Category Archives: Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done QA

How to Overcome Your Procrastination Problem

Dear Justin,

I’m the master procrastinator. I only pride myself on this to cover up the frustration I have with myself. I have more on my plate and to-do list then I could ever accomplish and I find myself not only failing to finish things, but not even starting them in the first place. I have lists for everything but I rarely cross anything off these lists.

Help!
The Master

Dear Master,

You, my friend, are suffering from an age-old problem. The truth is, we’ve all felt this way. We have lots of items on a list, and when we finally get some time to “get things done,” we pull up the list and feel so overwhelmed we do almost none of it. For most people, the main thing they experience as a result of their to-do list is fatigue. Let me give you some ideas of how to remedy this at work and at home.

Plan to Procrastinate

Due to the sheer number of tasks that are likely on your list, there are some items I’m going to encourage you to procrastinate. Yes, that’s right. But I won’t call it procrastination—I’ll call it incubating. Procrastination is not doing something and then feeling bad about it. Incubation, on the other hand, is not doing something and feeling good about it.

There are a lot of items on your list you may want to accomplish at some point but you aren’t committed to any immediate actions or timelines. You should put these items on a separate list. In Getting Things Done®, we call this a “Someday/Maybe” list. You can call it whatever you want. But if you are going to decide not to decide about some items, you need to have a “decide not to decide” list or folder where these things reside. I would look at them about once a month to see if you are in a place to take action or have the mental capacity to take them on. If you aren’t or don’t, then your mind can let them go without you losing track of them. Saying “no” for now, doesn’t mean saying “no” forever.

Unclear Lists

Just because you have to-do lists, doesn’t mean you won’t procrastinate—as your question suggests. In my experience, the reason most people’s to-do lists are ineffective is because they are unclear. Therefore, it’s time to rethink your to-do list. In my last article, I shared some counterintuitive, but very efficient, ways to organize lots of actions. Let me explain.

If you look at most people’s to-do lists, they say things like: “Paint wall,” “Mom birthday,” “Oil,” “offsite,” “Cat Video Conference.” It’s great we’ve identified something we need to give time and attention to, but the meaning is muddied so our mental gears spin when we look at our lists. Instead of doing, we have to figure out what to do. It’s the difference between writing “Off-site” and writing “Email meeting invite to marketing team to brainstorm plans for 2018 Off-site.”

Remember this: everything on your to-do list is either attracting you or repulsing you psychologically; there’s no neutral territory. You’re either looking at something and saying, “Awesome! When can I mark this off?” Or, you’re saying, “Yuck! I don’t even want to think about this because there is so much involved it’s overwhelming.”

When you have a whole to-do list of these unclear, overwhelming tasks, you have a tendency to look at them again and again. Scientists have proven the reality of the term “decision fatigue.” The idea is that the more decisions we have to make each day, the more we diminish our brain’s ability to make decisions. This ultimately results in bad decision-making and a drained psychological fuel tank.

The solution is to only decide on stuff once. Meaning when you put an action item on a list, you clearly identify what the next action is—the very next physical, visible activity you need to take to move things forward. Your to-do list should be only next actions so that when you decide to do one of those actions, you can be confident it’s the right thing to be doing.

So, “Paint wall” becomes “Chat with my wife about the paint color for Ethan’s room.” “Mom’s birthday” becomes “Text my siblings to see what they want to do for Mom’s 70th birthday” and “Oil” becomes “Google search for oil mechanics near my house.”

Recently, a GTD® training participant asked, “But why be so clear? It’s not like I need to hand my to-do list to a stranger who needs to decipher the next steps.” While that may be true, I asked him how much time he wasted deciphering and remembering what really needed to happen next rather than actually getting things done. He quickly agreed he only wanted to make those decisions once. Also, if you don’t capture the details of the next action, you are likely carrying them around in your head. And as David Allen likes to say, “Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.”

Good luck,
Justin

Getting Things Done QA

Help! I Have Too Many Meetings to Get Things Done

We’re excited to welcome David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, as a contributor to The Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear David,

I can’t help but realize that I never get any of my long-term stuff accomplished. I spend so much of my time in the weeds, trying to put out fires and get through my daily tasks, that I rarely think about, let alone find time to accomplish, the goals, vision, and purposes I want for my life. How in the world will I ever really achieve what matters most to me when all that seems to have my attention is email and meetings?

Sincerely,
Floundering

Dear Floundering,

Welcome to a very big club! Most everyone I know, especially those involved in a busy, professional world, easily fall victim to the “latest and loudest”—those things that are yanking our chain and hijacking our attention. Email and meetings are two especially prevalent culprits in this regard.

Now, email and meetings are extremely important tools for most of us, and can be highly effective for getting things done productively and efficiently—let’s not “shoot the media.” But, what’s the real problem? There are at least two:

1. The purpose of emails and meetings is often unclear—maybe even unnecessary.
2. You have not made your higher-horizon commitments adequately operational, which promotes getting sucked in to #1.

Problem #1 is pervasive, for sure. Emails are often spewed out (especially if you’re in the cc: group) to “keep everyone in the loop” when in fact, the reason is due to a lack of clarity around who’s really in charge, who really needs to know, and when action should take place. The same applies to meetings. Too often, groups of people are brought together to address something that could have been handled if responsibilities and their ownership were clear. Bad meetings lead to bad emails, which lead to bad meetings, ad nauseam. (This is a topic for another newsletter, for sure.)

Problem #2 is the real culprit, and there are multiple aspects of this issue. First of all, do you have a clearly articulated inventory of your goals, vision, and purposes? If not, that’s your first job. If you haven’t yet, get pen and paper or your computer and write out your best guess at your life purpose. Then, craft an ideal scenario (in several paragraphs) about what future “wild success” would look, sound, and feel like for you. Finish by identifying the key things you would need to accomplish in the next year or two to make that happen.

Once that’s done (and perhaps you’ve done that already), the key question to ask and answer for yourself is, “What’s the next action to make any or all of that happen?” If you had nothing else to do in your life right now but take a very specific, visible, physical action toward your desired outcome(s), what would that action be? Sending an email? Conducting a web search? Holding a conversation with a partner? What?

See, long-term for most people means, “Someday, I might really want . . . ” Whereas a really committed-to outcome is a now thing. It’s a goal you do something about now that just might take longer than some other things to be completed.

Without those specifically defined next actions, you will fall prey to all the distractions of your everyday work and life. That’s because it’s easier to let these daily agenda items give you a structure and stability and a short-term sense of productivity (as sub-optimal as it is), versus having to really think and decide what you actually need to do to make your vision a reality.

Once you are clear about where you really want to go, and precisely the next action(s) you need to take to get there, it becomes much easier to assess the value of the bright baubles in your world that can be so distracting. That doesn’t mean you can avoid meetings and email. You’ll just have a better handle on how much time and energy to give them, and trust that you’re still moving the needle for yourself in the right direction.

I can’t help but also suggest that one of the greatest obstacles to what I have suggested above is the lack of capturing, clarifying, and organizing all the things that have your attention now—little or big, personal or professional. This creates a mental backlog, which in turn makes you feel overwhelmed. This, then, greatly reduces your inspiration and ability to reflect on the relationship between your bigger game and your day-to-day realities. Once you implement the GTD® methodology, it is a lot easier to integrate and navigate all of those commitments.

Best of luck in reaching your big-picture goals.
David

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Getting Things Done QA

Tips for the Forgetful

Dear Justin,

I can’t be the only one who makes trips to the grocery store only to kick myself when I get home because I forgot half of the items I needed. This same problem happens at work, too. I’ll have important items to discuss with my boss and forget to bring them up during my hour-long one-on-one meeting. Why can’t I seem to remember the important stuff in the moment that it matters? I chalk it up to being forgetful, but there’s got to be a solution. Please help.

Signed,
Forgetful

Dear Forgetful,

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This sort of thing used to happen to me all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to the grocery store, walked in the front door, literally stopped in my tracks and thought, “Why am I here?” It’s not only unproductive, it’s frustrating. Let me share two things that I’ve found contribute to this problem as well as a pretty counterintuitive solution.

1. You haven’t written the items down.
Perhaps the most important advice I could give you is that keeping track of stuff in your head is the last place you should keep track of it. David Allen likes to say, “There’s usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.” So, that’s the first hoop to jump through. Be sure that when an errand comes to mind or someone asks you to pick something up, write it down or record it some place you look at regularly. I won’t get into too much detail here, but you can read more about it in my last article.

2. The way you organize your to-dos makes it hard for you to see that errand in the right moment and at the right place. The way people typically organize to-dos and tasks is either in one big list or by topic. The problem with the first approach is that I’m guessing you don’t just have 25 to-dos. If you did, then one list would work. Rather, I’m guessing you have 100 to 150 to-dos in your personal and professional life—maybe more. So, when it’s time to get things done, you end up spending more time sifting through the massive list to figure out which task to do in the moment considering your location.

With the second approach of organizing by topic/project, we run into the issue of context and resources. What I mean by this is: if you’re jumping into your car and the only work you could reasonably do is to make a few phone calls, you’d have to sift through all your different topic/project lists to see what calls you could make considering how much time you have. We’ve found that those who are the best at getting things done don’t organize in one big list or by topic/project, instead they organize by context.

Here’s the principle: make it much easier for you to see tasks you need to accomplish. Organize them not by project, or even a running list of to-dos, but rather by the location you need to be in, or the resource you need to be connected to, in order to complete the action. For example, have a list of calls to make. That way, the moment you jump into your car and have a few minutes to make some important phone calls, you can glance at this list and know exactly what you can accomplish in the time you have available. A few of my own lists that fit this structure are @Home, @Office, Errands, Calls, @Christina (my wife), @Work computer. Other helpful lists might be things like @Grocery store, Anywhere, @Airplane, Offline.

What this system allows you to do is get the right things done in the right place with the time you have available. You don’t have to waste time recalling why you’re on that specific errand or combing through to-do lists to find that item you wanted to chat with your partner about. Instead, when you jump in your car to head to the store (or when you arrive at the store), you can take 15 seconds to review your “errands” list to make sure you don’t miss anything. When you sit down with your boss for your weekly 1:1, you can open your agenda list (@Manager) that has all the items you specifically want to discuss with her.

Now, you might be thinking: “Justin, what if I forget to look at my list?” I knew you’d ask that, because I had the same question. Many apps now use geolocation technology, a great feature that solves this problem. This allows your phone to notice your location and whenever you get within a certain radius of your preferred store, for example, it will notify you of your errands list.

The approach of organizing by context was very counterintuitive for me, but once I tried it out with both feet in, my productivity was never the same; I’m convinced I’ll never go back to organizing by project, topic, or one big list.

When you organize by context or resource, your focus is on the actions you could take, not on sorting and sifting . . . and that’s really the point of getting things done.

Good luck,
Justin

Getting Things Done QA

Help! I’m Buried By My Inbox

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 Steve,

Can you help me better understand how, and more particularly when, I should clarify new items that come into my email inbox? It seems like it would take less time to scan my emails for the most important ones I need to take care of, and leave the less important issues for later. I’d appreciate any advice you could offer.

Sincerely,
Stuck in Clarify

Dear Stuck,

Recently, I was at a session where we discussed the number of emails currently in our respective inboxes. The first person to respond had 151 emails. Before she even finished saying, “One-hundred-and-fifty-one,” the person to her left cut her off with, “Amateur!” As it turned out, he was sitting on 5,000!

As we dug in further, we found that much of that backlog was a result of how he interacted with those emails—and surprisingly little to do with the raw number of email he received. And he’s not alone. Many of our GTD® participants own up to having email inboxes that range from full to overflowing. To shed some light on this common challenge, I’ll refer to the CCORE skills from Getting Things Done. CCORE is an acronym from GTD Training that stands for Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. Let’s bring some clarification to Clarify.

The overarching principle behind Clarify is to be familiar with what inputs are coming your way and, more importantly, what type and amount of effort they require of you. To do this effectively, you have to do some thinking and make some decisions regarding those items before taking action. While it may seem like a nuisance to add in this thinking and decision time to your email work, realize that you can either think and decide when things show up, or when they blow up. Of the two options, the preferred choice seems pretty obvious, right? So why, would anyone choose the latter of the two options? No one says, “Let’s see . . . I prefer to only deal with things once they’ve either fallen through the cracks or blown up into a crisis.” But unfortunately, it’s rarely framed this way. Usually, the dilemma comes packaged in an efficiency wrapper: “Why spend all that time ‘thinking’ about getting things done when I could actually just get things done?” People who succumb to this half-truth spend a lot of time engaged in emergency scanning.

Emergency scanning is the process of looking through your inbox for any high-priority emails and responding to those while leaving the others for later. And it’s not that this practice is necessarily evil. It’s great when you’ve just stepped out of an all-day meeting and have a few minutes to figure out if anything urgent requires your attention, or if the person you’ve been waiting to hear from has responded. The problem is when emergency scanning becomes the only way you clarify. Working in this mode ensures that you address only the high-priority items while creating a healthy backlog of less-urgent emails that grow to fill the available space (Parkinson’s fourth law of email). Each of these backlogged emails require multiple touches to re-clarify and re-figure out what needs to be done about it so by saving them for later, you are not getting rid of them. Rather, you are duplicating the amount of work it takes to read them, clarify them, and take any necessary actions.

However, if you take the time to Clarify on your first read—i.e. make decisions about what each email means to you and how you’ll respond—you can either get the task done immediately, file it away for important use later, or add it to a project with the next action clearly identified. Most importantly, you can move on from that email, release its hold on your mental to-do list, and start getting work done.

Clarifying once, and only once, when things show up in our inbox not only creates a proactive bond between you and your stuff, it’s also an efficient way to evaluate your workload and prioritize your commitments. Now, to make it a little easier, you may find it’s useful to clarify with your email in off-line mode. That way, you won’t feel tempted to go back to the top every time a new message makes it’s Pavlovian entrance (bing!).

If you find you have a backlog only a mother could love, I suggest something a little different. Pick a date in the past (two weeks or older works well), and move all those emails out of your inbox and into a folder titled “to be clarified.” This way, you’ll still have them (for those of you who’ve grown attached), and you can chip away at them over time as you maintain a more healthy load.

In one organization, teams that engaged their GTD skills reported an average of thirty minutes of “extra” time they hadn’t enjoyed previously. And where did the majority of that new time come from? A good chunk came from not having to touch their emails multiple times before taking action on them.

For those just beginning, it might take you a little longer to grow accustomed to the new discipline of clarifying. But over time, you’ll find clarifying becomes easier and quicker. And, the biggest benefit you’ll find is the direct link between how clear your next actions are and your ability to take action.

Best of luck,
Steve

Getting Things Done QA

How to Say “No” and Reclaim Your Career

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 Emily,

How do you say “no” to requests and projects that come across your desk? I want to be helpful and do everything that’s asked of me, but if I said “yes” to every request I received, I wouldn’t actually get to my top priorities and that would reflect poorly on my performance. How do I balance urgent requests with long-standing responsibilities?

Signed,
People Pleaser

Dear Pleaser,

I started my life as a people-pleaser. I had a strong sense of perfectionism and I wanted to be liked. Put the two together, and I would do just about anything to keep from letting someone down. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, ever.

These motivations served me well in my career for many years. I developed a reputation as someone who could be counted on, someone who produced results. But then, several years into my career, I had an important realization. My career wasn’t mine any more. My career belonged to all the other people who made requests of me. I was doing what they wanted or needed me to do, what they asked of me, rather than doing what I wanted or needed to do.

So, I learned to say “no” and I learned to disappoint people. Because, if you never disappoint someone, it means you aren’t living your life, you are living the life other people want you to live. Getting Things Done® provides a framework for balancing all of the inputs in your life—those generated by others (requests they make of you) and those generated by you (things you want to do). Here are three ideas that have been helpful for me.

Survey all your options.
David Allen says it this way, “You can only feel good about what you are not doing if you know what you are not doing.” Capturing all your inputs, both those that come from others (i.e. requests people make of you) and those that come from yourself (i.e. ideas and thoughts you have) is the key to making sure you know what you are not doing. Until you have a clear picture of everything you could be doing, it is impossible to make a good choice about what you should be doing.

Think of it this way: if you are sitting at your desk and an urgent email request comes in from a coworker, your natural inclination will be to see it and evaluate its importance in a vacuum. Is it important? Yes, so I will do it right now. But, if you have captured (and subsequently organized) all of your inputs, you can look at that email coming in and say, “Why, yes, this is important but when I compare it to the other things on my list, it is not as important.”

Getting a clear, documented (i.e. written down) picture of all of your inputs is the first step in creating the space you need to choose what to do rather than simply react to what is in front of you. Just make sure you write everything down—including the projects and tasks most important to you. Your “to-do” list has to include all the things YOU want to do; not simply what OTHERS want you to do.

Make “no” a decision rather than a delay.
For most of us, there is simply no way to do everything everyone wants of us. We have to set boundaries and say “no” to some things. To minimize the impact on others of saying “no,” it is best to say “no” quickly and clearly.

  • Quickly: When a request comes in, it should take only a couple of minutes to read and evaluate. If you truly have a clear picture of all your choices, you can easily place this new request in the context of those choices and decide whether you can take it on or not. That decision can be made quickly. Don’t procrastinate saying “no.” Doing so increases the pressure on you to say “yes” and leaves the other person with less time to get the help he or she needs from other sources.
  • Clearly: Here I will borrow from Yoda: “Do or do not; there is no try.” With the best of intentions, I sometimes find myself saying to someone, “I have a lot on my plate right now but I will try to get this done for you.” This response helps no one. It puts pressure on me because I have made a commitment I know deep down I can’t keep. On other side, the person making the request hears this response as a “Yes, Emily will do this.” Think of saying “no” like ripping the Band-Aid off: there is far less pain if you do it quickly and clearly.

Understand the true impact of saying “yes.”
Most of the time, we consider only the impact of saying “no.” Keisha asks me for help. If I say “no” that will put her in a bind. This makes me feel bad and tempts me to say “yes.”

But what is the impact of saying “yes”? This might include:

  • Less time and energy for more important projects I want to focus on.
  • A missed opportunity for someone else on the team to develop and grow. When I say “yes” to something, it means someone else doesn’t get the chance to say “yes” to it. There might be others on the team or in the organization who could handle this work or who would like the opportunity to step up and take on this type of project.
  • Failure to keep commitments to others. I say “yes” to Keisha and the impact is I have to tell my daughter I won’t make it to her soccer game after all.

Saying “yes” to people is important. Helping, mentoring, and teaming are all hugely valuable uses of our time. The key is to make sure we make conscious choices about how to use (or not use) our time so we are controlling our choices not ceding those choices to others.

Best of luck in using your new skills,
Emily

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

Getting Things Done QA

How to Manage it All

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 be highlighting the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear David,

What is the best way to manage both work responsibilities and personal responsibilities? So much is required of me at the office that I feel like I put all my energy and attention into getting work done only to arrive home at the end of the day with little gas left in the tank to give to my family. In reality, they are my bigger priority, but receive less of my time and attention because I just can’t seem to manage it all. Any advice?

Sincerely,
Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

Thanks for a very timely question! We just finished a major research study on this very topic. And the news is good! We discovered a relatively small number of changes you can make that will increase your productivity and reduce your stress—at both work and home.

We began by having 1,594 people rate their employees and peers from highest to lowest performer on a scale from 1 to 10, where the 10’s are the best. Then we asked two questions:

How much more valuable is a 10 than an average employee or teammate? The answer was, “Two to three times more valuable.” The 10’s account for more than half the work done in a team or department.
How do the 10’s do it? The answer was, “They work both harder and smarter, but mostly smarter.” In fact, an overwhelming number of their managers and peers said that the 10’s work habits actually reduce their stress.
We also collected thousands of descriptions of what 10’s do to be successful, and looked for the most common phrases. Here is what we found.

Communication Practices

• Top Performers: “They ask for help”, “Not afraid to ask questions”, “Know who to go to”, “Know when to ask for”
• Average Performers: “Lack of communication”, “Slow to respond”, “They don’t listen”, “They complain about”
Productivity Practices

• Top Performers: “They are organized”, “Good time management”, “Attention to detail”, “Very well organized”, “Keep track of what needs to be done” “Stay on top of their work”
• Average Performers: “Lack of attention”, “Lack of focus”, “Don’t follow through”, “Too busy”, “They are late”, “They are disorganized”, “Don’t meet deadlines”, “Not on task”

The communication practices will be familiar to those of you who’ve read Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, or Change Anything. However, the productivity practices comprise a wholly different set of skills.

For the last two years, we’ve been studying ways to improve personal productivity practices. Our guide has been David Allen, the author of the bestseller, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. So, we did a second study that put these practices to the test.

We began by using David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD®) principles to build an assessment that measures personal productivity practices. Next, we had 2,072 managers and employees complete the assessment, and tested how well it predicted their productivity and stress.

I need to get a bit technical to describe what we found: We used three methods to measure the impact GTD practices had.

1. A step-wise multiple regression analysis showed that the GTD practices improves Performance (R = .79) and reduces Stress (R = .78). These high “R values” mean that using these practices determine more than 60 percent of the difference between high and low performance and high and low stress.

2. T-Tests showed that people with high GTD scores had 68 percent higher performance and experienced less than half the stress of people with low GTD scores.

3. Item analyses showed the remarkable impacts GTD practices have. Here are a few of the items that grabbed our attention:

  • People with high GTD scores are 55 times less likely to say, “I start projects that never get finished, even when others are relying on me.”
  • They are 13 times less likely to say, “I’m not truly present at home, because I’m thinking about work and wondering if there are other things I should be worrying about.”
  • They are 18 times less likely to say, “I often feel overwhelmed. I start to think of tasks looming over me and that are about to crash.”
  • It was exciting to see the impact of David Allen’s five GTD practices. Their impact on both Performance and Stress are off the charts.

Three ideas for helping you at work and at home

I can’t teach you the entire GTD approach. For that, I recommend reading the book or taking our new Getting Things Done Training program. But I can give you a few big ideas that are proven winners.

1. Capture everything that comes in and out of your head. My favorite David Allen quote is, “Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.” Use a small number of capture tools, instead of relying on your memory. I use three simple tools: a pad of Post-It Notes, my email inbox, and a pad of lined paper. Whenever I have an idea, get an assignment, or remember a to-do, I capture it using one of these three tools. Having a reliable way of catching everything coming at me gives me peace of mind that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

2. Clarify everything in your in box, from top to bottom. Go through all of your capture tools at least once every day or two, and determine a next action for each item. Personally, I do this at the end of every workday. I go through the items in order, deciding what needs to be done with each one. This means I never use my email or notes as storage bins. I get my inboxes to zero before I quit for the day. Trust me, it feels like a little victory every time I do this.

3. Take stock once a week. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to catch up, get current, and align with your priorities. I spend an hour every Sunday night reviewing my past week, and planning my next. This is when I make sure my actions line up with my priorities, purpose, and values. This hour does more for me than any yoga method, meditation, or cocktail. It leaves me feeling renewed, energized, and confident that I’m on track.

Try these three practices. They take some discipline, but produce immediate payoffs.

Best of luck,
David