How I Get Things Done

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Over the years, I've experimented with many different techniques for time- and task-management; I've read several books and far too many articles, experimented with virtually every app on the market, and at one stage even embarked on a project to build my own web application to manage my projects. (Sadly, like so many other side projects, it currently languishes in mockup hell, never to be seen again.)

Nowadays, I'm happily using Wunderlist, which does almost everything I need. In conjunction with a few regular routines and practices, right now I'm feeling more productive and organised than ever before. Here's how I do it, 2018 edition.

Lists and lists of lists

The core of my task-management process is taken from David Allen's canonical Getting Things Done book. In it, he advocates maintaining many folders, in which you store the things that need dealing with, including several 'special' folders for particular contexts. I use this same approach within Wunderlist. The special lists include:

  • @home for anything that I will be doing at home;
  • @work for any uncategorised tasks that relate to work (project-specific tasks go in project folders);
  • @chores for mundane tasks—fixing things around the house, mowing the lawn, washing the car, etc.;
  • @errands for anything that requires leaving the house or office—shopping, posting stuff, banking, that sort of thing.

In addition to these special groups, I also have a few repeating tasks that I keep separately in appropriately named groups:

  • @daily for those tasks I want to make sure I do every day—setting an agenda, writing in a journal, mindful meditation, even simple things like remembering to eat a piece of fruit every day;
  • @weekly tasks are a mixture of recurring appointments (meetings with my mentee and my manager) or maintenance of key documents (such as reviewing my personal goals list);
  • @monthly tasks are mostly boring things that I need to remember to do regularly—pay my credit card bills, submit my expenses, or reserve my car parking space.

Everything that doesn't fall into one of the categories above goes into its own task list. These tend to be divided into either work projects or personal projects, plus 'life topics' such as Fitness/Health, Finances, Car, Things To Learn and so on.

Capture everything

Another key technique I've taken from David Allen's book is to capture everything, no matter how insignificant, as soon as it occurs to you. Get it out of your head, and into a list! I do this for virtually everything, even the most mundane and boring tasks—for example, if I notice my nails are getting a little long, I'll add "Cut nails" to the @home list, since it means I can immediately forget about it, safe in the knowledge it is now on my to-do list! Relieving the mental pressure of remembering everything I want to do means I can free up brain cycles for the important stuff.

One aspect of 'classic GTD' I don't do is the idea of an 'Inbox' where all tasks are captured, and which you then "process" at regular intervals. Instead, I prefer to categorise the task at the moment I create it, since it's usually obvious where a task belongs.

However, I do try to stick to Allen's "Two minute rule": anything that will take you less than two minutes to complete should just be done there and then, rather than adding it to a list for the future.

Scheduling

I mentioned above that one of the daily tasks I perform is to create an agenda. Every day (weekdays and weekends), from the outstanding tasks that I have, I select those that I intend to deal with today, and schedule blocks of time for them in my calendar. Some are fixed (meetings, appointments, going for a run before it gets dark); others can be slotted in around them.

The amount of time allocated to each topic can vary depending on what type of work it involves. Project reviews or brainstorm sessions can be completed in an hour; a decent coding session may occupy four hours or more. I try to leave time for breaks, including a walk at lunch to get some exercise and fresh air away from my desk.

Brainstorms

Speaking of brainstorms, I'll frequently book myself a small meeting room for an hour or two (luckily my office has enough rooms that I don't feel as if I'm blocking other teams) to think through the next steps in a project or work through a UX issue. I find that in an open-plan office, it can be the only way to avoid interruptions or distractions.

I often start these sessions in a text document like TextEdit, where I'll list out the key bullet points; then I'll branch out from those into multiple levels of sub-list to form a kind of text-only mind-map. It's a technique that the Workflowy app has formalised; I tried using it at one point, but nowadays I prefer to just create dozens of plain text documents on my desktop.

The most important part of any brainstorm session is to come out of it with some actual next steps, so I always try to finish by identifying the next actions that I need to take ... and, of course, capturing them in the appropriate to-do list.

(It's worth mentioning that I work remotely from my colleagues, otherwise I would certainly recommend a more traditional team brainstorm process.)

Music (and other isolation techniques)

Of course, I can't spend all my time in meeting rooms. Those times when I need to get my head down and concentrate for an extended period on work, I rely on a decent pair of headphones, and Spotify. For true isolation, I also recommend switching off phone notifications (I have Workplace chat and Slack on my phone) as well as turning off email and/or Slack on your computer.

For maximum concentration I find that I can't listen to music with understandable lyrics, so I favour playlists like Spotify's Deep Focus, electronic music, or occasionally something in a foreign language (like my favourite album from last year, Juana Molina's Halo).

Reviews

Returning to the GTD side of things, I now combine the Weekly Review ritual (going through all of my lists to check if there is anything missing, or tasks that are no longer needed and can be removed) with a weekly personal OKRs check. This means that every Monday I spend some time going through both my outstanding tasks and my main areas of focus, and ensuring that the two are aligned.

Conclusion

This particular combination of habits, tools, and routines has served me well for a few years now. Knowing that everything I need or want to do is securely captured in a list somewhere helps me to focus on just the task at hand, and being able to access my task lists from anywhere (desktop, laptop, phone, or web) means I can rely on it completely.

For anyone who struggles with juggling multiple competing projects, I definitely recommend looking into GTD; it's a great way to introduce some structure into a busy life.

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.
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