Category Archives: Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done QA

Chaos in Quarantine—What Can I Do About My To-Dos?

Dear Justin,

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I am up to my ears in work. I don’t know any other way to say it: I have too much to do, and not enough time. With the quarantine, kids at home, and clients cancelling, I have ten to fifteen new projects on my plate, on top of what I already had. I wish I could declare to-do list bankruptcy and walk away from it all. Is there any way around this?


Dear Bankrupt,

I’m really sorry you’re experiencing this, and I feel for you. I don’t know anyone right now whose to-do list got shorter as a result of current events. Here’s the reality, there is no way “around” this. As the saying goes, “the only way out is through.”

But there is some good news in what I’m about to share. If you follow my suggestions, you’ll know how to get through next time the waves of life come crashing down—and it’s not IF that happens, but WHEN. What we’ve found over the last few decades is this: when it comes to gaining control over your world, it’s less about the amount of work you have or even the hours in the day you have or don’t have; a highly productive life is much more about your habits than anything else. And that means YOU can get through this.

Start by making an inventory of EVERY commitment you’ve made. If you do this one thing, you’ll naturally follow most of my other suggestions. People come to me all the time complaining about how overwhelmed they are. When I ask what’s overwhelming them, they can’t really say. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just this aching feeling, this weight on their shoulders. The problem is this: if you can’t define what’s overwhelming you, you can’t do much about it.

So, grab a piece of paper and take the next fifteen minutes to write down everything that comes to mind when you think about the “weight” and the “ache.” Every task, every to-do, every project, every errand, every phone call, every meeting—you get the idea. Get it all out of your head and in front of your eyes, ASAP. If you do this, a few things will start to happen:

You’ll begin shifting the blame from the lists to yourself. This is a good thing. You need to take ownership of the fact that no one made those commitments for you. You made them.
As you start to see the sheer volume of what YOU have said yes to, the letters “N-O” will start to come to your lips more easily.
Then determine the following for each task:

  • Which will you do by the date you committed?
  • Which will you delegate?
  • Which will you decline (whether commitments to yourself or other people)?
  • Which will you renegotiate, whether when it’s done, how it’s done, or who does it?

Once that’s clear, further clarify each item by asking yourself, “What is the next action I need to take to move forward on this?” Try to identify the smallest next action. Not all of the actions you might need to take, just the next action.

You will never reach the heights of personal efficiency, productivity, and satisfaction if you aren’t having “no” and renegotiation conversations on a regular basis. I’m not saying it’s ok to overcommit when you know you’ll end up renegotiating later. I’m saying that the more you audit your inventory of commitments, the more clear you’ll get on how much work you actually can do. You’ll get better at noticing when you’ve gone over that threshold. In the short run, you might need to go back and turn down or renegotiate commitments. In the long run, you’ll be better up front about accepting or declining requests.

None of us will get through this pandemic without having these conversations and making these adjustments. I’m reminded of a time when my wife went into the hospital unexpectedly for 50 days. At the drop of a hat, I was essentially a single working dad with a three-year-old and a two-year-old. The first night she was gone, after I put my boys to bed, I sat down with my full inventory of personal and work-related projects and I simply said, “Here are my limitations. Here is my time each day. Which of these can I realistically do, which should I decline, and which should I renegotiate?” I then took a few hours to make those decisions and make a plan for executing on them.

Yes, sometimes people will be disappointed, and that’s hard. But that’s a natural consequence of doing what you CAN. It’s a consequence of focus.

Good luck,

Getting Things Done QA

How to Be More Decisive

Dear Justin,

Many tasks I work on involve getting info and answers from colleagues. I’ll initiate the contact and let them know what I need, then move on to my next task. And of course, as soon as I’m immersed in that next task, I’ll hear back from them. Here’s my dilemma: I can’t decide if I should keep working on the second task or switch back to the first, now that I have what I need to complete it. It’s amusing how confounded I can get trying to decide! Any guidance or a rule of thumb that can help me cut through my indecision?


Dear Undecided,

Happy to help. I’m going to give some general thoughts about focus and interruptions, and also address your question about judging priorities. Here are a few truths I’ve come to know and a few tips to put them into practice.

Some Truths

You’ll get more done in less time and do better quality work when you can focus 100 percent on a task. This is true whether you’re writing marketing copy or cooking spaghetti. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, determined through his research that “control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

It’s not in your best interest to switch from one task to another too rapidly. Of course, you’ll work on different tasks throughout the day, but you don’t want to switch between tasks so often that you never settle into real focus. If you do that, you’ll get 10% done with 100% of your stuff, which is another way of saying you’ll finish nothing.

So, expect the unexpected. Plan on surprises. Here’s the challenge: you don’t know when a surprise will come or where it will come from. So you need some habits that enable you to manage those surprises and still get stuff done.

Some Tips

Have a location for “bookmarking” things. If someone drops a note by your office, for example, make sure you have a way to capture or file it without having to completely shift your attention. It may seem very 1980s but having a physical in-tray in your office is a great approach. Let your teammates know that if they need to drop something by, leave it in the tray. Then YOU need to make sure you process the stuff in that tray every twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If not, they’ll stop leaving stuff there and go back to bothering you until you divert your attention. Having an inbox allows you to receive incoming information without disruption. And remember, your email inbox captures things automatically for you. So, it’s ok to close your email app while you focus on that client call. You can’t focus on both, so don’t bother “kind of” reading email during the call.

Keep things clean. You can’t prioritize a disorganized pile of stuff. You might be wondering what this has to do with your question. Here’s the thing: when your coworker’s response comes back, your job is to determine whether you should now complete the related work, go back to what you were doing, or do something else entirely. You can’t make that determination if you don’t have clean edges between all of your tasks, projects, and new inputs. If you have a bunch of half-read emails, piles of sticky notes all over your desk, and now a response from your colleague, how can you determine what the RIGHT thing to do is? This is why people are often “busy but unproductive.” They don’t have clean lists and calendars and office space, so they opt for doing all the new stuff that shows up because the task seems clear. Urgent seems important. But when you keep your email inbox clean and your papers and sticky notes processed, you can determine what’s actually important.

Work in modes. Dedicate time to each of the following three modes of work:

Define work—process inboxes and new inputs.
Do defined work—work from calendars or lists.
Surprises—handle work that shows up unplanned.

Without boundaries around each mode, you’ll spend all of your time attending to surprises—the latest and loudest tasks—instead of key priorities. To ensure important tasks are completed, respect others’ time as they communicate what mode they are working in. And ask them to respect your time in these modes as well. You’ll get less done if you try to do all three of these modes at once.

I hope these tips help you stay focused AND flexible at the same time.

All the best,

Getting Things Done QA

3 Tips to Organize Your Life

Dear Justin,

I have always been a list-maker and over the years this has served me pretty well. I’m getting older and I’m finding that I’m making lists over and over so I end up with multiple lists. They’re on my desk, they’re in my pockets, they’re on my phone. What can I do to either organize my lists or just use one?

Overrun with Lists

View Justin’s response below: