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.