Ways to Get it Done

Although the coaching I enjoy most tends towards the meaningful, the enlightening, and the self-discovering, every once in awhile a client wants to revisit some standard tips and tricks for getting things done, prioritizing, and turning a to-do list into something they control (rather than something that controls them).

I put this post together because over the past six years I’ve experimented with multiple time management systems, and I feel pretty good about having found a productive, enjoyable rhythm that works for me.

Along the way, some of the systems I’ve toyed with have been:

I’ve instituted my own special days for reflection and recharging (see Two Days That Have Made All the Difference) and back in 2010 I posted a five part series on time and productivity based on what I’d been learning. (You can find the series by going to Ready for Change’s Best of page, and scrolling down to the Time and Productivity section.)

So How Do I Use Them?

I’ve toyed with all these systems, yet ultimately I’m not committed to any of them. My experience is that taking on any one system wholeheartedly doesn’t work: at first I throw myself into it, wasting time learning and implementing a complicated system when in fact I could just be doing stuff. From a personal development perspective, I’ve also learned that any time I’m desperately searching for The System That Will Solve It All then I’m in a unhealthy/unbalanced place, and finding a system isn’t the solution. The day I start being attracted to regimens, spreadsheets, detailed tracking systems, or uber-control of my workday is the day when I know it’s time to take a break, recharge, and sort out what’s really important. Loosen my grip, rather than tighten it.

So instead of using any one of these systems, I’ve created a mish-mash of ideas and practices that work for me.

Here are some of the highlights:

I Get It Out Of My Head

Getting Things Done is big on getting nagging details and to-dos out of one’s head and captured somewhere. I never carry a to-do list around in my head. Obligations, commitments, and tasks are stored primarily in my google calendar, secondarily in my email, and on a daily basis get dumped onto the notebook I keep beside my computer. For longer-term projects, I jot down monthly milestones in a spreadsheet or on a wall calendar. If new tasks occur to me throughout the day, they get scribbled on my notebook, and once a day I’ll go through the scribbles and decide if the tasks need to get added to my calendar.

If I Can Do It In Two Minutes, I Do It Now

Also from Getting Things Done. If I can do something in two minutes or less, I tackle it during any free time blocks rather than scheduling it for later. If it takes longer than two minutes, I’ll assign it a day/time for completion.

I Schedule Admin/Task Blocks

Primarily lifted from ideas in the Entrepreneurial Time Management System. Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon, for example, are blocks of time that I generally leave open in my schedule so that I can use them for all those longer-than-two-minute tasks that fall into admin/general work (e.g. answering non-time-sensitive emails, processing invoices and payments, scheduling, website updates, social media). This structure leaves huge other chunks of my week wide open for project time and client time. And it also means that when I assign a task a day/time, I’m not getting down to the detail level of: “From 10:10-10:30 I will answer emails.” I just assign it to the admin/task block of time and get to it then.

I Use Daily Labels to Keep My Inbox Spacious

I almost never have more than ten emails in my inbox. I use gmail’s archive function liberally. And if something will need attention in future, I use my daily labels so that it gets out of my inbox but gets tagged to look at later.

Example 1: I want to remember to follow up with a client about scheduling our next session, but the person has just sent me an email saying that they’re away until Thursday. I label that email “Thursday”, archive it, and forget about it until Thursday, at which point I open all the emails in my “Thursday” label and deal with it then.

Example 2: On a Friday, I have an idea for something to write about in Morsels of Change. My usual writing days are Monday. So I email myself the idea, label it “Monday”, and archive it until writing Monday, when I’d open up the “Monday” label and find my ideas waiting for me.

I Differentiate and Block My Browsers

I use Chrome Nanny in Chrome and Leechblock in Firefox to limit what websites I can open during work hours. The basic division is that I do work-related tasks in Chrome, and non-work-related internetting in Firefox. It seems minor, but it’s an actual barrier to my goofing off at work: in order for me to goof off, I have to stop what I’m doing and open a different browser. That’s just enough of an impediment that I goof off way less than I might otherwise. (I developed this habit based on a childhood family practice of keeping the TV unplugged or covered — just enough of a barrier that you use it less than you might otherwise.)

I Take One Weekday Off Every Week

The Now Habit advocates building guilt-free play into one’s schedule first. I tried it out, and realized I get just as much done in an energized four days as I would in a tired-ish five days, and I do so with more energy and enjoyment. And I have a whole weekday available for things like shiatsu appointments, bike rides, reading, or hanging out with my niece or the love-of-my-life. I realize this is a huge perk I can have because I’m self-employed, and that it’s likely not feasible for most folks with regular jobs… yet. Someday, employers will realize the benefits of the four-day workweek!

I Align My Work With My Values

Most of the productivity systems have an element of prioritizing, of asking what’s really important to you, of doing first the most important things or the things with most value. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to choose to do work that I believe in, so most of my work lines up with my values. But a neat tweak I’ve made lately (inspired by Day 3 of 30 Days of Getting Results) is to rewrite my most important to-do items in the language of my values.

So what had been on my to-do list as “meditate” becomes “I pay attention to my mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being by giving myself the gift of 30 minutes of meditation.” When I write that sentence down as one of my three daily priorities, I’m much more likely to follow through than if I had just written “meditate” on my to-do list, and I feel more in tune with my values when I check it off the list.

More and More, I Beat Myself Up Less and Less

If a system or habit or practice stops working for me, I let it go. I let something else replace it, or I give it a break and pick it up again later. I no longer blame myself for not being disciplined enough or for being irresponsible or lazy if I’m not acing a productivity system. I can look back at 35 years of life and realize: I’ve handled things pretty well. The important things have been done. I’ve been there for the people I love. All the other things can get a pass now and then when I need it.

Your Thoughts?

I’d love to keep this post fresh with comments from you so that the post can continue to serve as a reference for folks looking for tips and tricks to get through the things they need to do. What works for you? Comment away!

Laura McGrath, CPCC, is a Toronto-based co-active life coach who helps smart people to live from their hearts. Let's talk! You can subscribe to Ready for Change news to receive thoughtful notes on personal growth, and you can contact Laura to find out if coaching is right for you.