Getting the Right Things Done

I hit a slump at work last year. It happens from time to time. I still showed up. I still tried my best, but my best was becoming less and less effective. I still loved my job. I still cared, but I was working harder and harder for less result. I knew it. The people who know me best knew it but were often too kind to inquire.

I worked hard. I stayed busy, but I never seemed to accomplish the most important things. My to do lists exploded. I had a hard time setting priorities. My to do list was such a complex tangle of folders, alerts and tags that I could no longer discern the important from the merely urgent. I fell into the trap of choosing a few easy things to mark off each day and letting my email inbox decide the rest. Email poured in from all sides and I couldn’t get a handle. I was drowning.

The problem wasn’t that I had too much to do. We all have too much to do. The problem was my poorly designed workflow. Enter David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. (Find it at your local library.)GTDcover

Getting Things Done is a dead simple guide to organizing workflow. I read Getting Things Done over winter break and am practicing the core principles at home and at work. Here’s my quick take. I was coming home from work everyday braindead and exhausted because I was constantly misusing my mind. The brain is brilliant at detecting patterns and creating new associations between ideas, but the brain is terrible at remembering. An effective workflow allows the brain to do what it is meant to do and stop wasting precious energy performing tasks it cannot accomplish.

Most productivity tools and literature emphasize management of time and priorities. Time and priorities cannot be managed. Only actions can be managed. My wickedly complex To Do lists failed because they tried to manage ideas and priorities rather than actual actions.

Allen’s GTD workflow focuses exclusively on actionable next steps. Lists are meant to capture all relevant next steps and organize them into contexts. To Do lists should only contain lists of things that can actually be done. My To Do list was choked with non-actionable items like Solve Climate Change or Establish World Peace. These aren’t next steps. These are projects.

You are probably laughing at me right now because you already knew this. Its okay. I’m laughing too. I knew better but did it anyway. Projects belong on their own lists, which are then broken down into actionable next steps.

The list of next actions is sacred and must be rigorously protecting from the inevitable intrusion of multistep projects. Allen gives a fundamentalist definition of a project as any outcome you desire within the next year that requires more than one step to achieve. Solving Climate Change and Establishing World Peace are obviously projects. Less obvious perhaps, mounting a TV on a wall might also be project with discrete steps. You have to research the available mounts, select the appropriate mount, purchase the mount, install the mount, hang the TV and then deal with the attached peripherals. Again, you probably already knew this but the reason I avoided so many items like that on my list was confusion about how to get started.

The insight Allen offers isn’t so much that projects are comprised of actions. The insight is that getting those actions broken down and captured in advance reduces a lot of unnecessary cognitive tax. The discipline is deciding in advance what will need to be done so that you don’t waste precious mental energy thinking about it when you have time to actually do it. The useful habit is always deciding in advance.

The other useful habit is organizing next actions by context rather than topic. My To Do lists were developed around the idea of keeping actions into discrete topical lanes. This meant that before deciding what needs to be done, I had to sort through a mishmash of competing projects or themes to find tasks that were both important and achievable at that particular moment. This did not work well.

It is far better to organize next actions into contexts, like Email; Phone; Writing; Quick Hits; and Intense Focus. This helps put next actions into a context of energy and focus. When you are making phone calls, use that list. When you need easy wins, use the Quick Hit list. When you can focus deeply, use that list. The idea is make decisions easier by making the list serve the energy and focus available at any given time. You can’t always do the thing that is most urgent, and you probably shouldn’t. You can always do something. There’s always more to do than can be done. The goal is to keep doing things and keep moving forward.

There’s a lot other practical help to be had. Allen offers advice on email, my arch-nemesis. So far, it has helped a lot. Allen talks about the piles of stuff in my life and helps me understand those piles as actions to which I have not yet committed or properly understood. Stuff is deadly. We must kill our stuff before our stuff kills us.

The practice is to get everything out of your head, captured on a list and then organized into context for appropriate future action. Dead simple but definitely a practice.

So you are probably reading this and marveling at how any of this could be a surprise to me. You might be wondering how they let me manage multiple libraries and supervise a team. Some days, I wonder the same thing.

I love my work. People depend on me to bring my best. They deserve my best. I deserve to come home with my brain intact so that I can share my best with my family and myself. To do that, I need new habits.

So far, my Getting Things Done workflow has helped that happen. It is a work in progress which I will adapt as I go. If it works, I won’t need to tell you. You’ll see it happen. I’ll answer your email. I’ll follow up on that conversation we had last month. I’ll have time to sit and talk big picture because the urgent, unimportant distractions are no longer nipping at my heels.

A fate worse than procrastination

I sometimes don’t accomplish the things I intend to accomplish in a timely manner. Standing on the outside, I can see how it might appear that I am an inveterate procrastinator. But procrastinators are often seeking fun diversions to keep themselves from doing the serious, un-fun work at hand. That’s just not me.

I rarely take more than a 20 minute lunch break. I often forget to take breaks at all. I usually get to work around 7:30am and leave around 5pm. I have had very few days when my serious, important work felt un-fun. I enjoy working. I like being productive and getting things done.

So what’s the problem?

It isn’t procrastination. It isn’t fun-seeking distraction. I am trying to accomplish too much in one day. I start my day with unrealistic expectations of how much I can accomplish and occasionally bruise myself trying.

The problem isn’t doing too little. My problem is attempting to do too much.

In the spirit of my Stop Doing list, I am (for the moment) no longer using the to-do list productivity app on my iPad. Using it, I feel like I am drowning in my list of things to do.

Instead, each morning I jot down the items on my iPad list that need the day’s attention. By “jot down”, I mean on actual paper. **gasp** Beside each task I estimate how much time the activity should take. And then I number the tasks in order of need and get to work. So far, so good.

Epiphany #1: I am not really good at estimating how much time something is going to take.

Epiphany #2: You only get points for not being a procrastinator if you are actually accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. It doesn’t matter if the problem is too little effort or too much. The end result is the same.