The average person has 50-150 “next action” items on their list – the next action needed to move a project forward (i.e. call this person, brainstorm ideas for a talk I’m giving, follow up with XYZ on…).
What happens when you get those 50-150 things done?
You send an email, you get an email back. You follow up with someone on something, now you have to do the next thing. It’s never-ending. That 50-150 things turns into another 50-150 things. There will always be more to do.
“It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.”David Allen, Getting Things Done
If you don’t believe this, stay with me. It is possible when you have a good system in place that allows you to be in control of all of those to-dos.
Two years ago, a co-worker introduced me to the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. I read it, and it was a complete game changer for me. I recommend reading the book, but here I’m going to give you just a really quick Cliff Notes version and hopefully inspiration to take the next step.
“To a great degree, the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives.”David Allen, Getting Things Done
This is the key. You have to create those tricks for your brain, for your routines, for your schedule. And you have to work at it. It’s going to take more than just reading the book. You have to be ready to apply what you’ve learned, to train yourself, and to practice discipline.
So, David Allen teaches that you must capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage.
Here is the GTD Workflow in a nutshell:
Note: I did remove one little piece just for the simplicity of this post. You can get the full image in the book.
When it comes to capturing, what are all of the ways you know what to do every day? Where are your “to-dos”? You might have a physical inbox, notebook, Post-It Notes, email, text messages, Slack, reminders on your phone, etc.
The first step is to create a system so that you are capturing all of those to-dos in one place. Personally, I use Todoist to capture all of these things, but:
“…the tool you use will not give you stress-free productivity. That is something you create by implementing the GTD method.”David Allen, Getting Things Done
So don’t get hung up on which tool to use. Instead, focus on fully embracing that tool and training (or forcing) yourself to use it.
Once you have everything in your tool of choice, the key is then to clarify what needs to be done. What is it? Does it require action? If so, what is that next action?
Have you ever kept an email in your inbox for days (or weeks or months) because you know something needs to be done, but you don’t really know yet what needs to be done?
Sometimes clarifying can be the hardest part. Sometimes I have to force myself to focus on an email and make a decision about what is needed. And sometimes I’m surprised that when I do focus and think for a few minutes, the answer comes to me, and it was much easier than I thought it was going to be.
Next you have to organize. If it’s not actionable, delete it, put it in your “Someday/maybe” file (I have a label in Todoist for items like this), or file it for reference. But don’t go overboard on your reference folders. If you want to file something for reference, you’re going to want to be able to find it when you need it. If it is actionable, do it (if it will take less than two minutes), delegate it, or defer it.
The last two steps are reflect and engage. I think reflect is the most important. You have to reflect on the system you created in order to determine what’s working, what’s not working, and tweak the system as you go.
It took me weeks to get my system in place and fully functional, but I created a system where I know exactly what I need to get done every day. Rarely does anything get lost in the shuffle because the system is set up so that all of my to-dos are captured and accessible to me when they need to be.
If you want to get to the place where you feel in control of all of your to-dos:
- Read the book.
- Take the time to create and implement your system. Fine tune it.
- Do the Guided Mind Sweep on a regular basis:
I do this every other month or so and every time I do it I end up with another 25 things to add to my list. All of those things had been rolling around in my head and I didn’t even realize it.
If you do these things, I guarantee you feel more on top of your workload. You’ll feel a sense of control. And you will sleep better at night!