Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”
Allen’s system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”
When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”
“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”
Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.
Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.
Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.
Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.
Until recently we thought this was the brain’s way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.
[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.
If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won’t be sedated by vague good intentions.”
If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.
This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey’s organizational problems.
“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”
Still curious? Follow up with Getting Things Done and Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.
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