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Productivity Made Simple: The 7 Main Elements of GTD

Productivity Made Simple: The 7 Main Elements of GTD

    Just like the five elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood), GTD has its own elements. Only there are seven instead of five…and not nearly as epic.

    In the previous parts of this series we were talking about things like how to select what to do next, and how to compile your projects list (and your next tasks list). Today it’s time to get deeper into this topic, and explain the main elements a little more in detail.

    Not to keep you hanging any longer…let me tell you what the seven main elements of GTD are:

    • Projects List
    • Next Tasks List
    • Future/maybe List
    • Calendar
    • “Waiting for” List
    • Resource Files
    • The Intangible One (wait for it…)

    Being familiar with these elements, knowing how to use them, and understanding their purpose is key to implementing GTD successfully.

    I know that it sounds like a lot of work, and that some of the elements are not clear at this point, but I assure you, it’s much easier than it seems.

    Let’s take it from the top, and talk about the first element on the list:

    Projects List

    We briefly talked about this one in the previous post — Selecting What to Do Next with GTD. Feel free to check it out if you haven’t already. The post also explains the meaning of projects as defined in GTD.

    In essence, your Projects List is where all of your current projects are listed.

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    Each project has its own section in the Projects List. Each section is a somewhat complete collection of various things regarding a project.

    Such a project section usually contains things like:

    • A short description of the project. This is helpful when you want to come back to a given project after a while of inactivity, and you can’t remember what the project was about exactly.
    • A list of tasks that need to be done to complete the project.
    • References to other materials that might come handy when working on the project.

    The first element is pretty self explanatory. The second one has been explained in the previous post. So we’re left with the last one – references to other materials. The truth is that whenever you’re working on something, you need a set of different things for reference (or other information that will help you to get the project done).

    Let’s use the simplest of examples just to explain this briefly – our car fixing example. Some references to other materials might include: listing of all professional garages in your area, phone numbers, important paperwork for the car.

    Of course, every project has different characteristics, so there’s no universal template for those references, but I’m sure you get the idea.

    Next Tasks List

    Like I was saying in the previous post, this is where you spend most of your time when working with GTD.

    Essentially, Next Tasks List contains only one task from each of your projects. Not more, just one single task.

    Again, the previous post (Selecting What to Do Next with GTD) explains the purpose and the construction of the Next Tasks List in detail.

    Future/Maybe List

    This is a new element. We haven’t talked about it yet.

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    The purpose of this list is very simple in nature. It contains everything that you know you won’t be able to take action on right now ( Future), or things that you’re not yet sure if you’re going to take action on them ever (Maybe).

    The purpose of this list is to give you a place to store all your ideas, possible projects, things that simply seem interesting, things you don’t want to forget about, etc.

    The construction of the list is not defined exactly, so anything you want can find its place there. In particular, things like:

    • Short descriptions of new projects.
    • Single tasks you’re thinking about doing.
    • Random, yet actionable thoughts on anything.
    • Things (requests, projects, tasks) other people have sent you.
    • Summaries of interesting articles/posts you might want to take action on in the future.

    Virtually, everything that’s worthy of keeping for possible future actions finds its place in the Future/Maybe List. There are no other rules more important than this one.

    Calendar

    A calendar seems like a pretty obvious thing. But it’s not. Many people fall into a trap of putting everything in a calendar. It’s a habit. And it’s a bad one.

    The biggest problem with a calendar is that we often use it to list some things we think we’re going to be able to do on a given day. So we end up with tens of tasks, one on top of the other, each not done on the desired day. This also makes it really easy to overlook some tasks that absolutely need to be done on a given day.

    Your calendar is sacred. The real purpose of a GTD calendar is to let you know that if you put something in it, it means that this specific thing can only be done on the exact date you’ve picked…or NEVER.

    I’m serious. It really is your only chance of doing the thing. After you miss it, it’s lost for eternity.

    What’s the purpose of all this? It’s simple. It’s for so that all of the truly time-sensitive tasks don’t get overlooked.

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    Let’s say you’ve got a doctor’s appointment. Such appointments are always set to a specific date and hour. If you miss it, well, you missed it, and you have to make another appointment. You can’t just show up the next day and say “Sorry, I’m late.” This won’t work.

    The doctor’s example is actually perfect for explaining the purpose of a GTD calendar. It really is a sacred place. If something gets put into the calendar there’s no way of rescheduling it, or postponing it. It’s like it’s been written in stone.

    What’s the main benefit? You’ll be amazed how little things you’ll have in your calendar once you implement this.

    “Waiting for” List

    This is a new element too. Quite simply, this list contains all the things you are waiting for.

    “Things you are waiting for” is a vague explanation so let me give you some examples:

    • Emails you’re waiting for other people to send you.
    • A call your real estate agent was supposed to make to you.
    • The price of Mexican Peso to go down so you can buy some currency for your vacation.
    • Your car to be fixed so you can pick it up.
    • Your post to be published on Lifehack.org.

    This list is a place for all things that are somewhat independent of your actions, yet you are still waiting for them to happen.

    What’s the purpose? Simply not to forget about the fact that someone was supposed to do something for you, and they’re late. It’s so you don’t wake up one day and say, “Wait a minute, my article was supposed to be published like 2 months ago!

    Resource Files

    Resource Files contain every piece of information you might need to get on with your projects, work, and…essentially…life. ”Resource Files” isn’t the best name in the world, so let’s show some examples:

    • Articles that might come handy.
    • Blog posts you’ve read (or written).
    • Your directory of tabs and notes (if you’re a guitarist, for example).
    • Your notebook of contacts.
    • Your list of the best restaurants in the city.
    • Certain books you want to review.
    • Every piece of important information that’s stored on your computer’s hard drive.
    • Pictures from your last holiday.
    • and so on…

    I guess that the only rule is to store everything that isn’t actionable in any way, but you want to keep it nevertheless.

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    As you’d imagine, this is probably the biggest element in volume of them all. Nothing else comes even close to your Resource File. Thankfully, these days we’re doing most of our stuff on a computer, so we don’t have to play around with tons of paper.

    The Intangible Element

    This is the final and most important element of them all. It’s the intangible one: Trust.

    If you don’t have trust for GTD then nothing else can make the system work for you. If you want GTD to help you make your life and work more organized you have to trust that GTD can indeed do that for you.

    Trust is not that important for other, simpler methodologies. But GTD is different. It is somewhat complex. It hasn’t been invented overnight. It’s a result of years of work and experience of its author – David Allen. It is not accidental. And that is why it works.

    But to make it work you have to trust it, or – as some like to call it – suspend your disbelief while you learn GTD. It will pay off soon.

    There have been three parts of the Productivity Made Simple series already. At this point, do you trust that it can change the way you work? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    (Photo credit: Tutorial or Advice Concept via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on April 23, 2019

    How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

    How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

    Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

    While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

    For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

    While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

    I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

    Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

    Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

    Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

    The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

    Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

    What Is a Stretch Goal?

    A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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    In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

    For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

    This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

    It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

    The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

    The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

    I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

    Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

    1. Get Outside of Your Head

    If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

    If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

    I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

    Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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    2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

    When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

    I see this in so many areas of life:

    When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

    In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

    “Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

    Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

    3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

    When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

    The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

    For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

    We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

    From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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    When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

    Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

    4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

    S.M.A.R.T.

    is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

    While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

    Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

    For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

    By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

    5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

    I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

    The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

    When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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    One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

    Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

    I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

    A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

    As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

    From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

    The Bottom Line

    These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

    For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

    Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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