Getting things done 101: 5 key things to remember

In the final installment of our 14-part series, we take a look at five key messages to keep in mind when planning, implementing and completing a project.

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    Crafting materials are seen during the Chicago Craft Social on June 18, in Evanston, Ill. Creating the right space, the time, the tools, and the planning for a project is essential to completing it.
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This is the final entry in a fourteen part series discussing the time management classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. New entries in this series will appear on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings through July 16.

Before I start digging in to what I think are the five key take-home messages from this book, I’ll link back to the thirteen previous entries, in order, for people who want to read them in order.

1. A New Practice for a New Reality
2. The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow
3. The Five Phases of Project Planning
4. Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools
5. Corraling Your Stuff
6. Getting “In” to Empty
7. Setting Up the Right Buckets
8. Keeping Your System Functional
9. Making the Best Action Choices
10. Getting Projects Under Control
11. The Power of the Collection Habit
12. The Power of the Next-Action Decision
13. The Power of Outcome Focusing

Here are the five key messages (from my perspective, anyway) contained in Getting Things Done.

Get stuff out of your head and on paper (or in a reliable digital form).
We all daydream. We’re in the middle of doing something when a thought pops into our head – something we need to do, something we wish we were doing, etc. We think about it for a moment and suddenly, our focus on the task at hand is broken. It takes us time to get back on track on what we’re doing, plus we’re trying to remember that thing that we just thought about.

This is hugely counterproductive. It keeps us from doing the task at hand well, even if it’s just a short task or a “mindless” task. Your mind drifts when you’re writing an email and you forget an important detail, requiring additional communication and more work for you. Your mind drifts when you’re washing dishes and you cut yourself, requiring time to take care of the wound. Your mind drifts when you’re “focusing” on one task at work and you suddenly find yourself taking 50% longer to do it.

The big solution to this is to get “in the zone” with whatever task you’re doing, but that’s often hard to do. The single best way I’ve found to get myself in the zone with whatever task I’m working on is to simply get everything out of my head in advance and have it in a trusted system – and if something pops into my head mid-task, I can just jot it down quickly, knowing I’ll deal with it later. Daydreaming and mind-wandering almost disappear if you get all of that stuff out of your head and somewhere secure. Read the fifth entry in this series for more focus on corraling all of your stuff and thoughts.

When being productive, your focus should be exclusively on the next action.
We all have tons of things going on in our lives. Some of them are simple – “call the repairman about the dishwasher” or “be at the recital at 7 PM.” Others are quite complicated and nebulous – “improve my relationship with my mother” or “get a better career going.”

However, the basic principle for making all of these things happen is the same: focus on the very next action you can take to move it forward. No matter how big or how small of a project you’re looking at, it can’t move forward without you taking a single step.

That single step is the key. If there’s something you genuinely wish to accomplish, focus not on the enormity of the goal and the seeming complexities it holds (at least, not right now). Focus instead on the very next thing you need to do to achieve that goal. Nothing else matters right now. The twelfth entry riffs on this idea.

Processing the stuff that comes out of your head and into your life is a daily practice.
My inbox sits on a corner of the desk I use for almost everything. Into that inbox goes all kinds of stuff – currently, I see some mail, a poster I need to hang up in our children’s room, two magazines, a couple of receipts, and about five handwritten notes. That’s good. That means I’m collecting this stuff as soon as it appears in my mind or in front of my eyes.

There’s still a problem, though. In my rush to get things done, it can be easy to just let stuff pile up in your inbox. The problem with that is before you know it, you’re right back to where you started, with random thoughts penetrating your focus and slowing you down.

The key is to deal with the stuff you collect in its entirety every single day. Deal with it properly, too (as I discuss in the next point). Dealing with this stuff regularly means that all of your stuff – ideas, things, and so on – find their way to where they’re supposed to be – your filing cabinet, your trash can, your calendar, your to-do list, and so on. That way, when you need to know what appointments you have (for example), you only need to look at your calendar. You don’t need to rack your brain. The sixth deals with this.

Have coherent, known places to put all of your stuff.
Hand-in-hand with the processing is the idea of having rational places to put stuff.

You’ve got to have a calendar that stores all of the things you need to do at a certain time or date. You also need to have a “next action” list that tells you what stuff you need to get done. You also need a trash can and an attitude that’s not afraid to trash stuff. I think those three pieces are absolutely essential.

Beyond that, there’s some flexibility. I usually keep a master list and a series of folders for all of my larger ongoing projects. The list just lists all of the projects, and each project has a folder for specific ideas related to it. I also have a filing cabinet in which everything I think I should keep gets tossed. I don’t do anything complicated to file – I just give each folder a name and alphabetize them A-Z with the folders that start with numbers coming after them.

The seventh entry gives you all kinds of ideas and details about having the right places to put stuff.

A regular (preferably weekly) review is essential, where you reflect on things more broadly.
Each weekend, on whichever day of the two Sarah is on nap duty with the kids, I spend an hour or two reviewing my life.

Am I moving forward on all of my projects? How are they each doing? Are these projects in line with what I really want to be doing with my life? Did anything fall through the cracks this week? What does my calendar look like for the coming week? Is absolutely everything in my inbox processed?

These thoughts and tasks not only keep the day-to-day system running, but they also go a long way towards ensuring that I’m doing things that are in line with the big things I want in life and that the big things I’m shooting for are in line with what I want out of life now. That kind of reflection helps me to constantly connect the little stuff to my big dreams, which is key for keeping everything moving forward. You can read more about this in the eighth section of the discussion.

In closing, reading Getting Things Done and implementing the strategies has made a tremendous difference in my life. I would have never launched The Simple Dollar – or been able to sustain it – without the techniques in this book. If you have dreams – or simply have a hard time handling what’s on your plate right now – Getting Things Done might very well be the most useful book you’ve ever read. If you got even a glimmer of a good idea from this series, check out the full book – and don’t worry about Allen’s focus on business topics. The ideas he presents work in every context of life, from the stay-at-home parent to the self-employed to the programmer sitting in his or her cubicle.

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