Make Your Todo List More Inspiring

One of the worst ways to begin a task is with the words “sort out…” Hidden behind those two little words is a potential animal that, untamed, will result in inaction and stress. This is not a task, this is a project. Whenever I see a task in my inbox beginning with those words it is an indicator there is something that is going to involve a number of individual tasks. It is never just one task.

We collect a lot of tasks of this nature throughout the day. What these tasks do is they build up over time and create a monster of uncompleted tasks that play on our mind and cause unnecessary stress unless we do something about clarifying what they actually are. Let’s take a simple example: “Sort out wardrobe”. This task in certainly not a single task. The immediate question that comes to my mind is: what needs sorting out inside my wardrobe? Do I need to throw anything out? Do I need to buy something new? If I need to throw anything out, do I have enough recycling bags? Just from that one, simple task I have another two questions that need answering before I can begin. Another example would be: “Sort out my website”. This one could mean anything and really needs a lot of clarifying. For example, are we talking about where the website is held? Or are we talking about reorganising or rewriting pages? (While on the subject of websites, another bad task would “update my website” for the same reasons).

In the course of my work, I find a lot of clients write tasks like this. These are incomplete tasks because they have not been clarified. They are too vague and they are going to lead to a lot of inaction and procrastination.

The strength of using clear verbs to start tasks is they make it abundantly clear what you have to do. For example, “Throw away old shirts” This task would go under a project called “Sort out Wardrobe”. While you are thinking about throwing away your old shirts, you would probably think about how you are going to throw them away. Over here in Korea we have clothes recycling boxes at the end of a lot of streets. My nearest one is about 100 yards away, so I probably wouldn’t need a bag to carry a few shirts there. So, all I need is a label of @home and then one day when I have finished work early, if I am at home, I can bring up my @home list and will see that task. It would take around ten minutes to complete, so a very easy decision to make. If all I saw was “sort out wardrobe” it would be very unlikely I would feel motivated to get off the sofa at all.

In the early days of my GTD journey, I wrote a lot of tasks with the words “sort out”. It made the start of my GTD journey difficult. Once I really began to understand the importance of breaking down my tasks into manageable tasks with good, strong verbs I began getting a tremendous amount of work done. Verbs like “look into”, “decide” and “research” can also be deathtraps of procrastination and inaction, because they are not very specific. I prefer to begin tasks like this with “find” instead of research”. For example “research productivity” would become “find a definition of productivity” From this definition I would be able to look at other areas by using tasks like “find three articles on improving productivity”. This gives me something specific, it also tells me when I have finished. “Decide” becomes “make a decision on”. Not a big difference, but the phrase “make a decision” is more specific to me and implies action.

Back in 2006 Merlin Mann wrote an excellent blog post called GTD: Project Verbs vs Next-Action Verbs. In the article he gave a list of verbs you should use for projects and verbs that should be used for tasks. This was a revelation to me when I first came across it as it enabled me to clearly understand the difference a verb could have when writing my tasks. Project verbs would be:

finalise,

resolve,

handle,

look into,

submit,

maximise,

organise,

design,

Complete,

ensure,

roll out,

update,

install,

implement,

set-up.

Task or next action verbs would be:

call,

Review,

ask,

buy,

fill out,

find,

print,

take,

waiting for,

draft,

email,

read.

Once you get this, understand it and implement it into your system, you will find you quickly start moving forward on many of those projects that have come to a complete standstill.

I am guilty of trying too hard sometimes to keep my projects list as short as possible. But the reality is life is not quite as simple as that. It is perfectly possible to create a project in the morning and complete it later in the day. Likewise a project that appears to be easy, can often still be around six months later. I would recommend you don’t worry too much about how long your project lists are, but make sure your individual tasks are correctly labeled and start with a verb that inspires you to complete it. After all If you are following the GTD principles, projects are placeholders for a weekly review anyway. It is your next actions that move you forward towards completion.

So as 2016 draws to an end and the new year beckons, take some time to look at the way you use verbs in your tasks and see if you can improve them. Make them more inspiring, more clear and watch your productivity soar.

Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century

Organising Your Life [PART 7] The Review

This is part 7 of a series of posts I am doing on getting yourself organised and being able to take control of your life. You can read the first six parts here:


Part 1 - Organising Your Life
Part 2 - Choosing the best tool
Part 3 - Collecting everything

Part 4 - Processing your inbox

Part 5 - contexts, tagging and labels 

Part 6 - Setting up a project

In the previous six posts on getting yourself organised, I have written about setting up your system as well as collecting all the routine tasks you have to do each day / week / month and putting them into your system. I have also covered creating your contexts to help you better decide what to do, when and where. and last time I showed you how to set up a simple project.

In part 7 I want to go through the cornerstone of any system and that is the review.

However well organised you are, and whatever system you use to keep yourself on top of all your commitments, none of it is of any use to you if you don't get things done. This is one of the reasons you need to keep your system as simple as you can. The purpose of developing a simple, trusted system is so that you can get more work done and spend less time worrying about what you have forgotten to do. Your system should take the worry away and leave you to decide what to work on. 

This is where review comes in. The original GTD book recommends you do a complete review of all your projects and commitments every week and I too would strongly recommend this. However, I also believe you need to do a daily 'mini' review to help you decide what you should be working on that day. I find that the daily review is the key to ensuring that I don't miss anything and that I am working on the things that I need to be working on in order to remain stress free and confident that I am on top of everything. 

The daily review, unlike the weekly review, need not involve reviewing all your projects and lists. It need only involve reviewing the projects and lists that are the most important / urgent at the time, as well as making sure that you have everything down and your inbox (s) are fully processed. 

Here's how I recommend you do your reviews:

The Weekly Review
The weekly review is the cornerstone of your whole system. Without a weekly review, things are going to get lost and forgotten. Commitments are going to be missed and the goal of getting yourself organised is going to fall apart. Here's how to do a proper weekly review.

  1. Go through your inbox(s), notes, papers and anywhere else you may have written down commitments and ideas and make sure they are processed and in your system. 
  2. Go through all your projects and make sure there is at least one task attached to each project. If there is no task, then either decide what is the next task or complete the project. 
  3. Add any notes and links to tasks and commitments you have collected during the week that will help you to do the task / commitment more efficiently and quickly later. 
  4. Review your calendar from the previous week and make sure that any notes and other stuff have been collected from your appointments and meetings.
  5. Review your calendar for the coming week and decide which days are going to be the quietest days for doing your tasks. For days that are going to be busy or that you are going to be away on a business trip make sure you do not have too many tasks assigned. Trust me on this one, when you know you are going to have a busy day of meetings and travel you are not going to get much done. 
  6. Assign due dates to the important tasks that must be done the following week. While this is not a true GTD recommendation, I have found that by assigning a due date to the most important things I want to do the following week I have a better chance of getting them done. 

And that about it for the weekly review. I've been doing a weekly review since 2009 and can get it done in about forty minutes, When I first began doing weekly reviews it took me nearly ninety minutes, but over time I have managed to streamline the process and my decision making has become much better. Yours will too.

When to do the weekly review.
Most recommendations suggest a weekly review should be done on a Friday afternoon. And perhaps for most people, this would work very well. For me I find I am not in the mood to do a proper weekly review on a Friday afternoon and prefer a Sunday evening. By doing my weekly review on a Sunday evening I can prepare myself better for the week ahead. It gets me thinking about the week ahead and puts me in a better frame of mind for the challenges of the week. The important thing is that you have about an hour of uninterrupted time in order to do a review properly and with enough focus so that you do not miss anything. 

The Daily Review
This is a streamlined version of the weekly review. Here you only need to review your current, important projects and make sure that the stuff you have collected that day has been processed. Here's what I recommend you do:

  1. Review and process your inbox (s) 
  2. Review your current projects and make sure you have checked off any tasks you have completed. Make sure also that the tasks you assigned due dates to are still valid and if needs be change them (weeks can change dramatically very quickly)
  3. Look at the tasks you have assigned for the next day and decide whether or not you will still be able to realistically do them the next day. If not, reassign the tasks to another day.
  4. Check your calendar for the next day and make sure you have everything you need ready and prepared for the meetings / appointments you have. 
  5. Confirm any appointments  - this one has been such a life saver for me. Not everyone is as organised as you and many times people have forgotten they have appointments with you. A quick confirmation sorts this out perfectly. 

When to do a daily review
This is entirely up to you. Either do it the night before, which is something I do. A daily review takes about fifteen minutes, so I like to do it before I go to bed. This way I find my mind is empty and I feel ready for the next day. I sleep better because of this. However, some people prefer to do their daily review in the morning and I can see how this works for them. The choice is entirely up to you. Try experimenting to see which one works best for you. 

The review is the cord that ties your system together and makes sure that you don't miss anything. Doing a weekly and daily review really does put you in charge of your life because you are making decisions about how you are going to spend your days. It gives you that mental boost of feeling that you are in complete control, and for me that feeling is why I love having my life in order and being organised. 

Good luck and remember to stay productive! 

Organising Your Life [Part 3] - Collecting Everything

This is part 3 of s series of posts designed to help anyone get themselves organised in 2015. 

In Part 1 we looked at collecting together all the routine tasks you have in your life, both for work and for your home life. In Part 2, I introduced you to the brilliant app, Todoist, which can form the 'control centre' for your new organised life and today, in part 3 we are going to look at 'collecting' tasks, commitments and anything else on your mind. 

 

Sample of a Todoist inbox

Sample of a Todoist inbox

In David Allen's Getting Things Done book, David Allen describes the process of "collecting" tasks as "capturing" and I really like that term. Basically, what you are doing is 'capturing' every commitment, idea, task or to-do that crosses your mind. The trick is to collect or capture those things into a trusted place. This can either be a piece of paper which is placed into a physical inbox or a digital inbox, like what you find in Todoist. It is really entirely up to you. But you need to choose a system of capturing or collecting everything that comes your way each and every day, and you need to be able to trust that system 100%.

Over the years, I've used a physical inbox which gradually moved more and more towards a digital inbox as cell phones became smart phones and with the introduction of tablets. Today, I am 100% digital with my inbox. I still take notes in meetings with an old fashioned pen and paper, but once the meeting is over, I take a quick scan of my written notes and send the scan to my inbox. Later, when I have more time, I can 'process' my inbox and pull out any commitments or tasks I have that came from that meeting. ,

Most of the 'stuff' that you will want to enter into your inbox will be digital in it's form these days. Emails for example can be collected either in an email folder, or you can forward the email to your digital inbox - most digitial task managers will allow you to do this. 

I should point out that there are some exceptions to this. For example, if you receive an email that requires a quick reply, then go ahead and just reply. There's no need to send it to your inbox. However, if you receive an email that requires a bit of research or further information, then send it over to your inbox. If you prefer a physical inbox, then you can write a quick note on a scrap piece of paper and put that into your physical inbox. 

A NOTE OF CAUTION:
If you decide to use a physical inbox, then, as I mentioned in Part 1, trying to separate your personal life and your work life is not going to work. I find having one inbox is important, because when it comes to processing you inbox, it is important to have all your commitments, ideas and tasks in one place. Having them in two places runs the risk of you not really knowing what you have to do at any particular location. That is why these days it is far better to use a digital inbox that can be taken with you everywhere on your phone or your tablet.  

The key is to get into the habit of collecting every idea, commitment, task or errand into your inbox. In my experience this takes time to become a habit and you will find that sometimes you think you will remember to do something and not put it into your inbox. You have probably experienced that awful moment when you realise that that fantastic idea has gone and you cannot remember it. Write it down! Once it is in your inbox you know you will not forget it. 

HOMEWORK
This week make a decision on what systen you want to use. Digital or analogue. Then get into the habit of capturing / collecting everything. All you have to do is to begin forming the habit of collecting. Next week, I will go through what you need to do to process your inbox. 

So, till next time - Stay productive! 

On Productivity

Maintenance & Advancement

When it comes to productivity and the need to keep moving forward with both your work and your life there are basically two parts to the process. The first is what I call "maintenance tasks" and the second is "advancement tasks". 

Let us look at "maintenance tasks" first. 

Maintenance tasks are tasks that you need to do to keep your work and your life at the same level. This could be something as simple as checking your email every morning, writing up the weekly sales report or simply going to the gym. All these tasks are what you do, just keep yourself in one spot. They could easily be called housekeeping tasks. They don't improve your life or necessarily take you to new places. They just keep you on a even kiel. 

Advancements tasks are those tasks that are designed to move you forward. For example they could be something like preparing for a marathon. This is a task that you want to do to improve your life in some way or format. So preparing the training programme, buying the right clothing and shoes, entering the marathon you want to enter and doing the long 20 mile runs on a Sunday morning, they all fall under the title of advancement. Likewise, at work planning your next promotion would also come under the advancement task list as this obviously takes your life further forward. Unlike the "maintenance" part of your work, where you do just enough to maintain your current level, Advancement is where you more forward with your life and your work. 

The first steps on getting organised with the "Maintenance" and "Advancement" is to figure out what tasks you do everyday that you do just to maintain the current position in your life.  This could be something as simple as washing the dishes before you go to bed, or checking your email when you arrive at work. Once you have created this list it is time to move on to the areas you want to improve in your life and to things that you would like to achieve, These form part of the all important "advancement" list. 

Covey-Matrix-Time-Management-4-Quadrants1.png

A little like what Stephen Covey described in the Time Matrix, in his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", there are certain areas of your life that are "important" but not "urgent" If you can identify these tasks then you have probably identified your advancement tasks. However, when starting this set up, it is easier to begin with the tasks that you have to do just to maintain your life at the level it is. 

Let's look at some samples of "Maintenance Tasks":

Checking email
grocery shopping
regular team meetings
Preparing for your regular work
Washing your car / dog / cat / windows etc.
Filling your car up with petrol
Preparing your work bag for the next day
Emailing a weekly report to your boss / colleagues
Your regular, daily work
Cleaning your house / apartment / flat
Cutting the lawn
Regular exercise
Taking the dog for a walk

Now, some examples of "Advancement Tasks"

Preparing for a marathon
Planning your next holiday
Working out what you have to do to get a promotion
Volunteering to do the next team presentation
Preparing for the presentation
Buying a new house / car / boat etc.
Writing a book [and the preparation involved]
Starting and writing a blog
Looking for a new job / career

The lists are endless, and as everybody has different thoughts and ideas about what they want to achieve in life this list is obviously going to change for each individual person. 

Once you have created your two lists, then the goal is to make sure that something from your "advancement list" is on your daily todo list every day. This may seem simple in theory, but when you are hit with a very busy day at work, your daughter has been sent home from school sick, and your dog needs to go to the vet because he also is sick, it is going to be pretty difficult to do an "non-urgent but important" task. That is why you need to have a good mixture of 'easy' and 'difficult' tasks in your "Advancement" list.