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At the conclusion of one of my time-management seminars, a senior manager of a major biotech firm looked back at her old to-do lists and remarked, “Boy, that was an amorphous blob of undoability!”

That’s the best description of what passes for an organized to-do list that I’ve ever heard. Most of us try to get organized by rearranging incomplete lists of unclear things; we haven’t yet realized how much and what exactly we need to organize to better control our workflow and improve our productivity.

To really take control of our work, we need to make some small changes in our workflow system. Namely, working from the bottom up.

Most of us have been taught that the best way to get things done is through a top-down approach – uncovering personal or corporate missions, defining critical objectives, and then focusing on implementation. All this sounds good in theory. In practice, though, most people are so embroiled in day-to-day commitments that they’re unable to see the bigger picture. Consequently, a bottom-up strategy that organizes those daily tasks usually proves more effective.

To get a better handle on all that you want and need to do, consider adopting the following five-stage workflow approach for creating order from chaos. You’ll get the best results from progressing through the stages one at a time as you move through your day, but you can also use this approach for moving individual projects (like your daily mail) toward completion.

1. Collect

Identify everything you consider incomplete in your world and put each of those items in the appropriate containers. “Incompletes” include anything personal or professional, major or minor, that you must complete. From “End world hunger” to “Replace electric pencil sharpener,” these items qualify as incomplete when you attach to them a “should,” “need to” or “ought to.”

Once you know what’s on your mind, you need to find another place to put it. You want your mind available for focused work, not storage space. So the goal of all this collecting is to get every incomplete item out of your head and into a limited number of containers: your physical in-basket, paper-based or electronic note-taking devices, voice-recording devices, and email. Choose what works best for you, but remember that to make the collection process work, you must have as few containers as possible.

Many people let their containers overflow. Mastering the next phase of workflow – how to effectively process your incompletes – will help keep your containers manageable.

(Go deeper at “Getting Things Done: “Collect”“.)

2. Process

When everything’s out of your head and in containers, it’s time to process. Processing requires an item-by-item approach. You’ll have to answer two questions about each email, voicemail, memo or self-generated idea you encounter: 1) What is it? 2) Is it actionable?

What is it? This is not a dumb question. Before you can act, you need to know an item’s exact contents. That envelope you never opened? That memo you only skimmed? You have to know what you’re dealing with.

Is it actionable? If your answer is no, there are three places to put it: the recycling bin, an incubation file for material you’ll address later or a filing system for reference information.

If an item does require action, you have three options. If it will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. If it will take more than two minutes, either delegate it or defer it. Add deferred actions to a “Next Actions” list so you can keep track of them.

Some of the “Next Actions” you identify are likely parts of larger projects. Keep track of all of these larger projects in a separate “Projects” inventory.

Once you’ve gathered your incompletes and made them part of a concrete system, you’re ready to organize.

(Check out “Getting Things Done: “Process”” for more on this second step.)

3. Organize

Let’s take a closer look at the eight-part organizational system that’s emerging from our work so far:

For nonactionable items, you’ll need 1) a trash can or recycling bin; 2) two incubation files, including a “Someday/Maybe” file for ideas you’re considering and a “Tickler” file for things you want to recall on a future date; and 3) a good filing system for all your reference materials, organized by topic (like appliance manuals), areas of interest (like vacation ideas) and general reference.

For actionable items, you’ll need 4) a “Waiting For” list of delegated items; 5) a calendar, which itemizes the things that have to happen on a specific day or time; and 6) a “Next Actions” list – things that just need to get done as soon as possible.

When dealing with larger projects, you will need 7) a current “Projects” list that serves as an index of the things you’re working on, and 8) files for support materials and references for each project. It’s important to remember that actionable items specific to projects should be added to your “Next Actions” list.

(Take a closer look at “Getting Things Done: “Organize””.)

4. Review

The real magic of workflow management happens through the consistent use of the review phase. This is where you take a weekly look at all your outstanding projects and incompletes. With all the defined actions and options in plain view, you can dramatically improve the choices you make.

At a weekly review, you’ll gather and process all your incompletes, review your system, update your lists, and get clean, clear and current.

(See “Getting Things Done: “Review”” for more inspiration to get to done.)

5. Do

You will always be facing a long list of actions that require your attention. So how will you decide what to do and what not to do, and feel good about both? By trusting your intuition. By collecting, processing, organizing and reviewing all your current commitments, you’ll be automatically tapping into the larger values and priorities that shape your life and work. With those perspectives in clearer view, it’s easy to let your intuition guide you to the right task.

By managing what’s in your in-basket and on your mind, and incorporating practices that can help you stay in control, you’ll recognize some important benefits. You’ll discover a creative, buoyant energy and an increased sense of confidence that you can do what must be done. So, roll up your sleeves, get control of your life, and enjoy the sense of freedom, release and inspiration it can bring.

(The last step! Go deeper at “Getting Things Done: “Do”” for more.)

Where to Begin

To get started on the path to clear and easy workflow, start with one in-basket: your mailbox.

1. Collect: Pick up the mail and deal with one piece at a time.

2. Process: Identify what it is and whether it’s actionable.

3. Organize: Determine where it goes. Set up any required list or file.

By the time you’ve finished with today’s mail, you will have made progress toward setting up a functional, organized system that you can review and decide how to act upon later.

What Now?

During your real-time, plow-through, get-it-done workday, how do you decide what work to tackle at any given point? My simple answer is, trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you’re allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your intuition.

But first, you need a framework. “Setting priorities,” in the traditional sense of focusing on your long-term goals and values, does not provide a practical framework for most of your daily decisions and tasks. You have to consider many factors before making the best decision about what to do and when.

Depending on your time frame, there are several approaches to making these choices. You can choose actions based on the moment or day, or on a broader perspective about your life and work. Once you learn these models, you can use them to help you choose actions in any situation.

Choosing Actions in the Moment

Much of our work just shows up in the moment, and usually becomes the priority. For instance, you need to pay attention when your boss shows up and wants a few minutes of your time. Or you discover a serious problem with fulfilling a major customer’s order, and you have to solve it right away.

These are all understandable judgment calls. But the angst begins to mount when you fail to review the other actions on your lists and renegotiate them with coworkers. Only if you know what you’re not doing can you tolerate the sacrifices of falling behind on your work. That requires regular processing of your in-basket (defining your work) and consistently reviewing complete lists of all your predetermined work.

So, how do you choose what to do at any given time, in any situation? Try applying these four criteria, in this order:

  1. Context. You can do some things anywhere (like drafting ideas about a project with pen and paper), but most require a specific location (at home, at your office) or some productivity tool (such as a phone or a computer). These factors limit your choices about what you can do in the moment. If your “Next Actions” list is divided into categories — Calls, At Home, At Computer, Errands, Agenda for Joe, etc. — it’s easier to pinpoint actions you can take in your current context.
  2. Time Available. How much time do you have before you need to do something else? If you have a meeting in two hours, find something on your list that might take that long. If you have 10 minutes, find a 10-minute job.
  3. Energy Available. Some actions require a reservoir of fresh, creative mental energy. Others need more physical horsepower. Some need very little of either. The key is to match productive activity with your vitality level. Keep an inventory of things that require very little energy — like file purging or updating your address list — on your “Next Actions” list so you can still be productive in a low-energy state.
  4. Priority. Given your context, time and energy available, what action will give you the highest payoff? This is where you need to make a judgment call.

Evaluating Daily Work

When you’re getting things done, you’re engaging in one of three kinds of activities:

  1. Doing predefined work. This is work from your “Next Actions” lists — tasks you have previously determined need to be done.
  2. Doing work as it shows up. These are the unexpected things on which you’ll need to expend some time and energy. But don’t lose focus on what’s most important — your “Next Actions” list.
  3. Defining your work. This entails clearing up your in-basket, email, voicemail and meeting notes, and breaking down new projects into actionable steps. If you regularly define your work by processing your in-basket, and making sure your predefined work gets done, you’ll have more focused mental energy available to deal with life’s inevitable surprises.

Reviewing Your Own Work

Priorities should drive your choices, but you can’t identify your priorities without knowing what your work actually is. There are at least six perspectives from which to define your work. Try thinking of them in terms of altitude:

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

While the “50,000-foot level” is the most important context within which to set priorities, we can gain greater freedom and resources to work on our larger life goals by understanding and implementing all the levels of our work — especially the runway and 10,000-foot levels. This bottom-up approach is a critical factor in achieving a balanced, productive and comfortable life. When making decisions about what to do next, start at the runway.

Runway: Current actions. Your “Next Actions” list is the accumulation of actions you need to take — all the phone calls to make, errands to run and ideas to communicate. When you’ve transferred all the “incompletes” from your head onto a list, you’ll have a better sense of immediate priorities.

10,000 feet: Current projects. Your “Projects” list will help you use your discretionary time most effectively. Invariably, when people update their “Projects” list, they discover several actions they can do to move things they care about forward.

20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility. You create or accept most of your projects based on your job responsibilities. Use an “Areas of Focus” list, divided into professional and personal sections, to define the key areas within which you want to achieve results and maintain standards. At work, the list might include strategic planning, customer service, asset management, etc. Your personal list might include health, family, spirituality, etc. Listing and reviewing these responsibilities will help you evaluate your inventory of projects.

30,000 feet to 50,000+ feet. This is where you’ll primarily address your future, your direction and your intentions. Your thinking will be grounded in the question, “What is true right now about where I’ve decided I’m going and how I’m going to get there?” You can apply this question to perspectives that range from one-year goals in your job (30,000 feet) to a three-year vision for your career and personal net worth (40,000 feet) to discovering your life purpose and how to maximize its expression (50,000).

We can be easily overwhelmed by all the thoughts and possible actions we face during the course of a day, week or lifetime. The three models outlined here can help you make good choices about what to do next, whether in the very next moment or down the road. They take practice to master, but the more you use them, the easier it will be to cultivate a more enjoyable life.

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