There are a lot of reasons people don’t keep their new year’s resolutions, but I’m going to mention two that I haven’t heard many people think about.
Two of the biggest reasons people don’t keep their new year’s resolutions are:
- They don’t know where to write them down.
- They don’t know how they integrate with their other goals.
It is not sufficient to simply say “write down your resolutions.” If you don’t know where to write them down, that’s not helpful because you’ll write them down and then forget about them.
If you write your goals down in a Word document, for example, how are you going to remember to look at it? Or if you write them down on a piece of paper, where do you put that paper so you can review it regularly?
The other problem is: So you have these 3 new resolutions for the year. But what about the 30 other things you have going on in your life? How do you keep those 3 resolutions in mind so that they aren’t crowded out by everything else you have going on? And what about the 5 other goals you have which aren’t new year’s resolutions, but are just as important (or more so)?
In other words, your new year’s resolutions need to fit clearly within the wider context of your whole life. If you don’t see where they fit in relation to all of your other priorities, it is easy for them to simply turn into vague intentions.
This relates to the problem of where to write them down. The reason people don’t know where to write them down is that they don’t know how they fit into the wider context of their whole life.
Which takes us to the importance of a productivity system.
Your new year’s resolutions are really goals. Don’t let the term “resolution” throw you off. These are goals. Therefore, they need to be kept with any other goals you might have and they are accomplished in the same way: by reviewing them regularly, and breaking them down into “next actions” and/or “projects” to keep the ball rolling.
In other words, you need to put your new year’s resolutions (goals) into a trusted system that you review regularly. By making them a part of a “system,” your goals aren’t just a random document filed some where. Rather, it is kept along with all the other outcomes you are seeking to obtain and actions you need to take. This integrates it with everything else that you have going on, and makes it easy to review them.
I thought about going into detail on how to do this, but that risks too much detail at this point. If you are using Outlook or OmniFocus or something like that to manage your projects and next actions, then it’s simple: Just create another level called “Goals,” and put your goals (which includes new year’s resolutions) in there. Then review your goals regularly along with your projects and next actions.
If you use a paper planner, then just make sure that you have a “Goals” section in there, put your resolutions in there along with any other goals, and make sure to review it regularly (in the GTD system, that’s the weekly review).
If you don’t use any software or a planner to manage your life, then you could start simple by just creating a Word document. List your goals, projects, and next actions (creating a separate heading for each) and then maybe put it on your desktop so you can easily open it every day. (Usually I don’t recommend putting things on your desktop, but when starting out here this would be the main exception.)
There is so much more that could be said: how to organize goals, how to word them, how to break them down appropriately into projects. But takes us beyond the point of the post right now.
In sum, if you want to accomplish your new year’s resolutions, you need to not simply “write them down,” but write them down in a place that you review regularly and which reflects the wider context of your whole life.
In the last post we talked about why productivity routines are necessary and then discussed the daily routines that I recommend. But daily routines are not the only type of routines you need to have. There are also weekly, monthly, quarter, and yearly routines. In this post we will cover weekly routines.
One quick aside before diving in: Again, I’m only talking about productivity routines here. There are other types of routines you can also use this system to build into your life. There are lots of possibilities that are opened up by creating a system for managing your recurring actions and routines.
Daily Routines Pertain to Your Job, Weekly Routines Pertain to Your Personal Work
To begin, a quick word on the nature of weekly routines versus the nature of daily routines.
My weekly routines pertain almost exclusively to my ordinary life as opposed to work life. Most of my daily routines, on the other hand, pertain to my work life. I have found that balance to be very helpful.
It is not that I don’t do any household stuff or personal work during the week (far, far from it actually), but I have segmented my repeating tasks into a once a week routine that I do every Saturday morning. This allows me to be more free during the rest of the week to do other actions and projects, or just relax and play with my kids.
Also note that when I talk about routines here, I’m not counting here things like “do the dishes,” “set the table,” “snow blow the driveway” because those are the types of things that don’t need to go on a list. They are event-triggered (“we need to have supper, let’s set the table”), so a list isn’t needed. There are lots of things like that every day that I also do (and thank you, Heidi, for the far longer list of things that you do every day to keep things running well!). I’m talking here about non-event-triggered stuff: the stuff which if you don’t remember to do, won’t get done.
Note also, and very significantly, if you are a stay-at-home mom (or stay-at-home dad), you may have many personal and household routines that are indeed daily. It would not be possible to segment all of your routines into a Saturday morning. In that case, those things would be built into your daily routines because managing the household is your job.
The Weekly Routines You Should Have (Or, One Example of Weekly Routines)
Everyone is going to have different routines here. Here is what I do to make sure I “cover all my bases” each week and make sure things aren’t slipping through the cracks:
- Process personal inbox (i.e., the one at home — yes, you should have an inbox at home, not just work).
- Process personal email. I actually do this every day as part of my daily routines. But if you prefer to think about your personal email less than your work email, you can build a different routine: every other day, or every week.
- Process notes I’ve jotted down to myself and put into my inbox at home.
- Process voice notes.
- Process OmniFocus in.
- Enter receipts into Quicken (OK, you may not use Quicken, but however you keep track of your checking account and other balances, I recommend doing it in your weekly routines).
- Reconcile bank statements (if any) and process other financial stuff.
- Write check for offering.
- Give allowance to kids.
- Distribute out-box.
Some of this is self-explanatory: For example, have an inbox at home as well as work, and process that home inbox at least once a week. More if you prefer.
I talked about voice notes in the previous post on daily routines, as well as jotting notes to yourself on paper when you have an idea you can’t act on right away. The notes that you jot on paper go into your inbox. Then, when processing your inbox, it’s useful to group those into a pile and create the next actions from them all together. For voice notes I use a program on my iPhone to collect action items I think of when I’m away from my computer or paper.
Entering receipts into Quicken is the way we keep track of our account balances. You can also just have that all downloaded into Quicken, but I’ve never been able to get that working. It’s not hard, anyway, just to type in what we’ve spent and keep our account balances current.
When I receive a bank or credit card statement, I put it in a pending file called “financial to enter.” Then on Saturday mornings when I get to that task, I go to that folder and, if I received a bank or credit card statement that week, I take it out and reconcile it in Quicken. If I receive a check in the mail I also put it into this file. I usually can’t just go to the bank right when I open the mail, but I don’t want to leave it to memory to cash the check, either. So I put it in my “financial to enter” file and take care of it with my routines on Saturday.
I give my kids their allowance because I have kids. If you don’t have kids, or they are grown up, then obviously you can skip that one! What’s noteworthy here, perhaps, is that I actually put this into my routine. This might seem like something to “just remember.” But again, I don’t like just having to remember stuff because (1) I won’t remember it and (2) I don’t like having to sort through my mind to recall what I have to do that day. I write it down, get through it, and then I’m done and can focus on other things.
Same with writing the check for our offering at church. I don’t want to just leave it to chance to remember to do that Sunday morning. So I build it into this weekly routine along with the other financial stuff. (If you do direct withdrawal, you don’t need to worry about this.)
In regard to distributing your out-box: As you go through your inbox, there is often stuff that needs to go somewhere else in your house. Or you need to give it to your wife or husband or a roommate. It’s not efficient to get up and take it where it needs to go right away. So I start a pile for this stuff. Then, when I’m done with everything, I take that stuff where it needs to go.
I also handle stuff that needs to be filed in that way. I group it together with my other “out” stuff, and then file it all in a batch after distributing the other out-box stuff. I find it inefficient to file each document needing filing as I come across it in my inbox.
There are some tasks that don’t need to be done every week. Some of those are monthly, quarterly, and yearly tasks — which I’ll also be posting on. But some of them are in between weekly and monthly. The key with those is to make them hit on Saturdays as well.
This is important, so I’ll say it again: You want these other routines to hit on the same day that you do your weekly routines so that you only have one day on which you have to think “I have to do some routine tasks today.” Make everything hit the same day. (This applies to monthly, quarterly and yearly tasks as well as the bi-weekly routines — make them hit on Saturday also, so that you just do them right along with your weekly routines.)
Here are some bi-weekly and every-three-week routines I have:
- Pay bills (anything that is not automatic; this comes up in my action calendar every two weeks).
- Pay mortgage (I single this out because the consequences of missing a payment would be so dire).
- Check softener salt (for our water softener).
- Review digital pictures. Heidi takes them off the camera, and if I don’t have this task months might go by before I remember to look at our latest pictures.
- Review notes on this or that. (If I take notes on a book that I want to remember very well, I’ll create a repeating task to review them every few weeks for a while.)
The Broader Principle Here
Everyone will have different tasks here, but the key principle to see is that you don’t have to leave things to chance. When there is something that needs to be done regularly, build it into your routine. And the way to do that is by having a task list that is designated specifically to hold all of your repeating tasks. Anything that needs to be done on a schedule goes in here, and the result is that it is easy to find and it will actually get done.
The usefulness of this is very large. Take my water softener. It needs to be filled with salt about every 3-4 weeks. I’m not going to remember to do that. But I don’t want to wait until the salt is all gone and the water becomes hard to realize it needs to be filled. So I just created “check softener salt” as an every-three-week task in my action calendar. It comes up on Saturday, when I’m doing my other routines, so it doesn’t get in the way but does get easily done.
Speaking of household appliances, this concept of an action calendar is far more effective (to me, at least) than the other way I’ve seen. For example, on the furnace filter that I just bought it came with a sticker that you can put on the furnace telling you when you changed the filter last.
That is not helpful. Am I just going to happen to be walking around in my furnace room, at just the right time, to realize that my furnace filter is due for being changed? That is not going to work.
Even things that aren’t repeating, but are time-based, can go into the action calendar. For example, our mortgage was just sold to some other company. The actual effective date of the change is January 1. But I wanted to send my payment in during December so that I get the interest tax deduction for that payment this year rather than next. Yet I wasn’t going to send it to the old company when they are only holding the mortgage for another few days, risking that a big mix-up is created. But the new company could also be confused by receiving the payment before the change in ownership.
Maybe I just shouldn’t think to that level of detail! But here’s what I did: I sent the payment to the new company to arrive the last week of December, but then created an action to come up the first Saturday in January to follow-up and make sure the company processed it, even though they received it before the actual change. Without my action calendar, it would have been hard (or, at least annoying) to remember to check up on that.
And again, I group these all onto Saturday morning because I find that when I get home in the evening, the last thing that I want to do is look at my action calendar and see three things that I need to do. By grouping them onto Saturday mornings, they actually get done.
Now we’ve covered daily routines and weekly routines. Coming up we’ll cover monthly routines, quarterly routines, and yearly routines.
With the new year, it is a good time to establish new routines and create new goals. This next series of posts is going to focus on routines. Specifically, it is going to focus on productivity routines. (So these are not going to be all of the routines I recommend, just the ones pertaining to productivity.)
The Importance of Routines
To begin, a word on the importance of routines. In a nutshell, routines are necessary to keep the decks clear. If you don’t have them, you will be overwhelmed by all of the tasks that build up. Further, you will be handling many tasks in a less efficient, piecemeal fashion.
I started to notice early on that certain patterns would emerge in my next actions. There were certain things that just kept coming back again and again. These are the tasks that benefit from routines.
It wasn’t efficient to handle each of these kinds of tasks individually as they came up. That felt like taking the garbage out each time you put a new piece of trash in it. Instead, what you do with the trash is let it build up and then take it out once a week. That’s a very basic and simple concept when it comes to taking out the garbage, and the same concept applies to many of our next actions. The ones that keep coming back should be done according to a routine, rather than simply when it strikes you.
The concept of routines is not foreign to GTD. The weekly review is an example of a routine that is fundamental to the system. What I’m doing is taking the concept of routines and applying it more specifically at the next action level so that we can get a better handle on all these things that keep coming back at us.
The Daily Routines You Need to Have
OK, that sounds pretty direct. “The daily routines you need to have.” I’m sure that you will take these and tweak them as needed. What I really mean is: “The daily productivity routines I have, which have been working very well for me, and which I recommend for your consideration.”
Here they are:
- Process your email
- Process your other inboxes. This includes your physical inbox, voice mail, physical notes, and voice notes (if you do them, which I recommend).
- Review your RSS feeds and the web.
- Plan your day.
How You Should Order Your Routines
Technically, “plan your day” should be first because it is most important. And it helps ensure that you come at your day proactively rather than reactively.
But I find it hard to plan my day when there are a bunch of unknowns in my email and other inboxes that could affect how I want to shape the day. So it is most practical for me at this point to plan my day last. However, I recognize that planning your day first is the true “ideal state.”
Planning your day last, however, is not a big risk as long as you haven’t let a zillion things build up in the previous routines. If you have, it’s going to take you forever to get through them and your day will be gone before you can plan it intentionally. This goes to the importance of doing these routines every day.
Do Them Every Week Day
If you do these routines every week day, they will be manageable. It will take you probably, on average, about an hour a day to get through them. (I’ve heard David Allen also state that the average knowledge worker should expect to have to take about an hour a day processing new input, which is what most of these routines concern).
If you get really on top of things, some days it will take only about 20 minutes. That’s another ideal, but it’s great to shoot for. The more consistently you do them, the less you will have to do for them each day, and you will gain momentum.
A word on exceptions: There are seasons in which you simply will not be able to do these every day. I’ve been in one of those seasons for the last couple of months because we’ve had some huge, huge projects going on that eat up a lot of time (selling a house, buying a house, moving, getting moved in, etc.). I don’t find that super fun, but sometimes it’s necessary. In those cases, still try for at least 3 times a week, and then get back to normal as soon as possible.
What is Involved in These Routines
Here is what each of these routines consists of.
Process Your Email
Get your email inbox to zero. Then, keep checking it and getting it back to zero every hour throughout the day if you can (or every four hours), but at least zero it out once a day.
A recent book on productivity was called Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work. The concept was that the morning is most people’s best time, so use it for project work and not email.
I’ve tried that, but I just find it more efficient to do all my routines at once. I like to start the day with my decks clear, including email. I don’t like to do 4 out of 5 routines right away, and then save the 5th for some later time. I like getting everything out of the way. But I don’t like spending my whole morning on email. My aim is to get it cleared in about 30 minutes (or less, which is possible if I kept up with it every hour or four the day before).
Process Your Other Inboxes
Your email inbox is not your only inbox. There are at least three others:
- Physical inbox
- Voice mail
- Voice notes
You may have additional inboxes beyond that. Anything that “collects” unprocessed stuff is an inbox and needs to be emptied regularly. Build it into your routines so that it isn’t nagging at you to do “when I get to it.”
Your physical inbox is where you put stuff that you receive physically and need to figure out what to do with. The mail is a big item here.
But don’t think that your inbox is just a place for other people to give you stuff. I find that I am the one who puts the most stuff into my inbox. I’m often jotting down notes and obtaining all sorts of other stuff that I need to handle, and I just put it all into my inbox to process. Collect the items throughout the day so you don’t have to stop what you’re doing every time something new comes up, and process them each morning so that stuff doesn’t “expire” as it waits on your desk.
Process any new voice mails in the morning, and then keep going with this throughout the day as new voice mails come.
When I’m away from my computer or the ability to easily write things down, I have an app on my iPhone (QuickVoice, which maybe I’ll blog on later) that allows you to easily create voice recordings. So, for example, if I’m driving and have an idea of something I need to do, I’ll record a voice note. Again, you don’t want to just let these sit there. So I build it into my routine to empty these out every morning and process them into actions.
In listing the routines above, I also listed processing physical notes as something done here. These are ideas I have which I write down on paper when I’m at my desk (because I want to get them off my mind and then get back to what I was doing), and then toss in my inbox. Technically, these are processed as a part of processing the inbox. But if I get a lot of them, I usually separate them out when doing my inbox so that I can handle them all as a group.
Review Your RSS and the Web
It’s good to make reviewing your RSS reader something you intentionally do right at the start of the day (and then continue reviewing throughout the day as needeed). I suppose this routine is not strictly necessary if it works very well for you to just review your reader as it strikes. I just like getting the lay of the land in a systematic, concentrated way right along with my other routines for the day.
I don’t want to have it on my mind as some vague notion that I “have to write a blog post today.” That isn’t really in line with the GTD principle of getting everything off your mind. But creating a new action afresh each day called “write blog post” is not the most efficient thing to do. So I wrote it into my routine so that I didn’t have to keep writing it down.
So my aim is to write a post each morning at least (which clearly doesn’t always happen yet if I’m really busy). Then, throughout the day I’ll write other posts that spontaneously come to mind. So this combines both the planned and spontaneous side of things.
Plan Your Day
There is actually a whole process here that deserves a post of its own. I’ll be brief here: Basically, review your current projects list and calendar and identify anything you absolutely have to do that day. Write those down on your next action list for the day (more on the idea of a “next action list for the day” later).
Then consult with your mind and ask “what would be the three most important things I could do today?” This is the most important part. You don’t just want to do what you “have to” do that day (prior paragraph), but also should do three things that aren’t necessarily urgent, but are important and will advance your goals and the lives of others. These are your three “most important tasks” for the day. Define these and put them on your list for the day as well. And get them done.
If this sounds like a daily to-do list, which the GTD approach does not advocate, it is. I do believe in daily to-do lists. Just not the way we traditionally think of them. That’s something else I’ll also need to write more on later.
Where to Keep These
To close, the last question is: “Where do you keep this list of routines?” They need to be written down — don’t just keep them in your head. You have a couple of options here.
First, you could just write them down on a checklist that you keep in a “checklists” section of your planning program (if you use Outlook, the “Notes” section is your checklists section; if you use OmniFocus, you can create a folder called “Checklists” and keep this and other checklists there). Or, if you are paper-based, create this as a sheet in your planner, and put it in a section called “checklists” or somewhere that works for you.
Second, you could create them as a repeating task list. I actually have a whole category of tasks just for my routines (since there are more than just daily routines). I call it the “action calendar” and I keep it separate from my other next actions list. All of my repeating tasks go into my action calendar. And each time one is checked off, of course, it automatically recreates at the interval specified.
The concept of repeating tasks in a productivity application is nothing new and you’ve probably been doing it for a long time. What is new, perhaps, is that I would recommend keeping all of your repeating tasks together in one category (called “action calendar”). Then you have just one place to go to in order to see what routines are active for the day. I find that I really, really don’t like having time-based actions mixed in with my “as soon as you can” next actions (which I call “free actions”).
Coming up I’ll be talking about weekly routines, monthly routines, and yearly routines.
Probably not many people are reading today, but I didn’t want the day to go by without jotting a quick note to say: Hope you’re having a good Christmas. And thanks again for reading.
We all know that the purpose of any holiday is to celebrate or acknowledge that which the holiday is about. Thanksgiving is a time to express our thankfulness, Christmas is about celebrating Christ’s birth, and so forth.
So in one sense, the idea of “how to use a holiday” sounds a bit wrong. But here’s the twist: By “holiday” here I mean not only the actual day of a holiday, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but also the day after and day before, along with any accompanying weekends.
There is a great opportunity here when you think more broadly. If you think strategically about the time around a holiday as well as the holiday itself, you can make these times quite interesting.
In fact, using the time around holidays well is one of the great secrets to productivity. It is a secret to productivity both in that it is a time that can be leveraged for “bonus” productivity and in that it is a time to more fully recharge, with the result that being more rested will make you more effective when things are back to normal.
Productivity, of course, isn’t the main aim. But it’s easy, for me at least, to look at days off as an opportunity to get more stuff done. And around the holidays, you have more days off than normal. So that has forced me to give thought to how to use this extra time not simply as a way to get more things done, but as a way to recharge in a broader sense — and figure out how to make the things that I do get done in this time uniquely productive.
In this broader sense, there are four purposes to holidays and the time around them:
- Develop relationships (new and existing)
- Re productive in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t be
- Do something really interesting
These four purposes reveal four ways to make the most of the time around a holiday so that you truly can recharge, have develop relationships, serve others, and get some unique and/or truly creative things done. The key is that, for each day around and including the holiday, you need to define in advance at most two of the above purposes for the day and stick to that agenda exclusively.
1. Spend the day with family and friends
This is what you do with the holiday itself, or the day that you’ve designated to get together to celebrate. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so forth are best spent getting together with family and friends.
However, this usually doesn’t take up the whole day. How do you think about the rest of your time on these days?
If you don’t think about that question, you risk failing to make the most of the day. For when your work is just a laptop computer away, it can be very tempting to mix working in with the rest of the day in an ad hoc, spontaneous way. This is fatal. Avoid this at all costs. I mention below that work is my second favorite thing to do on a day off, but this is not the type of thing that I mean. On a holiday, you have to unplug completely from your standard work (unless, of course, you really are required to work on the holiday — which is the one exception to mixing regular work with these four strategies).
So in addition to spending time with family and friends, you need to pick an additional purpose to govern your day and the time when you are not at any get together. Usually the best one here is to do nothing or do something interesting (which also work very well in themselves on the days surrounding the holiday).
2. Do literally nothing
This is what I’ve done on New Year’s Day for the last few years: absolutely nothing. That means no work, or anything like it — not even fun work. Only things that are purely discretionary. This is especially difficult for me because of the fact that work is actually my second favorite thing to do on a day off. That’s actually why I started doing this: I realized I need to be extra-intentional to take a complete break from things. New Year’s Day isn’t the only complete day off I take of course, but on that day I try to take things to an extreme.
So on New Year’s Day, often we will watch movies (and football) all day long, play games, and things like that. Usually I really dislike watching movies or TV in the afternoon, but this day is an exception. In our old house we used to have a fireplace that made this even more fun. Just doing nothing is a great way to relax from time to time. “Nothing” doesn’t mean just sitting around; it really just means: no work, even work that you really want to do and enjoy doing.
When combining this strategy with a holiday where you are getting together with people, such as for Christmas, that means not catching up on email or anything like that when you get home. You can only do things like play with your kids, play a game as a family, watch a movie, or something like that.
3. Work, and do something you would never have time for otherwise
The reason work is my second favorite thing to do on a day off (the first is spend time with my wife and kids) is because it is an opportunity to get to some of the tasks that are really interesting, but which you wouldn’t otherwise have time for.
For example, sometimes I’ll take a day off and update my goals for the year or tweak my filing system. I admit, that probably sounds pretty boring to many people (a whole day on filing? — though now that I know how to do it, and I don’t do that anymore). But it makes the rest of my “regular work” much more effective.
Or take last night. We drove down to my wife’s family and got there about 8:30. I wasn’t tired when everyone else went to bed, so I stayed up figuring out some new ways to organize my iTunes library better. I not only came up with some good improvements but also learned some tricks I didn’t know before. Since I have a lot more in my iTunes than just music (I also have a ton of sermons, courses, lectures, business book summaries, etc.), this will make me more effective at keeping up my learning and skills. And I’ll probably blog on how to organize iTunes in the most effective ways possible in the future.
Getting your systems running well saves you a lot of time in the day-to-day. Many of these things are essential to do; they aren’t optional in the sense of “only do them if you can — oh, here’s a holiday, so try to make some progress.” They are essential, but hard to get to. The days around a holiday provide time to do them. Nobody else is working, so you aren’t “falling behind” by taking time away from your normal work. And by getting them done, you make your ordinary work days more efficient and effective.
4. Do something very interesting
The days around a holiday are also an excellent opportunity to do something unique. Think of something fun and unusual, and do it.
Or, do something usual but still fun. So this doesn’t even have to be something you wouldn’t do on an ordinary day. For example, we take the kids to the Mall of America every so often, and doing this the day after Christmas, for example, is a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Putting this all together
So in the days around a holiday, focus the days on the above purposes. Here are some examples of how this all comes together.
Thanksgiving and the surrounding days
Thanksgiving always gives you a four day weekend (assuming you don’t have to work the Friday or weekend). So on Thanksgiving you might get together with family, and then do nothing before that and after it (for those who have to prepare the meal: that is a lot of work, but you can classify that as fun because it pertains exclusively to the holiday, rather than ongoing stuff you have to do). After everyone leaves, watch a movie, or play a game, or something like that.
Then on the day after Thanksgiving, go to the mall and do your shopping if you like being in the mix of things when they are so busy. If you don’t like that, then that day could be another candidate for doing nothing.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, that could be a good opportunity for doing projects around the house you wouldn’t otherwise do, or doing a bunch of interesting things. You could plan a whole day of unique activities: take the kids to the science center, then to the Mall of America, or whatever. If you’re single, fly to San Diego or somewhere for the weekend (be radical; leave on Friday, actually) or do something in your own city that you’d do if you were a tourist there, but haven’t done yet yourself.
Christmas and the surrounding days
On Christmas Eve Day, if you have to work, make it a day at work where you do things you wouldn’t otherwise take the time to do, but which will make you more effective in your job. Make it a reading day if you can, or finally get your files organized, or so forth. Maybe add to this doing something interesting: If you can, take off after lunch and go to a movie.
On Christmas, get together with family, and for the other parts of the day, do nothing or only do fun things.
This year, the day after Christmas is a Friday, which is a great opportunity to do interesting things all day, or just do nothing (which really means, if you can’t tell, do interesting things at home), or designate it as a day to tackle things you’ve been planning to get to but haven’t been able to. If you really need a break, designate Friday through Sunday as “do nothing” days.
New Year’s and the surrounding days
New Year’s Day is on a Thursday this year. If you do things right, you can make it feel like you have a four-day weekend and get really rested. Start on Monday: Get all your loose ends tied up Mon and Tue if you can so that you can go into the new year with all the decks cleared. Usually this is a slow week, so there is time to do that.
Then on Wed do things at work that will increase your productive capacity (a variation on point 3) and make it a fun day. Get together with people Wednesday night. Then, use Thursday (New Year’s Day) through Sunday to do nothing. That can include getting together with people and doing interesting things, the point is just to do no work at all. Get all rested up, recharged, and totally unplug. Then hit the ground running on Monday the 5th, the first real working day of the year.
The underlying principle here is: keep ordinary work away from you during the days around the holidays. That’s the way to make sure you recharge and make the most of your time with others, while creating some good memories and maybe getting some very useful stuff done.
For you PC users out there, some good news: looks like Microsoft is going to be releasing its next operating system in 2009, and it sounds like a big improvement over Vista. Right now it’s called Windows 7; I don’t know if that will change.
Let’s hope it lives up to the hype. Here’s a helpful overview.
It’s tempting when you’re 95% done with a project to just move on and leave the remaining 5% to sort of take care of itself.
Avoid this temptation.
That remaining 5% is going to come back to get in your way and make your life more complicated. If, for example, you do this with 8 different projects over the course of a few months, you now have 8 projects continuing to clog up your system or mind in some fashion, on top of whatever “real” projects you are truly working on.
Instead, take the little bit of time to complete your projects completely. Then you’ll be keeping the decks a lot more clear for a more effective, more streamlined execution of your next projects.
Update: When there are things about a project that you genuinely do want to put off until later, write those down and put them as a someday/maybe or upcoming project to deal with later.
That way, the current project really is complete, but if you want to come back and revise some things later, you can still keep track of those ideas.
Here’s one example: I just organized my garage, since we just moved in. There are a few things I’d like to change about it down the road a bit, but don’t want to take the time to change around now. So I wrote those down and I’m going to create a someday/maybe item to “update garage organization,” with those items in the note field.
For some reason, my electronic calendar (iCal) has a way for you to download all of the holidays into it, but not a way to include the first day of winter, first day of spring, etc.
If you have the same problem (and this matters to you), here’s a page with all the solstices and equinoxes listed through 2010.
I went to a site today (which shall remain nameless) to do a basic task. I was unable to find the “sign-in” area so I could sign in and take care of things.
Then I noticed a peculiar area on the home page: “How-To Video Demonstrations.” Normally one would think, “What a creative idea.”
Except that these video demonstrations are for basic tasks on the website that should not have to be demonstrated. They include: “How to register for an account on our site,” “how to log in to your account,” “how to enroll in online billing,” and “how to pay your bill online.”
Those things should not have to be demonstrated. They are basic, fundamental tasks, and it wastes the user’s time to have to a watch a video to know how to do them.
It is not hard to make the site easy to use such that users will find basic tasks immediately evident. That’s what a good site does. It makes things so simple that they do not need to be demonstrated.
And when it comes to signing in to your account, this site has apparently taken a process that thousands of sites have made simple and turned it into a nightmare of complexity. Which they then “rescue” with this creative idea of video demonstrations. This is one instance where a creative idea should not have been necessary.
Or, better, the way to be creative here would have been to make the way to do these actions self-evident. That’s what good sites do.
Maximizing usability, in fact, is the proper goal and aim of any site on the web, because if you can’t use the site easily, the content will lie dormant and the brand value of the company will diminish in the user’s eyes.
Nobody does a better job of laying out how to make a site usable than Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition, which I highly recommend for those who are interested in the subject of making websites usable.
In the meantime, I’m going to be watching an online video demonstration…
That title may be a bit of an overstatement. But there is a fundamental truth here: The main challenge is not to figure out how to get through a task list of 1,000 things. The main challenge is that there are constantly hundreds of things that are trying to pull us away from what we should be doing, from what is most important.
Most of those are good things. But if you attend to all of them, you will not be able to focus your efforts on what is truly most important for you to be doing at the present time — the present day, current week, current month, current year.
Having everything captured in a well-organized system that you review regularly allows you to see, within those things, what is most important. And, therefore, which things need to be chopped off so that you can truly, effectively, get those most important things done.
It is so tempting to complain. There were a whole mix of things today that made my wife and I just want to throw up our arms in frustration.
But our motto (borrowed from our former pastor in Iowa) is “you can’t make it tough enough for us to complain.” Actually, she is better at that than I am — much better. I am still learning and making progress.
Everybody encounters things like this all the time. The best solution is to have the attitude “I will not complain, no matter how frustrating things get.”
And then there is a second component, which is just as important: Be a person who always strives to be part of the solution to other people’s problems.
When someone comes to you for assistance, and you don’t know the answer, it’s tempting to just pass them off. Try not to do that. Life is tough enough.
Fight the frustration of life by working on behalf of others, even when it doesn’t come easy (or it may not be “your” job). Try to figure out something you can do, even if it’s not obvious at first.
And in the times when you truly can’t take the time, or truly are incapable of doing anything, at least express that “I really wish I knew of a way to find the answer here, and I really hope you can get this figured out.”
After reviewing the ergonomics article I mentioned in the previous post, there were a few things I wanted to make sure and remember. I’m jotting them down here for the benefit of any readers as well.
(I used to not think much about ergonomics, but now I see that bad ergonomics can cause headaches and other problems. When you work at a desk most of the day, it makes sense to try to get this right.)
The height of the chair should reach just beneath your knee cap when standing. This allows your feet to rest firmly on the floor when you sit in the chair.
This has been a puzzle for me. I like them, but sometimes find that they keep me from scooting the chair under the desk. Since I don’t use a keyboard tray (next point), this is a problem. The document says it’s OK to get rid of the arm rests. That’s good: they’re not essential. Ideally, though, you could adjust them to a height that doesn’t hinder getting close enough to the desk to reach the keyboard at a comfortable length.
You can go either way here. I’ve had desks where I like them, and others where I don’t. At this desk I have the keyboard on the desktop, and given the desk height, that is the most natural position.
Mouse and Keyboard Height
Your mouse needs to be at the same height as your keyboard, whatever you do.
The top of your monitor should just below your eye level. It should be slightly tilted back. Your line of site will then line up most naturally. This is important for preventing headaches.
There is a lot more on the subject of ergonomics. These are just the quick notes that are most important to me right now and keep proving hardest to remember. This is a subject I need to learn gradually, because for some reason it does not come naturally.
These notes are from the document “Ergonomics Guidelines,” published by the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of New Brunswick.
I’m going through my physical inbox right now. There aren’t too many things in it today, so this might serve as a quick example of some principles and approaches I recommend using.
This post will be a somewhat less structured. I’m just going to write down what I actually do in real-time. (Looking back now, this post feels a bit too first-person; but I hope that this inside-look might prove helpful in illustrating the principles and practices for processing an inbox.)
As is GTD standard practice, I go through the items one by one. But first I take them all out of the actual inbox and set them right next to me, just to my left. My inbox, by the way, is just a bit further back on my left side (I’ll touch on this when I blog on how to organize your desk: the left side of your desk is “in,” the middle and immediate right is “working,” and the far right is “out”).
First, there is an external hard drive. I brought this from home. So actually, let me back up. A lot of times in the evening, I have stuff I need to bring to work the next day (no news there). When I get to work, that stuff goes right in my inbox to get processed.
The external hard drive was one such example. Every three months, I do an off-site backup of my computer. I keep an ongoing backup (using Mac’s Time Machine program) on an external drive right next to my computer at home, and then every three months back up to a different hard drive that I take away from my house, just to be ultra-prepared not to lose any data in the event of a fire, etc.
So I have this external hard drive before me now. I have a spot for it here at work, and put it away right there.
Second, I have three new books. Two were Christmas gifts and one I ordered. I need to add those to my “To Read” list. This is a less-than-two-minute action, but I don’t want to literally do it right away. I find it most efficient to actually group my small actions into piles that I then execute right after processing my inbox. This saves time — there is less gear shifting. All three of these books can be entered at once, all filing can be done at once, and so forth. So I set them in a pile on my right side that I mentally designate as “to enter.”
Third, I have an ergonomics article to read. I’m going to read this right away, so I put it in a second pile right next to the books to enter, on my right side. This is my “to read” pile for right after I’m done with my inbox.
Fourth, I have a financial report. No action needed, just needs to be filed. I create a third pile for “to file” stuff, which will get added to if needed so I can do all my filing together.
Fifth, I have a newsletter. I review it to gather any relevant information, and then throw it away.
Sixth, I have what looks like a Christmas card. I open it. I’m getting into ultra-detail here, but to open it I open up my pen/pencil drawer to get out my letter opener. The card is from a friend, so I put it in my briefcase to take home and put with our other Christmas cards. (Just as stuff I bring to work goes into my inbox when I get here, throughout the day there is also some stuff that goes into my briefcase to take home, which I then put in my inbox at home, or else deal with right away.)
Seventh, I have some extra ink for my printer here that I brought from home. I have a drawer for extra supplies like this, and it goes in there.
Eighth, I have the manual for my printer. Actually, there are about 5 documents here. One is in another language, so I throw it away. Two more are ads, so I throw them away. I put the remaining two relevant parts of the manual into my “to file” pile.
Ninth, there are a few other books I brought today to refer to as I do one of my projects. I put those on my right side, in the back, so they are easy to access when I get to that project. Note: I would not keep those books there long-term, as this is how desks end up getting messy. They are there for today. If I have to put the project on hold for a week for some reason, those books will go back on the shelf or up in a bin that I have here for “project support material” that is too big to fit in a file.
Last, I have an adapter for my laptop that lets me plug into a projector with an older type of port. Need to think about this a bit. I already have one of these in my briefcase so that I’m always ready for this (learned the hard way). So I don’t think I need this. I think I’ll give it to our IT department, so I’ll put that in the last pile on my right side, “out.”
Now I have my inbox processed. There remain four piles of less-than-two-minute actions to my right now, and I don’t consider myself technically done until I handle those actions. The piles are: to enter, to read, to file, and out. I’m glad to have those small actions grouped. Now I’ll take care of those and move on to the next thing.
Total time? This level of items would probably have normally been about 5 minutes or less. Maybe a bit more. Took a little longer this time because of writing this post at the same time.
I am always tweaking and updating the approach I take to planning and GTD. It is of utmost importance to me that my system be easy to use. If it’s not easy to use, it’s going to take away time that should be going to execution. And, it creates drag.
Here’s my criteria for determining if my approach to managing projects and actions and so forth is simple enough: When my son is 10 years old (right now he’s 6), will he be able to use a reduced form of my system to get things done (homework, etc.)? If not, it’s not simple enough.
That’s one of my guiding principles as I continually seek to refine and improve upon my methods for getting things done most effectively.
Right now, I’m thinking through ways to make the GTD contexts more effective. For example, “@errands” and “@agendas” work like a charm.
But I typically find “@phone” to simply be an excuse to put off making phone calls that are going to take up more than a small amount of time. Further, I always have my phone with me, and segmenting actions into a context doesn’t seem as valuable when you are always in that context. Likewise, “@computer” isn’t super helpful to me, because so many things fall under that context, and I almost always have my computer with me as well.
So that’s a key issue I’m thinking through again right now. I hope to come up with something that will be powerful enough for adults in high-stress, demanding situations and yet simple enough for my son when he is ten.
If you have some innovations here that you’ve found promising, please send them my way. I’ve been trying out various ideas for a while, and hearing what some of you have done would be really helpful to add to the mix.
I just l left the staff Christmas party at Famous Dave’s, and it was freezing outside. (I used to ignore the cold; now I’m starting to think I get less used to the cold as time goes by.) I had to drive my car back to the office, which caused me to reflect on what I do to get my car as warm as possible as soon as possible.
There are two methods to warming up your car. The first is when you warm it up before even driving it, which is better for your car. The second is when you start driving it almost right away, but want to get it warm ASAP because you are so cold.
I’m usually doing the second, because I don’t like to take the time for the first. My goal in either case is to warm up the inside of the car as quickly as possible, because I don’t like freezing. There are a few things that help in this regard — I think.
First, at the very beginning, obviously, it just makes you more cold to have the heat on. So I wait for the engine to warm up a bit first. Nothing special there.
Second, you know how you can set your heater to blow out the air at your feet only, at chest-level only, or at both (or defrost and such as well)? I start out having it blow at chest-level only. That makes me feel warmer right away.
Third, after I’m feeling a bit warmer, I switch the heater to blow the air out at the foot-level and regular-level combo. Since heat rises, it warms the car up more fully to have the heat coming out at the floor. In other words, it distributes the heat better. But if you have the heat coming up only from the floor, it takes longer for to actually feel warm. Thus, I do the combo — I’m making some progress in distributing the heat, while still feeling warmer more directly.
Fourth, once I start feeling too hot, I put it on the floor only. This allows the car to stay warm, without feeling too warm. Usually.
There is one slight revision to this approach when I’m letting the car warm up in my garage (with the garage door open, obviously) as I watch from inside my house. In these cases I make the heat blow out from the floor only right from the start (even before the engine is warm at all), since I have the luxury of waiting for the car to be totally warm before I get in. This allows the heat to be more widely distributed right from the time I get in.
Last of all, I put the fan level on 3. My wife says that level 4 is so fast that the air doesn’t have a chance to warm up enough. I don’t know if that’s exactly the case or not, but it seems to work well for me.
I don’t know if there is any way to perfect any of this, but for now at least this is the best way I know to make my car feel warm maybe 45 seconds sooner than it otherwise would be in these cold winters.
My standard practice is to clear out my inbox as one of the first tasks in my daily routine, first thing in the morning.
Today I started at 7:30 and then had some appointments start at 9:00. I wasn’t able to get through all of my email. I think I will be able to make some time later this afternoon to get the rest of it taken care of, but by then there will be a lot of new messages.
I prefer to get all of it taken care of right at the beginning of the day, and then maybe continue zeroing out new email every hour or every four hours. This always works best when at the very first round, first thing in the morning, you can get everything dealt with.
So what do you do when you aren’t able to get through everything the first time? You need to get up earlier.
Sometimes you do need to do seasons where you have to let things build up in the working folders, as I’ve blogged on previously. And sometimes you need to take “email vacations,” as I’ve also blogged on.
But as a standard practice, which is my plan for this week and most weeks, you need to zero out your inbox every morning at least — without having anything leftover for later in the day (except new stuff that comes). When the time that takes doesn’t fit, get up earlier.
You have to deal with those emails at some point. Whether you deal with them now or in three days, they are going to take the same amount of time (nuance: though sometimes email creates more email, which is the rationale behind email vacations).
The other thing you can do is implement strategies to reduce your email volume (discussed in How To Get People to Send You Less Email). But if you are going to be keeping up with your email, at root one of the basic things you need to do is make time for it.
Tim Sanders has a great post from the other day called Layoffs: Unless Required for Survival, a Horrible Act.
I chickened out in titling my post here, opting for the ultra-safe “On Layoffs” because I have some more thinking to finalize in my mind on this subject. But Sander’s post is excellent. Here is the bulk of it:
I think it’s socially irresponsible to hire too many people during good times, only to lay them off when the business cycle goes South. It happens all the time, I’ve seen it firsthand. Today, many firms use layoffs as a way of telling Wall Street that they are being responsible – and frequently they get a short lived bounce in the stock price. Note the phrase ‘short lived’.
In my view, socially responsible companies don’t need layoffs when they are still viable or making money. It is not an expense reduction strategy with an upside. It should be a strategy of last resort, recognizing the pain and suffering that layoffs bring to its victims.
I would only want to add that lay-offs may also be necessary if a business legitimately needs to “prune” because of an intentional, well-conceived change in strategy and the way they are doing business.
But the fundamental point remains: It is really, really bad practice to hire too many people simply because “times are good.” You shouldn’t let your hiring — or spending — be dictated simply by the fact that resources are abundant.
This point is worth emphasizing in relation to expenditures especially: If something is a wasteful expenditure in bad times, it is probably also a wasteful expenditure in good times. Good times do not make wasteful expenditures less wasteful. There are no times for wasteful expenditures. This is not only right in itself, but if this were implemented more, there would be less need to cut expenses and lay people off when times get rough.
But the corollary of this is just as important to me (more important): If an expense or program is strategic, it is worth continuing in lean times just as much as in abundant times. Some things that are often viewed as “nice but not necessary if times get tough” are often in fact critical to long-term growth and success. Lean times should not be a justification for short-sighted cost-cutting. The book Profitable Growth Is Everyone’s Business: 10 Tools You Can Use Monday Morning does an excellent job making this point, especially in relation to marketing and promotion.
But there is a nuance here to my above comments. There are many more good and important things to do than there are resources. So sometimes good ideas cannot implemented because of real financial constraints. But then when the economy is doing well, the opportunity is created to do some of those things that could not have been afforded in leaner times. If those things can’t gain sustainable traction before a recession hits, sometimes there is no choice but to scale them back (unfortunately).
So I do believe that there are expenses that should be undertaken in good times that wouldn’t have been undertaken in leaner times. But the ultimate principle remains: Wasteful spending, or unnecessary hiring, is not justified simply because times are good. Likewise, don’t cut strategic, effective spending and strategic positions because times are tough.
The initiatives that are right to do are usually right in lean times as well as good times (see above paragraph for the nuances), and the initiatives and expenses that are ineffective to do are the wrong thing to do whether times are lean or abundant.
In good times, make decisions that can withstand the bad times; in bad times, don’t make decisions that you will regret when things recover — they will, in fact, likely delay your recovery and position you poorly when things do turn.
Update: Also see my post “Employees Are Not Overhead.”
While I recommend going fully digital with your planning, some folks might still prefer to be paper-based.
For those of you who work best that way, the first ever paper planner structured for GTD implementation has now been released from the David Allen Company.
Here’s what they have to say about it:
Introducing the first paper planner embedded with GTD intelligence. The GTD Coordinator. Inside you’ll find tabs and pages categorized to fit the GTD methodology, education on the principles and best practices of GTD, calendar pages, and how-to sample pages to assist you in creating the most effective and usable planner to meet your individaul style and needs.
It looks like it has these sections, based on the website description:
- Action Lists
- Project Plans/Notes
That organization should be helpful. However, here are a few things I would change. First, I would not have a section with “miscellaneous” in the title. I don’t believe miscellaneous is a helpful category (just like I don’t believe in junk drawers — there are no junk drawers in our house). The concept of “reference” is fully accurate in itself for the name of this tab.
Second, I would have “projects” and “goals” be different tabs, because projects and goals are different.
Third, I would not have a separate section for project plans. Instead, project plans should be integrated right in with the projects list. In other words, you should put your project plan sheets right after the project list in the “projects” tab. Goal plans should be handled this way as well in the “goals” section.
Fourth, I would consider not having an “agendas” tab, because agendas are really a type of action list, which already has a tab. However, I do see value in having agendas out separately (there is a whole lot more that could be said here), so I don’t lean too strongly in that direction.
Back when I used a paper planner, these are the tabs I created:
The website points out that the GTD Coordinator is still in beta, so if you do purchase it your feedback would probably be appreciated as they create the final version of the product. It looks like it has the potential to be a very useful productivity tool for those that are paper-based.
There are dozens of points that could rightly be classified as “top productivity tips.”
Here are 6 that are worth highlighting, which for a time I kept on a checklist in the back of my planner (back before going fully digital; I added number 5 just now to expand on the main intention behind point 4):
- Rise early
- Start with the most important tasks
- Do not multi-task (unless the nature of the task is to multi-task)
- Prevent interruptions (but make time for people)
- Organize your time into the largest continuous blocks possible
- Actually do what you need to do
What would your top tips be?
In general, I highly discourage putting information or things you need to act on into piles. Filing is more organized and easier, if done right. But there are some exceptions. Here is a breakdown on when to file and when to pile.
When to Pile
Create piles for things that you are working on at the moment or will be working through in the next few hours. Used in this sense, piling becomes a fairly simple and effective a way of organizing your workflow.
Here is an example. I was just going through my inbox at home yesterday. It included some ideas I had written down on paper (normally I try to put ideas I want to do something about directly into OmniFocus as inbox items electronically, but sometimes it works best to jot them down on paper), receipts that needed to be entered into Quicken, some bank statements to reconcile, various small 4-minute-or-so actions, and various things to file.
I could have deferred most of these actions and put them into the set of pending files that I have for my routine actions. But there was quite a bit of stuff, and I wanted to do all these actions right away to get them over with. So I created a pile for each type of action and sorted the items into those piles as I processed my inbox.
Here are the piles I created: Receipts to enter, notes to process, bank statements to reconcile, bills to pay, things to file, and “other small actions” to take. Then I went through the piles one by one and took care of everything in them (entered all the receipts into Quicken, paid any bills and set up auto payment for the ones I could [we just moved], processed the ideas into projects and actions, and so forth).
Piles are effective in situations like these because they are temporary. It is helpful to have your work laid out and visible before you. Then you go from one pile to the next until you are done.
But piles are ineffective if you keep them longer than a few hours. The key is to get through them right away, not let them sit for days. If you do that, the actions get stale — unless you turn to filing.
When to File
If you are going to defer working on a group of items, then they should go into a file, and the action to complete those items should go on your next action list. I’ve noticed some routine types of actions that recur every time I go through my inbox: receipts to enter, ideas to process, and so forth — basically the piles I listed above. So I have created a set of files that correspond to these types of actions.
I call these “pending files.” They are holding tanks for work I am going to be attending to shortly. In the example above, I wanted to deal with all the actions coming from the processing of my inbox right away. So I created piles and worked through them immediately. But if I had wanted to defer those actions, I would have just put them into the appropriate pending files. To make sure I wouldn’t forget to actually deal with the items in those files, I have a weekly task to empty each of them completely (every Saturday morning).
For stuff that doesn’t fall into a routine pending file, I have a “catch-all” pending file called (creatively), “general.” Whenever there is support material I need for any action not covered by one of my routine pending files, I put the support material into the “general pending” file and then put the action on my next action list (and make note that the support material is in pending).
For example, if I get a long contract I need to review at work before signing, and I don’t have the time to review it right away, I’ll put the contract in my “general pending” file and then create a next action to review the contract. I would not, on the other hand, just leave the contract on my desk as a “reminder.”
It is an important principle that you should manage your actions from a list (with any needed support material in a file), not from piles — with the one exception being when you are going to work through the piles right away.
This discussion has focused on filing vs. piling when it comes to actionable documents. When it comes to storing reference material and project documents, filing without question is the way to go. There is a whole system that can be applied to filing in this sense which I’ll be talking about soon.
A few years ago I was waiting in line for my order at Taco Bell, and I thought to myself “these guys have a better productivity system than I do.”
I had been doing GTD for a while, but things still weren’t clicking. What stood out to me was how simple of a system they had at Taco Bell for processing orders: it just listed the items they had to make for each order.
Very simple. Very, very simple. Here’s what’s intriguing: In the GTD methodology, each of those items in an order is technically a “project” because it involves more than one step. But obviously if the order system had broken those items down into their actual “next actions” (“now grab a handful of cheese, then a cup of chicken and put it in the tortilla”), you would have chaos and confusion.
The problem is that that is exactly the way I had been handling my next actions list. I was dividing tasks up into pieces that were way too granular. Since in GTD your “next actions” are on a different list from your “projects,” this was really confusing — I couldn’t keep track of which actions pertained to which projects. Further, after completing an action, the natural thing would be to do the next “action” on the project — but my system didn’t facilitate this, because each project only had one action on my next action list. So instead of moving ahead on the same project after completing an action, I’d move on to a different project — highly inefficient and scattering to your efforts.
This was a mess. I don’t blame GTD for this — nothing in it says that you need to get this granular. But it sure sounds that way at first. It is easy to implement GTD wrongly by making your actions too granular.
There are a lot of solutions here that make GTD much more effective, even if you haven’t been taking things to the granularity that I was. Sometime soon I plan on writing something fairly comprehensive on this.
But in the meantime, the most significant solution is what I took away from the cooks at Taco Bell: I started defining my next actions not according to real specific steps (highly literal “next actions”), but according to what I can accomplish in one sitting.
In other words, I don’t always ask literally “what’s the next physical action I can take here,” because that can really make things overly-specific. Rather, I ask “what is the outcome I can accomplish here in one sitting.” The result is that many things that would have otherwise been projects actually become straight next actions, thus de-cluttering my projects list. Projects become more the multi-step things that need to be done over the course of several days.
So there has been a shift in my thinking, in part, from defining projects as “multi-step outcomes” to “multi-step outcomes that I won’t do in one sitting.” And when defining a next action for a project, I try to actually create an action that will trigger a series of steps, not just one, by asking “what can I do in one sitting,” rather than “what’s the next specific, literal thing this project requires.”
This is like Taco Bell: You see “make steak taco” and you make the taco. Very simple. But if your next action list is at the level of “put in the cheese, add the meat, etc.,” that’s just tough.
(BTW: The folks at Taco Bell on Franklin Ave in Minneapolis are some of the fastest I’ve ever seen. Way to go!)
“President-elect Barack Obama said the U.S. economy seems destined to get worse before it gets better and he pledged a recovery plan ‘that is equal to the task ahead,’” according to an article today on Fox News.
The part that scares me here is not that the economy will get worse before it gets better. The part that scares me is the pledge of a recovery plan “that is equal to the task ahead.”
Recovery plans can do good, if founded on sound free-market principles of tax cuts that spur investment (rather than tax cuts aimed to stimulate spending — the kind that Obama has been talking about as one part of his plan, where we all get $1,000 or so in the mail).
But when recovery plans are misguided, they do a lot of harm. A lot of harm. For more on this, see my previous posts Five Myths About the Great Depression and The Great Depression as We Know it Was Avoidable.
I just got a stand to set my laptop on while it’s on my desk and connected to my other monitor. The user’s guide had two helpful ergonomics tips in it:
- Center your external keyboard with your screen.
- Put your screen at eye level and arm distance.
The idea of putting your monitor at arm distance was new to me, and is already proving incredibly helpful. First, it’s probably better on my eyes. Second, I find that I simply enjoy using my computer more when my monitor is farther away.
That’s a simple change that I’ve found to have significant results.
Interruptions are not necessarily things other people do to you. The biggest type of interruption is what you do to yourself by constantly switching gears from one unrelated task to another.
Chunk your time by focusing on important tasks in large segments, and grouping similar tasks together, to prevent this.
David Allen’s second book, Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life, has a lot of helpful points.
One chapter in there is called “the better you get, the better you’d better get.” Very provocative, and very true.
His point is that as you become more efficient and effective and produce more with less effort, “it graduates your responsibilities and your attraction to bigger problems and opportunities — automatically. Hang on. Increasing your effectiveness is not the easy path, though it is by far the most rewarding” (p. 124).
In other words, as you become more effective, more room is created to do things and so you automatically start to take on more and tackle more difficult opportunities. So, in turn, you have to become even more effective to handle those.
That is so interesting and could be pondered in great detail. It echoes a principle that exists in many areas. For example, a few years ago I was reading a book on energy, The Bottomless Well. It made the point that increased energy efficiency has not decreased energy usage but rather increased it.
For example, as computers become more energy efficient, we don’t keep using them to do the same amount of work we did before. Rather, over time we begin to do more with them, thus using more energy overall. “Efficiency increases consumption. It makes what we ultimately consume cheaper, and lower price almost always increases consumption. To curb energy consumption, you have to lower efficiency, not raise it. But nobody, it seems, is in favor of that. [And rightly so!]” (p. 123).
So this is the interesting paradox: If you want to do less, you should actually become less efficient and less effective. But that’s clearly not the right path. That is the path of lethargy, and it is not virtuous. (And you’ll only be doing “less” in the sense of less output — your effort to get that smaller output will be much higher.)
Instead, as you become more effective, you need to in turn increase your effectiveness even more in order to handle the greater responsibilities that you will naturally be tackling. And you will need to become even better at prioritizing and determining what, out of all the new opportunities before you, is best to focus on. As Allen writes, “this is not the easy path. But it is the most rewarding.”