If you looked at how I work you might think there is no method in my madness (or madness in my method). But for someone who is easily distracted I do get quite a lot done. Here is a description of how I solve my own productivity challenge.
I follow a productivity method calling Getting Things Done™, created by David Allen. It may look like the usual bogus self-help stuff, but it’s really practical. A mark of this is that it appeals to a lot of people who don’t normally swallow the bullshit of white men in suits. I learnt about from Merlin Man of 43 Folders, a quirkily creative man with a sense of humour, whose podcast on handling e-mail, Inbox Zero, is a classic.
I’ve tried a number of methods over the years. I’ve even tried Project Management, but Gantt charts only work on really big projects, with lots of resources. GTD may not be perfect, but it works for me because it is relatively simple. I’ve found that being over elaborate works as badly as not planning at all. You need flexibility as well as certainty.
The key ideas of GTD are:
* You record everything you have to do in one place, so that you don’t rely on keeping anything in your head.
* You treat all big tasks as projects. You break projects down into smaller things that you do.
* Everything is treated as a project, work or private, because it is impossible to separate them.
* You categorise and perform tasks in context: some things you do in the office, some at home, some can be done almost anywhere, such as phoning.
* No idea is discarded, even if it isn’t pressing: it’s just parked until you get a chance to do it or finally discarded, in a place where it doesn’t get in the way.
Unfortunately, GTD doesn’t work – nor does any other approach – if you take on too much. Something just gets screwed up. It may not be apparent that it’s screwed up. But it makes itself felt in work that just isn’t up to scratch, or constant weekend work to catch up, or meetings missed, or relationship problems, or all of those.
And an important part of the approach is to take time out to regularly review the lists you make, so that they can be contained.
GTD is technology agnostic. You can use paper or any technology, from Microsoft Outlook to Excel, MS Word to text. You can use PDAs, Smatphones, netbooks and iPads.
I have been using Outlook, and a PDA. That worked well, because I would have all my tasks on my PDA or Samsung Omnia, but Windows Mobile is a terrible Operating System, and has been causing me real problems in synchronising from one computer to another. The result is that old tasks keep getting brought back from the dead.
But as I’ve said, if I stopped using the technology today and went back to some form of paper system, it would work as well. I’ve tried using an Excel spreadsheet, and that worked fine.
The GTD methodology is not perfect, but it works for me, and has relieved me at times of the incredible stress that accompanies today’s work without boundaries. Most of all, it is flexible enough to adapt to the way the real world works, allowing opportunities to be taken up when they arise. And it sets out what must be done without being disempowering, which is what I find too fixed and elaborate a diary system does to me.