My wife remembers everything. Everything. She will frequently look up at me during breakfast and say something like, “I bought these earrings fourteen years ago today.”
Yeah, I think it’s weird too.
Most of us aren’t like that. Most of us have brains that function more like pasta sieves than steel traps. We can have conversations and forget what the person said five minutes before. Ideas drift into our minds like a fluffy cloud and then vanish the moment we see something distracting. No, most of us can barely retain ideas and thoughts and information.
But we all think we can, don’t we? We will be told something, and think, “I’ll take care of that tomorrow” but then do nothing about it. Of course, when tomorrow comes, we don’t recall the task. We always assume we are going to remember that item that needs created for a client, or the chore our spouse asked us to take care of. We assume that whatever we put into our heads today will be there tomorrow.
Here’s a better strategy for remembering things:
Don’t ask yourself, “Will I remember this later?”. The answer is always, “No”.
Instead, always ask, “Have I put pieces in place to remind me of this later?” This way, when you do forget in an hour or two, there will be a safety net waiting to keep the idea or task or deadline from being looked over and forgotten.
Never (never) “walk away” from a thought that needs future action without taking steps to ensure it gets done. For tasks, plug them into your tasks manager of choice (I use OmniFocus on my Mac, iPhone and iPad). Assign them a date and reminder before you forget that you need to do them. Trust me.
If you write, or plan, or create ideas for a living or hobby, you need to capture ideas. They don’t stick around. On my iPhone I use an app called Drafts to capture text instantly (read our review of the app here). Carry a notebook with you, or a stack of index cards in your back pocket.
There are even audio options available, if you don’t have hands free. The iPhone’s Siri feature makes it easy to “remind me to email logo files to Jennifer tomorrow”. Or find yourself a cheap digital voice recorder.
You know the frustration of forgetfulness. That’s you experiencing friction. So examine your past experiences and look for the biggest holes in your systems. Then plan out the right solution and put it into action.
Unless you happen to be my wife, I’ll bet good money that you are going to forget something. Don’t trust yourself to remember things. Build a frictionless system and run with it. Your freelance career, relationships and hobbies will all benefit from taking action.
Let’s get right to the brass tacks, shall we? You want to get more done. You have clients or bosses to appease, and a list longer than your arm just waiting to be conquered. If you can get everything done, you win: the client will pay you money, your boss will let you keep your job, or your partner will let you sleep in bed rather than on the couch.
And so, like most people, you want to get more done. I know the feeling all too well, myself. I run a very busy design business. I host a weekly podcast. I write books. And I make things. All while being a father and husband. I dream of buying extra time as often as meth addicts grind their teeth.
I’ve managed to figure out how to get more done, though. I cracked the code. And now I want to share one of those tricks with you.
“Aaron”, you say, “I thought you were going to teach us how to get more done. Why are you suggesting we do less?” Well, there are two reasons.
Multitasking Doesn’t Work
The old theory that you can get more done by doing more at once is a myth, and a bad one. Multitasking is only effective at helping you feel stressed and overwhelmed.
For one reason, handling more than one task at once only serves to divide your attention. You simply can’t manage your email and build a quality logo at the same time. Trying to write your first novel while taking a client phone call isn’t going to give your story or your client the attention that each deserves.
According to researchers Teresa Aubele and Susan Reynolds, multitasking can actually decrease your creativity. By hopping rapidly from one input or task to the next, our brains aren’t allowed to stop receiving information and start processing it creatively.
The key, according to these researchers, is focusing on a single task at a time. Multitasking actually prevents us from giving a single task the attention required to complete it well. So while we may appear to be getting more done when we multitask, what typically results is poor quality, and there are consequences to that, such as having to redo the task entirely, or losing a client because of the disappointing results.
Stop multitasking. You’ll get more done.
Scheduling Too Much is a Bad Idea
It is tempting to look at a todo list with dozens of items and try to cram them into a single day. But in order to do that, we end up giving each task less time than it deserves. The result: frustration, confusion and breakdown in the system.
I am a firm believer in booking my day to 90% capacity. There will always be something that pops up, so scheduling in some flexibility helps me trust my list, stay calm and give focus where it’s needed most. But if I bite off more than I can chew, my success is much less guaranteed.
It’s incredibly important to know how long different tasks take you to complete. I’m a designer for most of my day, so I have had to get very good at guessing how long it will take me to design a business card or do the research on a new logo. So, when I look at my list of tasks and see “asset graphics for Client X’s WordPress site”, I know how much time to give allow for it on my schedule for the next day. And the better I get at guessing the times, the more productive (smaller needed-done to got-done ratio) my days become.
Over-doing it leads to under-doing it. Trust me.
I get it. You want (and need) to get as much done each day as possible. Your livelihood may depend on it, in many cases. But our over enthusiasm might actually get in the way sometimes. By focusing on one task at a time and building a realistic and achievable daily schedule you can actually get more done. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s effective. Give it a try this week.
I watched a lot of MacGyver growing up. I realize he’s somewhat a cultural metaphor to most people these days, and sometimes the butt of home improvement jokes, but the man always managed to get the job done. As a writer, and specifically a fiction writer, I subscribe to the notion that heroic characters need to exhibit traits that we wish we possessed ourselves. And with MacGyver, it was all about getting things done.
For years I carried a red Swiss Army knife in my front left pocket. Just like MacGyver. And as a youth, that was a very handy thing to have around. Open boxes, cut rope, whittle a stick into a marshmallow-roasting implement; I think you get the point. But these days I carry something different in my pocket: index cards.
Sexy, right? Imagine the heads I turn when I pull out a small stack of dog-eared index cards in a coffee shop. They must think I’m the next Don Draper. But I manage to stave off the celebrity by reminding myself of how incredibly practical it is to carry index cards around with me. And I thought I would share those benefits with you as well.
I was in a meeting this week, and much like many meetings, there were assignments sprinkled across the table over the course of the 90 minutes we were there. A task would come up in discussion and one of the attendees would say, “I’ll take care of that.” But they wouldn’t write it down. None of them. Each and every task mentioned went unrecorded. And though it would be difficult to do this, I would like to see what percentage of those assignments were actually completed. Because I doubt all of them were even remembered.
The main reason I carry index cards with me is to capture thoughts, ideas and tasks that will need to be done. And so I was the odd man out in that meeting. I had a single index card in front of me, and a pen, and as tasks fell to my responsibility, or ideas for something else I needed to do occurred to me, I would write them down.
When I’m back at my desk, the next step is simple. I open up the task management app of my choice (I use the Mac app OmniFocus, but any todo app will suffice) and enter all the items into the system. Personally, I assign dates to complete tasks for 100% of the items I enter, but your style may vary. The important thing is to treat the cards as a capture point, and then transfer their contents to the Greater System.
Nothing is worse than having a meeting with someone, assigning them a task, and having them forget. You can manage your own forgetfulness with the section above, but other people are seemingly out of your control. Unless you carry index cards with you.
I just wrapped up a meeting with a friend (literally, between writing this section and the last) who is starting up her own greeting card business. Small scale, very personal, and very exciting to talk about. Except she has nearly no idea how to build the foundation of the actual business. Where will she keep the money she earns? How will she ship the product? How can she prepare for taxes next year? All of these things were “OMG moments” when I brought them up. They aren’t the sexy part of building a business, but they are just as essential as the product itself.
So, because of her innocent cluelessness, she needed my help. And to help her, I had an index card in front of me for our meeting (noticing a pattern yet?). And rather than writing out what I need to do, I wrote out what she needed to do. I even gave every item a little check-box so she can work through the list like it was her own. And now she can’t forget the important pieces of our conversation, because I’ve written them down and handed them to her on a small card.
I do this in larger settings, too. If I’m in a room full of people and someone asks me for a resource, I will literally take out a card, write down the information and then hand it to them. People forget stuff. They lose things less often. I’m hedging my bets by putting something into their hands. An app recommendation, a book I spoke about or a website that could help them transform their business; I write it all down and give them the card.
Interactive Book Marks
Another great use for index cards is as a book mark to a specific book. Especially cards like the Frictionless Capture Cards, where there are some simple fields at the top to write things like the title of the book and the year or author. The cards make a great place to write notes or page numbers that you want to reference at a later time.
When you have completed reading the book, just tape the card to the inside of the front cover. This way, the next time you are reminded of a passage in that book, you can check the card first, rather than randomly flipping through the pages in hopes that you will find the information you were looking for.
Get Some Cards
Index cards are great to have around. Keep them on your desk in a little stack or box. Keep 10–20 in your back pocket or your car. Set some beside your bed for those moments when the Idea Fairy throws a brick through the window of your mind. Whatever use you can think of, index cards can meet the challenge.
Life is full of friction. Find tools that help you remove it.
There has been a lot of talk recently about GTD (the “getting things done” methodology of David Allen), how applicable it might to people in creative roles, and whether it has held up well as technology (and workflows) have changed over the last couple of decades. Most arguments seem to make the equation between GTD and productivity. But that’s very far from the truth.
The “Getting Things Done” concept is a method of productivity. Productivity is a higher concept. And while GTD is a great resource for guiding people toward better productivity, it is not the only way to be productive. It is one path, out of many available, that can lead to the destination we all want to reach: better productivity.
There’s a bit of irony here, though. For many folks, these unique and specialized systems for promoting productivity can actually become points of friction themselves. The end up holding people back more than they free them. And it isn’t because the methodology is flawed; it is because methodologies are stereotypes that pigeon-hole people into roles they weren’t meant to inhabit.
Productivity is not about robotically following prescribed forms; productivity is about mastering the basic elements. Let me explain.
Tae Kwon Do
When I was in high school I took Tae Kwon Do lessons. If you’ve never learned a martial art before, I really think you’ve missed out. Not because self-defense is important or kicking above your own head is an amazing way to meet chicks, but because there are so many deep lessons within the training that have applications outside of the dojo. For those of you who have never taken a martial arts lesson, here’s a brief rundown of the teaching system.
New students are taught the basics. There are a variety of kicks and punches, and you must learn each of them. You learn their names, their forms and how to improve them over time. The basics of Tae Kwon Do, like any other martial art, are the equivalent to learning to identify and reproduce musical notes. A front snap kick looks and feels different than a roundhouse kick, just like a D major guitar chord sounds different than a D minor chord.
You also learn forms. These are essentially a sequence of basic elements: kicks, punches and movements that must be memorized and performed the same way each and every time, by each and every student. Forms are physical songs; they are a string of “notes” (basic techniques) that are “played” in a special sequence.
When a student has learned enough of the basics, they are allowed to spar with other students. Sparring is a controlled fight, with pads and rules for scoring points. It’s not a street fight, but it’s also not predictable. Your opponent might kick, or they might punch. And you have to rely on other basic techniques such as blocking or counter-punching to defend yourself. You can’t fall into a robotic, pre-determined form and expect it to work. Sparring matches are organic and fluid; forms are rigid.
Productivity is not about robotically following prescribed forms; productivity is about mastering the basic elements. Our daily workflows are personally unique, and they’re the organizational equivalent of stepping into the ring to spar. Depend too heavily on soup-to-nuts productivity systems and you’ll be too inflexible for the chaos of the workflow. Conversely, if you eschew all training and techniques completely and decide to “make it up as you go”, you’ll be overwhelmed and underprepared for challenges.
The key to productivity is to learn the basics, and to know them so well that you can defend yourself organically and innately from whatever your workflow throws at you.
What are the basics? The basics are the essential elements of any productivity system. They are the bare necessities that everyone must do in order to boost productivity. We find the basics in all major productivity methodologies buried under terminology and elaboration, much like our skeletons are buried under our flesh and connective tissue.
One basic element is capturing. Every system, for every profession and person, begins with capturing things that get thrown at us. They might be physical objects like a phone bill, or digital items like emails or a project you need to complete. It doesn’t matter where they originate: everything that needs to be completed first needs to be captured.
The next basic element of productivity is planning. Once you have captured the plethora of tasks, ideas and resources you encounter or dream up, you need to do something with them. You might do them immediately, or next month, and so you need to plan how you will accomplish each item (due date, sub-tasks, resources, etc).
The last basic element of productivity is to focus. You can capture and plan all you want, but if you can’t focus on the tasks as hand, you will miss deadlines, fail to complete things and disappoint yourself and others. Learn to focus, or learn to like failure.
The Next Level
That’s the list. It’s short, and not very fleshed out (that’s a bigger project that I’m working on for the late summer), so don’t expect to find a lot of explanation there. But those are the three core pieces to any productivity system.
The question, then, isn’t whether GTD has aged poorly in the face of the digital age. And it’s not whether GTD encourages or inhibits creativity. The question is ultimately: can anyone — in any field or profession, in any culture, across all spectrum of ages and genders — benefit from implementing the three basic elements of productivity in their lives, workflows and businesses?
The answer is a resounding “yes”. Capturing ideas doesn’t get in the way of a creative person — it frees them to create. Planning out a project doesn’t stifle a writer or a salesperson — it challenges them and spurs them onward. Forcing yourself to focus doesn’t negate the power of the imagination or inspiration — it just puts you in the right frame of mind to dream big and get to work.
GTD is not the issue. Productivity is the issue. And productivity is good for everyone.
In order to master your life, you must master your week. In order to master your week, you must first master your day.
It sounds a bit like something Yoda would say, I’ll give you that. But these are words to live by, trust me on this. If I was asked to boil down all of the success I encounter in my work and personal life into two or three key rules, this would be one of them: planning your day means planning to succeed.
So what does that look like? If you’ve ever wanted to tweak and adjust your day to squeeze the maximum amount of productivity out of it, then this is your lucky day. Pull up a chair, because I’m about to break down my time management system for you. And it all starts with blocks.
Everything that happens between waking up and going to sleep is a block. I tend to view my day in 30-minute blocks, but you can cut up the time into whatever works for you. Some tasks take 30 minutes while others need 120 minutes. You just need to keep it consistent.
There are also different kinds of blocks. Some are inflexible or immovable, while others are fluid and pliable. For instance, because I work from home, I have the luxury of eating with my family each day for lunch. This means that my lunch happens every day from 12PM to 1PM, and that’s not negotiable. Lunch is an inflexible block of time. Other examples would be meetings or phone conferences.
Client work, however, is very fluid. Sometimes a project task can take 30 minutes, other times two hours. And most of the time I can place client work anywhere on my schedule as long as it doesn’t overlap with inflexible items.
Know Your Abilities & Limits
Planning ahead, and building a tight, efficient schedule for your day requires having a solid grasp of your skills and ability. If you have a specific type of project that you do often, chances are that you have an accurate understanding of how long that task will take. The true test, though, is learning to guess at how long something will take you when you’ve never done it before.
I build this element into the capture process whenever a new task comes across my desk. When I write down what it is that I need to accomplish, I always add a context to the task that tells me how long I think it will take. Maybe it’s 15 minutes, or 30, or even an hour; whatever the length of time will be, I make sure it is marked down ahead of time. This way, when I sit down to map out my day, I can use those lengths of time to help me build a realistic schedule.
Nothing is worse that ending your day with unfinished items on your list. Rookies think it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, but the reality is that when this happens it’s because you didn’t plan hard enough. Over-booking yourself is the fastest way to frustration and disappointment. Known your limits, and plan accordingly.
Plan for the Non-Project Stuff
Need to make a phone call tomorrow? Plan that into your schedule so that it doesn’t throw off your timeline. Maybe you have a meeting with a client across town at a coffee shop. Make sure you allow for travel time, not just the meeting time; a 30-minute meeting that is 15-minutes across town should take a 60-minute block on your schedule, not 30. It sounds simple, I know. But believe me, it’s a rookie mistake that throws way too many people off their game.
I also plan an hour less than I have to work with each day. My work day is done by 5pm, but I only ever map out my day up to 4pm. Why? Because something will come up. It always does. And if by some rare chance I do finish my work by 4, I will glance at my list for tomorrow and start knocking out small tasks from that list until 5pm arrives. That freedom needs to be built into your schedule.
Putting Pen to Paper
I use OmniFocus to capture and organize my tasks each day, but when it comes to mapping them out and building a schedule, I do that on paper. I use a notebook that offers up the least amount of structure necessary while still providing enough guidance to aid my personal system. And with pen in hand I literally copy my OmniFocus items for that day onto the page, working them into the best order and flow. Having them already in time-based blocks helps this work more smoothly.
I also do this the night before, not the morning of. I don’t know about you, but my mornings are crazy. A bunch of new email arrived over night, my kids want attention and I have coffee to make and drink. I don’t want to start my day off needing to find time to plan. Instead, when I finally get to my desk I simple open my notebook and start on the detailed list.
This helps me find my daily purpose as quickly as possible. Going to bed each night I am fully aware of what needs done, and when, so that I don’t waste time the next day making a decision about where to start. I made that decision the night before. Now I just need to put it to action.
Everyone has a system for getting things done, and each is like a fingerprint, unique and personal. But every good system has a few common elements. Master the art of planning each day, and you will maximize what you can get done, while removing the frustration that comes with not accomplishing everything you set out to achieve. However your own system works, thoughtfully planning ahead on paper can make all the difference in the world.