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Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work & Life
By David Allen
MAXIMUM PRODUCTIVITY is making something happen - furniture, freeways, or fun - with as little effort as possible. The fact that we have "effort" at all, though, implies that we confront resistance and impediments when we want to get anything done. Improving productivity has a lot to do with dealing more effectively with the hindrances, barriers, and distractions that show up in our way-anything that opposes or weakens our forward motion. In a totally frictionless world, everything would just appear as soon as it was imagined-there would be little need to train for greater flexibility and focus or to install better systems and approaches. In the world you and I inhabit, however, to really get what we want most effectively, we have to be ready for anything. And there are things we can all do, anytime, that make it easier to take things in stride and stay the course.
I've spent more than two decades exploring the best methods to achieve a more relaxed, positive, and sustainable way to live and work. And as a management consultant and productivity coach, I've helped thousands of professionals implement what I've discovered to be the best ways to work more productively and get more enjoyment from what they're doing. When people gain a method of achieving that kind of balance in their day-to-day endeavors, no matter what's going on, they have easier access to more of their intuition and creativity. They become better at processing information, managing their thoughts and feelings, focusing on results, and trusting their judgments about what to do next. They have a systematic approach in place for dealing with themselves and their work, which is far more useful than merely relying on ad hoc, reactive behaviors to bail them out of the pressures and crises of their world. When people know they have a process in place to handle any situation, they are more relaxed. When they're relaxed, everything improves. More gets done, with less effort, and a host of other wonderful side effects emerge that add to the outcomes of their efforts and the quality of their life.
The methods I teach came from the behaviors and the systems I discovered that worked the best to keep us at our best. Since the early 1980s, they have been tested and proven highly effective, from the ground up-for both individuals and organizations. The steps of this discovery and this process were described in my first book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Its success around the world indicated that people across a wide spectrum of cultures and careers seemed ready for this information and eager for change. They were tired of feeling overwhelmed by their jobs and the business of life. They wanted to regain lost opportunities for creative thinking and playing. They were looking for a new approach, a system that could be counted on, no matter what kind of job they had or what kind of day they were having. They wanted a structure-but a natural one that matched their complex lifestyles and created more freedom, not more constraint.
While I was uncovering and implementing the details of the what, when, and how that made up the heart of my programs, I started doing something else: I began writing about the why behind these steps. Why did they work so well? Why did they consistently help people function at a higher capacity and feel better? Was something deeper at work here? What was the foundation behind this success? There seemed to be underlying principles that wove themselves in and through the methodology-factors that held true no matter when, where, or with whom they were applied.
A person can be an excellent race-car driver without knowing anything about gravity, even though gravity is the underlying force affecting everything one does behind the wheel. To win races, the driver needs only to master the steering, the speed on the straightaways, and the technique of the turns, and to remember to keep the car under control at all times. You do your job, and gravity will do its job. Manage yourself, and the automobile will be fine. But what if driving fast isn't enough after a while? What if you want to know more about why your skills work so well and how they keep you from crashing and burning? What if you want to get closer to the secrets behind your own successes? And what if understanding those secrets leads to more tools for productivity and even greater achievements?
In 1997, I began exploring these questions by compiling a set of principles that seemed to lie at the foundation of productive behavior and writing informal essays about the implications and applications of those truths in everyday life. I started to enlarge on my core premise that one's ability to be productive was directly proportional to one's ability to relax. I dug further into four main areas of productive behavior:
I discovered that people didn't need more discipline as such-they needed a disciplined approach. They didn't need to work harder-they needed to define their work better at multiple levels of detail and stay focused on all of them simultaneously.
Behind all this lay the "mind like water" concept, an image I'd come across years ago while studying karate. When you throw a pebble into a pond, what does the water do? It responds with total appropriateness to the force and mass of the rock. It does nothing more and nothing less. It doesn't overreact or underreact. It doesn't react at all. It simply interacts with whatever comes to it and then returns to its natural state. The water can do that only by design. A human being can act this way only if he or she has a conscious system in place and if that system is built on principles that can withstand chaos and stress. Those principles must be aligned with something deeper in our nature.
Two years after I began writing the essays, I decided to write and distribute a newsletter to those who were becoming familiar with my methods. My hope was to galvanize a network of practitioners and to build a community of people dedicated to doing good work, sharing their best practices, and celebrating life. Each newsletter was intended to reinforce and expand the ideas behind relaxed control and performance excellence. I wondered if people would respond.
My answer soon exceeded my expectations. Within two years, our readership had grown tenfold, from two thousand to twenty thousand subscribers. A year later it had reached thirty thousand and was still gathering momentum. People were sending out the newsletters through their own online networks. They were being e-mailed across the country and around the globe. Other folks were printing, stapling, and binding hard copies and distributing them to their friends and colleagues. Still others were posting them in elevators at work. They were showing up everywhere. Some of the essays leaned more toward practical advice, and others delved below the surface. All were developing and growing my understanding of the "why" and all were adding value to what had come before.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive-people seemed hungry for reinforcement of the basics, exploration of the subtleties, and the adventure of the surprises produced by some of the simplest techniques, tools, and awarenesses. These were hardly people in the Remedial Living class either-the most profound rewards from using this material have been reported by some of the best and brightest people on the planet, many already in the top percentiles of productivity, by anyone's standards.
It was time to put this material together into a book of its own.
The following principles, commentaries, and essays form a body of thought that I believe offers more than just tips or tricks. Whether or not people implemented the complete method of best practices I delineated in Getting Things Done, there were still things everyone could do more and more consistently, anytime, that would improve their productivity and well-being. These are the elements you will find validated and reinforced in these principles and essays.
The writings have been sorted into the four major areas of productive behavior they support: completion, focus, structure, and action. The principles and essays grouped as such are meant not to be limited to these headings or to give an exhaustive exposition of those topics but rather to stimulate your own thinking and validations of better ways to handle things.
There are times when individuals (and groups) will get the most leverage out of completing old stuff and clearing the decks (Part I). Other times a focus on the right focus is the primary key (Part II). Still other situations will call for structures and systems as most important for growth (Part III). And others will require simply letting go of trying to get it perfect and just get going (Part IV). All these aspects are important, but often one specifically will be the trigger point for busting through into a next level of productivity. Part V offers checklists as reference and reminders of the core practices for staying on top of the flow.
You will notice that the essays are not precise expositions of the principles they follow but rather food-for-thought spins on the topics.* And the concluding "By the way..." questions are merely catalysts for your own reflection about possible applications "back at the ranch." Human behavior and awareness can be at the same time really simple, really complex, and infinitely explorable, and I've tried not to nail down anything too hard. But you'll find at least hints as to how work functions at higher levels, how we function, and how the world functions. As you digest and put these principles into practice, there is a good chance you will contribute more to your job and to your life as a whole. Reading them will likely reinforce subtle changes in your perceptions, which lead to changes in behavior. A change in behavior leads to a change in action and in results. Things spiral outward in larger and larger ways. Change occurs, and a positive shift happens. It's most often the small things, done consistently in strategic places, that make the most difference.
As I said, you probably don't need to work harder. You also may not feel you have to institute the step-by-step system with all the parts and processes that Getting Things Done provided. But at times you still may need to manage incompletions better, be more creative and expansive, be more focused in your thinking, access your intuition, have better structures, be more flexible and relaxed, or just get moving on next steps. Any or all of the above will make you more productive. This book provides important perspectives in all of those areas and may have just the key you need to kick-start yourself into rewarding new levels of expression.
You will probably find something familiar about this material. Not that you've read it anywhere else, but that you will recognize it as something you already know, intuitively. To gain value from this content does not require new skills or learning a complex body of new information. This writing will likely validate much of what you already know and do that works. But it will also challenge you to apply that awareness in a much more conscious and consistent manner-and that's where the real power lies. This is a compilation of effective perspectives and behaviors, applicable anywhere, anytime. Though each has merit by itself, as a whole they will provide a rich contextual experience greater than the sum of its parts. Whether you approach it ad hoc or straight through, I invite you to allow the bigger picture of a dynamic, positive readiness for life to emerge as you turn the pages.
I continue to be surprised with the seemingly infinite ways the principles of personal effectiveness can be examined and experienced. Our journeys always return to the same basic truths, but our explorations lead us back to those awarenesses in new and more profound ways. The thinking captured in this book will no doubt open more doorways and lead to further discoveries. One layer of meaning will give way to another and then another and another. The spiral will continue to expand. It's as interesting and inspiring to me to think about what's not yet in this book as of what is. I hope you will find it, as I have, a doorway instead of a final act.
The "ready state" of the martial artist is not a passive, reactive, or finite one. It is totally dynamic, alive, creative, and expansive. But it's not free. It is enabled by increasingly refined training and experience with work and life. May these principles serve as road signs and guideposts along your way.
© David Allen