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When inputs exceed your workflow system's capacity

I recently received an email from a friend [1] who knows of my adoption (and deep appreciation) of David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. It read, in part:
Subject: me trying to get organized!

I will try to catch up with your emails this weekend. So much good stuff happening, and obviously I can't handle it all.
This email was interesting because, unlike many people, she realizes she needs help (and as they say, awareness is required before action). I told her:
...when a person has a lot going on, things that slow you down start standing out, I think. Then the choices become: a) slow down to match organizational capacity, b) improve organizational system to match workflow, or c) keep old organizational system and new flow, which results in chaos.

When people pick c) - the default - they fail to get the work done, which then causes less work to come in, and eventually results in a), but in a less proactive way.
And this problem isn't limited to knowledge workers, either. For example, we have a great contractor who specializes in restoring Victorian houses. For a while he was quite responsive to us, but as he became more widely known (and hired his own employees), his capacity clearly couldn't keep up with the demand, and his response time went to hell. We eventually had to do a "drive by" to get his attention (we know where he lives!)

What's interesting to me about GTD is that I've seen it scale as I continue "juggling more balls" - I'm meeting more people [2], sending and tracking more email, and generally asking my system to take on significantly more. So far, it's been great. But it does take work (Allen says it's "simple, but not easy"). Is there a limit? Sure - there must come a point where you need help just managing the inputs, and maybe that's when you start hiring help.

However, I think folks who have a flexible system like Allen's can change their lives in a more graceful fashion, i.e., as needed, instead of simply allowing the degenerate case I mentioned above. Instead, they can make conscious choices - stop taking on new work (at least temporarily), shuttle new work to others, renegotiation existing work, etc.

What do you think? Have you seen your system's capacity exceeded? If so, what did you do to manage?


First, I've been trying to find Allen's writings on the topic, but all I could find were the following principles from Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life:
  • 24: If you know what you're doing, efficiency is the only improvement opportunity.
  • 30: Response ability improves viability.
  • 31: Your system is only as good as its weakest link. (Also talked about in Genuine Curiosity: Cosmic nudging, where they refer to Goldratt's Theory of Constraints model for productivity and throughput.)
  • 42 The better you get, the better you'd better get.

Second, this concept must be part of a general principle, but I don't know which. The closest I could find via my wikipedia search was Overflow and Carrying capacity. Interestingly, I also found Septic tank and Never-exceed_depth!


Reader Comments (5)

Personally, I think my system is always on the brink of overflowing. Between programming, work and blogging, my plate is pretty full.

Basically, I break things down in threes to get them done. Three steps for three goals. If I get 3 big things done each day it's a pretty successful day. Of course some days I accomplish more, but getting the three big ones out of the way is my strategy.

February 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Isaac

That makes sense, Jetru. Thanks for the comment. And I've been very interested in polyphasic sleep too, but my wife (a nurse) doesn't approve yet! I'd love to hear if you take it on.

February 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey, Brad. Thanks very much for your suggestion about trying to do three Next Actions from three goals done per day. I have to admit I haven't a good handle on Allen's "higher altitudes," esp. written goals. I'm like Sally McGhee's idea of every project being associated with a "Meaningful Objective," but it's an area that needs work.

February 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

In Getting Things Done FAST, and in the follow video:


Allen says, "Is it news to any of you that there is always more to do than you can do?"

It seems this blog entry has been about that sentence. It was news to me at some point and I'm still trying to understand what it really means to me.

September 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAmmar

Hi Ammar. "Is it news to any of you that there is always more to do than you can do?" - Yes, it's true for 99% of the people I talk to. (Perhaps surprisingly, I have met a few people who say "no, it's just about balanced.")

However, I'm talking about the dynamic aspect of workflow - does the work coming in roughly equal the work going out? Mark Forster talks very deeply about this in his book [ Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0340909129?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0340909129 ].

I'm not sure. Our action and project lists give us a snapshot of what we've committed to, but I think there's a different stress factor if the list continues to grow without bounds. That's why I'd like to tie in Mark's ideas of a closed list to what I teach.

Thanks for the comment!

September 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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