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Processing, or Let’s Make Some Hole!

April 23, 2010

Makin’ hole. A common expression among oil rig supervisors and roughnecks alike, and often expressed in the variation, “Let’s make some hole!”

Why – you’re probably wondering by now – is this the opening shot in a piece about workplace productivity? A common rallying cry and “team cohesion” motivator among the practitioners of an early career choice I made, a hole is not the desired end-state of “makin’ hole.”  The hole is a means to an end, and one everyone can get their minds around. It is one of the critical tools – a conduit – to the productivity of an oil rig.

In the context of office productivity, the hole we will make is in the pile of “stuff” cluttering your brain (more on this in a near-future article) and in-basket(s), whether they exist as actual in-baskets, a box of notes hiding under your desk, an email inbox, notes scribbled on napkins and squirreled away in your briefcase, or a combination of these methods and others.

And, the productivity we seek will come in much the same manner as drilling an oil shaft through the intervening dirt and rock strata. We are going to drill a hole through the intervening clutter surrounding your inbox(es) – and thereby your productivity – and achieve a rewarding flow of productivity for our efforts.

The following workflow process map (click it to enlarge it) is an annotated and modified version of the one you can find in David Allen’s outstanding book “Getting Things Done” and discussed on his website,  Allen defines “stuff” in this context as “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.”

Stuff isn’t bad.  Stuff isn’t good.  Stuff is.  And one of the things it is not = actionable.  Turning stuff into actionable items is what should get accomplished in processing.  Otherwise, you end up just shuffling unactionable stuff.  Covering the entire process diagram below in one blog article would probably result in no one reading it due to length, amount of effort required to implement it, and sheer frustration with the amount of content.  So, I’ll condense the diagram into actionable chunks that you can implement in an incremental way, and expand on those chunks and contributors to their effectiveness in the coming weeks.

1.  Get “stuff” out of your mind and into a manageable system…it doesn’t matter what the system is.  If it’s in your head, then it’s distracting you from working on what you need to be working on at that time.  Next week’s piece will focus in more detail on cleaning out your mind, but for now, take out a sheet of paper (or several, or your word processor) and list everything that needs doing.  Don’t waste any time trying to think of what needs doing.  Your mind knows, is probably constantly reminding you of it, and will be very happy to get it to stop interfering with other things.  Time to return to the free-writing that so many people dreaded in high school.  But, it works.  So, for a partial list of things to get you started if you aren’t already scribbling or typing furiously:

  • Buy _____’s birthday card
  • Change the oil in the car (technically a project if you have incomplete steps still to get ready)
  • Renew the homeowner’s insurance
  • File the _____ brief
  • Prepare the boss’ speaking notes on _____ (technically a project, possibly…)
  • Schedule the _____

There’s a much bigger list in “Getting Things Done” on pages 114 – 117.  David Allen calls it an “incompletion triggers list.”   However, once you get started writing, I suspect you will encounter no problem with your list growing.  Try to devote ten to fifteen minutes to this, and then stop unless you’re writing furiously.

Again, regardless of the physical system you use (paper notes or an electronic calendar and task list, or both), get each item of “stuff” out of your head and written down so your mind stops pestering you about the fact that it isn’t done.  Because your mind will most definitely pester you about undone things, or things not properly documented elsewhere.  Once you establish a system that you can rely on to remind you when you need to be reminded, even if it’s the result of daily serial processing through the paper notes for the time being, then your mind will begin to stop interrupting your productivity with reminders about things you can’t do anything about at that moment.

2.  If at all possible, have one electronic inbox and one paper inbox.  Most people are unwilling to do without paper, and unable to do without electronic.  If you can eliminate one of these, do it.  Otherwise, try really hard to have just one of each.  It makes processing much easier, because the inbox is not where things live until you’re finished with them, it’s where they live until you decide where they properly go.  There’s no reason to clutter your efforts further by having multiple collection points for things you have yet to categorize/file/act on.  The one ubiquitous exception is the work email inbox and the home email inbox, which most people cannot combine.

3.  Set aside an hour or two (with a break in the middle) if you can, and begin reviewing the items in your “in” basket(s).  You need to devote more than a few minutes to this, because actions of very short duration will be accomplished at this time, while longer ones will need to be put in the proper trustworthy storage point.  Look at the workflow diagram, and make a folder (electronic or paper) for each item that has a folder icon in it.  You will use these folders in the remaining steps.  “Reference” has a file cabinet on it because you’ll need a lot of space for filing things alphabetically.

Decide if an item is actionable.  If the answer is no, put it in the trash now, file it in your Someday/Maybe file (which is exactly what it sounds like), or file it in an alphabetical reference system (trust me, use alphabetical for now).  If the answer is yes and the action will take less than five minutes (Mr. Allen will tell you two minutes), then complete it as soon as you come to it.  If the answer is yes but the action will take longer than five minutes, delegate it appropriately or defer it by scheduling time to work on it or by placing it in your Next Actions folder for action as soon as possible.

Do not begin ranking the items in your in basket(s) by pleasantness, importance, or urgency unless you know some are critically urgent.  If you start this practice now, or don’t stop it immediately, you will always choose the actions that are least arduous, most fun, most intellectually challenging, or whatever else appeals to you, and some will always fall to the bottom of the list and remain undone.

Try to avoid the tendency to write actions like “Decide [insert anything here].”  Deciding is not an action in the sense we’re talking about here; rather, it is the outcome of other actions like research, compare, validate, verify, etc.  So, in this sense, “decide” is somewhere between an umbrella for multiple actions and a project in and of itself.  If you spend more than two minutes trying to decide how to write an action the outcome of which is “decide,” then just write “decide [insert the decision subject]” and move on.  It gets easier the more you do it.

4.  An invaluable lesson from my friends at the Palladium/Balanced Scorecard Collaborative:  Do not make this a software project.  If you spend more time acquiring, setting up, or maintaining the software solution than you do benefiting from it, then it’s useless.  It’s better to do this on paper as much as you can if you’re already doing things on paper.  I’ll go through some software solutions in a later piece, but if you can’t wait, then Microsoft Outlook lends itself quite well to GTD even if you don’t get the GTD plugin, and there are plenty of Mac blogs on implementing GTD on Apple’s platform (just try searching for “Mac” and “GTD” in your favorite search engine).  In fact, you can accomplish this quite easily with a plain old text editor like Wordpad or Notepad and the calendar you’re already using.

NEXT FRIDAY:  Clean up your mind!


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