To Be Productive, You Need StructureAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
"Time management is not a peripheral activity or skill. It is the core skill upon which everything else in life depends." ~ Brian Tracy
You are working on an activity that you are stuck on, or that you don’t feel like continuing to work on because you don’t have the right mindset at the moment, or you simply don’t have the energy to continue working on it. There are two things you can do: rest or switch tasks.
Both are easy things to do when you have a good organizational structure. A good structure allows you to move smoothly from one activity to another, without jeopardizing all your planning and without losing sight of the big picture.
A good structure is something you can rely on. It frees you from the burden of remembering everything and keeping track of everything. If you can rely on a system, you can stop trying to keep everything in your head and concentrate on what’s important, on getting the job done.
A good structure allows you to flow. Flow is a state in which you become so immersed in what you are doing that you lose track of time, you unknowingly apply your skills to the fullest, and the work is carried out without apparent effort.
You can create that structure yourself, or you can rely on a proven successful methodology, such as Getting Things Done. GTD gives you the structure you need to have a good personal organization, including a workflow that will allow you to do the right thing at the right time.
GTD’s organizational structure is made up of several components at different levels, which intertwine to form a robust and reliable system.
A workflow to get things done
When we are well organized we constantly and without even realizing it go through five stages as we deal with our life and work: (1) we capture what catches our attention, (2) we clarify what each thing means and what we are going to do with them, (3) we organize the results, which present us with options on which we reflect (4), and among which we choose to take action (5). That is why the GTD workflow is composed of five clear steps:
- Capture. Big or small, important or mundane, personal or work-related, capture in your inbox anything that might represent something to do.
- Clarify. This is about defining what each thing you have captured is and deciding what you are going to do with it. This phase ends with an empty inbox. The clarifying procedure is also well structured, as you will see below.
- Organize. It means placing reminders of the clarified items on the appropriate lists, so that they appear in your life at the right time. This set of lists is also part of the GTD structure, as you will see below.
- Reflect. It consists of reviewing your lists as often as you need to trust your system and have the feeling that everything is under control. The Weekly Review is another structured GTD process.
- Engage. It consists of choosing the best action to perform among all possible options, according to the situation you are in at any given time. This procedure is also well defined.
A procedure to clarify everything that enters your life
When you are clarifying the things you have captured, you need to ask yourself two questions:
- What is this thing really? You need to think about what that thing really means to you and clearly define the result you want to achieve.
- Is it actionable? That is, can you do something about it?
If it is not actionable, you have three possibilities:
- If it’s something you don’t need and has no value to you, then you throw it in the trash.
- If it is something that does not require any action now, but you may need to do something in the future, then you incubate it.
- If it is potentially useful information that you might need at some point, then you file it away as reference material.
If it is actionable, you need to define what the next action is, and then you have three options:
- If the next action is going to be performed by you and requires no more than two minutes, then you can do it at that moment.
- If the next action is going to be performed by you and requires more than two minutes, then you postpone or defer it.
- If you are not the right person to perform the action, then you delegate it.
In case it is an actionable element, you also need to ask yourself if with the next defined action you are going to get the desired result. If so, you are done; if not, you will need to define the desired outcome and add it to the project list. This will serve as a reminder that this work is not yet finished by the time you have completed the next action.
A set of lists to keep everything organized
Organizational categories are usually implemented by using lists, which contain reminders with similar characteristics. In GTD each list has a specific function and well-defined limits, so that they cannot contain elements of different nature.
- Next Actions. List of actions that you need to perform yourself as soon as possible. It is advisable to divide it into smaller lists according to the contexts in which you need to perform these actions (home, office, computer, calls, people, etc.).
- Calendar. List of actions you need to perform on a specific date.
- Waiting For. List of tasks that you have delegated to other people or entities.
- Reference Material. This is not a list of actions, but of information that you need to store because you find it interesting.
- Someday/Maybe. List of things you don’t know if you have to do, or don’t need to do right now. You will review this list on a regular basis to decide if you need to do something about any of its items.
- Projects. List of all the outcomes you have not yet completed.
- Project Support Material. This is the reference material associated with your active projects, which you should have at hand to manage properly and make the right decisions about them.
A procedure for choosing what to do next
Among all the actions you could be doing now, which one is the most interesting? GTD proposes a four-criteria model to choose the most appropriate action at each moment:
- What context are you in? The context is the physical place or situation you are in. With this filter you narrow down the list to the actions that are actually within your reach.
- How much time do you have? If you only have 30 minutes your list is reduced to all actions that require less than half an hour.
- What is your energy level at the moment? How do you feel? There are tasks that require a lot of effort and concentration, and others that don’t need much. There are also times when we are more or less energized, for whatever reason. This filter again narrows down the list of actions to those that fit your current energy level.
- What is most important right now? You have already narrowed down the list of possible tasks to a few. Which one do you choose? The one you consider most important, according to your priorities.
A procedure to keep your system up to date
The goal of the Weekly Review is to keep the system complete, up-to-date, clear and clean so that you can fully rely on it. It consists of three phases:
- Gain clarity. Here you clear and empty all your inboxes that still contain captures.
- Get up to date: You review your lists, eliminating what is already done or no longer needed, and adding the missing information:
- You review your past calendar (since your last weekly review) for anything that still needs to be done with completed tasks.
- You review your future calendar (4 to 5 weeks ahead) to avoid surprises with little reaction time.
- Review your Next Actions.
- You actively review your Waiting For list, claiming what you need or adding reminders to act on later.
- Review your Project List, to reactivate projects without defined next actions and review supporting material.
- Get creative. This consists of re-evaluating the contents of the Someday/Maybe list and reflecting on what new projects you can undertake.
A system for defining your priorities
GTD suggests defining six levels of perspective so that you can reflect on what drives your personal life and your work, and thus be clear about the priorities that should guide your decisions.
- Purpose. It is what gives meaning to your life.
- Vision. It is the image of yourself that you would like to project in the not-too-distant future, from three to five years.
- Goals. The achievements you want to reach in the medium term, usually in one or two years, both in your personal life and in your work.
- Areas of Focus. These are the different aspects of your life that you want to improve or maintain at a good level.
- Projects. Any outcome that requires more than one action to resolve.
- Actions. Everything you need to do in your day-to-day life to build higher levels.
Complexity and habits, key elements for change
Although we have listed a good number of subsystems within the GTD methodology, it is not a complex system in itself. However, complexity is something inherent to your life and you have to deal with it.
An organizational system must be able to represent your reality, with all its complexity. It’s not just about collecting things, it’s about making connections and taking good decisions.
If you decide to implement a personal management system like GTD, you will probably need to change the way you work. Changing habits is probably the hardest thing to do when you start using GTD, but keep in mind that no tool will improve your productivity if you don’t change the daily routines on which the tool is based.
It is common that during the learning process there are times when you unintentionally fall back into old habits. You just have to be aware of it and keep insisting.
If you haven’t already done so, read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. It will undoubtedly help you improve your effectiveness in both your personal and professional life.
You can also learn GTD by doing with FacileThings, a tool that incorporates all the structures we have talked about, so you don’t have to think about them.