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Getting Things Done

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couple atop mountain landscape
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Getting Things Done9 min read

I have always been a seemingly unproductive, lazy bum. I successfully traversed the schooling system thanks to my high IQ, impressive logic ability, and fairly competent memory. It wasn’t until my young adulthood stage of development that it became evident that my skills did not mask my laziness in the default world. And I would take the next few decades to figure out how to achieve a sense of productivity and completion without having an A-type personality or an inherent “driven” energy.

One of the most recent forays into that adventure uncovered a book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”. I mean, doesn’t that title just speak to you? Stress-free and productive?! That’s the holy grail right there.

Pair of hands holding a pen and blank pad of postit notes. Crumpled pieces of note paper strewn.

photo by Kelly Sikkema

The Process of Getting Things Done

David breaks down the process into five overarching steps. Capture everything, clarify what needs to be done, organize those action steps, implement a feedback loop to frequently review the action steps, and the last step, which is the only one I needed to adapt, do the action or schedule the action immediately.

While the “Capture Everything” step does emphasize the importance of writing things down, it doesn’t specifically address the issue of not being good at note-taking. However, it is suggested that we use whatever tools work best for us individually, whether that’s a notebook, a digital app, or even recording voice memos.

The first steps make complete sense to me and are already in line with the habits I’ve already formed around being productive. The main goal is to get all the ideas, tasks, and commitments out of our heads and into a trusted system, so as long as we find a method that works for us individually. Getting everything out of my head and on to paper or virtual paper is essential to begin any project. Things can be better viewed and manipulated outside of my head. Once I’ve got things typed out, it’s easier to rearrange ideas and collate similar ideas into sub-projects, and determine what’s duplicated or irrelevant or obsolete. The crux of this step is to use a system that works for us. Some of us work better with mind maps, others work better with logical lists. Some of us prefer using digital media, others prefer pen and paper. I like the ease of digital. Every so often, it is nice to spew out my ideas in colourful ink onto physical paper, but inevitably I default to digital before the next step.

With everything visible and manipulatable, it becomes easier to clarify what needs doing. Review everything that has been captured and decide what action, if any, needs to be taken. It could be writing content, it could be creating a secondary plan of action, whatever. Regardless, you want to categorise your action items into sections that make sense to you. You could, for example, have a general category of “home”, that contains a range of projects for different sections of your home, such as a project of “organise bookshelf” in the “living room” subsection of “home”.

You decide through the clarification step, what actions are required, and you also decide how to best organise those action steps. From this point on, you simply need to action those steps. The final step is either doing the action immediately if it is small enough or easy enough to finish within minutes, or scheduling the action to a time you are free and able to do it. Both before and after the “do it or schedule it” step is a call to regularly review your task lists to make sure they are still relevant, that you’re focusing on the right things to achieve what you want to achieve, and, as we evolve and technology evolves, whether or not there are easier and better ways to now do what you planned to do. For the duration of the overall project, we will shift between these two phases of doing what needs doing and re-evaluating what needs doing.

journal open on table

photo by Estee Janssens

Ad hoc scheduling

As I said earlier, I have the most issue with the “Do it now” step. This is because I am not always clear on the action to take. Sometimes we might need help identifying them and establishing exactly what the action steps need to be. We can start by breaking the task down into smaller, more manageable steps, so it doesn’t seem too large or complex.

We want to identify the very next physical action that needs to be taken for each task, so keep asking yourself “What’s the very next thing I need to do to move this forward?” until you have a clear action step. Once broken down, we can better determine how easily a task can be completed. If a task takes less than two minutes to complete, then do it right away. This will help you clear out your list and make the remaining tasks more manageable.

I am not a very “do it now” type of person. I linger and I faff and I take my time. I build energy and momentum before taking action, but by the time I get something done, there is no way it won’t be done. For A-type personalities, the act of getting something done or scheduling it is almost second nature. These kinds of people get off on action. They’re like hares who are always on go, go, go. Me, not so much. I prefer being lazy and acting on autopilot. You might assume from that statement that I am very unproductive and yet that is furthest from the truth. I’m simply productive in a more tortoisie type of way. Slow and steady and only when I’m ready. This way of being has helped me achieve a lot, just in a much longer timespan than it would take a more A-type personality person.

Scheduling things is important for me to not forget what I have to do. I need to have a written out list of actions that need to be taken, and if those actions are given a particular time and date, so much the better. Unless they happen to be scheduled for a time when I don’t particularly feel like doing it. That’s when things get tricksy.

To counter this issue, I have a more flexible way of scheduling things. I put stuff into my calendar in specific slots when they cannot be changed. These events usually involve other people who have all set aside their time for the arrangement. Barring any serious issues, even if I am not up for it, I will probably make these events. However, if nobody else is going to be inconvenienced (or not by much), the action doesn’t get a specific time but a specific list, based on urgency or importance.

The most urgent list I have is “to do today-ish”. There’s also “to do this week”, “this month”, “this quarter”, “this year”, and “to do eventually”. Every so often I review the lists and move items between them if necessary. Sometimes there may be an item that’s been on the “this week” list for several weeks without causing any major issues, and so the item is moved to a more spacious list. On the flip side, I may suddenly have a boner for an action item on the “eventually” list, and thus move it to a more urgent list.

Of course, if you’re struggling to identify the next action at all, consider asking a colleague, friend, or mentor for their perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective can help clarify what needs to be done, or even if there is anything that needs doing by us at all. Sometimes, it is useful for our sanity to ascertain what is our responsibility and what isn’t. The overall goal of the “Getting Things Done” method is to free up mental energy by getting tasks out of our heads and into a system that we trust and can follow. This allows us, more or less, to focus on what’s necessary and possible within the present moment, and so be more productive as a result.

feather floats to an outstretched hand

photo by Javardh | Unsplash

Work According To Your Needs

Different productivity methods work for different sets of people, and it is up to each of us to test out and figure out what works best for us individually. I get very easily distracted from things that I don’t consider particularly important or that my brain doesn’t lend itself to naturally. On the other hand, I can hyperfocus on stuff that interests me, regardless of how important that stuff is to anyone else. For me, the best productivity methods are ones that are flexible, visually-oriented, and engaging.

Some popular techniques that I’ve used at various times include the Pomodoro method, bullet journaling, mind maps, timeboxing, Kanban boards, etc. All of these are great techniques that work in varying ways.

The Pomodoro method, which involves working in short bursts followed by short breaks, helps manage focus with topics that I can easily lose focus with. The forced breaks, on the flip side, prevent burnout when focused on topics that capture my attention. Many people stick to a 25 minute focus, followed by 5 minutes of defocused break time, but I adjust those times for myself on a per project basis. It is helpful knowing which topics you need to prioritise focus time and which you need to prioritise break times.

Journaling, project boards, and mind mapping are great visual methods of productivity planning, that benefit from variety and creativity. These types of visual planning can be very helpful for people who think in non-linear ways. The beauty of these methods is that they are also effective for more linear thinkers by combining the ability to create lists within their sort of free-form factor. For people as myself, who are linear thinkers in some ways and very lateral in others, methods like the Kanban boards, which involves visual boards to track tasks and progress in a variety of ways, is an ideal solution.

Kanban boards come in different forms but they generally provide multiple levels of categorisation and different ways to record and assign action steps and other lists to projects. The level of customization and specialisation depends on whose app you’re using, but by and large, most project boards have similar levels of time management, people management, task management, and project management features.

Remember, everyone’s needs are different, so feel free to experiment and find a productivity method and productivity tool that works best for you.

hand palm up covered in paint next to yellow paint bucket on paint sheet

photo by Taelynn Christopher

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