Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How to Get More Done at Work and at Home

I consider myself an organized person. I write everything down, take detailed notes and set reminders in my calendar for meetings, birthdays and other important dates.

But as my workload increased over the past few months, I began to suspect that something had (or was about to be) neglected by mistake.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, otherwise known as GTD, helped to put me at ease, even before I finished reading the book.

Implementing just a few of its principles can make a difference in your work and personal life.

Write Down Anything That's Unfinished

"Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you'll come back to regularly and sort through," writes David Allen.

This includes personal projects. Even if you keep your personal and business lives separate, it's reassuring to know that you have a single place where you can see all of your outstanding items.

Keep Everything in One Place

Scattering post-its on your desk, in your purse, or on your refrigerator seems easier in the moment, but won't do you any favors. Keep your task list in one place, or in as few places as possible. Consolidate.

Whatever system you use, it has to be one that's readily available wherever you are – not just at your desk at work, but when you're driving in your car or buying groceries. Otherwise, you may lose an important thought, only to have it return after your deadline has passed.

For instance, maybe you keep a notepad in your purse or car. Maybe during the workday, you're bombarded with emails in Outlook. These are what David Allen calls collection buckets, and he recommends that you enter them into your trusted system regularly.

Remember the Milk

What system should you use? I like Remember the Milk, a free, web-based task list that I keep open on my desktop throughout the day and have installed on my Android phone. 

A tutorial on the Remember the Milk blog outlines how to set up a GTD system.

Be prepared to spend an afternoon setting up your system. I spent about four hours transferring my projects from an Excel spreadsheet into Remember the Milk.

Set Up Your Lists

1. Next Actions

For each project or responsibility that you record, identify what you need to do next, and write it down.

For instance, if you're moving to a new home or apartment, your next step might be to search online for potential homes. Breaking down your projects into actions makes them more manageable and keeps you moving forward.

In Remember the Milk, you use tags to identify next actions (I use the tag "na"). By clicking on the tag, I can pull up a list of all of my next actions and organize them by due date or priority.

If there is no "next action" on something, throw it out, file it, or set a reminder to come back to it later.

2. Items You're Waiting For 

Write down what you need others to do for a given project. For example, if you emailed a co-worker for a document, add it to your list so that you can keep tabs on the project.

3. Someday/Maybe 

For projects that you can't move on right away but don't want to forget, store them in a Someday/Maybe list that you can come back to and review periodically.

Review Your Lists Regularly

Regularly review your lists of projects, action items, and items you're waiting for. David Allen recommends a weekly review so that your tasks and projects are top-of-mind.

Treat Your Calendar as Sacred

Reserve your calendar for appointments and things that "must get done that day or not at all."

If you insert arbitrary deadlines, things that absolutely have to get done on that day will get lost among those less urgent items.

I admit that I've struggled with this one. I've inserted due dates to serve as reminders for myself, only to find that when I looked at my tasks for the day, I had trouble identifying which were really due and which were simply reminders.

Organize Your Email Folders GTD Style

The folders in my email inbox are no longer organized by project, but instead follow the principles of GTD. This helps me to see at a glance the tasks that I need to move on right away.

The @ symbol keeps the folders at the top of the list in my email tree.

When Reviewing Emails, Start at the Top

Scan your email inbox for anything that might be urgent, and then work your way down, starting from the top. You can:
  • Fulfill any quick (two minutes or less) requests (see below)
  • Add items to your "next actions" list
  • Add items to your "waiting" list
  • File emails for future reference
  • Delete anything that you don't plan to refer back to
Working from the top down allows you to see any conversations that may have followed the original email. This strategy will keep you up-to-date so that when you respond to an email, you're not two or three emails behind.

Complete Two-Minute-Or-Less Actions Immediately

For actions that require two minutes or less, do them right away.

If I'm going through my emails, and I see something that I can do quickly, I complete it immediately to clear it from my inbox.

In some cases, your two-minute action will complete the project, and you won't need to make any notes in your projects list. In others, you might be waiting on someone to fulfill their responsibilities. Write down what is pending so that it doesn't get lost over time.

Getting Started with GTD

The items listed here don't cover everything outlined in Getting Things Done. These are the principles that I followed to get my workload and personal tasks under control. If you'd like to do the same, I highly recommend this tutorial on implementing GTD with Remember the Milk.

Getting Things Done is available from the Buffalo & Erie County library as an e-book and as an audiobook from the Clarence Library, Eggertsville-Snyder Library, Lackawanna Library, and North Park Branch Library. Click here to search the library catalog.

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