Upon improving a personal system, a very specific benefit is on target: better guidance. Although a system itself will never replace the need for you to make choices and risk an option to focus on, having good guiding elements is the way to go. In fact, building proactive guidance is how you protect yourself against all the attractive fresh new emails and similar requests for attention.
1. First stage options: the infinite
If you go on a week trip to New York, what do you choose to see in order to optimize the experience? Do you include a “free-day for random exploring” or you’d rather visit specific “destinations”? Without defining a purpose — what you want from the trip — optimization is out of your vocabulary: you won’t really know if 3 hours relaxing at the Central Park is helping or not.
The same goes for all the opportunities in your job, business or life that can eventually be converted into added value, should they match what you’re after. GTD implements this meaning with SOMEDAY/MAYBE lists, which is a great name, because it clearly reflects the “optionality” nature of these items. Personally, I call this the GLOBAL REPOSITORY: the world of opportunities you may want to make real.
2. Clustering and purpose
A global repository should be divided in big areas (I recommend 4—6 professional plus 4—6 personal). As clearly as possible, define the purpose of each, projecting what success would look like in the near future. With this major division, the repository gets both browsable and purposeful — value oriented. But it doesn’t have to be kept “neat”. Think of it as your garage: you can cope with some mess, but have it still serve you with functionality. However, if you can’t find a hammer, review.
You can implement a Global Repository with a simple EXCEL sheet or even a text file, but it fits better on some Note-app like Evernote or OneNote. I use OMNIFOCUS (Mac only). It’s important to have multi-level hierarchy folders, and that it’s extremely user-friendly to play with. Supersonic search enhances browsability. Mobile versions are helpful, specifically for capturing and feeding ideas.
Remember: you don’t HAVE TO do any of these items. They are interesting possibilities to visit periodically and eventually feed your next weeks with interest/fun/excitement/usefulness…
3. Second stage: focus vs. all the rest
You’ll easily collect some 200 to 400 (or more) items in a bucket like this. And you definitely DON’T want to carry those with you all the time! Your big goal in guidance is to dramatically reduce the number of options you see on a regularly basis. So you’ll need some sub-selection, while keeping a clear big picture: structured view of what you should focus on “now”. This “now” will mean different things for different people. I recommend a 15—20 items limit (20 prof + 20 personal). As a rule of thumb, you can check it with a time-frame question like: “Is each of these items relevant for my next 3 week period?”. I call this the COCKPIT MAP.
4. The cockpit map
A cockpit map is a half-page drawing, divided by areas (4—6), where you hang in each area the most pressing 2—3 projects or issues you want to focus on in the next 3—4 weeks. I train my executive clients to be able to draw this 12—20 items drawing in 4 minutes, on a blank page out of their heads. I’d rather have this paper-based because of the “purge” effect of starting from zero. It’s really important that you know your are drawing your mind, and not the world. And your mind changes a lot, something which software tends to ignore. If you use software, try to somehow simulate the “start-from-zero” approach. Old lists only for a last check and to feed some purge bucket. Don’t forget to mark a big red “?” question mark for those needing brave decisions — your best value is there! This map is not a daily to-do list. It rather matches the unit “Project” from GTD. Replace it around each 3 weeks.
5. Third-stage: daily guide
What’s in charge of you? What tells you, each minute, what to do next? Of course, a calendar is a strong source. To implement proactive time, I recommend minimum 2 x half-a-day reservations per week, one whole week per month. Get used to decline frequently invitations than don’t fit your COCKPIT MAP during those reservations.
What else guides you? Communication in general, and e-mail in particular, tends to push us a lot: sometimes it’s helpful, other times not so much. Remember, responsiveness and productivity don’t necessarily go together. Also, people wanting your intervention don’t know about your global picture. It’s true your job is partially about being available to respond to requests, but all your best proactive ideas and initiatives that will really make the difference will rarely appear from the outside: they are born in your mind! So waiting for the flow of external solicitations to calm down before you can move on your initiatives won’t help you: the stream is infinite!
The best tool I recommend as a trigger to this mindset is a POST-IT, new each day, with ONLY 2 high value options you want to make progress on. You may find the number 2 very low, but rest assured that it is deceptively powerful. Again, use “?” when there’s no next action decided.
6. Big big picture
On top of this daily micro-orienting POST-IT, I have another macro POST-IT, a zoom-out one, hanging right in front of my nose, that reads: “AM I RESPECTING THESE 3 TOP LEVEL PRIORITIES?: 1… 2… 3…” and should stay valid for 1 to 6 months. Many of my clients have strategic stuff like “family balance” or “tranquility” or “health” on those.
7. Have some freedom
Something else tells me if a system is working properly in terms of guidance: the ability of its owner to choose, out of no list at all, to go and visit his mother, buy flowers just because, or stop the car and go for a stroll in a garden he’s never been to before. It’s the real freedom to match the mental state with opportunities that just knock on the door, unplanned, unscheduled, unforeseen… And this alone might well represent the very best source of both personal and business ideas you’ll ever have. Without this freedom, this source of creativity, this natural moment intensity, your productivity guidance may over-shrink to lists, and so may your life.
To sum up
In summary, stay away from flippers-mode responsiveness, and build clever systems to help reduce the number of options in front of you toward high value activities. A big GLOBAL REPOSITORY to “hide” everything, a COCKPIT MAP with 12—20 items to focus on for 3—4 weeks, divided by area, coupled with one micro daily POST-IT with 2-3 options, and a macro compass POST-IT with 2—3 super-top level priorities. Finally, don’t become a robot: your inner wisdom and inspiration are many times your most productive guidance of all.
Photo: Flickr /dirkjankraan.com CC BY-NC 2.0