Many readers and visitors to this site leave comments or send e-mail asking for specific tips on how to manage some portion of their workflow system. You say you don’t have a system, and that’s why you need help? Well, everyone has a system, some are just more robust than others.
No matter how busy you are, I am sure that you have some way of recording those “inputs” that come your way. Maybe you just try to remember them, and lay awake at night worrying about things that you forgot. Here is the number one secret to getting more things done so that you can enjoy your life and work again:
Capture your to-do list
The next most popular question is along the lines of “What tool is the best, and which tool do you use?” I have to tell you that I have tried a lot of things, and the one tool that I have found that works best for me is this:
My handy-dandy notebook. I never go anywhere without it. I write down everything that pops into my head, so that I do not forget. You can do the same, and likely with a $.99 spiral bound notepad from the grocery store. This is the very first step in creating a robust time-management system that is adaptable to your own particular needs and situation.
Capture: Write down everything that you need to do.
This notebook is the perfect place for you to jot down ideas and inspirations, your shopping list, a contact’s phone number, whatever. It is better than scratch-paper, because any jottings are bound in and won’t get lost. You can even stick some blank 3″x5″ cards in the back in case you need to jot down a note and give it to someone. Handy-dandy.
Analog vs Digital
This is where the use of a capture device becomes controversial. There are many in the Getting Things Done community that swear by their PDA/handheld device for doing this sort of capture and inputting it directly into their workflow system. This can be a very attractive option, and one that I do recommend if you already have a handheld that you can use for this purpose.
If you do not have one of these PDAs or smart phones, I do not recommend that you run out to buy one. Learning to use a capture device of any kind requires a shift in your thinking. You have to learn a new habit, that of collecting your tasks and organizing them into an action plan.
I do not use a digital device to capture my inputs for two reasons:
- I just don’t like it. I seem to have an “unhealthy” love-affair with notebooks. I enjoy writing with a pen or pencil, and being able to create pictures or sketches or other non-verbal ways of expressing ideas. I suspect that I do more of my thinking in patterns and images than I do in words. This type of capture can be difficult in the majority of handheld devices.
- The notebook as a capture device is independent of my workflow application. As a “productivity blogger” I get offers to use and review different applications (like Wrike, UltraRecall, OnePlace, etc) all the time. In an effort to provide value to my readers, I do take these systems for a test drive – and few of them are able to “sync” with any handheld devices. In addition, I don’t have to worry about upgrades or new versions of software suddenly becoming incompatible with my notebook.
Creating an Action Plan
Whichever method or tool you use for capturing the inputs, ideas, and tasks, you still have to process those tasks into an action plan for execution. For getting them done. Again, there are quite a few software applications out there that have attractive features and benefits for a wide range of personality types. Some people are more visual, some like adding a lot of detail, some people are comfortable with simply making a list and checking things off. No matter what application (software or legal pad) you choose you need to have the same goal for its use:
Contextualize: Assess each item on your list.
- Does it fall into the category of a task that needs to get done? Should you do it Today, Tomorrow or Later? Put it in the proper file folder, or enter it into your master list (paper-based or software application).
- Does it fall into the category of an appointment/meeting? Then it needs to go into your calendar.
- Does it fall into the category of reference material? Then it needs to go into your archive or your Tickler File for later use.
The Franklin-Covey method recommends assigning each task a letter- or number-based priority (A B C, A1 A2…). I have found this to be inefficient and inflexible. Things happen. “Fires” start. Your workflow needs to adapt to the situation you find yourself in at any given time. For this reason I recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology and use the two-minute rule: If you can accomplish a task in two minutes or less, just do it. Do them all. Do not get bogged down in making your list or trying to sort the less-than-two-minute tasks.
When you look at your list and see a bunch of little things crossed off as completed it gives you a good feeling. Now you can work on the larger, more time-consuming tasks. There are two ways to address these more-than-two-minute tasks and projects: 1.) set an appointment with yourself to do it in your calendar, or 2.) enter it into your master to-do list (paper-based or software application). The kind of master list that you use is not important. Actually using the list and marking items “complete” is important. Take your time, feel free to experiment with different applications for a week or so. If it does not feel smooth and natural after a week’s use, go back to the legal pad until it’s time to try another one.
Your calendar is not a to-do list
Let me say that again: Your calendar is not a ‘to-do’ list and it is not an In-box. For those of you familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system, you know that only three things are to be entered into your calendar:
- Time-specific actions
- Day-specific actions
- Day- or Time-specific information
That’s it. Because your calendar is a tool that you use to tell you where you need to be and when you need to be there, or when something is scheduled to happen. That is why Allen refers to it as the Hard Landscape. Keeping a separate, master to-do (paper-based or software application) list saves you from having to copy tasks or activities from one day to another if they did not get done.
In summary, you already knew how to manage your list. What you didn’t know was how to capture then organize your list. Now that you have a better understanding of what the tools are and how to use them, you should be able to tackle that list and get some things done.