Creating progress, reaching your potential, fulfilling your life purpose, and creating profits all start with the right process. These two books contain, synthesize, and integrate everything I’ve ever read about personal productivity processes (GTD) and business productivity processes (Traction) into refined and highly-actionable systems. I’m in a long process of realigning my entire organization and productivity approach around a combination of these two systems.
I’ve written about Traction before, and likely will again. Today, I’m going to break down the 5 steps that just start to scratch the surface on Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.
Even just focusing on these few small things, before you even think about going deeper, will dramatically improve your productivity.
But first, a quick sidebar from the Getting Things Done Podcast, Episode 25 on Making Change Stick.
In that episode, David Allen (the author of GTD), revealed what I thought was a profound principle about what really creates change…
Change = Information + Inspiration
We’ve all seen it before — even experienced it. Someone has all the information they need to accomplish something, but they still don’t do anything with it. A great example is money. You probably knew from a young age that regular saving and compound interest were most powerful if you started them very early. But if you’re like most people (including me), you waited years or decades longer than you should have, even after you knew.
Or maybe you knew you wanted something different but you didn’t know what it was, so you didn’t know how to get it. In retrospect, this is what happened with my career. In college I was rudderless, but I knew I didn’t want to end up in a “cubicle farm.” It wasn’t until I discovered direct marketing and copywriting a year after graduation that everything became clear and I really got ambitious with my career goals.
Change doesn’t happen from information alone. Nor does it happen just because you want it. It’s only when you combine the specific information needed for the change to take place with inspiration you feel all the way down to your gut and subconscious that you’re really able to create the change you most desire. (For big things, the inspiration required is usually extreme frustration with where you’re going — you’re at threshold and know something has to change, it has to be me, and it has to be now.)
If you’re frustrated with your current focus and productivity and want to just GET THINGS DONE, here’s what you need to do…
The 5 steps to the Getting Things Done system are Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage.
This is pretty much universal. Whether you’re talking about family commitments or business. Purpose- or profit-driven.
If you want to get things done, with maximum focus and flow time and minimum stress, this is a proven-process for making that happen.
“Collect what has your attention. Use an in-basket, notepad, or voice recorder to capture 100% of everything that has your attention. Little, big, personal, and professional — all your to-dos, projects, things to handle or finish.”
Last week, I wrote about growing an external brain. That’s what this step is all about. Our brains are great at generating ideas and thinking of things. But they’re horrible about remembering things when we need to, or processing the thousand ideas you had last week to figure out what comes next. Getting it out of your head is the first and most important step to turning your ideas into action and results in the outside world.
“Process what it means. Take everything that you capture and ask: Is it actionable? If no, then trash it, incubate it, or file it as reference. If yes, decide the very next action required. If it will take less than two minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can; or put it on a list to do when you can.”
Another set of verbs that are often used for this step of the process are do, delegate, and defer.
Do: Getting little things out of the way is enormously freeing. So when you’re organizing your tasks and ideas, if it takes the same amount of time to do it as to organize it, might as well get it done.
Delegate: If it’s something you can equally pass off to someone else to get done, make that happen now so it gets done sooner.
Defer: Or if it’s something you know you still need to do later, go ahead and put it in the appropriate place so that when you’re working on that thing or come to the time it needs to be done, it will be there.
Important concepts here:
— The 2-minute rule: In the middle of this essay, I had to use the restroom. I had left the light on in our laundry room this morning, because my son’s sheets and comforter are in the laundry today. Knowing that while I was up to go to the bathroom, it would take me less than 2 minutes to see if they were dry, I checked. Good thing. The sheets were dry, but the comforter wasn’t. So I took the sheets out and re-started the comforter. If I’d waited until it was time to make his bed after work, his blanket wouldn’t be dry! Fitting in 2-minute tasks when you can helps things get done when they need to be.
— Outcome: Tying an action or project to a desired outcome gives it a why. In the information + inspiration equation above, this gives you the inspiration you need to change the project from pending to done by taking the appropriate actions. For a tiny task, you don’t necessarily need to take note of your desired outcome. However, if you are working on a project or a bigger set of actions, it can really help you focus by specifically noting the outcome you want from finishing the project alongside your notes about actions to take.
— Next action: This is where the rubber meets the road. Often on to-do lists, we use the name or other noun, such as “Breakthrough Marketing Secrets,” but we don’t say what we actually need to do about or with it. A better approach is to add the verb, such as “Write today’s BTMS.” Getting specific (and better, small) with your to-dos by defining the next measurable, actionable item allows you to know exactly what you need to do, when it’s time to do it.
“Put it where it belongs. Put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories — calls to make, errands to run, emails to send, etc.”
This all requires a system to make it happen. I’m working on implementing in Trello. It’s not a small process, and it’s very unique to you. You need to find out what works for you.
The idea is that when you have time to be productive, or have set aside time for a specific project, you know exactly where to go to get exactly what you need to make it happen.
While the argument against this is that it will stifle creativity, it works just the opposite. Your mind is free to be creative when you have the organizational garbage out of the way. Your mind is given room to think when it’s not trying to simultaneously hold onto your entire organizational system in subconscious memory.
In the context of organizational systems, here are a couple very important concepts:
— Tools vs. Principles and Strategy: I previously wrote about the Architecture of a Skill, and explained how tactics are built on technique, which is built on strategy, which is built on principles. Get the principles right and everything falls into place. Try to change tactics without changing principles, and you’ll get inferior results. Tools fall somewhere in the tactics and techniques range. You can try new tools and still fail, if your strategy and principles are wrong. I’m using Trello as the tactical tool for implementation. But without the principles and strategy of Getting Things Done, Trello wasn’t nearly as effective.
— Projects vs. Actions: In GTD lingo, an action is a single verb-noun pair you can do. Generally, it won’t take very long to get done, and it’s something you do once to complete it. Anything that has two or more action steps to get it done is a project. Individual actions, such as “Call to schedule dentist appointment” should be kept in an action list. As soon as something is recognized as having two or more actions, it’s a project and gets its own folder/list/bucket/etc. to capture the actions that make it up.
“Review frequently. Look over your lists as often as necessary to determine what to do next. Do a weekly review to clean up, update your lists, and clear your mind.”
This is the tricky part of the GTD methodology, and where it’s easy to fall off. As your organizational system gets bigger (to contain the 30 projects and 150 next actions the average professional has going on at any time), it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it and just check out.
Find a way to keep coming back to it. Clean it up. Reorganize your organizational system to make it work better for you. Move things to the appropriate lists.
I’ve created productivity dashboards for personal and professional work. I’ve also created separate project boards in Trello, as well as boards that contain smaller projects and groups of action items.
My reflect and review processes involve moving things from where they were captured during the week into their appropriate containers, as well as moving things from those containers into my productivity dashboard to get done in the coming days.
Again, I’m working on making it work best for me, but that’s part of this process as well.
The key is to keep coming back, refining your system, and making it work better for you.
“Simply do. Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.”
Here’s the real beauty of the GTD system. Once you’ve moved things out of your head and into a system that will allow you to focus on the most important next action, you can give your full presence, attention, and focus to that.
This gives you a clarity of mind, a sense of calm in a busy world. Your point of focus is the eye of the hurricane, where you are able to work with peaceful serenity even as you know of all the obligations and expectations of life blowing around you.
This is where you find flow state, to do your best creative work and problem-solving.
What to do with this…
I know this seems like a lot. And indeed, this has worked out to one of my longest essays in a while. But even in my early implementation of GTD, my personal productivity and focus is skyrocketing.
I know this growth is absolutely necessary for me to take my business to the next level. I know that massive accomplishment starts with being able to get things done (which has been a perpetual problem for me).
The key isn’t to look at the destination, and consider what a journey it will take to get there.
In fact, I’ve heard the path to mastery of GTD can take up to a couple years. And even then, you can fall off and getting back on can be a struggle. Optimization is a lifelong process. Even Dave Allen, the person who put the system together and wrote the book, based on what he saw other high-performers doing to succeed, says he’s still working at his own implementation, still working to do it better every day (16 years after the first book was published, more than two decades after the system started coming together).
They key is start with the right little habits. To take the first step on the journey, knowing a journey of a thousand miles is made one small step at a time.
Or, in the language of Getting Things Done, the key is to identify your next action item.
Here’s what I think it should be…
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,