Category Archives: Getting Things Done

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