At the time, I had no idea what a huge gift I had been given.
I was less than a year into working at a non-profit in Ojai, California, and my boss casually remarked that it would be good if I could have the same organizational training that the staff had gone through just prior to my arrival. And that’s how I ended up spending a solid two days with Kathryn Allen by my side.
Kathryn Allen is a longtime organizational consultant, and the wife of organizational guru David Allen of Get Things Done fame. If you’ve ever heard people brag about “inbox zero” and wondered where that came from, that’s David Allen. Kathryn patiently sat next to me and walked me through not only how the system works, but she also made sure all my emails and papers were fully organized, piece by piece. It was exhausting, intense, and totally energizing. I left each day feeling hopeful, lighter, more in control. It was like magic.
A solid decade later, I still use the GTD system, kind-of. And frankly, ‘kind-of’ is how most people use the system, since its inception. GTD is full of wisdom – truths about how our brains work, how information gets stored or lost, how to maximize efficiency, how to keep focus. But actually implementing the system as designed is a challenge for even the most disciplined among us. Allen fully admits it’s a complex system for a complex world. You have to be super committed to organization to make it work.
I think my first day with Kathryn was a Tuesday. The only thing I got done that day was sorting and organizing emails, papers and projects. The second day we dug in to some scheduling and technological bits, working through things like time blocking and email notifications. Finally, before she left, we discussed the importance of check-ins. Check-ins could be short, but were absolutely necessary, she told me. Giving yourself time to review the previous week and set up for the new one would keep my focus where it needed to be. I set a recurring block of time for Friday afternoons and Monday mornings to keep myself accountable.
Thursday was super productive. Friday was also pretty great. And then about 15 minutes before my scheduled check-in, my boss asked me for a fast report to send to the board president ahead of the weekend board meeting. By the time I had gone through creating and revising the report, it was time to rush out to pick up my daughter from daycare, then home, then dinner, then bath, then stories, then Netflix because I was just brain-dead at that point, then I wanted to have a weekend, and then it was Monday.
I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, checking in on Monday also didn’t happen. Week after week, the tyranny of the urgent stopped me from really reviewing my work, and the few times I could manage to check in, I was so used to not checking in, I could barely imagine what I was meant to do. So I stopped completely. And honestly, it was mostly fine. I could get my work done effectively and efficiently.
But never taking the time to pull up and get the big picture meant that I could never really consider direction or strategy. I was effectively doing what everyone else thought I should be doing, but I wasn’t able to see how the organization could grow and advocate for changes.
I was reminded of this while listening to a podcast on union organizing. Jane McAlevey was giving what amounted to a masterclass on listening, persuasion, and respect. Everything she said was wise and helpful. But the thing she said that struck me most wasn’t about the importance of listening, or anything about human nature, it was about how she managed the organizers themselves. Every week, every organizer had to send her a report. It was due by 6pm Sunday. It needed to describe learning from the week and make a proposal for three areas of focus the following week. She would review everyone’s reports, and bring the top three to the entire group Monday morning so they could vote on the plan for the week.
McAlevey was requiring the kind of check-in that I had failed to do for years. And honestly, most people probably never would have done that checking in work for her had it not been required. But she was absolutely adamant about requiring it and because everyone was checking in not just as individuals but also as a group, they were able to learn from their experience as well as the experiences of their teammates, grow, and ultimately organize for significant structural change. The power of the check-in had never seemed so obvious.
The check-in pulls us out of the endless task lists and chores and enables us to refocus on the larger goal and how our work fits into it. It’s critically important if you hope to not just get through projects, but stay conscious of purpose. The commitment to checking in is truly a gift to yourself.