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It’s tempting to think of “getting organized” as a one-time event. If you simply clean out the garage, sort through your towering inbox, put up a hook for your coat and get a bowl for your keys, life will unfold seamlessly.

In your dreams.

In reality, says David Allen, productivity expert and the author of Getting Things Done and Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life, getting organized is more of a process than an event, one that requires a modest bit of attention each day.

Cleaning the garage is great, he points out, but if you don’t also set up a system to keep the tools in order, your garage will soon regress into its former chaotic state. And you will continue to use up your psychic energy tracking down screwdrivers, instead of building a treehouse for your kids.

Allen also believes it’s critical to tweak both your organizational and time management systems over time as your life changes. A wall calendar might work fine when your kids are little, but once they start school and you’re faced with juggling their commitments along with your own, a mobile electronic calendar system might be a better fit.

The prior two steps in Allen’s five-phase getting-organized process involve collecting and processing all the papers and other items that are relevant to your projects. In this third stage (see the first phase at “Getting Things Done: ‘Collect’” and the second phase at “Getting Things Done: “Process”“), he provides tips for how to best organize your stuff — and your time — in a way that lets you accomplish your goals without wasting precious energy and mental focus.

This isn’t about creating a perfectly clear desk or an office straight out of a Martha Stewart Living photo shoot, Allen emphasizes. “Being organized simply means that where things are suits what they mean to you,” he says. In other words, it means having what you need when and where you need it, being confident about your time priorities, and being prepared to take the next action step on the projects or commitments that matter to you now. It means moving efficiently through your to-do and project lists with “the least amount of psychic effort” possible, and having systems that support your sanity and peace of mind.

Here are three tactics to help you cultivate those systems.

1. Control Your Calendar

Keeping a calendar — one in which you have absolute confidence — is essential, Allen asserts. But he’s insistent that it be accurate, complete and that only date-specific items belong there.

This is “sacred territory,” says Allen,  and not the place for ongoing to-do lists, project notes or vague items like “start thinking about new career.”

On the contrary, he argues, your calendar pages should be reserved only for clock-bound commitments and “stuff that will die” if you don’t do it on a particular day. This clarity makes you trust your planner — which increases the likelihood you will really use it.

Whether you write in a daybook or use a software program on your phone, Allen has tricks for making the most of your calendar’s organizing power.

For example, if there are things that you have to accomplish by the end of a particular day but that don’t have to take place at a specific time (like booking airline tickets or wishing your mom happy birthday), Allen recommends using the “all-day events” feature of your electronic calendar, or using the margin space next to a particular date. Then you can see and tick these items off whenever you have a spare moment, without confusing such date-bound to-dos with hour-specific events.

Allen also suggests using an event’s “notes” section or margin area to store information you need to know for a particular day, like directions to a meeting or the confirmation number for a rental car. This spares you from having to dig through your project files for basic reference data only relevant to a specific moment in time.

2. Let Meaning Be Your Guide

Understanding what an object means to you is, in Allen’s mind, essential to the process of organization. “If you try to get organized before you have defined meaning sufficiently,” Allen says, “you will be frustrated in the effort.”

For physical objects, determining meaning requires a brief reflection on how you will use said object, when, and why. If you have a set of ballpoint-pen refills in your top desk drawer, for example, that may make sense, says Allen — but only if you still have that type of pen and use it regularly. Otherwise, those refills may get moved to a more distant location, given away or trashed.

For documents (including emails and their attachments), the reflection process is similar: Is the document currently actionable by you or someone else? Will you need to access or act on it on a particular date in the future? Does it relate to a particular project? Or is it merely reference or archival material?

When you know what a document means, you can easily move it to an appropriate project folder, delegation stack or reference file, and note any key action or due dates on your calendar. (Allen offers detailed instructions for establishing such filing systems.)

Then, when it’s time to give that item or project your full attention, you’ll know where to find what you need. No willy-nilly searches for this or that document. No racking your brain trying to remember the million things you need to know and do.

Allen emphasizes that using meaning to determine location doesn’t necessarily create a neat space; it creates mental order. “If someone has a big pile of stuff in the corner of his office that he has defined as ‘stuff I don’t want to deal with until some undetermined time in the future,’ and that’s exactly where he’s decided that material belongs, he’s organized,” Allen writes.

Allen points out that the meaning of objects does change over time: Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s recycling. To stay organized, it’s critical to routinely review the meaning of your stuff (more on that in our next installment).

3. Put Your Future on Autopilot

Anytime you’re using your brain for storage space, Allen believes, there’s high-value cranial real estate being wasted on low-value activity. That’s why he recommends keeping detailed checklists and project files for everything — including lists of things you’re waiting to know and decide on, or waiting for other people to do.

Simply committing such lists to paper (or pixels) can relieve you from ruminating about presently unknowable or unactionable things. It frees up your mental space for bigger, more important challenges, gives you confidence that you aren’t forgetting anything essential, and allows you to be more present with other people.

It also lets you see at a glance all that you’ve already committed to — and perhaps to realize that that list is already substantially too long.

Next month, in the fourth installment of this series, we’ll examine the idea of reviewing, Allen’s concept for maintaining your organizational systems and gaining perspective on your big-picture plans and goals. It’s all a part of achieving a low-stress, high-confidence state that Allen calls “autopilot,” and the abiding sense of calm, focused attention that makes it possible.

David Allen is the bestselling author of Getting Things Done and Ready for Anything (Penguin, 2004). He is a leading authority in developing productivity-improvement programs. 

Illustration by: Dave Cutler

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