Getting Things Done, One Thing at a Time

La Portada - Picture courtesy Seth DivineyOver the last few months, I’ve discovered several habits that have made me more effective, productive and happy. This is what I’ve found works best:

Write everything down. If I think of (or am assigned) something to do, I immediately get it out of my head and on paper. I break large tasks down into projects and list the next actionable item for that project. Maintaining a list of everything I need to do (no matter how small or large) keeps my mind clear and open to new ideas and allows me to concentrate on the task at hand without my mind nagging me about something else I should be doing instead. I maintain my lists in Tracks and OmniOutliner.

Take notes. I keep short notes on tricks, tips and any information that is useful, but that I might need to recall later. To do this, I use Notational Velocity on the Mac or ScrapBook on the PC. I chose these programs because they are lightweight, easily searchable and unobtrusive. I write down everything that I find useful and might need to recall in the future. For project based information I use a wiki–either PmWiki or Instiki. When I’m not around a computer, or want to be more creative and free with my ideas, I use a pocket sized Moleskine notebook and a Pilot Precise pen that I almost always carry with me.

Stay organized. I keep everything in a folder of its own–both on the computer as well as paper. For paper, I use one manilla file folder per hanging folder, the manilla file clearly labeled and alphabetized. On the computer I use distinct folders for related files, with all of the folders centrally organized in my home folder. Filing is fun. The only thing I keep on my physical desktop is my computer, pens and the materials I’m using to work at that very moment. The only icons that are on my computer desktop are for those files that I’m working on immediately (not sometime that day or week–at that instant) and those that the operating system won’t let me move (the recycle bin or hard disk icons for example). My email inbox is cleared–messages are acted upon as I receive them or soon afterwards, they are then added to a todo list and filed immediately. I have a physical inbox on my desk where things I need to act upon are placed until I can either take care of them or file them (and add an item to my todo list if necessary) for later use or reference.

Stay focused. I only work on one task at a time. I close browser windows, the feed reader, email client, instant messenger, I turn off the TV, phone and radio. Anything that could distract me or break my concentration that can be turned off is turned off while I’m working on a something important. I’ve found by reflecting on my life that the things I’m most proud of were done in an environment where I could concentrate on them completely.

Have a plan. I have a flexible daily schedule that reflects my short and long term goals. Time is alloted based on what I feel is important for bringing me closer to accomplishing my goals. I know what direction I want to go in and try to take steps each day that will get me closer to it. I get rid of excess where possible and try to minimize wasted time. Consistent positive reinforcement, at least once a day, is essential to staying motivated. I listen to inspirational, instructional and motivational books on tape in the car as well as surrounding myself with people, quotes, books and art that will inspire me to constantly seek to improve.

These ideas come from many places–discussions I’ve had with friends, things I’ve learned by trial and error, things my role models do, books I’ve read (notably Allen’s Getting Things Done) and advice from people I trust. I’ve found that when I am most diligent about implementing them my life goes much better–I’m more productive, happier and have a better relationship with my wife and family and a sense of fulfillment with myself. Hopefully after reading this you’ve found ideas that you can use to improve your life as well.