A new year is just around the corner. For some of us, that just means a few weeks of writing the date wrong. For others, it means an opportunity to become the person we dream of being who’s living the life such a person would deserve. Many find the new year a perfect time to make a more compelling commitment than the ones their teachers, parents or bosses ask them to make every day. If that’s you, here’s an idea for a new year’s resolution that would make a difference in your life in both the short and long term. Get your life in order in 2017. Or if that seems too big, get your life in order on January 2nd, 2017, and then keep it that way.
I’ve been a huge fan of organizational systems for decades, from Franklin planners and Eisenhower matrixes to Getting Things Done (GTD) and the personal kanban. They all address the same basic problems of how to know what to do when. We can deconstruct them and find some common elements that most every productivity guru agrees your system has to have to work.
Get it out of your head
There’s nothing like the stress of feeling there’s something important that you should be doing if only you could remember what it is, except perhaps the stress of that moment when your boss, spouse, child, or friend reminds you when they show up and tell you how you’ve just dropped the ball and let everyone down. Isn’t it crazy how at that moment, the memory of you making the commitment jumps so clearly into your mind that you can feel yourself right there making that promise with every intention of following through, and then all the time between then and now is suddenly compressed into a blur of poor judgements. The best solution I’ve found to ensure that ideas and commitments don’t get lost is to have a small set of places where everything goes. I’ve tried to simplify this down to one place and failed. It’s just not convenient enough. But too many turns into clutter. So I have five “dump and forget” places for tasks:
I put every event here. Meetings, birthdays, deadlines, vacations, travel, and conferences. If there’s something I need to do to be prepared, I add it as an email reminder. For example, my brother’s birthday is in November, and when I created the recurring event in Google Calendar, I added a reminder that emails me two weeks in advance to tell me to buy and send a card. If I have a status meeting in my calendar, I might have a reminder to update the status report the day before. That way, I can commit to a task weeks, months or years in advance and then forget about it, confident that I’ll know what I need to know when I need to know it and not before.
I have a little magnetic whiteboard designed to look like a sheet of notebook paper stuck to the inside of the front door of my home. My family has learned that if they ask me to do something and I reply “sure, no problem” that they shouldn’t expect much. If I’m up to my elbows in cookie dough, they can scribble a reminder on the little whiteboard, and know it will get done. I also use this for ideas that pop up anytime I’m in the house and just want to capture them. Once it’s on the board, I don’t have to waste one iota of brainpower on remembering it.
A physical inbox
I have a regular plastic inbox on my desk at work and another at home. It starts every week empty and as things come up, like mail or bills, that don’t have to be dealt with immediately, they go into the inbox for later processing. I also scribble notes on Post-Its or scraps of paper throughout the day and dump anything I don’t have to take action on immediately into the inbox so I can, you guessed it, not waste one iota of brainpower remembering it.
Everything I have to do, which comes to me by email, mail, inspiration, or conversation gets captured in my physical inbox or whiteboard and moved once a week into Kanbanery. I can also create new tasks on my personal kanban board either from the board itself, if I’m logged in, using hotkeys to enter several things quickly. If I’m not logged in, I can add task cards to Kanbanery by email or use the Kanbanery Chrome extension. Most things, though, get added on Monday morning when I empty my various inboxes into Kanbanery so that I have one list of things I could be doing all in one place, and all my other inboxes start the week empty.
Make the abstract concrete
Unless it’s a bill to pay or a toy that to fix, most things we do don’t have much of a physical reality. They build up without taking up space. No one can see how busy we are, including ourselves, unless your job is sorting mail. So now that you have all those things written down someplace, find a way to see what you’re working on, what you’ve done, and what’s yet to do. Most people find “to do” lists with check marks uninspiring and even depressing. Sure, striking things off feels good, but the list itself just keeps growing and feels like an insatiable beast. That’s why I prefer a Kanbanery board.
I have a column for ideas, one for things I want to get done this week, and another for things I want to do today. Then, as I work through my day, I pull from the “To Do Today” column into “Doing” and finally “Done.” If I empty the today column and still feel motivated to work, I pull more stuff in from the “This Week” column. But once I’ve decided what to do this week and today, I collapse any columns I’m not using so I don’t have to look at what I’ve decided not to think about today. They’ll be there when I need to think about them tomorrow.
There are several tools for prioritization. The Eisenhower matrix divides things into a Important/Unimportant and Urgent/Not Urgent. I find that a useful idea, especially the awareness that there are things that are urgent and unimportant and that there are other things which are important but not urgent. That’s a reminder to plan your life, because if you don’t, your time will be filled with urgent trivialities. Most of what most people do most of the time could be left undone and nothing bad would ever happen as a result.
I like the DSDM prioritization practice called MoSCoW. This method divides things into Must Do, Should Do, Could Do, and Won’t Do. But it’s still more complex than I find I need.
I use a simplified version of the Kanban Method’s “cost of delay” metric to plan my days. I first pull into my “To Do Today” column anything that if not done, bad things would happen. How bad, I leave to my discretion. An easy task that would be very costly if left undone will always make the cut, but if I see something hard to do which won’t hurt much if I put it off, then it might not make it in today, or ever. For me, the “very bad things will happen if these things aren’t done today” list is extremely short. It rarely has more than one or two items in it and is often empty. That’s my Must Do list. Once my Must Do list is complete, the rest of my day is discretionary, so I look for three sets of things to do next:
Stuff I want to do because I feel like it. If it’s valuable, but not urgent, and I’m in the mood to do it, then why not? I might not be in the mood when it does become urgent, and I’ll do a better job of it and have a happier day if I do it when I’m feeling motivated.
Stuff that’s likely to become tomorrow’s “Must Do or Very Bad Things Will Happen.” That’s how you keep the list short, which gives you more options every day.
Stuff that is super important, but will never be urgent. For example, writing a letter to my old mentor at my last job will never be urgent. If I never do it, no one will even know. Our relationship will grow more distant. We’ll eventually forget about each other. Nothing bad will ever happen. I’ll just grow old with one less friend in the world. And I’ll never know if I miss a great opportunity because he wasn’t thinking of me when he was looking for an investor or business partner.
Most productivity systems have little to say about the most important aspect of being productive, which is producing stuff. They seem to assume that once you know what needs to be done, you’ll just do it. My kit includes three tools from the productivity literature that all work to help with this critical component.
The two-minute rule
It’s amazing how many important tasks take a trivial amount of time. Invite a person to a meeting. Make a decision. Make a dental appointment. Sort the mail. Floss. Truely life-altering stuff. Keep your “to do” list uncluttered by not putting this stuff on it. If you are making your plan for the day, or just have a sudden inspiration to do something, and it’s something you can do right now in two minutes or less, just do it. That’s half your life’s problems, solved now and in real time. You’re welcome.
The Pomodoro Technique
For everything else, there’s the Pomodoro Technique. Why it works is worth a book, not a blog post, and I encourage you to read it. How it works is simple. Decide what to do next, set a timer for twenty-five minutes, then work on only that thing until it’s done or until the timer stops. Take a break; grab a cup of tea, jog around the block or watch a Louis C.K. video on YouTube. Have a laugh, or a sweat, or a sweet. Whatever takes your mind off work for five minutes. Then set the timer again and get back to work. Do one thing at a time. Finish it before moving on to the next thing. Kindness gratifies; Love prevails, and focus gets things done. The most powerful ideas are often the most simple.
Just get started
I hate washing dishes, so when I walk into the kitchen to wash dishes, I never plan to wash all of them. I only commit to washing ten of them. I count them as I go. But for some reason, once the first ten dishes are washed and my hands are wet and the sponge has soap on it and the sink’s already full of warm water I think, what the hell, it’s almost done. Might as well finish.
I rarely sit down to write a blog post. That takes a lot of time. I could always find a reason to do something else rather than spend a couple of hours writing. Usually, I sit down to write for five minutes. Maybe I’ll knock out an introduction and chisel away at the task so it’s not so big tomorrow. But usually, when I sit down to write for five minutes, half an hour or more passes before I look up and realize that I’ve just accidentally finished a draft of a blog post. A sentence turns into a paragraph. The paragraph turns into an idea. One idea leads to another. I might not have felt like writing a whole blog post when I opened my laptop half an hour ago, but I’m up to 2163 words already and still enjoying myself.
The scariest tasks always look far less scary when you’re five minutes into them. They can even start to look kind of fun, or at least satisfying. So if I’m putting something off because it’s too big, I just give it five or ten minutes. No big deal. No commitment. No repercussions if I don’t finish it in one sitting. And I’m usually pleasantly surprised by how much I get done that way.
So there you are. Get your life in order. It seems like a lot, but there are only a few components that all play together to get your life in order. Capture everything, remember nothing. Visualize the work on a Kanbanery board. Make small commitments to a week, a day, and the next twenty-five minutes. Then focus and dig in using the two-minute rule and the Pomodoro Technique. Life, organized. Unicorns and rainbows. Happy New Year!