On how to become more productive and why
a solid time-management method is not enough.
I'm one of those people who like to keep a paper notebook. I like to stay organised and on top of things. After reading Getting Things Done by David Allen for the first time, I got really excited about time-management and productivity.
In this article, I want to cover the key aspect of the GTD method and reflect on why it's not enough and what is missing to be truly productive. So let's get straight to into it!
Getting Things Done
Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method by David Allen. It was designed primarily for managers but can be used just as well for everybody else. I started using it at the university and although I don't follow it 100%, the basic idea stuck with me. I consider it to be the foundation of good time management. Let's take a look the basics elements of GTD:
Writing everything down is the basis. Don't rely on your mind to remember things. The mind is for having ideas not holding them. Therefore, write everything down and decide what to do later. I like to keep a paper notebook with me all the time. I highly recommend you to write things down on a paper because it's the easiest and most reliable method. You can process and transfer your notes into digital later. Besides, you can sketch on paper. Sketching is a great method for generating new ideas. It's easy, quick and cheap.
The next-actions list is your to-do list. It should only consist of one-step actions. If there are more steps to complete the action, it's to be considered as a project. You need to break the project into single actions first. Then, you can put it on your next-actions list one by one.
Example: Choose 10 best vacation photos.
Projects are all the things to be done, that takes more steps to finish. It took me a while to understand the importance of distinguishing projects from next-actions. If you’re treating a project like a next-action, you’re leveraging your mind. By looking at the task on your to-do list, you still have to think about where to start. It takes more willpower to overcome and therefore you will more likely end up postponing the task.
Example of a project: Print vacation photo album.
Now, if you would put "print vacation photo album" on your to-do list, it's not a single action. If you think about it for a moment, you realize you have to go through the photos first, delete the bad ones, make some kind of a selection, edit those photos, then you need to find a photo printing service and finally, place an order.
That makes it 5 steps. Five actions you have to finish, one by one, to complete the project. "Print vacation photo album" on your to-do list doesn't give you a clear place to start. This may seem obvious to you, but it makes a hell of a difference. It leverages your mind with more thinking, rather than jumping straight into work. Moreover, it forces you to make decisions. And decision making is hard and costs lots of mental energy.
Learn to distinguish between actions and projects. Break down projects into simple, one-step actions. Keep a list of all active projects to stay on top of things.
Waiting For List
Sometimes, there are items on your to-do list, you can't do anything about. Typically, you are waiting for someone else to take an action before you can move on. These items keep bugging you and leverage your mind with unfinished work. Move those items to a separate list or highlight them as W/F. It will help you to focus on the actual to-dos.
Example: Print the photos (W/F printing service)
The S/M list is the most important list in terms of future planning and turning your wishes or dreams into reality. We people tend to talk about things we would like to do one day when the time is right. Things like "I will travel to the USA", "I will move abroad" or "I will quit my stupid job and do something I like". A year goes by and nothing has changed. This is what an S/M list is good for. Keep track of things you would like to do someday unspecific in the future. Review the list regularly and move the item to your project list, when you feel the times is right!
The last part of the GDT method is your calendar. A calendar is where your meetings, appointments, deadlines and time-bound task are stored. Don't put your to-dos into your calendar. It will only put you under stress and make you feel miserable about not finishing it.
The missing aspects of productivity
While having a solid system you can rely on is important for improving your productivity, it's not everything. For years I was searching for perfect tools. I was switching from one app to another and then back to an analog system. But in the end of the day, it hasn't made me much more productive. I was still struggling with the same challenge: keep the productivity level high in a long term. To truly master productivity, you have to understand, how your mind works. There are another three key aspects of productivity to take into account: your willpower, habits and the ability of undistracted, focused work.
It always takes an effort to overcome the initial distaste of work. There is no productivity method or system that will make you jump up off a couch and do your work instead. It takes a strong willpower.
Now, there are people with very strong willpower and there are people with almost none. The good thing is, willpower is just like a muscle and it can be trained. And like every other muscle, it can get tired and needs rest to recover. The rule of thumb is: start small. Don't push it too hard. Instead of writing a book, try writing a single paragraph first. Don't force yourself to work for 4 hours without a break. Try working in small sessions and take a break in between. Doing very little work but on a regular basis will take you much further in a long-term than doing a lot of work at once. And it requires almost no willpower.
The power of habit
If you've already seen my book recommendations, you will recognize the title of the book by Charles Duhigg. Habits are extremely important, if not the most important key aspect of productivity. Most of the actions we perform every day are based on habits. We do it automatically, without thinking. Brushing your teeth, eating a breakfast, drinking a cup of coffee in the office...It's all a routine, triggered by a cue, with a reward at the end. Once you've understood how habits work, you can change them or build new ones. Building a habit is a tricky thing and it takes time and dedication. But if you can turn work into a habit, you will become truly productive.
In his book, Cal Newport defines shallow and deep work. Let's take a look at those two definitions:
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Example: Going through your e-mail inbox.
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Example: Writing a scientific paper.
The idea is simple: avoid the shallow work and do as much deep work as possible. Doing distraction-free, focused work can get you into a flow. That is the state of mind, where you can work for hours with ease, fun and produce the best results.
Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity
Doing deep work takes practice and strict rules. The best way to achieve it is turning it into a habit. During my first years at the university, I was traveling by train a lot. It was a two-hours travel and at that time, I had no mobile internet. I would always dedicate those two hours to do my homework. It was a time frame of distraction-free work worth more than 4 hours working at home!
Turn the theory into practice!
It's nice to have the thing all figured out in theory. But does it work in the wild? In the next article, I'm going to talk about my time management and the tools I use for productivity. Stay tuned!
And now go and do something.