Browsing the archives for the Getting Things Done tag.
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A Unexpectedly Brilliant Tool for Organization


In previous posts, I’ve recommended the online task manager Todoist for Getting Things Done-style organization. All the key features are available for free (though I subscribe to get the advanced features, paying $29/year). In March 2013, they introduced a tool called “karma,” a sort of ongoing game or rating based on how well you do at tracking and completing tasks. At the time, I must have thought it sounded to hokey or decided that the idea of having a productivity “score” was lame, because I didn’t start using it until five or six months ago. Since then, I’ve been a little amazed that it actually seems to work: I’m more productive, more focused, and more diligent specifically because of Todoist karma.

How can what basically amounts to a simple counting game help get more work done? By setting reachable goals and inspiring involvement. (For a more thorough consideration of the connection between games and motivation, read A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games.)

Let’s look at how that works. Here’s a screen shot of my karma as of today (click to zoom):

My Todoist karma


See the gray vertical lines, one for the last 7 days and one for the last 4 weeks? Those are my targets. I’m trying to complete at least that many tasks to keep on track, which is to say at least 5 per weekday and at least 25 per week. These are the default settings, which are actually great for me, but you can change them to whatever you want.

If I keep to these targets, my karma keeps going up, and my daily and weekly streaks (shown at the bottom) accumulate. (For more on motivation and winning streaks, see “Harnessing a Winning Streak.”)

As you can see from my streaks, I wasn’t able to keep on top of tasks in the same way as usual over the holidays, so I missed my targets several times up through the New Year, resetting the impressive streaks I had built up before Thanksgiving. Karma does have an important “vacation” feature (you just tell it that you’re on vacation, and it won’t expect you to get much done until you turn vacation back off). It also doesn’t expect you to get anything done on weekends (though you can change it so that you’re “on duty” any days of the week you like).

Todoist karma levels

The rewards to attending to karma are minimal: your graph keeps going up, you build up your streaks, your score improves, and every once in a long while you “level up” to a new karma category. This may not sound like much inducement to get things done, but if you think about it, it’s very similar to a video game, and video games are notoriously addictive: you have a score, levels, goals, specific challenges … it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible … in a word, you’re engaged.

Another thing I like about karma that initially seemed like a drawback is that it mainly just tracks the number of tasks you get done rather than trying to deal with priority or importance or size. This makes it simple to use–pretty much automatic, in fact–but it also rewards breaking big goals down into small tasks, which is an excellent motivational and organizational technique. If you enter “redo flooring in dining room” in as a task, it’s a good bet you’ll never get it done. On the other hand, if you start with tasks like “Find out what kind of wood flooring options are out there” and “Measure dining room and write down dimensions,” then you’ve got a great basis for accomplishing something.

The way karma helps me the most is in setting a number of things to get done. My task list is probably thousands of items long, set up in many different categories with different priorities. To be productive, I have to get at least a few of those things done each day. Often what happens is that I’ll get to evening and have completed, say, three tasks (this is outside of my work task list, which I maintain separately). Being conscious of my Todoist karma, I’m aware that I can do two more to maintain my streaks and increase my score, or give up for the day, lose points and get my streaks reset. It’s nearly always possible to get two small tasks done, however, and so I generally do them, and this keeps my attention on what I have to do and also encourages me to do just a bit more each day. That’s exactly the level of quiet, private encouragement I need.

In short, if you’re in need of an elegant, easy-to-use, effective, and free task management system, you’ll have a hard time doing better than Todoist–and if you use Todoist, you should consider using the karma feature to engage more enthusiastically with all the tasks in your life.

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Organization: Where Do I Start?


Recently I pulled together some key ideas to use when getting organized into a post, “Organization: Useful Principles,” and I promised to follow up with links to organization posts on this site and with a book recommendation.

I’ll start with the book recommendation, which is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Allen offers an extremely well-designed approach to organizing task lists and taking care of items on that list: you can get more information on his book in my post “Useful Book: Getting Things Done.”

As to articles on this site, here are some that I hope you might find especially useful:

Task organization
Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List
Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule
My Top 1 Task
Why Tasks Lists Sometimes Fail 

Attitude and emotions
Effective Organization and Filing Are … Fun???
Relieving Stress by Understanding Your Inputs
4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done 

Organizing papers
Why bother organizing papers?
The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper 

Digging Out, Cleaning Up, Uncluttering, and Getting Organized: Let’s Start With a Link
What Our Garage Sale Taught Me About Decluttering My Mind
Some Tips for Getting Rid of Things

How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty
Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox
My Empty E-mail Inbox, 10 Weeks Later 

General principles
Organization: Useful Principles
How Exceptions Cripple Organization
Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips
Little by Little or Big Push?

Photo once again by Rubbermaid Products

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A Cure for Task List Avoidance


Our culture has a love-hate relationship with task lists. Many of us make them, use them for a while, then eventually start avoiding them, trying not to think about how out of date they’re getting and what there might be on them that we really ought to be doing.

Or we try to do without task lists, using sticky notes and flagged e-mails and calendar reminders and stacks of papers that need something done with them and all kinds of other systems, only to find that there are still a lot of tasks we need to keep in our head, which keep spurring anxiety because when we don’t have time to do them right away, we worry we’ll forget about them completely: parking tickets, birthdays, that leak in the basement, finding out what that weird charge on the phone bill was, getting cholesterol checked …

Some background: all about task lists
I won’t go into a complete discussion of why I think the solution to this is a single, well-organized task list with categories, because I’ve already talked about a lot of basic task list issues in other posts, and I don’t want to waste your time with repetitions. If you haven’t read them yet, though, here are some articles from the wayback machine:

Why Task Lists Fail
4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done
The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper
Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks
My Top 1 Task
Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule
Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List
Useful Book: Getting Things Done
How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty

When things start to slide
But even if you’ve followed my recommendations in these articles, do you ever find that your task management begins to slide–that you start falling back on notes or keeping things in your inbox, or you spawn new areas of your task list into which you throw tasks blindly, or you just try to keep everything in your head? Every once in a while this happens to me, so if it doesn’t sound familiar, my hat’s off to you. If it does sound familiar, though, then I may be able to offer an easy way out. All it takes is a little focus and time; it’s very low-stress.

The key is that a complete task management system relies on a certain amount of faith: you have to have faith that you’re actually going to get to at least some of the most important tasks on your list. If you lose confidence, if you start thinking you’re going to miss something on the list, then you may stop putting your more important items on the list, reasoning that it’s better to be a little flexible about what goes on the list than to risk not getting things done. As soon as you do that, you have a reason to avoid your list, because some of your most pressing tasks aren’t even on it, and this snowballs.

Or it can happen the other way around: you feel a little rushed and jot a few tasks on sticky notes or try to just keep them in memory, and then you realize that your list is no longer reliable and you lose confidence in it.

Fixing task list confidence
What’s the fix? Go back to basics, put your faith in your list, get everything on it, and pay attention to your list regularly. The steps are pretty easy:

  1. Whenever you think of something you need to do (or would like to do) that isn’t on the list, put on the list right away. If you can’t always do that, then you need a different system: it doesn’t help to have a task list that you can’t add to in real time.
  2. Keep a very small number of do-these-soonest items set apart. You can do this by assigning priorities, establishing a “very short-term tasks” category, tagging these top items, or any other means that works for you, but you need to be able to identify your top four to eight tasks. Any more than that and you’ll have a hard time doing the next step.
  3. Put the task you want to get done first at the top of the list. Ideally, put the task in order from want-to-get-done-first on down, though it’s really that top task that’s essential.
  4. As you get tasks done, bring more tasks into the “very short-term tasks” set and keep putting the next task you want to get done first at the top of the list.
  5. Don’t put important tasks anywhere else: just on your list. Between adding tasks, looking tasks up, and crossing tasks off, you’ll be forced to
  6. Visit your task list regularly, so that it never starts getting out of date.
  7. Finally, do maintenance on your task list, re-prioritizing and recategorizing as necessary, checking in on your pending items, deleting items that it turns out you don’t have to or want to do after all. This should be don’t-think-about-it work, which you do separately from actually getting your tasks done (except that if you have some very quick tasks, it’s often more efficient to do them then and there, if you have any time at all, than to keep shuffling them around–even if they’re not very high priority). This seventh step is optional: if you maintain a good “very short-term tasks” group and keep choosing one of those tasks to go to the top, the rest of your task list can be a mess–but it being in good order makes keeping the “very short-term tasks” group up to date much easier.

Worried it won’t get done? Overwhelmed by the list?
This solution solves two distinct problems: anxiety about not getting tasks done and being overwhelmed by everything on your list.

The anxiety is alleviated by identifying that top task. If it really is the thing you should be doing first, then you don’t have to worry that you’re neglecting something more important. By contrast, if you didn’t have a top task, then you might be tempted to pick off the most inviting or easy-looking tasks, or to avoid your task list altogether because of not wanting to face the worry.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is taken away when you just ask yourself simple questions like “Does this belong in my list of very short-term tasks?” and “Which of this handful of tasks should I do first?” Just like going through e-mail or papers, going through a task list can be especially stressful if you look at it as a whole, because no one can do a whole bunch of things at once (see “How to Multitask, and When Not To“). By simply going through your items in the order you find them, you can make individual decisions that are easier and more pleasant than trying to grapple with a stack of decisions could ever be.

Photo by heymrlady

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Brain Overload and Why Your Doctor May Seem Like a Jerk

The human mind

Blogger Dr. Grasshopper, who practices internal medicine in a large urban hospital, posted this today: “Why Your Doctor Comes Across As An A**hole.” Does your doctor seem uninterested in you? Do you feel hurried out of the examining room? Do you ever feel like your big concerns are being brushed aside? Dr. Grasshopper’s post and the article it strongly recommends (“Neuron overload and the juggling physician” in The Lancet) help shed light on issues you and I might not have considered before. They also cover some interesting points about what needs to be fixed in our health care system. They’re the kind of thing practically anyone could benefit from reading in terms of understanding more about their health, their insurance, and their health care providers.

How we’re like doctors
But I have an additional reason to point to the Lancet article in this post, and it’s that many of us have the same problem those doctors do: too many things to juggle with a brain that is designed to only ever juggle one thing at a time.

In my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To” from a couple of years back, I talk about neuroscientist John Medina’s observations on how attention and focus work. His two key points are:

  1. We can only focus our attention on one thing at a time, and
  2. Every time we change our focus, we have to do extra work, and we increase the likelihood that we’ll make an error.

For example, if you’re studying from a textbook while sorta-watching a TV program in the background, then you’re creating constant interruptions as your attention moves back and forth. Every time you start paying attention to the program, your brain has to shut down everything you were thinking about what you were reading and then fire up pathways that relate to the TV show. When you look back to the book, the process has to happen again in reverse, but with a good chance that some of the pieces you had in your head a moment ago won’t be included in the re-activation and will be lost.

The benefits of single focus
Even if you only pay attention to 10 minutes of TV during an hour of studying, the number of times you go back and forth between those two things will make your studying much, much less efficient. It’s much better to study for a solid block of time and then watch TV for a solid block of time: you’ll remember more and still have more time to pay attention to the TV show (if that’s what you want to do with your time).

OK, most of us reading this already know that watching TV while studying doesn’t work well. The reason this applies to so many of us is that the same thing is true for any situation where we’re trying to give attention to two things at once–like trying to figure out what to do about a scheduling conflict over the weekend while composing an e-mail at work. It gets even worse when our attention is distracted by many different things.

An example
This is what can sometimes happen to me: I’ll be working on a computer task (for example), be distracted by a new thought about a writing project, realize I need to arrange something for one of the kids, then recall I still haven’t returned a friend’s phone call, then remember that I was supposed to be working on the computer. Each change of focus comes with an inefficient changeover of my mental setup, and the whole process is likely to be enhanced by stress at having so much to worry about and guilt at not getting more of these things done. What’s worse, I may not be staying with any of these tasks long enough to make actual progress.

How not to fall into this trap
The solution is a good organizational system that’s always kept up to date (so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not there’s something in it that you haven’t checked or updated recently) and setting up tasks one after the other, never intermixed if you can help it. (See my post “Useful Book: Getting Things Done” for what I suggest is the gold standard for organizational systems.) If you add to that organization and focus a habit of getting rid of tasks and distractions that aren’t important in your life–or at least getting comfortable with giving them such a low priority that you understand they may never get done–then you have an approach that can yield a much calmer, more productive, and happier day-to-day existence.

Will this help doctors? Maybe not. After all, the problem doctors face is that they’re required to do more work than they can do effectively and at their highest level of skill. Insurance companies and related forces prioritize doctors’ practices. Fortunately, most of us are the ones prioritizing our own lives.

Photo by lovefaucet

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How Exceptions Cripple Organization

Strategies and goals

There’s a common, natural tendency many of us have to think of a thing as more important if our attention is focused on it. This can both help and hurt us. The helpful thing is that this can offer an easy way to get started on a task, because the more we think about something, the more likely we are to do actually do it.

Where this instinct hurts us, though, is in situations where we don’t organize a piece of information because we’re worried about losing track of it.

The problem is that to keep on top of a variety of incoming information, we need to handle all of it, pretty much without exception, using the same system. For instance, if we’re using a Getting Things Done approach to organization and an important letter comes in, Getting Things Done tells us to process it immediately or put it in our inbox. But we may hold back, thinking “No, I have to be sure to remember to do this! I’d better prop it up in front of my computer instead.”

Or if using a clean inbox approach, we might get a long e-mail from a friend who’s been out of touch for some time and think “Oh, I’d better not file that in my Reply/Act box, because I don’t want to forget to write back as soon as I can.”

Unfortunately, continuing to do this leads to pieces of paper lying around all over the place or e-mails stacking up in the inbox, each one of which distracts us from our organizational system and is hard to keep track of on its own. It’s too easy to not trust an organizational system and to try to make exceptions for whatever’s right in front of our eyes. When we do this, the organizational system rapidly collapses, because organizational systems that aren’t used to handle pretty much everything aren’t much use.

If a task or message can be handled right away, though, the situation is a bit different: responding to something immediately may bypass priorities (for instance, you might spend a lot of time on the reply to that friend when it’s more pressing to follow up on a medical issue), but something will get done. The most serious problems come when something that can’t be dealt with right away is held out for special handling.

The essence of an organizational system, or at least of the kind of organizational systems I can recommend as being truly effective, is using it for everything and faithfully reviewing everything in your system often enough that you never lose track of anything that goes in. It requires a leap of faith as well as a change of habit–and so it’s no wonder that it takes some effort to make the transition from organized to disorganized. But when that transition happens, our efforts are richly rewarded not just by improving our productivity, but also by transforming scattered, anxious feelings into a measure of confidence and serenity.

Photo by nickwheeleroz

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Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox


Back in February I posted the article “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty” after applying many of the things I’ve learned in researching organization and self-motivation, particularly David Allen’s excellent book Getting Things Done. Since then I’ve had no trouble keeping my inbox empty, especially with tricks I learned since (see My Empty E-mail Inbox, 10 Weeks Later), except that, since I often read and answer e-mail on the go, I haven’t been able to use desktop e-mail applications I used to use like Outlook and Apple Mail. The problem with using these is that if I look at the same e-mail account with more than one system, I have repeat all my organization and inbox cleaning in every one of those–which means that it just won’t get done. Who wants to get home from a trip, for instance, and have to reorganize two hundred e-mails that were already organized on a laptop while away?

Failed (and not-so-failed) free e-mail options

I’d mentioned I was using a Web-based e-mail application provided by my ISP, but I’ve been disappointed to find that this application, although it has most of the features I want, is buggy and sometimes intolerably slow. So I’ve been searching for a replacement program I could use, something freely available on the Web that I could also recommend to my readers here.

[Added after the original post: If you’re interested in using GMail with this approach, please see the comments, where D. Moonfire offers a potential solution to the problem I’m about to describe.]

You’d think I’d go with GMail, since it’s robust and efficient and feature-packed, but GMail is fundamentally unsuited to the task of keeping an empty inbox, because it doesn’t use folders: instead, it uses tags and categories. Rather than moving something off into a folder, you tag it with the folder name. This seems handy, and can be, and it also allows a single message to be categorized in more than one way, but since nothing can ever be moved out of the inbox, that means that there is no way to reap the organizational and psychological benefits of a clean inbox with GMail at all. Instead of facilitating a clean inbox, it assumes you’ll never be able to keep your inbox organized and doesn’t even provide the means to manage it. If it were a human being, we’d call it an Enabler, which in this case is not a good thing.

There may be ways around this in GMail; I’ll present them if I come across them.

One that works: Hotmail
The system I found that does work and that is free to all comers is Hotmail, a.k.a. Microsoft Live Mail. If you despise all things Microsoft, of course, this won’t appeal to you, but otherwise it does the job fairly well. You can set up Hotmail to receive e-mail from other accounts and can organize all your incoming e-mail into folders.  They even recently added a feature that gives you a little congratulatory message if you empty out your inbox (though I have a feeling this isn’t a message very many people see.) Hotmail is easy to use, has drag-and-drop functionality, and is very responsive.

There are a couple of drawbacks. One is that Hotmail doesn’t allow subfolders, so I can’t make categories out of my folders and collapse them when I don’t need them. It also doesn’t allow very long folder names. This is inconvenient, but I’ve worked around it by naming folders things like Read_offers instead of having an “offers” folder within my “read” (as in “already read”) folder. I also had to place underscore symbols at the beginning of the names of my utility folders so that they would be listed together at the talk, as Hotmail always shows folders alphabetically.

The other drawback is that it often seems to take about 10 minutes (very roughly) for an e-mail to arrive from an external e-mail account. Normally this doesn’t matter much, but it’s a big obstacle if you’re having a semi-real-time e-mail conversation with someone, if someone sends you something while talking with you on the phone, or if the correspondence is time-sensitive. This delay doesn’t occur with the free account you get from Hotmail itself, though.

So while I can’t recommend Hotmail wholeheartedly, I can say that for the month-and-a-half or so I’ve used it, administrating my e-mail has been easier than it ever has been before because Hotmail supports the “empty inbox” approach very well.

Any readers who have recommendations of other free or very affordable Web-based e-mail systems they would recommend for this purpose are very much encouraged to mention them in comments.

A Simple Way to Start Dealing With Worries

Handling negative emotions

I don’t know about you, sometimes I find myself in a mood where I feel out of sorts but can’t point to any one thing as being the cause. That kind of state rarely does me any good: usually it means I won’t get a lot done, won’t enjoy the day as much, and am no help to the moods of people around me–unless I get out of it. To accomplish that, I have a very simple process I use, which is to list out worries in writing.

The idea here is just emptying my head. It’s related to David Allen‘s recommended practice of getting all of your thoughts and concerns on paper so that you can organize them, although in this case organization isn’t the point. It’s also related to decision logging, the practice of writing down notes about your own situation and choices as things happen in order to increase mindfulness, but it isn’t about mindfulness per se. In fact, the thing it’s most like that I’ve mentioned is swatting deer flies by letting them settle on you before you hit them (although I promise it’s much less nerve-wracking): that is, it’s about paying simple, direct attention to worries individually, one after the other.

This tactic doesn’t take any preparation: just grab paper and pen or fire up a computer, then start writing a list of whatever comes to mind that’s bugging you. It might look something like this:

– I’m still annoyed about that guy at the store who wouldn’t stop talking to me
– I can’t believe I forgot to pay my cell phone bill on time
– How in the world am I going to find time to take that refresher course?
– Do I need to go shopping? I don’t think there’s anything for dinner
– My car’s making that noise again

It’s not necessary to do anything about these issues as they come up, but when you’re done listing, you might want to start writing out your thoughts about each one, and to look for broken ideas. Sometimes all that’s needed to completely solve an issue is to reframe it in a healthy and accurate way.

You might think that writing these things down would cause more anxiety instead of less, but it really tends to produce relief. Instead of being plagued with multiple, unnamed anxieties, instead we’ve now got a list of clear, specific issues–issues we might even be able to do something about, although just getting them down in writing itself makes a real difference. My favorite moment in this process is when I ask myself “OK, what else?” and I just can’t think of anything. In that moment I’m reminded that the things I worry about have a limit, and that I might be able to make some progress in fixing them them … or even, until I can do something about them, just accept them … just for now.

Photo by Phoney Nickle


Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks

Strategies and goals

Here’s a quick and easy exercise: look at your task list (or if you don’t have your task list, just start jotting down or typing out a list of things you’d like to get done) until you find an item that will take five minutes or less to do–especially if it’s one that you really don’t at all feel like doing. You don’t have to do it now, so it’s completely safe to pick a really unpleasant one if you can find it.

Now ask yourself: how many times have I thought about/spent time avoiding/reshuffled or scheduled this particular item? If the answer is that you jotted it down on your task list very recently when you were in the middle of something else, or that you just thought of it, either 1) you’re doing amazingly and don’t need any further information on this subject or 2) you have other less-than-five-minute items you’ve actually been avoiding and need to pick one of those instead.

Now ask yourself, just for fun or any insight it may provide, has organizing/keeping track of/thinking about/avoiding the item taken more time and attention so far than actually completing the task would? Even if the answer is “no” in this case, might it be “yes” in other cases? It certainly is sometimes in my life.

An example: my shower hasn’t been draining well lately, something I noticed a couple of weeks ago. I usually shower when I’m gearing up to go somewhere and don’t have a lot of spare time, so whenever I noticed the shower problem, I kept thinking (for the first week) “I have to remember to put that on my task list.” To my credit, as soon as I remembered it anywhere near my task list I did write it down, and I didn’t even fall for the trap of writing down “clear shower clog,” which is vague and doesn’t have a specific action attached to it, but instead wrote down “Check to see if I have any drain opener.”

Then the task sat for another week.

This morning I was reviewing my task list and doing my best to adhere faithfully to David Allen‘s very good advice about not handling things over and over: anything that would take a few minutes or less, I did it immediately rather than shuffling it around. When I got to the “check for drain opener” item, I went and checked to see if I had any drain opener. Nope. I could have then written down the next item “Search the Web for clearing shower drain ideas,” but since that too would only take a few minutes, I did it. A few minutes later I was upstairs in my bathroom, prying the drain cover up with a flat head screwdriver and then extracting gobs of my (and I suspect, the previous resident’s) hair. As a public service, I did not take a picture of that to illustrate this post. I got rid of the hair, washed off the screwdriver, and was back at my computer in hardly the time it would have taken to make a cup of tea. Then I checked the drain opening item off.

This was not always the way I would have handled things. Often in the past I would have thought “No no: organize now, do later.” The change in thinking for me was in considering these tiny tasks part of the the organizing.

Keep in mind that even if the task is very trivial, if it’s got some of your attention, it’s a win to get it done right away. That’s because there’s a point at which a task, however unimportant, takes more of your time and attention not to do than to do.

There’s a more advanced and effective step beyond what I did, which would have been to provide a little extra time to get ready each morning so that I’d have leisure to deal with the shower drain immediately when it came up. Allowing a little extra time here and there allows us to pick off a lot of things as they come up, and makes it easier to keep up with things like quick answers to e-mails, doing a few stray dishes that are sitting in the sink, or making a brief telephone call–all of which offers a more productive and less distracted life. It’s like clearing a clog to let water flow freely. And fortunately, it only takes a few minutes.

Some related articles:

Photo by  ap.

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Useful Book: Getting Things Done


Getting Things Done by David Allen is by far the best book I’ve ever read on organization, and it also has a lot to say about productivity and peace of mind.

When my friend Roger loaned the book to me, I was a little curious but didn’t expect much. I’d already had a pretty effective task management system in place for some time, and at best I was expecting Allen to offer a few ideas for minor improvements. It it did turn out to be true that most of the things he had to say in his book were things I was already doing, but Allen’s deep understanding of the subject offered me a wider, more useful view that was both practical and powerfully motivating.

Getting Things Done offers a way to look at and interact with “stuff”–papers, objects lying around the house, pestering concerns that keep surfacing in the mind, incomplete projects, dead plants, upcoming events, or anything else that’s fighting for our attention. Allen describes how to stream things into useful categories with a set of simple, familiar systems–task list, calendar, file drawers, etc. Yet the rules for the process he describes are not the familiar ones, because once something has been processed, you stop having to worry about it. Allen’s approach doesn’t just clean up and organize a physical environment: it creates reliable ways to know that you’re keeping track of everything and therefore creates a lot of peace of mind. Of course, this same approach does great things for productivity, and it yields unexpected benefits like increased reliability, management of stress, clarifying priorities, and improved communication.

My initial impression of the book was that it was mainly directed toward busy executives, and it’s true that these seem to be the people Allen mainly works with. However, he also understands perfectly well what needs to be done to deal with a home, family, or even vague set of aspirations for the future. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is trying to organize, get a handle on an overly busy life, create more serenity and confidence, or become more productive.

I’ve written recently on the site about several ideas that overlap with or draw on Allen’s:

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Why Task Lists Sometimes Fail

Strategies and goals

Task lists can help you get a ton of things done and give you peace of mind–but usually don’t. The average task list feels less like a train flying down the tracks of productivity and more like a train you missed, a train that’s going somewhere you don’t want to be, or a train wreck. Why? Here are the five main reasons.

1. The list isn’t really easy to get to and use
If you can’t pull up your task list in less than 30 seconds and easily update it, you’ll probably be too busy actually doing things to keep messing around with it. For a task list to be truly useful, it has to be easily accessible everywhere you might want to use it, and it has to be very easy to find, add, change, and check off items. Otherwise it’s a constant burden and an interruption, and it takes enormous effort to keep up with a habit like that.

Find a tool for tasks you love that’s available where you need it. Since I’m almost always near a computer, I like the free service called Todoist.

2. Not everything is on it
If you keep some of your tasks in your task list but others in other places–like sticky notes on your computer, scribbles on pieces of paper, or even physical reminders like leaving out something you need to fix instead of putting it on your list–then you can’t trust your list to tell you what you should be doing at all times, which is its job. An effective task list needs to have everything you need to do on it. This requires getting in the habit of immediately going to your task list to add a task whenever you promise to do something, think of something you need to attend to, receive something in the mail you have to respond to, etc.–or make sure all of your tasks get written down and use the paper management approach I talk about in this post about how to handle incoming paper and this post about organizing and filing.

3. It doesn’t get reviewed regularly
If you put things on your task list and then avoid looking at it again, then it won’t be up to date or useful. If you’re not looking at your task list regularly, it’s probably because your task list is stressing you out (see #s 4 and 5, below) or because it’s too much of a pain in the neck to use (see #1, above)–or both.

4. It lists wishes instead of tasks
Many task lists contain items like “Take care of leaky faucet.” This is not a task unless you already know how to fix a leaky faucet and have all the tools and supplies you need. A task is something that you immediately know how to do and can act on without having to figure out anything new; anything vaguer than that is just a wish, and when we look at wishes on task lists our first reaction is likely to be “Ack, I’ve got to take care of that … uh, but why don’t I [fill in your choice of procrastination here] first?” On the other hand, if the item is “Go to hardware store and buy 3/8 inch washer,” then you may think “Hey, I’m driving past there anyway … I’ll pick that up.” (Of course, once you check that off you need to immediately add the next step.)

If you have to figure out a task in order to do it, the task is figuring out what to do, for instance “Write down a plan for taking care of the leaky faucet.” Thinking things through is a perfectly good task, the first step in a sequence of steps that will eventually lead to a completed project.

5. No prioritization
If your task list is just a big mass of things that need doing, you’ll have to review and reconsider the whole thing every time you go back over it unless you take the “pot shot” approach. The “pot shot” approach can work–you just look for the first task you can do right now and tackle it–but it means you may spend all your time doing unimportant stuff.

So don’t let your task list stay a big mass. Break your tasks down into categories by the situation you’ll be in (at computer, at home, errands, etc.) and migrate more important tasks to the top. Then when you’re ready to consult your task list, just consult the right list for your situation and look at the top few items to see which one seems to be most pressing.

It may help to keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of knowing how to use a task list, buy also of being willing to adopt new task-related habits. Just knowing how to do it isn’t enough.

There’s a lot more a person could know about task lists, but the most important pieces are all in those five items. If you want more detail, I highly recommend Dave Allen’s book Getting Things Done, from which several of the ideas in this post were extracted.

Photo by GTD enthusiast MrMole

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