Zoom! What was that?

Sept. 16, 2004
Stuff always seems to be flying by. Email shows up at the top of the stack, pushing down the messages I've yet to attend to. Physical mail comes in. Someone calls and tells me something. I make a promise to do something by a certain date.

"To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right."
-- Confucius

Then the moment is past, along with its memory.

Now, as a working professional, I have ways to deal with a lot of it. Take email. I use Microsoft Outlook. Then on top of that, I use Nelson Email Organizer, or NEO ( www.emailorganizer.com ). NEO does a neat trick: I can drag an email message into my "To Do" folder—yet it's really just a copy. When I've done whatever it was the message wanted me to, I can simply mark it "Done," and it will no longer appear in "To Do." (NEO also finds anything in the Outlook mail very fast. And my favorite tool for finding anything anywhere else on my hard drive is X1; read about it at www.x1.com.)

If you call me up and we make an appointment to have lunch at Ruby Tuesday on Friday, I quickly pull out my iPAQ or open Outlook Calendar and put an appointment in, making sure that it's for Ruby Tuesday on Friday, not TGI Friday on Tuesday. And I set an alarm for an hour before, so that I'll have time to wind up what I'm doing and make the 15-minute drive within the legal speed limit.

And if I commit to write an article or prepare a talk by a certain deadline, I enter it into my current tasks, and put the deadline in the calendar—with an alarm to go off two or three days before the deadline.

Paper is no longer as smooth a process as that, nor as smooth as it once was. I keep deluding myself that I am paper-free. It ain't so.

While most of my bills arrive electronically, and are paid the same way, some still arrive in little envelopes. They need to be held until paying time.

Valuable coupons for clothes and office supplies show up. I never know where they are when I'm standing at the Office Depot checkout register.

Some paper magazines still come, although I've stopped most of them; and these are the ones I do want to read—but usually not at mail-sorting time. They go into a "to read" stack, which often winds up getting very large, unread...and culled, despite my good intentions.

So I followed David Allen's advice in "Getting Things Done" (read this book!), and created a simple shelf-based filing system within reach of where I sit and sort my mail. If it's something that will require action, I make a task or an appointment in my iPAQ or Outlook (they get synchronized several times a day, so where I put it doesn't matter), then file the item alphabetically. If it's simply for reference, it just gets filed with no note.

Of course, this is great advice to someone starting from scratch. I wasn't. I was jammed up with paper, software manuals, periodicals, a few very important pieces of client and official correspondence, CDs, receipts, and an almost-empty bags of salted pumpkin seeds. Well, I took a deep breath, and put it all in The Big Pile.

Now, Big Piles have a persistence all their own. Even with the best of intentions, they tend to hang around a lot longer than they were supposed to. At some point, one must bite the bullet, endure the pain, and sort through them, from the top down, handling each item only once, tossing lots of stuff, scheduling what needs to be scheduled, filing what is to be filed, and generally doing something that has never been fun for me: Making lots of decisions!

But making The Big Pile freed my workspace up—and hence my mind, my consciousness. Instead of the aging clutter insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of my life and thoughts, it is out in the open, collected, and contained. While it has no fewer unkept commitments and unfulfilled promises than it did when it was everywhere, they are all now in one place. And I have a method for gaining on them; The Big Pile is definitely shrinking.

David Allen further recommends you decide what the next action is for every "to do." Some to-do's are just one action; others are small—or large—projects, consisting of many actions. Think through what the next action is for each, and put those on your "to-do" list.

Some things are waiting for other things to happen—for someone else to do something. Put those on a "pending" list.

There are things you would like to do, but aren't sure when. Make a "Someday maybe" list for those.

Every day, plan your next day. Every week, plan the next week. Every month, plan the coming month. Set aside your best, most-focused time for this planning; it is the most important part of your time. Check your appointments, your task commitments, and your "someday maybe" list.

Then do the next thing. "When you think of the next action on every item, you relieve your mind of great stress," says Allen.

That's not all there is to it, but that will definitely get you started. Read the book, visit www.gettingthingsdone.com and set up your system. Then get ready for a whole new life!

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site: www.joelorr.com

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