A coworker asked for some advice to better get things done. I don't pretend to be an expert at getting things done, and I have much more to learn on this subject, but I can say that I have improved in this regard over the recent years. This thoughtful question has prompted me to write this blog post, in part to answer my coworker's question, and probably more so to remind me of some principles I could be better at keeping.
Here are some insights:
- "It's your job to be interrupted". I once asked Mark Hyland (who I have blogged about in previous posts) how he manages to get things done. I complained that my day is full of interruptions. He sat back in his char, swivelled towards me while chewing his gum and said, "You're the man. It's your job to be interrupted." That insight helped me realize that it's OK to be interrupted at my work, and I should accept that fact as part of my day -- it's going to get interrupted, and it's OK. With that insight, I no longer cringed at every interruption. But we can't expect to get anything done if we're interrupted all of the time. We need some direction on how to be effective at other times, which brings me to Insight #2.
- I read a good book called "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. I really enjoyed his book. The main takeaways for me are:
- The best planning happens "on the back of the napkin". When ideas start to flow, write them down. You can't force good planning, you have to be prepared to plan when the inspiration hits.
- Critically think about the "next physical thing" that needs to get done in order to accomplish a goal. The example in the book is cleaning a garage. Writing "Clean the garage" on a to-do list ins't as helpful as "Take old fridge in the garage to the dump", because it's that fridge in the garage that is preventing you from getting to the rest of the garage cleaning. When I put my plans in terms of the next physical thing that needs to get done in order to reach a certain goal, and commit to doing that one thing no matter how small, it helps me get things done more. I've found that often times the hardest part about making progress towards a goal is deciding on what is the next physical thing that needs to get done. But once that mental labor is over, the rest is pretty easy.
- Getting Things Done suggests a framework or workflow. There's a nice PDF graphic that explains it on David Allen's website: your work day is full of interruptions -- phone calls, meetings, emails, coworkers, etc. However, we do our best work when our minds are relaxed and we're able to think clearly. Like a skilled martial artist, we need to keep our mind clear and handle each incoming interruption quickly and efficiently. I like the imagery of a calm bucket of water. Your mind works best when the water is calm. When there's an interruption, it ripples the water. Create an effective system that will help you manage the interruption at hand so that the ripples go away and you return to a clear state of mind.
- We work best in terms of contexts. For example, if you're in email mode, work on your email list. If you're in errand running mode, run all errands together. If the business you need to do is with a coworker, handle all the business you need to handle with that coworker. As ideas, interruptions, to do things, etc. come into our lives, organize them into contexts, and create your to-do lists around those contexts. Then you can attack your list in the context you're in.
- If it takes less than two minutes, handle it right away.. If it takes more than two minutes, file it away into one of your contexts or schedule time to take care of it at another time.
- Thrashing. I like this analogy: our minds are like our computers, but we have limited RAM. When our RAM gets full but the OS needs more memory, it starts using swap memory, using the hard disk to store more memory. However, hard disks are very slow. When you're constantly going from RAM to hard disk and back to RAM, it's called thrashing. Thrashing is a terrible productivity killer. Change contexts as little as possible and you'll be able to keep your mind together that much more.
- I found a great tool called Smartytask that helps me manage my to do list. I can organize to do items into context, easily rearrange the list, and mark things off easily.
- Come up with a list of overarching personal priorities to become guiding principles on how you ought to best spend your time. For example, in my life, I think my list of priorities ought to be God first, spouse second, children third, work fourth, church duties fifth, and personal hobbies and interests last. With these guiding principles, I can better understand how to use my time as a whole. At work, I choose to put together these priorities: First come my coworkers, second come existing clients, and third come new prospective clients.
- We recently started Sterile Cockpit Time at work, where we don't interrupt developers between 10:00 am and 2:30 pm every day. It's been a good benefit to our company's productivity. In theory, a developer knows that between those productive hours of the day, there won't be any unnecessary interruptions.
In the end, it's your principles, focus, and careful planning that will help you be most productive and deal with interruptions as they come. Remember to keep your mind like still water -- do what you can to deal with distractions so that you can keep your focus on the context and task at hand.