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!

The Book List: Get it Done! A Round-up of Resources

Last week I posted about some of the books I recommend to clients looking for resources on communication and relationships. This week, I’m providing a few recommendations for books about getting things done, procrastination, motivation, and avoiding burnout.

Time, Productivity, Procrastination, and more

First, a round up of resources I’ve pulled together from productivity books, blogs, and techniques:

 

Do You Have Time, or Does Time Have You?7 ways to experiment with your experience of time, and 5 book recommendations.

I Can’t Manage Time – inspired by David Allen’s words in Getting Things Doneyou can’t manage time, but you can manage your actions.

The Action Management Swordknowing your purpose can guide your time strategy. With shout-outs to Zen to Done, Getting Things Done, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Purposeful Big Rocksunderstanding how to put the important things first.

Truth in Datagetting curious about how you actually spend your day.

Final Words on Timetips for doing less, getting started, focusing, avoiding distractions, and attending to the big picture.

 

And now, a few new resources:

The Power of Full Engagement

One of my favourite recommendations this year:

The Power of Full Engagement – Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal

Two things grabbed my attention within the first chapter or so of this book:

1 – The authors point out that high performing athletes spend about 90% of their time preparing and training and resting up for the 10% of time when they perform at peak levels.

So, hey, it’s kind of silly to think that we can perform at peak levels at our jobs for 40-60 hours a week day in and day out, week after week, right?

2 – The idea that many of us think of life as one long marathon, when it can be helpful instead to consider it as a series of sprints. And in between the sprints are opportunities for rest, renewal and recovery.

Throughout the book, the authors explore four areas of energy expenditure and energy renewal: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. They point out that we can strengthen our energy muscles in each of these areas by pushing ourselves just past our comfort zone, and then building in recovery time. And they’re generous with examples, case studies, and exercises to try on your own.

If you’d like to get a glimpse at their methodology, you can answer 20 questions online to complete their “Energy Audit” and see your results. You can find the Energy Audit here.

The Tiny Habits Program

Recently I heard about the Tiny Habits program, a free online program in which you take a week to set up a workable habit. Click here for my experience with the program.

The Now Habit

Awhile back I read The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. I liked the way the book examined procrastination as a symptom, not just a cause, and the step-by-step guide it provides for building guilt-free play into one’s schedule first. Another part of it that I’ve been loving is the suggestion to take two minutes at the start of any activity to relax, centre myself, consciously let go of the past and the future, drop into the present, and then set an intention for the activity I’m about to begin.

 

What would you add?

What books — or other resources — have you found most helpful for your learning about communication and relationships? I’d love to hear your replies in the comments.

 

Two Days That Have Made All the Difference, Again

I originally put this post up in March 2010, and I found myself thinking of it again this week. I have faithfully continued Reflection Days, every month on the 18th, for nearly two years. My computer-free days took a big hit during a volunteer stint that took up half of 2011, but I’ve invited them back into my life this year (not always on Sunday, but always at least once a week) and I love them now as unabashedly as I did in 2010.

I wonder what sort of weekly or monthly daylong ritual would make a significant difference for you?

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I instituted two types of days at the beginning of 2010, and almost four months into the year (!), I feel convinced of their value.

First, I decided that I would designate a Reflection Day each month.

I chose the 18th, because it’s the day of my birthday. On the 18th of every month, I’ve set aside two to three hours to go sit somewhere peaceful with a notebook and a pen, and take stock of what I like to call The State of the Union.

During Reflection Day, I look over my intentions for 2010, decide if I want to update or change any of my intentions, and think about how they’ve become real in my life. I do a quick survey of all of the areas of my life using the Wheel of Life coaching tool. I think about the projects I’ve taken on, and my balance of work / rest / recreation / joy. I look for themes that are showing up, and for the successes I want to celebrate. And I zone in on a few things that I want to be aware of or change in the month to come.

The impact:

Knowing that I will pause on Reflection Day to think these things through has cleared some of my headspace during the month. I take on projects that feel right, I make decisions that seem like the right ones, and I don’t worry about it too much, because I know that once a month I have a built-in check for myself to determine how I’m doing. I feel reassured that things won’t fall off my plate – because once a month I check in on all areas of my life. I don’t have as many nagging doubts or worries, because I have space to regularly reflect. And my sense of purpose and self is becoming stronger, as every thirty days I recommit to who I am, what’s important to me, and how it is coming alive in my life.

Second, I instituted Computer Free Days.

One day a week, usually Sunday, I leave my computer turned off and avoid the internet. This change has been more subtle, and just as powerful. I’ve found a new rhythm on Sundays – cooking, cleaning, reading, and just being. Sundays feel like a day of soul nourishment. I’m almost loathe to turn my computer back on on Mondays – and this from someone who willingly spends most of her time in front of her laptop. Throughout the rest of the week, I feel less tied to the online world, and less addicted to the quick fix of email, twitter, or facebook. I’m down to checking each of them only one or two times a day (yes, even email!), which has freed up vast chunks of time to work on projects.

The impact:

I find myself more present to what I am working on at any given time. I have fewer adrenaline surges because I no longer see each and every email arrive in my inbox. I’m stunned at the time I am finding to spend multiple hours on particular projects once I have my browser closed. And I start every week with a clean house, a stocked fridge, and a sense of peace.

If you’d like to read more, I recommend:

A Provisional Guide for Observing a Weekly Day of Rest (from Sabbath Manifesto)

The Lost Practice of Resting One Day Each Week (from Zen Habits)

LeechBlock (LeechBlock is an extension you can add to Firefox. You can use it to block certain domains for your chosen times of day(s)).

The Two Year Transformation

Let me say a few words about two years ago.

On my 30th birthday, my house was full – FULL – of people I loved and who loved me, and I was hiding huddled in my room, feeling like a blight on the planet and like the loneliest person alive.

Breakup-illness-leaving a job-hating graduate school … the details aren’t important, but it did all happen within the space of a year, leaving me a confused, directionless mess who could barely eat or leave the house.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have one of those experiences which stopped me in my tracks and pointed out how different I am now, just two years later. I walked into a coaches training course, just about two years after I had taken my very first coach training, and I noticed how differently I showed up. Two years ago, I walked in terrified and uncertain. I was uncomfortable in groups. Everyone else seemed so much more professional and knowledgeable. I felt like the only person who was lost. I held back and barely spoke. I didn’t know what I would be doing the next week, or next month, or next year.

This time, I walked into the class feeling my confidence, and knowing I love my life. I have found work that I love and in which I flourish. I have built a business. My training in therapist skills has transformed my ability to connect to people individually and in groups, and how to show up with presence in a group. Two years ago I was desperately looking for something to be optimistic about, and this time around I walked in already loving what is.

So, all of this has made it into a blog post for two reasons:

1. It’s important for me to mark the differences, and to note what’s changed, for myself. To remember to celebrate.

2. To prompt you to experiment with thinking: How different might your life be in two years? What if it could be different beyond your wildest dreams? How would you love it to be? And – it’s just two years away.

Final Words on Time (part five)

Part Five: Final Words

Do Less

  • Every day, choose three things on your to-do list and decide NOT to do them. Ever. Now cross them off.
  • Say no.
  • Say no.
  • Say no again.
  • Only do things that are in line with your purpose.

The Hardest Part Is Starting

  • Plan and prioritize.
  • Set yourself up the night before for success the next day.
  • Get started.
  • Work for at least five uninterrupted minutes. Then keep going.
  • Time yourself. I like Tick Tock Timer (hat tip to Write to Done).

Focus

  • Chunk your time.
  • Do one thing at a time. Don’t multi-task.
  • Do the three most important things first. Do them before you check email / facebook / twitter / phone messages.
  • Do a thing until it’s finished.
  • Keep a notebook beside you to jot down the distracting things. Go back to them later rather than interrupt what you are working on now.
  • Use Leechblock if your internet self-control leaves something to be desired.
  • Have a scheduled time to crash through all the little things that get in the way and take up your time.
  • Set time limits on how much time you are willing to spend on a project. If writing a document is supposed to take you one hour, then schedule an hour, write it, and then call it done. Good enough.
  • Move away from your computer.

Don’t Let Email or Meetings Get in Your Way

  • Especially move away from your email.
  • Set a personal goal of limiting the length of your emails – save your time, and the time of those who read them (see http://four.sentenc.es/).
  • Don’t answer emails that don’t need answers. No emails that say “Thanks.”
  • Chunk your email time. Limit your email chunks to a 15/30/45 minute chunks 1/2/3 times a day.
  • Suggest alternatives to meetings.
  • Be a vocal advocate for meeting efficiency. Speak up, do time checks, and arrive and leave on time, whether or not the meeting ends on time.

The Big Picture

  • Do a monthly time audit.
  • Make sure you’re creating space in your life for fun. Otherwise, you might try to get your fun fix by fiddling away a whole bunch of time on something work-related that’s unimportant but more fun than what you really need to do.
  • Be clear on your purpose, and plan actions that are in line with it.

If you need a system, check out:

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You may also be interested in:

Truth in Data (part four)

Part Four: Truth in Data

This week, I’ve blogged about the mental switch from “managing time” to “managing actions”. I’ve said that my best tool for managing actions is my action management sword: clarity of purpose. I’ve referenced the Big Rocks concept to show that putting my big chunks of purpose work first gives me a structure to get more done, and to get more done in line with my purpose.

You might feel that you’re well on the way to moving your actions into line with your purpose. You might feel that you have a long way to go. You might have no idea. I invite you to start with getting curious. Honestly and non-judgmentally curious.

For one day, track what you do and what goal(s) you are pursuing by doing it. One whole day, from when you wake up to when you go to bed. Set up three columns: the time, in half hour increments; the activity; and the goal you are pursuing with that activity.

Remember, you are doing this out of curiosity. What actions are you undertaking today? What do your actions say about the goals that are important to you? What did you learn by recording your sample day? Are you acting in line with your purpose?

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You may also be interested in:

Purposeful Big Rocks (part three)


Part Three: Purposeful Big Rocks

Multiple productivity and time management systems tell me to do the important things first. To really get this into my head, though, I needed the explanation from Zen Habits about Big Rocks.

The Big Rocks are the most important things. The things that are in line with my purpose and the things that stand the best chance of propelling me towards my goals. They are the things that are often easy to put off or hard to start. They are the things that take up a chunk of time that’s hard to find if I am constantly checking emails, paying bills, updating websites, or running to meetings.

Zen Habits explains that if I put all those little “pebble” tasks first, my week will have no room for the Big Rocks. But if I put the Big Rocks into my schedule first, then all the little pebble-y things will just fill in and find space around them.

Getting Things Done comes at the concept in a different, but also useful, way. The GTD system uses “time available” as its second criteria for choosing an action in any given moment. I used to look at my schedule and see two free hours before my next scheduled appointment, and think, “How many items from my to-do list can I cross off in two hours?” I aimed for quantity, because I am easily reinforced by looking at a list with twenty things crossed off.

Now, I look at two available hours and I go find the thing on my to-do list that is going to take two hours, and I do that. And somehow, all those other little tasks have a way of finding themselves tiny time slots where they can get done. My quantity of production hasn’t gone down. But the amount of Big Rocks that I’m getting done has substantially increased. And that means that I am working more and more on the projects that are most in line with my purpose, which is to help people grow and change.

As one of my yoga teachers used to say, “If you make time for yoga, yoga makes time for everything else.”

I find that if I make time for my purpose, my purpose makes time for everything else.

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You may also be interested in:

The Action Management Sword (part two of five)

Part Two: The Action Management Sword

I can pick from numerous criteria to manage my actions. To name just a few:

  • context (does completing this action require my computer / being somewhere where I can make phone calls / coordinating with another person?)
  • time available (how long do I have, and how long will it take to complete this action?)
  • priority (how high on my priority list is this action?)
  • sheer whimsy (what do I feel like doing?)

I’ve found all of those criteria useful in one way or another, but none of them compare to what I call the Action Management Sword. My Action Management Sword slashes through the unnecessary and tips its point straight to the heart of the matter. It’s the line at the top of my weekly plan that reads:

Which actions are most in line with my purpose?

Zen to Done describes this as “only hav[ing] those commitments in your life that really give you joy and value”. Getting Things Done prompts the GTD user to process his/her inbox with a view to his/her purpose. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey claims that effective people spend most of their time in his Quadrant II: working on tasks that are important and non-urgent, i.e. tasks that arise from one’s purpose (I found a nice explanation of Quadrant II here).

All of these books emphasize that in order to manage my actions, I need to understand what I’m here for. Through my insatiable addiction to personal growth books and exercises and coaching, I’m clear on my purpose. At its simplest, it is:

I help people grow and change.

For an action to deserve my time and attention, it must either help people grow and change, or help me help people grow and change.

What purpose determines your choice of actions?

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You may also be interested in:

I Can’t Manage Time (part one of five)

In the five days leading up to the workshop Do You Have Time or Does Time Have You?, I’ll be posting daily about the ideas that work best for me when it comes to time.

Part One: I Can’t Manage Time

Whenever I work with a coaching client who uses the words “time management”, I get curious.

What would it mean to “manage” time? Time doesn’t perform better when I give it positive feedback. I can’t give time a bad performance review and then fire it. I can’t send time to human resources training.

David Allen sums this up succinctly in Getting Things Done. You can’t manage your time, he says. You CAN manage your actions.

That’s a simple and powerful switch in perspective. As long as I am trying to manage time – an intangible phenomenon that can’t be managed – I’ll feel frustrated at my losing battle. But if I switch my focus to managing my actions, suddenly I am back in control.

Next time you hear your mental chatter telling you to “manage your time better”, stop and ask yourself: Which of my actions do I need to manage better? And what would it mean to better manage my actions?

In my post tomorrow, I’ll dip into some of the action management skills that I’ve found most helpful.

 

Do You Have Time? Or Does Time Have You?

At one point or another, every single person I’ve coached has talked about prioritizing and managing their time. Time – what an invention. Someone built a machine that ticks away regularly, and suddenly we are all held captive by how many ticks it gives us in a day. (Neil Postman’s Technopoly provides a fascinating description of how the invention of the mechanical clock changed society – “the transformation of the mechanical clock in the fourteenth century from an instrument of religious observance to an instrument of commercial enterprise” (p. 27) – the whole book is worth reading!)

If you feel like time is running you, here are some experiments you could try:

Imagine your ideal day. If time was yours to spend, what would be the flow of your ideal day? How would it start? How would it end? What would be most important to you? And once you’ve imagined that… ask yourself, how much of it is available to you right now?

Imagine a magic wand. If you had a magic wand that gave you enough time for everything, what would there be time for? And once you’ve thought that through, what have you learned about your true priorities?

Trade your to-do list for a priorities list. For example, if your priorities right now are “health” and “family”, you don’t need to rely on a list of things to do in both categories. Wake up each morning and ask yourself, “What am I going to do for my health today? What am I going to do for my family?” It can be that simple.

Know what your values are. Anytime something tries to worm its way onto your to-do list, run it through your values filter first. Does it honour your values enough to be allowed onto your list?

Say no more often. As Peter Block writes, “If we cannot say no, then our yes means nothing” (The Answer to How is Yes, pg. 28). Set yourself a goal. How many things are you going to give a true “no” to this week? How many things deserve your true “yes”?

Go a week without your to-do list. Experiment. What do you discover?

Go a week without a watch, or any other time device. Notice: if you aren’t using a watch, what are the signals that tell you what needs your attention in a given moment?

And for many, many more ideas, and some of the posts that are inspiring my current approach to time, check out these links:

How to Live Without the Clock

Three Ways to Get More Done with the Power of Less

Being Lightweight: Business Design (and related posts)

Getting Real (technically about building software, but useful in many areas of life, or for anyone running a business)

How to Stop Digital Fiddling and Start Writing (or start anything else)