A couple of months ago, I reached a breaking point — all the things I had to do no longer fit in my mind or on the various to-do lists I struggled to use effectively. I don’t mean to say that I had a break-down — more like a break-up with the way I had been trying to operate. Increasingly, incrementally, I had begun to function more and more reactively. I found myself allowing the thing that was squawking at me loudest for attention to push to the head of the queue. Trouble is, that loudest thing is very often not where my time and attention needed to be focussed. Did I say focussed? That’s a bit of a sliding scale when you allow tasks, things, and “stuff” to hijack your attention whenever they happen to drag themselves up to the top of your mind. This mode of operation almost guarantees that you simply cannot concentrate on any one task for any length of time — your mind is constantly flitting off to the next thing on the ever changing, dynamically generated list in your mind. There’s always a new shiny object that needs your attention more. While this makes it tough to accomplish tasks, just think about what it does to your relationships. Once in this state of overload, it becomes very difficult to be fully present for anybody. Your mind will always dredge up something more urgent or interesting than actually engaging with the person you’re with, whether that person is an important client or your five year old. That’s bad for your personal life and for business.
So Much Stuff
All of us have too much “stuff” to do, that’s a given. If you think you have more than anybody else, I believe you’re mistaken. That stuff ranges from trivial tasks, like scheduling servicing for your car, to larger and more complex projects like planning a two week vacation. All of it can hang over us and weigh us down, chewing up precious cycles in our brain — cycles that could be put to much better use. Most of us have no way of effectively tracking all that stuff, and resort to a kind of game of mental whack-a-mole where we attack whatever bubbles to top of mind. We only deal with tasks when they become urgent — the vacation flight gets booked when there’s two hours left on the seat sale. The family won’t mind each being in the centre seat of a different row will they? Somehow, some way, many of us seem able to function this way. I certainly have, for long stretches of time. But eventually, without a good way to track and deal with all of the stuff, we inevitably start disappointing somebody. That somebody might be your spouse, a client, your kids, your co-workers or even yourself. We disappoint people because we make commitments that we have no way of knowing whether we can or will follow through on. Again, bad for personal life, and bad for business.
So Many Systems
Like almost everybody I know, I’ve tried a number of “systems” over the years, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The goal has always been to become more efficient in the way I work, to avoid being distracted by the many urgent but unimportant things that arise daily and to become more directed and intentional about the things that I spend my day doing. I’ve tried numerous variations on the to-do list, both electronic and paper, and many ways of attempting prioritization of the often overwhelming number of items on those lists. There’s a reason why to-do apps are one of the most popular and prolific categories in app stores – the to-do app is a really tough nut to crack. It can never really do everything that we ask of it, yet we keep on trying, hoping the new one will somehow be better. I’ve leaned heavily on calendars over the years, probably now more than ever with calendars on my iPhone that sync with my desktop and give me alerts to prod me to action. Those calendar apps really are indispensable, but again, they deal with only a small sliver of what I need to track and manage over the course of a day or a week.
So what’s the answer? Turns out, it’s deceptively simple. The key is unburdening the mind of day-to-day minutia and creating a system for capturing and tracking all projects, commitments, tasks and sub-tasks. When everything you’ve been carrying in your head has been safely captured in an external system, you free up a huge number of brain cycles to be used more productively and creatively. Once you have off-loaded all this “stuff” from your brain, a burden is lifted, and you begin to have the mental space for focus and creativity. As important as the capture process is, at least as important is determining what to do next about all these things. This calls for a process of discernment to determine the next action that can be taken on each thing that will move it forward, toward completion. In our example of booking your car for servicing, the next step may actually be to check with your partner to see what days they won’t need the car, not to call the garage. Very often we get hung up on tasks by not acknowledging what the true next step is. Failure to make that one small decision dooms you to going back to that “thing” time and again until you do. Once next actions have been determined, they can be scanned to create contexts for those actions. These contexts, which can be as simple as home, work or spouse, can help you to deal with tasks only when they’re relevant, or even possible — it’s not useful to think about calling the garage at 10:00pm, is it? When we can see all of what we have before us in one place, and the subset of what is actually possible at the moment, it becomes easier to determine what the priority is at any given time. By off-loading so much of what occupies our brain in the course of a day, it’s possible to create a state of mind that is much more relaxed, in control and capable of both creativity and productivity.
Getting Things Done
The preceding paragraph is a very condensed and simplified description of a productivity system developed by David Allen called Getting Things Done or GTD for short. He wrote the book that introduced this system back in 2001, and it’s become a classic, mainly because it really works. I came to Allen’s system through the work of Merlin Mann in podcast and blog form. I recommend the book highly, with the caveat that it concentrates very much on paper-based methodologies, as these were the only practical ones available back then. The ideas are still spot-on, but the best ways of implementing them have evolved considerably. There are some great apps available now that make practicing GTD much simpler than it once was. Over the next while, I’ll be doing a series of posts on GTD, going through the system in a bit of detail, along with my own experiences with implementing it, and the tools I’ve found useful.
I hope I’ve inspired you to be even a little bit interested in trying to gain control of what you’re devoting your time and energy to, and piqued your interest in working and living in a more creative, relaxed and in-control manner. If so, I suggest you pick up a copy of Getting Things Done, and watch this space for some thoughts and ideas about how to incorporate GTD into your life. I’m interested in hearing your experiences with GTD or any other productivity system — let’s connect via Twitter (@intudes).
Image by Flickr user TPapi