What makes effective people so effective? Why do some people succeed in getting every amout of work done, whereas others have trouble getting through their day? Do productive people possess something we don’t have?
I don’t think so. It’s more likely the other way round: we have something that stops us from being productive. A kind of barrier or wall that stops us. Our goal for today is shattering this wall piece by piece.
If something is in our head, we can change it. That may not be easy all the time, but we do have a goal that is worth the effort: productivity!
Infinity and Beyond
The basic problem is that there is an infinite amount of things out there, waiting to be done. An infinite amount of things wanting our time and our attention. Time, on the other hand, is finite. Just like a box, that only has room for finite content. So we can put only a fraction of all possible things in our box. Which ones?
Mostly, we spend our time in a sloppy way. Everyone knows how it feels to spend 100 €. But how does it feel to spend one hour? I won’t equate time and money, but maybe we should spend our time like we spend money: thoughtfully!
The first step of solving our time problem is therefore to find out what we want to do in the first place. We can ask ourselves with everything we do: What is the goal of this? Why should I do it? What happens when I don’t to it?
The easiest and best way to spend your time more wisely is to remove things from your schedule. I assume there’s lots of stuff on there that’s not bringing you forward — nothing bad will happen if you don’t do it. Think about removing those activities — even if there might be a feeling of obligation to do them. Maybe even keep a list of unwanted activities so you don’t engage in them thoughlessly again.
The Black Box
We are knowledge-workers, people that mainly do nothing but add value to information. Nobody cares how exactly we reach our goal. We get a task and all that matters is the result. In between lies a black box, the content of which we define ourselves. But instead of working straight towards our goal, we let ourselves be distracted all the time and go an indirect way towards our goal. We get interrupted by emails, instant messages, tweets and switch between tasks all the time. And we try all that, although we are biologically incapable of splitting our attention to multiple tasks, we try consequently to do just that: multitasking.
Instead, we should focus. If we recognize what our brain is able to do and focus on just one task at a time, we reach better results faster.
Mind Like Water
Why should we minimize external distractions? Simply because we can’t think straight even without them. All the time our mind wanders off, thinking “Oh, I’ve still got to call X!” or “Damn, I need to go shopping for food today!” How can that be effective?
The Getting Things Done approach of David Allen and others offer a solution: outsourcing. This means that we try to move everything that flies around in our head to a simple, external and trustworthy system. The problem is a systemic one, so we need a systemic solution — to keep our heads free. In Karate, we call that a “mind like water”. Other people call it the “flow” — the state of maximum focus.
Get a System
A system like the one I spoke of consists mainly of two parts: first you need one place for everything, a planner or piece of software where we can put everything. The second thing is a set of good habits:
- Collect. To get everything out of our head, we have to collect it from there. Everything we better not forget should go into our system. If it is our inbox or a tray or something else entirely: the main point is: collect!
- Process. The collected stuff now is just that: stuff. To get a plan and an activity from it, we need to transform this stuff into concrete actions. Or we could decide to trash it, not to do it in the first place.
- Organize. These actions now need to be sorted somehow. Ideally into projects, which house every goal that needs more than one action. The key to organizing is prioritizing: if we only organize ourselves well, we’re making lots of food. If we prioritize well, we’re making great food.
- Review. It is important to maintain trust in our system, because if we don’t, all this stuff we stored outside of our head will creep back into our mind. Therefore we have to review our system regularly and update it.
- Do. This is why we have all those habits! Doing things. If we only collect, organize and review, we are like a cook collecting and sorting orders. But what she really should do instead is: make food!
Of Childrens’s Rooms and Frogs
Even if we are perfectly organized, that does not mean we really complete our tasks. One big problem facing many of us is procrastination. Procrastination is not exactly doing nothing, but doing the wrong thing and feeling shitty about it.
So, how do I motivate myself to start a task? We are great in negotiating with ourselves: “Not today, tomorrow will be enough!” or “I don’t have enough energy to do that now!” As sciencists, we question everything … so why not ourselves as well? If we stop talking crap to ourselves, we can get on. It is enourmously helpful to know your goal. If I don’t know where I want to go, how can I motivate myself to make the first step?
You can proceed just like you would make a child clean up it’s room: “Clean up!” – “I’m not in the mood.” – “Mh, can you do your bed?” – “Yes.” – “And can you sort your desk?” – “Yeah.” … so: step after step, managing one small task at a time.
Starting with the hardest one is worth the trouble. If you have done the most difficult task of the day, it’s all downhill from there. In other words: if you have to eat a frog, don’t waste a lot of time looking at it first! If you have to eat three frogs, don’t start with the small one!
Four Things You Can Do Now:
- Collect and sort your projects and tasks
- Direct your browser’s start page to dont-bullshit.me/now
- Set a reminder to review this in 30 days
- Eat a frog
References & Material
- Getting Things Done (David Allen) – Getting Started
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney)
- Rework (Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson)
Talks Worth Your Time:
- Why work doesn’t happen at work (Jason Fried)
- Inbox Zero (Merlin Mann)
- Time Management (Randy Pausch)
- Moleskine (in every stationary store)
- Roterfaden – roterfaden.com
- Reminders (Mac/iOS), Outlook (Windows)
- Remember the Milk (Webapp)