Getting Things Done: The 2015 revised edition

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was first published in 2001, and Allen released an updated version in March. So, what has changed?

Long-time fans on GTD will be glad to learn that the fundamentals are the same as they’ve ever been. If you have the original edition, there’s no need to rush to get the new one. However, if you’re buying the book for the first time, you’ll want this new version.

There are a number of small changes, all good:

  • Outdated references to phone slips, faxes, answering machines, Rolodexes, and VCRs are gone. Certainly some people still use these things, but they aren’t as central to most people’s lives as they once were. Now there are references to text messages, mobile devices, and scanners.
  • References to specific computer programs (Lotus Notes, etc.) which were used as examples have been removed.
  • U.S.-specific references have been replaced with more international wording. For example, a reference to U.S. K-1 tax forms has been replaced with the more generic “tax documents.” This K-1 change also illustrates the move away from examples that apply mostly to business executives — not everyone, even in the U.S., will know what a K-1 is. (It’s a form showing income from a partnership.)

But there are more substantial changes, too. There’s a new chapter about GTD and cognitive science, talking about studies that support the GTD methodology. However, I found this chapter to be a slog to read, and the connection to GTD seemed tenuous in some cases (although quite obvious in others).

There’s another new chapter entitled “The Path to GTD Mastery,” where Allen acknowledges that it can take some time for people to get proficient at the GTD basics, much less moving beyond that to his other two levels of proficiency. But here’s the part that caught my eye:

Even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold.

The two-minute rule, by the way, says that if a task is going to take two minutes or less, you should just do it now rather than adding it to a list. And it was nice to see Allen say something I’ve long believed: You don’t need to do everything the GTD way to get some benefit from the methodology he proposes.

There is also a new glossary and much more discussion about how the GTD processes work in a world where information is increasingly found in digital forms, and where people may work from a coffee shop, not just an office.

But some of my favorite changes were random comments added throughout the book. For example, here’s the new quotation, from Mark Van Doren, which opens the book:

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give … our attention to the opportunity before us.

Of course, I noticed what Allen wrote about being organized:

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you. If you decide you want to keep something as reference and you put it where your reference material needs to be, that’s organized. If you think you need a reminder about a call you need to make, as long as you put that reminder where you want reminders of phone calls to make, you’re organized.

And here’s his advice on uncluttering (or not):

People often mistake my advice as an advocacy for radical minimalism. On the contrary, if throwing something away is uncomfortable for you, you should keep it. Otherwise you would have attention on the fact that you now don’t have something you might want or need. …

You like having and keeping your twelve boxes of old journals and notes from college? You like keeping all kinds of nutty toys and artwork and gadgets around your office to spur creative thinking? No problem, as long as they are where you want them to be, in the form they’re in, and you have anything you want or need to do about that captured and processed in your system.

Note: There’s a footnote explaining this advice is not intended for those with a hoarding disorder.

While Getting Things Done is still a ponderous read in some places, I think there are enough good ideas that it remains my favorite book on time management.

Getting started with a daily routine

A few years ago, I was fed up with the frenzy of realizing something important was due … two hours after I had missed a deadline. After much trial and error, and a little dragging of my feet, I’ve established a workable daily routine. For me, adherence to a routine is especially important. Since I work from home, I’ve only got six hours to myself while my wife and kids are at school, and enough work for much more than that. I keep it all manageable, in part, with a fixed routine. It’s all about knowing what’s coming, preparing ahead of time, and finding a “home” for key items and ideas.

The view from up here – knowing what’s coming

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my routine, I must briefly address projects. I define a project as David Allen does: anything that takes more than one action step to complete. Therefore, “land the new client” is a project, but so is “give Jr. permission to go on the field trip.”

In Getting Things Done, Allen emphasizes the importance of dealing with your stuff “when it shows up, not when it blows up.” If you can get past the Doctor Phil-ness of that rhyme, you see the wisdom in it. Remembering Jr.’s permission slip is no good after he’s been at school for two hours.

With this in mind, I have a running list of what tasks need to be done. My list is a week long, and it lives on a bulletin board behind my desk (I’ve previously written about my search for the perfect bulletin board). Each Sunday, I review what must be done over the next week, write those actions on index cards, and pin them to the board.

Preparing ahead of time

It took me years to learn this lesson. Remember the kid who was always rushing last second to finish that paper in school?

Hello. Nice to see you again.

Today I’ve finally realized that I’m not an adrenaline junkie, and that last-second frenzy is not something I enjoy. As a result, my daily routine actually begins the night before. As evening draws near, I:

  1. Make sure the kids’ bags are packed for school and that all required papers, etc. are inside those bags.
  2. Ensure that clean, weather-appropriate clothing is available for school the next morning.
  3. Review the “home” calendar (I have a separate work calendar) for pressing to-dos (sign permission slips, special pick-up or drop-off arrangements, etc.) and act accordingly.
  4. Review what’s due at work tomorrow, make sure it’s written down, and any necessary materials are ready to go for the morning.

Your evening prep list might look different, but the idea is the same: review what’s due tomorrow — be it a PowerPoint presentation or snow boots and gloves — and get it as ready as you can the night before.

Finding a home

Being who I am (warning: one NSFW word in the title of the linked post) I tend to misplace things. Just like the sun tends to be hot. So, a part of my daily routine has been to ensure that everything is where it needs to be.

This isn’t the same as my evening prep. Instead, I’ve established a “home” for important items when they’re idle. For example, car keys are always in the Roscoe, New York, coffee mug on my night stand. Always. My coat and hat live on the second peg of the closet door. Even when I’m walking around, I know which pocket each doohicky should inhabit (phone is right front, every day).

Following these rules impacts my day significantly. I can’t afford to spend 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there looking for who knows what. I’ve done that and it’s not fun. An ongoing part of my daily routine is to put everything in its proper place as I go.

General guidelines

The website Personal Organizing has shared some good, general tips for establishing and, more importantly, adhering to a daily routine. Some highlights include:

  1. Make breakfast simple. Find something nutritious that you can routinely prepare without much fuss.
  2. Organize the kitchen and pantry cabinets. Meal prep is easier, and everyone living with you can answer, “where does this go?” all on their own.
  3. Have a good mail management system. In regards to paper mail, my wife and I have our own desks for processing this stuff, and that’s been a godsend.
  4. Get the pets on a schedule. It takes some doing, but it’s definitely worth it.

Five things you can do to succeed at keeping your New Year’s Resolutions

As you start creating your New Year’s resolutions and thinking of ways to productively usher in the new year, you might have in the back of your mind some of the challenges you might face. It’s been well publicized how difficult resolutions are to keep, but that doesn’t mean that you should give up on them. The new year presents an opportunity for change and there are particular things you can do to sustain the changes you’d like to make.

Keep a positive attitude

As with any project, you may meet upon a few roadblocks or things you didn’t anticipate. Don’t let these setbacks stop you from moving forward. Instead, try to adopt a realistic and positive mindset, both of which can help you cope well when things don’t go as planned. If you find yourself a bit turned around, grab your action plan and start anew. Remember, your overall goal is to be persistent, not to achieve perfection.

To help start you off on a positive note, studies have shown that up to 46 percent of people who make resolutions are successful at the six month mark. When compared to the success rate of people who didn’t make resolutions (4 percent), this statistic is remarkable. So, even if there are a few hiccups along the way, keep in mind that you have a very good chance of succeeding.

Build a strong support system

Surrounding yourself with people who can see you through some of the bumps in the road will give your positive outlook extra mileage. An accountability partner can help keep you motivated, will talk through solutions and strategies with you, and celebrate your successes (both large and small). This person will also hold you accountable for the actions you commit to doing. You’ll want to set up regular check-in meetings with your partner so that you don’t lose sight of your next steps.

Choose the right tools

Part of your support system should include tools that work well with your personality and learning style. For instance, you might choose to keep a journal to record your progress or read/listen to a book that gives you specific instructions and action steps, like David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Websites geared toward goal setting (like 43Things.com and StartaResolution.com) can also be helpful. Check out 20 apps to help you keep your New Year resolutions over at TheNextWeb.com for applications on your mobile devices.

Work on one goal at time

Here at Unclutterer, we’ve often mentioned that single-tasking helps you to get more done. The same principle applies to your goals. While you might have several goals (and be very enthusiastic about achieving them), if you attempt to work on all of them at the same time, this can become very overwhelming, you may lose focus, and all of your goals can ultimately fall off your radar. Consider focusing on one goal per month and attend to it every day before moving on to the next one.

Focus on ambitious goals over the long-term

Do you have a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) on your list? This term was first coined by Jim Collins, co-author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. You don’t have to be a corporation to have a BHAG, but you do have to approach it in the right way.

Some key features of a BHAG:

  • Stimulates bold, radical improvement
  • Generates tremendous excitement for future change
  • Has clear and specific outcomes
  • Is a long-term endeavor

BHAGs are not your average goals. They are large and meaty and achieving them can have a huge impact not only on you, but also those around you (those in your inner circle, colleagues, and your community at large). Because of their size, ambitious goals won’t necessarily be completed in 365 days. But, once attained, they can be extremely gratifying because of the effort you put in to getting to the finish line. Since you won’t see immediate results, keep your vision of progress in line with long-term planning. Chip away at your BHAG systematically and routinely and seek support from others so that you can have a better chance at successfully completing it. Go ahead, get excited about your big, hairy goals, but be sure to keep the right perspective.

As you think about the steps you need to take to bring your Resolution Action Plan to fruition, don’t rely solely on motivation and willpower. Arm yourself with a few tools and strategies that will help you succeed at a keeping your New Year’s resolutions.

Not getting things done? Try WSD

I want to welcome guest author Tim Chase and his “family friendly” version of WSD. His system is just as simple, just as much fun, but with a less-adult vocabulary.

Thanks to my local public library, I’ve joined the ranks of folks who have read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. However I became bogged down in the implementation details. Then I stumbled across this article on smallist.com and in a lightbulb moment I recognized it as a similar technique I’ve watched my father use for years.

Failed by GTD

Overwhelmed by GTD’s buzzwords (contexts, ubiquitous capture, tickler files, 43-folders, buckets, etc), the simplicity of WSD is appealing:

  • Find something to write on.
  • Find something to write with.
  • Finally, and most importantly, WRITE STUFF DOWN.

GTD also seems to promote beautiful yet expensive implements — PDA/smart-phones, Moleskine® notebooks, space-pens. WSD has no such pretensions. While you can use your PDA/smart-phone, your Moleskine or your space-pen, you can certainly employ a wide varity of writing surfaces and implements.

Writing Surfaces

Write on whatever is handy — 3×5 cards (Hipster PDA-ized or otherwise), Post-It® note pads, cheap spiral-bound pocket notepads, envelopes, margins of newspapers or magazines, or even paper-towels, napkins, tissues or toilet-paper in desperation. You can carry them with you at all times or just as needed. I prefer to only carry paper when I know I may not have something on which I can write. A box of old business cards and a small whiteboard in the kitchen for grocery lists; page-a-day calendar sheets in the study for to-do lists; a small tablet by the bedside and in the car; Post-It pads at work. For other places, I simply take a little pocket-sized notepad (a four-pack at the local dollar-store).

Things on which you should not write your important brain-droppings: receipts, bills you have to pay, cheques, paper currency, contracts, library books, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Magna Carta. Unless you copy them off ASAP to something less transient (and in the case of library books, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or important constitutional documents, I suggest removing your writing from them first).

Writing Implements

Writing implements also abound — while you can use your space-pen, that $180 gold-encrusted beast engraved with your name and business, or your favorite Hello Kitty® glittery gel pen with the glow-in-the-dark purple ink, I lean toward the cheap and abundant options. You’re not illuminating monastic manuscripts, you’re getting an idea out of your head and onto paper. Out and about, I usually carry a Papermate® medium-point point pen because they write well and come in 12-packs for under $2 (USD). Occasionally, I augment with a #2 automatic-pencil, also obtained in multi-packs under $2 (USD). I’ve found that the long narrow “tool pockets” in carpenter jeans/shorts hold my writing implements so they don’t jab my thighs like a regular front pocket can. And they make for a snazzy quick-draw holster effect when you whip out a pen on demand.

Depending on your location, you may find you don’t need to carry a writing implement. We keep stashes of implements around the house — in the nightstands, in the desk, in the catch-all drawer, in the bill drawer, in the cars, etc. If you’re the type who steals pens from coworkers and banks, cut that out. Or, at least give them back. At conferences, many companies hand out business-branded pens for free. In addition to the craft-boxes, parents likely find crayons under foot, in couch cushions, up noses, and on the floor under little Johnny’s wall-art. For those who do their best thinking in the shower, you can find shower/tub crayons to scrawl on the shower wall.

Conclusion

Get something to write on. Get something to write with. Write stuff down.

Four organizing lessons from Hamilton

I was lucky enough to see a performance of Hamilton last weekend, which was marvelous. How does this relate to organizing? The following are four organizing-related messages I took away from my theater experience and from my post-performance reading about the show.

Experiences are some of the best gifts.

I was lucky enough to receive my ticket as a gift. On Unclutterer we often write about how experiences make some of the best gifts, and this was a great example. That ticket was definitely one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

Uncluttering is always important.

The book Hamilton: The Revolution provides some of the back story regarding the creation of the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail didn’t cut many songs from Hamilton as it evolved, but there were a few songs that did get removed. As the book noted, “The most common reason for putting a song aside was to keep the audience focused on the story that Lin and Tommy were trying to tell.” For example, a cabinet battle song about slavery “didn’t shed new light on the characters … so the song had to go.”

And on Twitter, Lin-Manuel explained that he cut a song about Washington’s death “because we sing a whole song about him saying goodbye and even though the moment gave us feels, it was redundant.”

If you’re uncluttering your home or office, you can take inspiration from Hamilton and look for items that don’t support what you want to accomplish in your space and items that are superfluous.

You always need tools with you to capture your thoughts.

One of the points that David Allen makes in Getting Things Done is that you never know when you’re going to have an idea worth remembering, and our minds aren’t the best of tools for storing these random thoughts. So you need some kind of tools (paper or electronic) for capturing those thoughts.

I thought about that when reading an article by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker about one of the Hamilton songs:

The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, “Wait for It,” came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,” he says. “I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.”

Making time for both work and family is never easy.

One constant theme in Hamilton is the man’s devotion to his work (and the amazing amount of important work he got done) at the expense of spending time with his family. As Elizabeth Logan wrote on the HuffPost website about the song One Last Time:

Washington tells Hamilton, hey, sometimes it’s good to give up power and go home and be with your family. And Hamilton is like what why would anyone do that.

On the other hand, there’s Hamilton’s wife Eliza, who sings in Non-Stop, “And if your wife could share a fraction of your time …”

Many people struggle to find enough time for both their work and their personal lives. Hamilton doesn’t provide any answers to this dilemma, but it does bring it to your attention in a new way.

The power of writing it down

“Keep everything in your head or out of your head. In-between, you won’t trust either one.” ~ David Allen.

We’ve written about David Allen’s Getting Things Done several times at Unclutterer. In a nutshell, it’s a system of best practices around doing what you need to do. It’s easy to get “on the wagon” so to speak, and it’s just as easy to fall off. This weekend I spent five hours getting back on, and it’s been great.

Today, I have 86 open projects between work and home, and I feel great about every one. I haven’t made significant progress on any of them. Nor have I ticked off any major milestones or delegated the more repetitive tasks. What did was to get them out of my head and organize them into a system I trust.

As David Allen would say (and I’m paraphrasing here), your brain is not for storing to-dos, it’s for solving problems. When you ask it to do the former, it causes stress. If you’ve ever had a moment when you’ve thought, “Oh no! I need to do [x]!” when there was no chance of doing so, you’ll know it’s the worst. Getting tasks out of your head and into a trusted system can eliminate that feeling.

Last weekend, I sat down and wrote out all of the outstanding projects I need to work on. I define a project as anything that takes more than one step to complete so “draft an outline for volunteer orientation” and “get the oil changed in my car” are both treated as projects.

Once everything is written down, I organize it in a project management system I trust. For me, that system is Todoist (I’ve written about Todoist here before). It’s not the only solution, but it works well for me. I list the project and each step that must be done before the project can be marked as completed.

Once that’s done, I can look at the list of 86 open projects and feel on top of all of it. I know what needs to get done. I know the steps I have to take. I know exactly how to make progress on all of it — and I don’t worry about forgetting things! Finally, nothing feels better than clicking the little checkbox next to a completed task.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take the time to do a “mind dump” and get everything out of your head and into a trusted system, whether it be a piece of software or simply a list. It will help you feel good about all of your projects, no matter how many you have.

How to get started when you don’t feel like it

Unclutterer readers are the get-things-done type when it comes to productivity and uncluttering except when they don’t want to be.

Occasionally, we all feel like getting exactly nothing done. Sometimes that’s fine. I love a lazy Saturday as much as the next guy. But other times the urge to relax out comes at the worst time. What do we do in that situation? First of all, recognize that you’re not the first person to feel this way. Next, understand that there is something you can do.

Here’s how to get started on a project when it’s the last thing you feel like doing. Let’s start with two simple steps.

First, give yourself permission to do a bad job. The tendency to want everything to be great hindered my writing for a long time. I changed my thinking and would say to myself, “Today, I give myself permission to write a terrible first draft.” When I wrote a sentence that I knew was complete garbage, I was able to continue because I knew I would go back and fix it another time.

The same goes for uncluttering and organizing. Tell yourself it’s OK if your first attempt doesn’t generate the ideal result. Just get started.

Next, and this is a big one, completely disconnect from the internet. No Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or online games. There isn’t a bigger time waster on the planet. Avoid it and you’ll be more productive.

Of course there’s more to it than those basic tips. For example, getting in the right mindset is crucial. It can be as simple as clothing and as complex as a daily routine.

In his book “ Getting Things Done,” author David Allen states, “I don’t feel like exercising until I put my exercise clothes on.” Author James Clear expanded on this idea:

“If you look at top performers in any field, you’ll see similar patterns all over the place. NBA players who do the same thing before every free throw shot. Comedians who recite the same words before they step onto stage. Corporate executives who follow the same meditation sequence every morning.

Do you think these people always feel motivated? No way. There are some days when the most talented people in the world wake up feeling like sluggish lard bombs.

But they use their pre–game routines to pull them into the right mental state, regardless of how they feel. You can use this same process to overcome your motivation threshold and consistently exercise, study, write, speak, or perform any other task that is important to you.”

James outlines just how to create a routine that will work. Paraphrasing, it is:

  1. Start with something too easy to avoid.
  2. Get physically moving.
  3. Keep it consistent.

Often times, we procrastinate in the face of feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes we just don’t know where to begin. I combat this by each night by writing down the three tasks I must complete during the following day. That little note sits on my keyboard and answers the question, “Where do I start?”.

Good luck with your new projects in 2017. Here’s hoping you accomplish all you set out to do and more.

More advice for buying a filing cabinet

Dave recently provided some great tips for buying a filing cabinet. The following are a few additional suggestions from my own experiences.

Unclutter first

With any organizing project, buying the containers (in this case, the filing cabinets) is one of the last steps. If you don’t remove the paper clutter first, you may wind up buying more storage than you need.

So much information we used to keep in files can now be found online. And if you’re comfortable with digital files, many papers that you receive which have valuable information can be scanned, reducing what needs to be kept and filed.

But once you’ve decided what to keep, be sure to buy filing cabinets that can store all your papers without overcrowding the drawers. It’s nice to keep each drawer no more than 80 percent full so it’s easy to add and remove files.

Consider what size papers you need to keep

Many people just need files for letter-sized paper, but you may have documents you want to keep in paper form that are larger (such as real estate documents in the U.S., which are often on legal size paper). Some filing cabinets can accommodate multiple paper sizes.

Choose to use hanging files — or not

Most filing cabinets come with rails for hanging files (or have high drawer sides designed to accommodate hanging file folders without the use of rails), so that’s what most people use. However, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame used to recommend a different approach:

I recommend you totally do away with the hanging-file hardware and use just plain folders standing up by themselves in the file drawer, held up by the movable metal plate in the back. Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc.

This advice seems to have been removed from the latest edition of Allen’s book, but it might still appeal to you. If you want to go this route, you’ll want a filing cabinet that has those movable metal plates, often called follower blocks.

Make sure the cabinet drawers have full-extension slides

Some filing cabinets have drawers that don’t pull all the way out, making it hard to reach the files in the back. Be sure to look for cabinets with full-extension drawer slides (rather than something like three-quarter extension) so you can easily reach everything without scraping your knuckles.

Don’t create a tipping hazard

If you’re at all concerned about the cabinet falling over — because you have small children or you live in earthquake territory, for example — get the materials needed to anchor the cabinet to the wall.

Be sure a filing cabinet is the right tool for you


Just because so many people use filing cabinets doesn’t mean you need to do the same. There are other options, such as file carts, which may suit your organizing style better. Or you may prefer to keep at least some papers in binders rather than in file folders.

Struggles with GTD and possible solutions

Unclutterer reader MrsMack recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My … struggle is with the GTD method. I’ve read the book and I think it could work really well for me, but the required cleared-schedule, back-to-back two days to get started is so intimidating and too overwhelming. I don’t have the liberty to turn my life off for two days to work without interruption. How can I ease into this?

I first discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity when I was an IT Director at a residential school. That was a crazy job, as I was supporting about 80 computers, a network and more, including heading up the help desk for there school’s 100 employees. It was easy to feel overwhelmed and I often did. Fortunately, I discovered David Allen’s method.

Adopting it in earnest took a lot of work, not just in my own behavior but in the materials I was using. I felt it was worth the effort, but I also realized how much effort was involved. Processing everything in my work life to get “clean and clear” took days. Personally, I recommend taking time off and completing the work as he suggests. I found it saved me time and frustration over the longterm. However, I know this isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you genuinely don’t have two days to dedicate to this process, the following are the alternatives I suggest:

Pick the area that’s most in need of attention and focus on it for as long as you can (two hours? four?). You might have enough time to get your desk/work area and your work projects “clean and clear.” Then simply “GTD” (if I may use it as a verb) that aspect of your life. This will reduce the overwhelmed feeling and get you comfortable with the system, so that when you’re ready to tackle the next area, like that pesky garage, you’ll be an experienced machine.

I do believe in David Allen’s method, especially in the very real feeling of being on top of everything that comes from getting “clean and clear.” I also realize that GTD is not the best fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are several alternative methods you might find interesting or appealing.

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done system. Leo created his Zen method specifically to address what he sees as “…the five problems many people have with GTD,” namely:

  1. GTD is a big change of habits
  2. GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is too unstructured for many people
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals

If any of those five issues are ones you’re having with GTD, maybe Zen to Done is an alternative that could work for you.

Another program is Asian Efficiency’s Agile Results. I’m not super familiar with this method, but it’s been popping up on my radar off and on for a while now. Like Leo’s Zen to Done, Agile Results is more goal-focused than process focused.

While working on this article, I reached out to my buddy Mike Vardy of the website Productivityist. His “theming” method is quite compelling. To begin, look at what he calls the certainties in your week. For example, on Sunday, there will be no interruptions and the family will be home. On Monday through Friday, the kids are away, and on Saturday, the family is home. With those certainties identified, he creates themes based on the results:

Sunday: No interruptions, family-home
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Kids at daycare, wife at work
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Kids at daycare, wife home
Saturday: No interruptions, family-home

The final step is to “lock down,” as Mike puts it, the remaining days. His final themed schedule looks like this:

Sunday: Creative Day (Writing)
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Saturday: Family Day

It’s clever, and a part of a larger method of his Now Year formula. His alternate method might work for you.

Getting on top of everything can be a chore, but it’s well worth the effort irrespective of what method you ultimately decide to adopt.

6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list

Most of us use some sort of to-do list, whether it be a paper one or a digital one. While it’s easy to get fixated on the tool — a notebook and a cool pen, your favorite app, etc. — there are also basic strategies to consider. Just how do you construct and organize your to-do list, using any tool?

The following are some strategies people have used effectively; I’d suggest mixing and matching to find something that works for you. Please note that each strategy has much more to offer than the brief summary I’m providing here; you can read more about any of them, if you’re interested.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology

Fully explaining the GTD methodology takes a whole book; I’m only going to touch on a few key ideas related to to-do lists.

Separate tasks vs. projects. If your list includes a bunch of simple single-step items (call Person A about Subject B, stop at hardware store and buy the items on my list) and a complex multi-step one (remodel the bathroom), can you guess which one will never get done? The answer is to identify the first physical step you’d take on that remodel project, and add it to the task list.

Keep a someday/maybe list for ideas you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on — and that you certainly aren’t going to act on right now.

Subdivide tasks by context. Are there tasks that can only be done under certain circumstances, when you have certain tools available? If so, group those together. For example, I’ve grouped things that can be done at home or in town vs. things that can only be done when I’m going further afield.

Don’t assign priorities, because these are fluid. Review your lists at least weekly, but then decide in real time which items are the highest priority. Add any firm dates — deadlines or appointments — to your calendar, but don’t add your other to-do items.

Capture everything you need to do — or think you may want to do — on your lists; empty your mind.

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Covey explains the urgent/important matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For each task, decide if it’s urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. Try to spend most of your time working on things that are important but not urgent: relationship building, long-term planning, etc.

Various people’s short-list approaches

People who advocate for short lists are not saying you don’t have your long list — just that you don’t focus on that long list every day. Jeff Davidson has a list that’s 12-14 pages, but those are mostly medium-range or long-range activities. The first page is his short-term items, and that’s what he focuses on every day.

Leo Babauta recommends a “Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff).”

Other people recommend short to-do lists that include:

  • The six most important things to do today
  • A 3 + 2 rule: three big things, and two small ones
  • A 1-3-5 rule: One big thing, three medium things, five small things
  • Julie Morgenstern’s “add it up” approach

    In Time Management From the Inside Out, Julie recommends putting a time estimate on each task, so you know when you’re over-committing for your day, your week, etc. You can then decide which tasks to delay, delegate, diminish (scale back), or simply delete from your to-do list entirely.

    Robyn Scott’s melodramatic to-do list

    Robyn organizes her to-do list by emotion. This may or may not appeal to you, but the idea of personalizing your list, including the way you group your items, is a good one.

    Daniel Markovitz’s “living in your calendar” approach

    Daniel says that to-do lists don’t work, and he recommends the exact opposite of David Allen: estimate how long each task will take, and transfer your to-dos off your list and put them in your calendar.

    Perform a personal audit for 2014 to guide you in 2015

    I can hardly believe it’s near the end of December 2014. For my kids, the weeks and days before Christmas are passing at a snail’s pace. For me, the last 12 months have been the blur of an Indy car race. How are we about to flip the calendar onto another year? Speaking of, where exactly are we?

    As the new year approaches, many people start thinking about resolutions. I’ve no interest in resolutions. I’ve typically been fueled by reflections on the previous 12 months. And that’s what I’m focused on this year. I’m conducting what I’m calling a personal audit. It starts by asking myself two questions, providing honest answers, and then drawing a plan from the resulting lists.

    Question one

    Question one is simple: What went well in the past year? My answer is in the form of an unhindered brainstorm. I’ve got a pen and a notebook and I simply list whatever comes to mind. There’s no stopping to think or question each item. I’m simply listing. For example:

    1. Relationships with the kids
    2. The Home Work podcast
    3. Launching Board Games Weekly
    4. Getting healthier
    5. The garden out front

    … and so on. When writing this list, I keep going until I can’t think of another thing. It’s important to be honest here and, again, to resist the urge to stop and second guess each item. There will be time to deal with the specifics in a bit. Now, on to the second question, which some of you may have guessed.

    Question two

    What went poorly? Composing this list follows the same rules as its predecessor: just let it flow. Some highlights from my list:

    1. Finances
    2. Travel
    3. Spending time with family, either in person or on the phone
    4. Spending quality time with my wife, away from the kids (date nights)
    5. Day-to-day productivity
    6. Staying on top of daily chores

    Once both questions have been answered thoroughly, I move on to step two: categorization.

    Categorize it all

    While reviewing the lists, certain groupings become clear: family, finances, health, professional life, travel, learning, and personal organization. These are the areas that saw success, failure, or both. I made these lists because the act of brainstorming and then sorting the results into categories lets me see the areas of life that are important to me. Now, I can make informed goals for next year, as opposed to pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-blue resolutions like “Be happy.” The following are the goals I’ve created for 2015 based on the personal audit I did of 2014.

    Financial: Use budget software regularly. I’ve toyed with You Need A Budget in the past, but not consistently. It’s my fault for losing motivation; the software is excellent. This coming year I’ll be back on track.

    Professional: My podcasts are doing nicely. This year I’d like to expand their reach, and attract/increase sponsorship opportunities.

    Health: This was hit-and-miss this year. I’ve gotten much healthier than I was six months ago, but there’s still work to do. Getting winded after 15 minutes of kicking a soccer ball around is not fun and honestly, quite embarrassing at 43. This year I’ll continue to eat right, obsess over my Fitbit and increase the amount of walking I do.

    Personal organization: I’m great at forgetting to do important things. This year I’ll research and adhere to strategies to make myself more successful in this area.

    I’ll continue in this manner until I’ve addressed all items and categories on my lists.

    Execution

    I know what you’re thinking. “Dave, you just created the list of resolutions you denounced at the start of this post.” It can seem that way, but I assure you, I haven’t. It’s all thanks to how I plan to pull off the goals I’ve created. Specifically, I’ll be making projects, actions, and reviews.

    Let’s start by defining a project. I use David Allen’s definition: anything that requires more than one action be completed before it’s marked as done. So, “Walk for 30 minutes” isn’t a project, but “Attract podcast sponsors” is. The next step is to identify all of the projects I’ve created, and then to break them down into concrete, observable, measurable action steps. This is crucially important, as it’s how I’m going to:

    1. Define what “done” looks like
    2. Know if I’m making progress
    3. Act and keep moving forward

    Define, know, act steps — for each project. If I had nothing else to do in the world but attract podcast sponsors, what’s the first thing I would do? The second? Third? And so on. This is repeated for each project. Next is the good part.

    If I were to say, “OK, Dave, hop to it. Here’s your 15 projects for 2015. Go be a better you!” I’d fail in no time. So, my final step is to identify what I’m going to work on in January. And then February, March and April, etc. Finally, I set up regular review days and put them into my calendar. I’ll schedule a reminder during the last week of each month to see how I’m doing and make adjustments.

    In short (too late, I know), I’m treating the result of my personal audit like any other project I’d have to complete for work. “Walk 45 minutes per day” gets the same treatment as “Get the Williams proposal on Mr. Johnson’s desk by Friday.” Actions are defined as well as review dates.

    Be flexible

    What if you do this and you hate it? Change it! It’s your life! As a former boss used to say to me, “Don’t be afraid to abandon the mission.” If it’s not working, make adjustments. Maybe you’ll have to scale back a project or alter the execution plan. That’s fine, and so much better than tossing up your hands and saying “Oh, forget this.”

    Finally, and I didn’t do this but it’s a nice idea, you can create metrics to work toward. You can identify the “amount of money in my savings account” or “number of steps walked in a month.” I lump this in with defining what “done” looks like, but you can certainly use this tactic if you want.

    I suggest sitting down when you have some quiet time and performing a personal audit. Be completely honest and nonjudgmental with yourself. Organize the results and set clearly-defined, attainable goals from there, as well as regular review periods. Finally, if you’re unhappy with how it’s going, make adjustments. There’s no shame or failure in being proactive and taking steps to make something work for you. Here’s to a fantastic 2015. I hope you all achieve your goals.

    Get organized to run meetings effectively

    There are a lot of things I like to do in this world, but running a meeting isn’t one of them. Years ago, I had a boss who would call me into his office and talk for a good half hour. As I walked back to my desk, I’d think, “So, what just happened in there?” Now, when I’m in charge of a meeting, I worry: will my attendees walk away with a clear idea of what was said and what, if anything, needs to be done?

    I recently found myself in the unenviable position of sitting at the head of the table, as it were, but not until I had done some research on effective ways to run a meeting. There are a lot of articles out there on the topic, and here I’ve collected the best advice I could find. Now, please come to order and review these tips for running an effective meeting.

    WikiHow provided advice that I’ve been advocating for a long time. Partly because of my admitted meeting anxiety, and partly because I really don’t like wasting time. Specifically, determine if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary at all. There are instances when you simply must sit down in the same room to have a conversation or spark collaboration. But, if the agenda is something that can be accomplished with an email thread or a quick conference call, do that instead. You’ll save everyone a lot of time.

    They also suggest distributing the meeting’s clear goals in advance. I’ll admit that I’ve never done this. Instead, I hand out a paper agenda as people are sitting down to the table. This throwback behavior from the ’80s is distracting, as everyone sits and reads the paper or thinks ahead to the topic they’re most or least interested in. From now on, I’ll distribute the agenda a day or two ahead of time, so people can show up ready to go.

    Forbes also has some great advice for meetings. For example, “spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would.” In other words, the clearer and more tightly-defined each item is on the agenda, the more efficient your meeting will be. I also like their suggestion to allot half the time you initially think the meeting will need. “Meetings are like accordions,” says Victor Lipman, “they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space.”

    I used a similar trick on myself when I was in college, after learning about Parkinson’s Law, which states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a professor told me I had 3 weeks to complete an assignment, I’d tell myself I had two. Otherwise, I knew I’d be at my desk working feverishly on day 20.

    Inc. has advice that addresses types of meetings. One type, the Action Meeting, is the format I’m probably most familiar with. The goal is to devise and implement a solution to a pressing problem or outstanding project. One trick I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is to end each of this type of meeting by saying, “OK, so my next actions are …” Stating this out loud confirms that you are clear on your assignment(s), and that your bosses are clear on that fact, too. Inc. also emphasizes the importance of keeping in touch after the meeting has ended. This is an area that I’ve struggled with in the past. While I’ll make a list of actions that I’ve delegated (my “Waiting For” list), I don’t always follow up with people responsible for these tasks on a regular basis. That’s something I’ll start doing.

    Of course, a meeting isn’t restricted to the board room. You might be on a council or committee at your kids’ school or a church. Less formally, you may even have family meetings to discuss finances or monthly schedules or vacations. These lessons may apply there, too. If you have tips for running an effective meeting, let me know. I’m always willing to improve in this area.