Clarify


Stage two in the process is just as easy as stage one, but is more centred on techniques rather than tools.  Capturing (stage one) is a key habit and one that will make a real difference if you become skilled at it.  But if you don’t apply stage two to everything you capture, there is little point in carrying out the first stage.

If we said that stage one is about reducing the pressure on the mind to store all of our commitments, then stage two is increasing the use of the brain.  This stage is the thinking part; it requires time and if we fail to carry out this stage; process everything we ever collect, the stress still remains.

Other problems that arise from ignoring this phase is that the data we have collected lacks meaning, we don’t know what to do with it, and our to-do lists get filled with unclear stuff we can’t progress.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” Henry Ford
I find this is the stage that many people miss out.  They will typically jump from stage one to stage three – “Okay, I’ve written it down on a sticky note, now where do I put it?”

“Where do I put it?” is stage three, organise.  This stage, the thinking part of the process is summed up by a simple question – “What does this mean?”  If we can ask this simple question of everything we ever collect, it will bring clarity and allow us to complete much more, reducing stress.

Actually, both stages one and three centre around having appropriate tools.  But this stage, the clarifying part is completely devoid of all tools other than the key one, our mind.

And this is a mistake some participants make.  A number of the high-tech geeks I work with have tools and highly configured systems in place, but then want the software or device to do the thinking for them.  They want the application to work out what the task is, and tell them which task to do first and how to do it.

There are some clever systems available which can filter your tasks and help you make a more effective intuitive decision.  But at the end of the day, it won’t and shouldn’t take your role away – the decision making.

The key question, “What does this mean?” can be applied to everything we’ve captured; phone calls, e-mails, bits of paper, photographs and so on.  It’s beautifully simple, yet a game changer in overcoming procrastination and reducing stress.

verbsThe other way you could describe this stage is “What is the next action?” or “What verb can I attach to this input?”  An important element is to get this verb thinking into our vocabulary.

Is this an email you need to send?  Is it a person you have to speak to?  Something you need to buy?  A website you need to visit?

To illustrate this, download the exercise from the document panel and start to identify as many next action verbs as you can come up with…

Okay, how many have you identified, and what are the most original verbs?

When we run this exercise at the seminars, we often go round the room a couple of times, with a quick-fire round asking for one verb each – no repetition allowed.  Here’s how it normally goes …

Call, buy, speak to, e-mail, throw out, collect, file, write, create, Google (yes it is a verb), shred, recycle, paint, research, file (no, we’ve had that one already), and so on.

If we ask which verb goes with this thing I’ve collected, it helps us to make sense of what would have otherwise been vague input.  A lady who attended one of the sessions told me she sorted out her entire office this way.  She had typed on a large piece of paper “What’s the next action?” and stuck it on the wall in front of her.  She then went through the room picking up everything on her desk, in the drawers, on the shelves, stacked on the floor and asking that question – “What’s the next action?”  She said it made the whole process much easier and the difference afterwards was phenomenal.

Often things get stuck because we think we’ve identified the next action, but we’ve actually thought of an action further down the line.

To give you a simple example, one participant said they had on their shopping list – “buy light bulb from shops.”  She said that it had stuck on the list for ages and she never really worked out why.  When she stopped for just a minute and asked the question – “what’s the next action?” she realised that the problem was that buy light bulb wasn’t the next action and that’s why she hadn’t done it.  The next action was to go and get the stepladders and take the old light bulb out to check the fitting.

Admittedly, this is a really simple example, but I can guarantee that if you look at your to-do lists there will things on the list that haven’t moved forward.  They have been stuck there possibly for quite a while.

And the chances are, some of them have stuck because on reflection, it’s not actually the next action.  So we can’t do it.  So simple though it may be, “what’s the next action?” is the key and one that we often leave out of the process.chart

As part of this stage, there is a chart which I’ve used with CEO’s and with 16 year old kids.  The process is exactly the same.  The content will be very different, but the underlying questions don’t vary.

So we receive our inputs a number of ways; people speaking to us face to face, via telephone, texts, e-mails, letters and so on.  We need to gather all of this into our collection buckets we identified in stage one.

Now, the simple question we need to ask of everything we have collected is: “Is there a next action?”  There are only two answers to this question – and one of them isn’t “errrm?”

If the answer is No, then there are three possible choices that come from this.  The first one is trash it, delete it, destroy it, shred it, bin it or whatever related verb you want to use.  We should apply this verb to so much more of the junk we allow to accumulate, as this one single act could reduce a lot of pressure.

The problem is that in many cases, we don’t trash anywhere near as often as we should, so the clutter mounts up and creates a stress of its own.  We could call this “the age of clutter,” since it has become a problem that previous generations haven’t faced.  Indeed research in Australia has shown a definite link between clutter and anxiety, guilt and depression.

Actually, in many cases I find women are better at this habit than men, though I don’t want to generalise.  However, this is why comedian Michael McIntyre refers to the “Man Drawer”.  The stuff that we will never use again, couldn’t use again, but we don’t throw it out; just in case.  For some reason we refuse to make the executive decision to get rid of it, so it just sits there, gathering dust.

One female participant said to me, that she is pretty good at the de-cluttering, but the problem is her husband.  She said that there are things they have that are broken; beyond repair.  The product is now obsolete and so you couldn’t get replacement parts even if you wanted to and it just should be thrown out.  But he says – “no, we should keep it … just in case.”  “Just in case what?” she says knowing she is about to lose the battle.

So they put it up into the loft.  Now, when the loft begins to sag, they then go upstairs and start to throw out all the stuff that went into the loft.  And now they have a two stage throwing out process.  This needs honest self-reflection.  Are we ever going to need this thing again?  Will it ever work again?  Is there really such a sentimental value with it?

emailE-mail is a less obvious area of improvement here.  We will look at e-mail again later in greater depth, but this is a very typical example of something we should trash on a much more regular basis than most of us are used to.  And we should get into a habit of deleting (or at least archiving) the first time it hits us.

The issue I come across frequently is people scrolling up and down their inbox, opening an e-mail, scanning the message, sighing and then closing it back to the inbox to come back to again later.  And now the e-mail is lurking in the already bloated inbox, raising the stress levels further.

Imagine a farmer trying to get some sacks of corn down a hillside back to his barn.  Before he bags the corn, and loads them onto the donkey, he’ll check to make sure there are no stones in the sack.  If he sees any stones, even reasonably small ones, he’ll get rid of them before loading the donkey.  There’s no point in loading the donkey with unnecessary rubbish.  He certainly won’t take a stone out of the sack, look at it and put it back in.  He’ll want the sacks to be as light as possible.

So why allow your inbox to be filled with junk.  The minute you’ve identified trash, get rid of it.  Although we are using this illustration in the context of e-mail, we should get into this habit with everything we ever process; e-mails, voicemails, sticky notes, etc.

doorsIf the first option is delete, the second option that comes from something that does not have a next action is what is called Someday/Maybe.  In other words, this is a category for the things that have no action associated with them just yet, but they might in the future.  They’re a good idea, so we don’t want to lose them.

These can be everything from a potential project in the workplace that could make a real difference, if we ever get the time to do it right through to going on a cruise, moving house, considering voluntary work and so on.

So this category would appear in whatever system you choose to set up to manage your life.  We will look at a variety of systems on offer later on but whichever you choose, this would be a useful and important category.  In the Challenges section, we will also look at other clever ways to use this category.

You might feel that having a Someday/Maybe category is just a variation of a “errm” stack, but there is a subtle yet important difference.  Having a formal category “Someday/Maybe” (you can call it something else if you prefer) still forces you to go through some decision-making process first of all and that is the important part – doing the thinking.  At least this way, you have negotiated with yourself whether it requires an action.  That’s very different to just leaving it there un-clarified.

Finally under the ‘no next action’ option is “reference material”.  In other words, it’s not an action but it supports an action; it’s your filing system.  So how good is your filing system?  Some feel they have a pretty effective filing system in the workplace, but less so at home.  In other cases, it’s the entire opposite.

Your filing system needs to support you, not hinder you.  Almost without doubt you will need both paper-based and electronic filing systems and have a good routine of housekeeping on both of your systems.

Many large organisations will dictate filing systems and protocols especially for case-specific or project-specific material, and in many cases this won’t be optional.  However, even where these policies exist, there will still likely be some requirement for you to create your own secondary system for that other stuff.  It might be that you mirror the corporate protocols in your own system, or follow some other logic.  But at least have a system.

For most of us, having a filing system requires both electronic as well as paper-based filing.  Modern operating systems such as Windows 7 allow for tagging and libraries along with more powerful desktop and e-mail search options which greatly enhance the traditional filing system.  It would be very well worthwhile, becoming familiar with these functions.

However, at very least where possible, mirroring the headings in both your paper-based and electronic filing systems may prove useful.

Whatever filing structure and process you choose; you should purge the system on a regular basis.  I know that everything in your filing system belonged there once upon a time, but does it still belong there?   I know of one participant who said she still had payslips from 1995, and it’s probably just not necessary now; annual summaries (P60 in the UK) may well suffice.

Of course, for all of us, but especially where your work has a statutory or legal perspective, you will need to be aware of data governance surrounding your remit.

timerIf however the input does have an action associated with it, then the simple question is “what is the next action?”  And here’s a quick tip that works time and time again.  In fact, one training manager I work with said that the whole course is worth it for this one tip alone:

If an action will take less than two minutes, and you can do it now; just do it!  Don’t start writing notes for yourself to come back to later and then review and monitor because that will take so much longer than two minutes and add further stress.

This is not just my rule; this is recognised best practice that is dubbed “the 2 minute rule.”  Again, the particular type of input isn’t that relevant; it can be paper-based, e-mail, voicemail but the 2 minute rule states that if you get it done straight away, you will significantly reduce the longer term stress.

You will actually be amazed how long two minutes lasts, and how much you can get done in that time.  There are now a number of apps available for smartphones and iPhones that are called 2-min timers; particularly designed for this approach.  It’s not that I’m suggesting you should time every single task to see if it takes two minutes, but if you get a rough idea of how long it feels, you will recognise that you can cover many tasks in this period.

The time can be a little longer than 2 minutes; you could choose three or four minutes but you get the overall idea.  Of course, this means that when you are processing or clarifying, it is really helpful to have enough time to actually “do” or complete some of these inputs.  As an example, it would be worth processing your e-mail at a time of the day when you could carry out some of the next actions that come from it rather than just having to park everything for later.

However, it might be that this particular thing will take longer than two minutes or we aren’t in the right place to do it now, so we have two options.  We can either delegate it or we can defer it.

delegationThink broader in terms of delegation.  We tend to think that we delegate to people who report in to us, but we actually delegate in many different directions regularly throughout the day.

For example, every time you ask your boss a question and he or she says they will ‘have to get back to you about that’, you have delegated it.

Every time you buy something from e-Bay, you have delegated it; you need the other party to carry out an action that involves you.

So where is the problem with delegation?  Trust!  Trusting the other person will keep their commitment to us and keep their promise.  Most participants tell me that this is one of the single biggest areas of stress in their life.  It can also dramatically increase our own workload.

To illustrate, one senior manager told me she had delegated a task to one of the team, and assuming it was covered, promptly forgot about it.  When she remembered six months later and approached the colleague asking, “did you remember to do it?” the colleague gulped and apologised.

The manager groaned and commented, “the problem is now I have to go back over all my work before I can re-delegate the task out again.  The team member wasn’t being deliberately obstructive; it’s just that the simple fact is that people let us down.  Regularly … some more regularly than others.  And before we get on our high horse, we should likely admit that we do the same.  Increasing the level of commitment from those we interact with, is another issue entirely, and one that is more appropriately addressed in the Depths of Perspective.

Although there may be a reasonable level of trust, you will likely still want to keep a note of other people’s commitments to you.  Even if the level of trust between colleagues and teams is very high, you might need to track the item, as the next action will often move back and forth between you and other people.

To illustrate, when involved in a football match, it’s not good enough for the player to merely know that they don’t have the ball, even though they might well trust their teammates.  They need to know who has the ball, where it is and when it’s likely to come back towards them so they can take appropriate action.

Many people tell me that not only does this area create some of the greatest stress, but also that this list is the longest, with many tasks and items being with someone else, even though they personally own the outcome.

If you have a means of re-categorising tasks, it is going to make this part of our workflow much more manageable.  On this basis, there are some benefits of using an electronic system which we will demonstrate in the Setting up a System section later.  However, even if you choose to do this on paper, it is still possible to change the category of a task or flag if we are waiting for someone else to carry out an action, and we will demonstrate this later on even with a paper planner approach.

diary_todoThe final key split is where the action is with us; it can’t be delegated.  Here you have two options; either to put it into your calendar or a next action list (to-do list).  Generally speaking, best practice is to keep these two elements separate.  I don’t mean you can’t keep your diary and to do list in the same Filofax or software application.  However, do recognise that these two elements are distinct.  The calendar should be respected and reserved for the things that are day and/or time specific.  The other, more fluid items should be kept in a separate area – a next action list.

If we clutter our calendar with tasks that we might want or hope to accomplish that day – two things typically happen: firstly, we overcommit the day and feel worse when we finish having only completed half of what we thought we were going to do.  Secondly, when we then move on to the next day, we potentially lose the things that had been assigned to the previous day, or at least have to keep re-writing and carrying it forward.

Repeatedly carrying a task forward diminishes our belief and commitment that we will ever get around to it, thus increasing stress and the feeling of guilt.

Finally, as already noted, many of our tasks are part of a bigger project and so we cycle around between the tasks and the project plans.

Just before we move on from this section, we should note that while stages one, two and three are separate and distinct, they can happen all at the same time.  It might be that if you aren’t in the thick of things when you receive a new item or input, you will have sufficient time to capture it, clarify or process it and then put it into a system to remind you later, also known as organising.

By contrast, when time is really limited and we are being hit with one thing after another, recognising the individualities of each stage of workflow is a key in feeling in control and on top of our commitments.  As long as stage one happens immediately, we can do stages two and three when we get a little breathing space.