Why you should get stuff out of your head

Get stuff out of your headOne of the key tenants of GTD is getting stuff out of your head.

Many people do not understand why this is so important.

The reason is our minds are not built to remember all of the little “commitments” we make every day. Our subconscious knows we have some kind of commitment and it “worries” in the background or subconsciously that we will forget something important. This leads to stress.

So, the way out of this is to put the “stuff” (appointments, numbers, tasks, ideas, notes, worries, promises, deadlines, reminders, projects, maybes, etc.) in a Trusted System.

Think about life before electronic “contacts” applications.

You had to memorize things like people’s address and phone numbers. How well did that work out?  Sure, some people could memorize lots of phone numbers and were very proud of this fact. But, most people had no way of memorizing lots of phone numbers and needed a way to “get them out of their head” and into a Trusted System.

Initially, people used pencil and paper to store people’s addresses and phone numbers. Then the trusted system was a physical “Rolodex” or some kind of a journal with all your contact info. Then, as technology advanced, for most people it was “Contacts” in Outlook that served as our trusted system. Finally, the concept of contacts became universal and today our mobile devices make our contacts available to us anytime, anywhere on earth.  What a great trusted system! Calendars followed a similar path.

When we trust a system to store our “stuff” our brain let’s go of that little background task that is worried you will forget about the commitment.  If there is one thing that technology is great at, it’s remembering things. The biggest instant benefit of capturing your “stuff” is that once you capture it, you feel relief instantly. The is because once you have captured your “stuff” you can forget about it. You know where to find it if/when you need it.  And this reduces stress.

Don’t store things in your head. Put them in a trusted system. You will be rewarded with relief and increased mental capacity. You will almost immediately feel better.  By capturing your “stuff”, you will increase your mental capacity. It’s like an upgrade for your brain.

Once you start doing this, you might be shocked how clearly you can think and how efficiently you can function. It’s almost like magic.

Tell me about your trusted system.

What’s the Next Action?

Next actionI had lunch today with one of my dearest friends whom I respect and admire tremendously.  Our conversation turned to the list of 30 opportunities he had for the next phase of his career. I said I didn’t want to have lunch six months from now and for him to be in the same position.  So, I asked him to do me a favor and to take each one of those 30 opportunities and write out exactly what the next action was.

Later in the lunch, we reviewed what I had asked him to do and he said “figure out the next move on the list” and while close, I wanted to make sure he understood exactly what I  meant by “Next Action.”  Words mean things and when it comes to next actions, David Allen has a very specific definition that I think is critical to success in GTD. What is the very next physical action required to move the project forward?

One of the reasons that previous generations of time management and personal productivity systems have failed is because they do not embrace the concept of the next action. Even simple to-do lists suffer from this problem.  For example, if you have an abstract item on your to-do list like “paint the house”, you will never do it because every time you look at it, you will subconsciously realize there are many steps necessary to complete the task.  It is just too hard to mentally figure out what you need to do to actually check off “paint the house” from your to-do list.  You really need to figure out what needs to be done and what order to do it to actually complete “paint the house.”  That’s because “paint the house” is really a project.

Projects have many steps, and can be overwhelming in their complexity. The key to handling these projects is not to focus on everything hat has to be done – that’s a great way to freak yourself out.  Instead, just focus on the very next physical action you need to do to move the project forward. It may be looking up a piece of information, making a phone call, researching something on the web, scheduling an appointment or accomplishing a small task. Whatever it is, it’ll move you closer to completing the project, so don’t worry about everything else – focus only on what you can do right now.

By thinking about it now and writing it down as the next action you can take to bring this project to completion, you set yourself up for action.  You can do that next action automatically the next time you see it on your Next Action list instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do.  With a to-do list you have to make a decision about what action to do for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Action list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose to do the action now or not.  But by focusing on only the next action rather than all the actions, it’s not nearly as intimidating. This leads to action, which leads you one step closer to completing your project.

How to reduce stress in your life

StuffI received a lot of positive feedback on a previous post The Basics of GTD, so here is a slightly different overview of GTD and why it relieves stress.

It all starts with “stuff”…

We all have “stuff” in our heads and it shouldn’t be there. David Allan defines “stuff” as: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” (page 17 of Getting Things Done) and when we have stuff in our heads, it causes untold stress and anxiety.

Stuff has no “home” and, consequently, no place to go, so it just keeps rattling around in your head causing subconscious stress. David calls this stuff “open loops” and we are all too neurotic to stop thinking about it, and we certainly don’t have time to actually do everything we keep in our heads.

So we sprint from fire to fire, reacting to the “latest and loudest” praying we haven’t forgotten anything, sapped of our creativity and the flexibility to adapt our own schedule to the needs of our friends, family or ourselves. In this situation our “stuff” has taken over our brain like a virus, dragging down every process it touches and rendering us spent and virtually useless.

Here is an overview of how GTD addresses all the stuff in your head. The process is – Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do.

  1. Capture all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place. (open loops)
  2. Eliminate all the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now.
  3. Create a “Trusted System” that supports your working style and values.
  4. Put your stuff in your Trusted System to get it out of your head.
  5. Review your system periodically to ensure you have everything.
  6. Do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment.
  7. Iterate and refactor in a continuous improvement cycle.

So, basically, you make your stuff into next actionable items that you can complete. Everything you keep has a clear reason for being in your life at any given moment—both now and well into the future. This gives you an amazing kind of confidence that nothing gets lost and you always understand what’s on/off your plate.

Also built-in to the system are an ongoing series of reviews, in which you periodically re-examine your now-organized stuff from various levels of granularity to make sure your vertical focus (individual projects and their tasks) is working in concert with your horizontal focus.

Really not that complicated and I guaranty it works. How do you manage your stuff?

It’s Not The Tool, It’s How You Use It – Visible Priorities (Part 2)

Part 2 of David Freedman’s excellent guest posts on how to use tools for GTD.

Fundamentally, GTD is simply a method for choosing how to spend ones time. And for us GTDer, we’ve got a trusted system full of projects, next actions and someday/maybes to choose from. Add to that a whole set of inbound phone calls, emails and coworker drive-bys and we literally have hundreds of options at each moment of choice. In the face of all this, we want to organize our next actions in such a way that we are proactive about our priorities. Here’s the problem: proactivity in humans is a myth. We can only react. We can only respond to stimulus. In the moment of choice, we must have the right stimulus, our priorities, come into our attention so that we react to them by doing rather than reacting to something else. I use my Outlook calendar and Evernote for Android to keep my priorities in my face

Schedule Your Priorities

Yes, that’s plagiarized from Steven Covey.  As part of my weekly or morning review, I block time in my calendar to complete my highest priority next actions.  My particular convention is “WT – [name of the next action].”  “WT” stands for “Work Time.”  My calendar is a sure-fire way to get these priorities into my attention because my assistant reviews it with me every morning, I do quick scans of it all day on my Android and my assistant always alerts me of my next meeting, even if it is with myself:

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Use the Evernote Widget to Keep “Today” Context In Front of Your Face

Unfortunately, this one is only going to work for Android users as the iPhone does not support Widgets at the time of writing.  Most GTDer I know have some sort of “Today” context or items that they’ve picked out of their next actions as priorities.  There is a bunch of debate on various GTD forums as to whether “Today” is a context at all, but I would make the argument that context or not, it’s a pragmatic method for putting one’s attention on one’s priorities.  Here’s the step by step:

1) If you haven’t already. configure a “_Today” notebook or tag in Evernote.  I use the underscore to make it sort to the top of lists.

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2) Add the 4×2 Evernote Widget Large to your phone’s home screen.

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3) Select your “Today” context to show your note list.

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Now, every time you look at your phone, your priorities will be begging you to give them your attention!

It’s Not The Tool, It’s How You Use It – The Evernote Instant Agenda (Part 1)

Another excellent guest post by David Freedman whom I consider a GTD Black Belt.

EvernoteDid the title get your attention? 🙂  We all know it’s not entirely true – the tool does matter and so too does your technique.  Evernote 5 is a crowd favorite here on GTDforCIOs.  In a multipart guest post series I will share some of my favorite Evernote tricks that bring to life some practical GTD magic.

I work in a dynamic corporate environment where we value PEOPLE above all.  From a GTD perspective, PEOPLE are my most important context.  In order to build strong relationships, I want to have meaningful conversations with them at every chance encounter.  I want to talk to them about how I enjoyed the restaurant they recommended, tell them that I haven’t forgotten about the email I owe them or ask them what they are doing for their kid’s birthday next week.  Here’s how I use Evernote 5 to make sure I’m good at internal relationships.

1)  When I PROCESS (recall the steps Capture > Process > Organize > Review > Do) my CAPTURED items from my Evernote inbox, I always tag with a person context unless the item pertains to me and nobody else.  If the item pertains to multiple people, I tag the item with multiple people.  If the item pertains to a project, I still tag the item with the most important people on that project…you’ll see why soon.  I thank the curator of this blog (Michael) for encouraging a shift from my previous nomenclature of “f.Michael” meaning “for Michael” to the more contemporary “@Michael.”

DAF12)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I configure my default view to Sort By Notebook as my Notebooks provide important timing, size and status context.

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3)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I use the new “Shortcuts” feature to save people context searches for those I want to be most prepared for.

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4)  Prior to scheduled meetings or when I see someone walking down the hall or at any other opportune moment, I click on the shortcut in Evernote 5 for Android pertaining to people I’m about to encounter and VOILA!…I have an instant agenda.  I quick visual scan of the items tagged to that individual along with the notebook they are stored in and I load in my mind something meaningful to talk to them about.

Note that in Step 1, I mentioned that even when project is the central focus of an item, I always tag by related people.  Being that the “Instant Agenda” is one of my most valuable use cases, the project tag does not help fulfill the goal.

3 easy ways to reduce the amount of email you receive

email overloadAlmost everyone I know complains about the volume of email the get and the problem just keeps getting worse. Here are three things you can do to keep the flood of email in check.

First, think before you send an email. I know this sounds strange but more than likely the recipient is going to reply so you are guaranteed to get at least one email in return. Even more if you send to a distribution list or copy additional people. Ask yourself, do I really need to send this email? Is it the best form of communication for this message or am I just being lazy and using email as the communication medium because it is easier on me?

Realize that when you send email you are creating work tasks for your recipients.  I’m not saying that you can avoid all mail simply to reduce the workload, but let’s not tell ourselves we’re “just” communicating when we’re doing mail.  In reality we’re also giving other people stuff to do whether they like it or not.

Second, unsubscribe from all the distribution lists you are on that are not absolutely critical. This is a big one as many of the people I have coached in Inbox Zero have hundreds or thousands of unread emails sitting in their inbox because of this. There is some kind of mentality that allows people to feel “in the loop” or somehow important if they are part of corporate or web distribution lists. Remove yourself from all but the most critical ones immediately.

Years ago the common wisdom was to not click on “unsubscribe me” links because the spammer would know they had a “live one” and that email account was somehow more valuable. While that used to be true, now spammers are so smart and sophisticated it doesn’t matter. Another concern is phishing attacks and this is something to take seriously. The best way to deal with this is to take your pointer and hover over the link to see if it is really going to the domain the email is coming from. If in doubt, open your web browser and go directly to the site instead of clicking on the link in the email and find the managing communications or email preferences and remove yourself from their distribution list.

Third, turn off notifications.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Groupon, etc. etc. etc. Almost every app or web site requires you to give them your email account to sign up and they all default to sending you notifications or digests. Turn these notifications off. At minimum, set it to perhaps once a week – so it doesn’t interrupt your flow and take over your inbox. They all allow you to get the same message twice.  Once online and once in your email in-box.  Kill the e-mails and just check online for updates.

That’s it. Three easy things you can do to dramatically reduce the amount of email you receive. How do you reduce the amount of email you receive?

Why “to-do lists” do not work

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I read a great article called “To-Do Lists Don’t Work” in the Harvard Business Review that reminded me of one of the most common mistakes people make about GTD. Often when people get exposed to GTD, they equate to-do lists with Getting Things Done. This is misses the subtlety of David’s system as the only thing they have in common is lists. In the article Daniel Markovitz make several great points.

  1. The Paradox of Choice – “…our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose. Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.”
  2. Heterogeneous complexity – “When your list contains some tasks that are three minutes long and some that are 33 minutes, you’ll invariably focus on the shorter one for the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes from crossing an item off your list.”
  3. Heterogeneous priority – “When your list comprises items of varying priorities, you tend to take care of the “A” priorities and let the “C” priorities lie fallow…until it becomes an “A” priority itself. But would you rather take care of your car maintenance when it’s a “C” priority, or when it’s an “A” priority: when your car breaks down at 3 AM outside the Mojave Desert, 175 miles from home?”
  4. Lack of context – “To-do lists don’t provide sufficient context for the tasks to help you determine what you should work on. How long will each task take? And how much time do you have available? If you can’t answer these questions, you can’t intelligently decide what you should be working on.”

These four things are really David Allen 101. It is critical to do the thinking about your “stuff” before you actually do your stuff. Items need to be broken down into next actions that are parked on lists that are in the right context to be able to be done when you have the time and energy to do them.

Have you ever had a to-do list that worked for you long-term?