It can be quite a challenge, however, to identify with images of success if they represent new and foreign territory – that is, if you have few reference points about what an event might actually look like and little experience of your own ability to make it happen.

Many of us hold ourselves back from imaging a desired outcome unless someone can show us how to get there. Unfortunately, that’s backward in terms of how our minds work to generate and recognize solutions and methods.

I always wanted to be somebody. I should have been more specific.


One of the most powerful skills in the world of knowledge work, and one of the most important to hone and develop, is creating clear outcomes. This is not as self-evident as it may sound. We need to constantly define (and redefine what we’re trying to accomplish on many different levels, and consistently reallocate resources toward getting these tasks completed as effectively and efficiently as possible.

What will this project look like when it’s done? How do you want the client to feel, and what do you want him to know and do, after the presentation? Where will you be in your career three years from now? How would the ideal V.P. of finance do his job? What would your Web site really look like and have as capabilities if it could be the way you wanted it?

Outcome/vision can range from a simple statement of the project, such as “Finalize computer-system implementation,” to a completely scripted movie depicting the future scene in all its glorious detail. Here are three basic steps for developing a vision:

  1. View the project from beyond the completion date.
  2. Envision “WILD SUCCESS”! (Suspend “Yeah, but. . .”)
  3. Capture features, aspects, qualities you imagine in place.

When I get people to focus on a successful scenario of their project, they usually experience heightened enthusiasm and think of something unique and positive about it that hadn’t occurred to them before. “Wouldn’t it be great if. . .” is not a bad way to start thinking about a situation, at least for long enough to have the option of getting an answer.


The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.

—Linus Pauling

Once you know what you want to have happen, and why, the “how” mechanism is brought into play. When you identify with some picture in your mind that is different from your current reality, you automatically start filling in the gaps, or brainstorming. Ideas begin to pop into your head in somewhat random order – little ones, big ones, not-so-good ones, good ones. This process usually goes on internally for most people about most things, and that’s often sufficient. For example, you think about what you want to say to your boss as you’re walking down the hall to speak to her. But there are many other instances when writing things down, or capturing them in some external way, can give a tremendous boost to productive output and thinking.

Your mind wants to fill in the blanks between here and there, but in somewhat random order.

Capturing Your Ideas

Over the last few decades, a number of graphics-oriented brainstorming techniques have been introduced to help develop creative thinking about projects and topics. They’ve been called things like mind-mapping, clustering, patterning, webbing, and fish-boning. Although the authors of these various processes may portray them as being different from one another, for most of us end-users the basic premise remains the same: give yourself permission to capture and express any idea, and then later on figure out how it fits in and what to do with it. If nothing else (and there is plenty of “else”), this practice adds to your efficiency – when you have the idea, you grab it, which means you won’t have to go “have the idea” again.

The most popular of these techniques is called mind-mapping, a name coined by Tony Buzan, a British researcher in brain functioning, to label this process of brainstorming ideas onto a graphic format. In mind-mapping, the core idea is presented in the center, with associated ideas growing out in a somewhat free-form fashion around it. For instance, if I found out that I had to move my office, I might think about computers, changing my business cards, all the connections I’d have to change, new furniture, moving the phones, purging and packing, and so on. If I captured these thoughts graphically it might start to look something like this:


You could do this kind of mind-mapping on Post-its that could be stuck on a whiteboard, or you could input ideas into a word processor or outlining program on the computer.

Distributed Cognition

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is only one you have.

—Emile Chartier

The great thing about external brainstorming is that in addition to capturing your original ideas, it can help generate many new ones that might not have occurred to you if you didn’t have a mechanism to hold your thoughts and continually reflect them back to you. It’s as if your mind were to the say, “Look, I’m only going to give you as many ideas as you feel you can effectively use. If you’re not collecting them in some trusted way, I won’t give you that many. But if you’re actually doing something with the ideas – even if it’s just recording them for later evaluation – then here, have a bunch! And, oh wow! That reminds me of another one, and another,” etc. Psychologists are beginning to label this and similar processes “distributed cognition.” It’s getting things out of your head and into objective, reviewable formats. But my English teacher in high school didn’t have to know about the theory to give me the key: “David,” he said, “you’re going to college, and you’re going to be writing papers. Write all your notes and quotes on separate three-by-five cards. Then, when you get ready to organize your thinking, just spread them all out on the floor, see the structure, and figure out what you’re missing.” Mr. Edmundson was teaching me a major piece of the natural planning model!

Only he who handles his ideas lightly is master of his ideas, and only he who is master of his ideas is not enslaved by them.

—Lin Yutang

Few people can hold their focus on a topic for more than a couple of minutes, without some objective structure and tool or trigger to help them. Pick a big project you have going right now and just try to think of nothing else for more than sixty seconds. This is pretty hard to do unless you have a pen and paper in hand and use those “cognitive artifacts” as the anchor for your ideas. Then you can stay with it for hours. That’s why good thinking can happen while you’re working on a computer document about a project, mind-mapping it on a legal pad of on a paper tablecloth in a hip restaurant, or just having a meeting about it with other people in a room that allows you to hold the context (a whiteboard with nice wet markers really helps there, too).

Brainstorming Keys

Many techniques can be used to facilitate brainstorming and out-of-the-box thinking. The basics principles, however, can be summed up as follows:

  • Don’t judge, challenge, evaluate, or criticize.
  • Go for quantity, not quality.
  • Put analysis and organization in the background.
A good way to find out what something uncover all the things it’s probably not.

Don’t Judge, Challenge, Evaluate, or Criticize It’s easy for the unnatural planning model to rear its ugly head in brainstorming, making people jump to premature evaluations and critiques of ideas. If you care even slightly about what a critic thinks, you’ll censure your expressive process as you look for the “right” thing to say. There’s a very might be is to subtle distinction between keeping brainstorming on target with the topic and stifling the creative process. It’s also important that brainstorming be put into the overall context of the planning process, because if you think you’re doing it just for its own sake, it can seem trite and inappropriately off course. If you can understand it instead as something you’re doing right now, for a certain period, before you move toward a resolution at the end, you’ll feel more comfortable giving this part of the process its due.

This is not to suggest that you should shut off critical thinking, though – everything ought to be fair game at this stage. It’s just wise to understand what kinds of thoughts you’re having and to park them for use in the most appropriate way. The primary criterion must be expansion, not contraction.

Go for Quantity, Not Quality Going for quantity keeps your thinking expansive. Often you won’t know what’s a good idea until you have it. And sometimes you’ll realize it’s a good idea, or the germ of one, only later on. You know how shopping at a big store with lots of options lets you feel comfortable about your choice? The same holds true for project thinking. The greater the volume of thoughts you have to work with, the better the context you can create for developing options and trusting your choices.

Put Analysis and Organization in the Background Analysis and evaluation and organization of your thoughts should be given as free a rein as creative out-of-the-box thinking. But in the brainstorming phase, this critical activity should not be the driver.

Making a list can be a creative thing to do, a way to consider the people who should be on your team, the customer requirements for the software, or the components of the business plan. Just make sure to grab all that and keep going until you get into the weeding and organizing of focus that make up the next stage.


If you’ve done a thorough job of emptying your head of all the things that came up in the brainstorming phase, you’ll notice that a natural organization is emerging. As my high school English teacher suggested, once you get all the ideas out of your head and in front of your eyes, you’ll automatically notice natural relationships and structure. This is what most people are referring to when they talk about “project plans.”

Organizing usually happens when you identify components and subcomponents, sequences or events, and/or priorities. What are the things that must occur to create the final result? In what order must they occur? What is the most important element to ensure the success of the project?

This is the stage in which you can make good use of structuring tools ranging from informal bullet points, scribbled literally on the back of an envelope, to project-planning software like Microsoft Project. When a project calls A “project plan” for substantial objective control, you’ll need some identifies the type of hierarchical outline with components and smaller outcomes, subcomponents, and/or a GANTT-type chart show- which can then be ing stages of the project laid out over time, with naturally planned. independent and dependent parts and milestones identified in relationship to the whole.

Creative thinking doesn’t stop here; it just takes another form. Once you perceive a basic structure, your mind will start trying to “fill in the blanks.” Identifying three key things that you need to handle on the project, for example, may cause you to think of a fourth and a fifth when you see them all lined up.

The Basics of Organizing

The key steps here are:

  • Identify the significant pieces.
  • Sort by (one or more):
    • components
    • sequences
    • priorities
  • Detail to the required degree.

I have never seen any two projects that needed to have exactly the same amount of structure and detail developed in order to get things off people’s minds and moving successfully. But almost all projects can use some form of creative thinking from the left side of the brain, along the lines of “What’s the plan?”

Next Actions

The final stage of planning comes down to decisions about the allocation and reallocation of physical resources to actually get the project moving. The question to ask here is, “What’s the next action?”

As we noted in the previous chapter, this kind of grounded, reality-based thinking, combined with clarification of the desired outcome, forms the critical component of knowledge work. In my experience, creating a list of what your real projects are and consistently managing your next action for each one will constitute 90 percent of what is generally thought of as project planning. This “runway level” approach will make you “honest” about all kinds of things: Are you really serious about doing this? Who’s responsible? Have you thought things through enough?

At some point, if the project is an actionable one, this next-action decision must be made.[*]_ Answering the question about what specifically you would do about something physically if you had nothing else to do will test the maturity of your thinking about the project. If you’re not yet ready to answer that question, you have more to flesh out at some prior level in the natural planning sequence.

The Basics

  • Decide on next actions for each of the current moving parts of the project.
  • Decide on the next action in the planning process, if necessary.

Activating the “Moving Parts” A project is sufficiently planned for implementation when every next-action step has been decided on every front that can actually be moved on without some other component’s having to be completed first. If the project has multiple components, each of them should be assessed appropriately by asking, “Is there something that anyone could be doing on this right now?” You could be coordinating speakers for the conference, for instance, at the same time that you’re finding the appropriate site.

[‡]You can also plan nonactionable projects and not need a next action – for example, designing your dream house. The lack of a next action by default makes it a “someday/maybe” project. . . and that’s fine for anything of that nature.

In some cases there will be only one aspect that can be activated, and everything else will depend on the results of that. So there may be only one next action, which will be the linchpin for all the rest.

More to Plan? What if there’s still more planning to be done before you can feel comfortable with what’s next? There’s still an action step – it is just a process action. What’s the next step in the continuation of planning? Drafting more ideas. E-mailing Ana Maria and Sean to get their input. Telling your assistant to set up a planning meeting with the product team.

The habit of clarifying the next action on projects, no matter what the situation, is fundamental to you staying in relaxed control.

When the Next Action Is Someone Else’s ... If the next action is not yours, you must nevertheless clarify whose it is (this is a primary use of the “Waiting For” action list). In a group-planning situation, it isn’t necessary for everyone to know what the next step is on every part of the project. Often all that’s required is to allocate responsibility for parts of the project to the appropriate persons and leave it up to them to identify next actions on their particular pieces.

This next-action conversation forces organizational clarity. Issues and details emerge that don’t show up until someone holds everyone’s “feet to the fire” about the physical-level reality of resource allocation. It’s a simple, practical discussion to foster, and one that can significantly stir the pot and identify weak links.

How Much Planning Do You Really Need to Do?

How much of this planning model do you really need to flesh out, and to what degree of detail? The simple answer is, as much as you need to get the project off your mind.

If the project is still on your mind, there’s more planning to do.

In general, the reason things are on your mind is that the outcome and the action step(s) have not been appropriately defined, and/or reminders of them have not been put in places where you can be trusted to look for them appropriately. Additionally, you may not have developed the details, perspectives, and solutions sufficiently to trust the efficacy of your blueprint. Most projects, given my definition of a project as an outcome requiring more than one action, need no more than a listing of their outcome and next action for you to get them off your mind. You need a new stockbroker? You just have to call a friend for a recommendation. You want to set up a printer at home? You just need to surf the Web to check out different models and prices. I estimate that 80 percent of projects are of that nature. You’ll still be doing the full planning model on all of them, but only in your head, and just enough to figure out next actions and keep them going until they’re complete.

Another 15 percent or so of projects might require at least some external form of brainstorming – maybe a mind-map or a few notes in a word processor or PowerPoint file. That might be sufficient for planning meeting agendas, your vacation, or a speech to the local chamber of commerce.

A final 5 percent of projects might need the deliberate application of one or more of the five phases of the natural planning model. The model provides a practical recipe for unsticking things, resolving them, and moving them forward productively. Are you aware of a need for greater clarity, or greater action, on any of your projects? If so, using the model can often be the key to making effective progress.

Need More Clarity?

If greater clarity is what you need, shift your thinking up the natural planning scale. People are often very busy {action) but nonetheless experience confusion and a lack of clear direction. They need to pull out their plan, or create one {organize}. If there’s a lack of clarity at the planning level, there’s probably a need for more brainstorming to generate a sufficient inventory of ideas to create trust in the plan. If the brainstorming session gets bogged down with fuzzy thinking, the focus should shift back to the vision of the outcome, ensuring that the reticular filter in the brain will open up to deliver the best how-to thinking. If the outcome/ vision is unclear, you must return to a clean analysis of why you’re engaged in the situation in the first place {purpose}.

Need More to Be Happening?

Plans get you into things but you’ve got to work your way out.

If more action is what’s needed, you need to move down the model. There may be enthusiasm about the purpose of a project but at the same time some resistance to actually fleshing out what fulfilling it in the real world might look like. These days, the task of “improving quality of work life” may be on the radar for a manager, but often he won’t yet have defined a clear picture of the desired result. The thinking must go to the specifics of the vision. Again, ask yourself, “What would the outcome look like?”

If you’ve formulated an answer to that question, but things are still stuck, it’s probably time for you to grapple with some of the “how” issues and the operational details and perspectives {brainstorming}. I often have clients who have inherited a relatively clearly articulated project, like “Implement the new performance-review system,” but who aren’t moving forward because they haven’t yet taken a few minutes to dump some ideas out about what that might entail.

If brainstorming gets hung up (and very often it does for more “blue sky” types), rigor may be required to do some evaluation of and decision-making about mission-critical deliverables that have to be handled {organizing}. This is sometimes the case when an informal back-and-forth meeting that has generated lots of ideas ends without producing any decision about what actually needs to happen next on the project.

And if there is a plan, but the rubber still isn’t hitting the road like it should, someone needs to assess each component with the focus of “What’s the next action, and who’s got it?” One manager, who had taken over responsibility many months in advance for organizing a major annual conference, asked me how to prevent the crisis all-nighters her team had experienced near the deadline the previous year. When she produced an outline of the various pieces of the project she’d inherited, I asked, “Which pieces could actually be moved on right now?” After identifying half a dozen, we clarified the next action on each one. It was off and running.

In the last two chapters, I have covered the basic models of how to stay maximally productive and in control, with minimal effort, at the two most basic levels of our life and work: the actions we take and the projects we enter into that generate many of those actions.

You need no new skills to increase your productivity- behaviors about when and where to apply them.

The fundamentals remain true – you must be responsible for collecting all your open loops, applying a front-end thought process to each of them, and managing the results with organization, review, and just a new set of action.

For all those situations that you have any level of commitment to complete, there is a natural planning process that goes on to get you from here to there. Leveraging that five-phase model can often make the evolution easier, faster, and more productive.

These models are simple to understand and easy to implement. Applying them creates remarkable results. You need essentially no new skills – you already know how to write things down, clarify outcomes, decide next actions, put things into categories, review it all, and make intuitive choices. Right now you have the ability to focus on successful results, brainstorm, organize your thinking, and get moving on your next steps.

But just knowing how to do all of those things does not produce results. Merely having the ability to be highly productive, relaxed, and in control doesn’t make you that way. If you’re like most people, you can use a coach – someone to walk you step by step through the experience and provide some guideposts and handy tricks along the way, until your new operational style is elegantly embedded.

You’ll find that in part 2.