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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Organise your life the Downing St way
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine

The Grid is one of the secrets at the heart of New Labour, allowing it to deal with the threats and opportunities of being in government. Could it help the rest of us?

Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair
Look ahead
Everyone finds modern life complicated.

But imagine for a moment how much more complex it would be if, instead of having to deal with the everyday things like birthdays and train tickets, you had to juggle the business of government.

Launching policies. Handling disputes. Dealing with inflation. Maintaining international relations. Invading places. Denying things. Claiming other things. Trying, amid it all, to stay popular.

And then, even if a government takes all those in its stride, there is another unquantifiable to contend with. As former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said when asked what might most easily steer a government off course: "Events, dear boy, events."

Once you get used to it, you have no trouble living that way
Organisational guru David Allen
John Major's government, according to Norman Lamont, the man he sacked as chancellor, fell victim to this and ended up looking like it was "in office but not in power".

One thing at least where Downing Street under Tony Blair has taken the art of government to new levels is in its management of the media. It doesn't necessarily mean anything sinister or underhand. It means The Grid.

Advance planning

The Grid is a weekly diary, filled with all sorts of forthcoming events so that all arms of the government can know what everyone else has planned, and therefore what are good or bad days to plan anything else.

Journalist Peter Oborne, whose new book (with Simon Walters) Inside Blair's Bunker publishes the contents of The Grid for the first time, says it is planned weeks in advance and takes into account all sorts of things not normally the domain of politics.

The news is not left to chance
Peter Oborne
"It's not just political events. It's sport, cultural events like the Notting Hill Carnival, pop concerts, big football matches. I think it's an attempt to be able to understand the future news stories, when to plan their announcements around them, and to control the agenda as much as they can."

Number 10 has Alastair Campbell to thank for this simple, but revolutionary, way its information is planned, says Oborne - who is no friend of the former communications chief.

"Campbell brought a professional approach - there wasn't this kind of information structure before him. But it has meant that, for instance, Downing Street knew about a Sun campaign on asylum seekers before Sun readers actually knew about it.

"The news is not left to chance," he says.

Dramatic effect

So what lessons are there for the rest of us?

The first thing to grasp is that organising yourself is not rocket science, says David Allen, author of The Art of Stress Free Productivity.

"Sure it's a discipline to fill in something like this, but it's a discipline in the same way that taking a shower is.

Bulging organiser
Whatever you do, write it down says Allen
"Once you get used to it, you have no trouble living that way."

The key is getting into the habit of at least once a week reviewing "every single loose end, every single commitment" to think about what you need to do. You should also review the last two weeks to see everything you might have missed. "That can trigger thoughts - oh that reminds me I ought to do so-and-so," he says.

And like The Grid, think far into the future to plan ahead. Keep your eye on the details as well as the big picture. "Ask yourself, are the sprinklers working? Have I been nice enough to my staff, and when you're doing that other things will occur to you."

But the biggest lesson from doing things the Number 10 way is to write it down.

"Most people try to maintain their list of things to do in their head. But the problem is as soon as you've got about 10 things in your head, you lose perspective and with it any thoughts of strategy or tactics.

"You need to keep everything in some objectively reviewable form outside of your own head," he says.

But the benefits of getting your act together will be noticeable, he says. "When large organisations implement my kind of methodology, the typical self-assessed gain is an hour a day. Just think what you would do with another hour a day."

Most of this gain will come from dealing with matters as soon as they arise, for instance answering an e-mail when it arrives rather than looking at it, umming and ahhing, putting it off, then having to deal with it later.

If you've got the big stuff sorted out on to your Grid, or whatever you choose to call it, there will be another benefit, says David Allen. It will free your head to be creative, what he calls your "psychic RAM", by stopping the little stuff getting in the way.

"Mosquitoes ruin a safari," he says.

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