Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gettings Things Done

Recently I spotted a couple of blog entries in ColdFusion blogosphere relating to personal time management and I thought I would chip in a process that has worked for me.

I value time management, because I never seem to have enough. Some people make it look easy (Ray Camden, I'm looking at you). Currently I'm working long hours at my current workplace, establishing a business (red tape, anyone?), trying to keep up to date with what is happening in the ColdFusion community, reading books on the latest technologies, enhancing my basic business site, fixing the glaring problems with this blog, actually adding content to this blog, working 110% on my first company project, doing my tax, doing the housework and somehow keeping my relationships functional. I am pretty busy, and if I can find a way to better keep on top of all my pressing issues I will.

Recently I was definitely not feeling like I was on top of anything. I found myself distracted at work because I kept remembering other things I had to do, many of which were also at work, but also in my other arenas as well. Despite the fact I was managing my work task list, and separate lists for my other things, I found I was not managing my time well.

I took the opportunity to think about why I was struggling so much more now. The easy answer was that I was more busy, but in the my current job that wasn't new. Then I stumbled upon a particular piece of software, which made me think back a few months and realise my problem was not something I was doing now that was the problem. It was something I was not doing.

Cue drumroll...What had happened was that I had stopped using a technique that I had unknowingly become reliant on. Two or more years ago I bought a book from the bargain bin of the local bookstore called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen. I had bastardised the techniques he provided somewhat to the extent I was only using core principles, but had successfully held on to it for a long time. But bad habits had crept into my daily routine, and my email inbox had gone from being always empty to being in dire need of an auto-archive.

So reflecting back, I determined that the methodology had really worked wonders for my productivity, stress levels, and therefore my time management. So I've launched back into using it everyday, and not just for work, but for all areas of my life.

I wouldn't want to try to summarise the way the "Get Things Done" approach works (try here instead), but I will highlight the key points that I believe help me the most:

Immediate thought collection

As soon as your remember something, receive an email you need to think about, or get asked to do something, you record it as a thought in your Trusted System. Being able to immediately know a thought or item for consideration is safe for later contemplation lets you move on and not be bothered about it at random times throughout your working week.

Processing your thoughts in one hit.

You need to come back to those thoughts you've captured, and ideally you set aside a specific time once or twice a day to review them. When you do so, you file them as next actions, reference items or someday/maybe items you can not action now but might want to in the future.

The great thing about this approach is it is incredibly easy once you put the decision making hat on to decide what needs to be done next (if anything) for every single thought. It is very time efficient too - Instead of wrenching your mind away from your current task to assess the implications of a particular off-topic thought, you have a set period where you set aside this planning and decision making process and you save a lot of time in doing it in one spell.

Working Happily

With the system in place, you find you immerse yourself more in your current tasks, because you trust you have not forgotten anything else. You are not trying to remember anything and you do not have any extra 'stuff' in your head beyond the current task. I think the biggest truth exposed by the system is that all of the other baggage in our minds - the internal post it notes to think about this or that- Have a large impact on our productivity. So does the 'context-shifting' we need to do even to think about another topic briefly. If the operation of a person's brain could be compared with the a computer (and it can, because I'm about to :)) you might say that you really notice the difference in performance when the background services are kept to a minimum and you do not need to swap the bulk of your virtual memory to disk every few minutes.

Not Just Me

You might wonder what the website was that clued me into the source of my un-orderedness and reminded me of my previous successful. I stumbled on to the Thinking Rock site and found free software someone had cared to write in support for what I thought was a shonky little bargain bin time management book.

A quick google corrected my misapprehensions though. Getting Things Done - also now abbreviated to GTD - is actually a very well supported movement, and hundreds of web sites have been devoted to it.

I am always very sceptical about these techniques and strategies (and Nigerian princes needing a local 'banking agent' too), because I am very aware that they sell not necessarily based on how effective they are, but how effective they feel, often based on little more than the blurb on the book. But this is one instance where I found my experience bore the promise out - I am managing my work and personal time a lot better now that I have re-implemented some Get Things Done principles, just like I was managing my work time better when I original tried it out.

So for me the methodology is successful. Your mileage might vary (indeed, I still haven't fixed the numerous problems with this blog) but I know I am getting a lot more done and hell, even managing to post a blog entry :)

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