Mar 212012

This is what my desk looks like now

One thing David Allen teaches in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is the importance of Getting Clear. Let me tell you, I am not clear right now. Life creeps up and soon the tidal wave of “stuff” overtakes me. As you can see from the picture I took just before sitting down to write, I have a problem.

Getting Clear means to have an organized space in which to work, both physically and mentally. Clearly I am failing on the physical front. If I could take a picture of my mental space, it would probably look much like my desk. I have let things go. In their great book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition), Tom DeMarco and Timoth Lister discusses how much clear space a person needs to perform work. They say an office should have 100 square feet of clear desk space. While I have never had the luxury of 100 sq. feet, I think I am currently operating on two, just so I have a place to put my elbows while typing.

How does one get clear? The best way is to get a box or a basket. Everything goes into the box first. Even garbage. Why? The act of putting everything in the box does two things: it gets the desk clear immediately and it puts everything in a stack, a natural order for being dealt with one at a time. I remember as a kid when my mother would decide to attack her desk. She would clean for two days straight, just trying to find a few inches of clear space. If she would have moved everything to boxes (it would have taken much more than one), she could have had the space she wanted immediately and not of had to shift papers around constantly, looking for a place to put things while cleaning.

Once everything is in a box, take out the top item and decide what to do with it. Does it need action? Filing? Disposal? Do it and move on to the next. One beauty of the box is this part does not need to be done in one sitting. The box will obediently sit to the side, waiting for the next opportunity. Meanwhile, the desk is clear, inviting Great Work.

Yes, even the iPad went in the box. Better already!

Getting clear mentally works a little differently. I do a mind sweep. Get a pad of paper, a good pen or pencil and a comfortable chair. Start writing everything on the mind, every thought, to do item, commitment or random musing. Write as fast as possible and let the mind vomit up everything that is piled around. Don’t worry about order, priority or clarity. Get it down. When the ideas stop flowing, get up, stretch, take a quick walk around the house, garage, yard or office. Take the pad of paper with. Something along the way will trigger some more things. Write those down as well. Consider all the people in your life. What do you owe them? That will trigger more thoughts.

Like the desk, it may take more than one session to get totally clear. Just keep at it. No doubt there will be pages filled. Don’t despair. The more pages you have, the more clear you will be and it will feel great. The pages will be filled with the myriad of commitments floating around, clogging up the pathways of the mind, getting in the way of accomplishing the important tasks.  They will be out of your head where they can be dealt with methodically.

Once the mind is clear, the pages can be organized, prioritized and divided into task lists for getting things done. Just remember they don’t all have to be done today, tomorrow or even next week. Some of the items may never get done. I put most of these items on a Someday/Maybe list. It’s okay. They are on a list, out of the head, stored for later. When the time is right, I’ll pull them off a list and do them.

Getting Clear is one of the most refreshing experiences I have ever experienced. I have to do this exercise occasionally. I should be doing it weekly in my Weekly Review session, but that has been sliding off my plan for a few weeks. When that happens, I have to get drastic; I have to get clear. When I do, it is one of the best feelings around. Try it. I’m willing to be you’ll like it.

Dec 012011

Some weeks life is just survival and this is one of them for me. My work week has been one long string of meetings, one after another away from my office. I haven’t been able to do much more than process email. Home life hasn’t been much better. Obligations have kept me away from home every night this week, so nothing is getting done there, either. Life is constant motion, but little progress.

These are the times when I depend heavily on my Task Management System. Without it, I wouldn’t survive. I depend on it to keep me from getting buried in all the little tasks that are accumulating. Normally, these little two to five minute tasks are things I just do and get out of the way. Right now, I can’t. It is all I can do to get them captured in the system. Next week, when I finally get to come up for air (won’t happen until Wednesday), they will at least be sitting there waiting for me. That thought is what I hold onto to keep me sane.

Here are some tips I have learned this week.

  1. Spend time when you have it to get comfortable with a system. Crisis mode is not the time to play around with a task management system. An investment of this type can only be done while the world is behaving. Take time to mold your system to the way you like to work. I recently tweaked my system to only show those tasks I can get done in the next two to three days, while highlighting those I must get done today. This adjustment has been godsend for me this week. I’m not staring at twenty tasks that could get done today, just the three that must be completed.That is a huge stress reliever in itself.
  2. Have your task capture mobile and always with you. I use Toodledo on my iPhone. When time is short, it is critical to have it with you as all times. Tasks will come quickly and leave consciousness even faster. With just seconds to capture a thought, you have to be ready or it is gone.
  3. Use any available moment to process. When I have had a couple minutes to myself, like a bio break or lunch, I have spent the time quickly processing my inbox or a task list. Few things discourage me more than 50 unread email messages. Scanning and quickly deleting the many useless announcements and filing the rest for later has kept my email inbox to a manageable level. Since I know I won’t have time to catch up until next week, I use this in my judgement.
  4. Use an auto respond message to alert coworkers I won’t be around for a few days. This helps keep everyone informed that I won’t be as responsive as normal. This little effort helps them plan around my unavailability and keeps them moving without me.
The bus is nearing my stop and that’s all I have time for today. If you get in a situation like this, I wish you luck. Take time now to prepare for it. It will happen at some point and without warning. Spending a little time now can really help later when life turns to survival mode.
Oct 102011

I love the dogs in the Pixar movie, Up! The dogs, deep in conversation, will suddenly have their attention caught by something out of the corner of their eye, to which they instantly refocus and yell, “Squirrel!” There are days I am just like them – completely on task and then something grabs my attention, ripping it away. When I look back at what I was doing, I am completely lost and not sure what I was just working on.

For many years, I have suspected I had mild ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder. I skitter from interest to interest, never sticking to one thing very long. Some days I can’t concentrate on anything at all. However, once engaged in a task, I can lose myself in it for hours. Obviously, it was not  crippling enough to check into, but still I wondered if I should. I have a couple friends who had similar struggles who did get a diagnosis and the medicine helped them quite a bit. I continued to wonder and never quite got up the nerve to have it checked out until a couple of weeks ago.

After talking with the doctor, he came to the conclusion I do have a mild case of ADD, but he didn’t think it bad enough to consider medication. In his opinion, I had compensated just fine through my use of task lists. He felt the side effects would not be worth it. I had to agree. I still struggle focusing on most days, I know what to do about it.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In fact, it is because of this frustration, I learned about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). Several years ago, I ranted to a friend about not getting anything accomplished that week. He suggested the book. It took me awhile to get through it, but once I did and started applying the practices, things began to get easier for me. I found it easier to focus on a single task because I could block out all the other thoughts that come crowding onto the stage of my mind.

Here are five steps I use to keep things moving in the direction I want.

  1. Get everything out of my head and onto a list. I do a mind sweep, where I write lists of things I need to do as quickly as possible. I don’t think about prioritizing, categorizing or calendaring them. I just get them onto a piece of paper. Once I slow down, which doesn’t take very long, I go back and do all the other things to put them into the correct list. I do this several times a week. I find that when I make the effort to do a mind sweep, I can only do it for about 5 minutes before my mind vapor locks and I have to do something else. That’s okay. Several short sessions each week keep things pretty clear. If it is on a list, my mind doesn’t feel like it has to keep reminding me constantly.
  2. Spend a few minutes each day prioritizing the high priority items to accomplish. I have built a discipline of taking 10 minutes at the beginning of the day, quickly looking over the lists to see what is critical for the day. Undoubtedly, something new pops up while doing this and I add them to the list. I use Toodledo for my lists and employee the ‘star’ to emphasize these tasks.
  3. Put the few critical items on a special list, away from the hundreds of others. By having a critical task list for the day, I have less distraction and can focus on just what I need to do today. The smaller list also helps me feel less overwhelmed. Having that list of five to ten items helps with rewards, too. I give myself a treat once I power through this list.
  4. Every time you find yourself off task, pull out the critical list and refocus. There are times I find myself doing something totally unrelated to the critical tasks, like surfing the net. I can’t even figure out how I got off task. Going back to the list reminds me what I was supposed to be doing and I can quickly jump back on task.
  5. Strive to check off at least one item each day. There are still days I am too scattered to get the list done. It isn’t even my fault sometimes, as unplanned meetings and drive by requests take their toll. On those days, I tell myself I still have to get at least one item checked off the list before I leave the office or go to bed. I have found this commitment keeps a little momentum going. Last night was one of those nights. I ended up staying up too late, but once I got going on checking off one item, I kept going and checked off six. Then I slept peacefully with a good conscious.

Next time you feel scattered and struggle to get something, anything done, try making a short critical list. See if it helps you focus and get at least one thing done. Good luck!