Getting Things Done: Three key takeaways that will change your performance

For most people life becomes more complex over time. I know for myself that going from a single college grad with few responsibilities outside of paying the rent to an executive balancing work and family life has been a daunting task.

For high performing individuals that hold themselves to a uniformly high standard, the pressure to meet the endless sea of requests, requirements and taskers can be overwhelming and the resulting stress can and does seep into every aspect of your life. This can negatively effect your health, relationships and work performance. If left unchecked it can become a vicious cycle.

I know that over time I’ve periodically attempted to get “radically” organized. I’ll spend a weekend re-establishing my filing, building detailed calendaring systems and generally getting organized in the extreme. Inevitably, once Monday hits and the pressures come back I start sliding back into old habits and managing everything from the hip and in my head. I finally broke down and got an assistant in the belief that if I couldn’t stay organized on my own then maybe I could hire someone to be organized for me. For me none of it worked.

Then I was out on travel and was talking to a good friend who recommended I read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I have traditionally been pretty skeptical of these sorts of organizational silver bullets. This is in large part because they haven’t ever really worked for me. Either they have been too complex or I just haven’t been able to see what value they provided.

This book and method was different right away. Rather than being a complex system for completely re-organizing your life the focus over and over is on simplicity and real world usage. This dovetails with my own personal philosophy around managing organizational and personal performance which can often be boiled down to “never over engineer.” I often find myself advocating for a less is more approach because too often executives become overwhelmed by the data available to them rather than being guided to the most relevant information needed to make a decision. Getting Things Done is this for getting yourself organized.

It is very focused on creating a maintainable, common sense oriented system that you can actually use. For myself I haven’t implemented the whole system. I plan on implementing the whole system (eventually), but I have pulled 3 key concepts from the system that have completely changed my ability to get things done, manage the complexity of my life and feel better about how I spend my time.

1) The first thing I’ve taken away from the book is that I’ve joined my organization of my work life with my home life. I no longer attempt to maintain a fictional division of duties as though some other gentleman is responsible for getting my kids to soccer practice, buying groceries or meeting with a teacher. As a card carrying member of the multiple kids, sports and schools crew my home calendar rivals my work calendar. Why I made an effort to separate these two parts of my life in my head makes no sense to me now. There is only one of me. Why I was trying to create artificial separation that lead to artificial complexity is anybodies guess. I’ve implemented the Getting Things Done idea of using “contexts” for home and other major items, but I no longer try to maintain separate organizational systems for them.

2) The second key has been life changing for me. I now do anything that comes to my head that I can do in less than two minutes immediately. As someone for whom much of the mental clutter in their life is sending tasking to other team members or executing other tiny tasks this has been enormously helpful. I have often sat at my desk and pushed these thoughts out of my mind as I tried to soldier through something that requires my full attention. This created a backlog of tiny tasks that my mind simply could not stop pulling me back towards. Using this Getting Things Done concept I’ve been able to clear the desks of these little tasks and actually stay focused on the longer tasks that require long periods of undivided attention. The fact is that by simply handling these as they come to mind I’ve significantly increased my daily productivity and by clearing the decks of these tiny tasks I’ve been able to enjoy my leisure time because I don’t have a thousand tiny tasks buzzing around my head.

3) Finally, I’ve gone to writing everything down. I spent the day after I read the book dumping my entire mental to do list both personal and work life into OmniFocus a Getting Things Done friendly productivity tool which is available for Mac, iPhone and iPad. At the end of the day I was shocked at how many things were tugging on my mind everyday. The fact is that I had been feeling overwhelmed because I really had a lot on my plate. David Allen talks about executives being unable to sleep well or focus because of the sheer number of things pulling at their minds.

Even while I was buying into the ideas he had in the book, I kind of laughed at the idea that putting these things down on paper or into electrons was going to change how I felt. It did. My wife has always said that she wonders whats going on in my head sometimes. I know that I’ve often drifted into thought about something to do with work only to come back to the world and have missed my daughter’s description of what she did today at kindergarden. It is a terrible feeling. I was sacrificing quality time with my family because I couldn’t stop thinking about some obligation, meeting or project. The simple act of writing these down in a place I could always check freed me of the obligation to balance these things in my mind all of the time.

I won’t say that I never think of the office when I’m away from work, but I do find that I rarely experience the nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something or find myself fixating on work tasking during dinner. The act of putting these things into a place I’ll remember them has freed me to be in the moment with whatever I’m doing both at work and at home. For me being able to devote my full attention to that one thing I’m working on now has changed my personal performance both at home and at the office.

Just implementing these three simple things has changed my life and given me a peace of mind I haven’t felt since I had significantly fewer responsibilities. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article I came to read this book with a bit of a preconceived notion that most of this type of organizational self help simply doesn’t work. I’ve changed my opinion after reading the book and I hope that you will take the time to do so as well, just remember that you don’t have to implement the whole thing to get value. I’ve started small and it has really been a game changer for me. Just grab some of the concepts he has that appeal to areas of weakness in your personal organizational efforts. As a former skeptic its worth the time and effort.

Have feedback? See me online at @jmillsapps on Twitter.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I’ve been reading this book as well, Joshua. The dumping of tasks into some kind of bucket has been the biggest lesson for me – just get it out of my mind and know that I’ll get to it.

The other thing is actually scheduling tasks on a calendar. I tried that approach the last two weeks and it works for the most part. It’s hard to control the little things that pop up and throw grenades into a scheduled time for concentration, but generally I’ve found it to increase the likelihood that the big rocks get rolled out faster.

Aaron Winchester

Good feedback on a great book. I read this book about a year ago and probably should reread to refocus as some of the new habits didn’t solidify. In application, I put everything I need to do in my outlook tasks which links to my reminders on my iphone. This allows me to get it off my head and then check it off as completed. I usually set a reminder date as well so that I don’t let the list get bloated. Also the weekly review is a vital step for keeping yourself in line. This book is definitely a gem that I recommend for everyone and the fact that most of it is easily applicable helps to actually get things done.

Troy M. Andersen

I haven’t read that one but intend to based on your review. Another good one to read is:

Take Bike Your Life! Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organziaed and Stay Organized.

I’ll admit that the book contains several items which just aren’t feasible in federal service but there are a lot of concepts that are.

@Andrew – the task scheduling is indeed helpful. Every morning print out my outlook calendar and fill in the non-meeting times with tasks in 15 minute increments (using broad task categories). It’s pretty amazing what it does to productivity.

Judi Bassini

Excellent suggestions. I have been using a paper list and not using my Smart Phone as my assistant. Will see if Android has a similar list management feature as the iphone.