Getting Stuff Done: The Right Tactics

Last week in Getting Stuff Done: The Right Priorities I talked about the importance to get the right stuff done regardless of your short-term personal gains. Today I will talk about the technical aspects of “how” to get stuff done as painlessly as possible. It took me a while but I finally found some time to read Getting Things Done by David Allen. I’m not big fan of various tips & tricks on how to increase productivity and even though I sometimes reluctantly give some tips to others when mentoring I always accompany it with a disclaimer that even though it works for me it may not for others. We are all unique just as snowflakes are. The work by David Allen however made an impression on me for two reasons. First, he is providing a rather detail guide on how to organize your life to get more things done with less worrying about them. Second, to my surprise his system is relatively close to how I organize my actions and I just use common sense and learn from my mistakes.

Mindset & Benefits

The idea behind the concept (or framework) is simple. Have a single system that is so well organized that you can implicitly trust it. Have everything written down somewhere where you can easily find it so you don’t need to keep it in your head. Have things available when you need them but out of the focus when it is not the appropriate time to deal with them. For example, why to look the whole day at a reminder that you need to buy a bottle of milk in the evening? There is nothing you can do about it when you are in the office so it is just constantly distracting you and pushes you to worry about something you cannot fix at that particular point of time. Every single action has the right time, place and energy levels to be acted upon. You can forget about setting up priorities for tasks or trying to order and reorder them all the time. These things are just distractions that make your life more complicated and not easier.

Framework

David Allen describes his framework in five distinct steps or phases

Collection phase – the part of the framework where you collect all the information and tasks that come to your life. Keep in mind that not everything is electronic so some of the tasks may come in the form of snail mail, people asking you for help, etc. What I do is to transfer everything into electronic form as soon as possible and thus have a single inbox for my whole life. And not surprisingly that inbox is called Microsoft Outlook. Anything that I need to act on I send to myself as an email. Just a brief note, or a scanned copy of the snail mail. I know I can trust myself in doing this mindlessly under any circumstances and thus I know I can trust my inbox holds the complete list of things I need to do or need to know.

Processing phase – this one is the most tricky. You need to process your inbox regularly and at the same time it shouldn’t act as distraction to you. Ideally you want to create a habit and process your inbox couple of times a day. I tend to do it in the morning, after lunch and in any spare time I have during the day that cannot be effectively used by doing anything else. Just make sure that when you are processing your inbox you have the flexibility to immediately act on some of the small items, so doing it during a meeting when you cannot pick up a phone is not the best idea.

There are couple of rule you need to follow when processing your email:

  • Focus and process one item at a time
  • Once you look at the item don’t put it back to inbox
  • For every item ask a simple question: Is there an action to be taken?
    • If no then move to archive or appropriate list of reading
    • If yes then ask yourself: Can it be done by me in couple of minutes? (Allen proposes less than 2 minutes)
      • If the answer is yes then just do it right now
      • If the answer is no then either delegate right now to someone else
      • Or figure out what the next step is and put into your action items list
  • Following these rules you can process your inbox really fast and at the end have a bunch of solved problems, bunch of action items and an empty inbox – good feeling right? Especially the small wins and the empty inbox will give you sense of accomplishment and energy to work on the more time consuming tasks
  • Keep in mind that you completely ignore the importance of the tasks! You want every single aspect of your life to move forward, not just the part that currently feels like important or urgent

Organizing phase – here is where the magic comes. Once again you don’t talk about priorities but about context. You want to organize your action items based on your ability to deal with them. So instead of sorting on urgent, important, unimportant, etc. you sort based on location or possibly energy levels. In my case I would have separate lists for

  • Shopping – here comes anything I have to do while commuting between office and home
  • Home – anything that can be done only when I’m physically at home
  • Office with people – anything I need to do in the office where I need support of others, input, etc.
  • Office in the morning – anything I need to do in the office where I don’t need to interact with anyone
  • Weekend – usually some reading or things that I consider low-energy/hobby type of things
  • Meetings (by person) – I have bunch of lists for each of the regular meetings I have. When the meeting with a particular person comes this list turns into an agenda
  • Someday list – this is a list I use for collecting ideas that still need some time to mature, things I may want to read one day, etc. Just make sure you don’t overpopulate this list and clean it up regularly

Do it phase – now you just take your action item list and run with it. You don’t need to think too much about the next steps because they are already written down there. This is sort of mindless execution phase. How do you decide which task from the list to take? Decide based on time and energy. You can consider the importance and urgency at this stage too but it shouldn’t be the defining aspect. You need to be able to finish the task in one go so if you have just fifteen minutes for something that will likely take an hour there is no point of trying to get it done right now. Also if you have a task that requires you to come up with something creative and you just came from lunch and feel sleepy better take a task that will keep you awake like talking to someone.

What if you are long-term not able to finish your tasks and you are constantly behind? It means you learn to say no to some of the work coming your way. The right time to say no is when the request hits your inbox. Once you process it and accept it then you should finish it, but there is nothing wrong in saying no to some of the work because you are already maxed out.

Review phase – you need to regularly review your system and your lists to make sure they stay neat and clean. I do it once a week usually on Friday or during the weekend. I would look at

  • My projects and ensure each has a next step defined
  • My long-term goals and ensure there is an clear action on them
  • Review next week’s calendar and note down any preparation needed
  • Review the Someday list
  • Review the context lists to make sure everything is still relevant and up to date
  • Ideally also make a brain dump into your inbox and if you have time also process it

Urgency & Importance

In Lack of time is just an illusion! article I talked about the 4D concept. It is a pretty well-known and in theory widely used system on how to prioritize your tasks. I used it for some time myself but eventually abandoned as I discovered that it is just too complicated for everyday use. Priorities are shifting, what wasn’t urgent yesterday is urgent today. What is urgent today may be obsolete tomorrow. I transferred some of the thoughts behind the 4D concept to the simple lists. The reason why the framework described above works better than 4D is that it deals with specific small measurable next steps instead of big picture stuff. You may decide that learning a foreign language is important so you keep it in front of your eyes in 4D matrix but unless you come up with the first small step like “enroll to a course” or “buy a workbook” you will never move forward on that goal regardless of the importance.

Projects & Personal life

Just mix it up. You want your system to be as simple as possible and if you want to have a happy what I call “integrated” life (as described in Forget About Work-Life Balance, Just Live A Happy Integrated Life) you may as well mix your personal tasks with the professional ones. If that makes you uncomfortable you can treat your personal life as a separate project. You probably want to call it something different so you don’t end up like me when under the spell of corporate life I called a date dinner with a girl: one-on-one.

In fact Allen proposes to treat any initiative that requires more than one step as a project. That way you make sure that there is always a clear next step defined regardless of how big the project actually is. Most of the time I keep my working list pretty linear without any structure just to keep everything moving forward and have a detailed structure just in archiving data for easier access. It may look like this and every time I finish the step I define a next one to keep things moving forward

  • Initiative 1 – next step
  • Initiative 2 – next step
  • Initiative 3 – next step

For the full disclosure I need to confess that this system assume you work with it 365 days a year otherwise you need to improvise. In my case it breaks down when I take couple of weeks of vacations and go somewhere out of the grid with no laptops, no phone and no electricity. After I return I tend to use the more traditional approach of urgency and priority to sift through the inbox in couple of runs and cherry-pick the stuff I need to deal with right now and sort of ignore anything that can wait. It usually takes me couple of weeks to catch up with my inbox and makes returns from vacations a bit of a nightmare.

 

How do you organize your day to get the most out of it? Do you distinguish between personal and business tasks?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Delete email before you send it

One of the big issues in any modern and especially technology company is the unending avalanche of e-mails everyone sends and receives. In itself there is nothing wrong with it, as sending email is easy, cheap and creates a feeling that one shares information. However, what is being often shared is a killer of attention and productivity. Companies tend to use various distribution lists with tens or hundreds of people on them and it is naive to believe that information shared with five hundred people over e-mail will be read, understood and acknowledged by everyone. Very often the information is not even relevant for majority of recipients and then it basically acts as a SPAM (unwanted mail). I know it is nice to “be in the loop” and to know about everything but there is a price to pay.

One of my favorite quotes is a statement by Herbert A. Simon (Nobel Prize for Economics) “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Every leader should therefore always balance the amount of information she needs to stay informed while not being overwhelmed by it.

So what are the tips and tricks of e-mail communication?

1. Think before you send e-mail at all

Is e-mail really the best way how to communicate this particular information? Very often it is just fine, but keep in mind that the most natural way how to spread the word is to talk. Wouldn’t it make bigger sense to pick up a phone or go to the colleague in the next cubicle and talk? Especially in cases when you expect discussion or questions, e-mail should be used just as a heads up with clearly stated that you don’t expect response but that you will talk with the person at the nearest occasion.

2. Think twice before you send it to bigger distribution list

Always think before sending emails to bigger distribution lists and if do send it then make it clear whether it is just FYI (for your information) or whether you expect action to be taken. Always assume that big portion of the people on the list may not read the e-mail, may just skim through or may not understand the meaning.

3. If you receive email sent to a distribution list think ten times before you press “reply all”

There are very few occasions that merits hitting “reply all” button. Imagine that you are in a room with three hundred people and the speaker at stage shares some information (sends e-mail) you would then without much thinking stand up and shout some message back. And imagine that every other person in the audience also shouts back. Not a nice picture, so why do it using e-mail? There are very few situations when replying to all is warranted. When working in global organization consider that there are cultures where this behavior is just fine, but there are other ones where this is seen as annoying or impolite.

4. Never ever use BCC

BCC (blind carbon copy) is a tool that should never be used if one wants to promote culture of transparent communication. Why would anyone want to use it? If you send information to more people then put the recipients to “to” or “cc”. That way everyone understands who got the message and who still needs to be informed. Imagine how would use of “bcc” translate to spoken communication. You would go around your team and to some of them whisper the information. No one would be sure what you told and to whom. Does it make sense? Some of the worst examples of “bcc” abuse are putting to “bcc” boss of a person you communicate with. This behavior breaks trust really fast.

“bcc” is a good tool when distributing information to people who shouldn’t know about each other, like external partners or customers. However, there is no place for this tool in intra-company communication. And yes, I understand some of the technical implications, security considerations, anti-SPAM advantages and other stuff described in related RFCs (for those interested check out RFC 2822 and RFC 5322), but at the end this is a blog about leadership and not about technical solutions 🙂

5. Use common sense and treat people with respect

Most people don’t even realize that they would never communicate in person the way they communicate over email. So the simplest thing is to provide feedback or set up couple of informal guidelines “netiquette” of proper behavior on the net. And of course lead by example. If people realize something they do can be annoying to others they will change. Typical example might be the “bcc topic” mentioned above. One of the primary reasons why people use it even in internal communication is to prevent someone to press “reply all” and spam the whole team. By doing this you are essentially compensate your lack of leadership skills by technical solution. Wouldn’t it make bigger sense to sit down and explain to your team that pressing reply all is often disrespectful to all the recipients who get spammed? And yet many prefer to use technology over having a conversation with their team.

6. Don’t be afraid to delete e-mail you just wrote without sending it

And finally, to justify the headline of the article, don’t be afraid to delete e-mail you just wrote rather than sending it. I personally do this several times a week when I realize that the informational value of the email I just wrote is close to zero, is better to communicate in person, or that the audience is not right one for what I want to say. If you tend to provide your thoughts on every single topic and reply to every single email you get, you are simply spamming others with information of no value that no one needs or requests, you appear micromanaging and you just waste time of your team by providing too much value (to borrow this term from Marshall Goldsmith) so change it! Delete email before you send it! Learning this habit will improve your image as a leader in the eyes of others.

I know this is a controversial topic as many of us couldn’t live without email (including me) so FLAME ON!