Why, O Why, O Why? - Next Action Associates

The world has changed a lot since David Allen developed his methodology and wrote the 2001 first edition of “Getting Things Done ®”: Filofaxes have been mostly replaced by laptops, Palm Pilots by smartphones, faxes by emails, and too many meetings by far too many meetings!

Just as instant messaging services have lowered the bar on how readily people will disturb their colleagues, so video meetings have led to no moment being sacred from face-to-face catchups.

I wrote here on why it’s not our recommendation to block out your entire day/week/work life with meetings and gave suggestions on how to protect time to enable you to work well with GTD® best practises. It still is true that you need enough quality time available outside of meetings to allow GTD to work and you to get your things done.

It is ever more commonplace for me to find people’s diaries block booked, morning till night. Rather than thinking why, o why, o why are there so many meetings, I recommend a change to using ‘why’ more in and about the meetings themselves.

First, ‘why’ are you having this meeting? I have recently worked with an experienced GTDer who is senior in his organisation. His EA insists anyone asking for time with him first sends a ‘Desired Outcome’ for the meeting and an Agenda. If you aren’t senior enough to be this strict with your colleagues, it’s still a good question to ask at some point: just as with our use of Desired Outcomes as the nomenclature of Projects, it lets everyone know what ‘done’ means and the meeting might be able to end sooner than the calendar invite predicted.

If you can see the meeting is not on track to produce the Desired Outcome, why not implement the Natural Planning Model? You don’t have to state clearly “Now we are going to use the ‘Natural Planning Model from GTD’, rather you can just walk people through the steps: starting with ‘Why’ are we doing this: what is the purpose? Because it is the ‘Natural’ Planning Model, you will find that people ‘naturally’ move between the stages; have them identify the purpose and think about the principles and they will ‘naturally’ start to talk about visions of wild success and, soon enough, they will be brainstorming anything that may be relevant. Try it, watch, and see how well it works. You’ll learn from and enjoy the process and the meeting will be more successful.

Many people try and multi-task their way through the day by writing emails or checking their phones while also taking part in meetings. There is an ever-growing body of evidence from cognitive science on the damage we do to our productivity, our brains, and our stress levels from trying to multi-task. Our brains are simply nowhere near as good at multi-tasking as we like to think they are. No one can have two thoughts at the same time, no one can listen to one thing and think or write another; what happens is our minds must keep switching channels and this tires us and actually slows us down as well as causing us to make mistakes. One of the intrinsic benefits of GTD is its help to us to hold our focus on the task at hand by having the mind free from other distractions. Our aim with GTD is to be meaningfully engaged in whatever we are doing. If you don’t think the meeting is that important to you, ask ‘Why’ are you there?

When non-GTDers write a Todo list, they are most likely trying to Capture, Clarify and Organise at the same time and this doesn’t work well: they end up with a messy list of ‘stuff’. This is also another example of trying to multi-task. Giving ourselves space to Capture on its own, knowing that we will Clarify and Organise it later into our GTD systems, allows us to focus on and engage with the meeting appropriately. ‘Why’ take notes in the meeting? To keep your mind free to focus on the point being discussed and to enable you to Clarify after the meeting all the commitments you and others made.

If you are prepared for meetings, with a clear Desired Outcome and a solid Agenda list of things you want to discuss, they can be a great way of Getting Things Done. Just turning up because your calendar tells you to ‘Join now’, without knowing ‘Why’, is probably a waste of your and everyone else’s time.

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