“The secret of getting ahead is getting started”
Oh, procrastination! How you waste our valuable time. How you take our ever growing to do list and make it sit around idly whilst we binge our way through another Netflix series. Just imagine for a second a world where drugs have been invented to ‘cure’ procrastination. Everybody’s productivity is off the charts and things are getting done left, right and center. Whilst I can’t claim to be selling this drug from my blog (I’d wouldn’t be blogging about a journey to financial independence if I could). I do have years worth of personal experience in taking my productivity game to the next level.
Introducing productivity 2.0
Around 18 months ago I read the book ‘Getting things done’ by David Allen and it has taken me on a bit of a journey to rapidly improve my own productivity and how I manage my own workload. If you’ve read the book, a lot of the points you see in this article will be familiar. If you haven’t, Id strongly recommend heading out right now and picking up a copy.
The broad concept of GTD and my own personal way of working is to remove things from my brain. If you’re like me and have a really crappy habit of constantly forgetting what needs to be done this will ring even truer. Every time a thought pops into my head, or I’m asked to do something it is instantly recorded. Brain is happy, James is happy, everybody’s happy!
This list of stuff I’ve noted down is then analyzed, processed and fine-tuned before eventually making it to my to-do list. This single list covers work, side hustles, my blog and my personal life. Phone calls I need to make, emails I need to send and the specific tasks I need to get done for all my projects to ensure I continue to be a productive human being.
The best thing about all this; gone are the days of lying awake in bed thinking about all the things I need to do because my brain knows they are all stored safely. This is the absolutely fundamental point, your brain needs to be confident that it can safely forget. Better sleep AND increased productivity, who can argue with that?
Where’re the lists at
The logical place to start with this whole process is where I store all this information. I spent quite a while trying different to-do list providers, all with similar makeup and functionality. The best of the bunch for me is todoist (https://todoist.com/tour?lang=en). I can honestly say, of all the productivity tips and tricks I’ve found, this has been the number one life-changing one. Taking everything out of my brain and into this wonderful little web app has improved my life in a multitude of ways. FYI, I have nothing to gain at all from recommending todoist, I just really like the app.
Actionable step 1 – Signup for todoist or another list making provider
Within todoist itself, my lists are setup as in the above screenshot. To quickly run through the main sections one by one and provide a little more detail.
The inbox is a built-in list that can’t be changed, this is the inbox of my brain. Anything new that comes into my head, an article I find online I want to read later or a task someone asks of me gets instantly dropped into the inbox. I have a shortcut on the home screen of my phone to give me nice easy access. Depending on the time of the week (more on this later) the inbox is either bursting at the seems or nice and peaceful.
Today/Next 7 days
A couple more built-in ones here and 2 lists I probably don’t use quite as much as I should. Today/next 7 days simply give you a list of any tasks you have set a date against that are due within the respective time frames. Useful, yep! But anything I have in my list of things to do that is really time critical gets stored in my actual calendar over ToDoist. The action itself will be in here, but probably without a timescale.
The master actions list is where the magic happens, this is my day to day working list of all the next actionable steps I need to complete to keep my life moving forward. You could hold this as one huge long list, but I find it so much easier to break it down into smaller sublists as you can see in the above screenshot.
P = Personal
Home = Odd jobs around the house
soSq = Work
At the start of every day, I review this list of master actions and use that to plan my workload for the day ahead. All the tasks here will be Specific, Trackable, and Actionable. A task of ‘chase up John at client X‘ isn’t overly useful. That same task rewrote to ‘Send an email to John at customer X to ask him if the project is going ahead or not. [email protected]‘ is so much better for your brain and your productivity. Everything you need to get the task done is waiting for you and the task can be completed with very little brainpower.
An overarching list of all the separate ‘projects’ I am working on at any one time. A project is defined as a large task that needs to be completed that can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks. For example; ‘call gardener for fencing quote‘ would not be a project, however, ‘Re-fence garden‘ would be. This project list is simply a place to hold all the separate threads you’re trying to hold together and move forward. Whilst not necessarily something you’ll look at day to day, it’s worth having when it comes around to weekly review time.
Nice easy one here, any tasks you are waiting on other people before you can work on them again. Let’s say before you can start a new piece of software development work you are waiting for approval from your line manager, in the waiting for list it goes. I do find it useful to set dates against items in here, the date simply being when I expect to need to chase this up. If a client said to me I want to go ahead with the project, but not until April next year. In the waiting for list it would go with a date of 1st April 2019.
Depending on how much I have on my plate at the time, this is either my most loved or hated list. The good ideas list is simply to be filled with the things you wish you could get done if you had more time. Currently, mine contains things like learn to speak Italian and learn more about infer.net (a machine learning programming language, yep computer nerd here!). I also include albums/podcasts to listen to, books/blogs to read and places to go and see. If I’m feeling on top of things this is a really great place to look to determine what comes next.
Actionable step 2 – Structure your lists
Keeping on top of things
One of the most difficult parts of managing a to-do list is simply just keeping on top of it. Stopping it spiraling out of control can be difficult. An unwieldy and large todo list is a productivity killer, pure and simple! An organized and well thought out review process is key to keeping yourself out of this minefield.
The Daily Review
On any given day in which I plan to sit down and ‘work’, I spend 5-10 minutes running through a checklist that helps me to ensure my day is productive and is used to fullest effect. You can find download links for both this checklist and my weekly review checklist at the bottom of the article. The steps I follow are here, with a little extra bit of detail about each one:
- What’s in my calendar today and are there any deadlines looming in the next 3-5 days. This reminds me of anything I have pre-booked for the day (meetings, phone calls etc). It also gives me a mental note of anything coming up in the next few days.
- Big rocks – What would a good day of actions look like today and what are the 1, 2 or 3 ‘big rocks’ that need some focus or mental heavy lifting. This is based on my master action list from todoist and it allows me to focus on the highest priority tasks that are currently outstanding
- Out of those tasks which is the one I am most likely to not want to do. Once that’s decided to move it to number 1 on the list. This is one of the most important on the list. Focusing on the thing I LEAST want to do gives me a real boost to start the day. It really gets the productivity snowball rolling!
- Out of those tasks which requires the most intense concentration of my proactive attention. Use this to shape the schedule of your day. The answer to this question will be different for everybody. I find I’m most productive between 9am and lunchtime, so anything I really need to focus on is scheduled in these hours. Tasks that need less focused attention (phone calls etc) are left for post-lunch time.
- Are any of the things I’ve chosen time, people or resource dependant. Is there a necessity for when they get done. This is related to point 1 and quite important. If I start work at 9 and have a call scheduled at 930, making a high focus task the first thing I do wouldn’t be sensible.
I answer these questions into the ‘Today’ section of todoist and then refer back to that throughout the day. I’ve found this really helps to shape my days and keep them super productive, but the real procrastination killer is the weekly review.
Actionable step 3 – Make your daily review a habit
The Weekly Review
For keeping on top of things and getting things done, nothing has improved it more than a weekly review. I have an hour blocked out in my calendar once a week, every week until the end of time. I use this time to run through another checklist (download link at the bottom of the article). I’m not going to run through this in huge amounts of detail, as the checklist itself is quite explanatory.
One of the biggest takeaways, however, is the clear-headedness and knowledge that everything is going to get done. Spending time every single week to review what’s happened and plan what’s going to happen means nothing gets missed. Nothing gets forgotten and shit gets done.
Picking a time that is reasonably distraction-free and a place where it is quiet is imperative. Talk to your colleagues about what you’re doing so they don’t interrupt you. People might think it’s odd at first and think you’re wasting time. But once the hugely increased productivity comes through, they will be begging you for answers.
Actionable step 4 – Block an hour out in your calender for your weekly review.
Following the actionable steps in this article will get you well on the way to banishing procrastination from your life. Letting your brain concentrate on the current task and moving everything else out of your head will instantly give you a focus boost. That boost in focus will instantly help to get things done.
Coming up next in my productivity lessons; reaching the mecca of inbox zero! Yep, that’s right. A completely empty inbox.