Are you a fan of David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done)? How does it work for you? Are you managing your life or do you let your life manage you? I’m currently striving to do neither. After years of studies I came to the conclusion that many conventional ways of managing tasks are pointless, useless distractions from achieving things. In my current view, task management is supposed to be “defining things to do next”, which is correct, however it usually also makes people to dwell on “defining” indefinitely and distracts from the “to do next” part. I had the same problem recently and in this article I’ll try to share how I solved and how I now spend zero to 5 minutes managing my system every day.
Here are the three things you can be doing about the stuff you want to do in any moment of time:
- Doing what comes up (and probably end up doing low-importance urgent things)
- Defining what to do later
- Doing what you’ve defined to do before
The task management is supposed to be “Defining what to do” part. I absolutely agree that it is important to do define what you want to do, as long as you get to the “Doing” part soon enough after that. Unfortunately, many task management systems I know distract you from the doing and make you spend incredible amount of time in the defining. Actually, it’s not even defining, it’s a pointless management of priorities, keeping up to date, reordering of tasks, which often together result in Analysis Paralysis manifested by focusing on the system of task management instead of doing things. And although I love many principles of GTD, it actually has exactly these kind of problems too. The liberating helper thought here is that we don’t need to make best decisions in life, we just need to make better decisions. If we want to make best decision, we are afraid it’s not the best one and therefore we remain undecided. This results in wasted opportunities. Fear of failure is the great obstacle in life. Take a look at the definition of effective Task Management according to Wikipedia:
Effective task management supposes managing all aspects of a task, including its status, priority, time, human and financial resources assignments, recurrency, notifications and so on. These can be lumped together broadly into the basic activities of task management.
I am sorry but my head hurts when I read this. How is any thinkable implementation of this definition supposed to be effective in any way?
During the last decade I used to be a productivity freak and I’ve learned a lot about many systems for managing tasks and life. I was obsessed with time management, task management, life management, priority management, and who-knows-what-else management. I used to read all kinds of books by Brian Tracy, Spencer Johnson, Napoleon Hill, Paul Scheele, and others, listen to dozens of audio books about improving the way I manage my tasks. I used to practice David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done), read his book and listened to the audio book version. I used to be current with everything. Every little detail was mapped in my system.
I was enjoying myself. All that was in itself not a bad thing, I learned a lot of useful things and boosted my productivity and my self esteem. I actually achieved many great things I only dreamed about before in many areas of my life. The thing is, I’ve found that the system I created for myself was impossible to maintain properly when my life got busier at times. I often found myself updating the system instead of achieving things. I simply was loosing my valuable time on managing instead of doing. What a waste.
I know what GTD fans are going to respond at this moment: Weekly review comes to the rescue! Yes, I agree, partially. I still do a weekly review. Once a week, or once every two weeks (it doesn’t really matter) I spend about 10-15 minutes making sure nothing is forgotten. Other than that, I can’t be bothered to do much else. I’ve managed to slow down now, even if achieving more. It was a slow change. At times, it was a painful realization. The result is that I’m a happier person now. I think it’s a step forward. I couldn’t do it without knowing what I’ve learned before.
Now, without further do, here is what is in my system now:
I currently only have a few simple lists that I keep in the Evernote App which I admitted using last week. The reason for using Evernote is that it neatly synchronizes between my Mac and iPhone and also because it displays the information in the way I want. It’s far from ideal but it gets the job done. I tried Things app before but I didn’t appreciate the fact I had to manually sync it (I rarely use wifi at home and in the office) and also the way it displayed lists of tasks didn’t allow a good overview of notes inside of tasks.
My main list: Goals
I have a list of things I want to ever achieve. I’m currently using the DO/HAVE/BE categories suggested by Timothy Ferriss in his 4-Hour Workweek but I don’t think it really matters much. Use whatever floats your boat. My list keeps changing time to time and I keep adding and removing things from it. Each goal is a new note in Evernote.
List of current goals
A subset of the Goals list that I decided to pursue for next 6-12 months. Once every 2-4 weeks I make sure it is up to date.
Inbox: For anything new
All new items are added here, I review it each 2-5 days.
Projects & Plans
About 5-10 notes representing the important things I want to work on these days. The beauty of Evernote is that each item can be one simple task or multiple tasks in the same note - depending on how complex the project is. Each item is named according to what it is about (360 Cities, Small Personal Things, Trip to Azores, etc.). Each item can contain individual tasks, or notes, or both. Whatever is needed for the project to get done.
I put all things I don’t want to distract me now in this list. I review it every 2-4 weeks.
I also make sure that at any given day I have one or two “tasks of the day” defined - it makes a whole difference in productivity for the day.
The beauty of the system is that I get to to know in 20 seconds what I want to work on next. I don’t worry about defining tasks beforehand. If the tasks for project “Launch PLUS Accounts on 360cities.net” are not defined at the time when I decide I want to work on such a thing, I simply start defining tasks at the moment (finish testing, write a blog post, …). I treat it as working on the project already. This works best for me and doesn’t add the unnecessary overhead and allows me to act quickly.
The human brain is an incredible device. You can just imagine your goal and then observe the current situation and it automatically starts filling in the gap and it even automatically tells you what you need to do next - if only you listen to it. For more complex tasks and projects, I simply keep listening and write down everything I hear until the structure is more clear. At times, I just start doing something, anything, even without a good structure.
The real beauty of making better decisions, instead of making best decisions, is that there is absolutely no need to play with priorities, contexts or anything artificial like that.
It is also not necessary to think about what is important or not. My brain does it for me automatically. Using the uncertainty and intuition feels just right and allows me to focus on important things while leaving space for new ideas and reinventions. That’s my system. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and to learn about your personal systems. Let me know via email or comments below the blog post.