The Fine Art of Managing CommitmentsAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“This consistent, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy.” — Kerry Gleeson
I have recently discussed what open loops are and why their mismanagement (or simply their lack of management) is often the cause of poor personal performance, both at work and in other matters of personal life.
I have also mentioned that, according to the GTD methodology, to effectively manage these open loops it is necessary a good combination of control and perspective. In this article I will focus on how to achieve an adequate control of pending issues.
You can consider these pending issues as commitments that you must negotiate with yourself. Of course, you can choose not to accept a commitment that arises. In fact, that’s a very smart choice when you know that accepting the commitment isn’t going to positively affect any aspect of your life.
When you accept a commitment, whether internal or external, you can immediately complete it if it is very urgent or very convenient, although this is rarely the best option. Usually the best strategy is to “cool” the commitment and renegotiate it later, when the circumstances are more suitable for you to devote your time and energy to finishing it.
In order to do this in real life, you need to develop three basic behaviors:
- If unfinished business remains in your mind, your mind will hardly function with clarity. You must capture everything you consider unfinished in some reliable system outside your mind. Reliable means that it’s a system you can go back to regularly and review its content.
- You must clarify what exactly is the commitment you wish to acquire with respect to the item you have captured and, if anything needs to be done, decide what you would need to do to move toward its fulfillment. This means making decisions regarding all the things you let into your life.
- Finally, once you have decided on all the actions you need to take, you need to keep reminders of them in a system you can review periodically. Logically, this system should be organized in an efficient way, so that each reminder can surface at the most appropriate time, and not take up space in your mind when it isn’t necessary.
In other words: In addition to capturing all unfinished items, you need to transform them into a clear inventory of meaningful actions and projects, and into useful information. Only then will you be able to manage them effectively.
To transform that vague, incomplete thing you’ve captured into something concrete and precise that you can easily manage, you have to do two things: (1) Visualize the thing once it’s finalized, what does it look like? and (2) establish what the next action would be to get there.
All these principles lead naturally to a workflow in which you (1) capture everything that catches your attention, (2) clarify what each captured issue means and decide what you are going to do about it, (3) organize the results into specific categories, (4) reflect on the content of the generated system, and (5) engage with your world doing the right actions at the right time.
- Capture. Emptying your mind is one of the most powerful habits for taking control of your life. Studies show that the working memory, or short-term memory, can only store seven items at a time and is also very fragile, so information is lost with any distraction or the passage of time. Therefore, removing your stuff from working memory and storing them somewhere else (we’ll call it an inbox) is the first step in taking control.
- Clarify. The second step involves a simple mental process to make effective decisions about the items you have been collecting in your inboxes. This process will lead you to sort the collected material into five categories: actions, projects, someday/maybe, reference material, and trash. To efficiently manage the actions category, you will need to identify the ones you have to do yourself, the ones you can delegate to others, the ones that must be done by a certain date, and the ones that can be done in a couple of minutes. Each type will have a different approach.
- Organize. We have already seen that working memory is not very reliable. For this reason, if you don’t somehow save the decisions you’ve made, you’ll have to make them again. This step consists of putting reminders of the decisions made in the appropriate lists, which will form your working map.
- Reflect. You have to assume that the working map will constantly become obsolete and, therefore, needs to be revised periodically. If the map is not up to date, you will not be able to choose the most appropriate route. The habit of reflecting on your system will help you maintain control and regain control when reality has moved faster than your system.
- Engage. The last step to have full control of your commitments consists of carrying out the actions that you consider most important within the total inventory of actions that you have captured, clarified and organized. GTD will teach you some simple criteria to reduce the options and increase your productivity.
We will go deeper into each of these steps in future articles.