Getting Things Done QA

Is Your To-Do List Keeping You Up at Night?

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Justin,

The worst feeling is waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, worried I’ve let someone down or dropped the ball. Unfortunately, this happens far too often to me. I’m pretty good at managing my time, but the demands of work and family are so intense that the fear of dropping the ball keeps me up at night. How can I better manage that stress and ensure I’m really getting it all done?

Sincerely,
Sleepless and Stressed

Dear Sleepless,

I couldn’t agree more. There are few things more frustrating than recalling unfinished tasks when you’re in no position to resolve them—like when you’re lying in bed after a long day. What’s more, these recollections are often soon forgotten again so we fail to act on them when we’re in the position to do so. For example, the other day it occurred to me to pick up something at the store—while I was in the shower.

Let me provide a little background on why this happens as well as simple steps you can take to clear your mind and alleviate stress over all your to-dos.

In the 1920s, a Soviet psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik noticed an interesting phenomenon as she ate breakfast at a local café in Berlin. She found that waiters could remember vast amounts of information for unpaid orders, but very little about orders that were paid and closed. She and her colleagues studied this further and discovered what came to be called the Zeigarnik Effect. To summarize their discovery, our brains easily release completed tasks, but when we leave tasks unfinished our brains will not let them go. We are literally wired to get things done, and we can’t rest easy until we do.

Now, this can be stressful if you have even five to ten unfinished commitments in your life, but the typical person is beholden to dozens if not hundreds of tasks on any given week, many of which don’t get completed. As you can imagine, such mountains of uncompleted to-dos cause the mind to constantly whisper, “Don’t forget to . . . ,” or, “Hey, you still need to . . . ,” or, “You haven’t taken care of . . . ” This buzz in our heads saps our focus and prevents us from being present with the people and moments we care about most. Unfinished commitments, in other words, own a piece of us. And this involuntary self-nagging over all we HAVEN’T done results in anxiety. David Allen says, “Much of the stress people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”

Case in point, I bet that as you’ve been reading this, you’ve thought about some task or commitment you need to take care of. And yet, you’ve taken no steps to actually move it forward. This demonstrates how we waste time and mental energy when we’re preoccupied with life’s “open loops.”

Sweep Your Mind

One simple way to begin decluttering your mind is to perform a mind sweep. Clearing the mind is crucial to cultivating a creative and unworried mental space. As David Allen says, “The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” I recommend committing this truism to memory.

Here’s how to start. Grab some paper and a pen and set a timer for 5 minutes. During that 5 minutes, write down everything that’s pulling at your attention, any “should” or “ought to” items in your work or personal life. These might be errands you need to run, calls you need to make, emails you’ve been meaning to send, projects you want to start or finish. Don’t worry about quality, go for quantity; write down as many items as you can. Most people scratch down a list of 20-30 items, but this really only touches the surface. There is so much more we hold in our heads.

At any rate, review what you’ve written down. How do you feel about those ought-tos and to-dos now that they’re on paper? You probably feel a little better. You may have a sense of greater control or feel a little less stressed. Why? Did anything about those items change? Did you complete the tasks? No. You merely shifted how you engage with all that stuff. You are no longer juggling mental debris.

Capture Things in Buckets

Mind sweeps can empower you and enrich your life, especially when done daily. A clear mind is able to do what it does best—originate and consider ideas. As you develop the habit of sweeping your mind, continually write down new items that land on your agenda and fresh ideas that occur to you. And write them where they’re easily accessible. David Allen carries a notepad in his wallet. I like to send myself a quick email. You might keep a pad of paper by your bed or on your desk at work. You might use a note-taking app on your phone or tablet. These tools serve as buckets for capturing ideas. Using them keeps your mind open and free, so you can continually receive ideas and better live up to your ongoing commitments. But be sure to limit the number of tools you use. The fewer tools you use, the fewer buckets to empty each day. When people tell me they are “dropping balls” or things are “falling through the cracks,” it’s usually because they capture inputs and ideas into too many disparate locations, or buckets. Or, worse, they don’t capture them at all.

Now, knowing how best to execute your commitments and manage the items in your bucket requires another discussion (see future posts on clarifying and organizing your inputs). Until then, this is a good place to start.

In short, your time and mental space is too precious to be preoccupied with what you’re not doing. If you better handle what holds your attention today, you’ll free up more of that rarest of gifts: your undivided attention. Which you can devote to people you cherish and activities that matter.

Best of luck,
Justin

One thought on “Is Your To-Do List Keeping You Up at Night?”

  1. Justin: Thank you for this practical and helpful summation of Step 1, Capture, in the GTD process. I have studied GTD for a couple of years now and have tried to incorporate some of the steps into my life but I find it challenging, particularly the Capture step when David Allen (whom I appreciate greatly) recommends a total Capture of all open loops. Your recommendation of “five minutes” is most helpful and doable. I look forward to future posts related to the GTD process and its implementation. I am also excited that VitalSmarts is launching a GTD training module in cooperation with David Allen. I hope to be able to participate in the training in the future. Best wishes–Chuck

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