Productivity systems

I recently finished Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity by David Allen. (I read the first addition, and just realized while finding a link for the book that there is an updated version that is likely less dated).

I loved it, and while only time will tell if the systems I am now implementing will change my life, there are some interesting principles I wanted to share.

Before I talk about this book, here is a little background on why it is hitting so well for me right now.

My business coach wants me to do time-blocking. My understanding of this is to basically block out your whole week so that you know when you will be working on client plans, when you have times for meetings, and when you will start cooking dinner for or with your family, etc. All priorities are laid out.

More recently I have been introduced to something called Monday Hour One. This is basically a system to implement time-blocking. Every Monday morning, you sit down and spend an hour (or what it takes) to plan out your week as the very first thing you do. The system is a proponent of scheduling everything for a specific time and a set time, then when the time is up, you move to the next task no matter what.

I have been incredibly resistant to both of these systems. I do set out a weekly calendar and I write out the appointments, and then set goals for what I want to do each day. Then I keep other lists around of my overall to-do items. Usually I schedule too much for Mondays – more than I could possibly actually do, and then I move them to future days.

It has worked okay, but not great. But the thought of actually telling myself I have to do X at Y time is repelling. Is this because I am not good at setting goals and sticking through with them? Does it have something else to do with my relationship with myself?

It is an area of my life (my productivity system) that I have been avoiding. I knew I didn’t like this hour-one system and I didn’t really want to think about why. I also told myself that I’m pretty productive, so something I am doing must be working. Yet, I also felt that I was missing something. When I discussed scheduling with my business coach I started crying. I still don’t know why – but there is clearly something deep within me, probably something related to childhood, that either comes up around scheduling or some specific aspect with this.

It is with this background that I can tell you that Getting Things Done has been an excellent read for me. This is a system that resonates with me, I think it will allow me to take better control of my time, and, just as it touts, to get more done with less stress about what I’m not doing.

One more caveat: I strongly believe that different systems work better for different people, and we must play around to figure out what works best for us. I think time blocking and Monday Hour One are great systems for some people. But I think something else will work better for me.

So…the premise of Getting Things Done is in part to write everything down rather than keeping it in your head. Here is a quote about “The Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments”:

First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come back to regularly and sort through.

Second, you must clarify exactly what your commitment is and decide what you have to do, if anything, to make progress towards fulfilling it.

Third, once you’ve decided on all the actions you need to take, you must keep reminders of them organized in a system you review regularly.

~ Page 13 of Getting Things Done

A couple of highlights of the system:

  • Only things that MUST get done on a specific day go on the calendar for that day. That way, you are not confusing your mind on that day not knowing ahead of time what your priorities are. If you have 5 things on the calendar for the day, and realize you can only do 3, it will take mental energy if you have items there that don’t need to happen that day. This also takes the guilt away from my prior system. I ‘wanted’ to get so much done everyday, far more than I can actually accomplish, and I felt guilty not doing it.
  • There is a collection phase – you collect all you have to do or want to get done. Some physical items go in an inbox, then other items on a list. After the initial collection, this is something that can happen on an ongoing basis as you think of things. Then there is a sorting phase. During this period, you go through all of the inbox items not yet sorted. You figure out your next action item. And, if the action will take less than 2 minutes, you do it immediately. If not, you either put it on your action list, store it with reference items in a way you can get to (if you will want to refer to it later but there is no action now), or you delegate when appropriate.
  • Deciding the next action is key. He is a proponent of both a ‘projects’ list (a collection of items you want to do that take more than one action), and a someday/maybe list to collect the things you want to do but that are not immediate priorities. For the next action list that you actually work from – you have to cull through to figure out the very next step. So plan our holiday party becomes “call Joe to ask him to find a venue” or “write out menu for holiday party.” The author, and things rings true to me, says that we are more likely to delay doing something if the exact next step is not clear to us. I often find myself putting off projects for way too long, only to find that when I sit down to do them they only take an hour or two. But, it is getting started that I dread because I don’t quite know where to begin. Conversely, if I have to make a phone call, and I put it on a list of phone calls I have to make, well, then when I am somewhere I can make calls and have a few minutes and am in the right energy space, then I am more likely to get that step done.
  • When deciding what to actually do when, the systems takes into account our energy levels. I generally work intuitively and it seems to work for me. Even things I might put off, eventually I am in the right headspace and I get them done with much less effort than trying to force myself at a different moment. Sure there is some forcing, but less than the Monday Hour One system. I appreciate that my system if validated in this book.

Those are just a few highlights for me. Let me know if you read the book and what you get from it! Or if you use time blocking, Monday Hour One, or a different system and how it works for you!

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