Use GTD to Reduce Stress in Your Life

StressThis article from the BBC got me thinking about the ultimate benefit of practicing GTD – reduction of stress. There is a reason David Allen’s first book is called “Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress Free Productivity.”

Practicing GTD provides the most systematic and effective way to manage all the commitments you have to yourself and others. GTD’s key benefit is freedom – freedom from the sources of distraction and stress in your life.

Our brain is a poor and unreliable repository of all the things we try to cram into it. David calls all this “stuff” and collectively all these thoughts clutter our headspace. Once you get all your stuff out of your head and into your trusted system you experience a profound sense of relief.

Why? Because our brains are optimized for fast decision-making, not storage. Trying to juggle too many things in your head at the same time is a major reason we get stressed out when there’s a lot going on. The best way to stop mentally thrashing and start being productive is to get all your “stuff” into your trusted system. Once the information is out of your head, it’s far easier to figure out what to do with it.


Picking Tools for your Trusted System

465515887When building a trusted system, simplicity is the key – less is more. So, it is really important you choose the correct tools that provide the least amount of friction capturing and processing your “stuff”.

One of the ongoing raging debates in the GTD community is what “tools” should you use?  There are people who swear by analog tools like pen, paper, folders and a physical inbox.  Others swear by digital tools and each has their own preferred software to implement their trusted systems.

Some people use a hybrid approach like using paper or the Moleskin for Evernote where you take notes in a traditional pen and paper approach and then take a picture of your notes and it goes into Evernote. Regardless of what type of system you use, you will need to have a physical inbox to collect all the physical pieces of paper that we all still receive.

Because I am a CIO and technology is my job, I tend towards a digital tool set. Cloud, Mobile and Social technologies are reshaping the Information Technology world in profound ways. This reality drives my choices when it comes to the set of tools I use in my implementation of GTD.

My trusted system must be easy to use and with me at all times on all my devices. It must be able to provide friction-free capture of the stuff that comes to me. It must be able to retrieve the relevant information I need at a moments notice. It must be able to handle digital and analog inputs depending on contexts.

I use the cloud-based consumer service Evernote as the foundation of my implementation. Evernote is free and it syncs my data across all the devices in my life.  I can use it on either my iPhone or Google Nexus smartphones that I carry around everywhere I go. I can also use it on either a Mac or a PC if I happen to be using those devices. I can use it on my iPad or any Android-based tablet if I happen to be in that mode. Or, if I do not have access to any of those devices, I can use it on the web with just a browser. This allows me complete flexibility to switch devices at a moments notice and not miss a beat.

For my own personal trusted system I use Evernote. I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner to scan all physical paper directly into Evernote. Evernote’s ecosystem of applications allows me to fine tune how I use it for capture. I use Fast Ever to capture text-based stuff in a friction-free manner. I also use the Evernote Web Clipper to clip web pages into Evernote with one-click ease. That’s it. As simple as I could make it.

Einstein Quote

As Alpert Einstein said “things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler” and that is critical when choosing what tools you will use to implement your trusted system.

The importance of having a single Trusted System

184804867Recently I received a first hand reminder of the importance of having a single place that your brain trusts will have all your stuff. The reason why this is so important is your brain needs to trust all that stuff is somewhere you can access immediately when necessary or else it will not “let go” of that stuff.

I saw a demonstration of what some people thought was “GTD” and was shocked at how they rationalized their multiple “systems” as a trusted system. Anyone who thinks email is a good place for a trusted system just doesn’t get GTD. They might as well just keep everything in their heads because they didn’t get any of the benefits of a unified trusted system for their stuff.

Many people (either consciously or unconsciously) try to keep track of everything they need to do in their mind or across several different “systems”, which is a big mistake. Our brains are optimized for fast decision-making, not storage.  Trying to juggle too many things in your head at the same time is a major reason we get stressed out when there’s a lot going on.  The best way to stop mentally thrashing and start being productive is to get all your “stuff” into your trusted system. Once the information is out of your head, it’s far easier to figure out what to do with it.

We all use trusted systems today and probably don’t know it.  Your calendar is a trusted system.  Once you put a meeting or appointment into your calendar your brain “lets go of it” and no longer keeps it in your subconscious.  Why does your brain “forget” that meeting?  Because it “trusts” your “system” (calendar) to remember it for you.

Similarly, your Contacts or Rolodex is a trusted system too. Remember back when you used to remember people’s phone numbers?  Not long ago, some people prided themselves on their ability to remember tens or hundreds of phone numbers.  How silly does that seem today?  Why bother taking up long-term memory with that task when you can have a computer, smartphone or physical Rolodex do that job for you?  Your brain trusts your system to remember the names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc.

When building a trusted system, simplicity is the key – less is more. Don’t confuse context like @home where the next physical action can only be done at home with “personal” like separating work stuff with personal stuff. In GTD, there is no distinction between business and personal – it is all “stuff” you need to do and it needs to get into your trusted system.

Use the 2 Minute Rule to get more stuff done

2 minute ruleOne of the easiest and most productive parts of GTD is called the “2 minute rule”. If you determine an action can be done in two minutes, you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it.

So, when you are processing tasks and the task is actionable, then decide if you can complete the task in less than two minutes and if the answer is “yes” then just do it. This is called the “2 Minute Rule” because there is no need to categorize or do any 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 60 seconds to write it down and another 30 seconds to put in your trusted system 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.

Thinking of your time in two-minute increments will allow you to get a lot of things done. When you simply do something, you eliminate all of the prioritizing, scheduling and thinking about tasks. This applies to all aspects of processing your incoming “stuff” no matter if it is calls, email, social media, or any other task that comes your way.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of adding absolutely everything to your system, including things that can be done in two minutes or less. With enough small and insignificant tasks, you can clog your system and lose considerable time and focus. And, if you overwhelm your system enough, you might even paralyze your productivity completely.

So use the 2 minute rule to get stuff done.

Why CIO’s should be on Twitter

Twitter LogoRecently Vala Afshar wrote an article on The Huffington Post called “The Top 100 Most Social CIOs on Twitter 2014” which got me thinking – why do I use Twitter?

Many people ask me how I have time to post to social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn. They also voice security concerns or worry about their company’s social media policies. But mostly they just say “what would I say?” They think it is just a waste of time with a lot of people tweeting about where they are or what they are doing. Seriously, what possible value could come from 140 characters anyway? I know this from my conversations with others and from personal experience – I thought that too!  I was wrong.

You should be on Twitter if for no other reason than it will enable you to experience social networking first-hand. One of my pet peeves is people who pontificate on new technologies but have never actually used them. This is particularly annoying among CIOs whose responsibility is to understand new technologies but for some reason dismiss “consumer technologies” like Twitter without actually trying them.

So, why do I participate on Twitter? The short answer is I make time because I get more out of it then I put into it. Here’s why I tweet and why other CIOs and senior IT executives should consider it.

It will help you stay connected to fellow CIOs and thought leaders – This is one of the few technologies I’ve found that actually contributes to community building.  In today’s busy world, it’s difficult to keep up with others. Twitter offers an easy, low investment tool to network with CIOs by following them, retweeting them, or replying to their posts. Twitter makes it easy and fun.  It will introduce you to new colleagues. I have met several CIOs via Twitter that have contributed to my life in meaningful ways.

It will help you keep up with what people are talking about – Twitter is the best way to find out about breaking news and topics you care about. Via Twitter, I have learned about emerging trends, hot books, cool software, great wines and even great restaurants.  Because the information is coming from real people who care enough to tweet about it, I have found it more valuable and authentic.

It will help you share knowledge with like-minded people – Most CIOs agree that an important part of their role is to teach and educate others about technology, information, and business process. So when I read a good article, I share it on Twitter so my followers can decide if it is worth their time. I become an “editor” of interesting stuff that fellow CIOs should also find interesting. I’ve developed more meaningful connections and learned from others that share common interests.

It can help build your personal “brand” – As a CIO, I am a leader with a voice that should reach my community. Though I tweet and add the disclaimer, “Opinions are my own and do not represent CAA”, my participation is thought leadership and promotes my personal brand. When people hear your name, what comes to mind?  What is your reputation?  What is the “brand promise”?  Brands are built incrementally, one interaction at a time.  Twitter gives you one more way to build your brand, one tweet at a time. It is a great way to drive people to your blog or web site too.

Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to tweet anything just set up an account and start following people. Twitter is very Darwinian in that you can unfollow people with a single click so the list of people you follow is always evolving based on the value of the tweets they post.  If someone is posting lots of low value tweets like “I’m at Starbucks”, “I’m watching this show”, then just unfollow them. It’s that easy. The converse it true. If you don’t post high value posts people will drop you in a flash.

So, if you’re a CIO or senior IT executive you owe it to yourself to give Twitter a try. I’ll bet you find that you get more out of it then you put into it. I know I did.

CIO Time Management Sucks

time suck In today’s always-on lifestyle there’s never enough time in a day for busy CIOs – or any manager – to get everything accomplished. So you need to “manage” your time more effectively, and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Of course, we can’t really manage time. There are only 24 hours in a day and there is not a damn thing we can do about it. So, we need to be smart about how we allocate our time.

Do a “mirror check” and check your own daily schedule to see if you’re falling into one of these time management sucks.

Not investing the time necessary to train someone to delegate a task

Admit it. You have several tasks you hate doing that eat up too much of your time. The only reason you haven’t passed them on to your assistant or an employee is you can’t seem to find the time to train somebody else to do it. Make the time. Invest the time in training others to do tasks to get them off your plate. It is tough – especially initially when they are not as productive as you are at accomplishing the task but over time it will pay off in spades.

Not scheduling your priorities early in the day

You’re the boss. You get to set your schedule the way you like it, so be smart about it and schedule your priorities in the morning. Set aside time to work on your priorities first thing in the morning and that way when you get “overtaken by events” you will have time in the afternoon by bumping those lower priority items on your calendar. And, remember that not scheduling your time is the least effective scheduling of all.

Not Managing Distractions

As the person in charge, you must be available for major decisions and to help with emergencies, but it’s likely those points only take up 10 to 20 percent of the interruptions and distractions that hit you every day. Don’t be shy about establishing dedicated “do not disturb” time every day to work on your priorities. This is absolutely critical when you do your Weekly Review.

Not practicing Inbox Zero

Stop complaining about how email is taking so much of your time that you don’t have enough time left for the important stuff and do something about it. It is kind of like complaining about the number of meetings you have to attend and then not doing something about it. If email is taking up a disproportionate amount of your time, then you need to do something about it. Take charge of your situation. Don’t let the constant stream of incoming emails take control of your priorities and time. Practice Inbox Zero and only look at an email once.

Not focusing on one task at a time

You might think you’re being more productive when you multitask and look like you’re being more productive, but the research consistently proves multitasking doesn’t work. It’s actually impossible—you can’t focus on two things at once but rather “context switch” your focus rapidly between tasks. Since it takes as much as 10 minutes to find get back into a high-productivity flow with any given task, multitasking means working at lower effectiveness all day long.

Work/Life Balance is a Myth

Work Life BalanceI just read a great article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life” that highlighted how many of today’s most successful executives attempt to manage the Work/Life Balance. According to the article, “Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth.”

Many people profess to to seek a “balance” between work and life.   What they really mean is they want to strike a balance between work and family. Well I have bad news… There is no such thing as a Work/Life balance. That’s right – there’s no “balance.” If you’re trying to achieve balance, you’re going to fail. Balance isn’t the answer. The best you can hope for is “dynamic tension” between the two. But, there is a way to be at peace about the work and family struggle.

In today’s alway on, always connected world it there is no longer a distinct “work time” and a distinct “personal time.” Just acknowledge it and get over it.  In the era before email, smartphones, tablets, instant messaging, social networks, etc. we all had relatively predictable days. Now we all have unpredictable random work streams that come at us constantly 7×24.

We all feel the need to always be on and connected in order to keep up. This is why people feel compelled to constantly check their email of their FaceBook feeds. FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out psychologically compels us to check just in case. The reality is everyone else is NOT doing it better than you, and you’re NOT the only one feeling stressed and worried about everything, and feeling like you’re almost failing at both. Here is what to do:

Don’t attempt to have separate work and personal systems. You just have your life and all the associated commitments and stuff in your life. Do separate your contexts – what you can only do at the office and what you can only do at home – such that when you are ready to do you have your next actions broken down into the appropriate context to getting things done.

Then at the beginning of each day at the office, look at your calendar to see what hard commitments you have and how much discretionary time you have.  Then, look at your Next Actions lists and decide what you realistically want to accomplish today before you go home.

I stress the realistic part of this. Assign a “Today” tag to the next actions you want to accomplish today.  Then filter your next actions on TODAY so you only see those items you decided you want to accomplish today.  Once you can check off or delete all those things that you set out to accomplish in the morning at the office, GO HOME. Feel good about accomplishing what you set out to accomplish and go home to be with your loved ones.

Once your home be fully engaged with your family.  No multitasking. Sure, maybe a little email after your partner and the kids go to bed, but that’s all.

How to get back in control

Mind-SweepWhenever we lose steam in our GTD practice, I feel like the most powerful exercise is what David Allen calls “the mind-sweep.”  Whenever I feel “out of control” with everything going on in my life, I try to step back and do a mind-sweep to regain control.

The idea behind the mind-sweep is to identify and gather a complete inventory of everything that is making claims on your attention or is likely to affect the larger areas of responsibility in your life. You need to capture all of the “open loops” in your life – everything that’s quietly burning cycles, stealing focus, and whittling away at your attention – so that you can then decide what (if anything) must be done about each of those things.

If it’s not being directly managed in an external trusted system, then it’s resident somewhere in your psyche and that is a bad thing. The point is you need to make sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

By doing a mind-sweep you’ll discover your head is flooded with stuff that you aren’t or haven’t been doing anything about. Not coincidentally, this is almost always stuff that represents some kind of incompletion, functional fuzziness, or procrastination on your part.

The Mind-Sweep

The mind-sweep is really simple. I break it down into two parts.

First, I take my phone and literally walk around my house and office and use Fast Ever Snap to take pictures of things that I want/need to do something about. It is important not to  judge the items or think about them in any way, just get them captured. Many items will be in the someday/maybe category that I may not actually get to doing for a long time. That’s okay. The critical part is to capture everything.

Literally, start in your front yard and take pictures of everything that you might want to do something about. Maybe it’s trimming the trees or weeding the planter or changing the driveway to bricks. Just start capturing everything. Then go to the side of the house, then the backyard, the garage, and every room in your house. Don’t skip closets of drawers as they can easily be a source of subconscious stress. Do I need to go thru the file drawer to find those important papers? How about that junk drawer in the kitchen?

Once you have completed this physical inventory of all your stuff, move on the second phase of the mind-sweep. Start with a single sheet of printer paper and a pencil, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just begin to inventory every conceivable anxiety and “open loop” from the corners of your brain.

Begin with the hopelessly-behind project that’s making you insane right now, then proceed methodically through every flash of thought that makes you cringe, groan, pause, ponder, or exclaim; these are the runaway background processes that are responsible for subconscious stress and you need them out.

Think about it like brainstorming. Don’t judge the items or think about them in any way, just get them on paper. Remember, this is your opportunity to convert the fuel for subconscious stress into items that can later be made actionable (or deferred or delegated or killed etc). But you can’t do anything about it until it’s been captured and evaluated in your trusted system.

For the sweep to really do its best work, you must call upon extraordinary willpower to stay in collection mode. Remember the day you finally “got” how GTD worked by firewalling your planning time (Weekly Review) from your doing (Processing) time? Same idea here. No straying or switching back and forth between the two.  I would even suggest eliminating use of the two-minute rule during your mid-sweep.

Now that your 10 minutes is up, look at the list and process it.  Most of the items on it will be projects of some sort. Get them into your trusted system and you will immediately feel the joy of getting them out of your head – guaranteed.

The Power of the Daily Review

Time for ReviewIf you follow GTD and keep your trusted system up to date, then it is easy to leave work every day and feel like you have accomplished exactly what you needed to do for that day.  I do this by performing a 10 minute Daily Review every morning.

A Daily Review is simply carving out 10 minutes every morning to look at my calendar to get a sense of what my day looks like.  Then, once I know how much available time I have to dedicate to accomplishing the tasks I have in my trusted system I have the appropriate context to know what is realistic to accomplish. Then I scan my “Next Actions” notebooks in Evernote to decide what I want to accomplish that day and I tag them with the “Today” tag.  Then, I filter those items with the Today tag so I only have the items I have decided I want to accomplish that day and I leave this “Today List” up on all my devices.  Then, during the course of the day as I accomplish items on the list I delete them.  When I have an empty Today List, I know I have completed all the agreements I have with myself for the day.

I can’t tell you what a great feeling it is to look at that empty Today List and know that I have accomplished everything I set out to do for the day. This allows me to drive home and decompress by tuning out and watching TV, reading a book, talking to my wife and kids or whatever activity I’m in the mood to relax and refresh knowing I had a productive day.  Equally important, is the ability to forget all the things I didn’t do because I consciously choose not to do them but are still on my plate is essential to relieving stress.

Finish LineBy doing a Daily Review each day and deciding exactly what I intend to accomplish that day, I am creating a “finishing line” at the end of the workday. Once I cross that imaginary line in the sand, I can put the day behind me and start shifting my attitude, heart, and mind towards the next part of your day — whether that’s exercise, recreation, or family time.  Practicing the Daily Review allows you to clarify your thoughts, collect yourself, refresh, refuel, and renew yourself by having a feeling of accomplishment.

Successful task management is really agreement management. At the end of the day, how good you feel about what you did (and what you didn’t do) is proportional to how well you think you kept agreements with yourself.  Did you do what you told yourself you would do? Did you accomplish what you think should have been accomplished?

Wasting time only means that you think you should have been doing something other than what you were doing. Sleep is not a waste of time if you think you need it. Taking a walk instead of rewriting your strategic plan is not a waste of time as long as you think taking a walk is the thing to do at that moment. It’s when you wind up not having done that which you’ve agreed with yourself should be done that the trouble begins.

I believe in outcomes and results not time worked or effort.  Once I have completed all the items on my Today List I can go home feeling good about myself no matter what time that is.  It is a wonderful feeling knowing I accomplished all the agreements I made with myself.

Since I have started this practice, I am far less grumpy when I arrive home. I feel more in control, and I have a feeling of clarity about what I have accomplished.  Most importantly, it enables me to “switch off” from work when I’m at home and engage fully with the people I love most.  Crossing your finish line each day is something that not only leaves you feeling satisfied and fulfilled, but motivates you to finish well.

What to do in 2014 to achieve “Mind Like Water”

Mind Like WaterAs the year winds down and we look towards 2014, we look forward to what we can do better ourselves in the coming year. For anyone who has experienced the stress-free productivity that GTD produces but for one reason or another has stopped practicing GTD then now is the time to commit to making GTD a lifelong habit.

Year-end is the perfect time to get back on the GTD bandwagon because we are in a reflective mode of self-improvement.  We know it works and know the stress reduction it can provide.  We also know when practiced diligently it can provide what David Allen calls “Mind Like Water.”  When you are in this state you feel great about where you are, what you are doing, and ironically what you are not doing.  For anyone who has experienced this feeling it is amazing and you 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. Well, like anything there is no magic bullet that will do it for them.

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 that determines 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 from my perspective.  I do my Weekly Reviews on Sunday evenings with my wife and bottle of wine or Monday mornings in the office.  Either way, I’m ready for the week. Here is how I break down the hour:

1 – Review My 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 to look at the big picture.  Travel and 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 will alert you to any big items on the horizon.  Review the next three months.

After you look at the big picture by month, 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.

2 – Review my Projects (40 min)

This is the bulk of your Weekly Review and 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 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.

Once you are comfortable with the description of the project, you need to break down the project into the discrete 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, put the next action to move the project closer to completion to the next actions list.

3 – Review my 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 that you may have delegated.

4 – Review my 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.

It is very important to resist the urge to “do” during a weekly review. Don’t do it. The Weekly Review is for reviewing not doing. This is even true for the two minute rule. Focus on reviewing your “stuff” and getting current and you will immediately feel the stress relief of “Mind Like Water.”

How do you do your Weekly Review?