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Productivity Made Simple: Selecting What to Do Next with GTD

Productivity Made Simple: Selecting What to Do Next with GTD

    In the previous episode of the Productivity Made Simple (using GTD to improve your productivity) series we were talking about where to start with GTD – the brain dump exercise. Today it’s time to take your massive list of things, and create an actionable plan that makes selecting what to do next very easy.

    If you’re not using any methodology in your work then selecting your next task can be difficult. There are so many things to do, yet so little time. You can try to do the most important tasks first, but how do you decide what is truly important and what only seems like it is? Furthermore, is something indeed important or just urgent?

    Solving challenges like this is where GTD really shines. You can use the methodology to take your brain dump list and divide it into actionable sections, in the least confusing way possible.

    Dividing your list into projects

    Your brain dump list is not something you can work with effectively. If you want to be productive you need something smaller and more manageable.

    The first step towards creating such a thing is to turn your list of tasks into a list of projects. Now how do you do that?

    Take your list and gather all similar tasks together. By similar, I mean the tasks that essentially touch upon the same area.

    Let’s just say that you’re a freelance designer, and a blogger, just as an example. On your main list there might be tasks like: improve the menu for client X, design custom buttons for client X, do some finishing touches on client’s Y site, write a new post for my blog, update WordPress.

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    You can take such tasks and divide them into groups of: client X tasks, client Y tasks, my blog tasks – these are your projects.

    I’m using a specific example because that’s the easiest way of explaining most things, but the concept can be easily applied to any other areas and different kinds of tasks. The main rule of recognizing a project is to find at least two tasks that are closely related to each other.

    This is the first approach – taking the tasks and gathering them into projects. There’s also the second approach – picking complex tasks and creating projects around them. By complex, I mean everything that requires taking more than one action to complete them.

    Here’s another example. Something like “have the car fixed” is likely to appear on your list. This sounds like a single task but it isn’t. To actually get this done you need to take care of a number of tasks. In this case: choose a mechanic, call them and make an appointment, get your car to the mechanic, pick the car up. In the end, a seemingly simple task of having the car fixed has turned into a project. And that’s OK.

    In the end, what you want to end up with is a number of projects, where each project consists of at least two tasks. From here you can proceed to the next step.

    Next tasks list

    This is where you spend the majority of your time when working with GTD.

    As of now, you have your list of projects, but don’t quite know what to do with it yet. Start by selecting only ONE task from each project, and then putting it on a separate list.

    This one task should be the next reasonable thing you can do to get a given project going. Every project has such a task, so selecting it shouldn’t be a problem.

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    For our car fixing example the next task would be to choose a mechanic.

    However, don’t try to select more than one. I know that for some projects it might seem that more tasks need to be done at the same time, but it’s not true. Even when you have two tasks you think you’ll have to do at the same time, you’re still going to start with one and then do the other. It’s not possible to do one task with your left hand and the other with your right hand. Stick to a single next task for each project only.

    The list you’re creating right now (one containing only a single task from each project) is called the next tasks list. The name explains it well enough. It is the list that contains all the tasks you need to take care of next; nothing more.

    Selecting things to do from the next tasks list

    The list itself is still a set of many different tasks, so you need to find a way of deciding which one you should actually do first.

    There are four main factors that can help you decide what to do when you’re looking at your next tasks list.

    1. Your context.

    This sounds fancy, but what it actually means is the environment you’re currently in. Some possible contexts might be: at the office, at home, on my phone, shopping mall, and so on.

    It’s obvious that some tasks can be done only when you’re in the right context. If you have an office job you can’t do any job-related tasks if you’re not at the office, so don’t even clutter your mind with them when you’re at home.

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    This context principle is pretty obvious, but it’s still good to keep it in mind to be able to snap out of unproductive thinking that sometimes catches us off guard.

    2. Available time.

    Different tasks consume different amounts of time. If you have only 30 minutes to spare there’s no point in starting to work on the new marketing strategy for your company…

    When selecting a task always try to predict how much time it can take, and compare it to the amount of time you actually have.

    3. Available energy.

    Maybe you just don’t feel like doing any creative work… Maybe some simple physical work would be more appropriate right now … like washing the car or something.

    This is OK, you don’t have to be at your 100% mental strength round the clock. Sometimes it’s good to use those other moments to do other work.

    4. Priorities.

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    This is where the fun starts. The last element in deciding what to do next.

    Basically, I’m sure you have an idea about what priorities are. Either something is important to you at the moment or it isn’t.

    For example, yesterday you were feeling just fine, but today you feel ill, so going to a doctor is the highest priority even though yesterday it had no priority.

    Priorities can change daily; this is normal. It doesn’t mean that you’re an unorganized person. I would say the contrary: if you have the same priorities for the last 10 years maybe it’s time to think them through.

    This is just a simplified model of priorities, and for now it’ll do. However, GTD takes the idea of priorities much further, and turns it into something much more useful. We’re going to talk about priorities in one of the next posts, but for now just think of them like the answer to the question of “what’s the most important task for me at this precise moment in time?

    That’s basically it when it comes to selecting what to do next. Just to recap:

    1. Create your projects list.
    2. Take one task from each project, and put it into your next tasks list.
    3. Choose what to do next based on your context, available time, available energy, and priorities (in that order).
    4. Do the task.
    5. Put another task from the same project on the next tasks list.
    6. Go back to point #3.

    A question to you. Do you find GTD complex and challenging to implement? To be honest, that was my initial impression. But I’m glad I ended up implementing it anyway, that’s for sure.

    (Photo credit: Your Next Step via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

    How about a unique spin on things?

    These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

    1. Empty your mind.

    It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

    Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

    Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

    Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

    How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

    2. Keep certain days clear.

    Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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    This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

    3. Prioritize your work.

    Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

    Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

    Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

    How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

    4. Chop up your time.

    Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

    5. Have a thinking position.

    Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

    What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

    6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

    To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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    Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

    7. Don’t try to do too much.

    OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

    8. Have a daily action plan.

    Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

    Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

    9. Do your most dreaded project first.

    Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

    10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

    The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

    11. Have a place devoted to work.

    If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

    But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

    Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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    Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

    12. Find your golden hour.

    You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

    Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

    Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

    Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

    13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

    It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

    By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

    Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

    14. Never stop.

    Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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    Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

    There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

    15. Be in tune with your body.

    Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

    16. Try different methods.

    Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

    It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

    Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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