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David Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a huge help to me as I’ve created processes and systems for many of the things I do, be it writing, other work, or just budgeting my time so I can spend more of it doing the things I love.

The problem with GTD, the snag I’ve hit time and time again trying to implement its practices, is that it’s just so darn complicated. I need 43 folders, multiple inboxes, a bunch of project lists, next action lists, and a whole lot more. That might work for some people, but for me it just became over-complicated.

In actual implementation, I’ve either adapted or ignored most of the GTD tools and practices. The habits GTD teaches, however, are a different story – they’ve taught me a great deal, and helped me become far more productive. Three habits in particular – Mind Like Water, Defer, and Review – have worked magic on me as an entrepreneur, employee, and person.

Whether you want to call it GTD or something else, these are three habits that will immediately and irreversibly make you more productive.

Mind Like Water

Write everything down. That’s the first step of GTD, and the first step of any good productivity system. Studies have shown that the human brain can only handle seven things at a time, but most of us need to deal with far more than that. Get them out of your brain, and into a system you trust. I use Evernote for this purpose, but you can use anything – a computer, a notebook, receipts, a chisel – as long as it’s easy to use, simple to add to, and accessible to you later.

Don’t trust your brain, or your memory – they’ll both fail you. Write everything that’s taking up space in your brain down. You’ll remember it better later, and free your brain to think about new things.

Defer

“Defer” is one of the actions GTD says to consider for any given thing that crosses your path. Don’t do it now, but don’t forget about it – just put it off for a little while. In my own life, I’ve found deferring to be hugely useful, because for the most part I never end up doing those things anyway. A lot more comes into our workflow than needs to, and seeing if the world ends because I don’t do something immediately is a good reality check for me.

My standard practice now is this: unless I’m absolutely sure I need to do it, I defer it. I come back to it later, and often find that it never needed my attention in the first place – all of a sudden that’s one thing off my plate. I’ve found that a lot of my time was spent on things that were somewhat useful, but mostly just served to make me feel better about doing them. Now I just put those things off, and get to the things I need to and want to do. If I’ve got time, I get to the other stuff – usually just to discover I didn’t need to do it in the first place.

Review

This is the big one – the one practice I think everyone who’s trying to be more productive and more aware of what they’re doing should adopt. Review everything, on a scheduled interval. I do it once a week; others do it daily.

Reviewing means go through your calendar, and figure out what’s coming that you need to deal with. Go through all your Inboxes (email, physical, voicemail, etc.) and clear them out. Go through your task list – what do you have time for in the near future?

Also, take a look back at the time since your last review. What drained your time? What added the most value? What’d you miss or do poorly that could have been avoided? This kind of review helps you fix your system, as well as prepare you better for what’s coming and keep you from total overwhelm in any realm of your work – after all, that overwhelmed feeling is a one-way ticket out of productivity.

By writing everything down, not doing most of it, and always keeping tabs on what’s happened and what’s coming, I’m constantly in a position where I feel like I know what’s going on. I know what I have to do, I know when I’ve got time to do it, and I’m pretty sure I’m not missing anything important. Without all the fancy tools and procedures, I’m already feeling ready to take on the world.

What other habits are important to being more productive?

Photo: jcraveiro

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