Updated: Mar 14
I have always considered my self a very “productive” person.
I work a full-time job in which I excel.
I run an online business in my spare time.
I go to the gym 5 days a week.
I have a newborn son at home.
I get a lot of stuff done on a daily basis. However, no one who has ever met me would never say “organization” is one of my strongest skills.
My office is essentially a pile of seemingly random papers.
My wife would tell you I am messy around the house.
I have so many active icons on my desktop that you can’t even see the background image.
So, what do you get when you combine a busy life with a lack or organization?
I recently read David Allen’s book “Getting things done: The are of stress-free productivity”. This book has a treasure trove of useful productivity nuggets. Here are some of the lessons I immediately implemented from the book that made my day to day life much less stressful while increasing my productivity.
Declutter your workspace
Stress-free productivity starts with a clean work environment. I work in public policy which is an “information job”. When you work in an “information job” it’s easy for papers to begin piling up.
As part of the “get things done system”, Allen recommends purging unneeded files and documents at least once per year. When you're surrounded by piles of papers and a desktop full of icons and PDFs, it’s difficult to relax. The reason is that you are surrounded by constant reminders of all of the work that needs to get done.
I decided to purge both physical files on my desk and digital files on my desktop. I was amazed at the instant impact that had. I felt like I was able to breathe easier and focus better.
Decluttering your workspace is the first (and easiest) step to increasing productivity.
Declutter your mind
In the modern world, our attention is constantly being pulled in a number of different directions at all times. Anyone who has a smartphone is constantly receiving messages from work, family, friends and social media.
It’s easy for the mind to get cluttered. A cluttered mind is bad for productivity and stress levels.
The first step of decluttering the mind is to have an external tool to collect all of your various ideas and to-do items. Even something as simple as keeping a journal. If you’re in the middle of writing an email to a co-worker and you remember you need to pay the electricity bill, quickly jot it down in your journal.
By keeping an external list of tasks that need to be completed, you take the pressure off your brain to remember everything.
Clear items off your to-do lists every week
Have you ever kept a “to-do list” and found that there were certain items that seemed to never get crossed off?
Once a week you should review your to-do list and do two things.
Clarify each item on the list.
Sort each item to its proper place.
Start by looking at each item on your “to-do list” and simply asking “Is this item actionable?” If the answer is no, then you have three possibilities.
It is not something you need to do. If this is the case, simply cross it off your list and forget about it.
It’s not something you need to act on this now but you might in the future. An example of this might be an optional conference or meeting you have been invited to.
Information you don’t need now but might in the future.
If the item on your to-do list is actionable, you again have three options to consider.
If the action takes less than two minutes to complete. Do it right now and cross it off the list. Nothing makes you “feel productive” like crossing several items off your to-do list in a short amount of time.
If the action takes more than two minutes to complete and you're not the right person for the job, delegate it to the proper person.
If the action takes more than two minutes to complete and you are the right person for the job, defer it until all of your “under two minute” tasks are complete.
You calendar is only to be used for time-specific items
I got in a really bad habit of using my Outlook calendar as a to-do list. After reading this book I realized how bad of a decision that is.
When I opened up my calendar it was full of random things that needed to get done. There were certain to-do items on certain dates of my calendar, but if I am being truthful, I did not need to get those items done on that particular date.
What would inevitably happen is I would get distracted with other daily tasks and not address many of the to-do items I had on my calendar.
So what did I do? I dragged them into the calendar the next day. Now tomorrow’s calendar is twice as full as today’s calendar was.
You can see how pointless this process became.
Eventually, I got to a point where I did not even bother looking at my calendar. Which completely defeats the point of having a calendar.
Your calendar is for time and date specific tasks only. “Dentist appointment at 11 AM” is a perfect item to go in your calendar. “remember to wash the dishes” is not.
All of your to-do list items that are not time and date specific can go into a “next action” list. These are the items that take longer than two minutes to complete and do not need to be completed at a specific date and time.
Keep a project list
Any action that requires one more than one step should be classified as a “project”.
When you review your to-do list every week, it’s important to ensure that every project has a clearly defined next-step. You should have clarity on the following.
What exactly is the next step of the project?
Who is completing it?
When does it need to be completed?
Planning your projects
The Get Things Done approach to project planning has five steps.
Purpose and principles. Think about what purpose this project serves. Next, identify the principles that you want this project to adhere to. An example might be that the project must be financially sound.
Envisioning the outcome. What exactly is the ideal outcome of this project? An example would be to increase company sales by 10%.
Brainstorming. Once you have a clearly defined outcome, ideas will start popping into your head on how to get there. Write them all down and then decide which ideas are worth keeping later.
Organizing. Decide which ideas should be grouped together. For example, you might organize ideas by which team members you need to work with to accomplish that task.
Identifying the next actions. Which action will begin the process of moving the project towards the envisioned outcome? If the goal was to increase sales by 10% the first action item might be to send an email to the head of sales asking for a breakdown of current revenues.
Action item: Give the 5-step project planning approach a try. Think of a project you are currently working on and run through the 5 step process listed above.
Create a “waiting for” list
If you’ve ever worked on team projects before you know how frustrating it is to be waiting for someone else to complete their task before you can move forward on a project.
If you ask a co-worker to provide you a number or a document that you know that they have and that you need, what do you do when they forget or take too long to get it to you?
That’s where the “waiting for” list comes into play.
This is a list of all of the action items you are waiting for other people to provide you. The list should include, who you are waiting on, what they are supposed to provide you and the deadline.
During your weekly review of your lists, if you have outstanding items on your “waiting for” list, you should take action on that right away. Send them a gentle reminder either through email, a phone call or when you catch up with them in the lunchroom.
Create a “someday maybe” list
You probably have lots of great ideas swirling around in your head that don’t need to be addressed in the near term. Rather than keeping those ideas cluttering up your mind, get them out by writing them down on a “someday maybe” list.
Visiting Australia is something that could qualify for the someday maybe list. That is unless you are actively planning a trip to Australia. In which case it would go on a project list.
Other items that might be a good fit for the someday maybe list.
Wines you might want to try.
Movies you might want to see.
Destinations you would like to one day visit.
Activities you want to do before you die (maybe you want to try a shark cage).
Languages you want to learn.
Skills you want to acquire.
If it takes more than two minutes, is important and isn’t something you need to do in the short term, put it on the someday maybe list and maybe you will cross this item off someday.
By keeping these simple lists from David Allen’s book, Getting things done I have been able to declutter my mind and increase my level of productivity in all areas of my life while feeling less stressed.
What do you do to keep from feeling stressed about all of the tasks you have to complete every day? Do you plan on trying any of the tactics discussed in this article? Let me know in the comments.
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