Stop Making To-Do Lists

to-doPlease stop making to-do lists.  You are simply setting yourself up for failure and frustration.

Instead, create a Next Action list that has the very next action you can do to move one step closer to completing the task.  What’s the difference?  A lot.  Typical to-do lists have a mixture of atomic next actions and much larger projects and possibly someday/maybe items that you are not really committed to doing.  The result of this is you are repelled by looking at your to-do list because you subconsciously know you have items on your list that you really don’t or won’t do.  Every time you scan your list your subconscious gives you negative feedback.

When you have a list of things that take 10 minutes, 10 hours and 10 days to do, you will invariably focus on the the shorter ones so you can get the psychological payoff and subsequent dopamine release that comes from completing an item off your list.  This leads to the longer ones staying on your list and the subsequent negative feedback.

In addition to the problem of a mixture of next actions and projects, to-do lists lack the context necessary to help you determine what you should do.  how long will the item take?  What tools do you need to complete it?  Where must it be done?  Contexts like this should be “pre-thought” so you don’t have to think about these things every time you scan your list.  What good does it do you to see “paint the living room” or “return the book you borrowed from mom” or “buy tomatoes” when you are at work?

The better approach is to put the very next action necessary to complete the task or to move it closer to completion on separate lists like “Home”, “Work”, “Errands”, “calls” etc. so that you can scan the appropriate list in the appropriate context.  This drives action which drive positive feedback and that nice dopamine squirt once you cross that item off your list.

The Weekly Review – How to maintain “Mind Like Water”

At this time of the year many people want to get back on the GTD bandwagon because they are in a reflective mode of self improvement.  They know it works and know the stress reduction it can provide.  They know when practiced diligently it can provide what David Allen calls “Mind Like Water.”  When you are in this state you can feel great about where you are, what you are doing and what you are not doing.  For anyone who has experienced this feeling it is amazing and they want to get back there.

So many people ask me how they can “really do GTD right this time?”  Like a diet or a new year’s resolution, they really want to be successful, but deep down fear they will fail over the long term.  The want a magic bullet or trick that will help them to succeed with GTD over the long term.

Fortunately, there is one way to succeed with GTD over the long term and that is to do a weekly review every week.  This is the single most important thing to success or failure over the long term.  If you really want to succeed you need to commit to spending one hour a week doing a weekly review – without fail, no exceptions.

Think about the payback – one hour a week to improved productivity and reduced stress.  A bargain in my book.  Here is how I break down the hour:

1 – Review Projects (40 min)

If you do nothing else in the hour you need to review your projects.  Start at the top of your list and move down one by one and do the following:

Is the project written in a way that it can be checked off as “done” when the description is true?  If not, describe the project to denote “what does done look like?” and be sure to include the desired outcome as the first word in the Evernote title description of the project.  Use words like draft, finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, resolve, think about.  Not all projects need to define a completed task.  It is okay to have projects that say things like “Draft three ideas…” or “Think about…”

Once you are comfortable with the description of the project, you need to break down the project into the tasks needed to complete the project.  I use the notes section of the Evernote note to do this.  I am not a stickler for breaking down every project into it’s related tasks.  I usually ask  “Do I have the bandwidth and resources to do this project?”  If not, I tend to go on to the next one.

For the ones I do have the bandwidth and resources to pursue I ask “What do I want to accomplish this to move this project closer to completion?” and “When do I need to accomplish it by?” I add any items that come to  mind in a more or less free form manor with each task or idea on a separate line.  Do not worry about formatting as that will only slow you down during this critical process.

Finally, and this is critical, move the next action to move the project closer to completion to the next actions list.

2 – Review Your Calendar (5 min)

It is important to understand what you have ahead of you to set the context for how much available time you will have to work on projects and next actions in the future.  Start with looking at your calendar in month view and look at the big picture.  All Day events like birthdays, vacations, trips and holidays will pop out at you.  This gives you  a sense of is this a “normal month” or not and alert you to any big items on the horizon.  Review the next three months.

After you have looked at the big picture by month, you need to focus on the week view to get a sense of is this a “normal week” or not.  As Peter Drucker stated the week is the unit of measure to connect daily tasks to their strategic priorities.  Review the next two to three weeks to get a sense of what is immediately ahead of you.

3 – Review Waiting For items (5 min)

Do a quick scan of your  Waiting For items to see if you can move any into Projects or Next Actions because you are no longer blocked or waiting for someone or something.

4 – Review Areas of Focus (5 min)

Do a quick review of areas of focus to keep them fresh in my mind.  Often this review will spur new projects that you will add to your projects list.

5 – Review Someday/Maybe items (5 min)

Do a quick scan of your someday/maybe items to determine if any items need to become active projects and if they do then change the Evernote notebook to the projects notebook.  If you determine that you really are never going to do and item because it is no longer of interest then delete it.

Processing your “Stuff”

Now that you have completed your initial capture you should have lots of unprocessed items in your “- Unprocessed” notebook and now it is time to figure out what to do with all your stuff.  When processing start at the top and decide what to do with each unprocessed item until you have completely processed your stuff to zero.  In GTD this is called processing and your goal is to always process your unprocessed queues to zero.  This could be your inbox on your desk, your email inbox, your unprocessed items in Evernote, your RSS feeds or any other queue of unprocessed incoming inputs.

The first thing you need to do is to decide if it is actionable or not.  If it is not actionable you do one of three things: delete it, file it as reference in your Reference notebook or “tickle” it for possible later action in your Someday/Maybe notebook.  “Reference” and “Someday/Maybe” notebooks are for stuff that has no immediate next action.  Sometimes you will process items that do not have any immediate next actions but you want to keep them around for future reference.  Reference files are great for storing information you don’t have to act on right now but are not ready to delete or archive.  They can be physical folders for paper or digital items that you want to refer to on an ongoing basis.

Someday/Maybe lists are great for deferring ideas that you’d like to work on someday, but you’re not committing to right now.  I have ideas about fun new things do to every day – way more than I have time or energy for.  Sometimes you think of tasks you’re just not ready to do yet.  Maybe learning a new language – while an eventual goal – just doesn’t fit into your life right now.  There are many things that fit into this “I intend to do this someday” category.  Some examples: Go to Griffith Observatory, Build CIO Dashboard, Learn Spanish, Build a deck in back yard.

If it is actionable, decide if you can complete the task in less than two minutes then you just do it. This is called the “2 Minute Rule” because there is no need to categorize or further thinking about the item if you can accomplish the task in less than two minutes, just do it!  Writing down every little thing you have to do takes more time than it’s worth – if you need to send a 30-second reminder e-mail to someone, there’s no sense in taking 20 seconds to write it down and put in one of your notebooks when you could just get it done.  Your goal is to get things done, not to flawlessly capture each and every little thing in your perfectly designed system.

Apply the 2-minute rule to all aspects of your life

If it is actionable and it will take more than two minutes to complete then it is most likely a Project.  As IT professionals, we generally struggle with the GTD concept of a project.  We are conditioned to think of projects in the classic PERT or GANT CHART sense of big projects.  In GTD, “Projects” are desired outcomes that require more than one action to complete or said another way, projects are “stuff” that require more than one action to complete.

Almost everything you need to do is a Project.  Projects are nothing more than a series of actions necessary to be “done.”  The best way to avoid completing items on your to-do list is to make them vague.  Put a task like “Clean out office” on your to-do list and that is the last thing you’re going to actually begin working on.  In fact, “Clean out office” isn’t a task at all – it’s a Project.  Projects are not tasks; they are a collection of tasks – an important distinction.

So go thru all of the stuff you captured in your initial capture and do it if it takes less than two minutes to complete or make the items you captured projects.  When you describe the project it is important to define what done looks like.   When describing your projects include the desired outcome as the first word in projects.   Use the following words:  finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, and resolve.  Do this for everything on your initial capture list in your – Unprocessed notebook.