Archives for Time Management
Would you be surprised to learn that when you are distracted while working, you can make mistakes when you get back to your intended task? The results of a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that you also have a greater chance of “resuming at a different point in [your] train of thought” then if you had not been interrupted. Perhaps the most telling thing the researchers discovered is that even quick interruptions of less than three seconds made participants more likely to make a mistake.
… when their attention was shifted from the task at hand for a mere 2.8 seconds, they became twice as likely to mess up … the error rate tripled when the interruptions averaged 4.4 seconds.
Interruptions seem to be a part of everyone’s daily work life and they can come in a variety of forms: a request from a colleague, a phone call from a client, or even your own desire to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing. All of these moments stop you from fully focusing on your important tasks. It’s not that those other things may not also be worthy of your attention. They very well may be, but when you attend to them is essential to how productive you can be.
Since shifting your focus even for short periods of time has a direct effect on the quality of your work, it makes sense to:
Figure out what your regular interruptions are
Are there interruptions that happen frequently during your day? Do specific people continually seek your attention causing you to pause what you’re doing? Do you respond to all phone calls and emails immediately? Take a few minutes to jot down all the things that tend to take your focus away from your intended tasks.
Come up with a game plan
No matter what the interruptions are, you can thwart them with a strategic game plan. Create a time plan so you can manage your tasks. By doing this, you’ll be able to set realistic timeframes for working on your to-do’s and setting your schedule accordingly.
Share your calendar with others. Make your schedule available to colleagues so they’ll know when you’ll have time available to meet or talk with them. You may still get interrupted, but hopefully your colleagues will begin to request your attention when they know you’re not otherwise occupied.
Use friendly, but direct reminders. When you do get interrupted, consider using statements such as:
- “I’m working on a project that is making my brain spin and requires a lot of focus. Can we meet this afternoon at 3:00 to discuss your matter in detail? I’ll be much more helpful to you then when my mind isn’t filled with this project.”
- “Unfortunately, I’m swamped today finishing project X so we can meet the deadline. I won’t be able to help today. Have you talked to Sally? I know she has been interested in getting involved in a project such as this.”
- “I’d like to help, but if you need an answer today, I’ll have to to say no.”
You can also post a sign on your office door (if you have one) or cubicle panel, and you can even wear one. When I worked in the corporate world, my workspace was in a highly trafficked area and it wasn’t unusual for someone to tap me on the shoulder with a request. Since I didn’t have a door that I could close, I sometimes wore a sign that said something like: “I’m not here. I’ll back at 3 pm.” Of course, I explained to others in the office what I was doing so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard or be put off by my sign.
Control self-imposed distractions. Remove the temptation to share your attention with unimportant activities by turning off email notifications, silencing your phone, or forwarding your calls to voicemail or another person. You can also use a browser extension like Leechblock to block your favorite websites while you work on your most important projects.
Stop interruptions before they happen
Planning ahead is a great way to limit distractions before they occur. Is a teammate, project manager, or client waiting on information from you? If the next action lies with you, consider completing it ahead of schedule — before they contact you with a reminder. This is a win-win solution for everyone and you’ll be rewarded with a solid block of focused time. Additionally, you can be proactive and keep others up-to-date with your project by communicating with them first, and on your schedule. When others are well-informed of your progress, they won’t interrupt you to see how you’re doing.
Use strategies to help you get back on track
Whether you need to take a phone call or reply to an urgent email, try to keep your time away as short as possible. And, think about writing down your thoughts before you stop working so you have a frame of reference for when you return. You could leave yourself a note with your voice recorder or you can type in your last train of thought directly in the document you’re composing.
When possible, go to another location
If you find that you’re getting an influx of interruptions, find a different workspace (if possible). Pick an alternate location that allows you focus and get stuff done (library, local cafe, co-working office, conference room).
He was highly organized and prioritized his tasks and responsibilities while serving as president, a five-star general, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and supreme commander of NATO. Eisenhower devised an effective system that’s simple enough to be executed with a pencil and a piece of paper and effective enough to, well, run the free world. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix.
Why use it?
First and foremost, it answers the question, “What should I do now?” There have been times when I’ve sat at my desk with an overwhelming list of projects and to-do items. They all seem important in those first few moments, and it’s often hard to be objective enough to identify what is urgent and what isn’t. The Eisenhower Matrix formalizes that process.
The Matrix also forces you to carefully consider potential projects. Is it life-sustaining work that will pay the bills or something that might be fun (and devour billable hours)? Alternatively, will this new opportunity or idea rejuvenate your productive, creative self, or lead you down a rabbit hole of avoidance? In other words, you get an answer to the question: “Is this worth doing?”
Finally, when you’ve got your tasks written down and plugged into the matrix, it’s very easy to identify urgent tasks at a glance. As the president often said:
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Here’s How it Works.
So what is it? The Eisenhower Matrix categorizes tasks across a 2×2 matrix. The categories are:
- Important and urgent. Tasks in this category are both urgent and time sensitive. They must be completed as soon as possible. Examples might include a report due within the next 48 hours or last-minute tax preparations. This is the stuff that keeps food on the table and a roof over your head.
- Important and not urgent. These tasks are to be handled immediately after those in quadrant number one. They’re less time sensitive, but you should be prepared to complete them after any crises in quadrant one have been solved. Examples include long-term financial planning and physical exercise.
- Not important but urgent. It’s odd to consider something that’s unimportant to be urgent, but this happens more than you might think. Administrative tasks are a good example of items that fall into this category. You might not want to file your reports with your boss each Friday and it’s even okay if you miss a few each year, but today is Friday and you should get the report done by the end of the day.
- Unimportant and not urgent. I reserve this area for tasks that aren’t related to work and don’t affect my income. I need to get them done, but there’s no time-crunch in place. Scheduling an oil change for the car is a good example.
Keep Track of it All
Now that you’ve decided what goes where, it’s time to keep track of it all. You’re in luck because it couldn’t be simpler. A 3×5 index card (I love 3×5 index cards) is perfect! Just draw the four lines and add the day’s tasks.
Notebooks are great, too, for keeping track of your Matrix. I’m a fan of Field Notes Brand, but really anything will do.
If you’re tech-savvy, there are a couple applications you can employ. There’s one called, appropriately, Eisenhower. It’s totally free and runs in almost any web browser, so it doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or a PC. The makers of Eisenhower have also released a companion iPhone app ($2.99).
Priority Matrix is another software solution that’s available for Windows, Mac, iPhone and iPad. I’ve been using it with success this winter. It’s really nice to glance down at my index card and know what must be done and when.
I recently wrote a post about effective inbox management that came down to this: use as many inboxes as you need and can check reliably, and no more. One reader, “Erika in VA,” left a comment requesting more information on how I used index cards to capture information for my physical inboxes:
Loved the post, but could you explain what you normally write on the 3×5 cards? My typical physical in-box item is paper, so I’m having a hard time imagining how I might use 3×5 cards to help process “stuff.” Thanks!
Paper is Technology
Even as a technology-savvy person, I love paper and use it daily. In my experience, nothing is more flexible. Paper is pure potential. You can jot down a shopping list or solve a complex financial crisis with a pencil. In fact, paper is an example of technology, it’s “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry. Or machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge.”
I’ve been using index cards for years. There’s always a stack on my desk. I use them for several purposes, but most frequently to capture ideas, tasks, reminders, figures and so on for later reference. Here’s how and why I love using index cards.
How many times have you said, “I’ve got to remember to …”? When I have those thoughts, I know that if I don’t write them down right then and there, I’ll forget them. I must capture this “stuff.” I use the term capture to mean to create a record of that idea, thought, or bit of information that I know I’ll review later. That last bit is crucially important.
When I’m away from my desk I’ll use a notebook and pen to capture stuff. I like Fieldnotes Brand notebooks and the Fisher Space Pen, but really anything you like will do. When I’m in the car, I use my iPhone and record voice memos with Apple’s Siri.
But when I’m at my desk, it’s all about the index cards.
There’s a simple inbox on my desk that I bought at Staples. It contains a stack of unused index cards, plus any that I’ve written on during the day. When I’m working and I think of something that I want to capture, I grab a blank card and write a few words down. Just enough to trigger my memory later. For example, there’s a card in my inbox as I write this that says, “Make ‘Tally’ next week’s app.” I know that means I must review an app called “Tally” for next week.
When I’m done writing, I toss the card back into the inbox. The whole capture process takes just a few seconds, and that’s important. The more time I spend off task, the harder it will be to get back on task. Since I can jot something down in just a few seconds, I can return to whatever I was doing prior to making that note easily.
At the end of the day, I process the index card notes I’ve made. This is simple to do. Just pick up each card, read it and decide:
- What is it?
- What must be done (if anything)?
The first question typically has three possible answers:
- An action step. Something that must be done, either by me or by someone else.
- Reference material. This is information that doesn’t require action but could be useful in the future. Move it to your long-term storage solution.
- Date- or time-specific to-do item, or what I’d call a “reminder.” Add to your calendar.
That’s it. I move through each card in turn, following these steps. It’s pretty simple, but there is one important rule: go in order. It’s tempting to pass over a card that’s boring or seemingly too-much-to-think-about-right-now. If you put it back once, unprocessed, you’re likely to pass over it a second time. And a third. So, you are not allowed to put a card back and you may not alter the order.
A Matter of Trust
Earlier I mentioned that I know I’ll review my index cards at the end of the day. In other words, I trust my system. This is critically important. When my brain knows, “Yeah, he’ll look at this later. I trust him,” it stops pestering me. Imagine that you promise yourself, “I”m going to clean the basement.” Every time you walk past that basement door, your brain says, ”We ought to be cleaning the basement, you know.“ But if you make an appointment to clean the basement on Saturday at 10:00 a.m., your brain will give you a pass. “She’s put it on the calendar. We’re good.” I know in my bones that I’ll review my index cards, so no more remembering to change the furnace filter when I’m driving on Rte. 3 and can’t do a thing about it.
That’s my index card system: capture, review, do. Nice and simple. It’s quick, I trust it, and it works. I hope this answers your question, Erika!
One way to beat stress is to regularly take time off from work, but returning to work after your vacation can often have the exact opposite effect — it can be a source of stress. How do you pick up where you left off so you can hit the ground running? With a bit of planning, you can actually come back ready to work and ease back into your typical routine without feeling discombobulated and anxious.
Add an extra day
If you’ve ever found yourself wishing for an additional day of vacation so you could recover from the days you spent away from work, it’s not a bad idea. Schedule your return home a day earlier so you have an extra day to the end of your vacation, which you can use to catch up on emails, get reacquainted with projects, and get settled in at home. Knowing what to expect before you head back to work the next day will give you a preview of what your week will be like as well as the opportunity to put some plans in place.
You might also want to think about adding an extra day before you leave to clean up at home (empty the garbage, wash the dishes, turn on the Roomba) or even get your clothing ready for the morning you’ll be returning to the office. That way, you won’t even need to think about these tasks when you get back.
Put your desk in order before you leave
Clearing your desk, putting away files, and leaving your office or cubicle in an organized state before you leave helps you in several ways. First, you won’t have to clean up when you get back so you can start working straight away (less time cleaning means more time being productive). And, not only will it be a welcome sight, but you will likely have a better chance of getting stuff done.
Schedule meetings several days after you get back
Before you leave, you’ll probably need to add meetings to your calendar. Be realistic about how much time you’ll have to prepare for those meetings, particularly if you need to share a report or take on the role of facilitator. Consider postponing meetings three to five days after returning (or longer, if possible).
Stay away from extra tasks
You’ll also want to refrain from participating in activities that were not planned prior to you leaving. Unless they are urgent and require your focus, unplanned tasks can increase your work load and be overwhelming. Instead, focus on your most important projects and then, as you get back in the swing of things, you can gradually add more to your plate.
Delegate some tasks
Before you leave, hand off a few or your to-dos to a colleague to manage while you’re away. That way, you don’t come back to a long laundry list of tasks and you can keep some of your projects moving along in your absence. At the very least, brief a colleague on where to find things in your office so he or she can locate them quickly while you’re gone and won’t have to call you while you’re spending time with family or sipping a fancy drink on a beach.
A reader recently emailed asking if I could put together a detail of what my day looks like and how I stay on top of uncluttering and organizing tasks. I’ve written something like this before, but I’ve become a mom since writing the original article, so I thought I’d put together an updated routine. This one-day example shows how a little bit of effort each day can keep most people’s homes in good condition.
Not every Tuesday works exactly like what I have listed here, but this is a fairly accurate representation of how I move throughout my day. All of the chores I share with my husband, so where the schedule says “load the dishwasher” or “take son to school,” it might be either of us who does this activity.
One thing to note is most weekdays I work until 5:00 p.m. The “After-Work Errand Routine” is special just to Tuesdays and allows me to grocery shop and run errands at a time when the stores and streets aren’t crowded. As a result, most Tuesdays I go back to work from 8:45 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. instead of relaxing during that time.
A Typical Tuesday
Morning Home Routine:
6:30 a.m. Wake up, brush teeth, wash face, put on workout clothes, and make bed.
6:40 a.m. Unload dishwasher, make coffee, feed pets, assemble son’s lunch, get breakfast on the table.
7:00 a.m. Sit and do nothing for 10 or 15 minutes with a cup of coffee.
7:15 a.m. Wake up son, everyone eats breakfast.
7:45 a.m. Load dishwasher, sweep floor.
7:50 a.m. Supervise son getting dressed, teeth brushed and flossed, his face cleaned, and backpack loaded.
8:05 a.m. Take son to school.
Morning Work Routine:
8:30 a.m. Work on most important writing/client project.
9:45 a.m. Check email, social media, and administrative work.
10:00 a.m. Work on second most important writing/client project.
11:15 a.m. Check email, social media, and administrative work.
11:30 a.m. Make and eat lunch, load dishwasher.
12:00 p.m. Exercise or do yard work (like mowing).
12:45 p.m. Shower and get ready.
Afternoon Work Routine:
1:00 p.m. Work on third most important writing/client project.
2:00 p.m. Make another cup of coffee, check email, social media, and administrative work.
2:15 p.m. Wrap up writing/client projects for the day.
2:30 p.m. End-of-day routine for work: set phone to do not disturb, clear desk, set writing agenda for next day, have everything set and ready to go for tomorow.
After-Work Errand Routine: (Tuesdays only)
2:45 p.m. Pick up son from school.
3:05 p.m. Run errands to grocery store (made shopping list on Sunday), post office, dry cleaner, etc.
Evening Home Routine:
4:00 p.m. Return home and sort and shred mail, put away groceries, scan and shred receipts, unload son’s lunchbox and other items from backpack, load lunchbox items into dishwasher.
4:05 p.m. Spend time with son.
5:20 p.m. Put load of son’s laundry into washer.
5:30 p.m. Make dinner and get son’s lunch ready for tomorrow so it only has to be assembled in the morning. Everyone eats dinner.
6:30 p.m. Load dishwasher, run dishwasher, sweep floor.
6:35 p.m. Move son’s clothes to dryer. Everyone does 20 to 30 minutes of general house clean up with special focus on bathrooms. (Other special focus areas: Mondays are kitchen and dining room; Wednesdays are bedrooms; Thursdays are living rooms; Fridays are remaining spaces like hallways, entryways, and garages; and Sundays are meal planning.)
7:00 p.m. Spend time with family.
8:00 p.m. Bathe son and put him to bed.
8:30 p.m. Fold son’s clothes (will put away tomorrow morning after breakfast), get self ready for bed, brush and floss teeth, feed pets.
8:45 p.m. Hang out with husband or do more writing/editing work.
10:30 p.m. Go to bed.
On pages 98 and 99 of my book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week, there is a routine schedule that covers the full week. We’ve made a few additions to the schedule now that we’re parents, but it is still very similar to what we do in our home. It has worked well for us for many years and keeps our weekends free to have as much fun as we desire.
Also, twice a year we spend a weekend doing major uncluttering work throughout the entire house. Even with daily maintenance, we find we still need to give everything we own a good review every six months. Usually our major uncluttering weekends are held the weekends preceding our fall and spring cleaning weekends. We like to get rid of clutter before doing the spring and fall cleanings so there is less to clean and maintain. You can find our cleaning guides in my book on pages 100 and 185. We usually do the “Dedicated Cleaner” plan.
Finally, we try our best to put things away after we use them and to have a permanent storage space for everything we own. These two simple actions aid us significantly in keeping our home uncluttered and organized.
When you want to remember to do something — especially something that spontaneously pops into your mind — it’s best to record it as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t float away as quickly as it came. You can do that by using a post-it note, you can put a reminder in your Notes or Evernote app, or you can try Due, a simple (new to me) task and reminder app. I tried the app over the weekend and immediately liked it when I realized that I could get started right away. I didn’t need access to the internet, nor did I need to create an account (great time saver).
Here are some additional features I found helpful …
Easy to create reminders
Creating a reminder is intuitive and requires only two steps: adding a title and selecting the date/time for the alert. The app also offers four pre-set times that you can quickly choose from.
Save time by recycling your reminders
All your old reminders are saved in Due’s logbook so you can track and reuse them by creating new ones (with the same title and reminder times). You’ll save a bit of time by recycling instead of recreating the alert.
Set multiple timers at the same time
Need to check the roast in the oven in 20 minutes or to call a client at a particular time? Want to get that 3-minute egg done just right? Due lets you set a timers for each one simultaneously (something the native iPhone app doesn’t allow you to do). And, you can start the timer with just one tap, or rather, flick of the switch.
There is much more that Due can do (like sync your reminders with iCloud or Dropbox, assignable tones for each alert, integrate with other apps), so take a closer look to see if this app is for you.
Platform: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch (iOS 5 or later)
Other iOS apps like it: Beep Me (Free for basic version, $4.99 for paid version), Sorted 2 ($0.99)
Android apps like it: QuickTodo Lite (free), Due Today ($2.99)
What are your favorite reminder applications? Share your recommendations in the comments.
“Weren’t computers supposed to make our lives easier?” How often have you heard that question in a sarcastic or exasperated tone? The answer is simple, but unexpected. First of all, yes, computers are meant to make our lives easier. But, the reason it often seems they don’t is because computers are dumb. That is to say, they are machines and can only do what we tell time to do.
That can be a hindrance, such as when you can’t figure out the steps necessary to accomplish a task. But it’s also out greatest asset, especially when the steps are simple, clear and effective. One of the best examples I can think of is automation, and my favorite automation tool is something called IFTTT.
Automate Tasks with IFTTT
IFTTT stands for If This, Then That. You can use it to build actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you. A recipe consists of two steps. The second step is triggered when — and only when — the first steps happens. To put it plainly:
If [this happens], then [do this other thing].
Let’s look at a few examples to get a feel for it. I post lots of photos to Facebook. I also like to maintain an archive of those photos outside of Facebook, for posterity and as a backup. I could do so manually, dragging each one to my desktop and then into an app like Evernote. It’s not a hassle, but I’m likely to forget a step. Instead, I have IFTTT do it for me. After signing up for a free account, I’m ready to make recipes. Here’s how:
- Click Create a Recipe.
- A new screen appears with “ifthisthenthat” in bold letters. Note that “this” is a link. Click it.
- Time to pick step one! This is the “thing” that must happen in order for step two to take place. Click “Facebook,” and give IFTTT permission to access it.
- Choose your Trigger. This is the thing Facebook must “do” in order to trigger step two. In this example, I choose “you upload a new photo.” Click Create Trigger to confirm.
- We’re back to those bold letters, but now the Facebook logo has replaced “this.” Click “that.”
- Choose your action from the grid. In our case, Evernote.
- Click “create image note from URL.”
- Finally, click “create action,” confirm that you see “if [Facebook] then [Evernote]”, click “create recipe” and you’re done!
Now, every time I post a photo to Facebook, it’s added to my Evernote account. It doesn’t matter if I use my phone, computer or camera. Off the image goes to Evernote, saving me time.
Using an Existing Recipe
If you like the idea of the service but don’t want to make recipes, that’s no problem. There are hundreds of recipes to choose from, all ready to go. Some popular ones include:
- Send an email message to Evernote.
- Get updates on what’s new on Netflix.
- Receive the day’s weather forecast as a text message.
- Receive an email if it’s going to rain, reminding you to pack an umbrella.
- Send starred RSS items to Evernote or Pocket for later reading.
It goes on and on. There’s so much you can do, from receiving or sending reminders, watching certain feeds for changes or, my favorite, completing mundane and time-consuming tasks automatically. Create an IFTTT account, start cooking recipes and see what you can do.
Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:
1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.
Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?
I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.
That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.
If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.
I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.
People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)
As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.
In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).
Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
Years ago I worked as a special needs teacher, creating and implementing educational goals for students with autism and other developmental delays. It was an amazing experience and, in many ways, has affected the way I manage projects and tasks today. A few tricks I learned back then now help to keep me productive and confident, even when my project list is overwhelming.
Break It Down
My students, being individuals, performed best under teaching conditions tailored to their abilities. We’d identify their strengths and areas of need and go from there. I also found that certain methods benefited a large number of students, including the practice of breaking complex tasks down into small, sequential steps. Once the first step was learned, the second step was introduced. After that, the third, fourth, and so on. Eventually, many of our students could perform all of the small steps in succession, thereby completing a larger task. Today, I use this technique when devising the steps that must be completed before I can mark a project as “done.” Here are two examples:
Learning to tie one’s shoe is challenging for most kids. However, the individual steps that lead to a properly tied shoe are simple:
- Hold one lace in each hand.
- Cross the laces to form an “X.”
- Grasp the center of the “X” with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.
- Push the left lace through the opening at the bottom of the “X.”
You get the idea. While “tie your shoes” is tricky, “hold one lace in each hand” is not. The same goes for the projects we must complete in our personal and professional lives. “Get ready for the conference” is complex and possibly overwhelming. If you’re like me, you’ll avoid something so daunting. To make it more manageable, identify some of the steps that must be completed before this project can be marked as “done.”
- Add date and time of conference to calendar.
- Make appointment to have car serviced prior to travel.
- Pre-load travel route on GPS map.
- Brainstorm presentation ideas.
- Devise outline from brainstorm session.
- Review outline, expand upon it.
- Write first draft of presentation.
There are two things to notice here. First, each small task is easily accomplished and leads to the next one. Also notice that every task on the list starts with an action verb.
The key to burning through your to-do list is clearly defining what must be done. “The presentation” is not a good action step. “Write first draft of presentation” is. The difference is that the first word is a verb. In fact, all of the steps listed above start with a verb. Try it when writing your own to-do lists. It’s great to know exactly what must be done.
What is a Project?
David Allen defines a project as “anything that requires more than one action step to be completed” (is my fascination with David Allen obvious yet?). This means that things we might not consider projects actually are projects. In my example above, get ready for the conference, definitely is. But so is getting an oil change for the car or volunteering for a 3rd grade field trip to the beach. Going back to my days as a teacher, I’d break down the oil change project like this:
- Review calendar to identify free days.
- Call favorite mechanic’s shop to make appointment.
- Travel to garage on given day and time.
The beach trip would look like this:
- Confirm availability on target day.
- RSVP to teacher request.
- Buy sunscreen.
- Clean out cooler in basement.
- Gas up the car.
Breaking projects into small, easily achieved tasks is beneficial in many ways. First, it makes a big project seems less daunting. It also allows you to clearly define exactly what must be done, and provides a real sense of being on top of things.
Now that I’m a parent, my schedule has more activites and I seem to continuously be on a quest to find more time. It’s not lost, but it has become more elusive. Rather than run around frantically (which is not a good look for me), I know that I need to rely on simple systems that have worked for me in the past.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to capture a few extra minutes:
- Laundry. Just saying the word laundry makes me want to run and hide. I don’t like that there are so many steps to getting clean clothing. It’s a long but necessary process, so I shorten it by doing smaller loads. That way, I can wash, dry, fold, and put away all clothing in one evening. I don’t have to sort since I use a three compartment hamper to separate the clothing colors ahead of time. This really saves some precious minutes. It also helps to make sure clothing is not inside out before they go in the washer. When they are finished drying, all I have to do is fold and put them away. Did I mention I tend to wear clothing that doesn’t need ironing?
The best thing about doing laundry is that it’s not a task that requires you attend to it the entire time. So, once the clothes are in the machine, I can do something else.
- Dishes. Though I dislike doing dishes, I love seeing an empty sink. I tend to wash dishes right after I’m finished using them. On the occasions that I let them pile up, it often takes too long to get them done. In short, do ‘em as you use ‘em.
- Cooking. While something is simmering or sitting in the oven, I wash the dishes or put away the ones that are already dry. Also, when I’m prepping my ingredients, I keep a bowl on the counter for things that I will eventually throw away. This means I have less spills on the counter to clean up. And, if something does spill, I wipe it up straight away.
- Morning Coffee. My coffee maker turns on automatically at 5:30 am every day and all I have to do is put in a coffee pod when I’m ready for my cup. I also fill up the water reservoir each night before going to bed.
- Keys and Purse. My keys and purse are always hung on a hook next to the door. Other items that I’ll need when leaving the house are set by the door the night before so that I don’t forget them or run around looking for them before leaving.
- Car care. I spend a fair amount of time in my car and am usually eating on the go. Since granola bars and water are often what I have on hand, it’s easy for me to accumulate food wrappers and water bottles. I stop them from taking over my car by simply removing them each time I run an errand (e.g., get gas, go to the bank or market) or once I return home.
These simple steps have been extremely helpful and have kept me from losing my head the past few months. I do, however, need to figure out a way to keep better track of my phone. Since my little one came along, it’s the one thing that I tend to search for the most. I can’t explain this phenomenon. Recently, I’ve been saying a little mantra before I leave any room in the house and when I get in the car: “Do I have my phone?” This strategy seems to be helping and I find that I don’t have to search for it as often.
What do you do to gain more time in your day?
There are many things I want to do and I’ve been known to multitask (as recently as last week!). When time seems elusive, it can be easy to get caught in the trap of doing too many things at once.
Fortunately, I have a simple, three step process that helps me focus on one thing at a time and to be more realistic about how much I can actually accomplish.
Here it is:
- Write a short, specific list
- Create a realistic and reasonable plan
- Select a reward
One of the reasons this process works for me is because I enjoy writing to-do lists, and I usually get more done when I hand write them. I like apps like Toodledo (especially since I can set reminders), but I love crossing tasks off on a paper list. Like Erin, sometimes I put things I’ve already done on my list just so I can put a line through them.
Now that I have spring cleaning on my mind, I’ve created a list for my latest project: organizing the outside of my home. As a new mom, I put more effort in (trying to) keep the inside of my home organized, and there are times that I forget about the outdoor chores. But, now that this is back on my radar, I took a look inside our shed. It has been a bit neglected because we were so focused on the impending arrival of a certain little person. Needless to say, it needs some attention. As I looked around the yard, I also noticed a few other things that were crying out for a some tender loving care.
So, my first step was to make a list of some (not all) of the things I wanted work on. There are several helpful spring cleaning checklists that I could use, however, in this case, I decided to make a short list based on:
- Things I think are important (i.e., need fixing and will make me happy).
- The amont of time it will take for me to complete them.
The short list
Whenever I make a list, I include the top three things needed to complete each task. When I complete a step, I cross it off and move on to the next one until all tasks have been taken care of. I have also used “One Thing” notepads by PrettyBitter.com.
- Re-organize the shed
- Remove obvious trash and recyclables
- Re-organize shelves (keep like items together)
- Sweep and annihilate cobwebs
- Add plants to pots at entry way
- Buy potting soil
- Buy perennials with color (perennials take less time to maintain)
- Plant flowers and water them
The reasonable plan
- I intend to finish all tasks by the end of June. I find that when I have a deadline, the likelihood of finishing my project is high. Without one, I can turn into a waffler.
- I will work in 15-30 minute time blocks three days every week. I would like to work my plan every day, but I doubt I’d be successful at that. Short organizing sessions will give me enough time to get some chores done and still let me do other (unrelated) things.
- I will pick one thing to focus on each day. By focusing on one item, I can keep feelings of overwhelm at bay.
- I will ask for help. When there’s a second person, 15-30 minutes will double, I’d probably get more done, and finish my chores sooner.
- I will think of a nice reward when my project is complete.
The amazing reward
I get little bursts of joy each time I cross something off my list, and I get the personal satisfaction of actually finishing what I set out to do. But, when I choose a fabulous way to pat myself on the back, that helps me get through my list because I have something amazing to look forward to. I think a manicure and a massage are in my near future.
It’s the smallest of improvements that often make the biggest difference in my life. For example, Hallmark made mailing cards significantly easier in February with the release of their postage-paid envelopes.
My sister-in-law sent my son a card in one of these envelopes a few weeks ago and when I saw the envelope with that image printed on it, I actually cheered. (I’m weird, I know.) From Hallmark’s corporate website:
Hallmark Postage-Paid Greetings feature the U.S. Postal Service’s Intelligent Mail barcode on the front of the envelope. When the cards are processed at a Postal Service facility, the barcode automatically indicates to the Postal Service the postage is paid. The postage is treated like a Forever stamp, and its value will always be equal to the price of a standard First-Class stamp, regardless of when it’s mailed.
In the article “Birthday cards and reminder systems” from back in 2007, I wrote about how I buy all my cards for the year at a single time to be more efficient. I’ve also been buying enough Forever stamps to cover all the postage for those cards around the same time. These new pre-paid envelopes make it so I don’t have to worry about the second step in the process. Also, it saves time if I need to pick up a last-minute card at the store — I just sign the card and drop it into any mailbox without having to go to the post office (which, since I haven’t yet bought my supply of cards for the year, I’ve actually done twice in the last week). Hallmark saves me from having to run another errand, and I like not having to run errands.
These new envelopes might not be for everyone, especially if you never mail cards, but for someone like me who sends a lot of cards they’re extremely convenient.
What small improvements have made a big difference in your life recently? Share your finds in the comments.