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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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    Karol Krol

    Blogger, published author, and founder of a site that's all about delivering online business advice

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    Last Updated on December 10, 2019

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    It is hardly a secret that the key to successfully accomplishing one goal after another is staying motivated. There are, of course, tasks which successful people may not like at all, yet they find motivation to complete them because they recognize how each particular task serves a greater goal.

    So how to stay motivated most of the time? Here are 5 simple yet effective ways on how to stay motivated and get what you want:

    1. Find Your Good Reasons

    Anything you do, no matter how simple, has a number of good reasons behind it.

    You may not be able to find good reasons to do some tasks at first but, if you take just a few moments to analyze them, you will easily spot something good. We also have many tasks which don’t need any reasoning at all – we’ve been doing them for so long that they feel natural.

    If you’re ever stuck with some tasks you hate and there seems to be no motivation to complete it whatsoever, here’s what you need to do: find your good reasons.

    Even when you set goals, there needs to be reasons behind these goals. They may not be obvious, but stay at it until you see some, as this will bring your motivation back and will help you finish the task.

    Some ideas for what a good reason can be:

    • A material reward – quite often, you will get paid for doing something you normally don’t like doing at all.
    • Personal gain – you will learn something new or will perhaps improve yourself in a certain way.
    • A feeling of accomplishment – at least you’ll be able to walk away feeling great about finding the motivation and courage to complete such a tedious task.
    • A step closer to your bigger goal – even the biggest accomplishments in history have started small and relied on simple and far less pleasant tasks than you might be working on. Every task you complete brings you closer to the ultimate goal, and acknowledging this always feels good.

    2. Make It Fun

    When it comes to motivation, attitude is everything. Different people may have completely opposite feelings towards the same task: some will hate it, others will love it.

    Why do you think this happens? It’s simple: some of us find ways to make any task interesting and fun to do!

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    Take sports for example. Visiting your local gym daily for a half-an-hour workout session sounds rather boring to some. Yet many others love the idea!

    They like exercising not only because they recognize the good reasons behind it, but simply because it’s fun! At certain time of their daily schedule, they find going to gym to be the best thing to do, simply because nothing else will fit their time and lifestyle so perfectly.

    Depending on how you look at it, you can have fun doing just about anything! Just look for ways of having fun, and you’ll find them!

    A simple approach is to start working on any task by asking yourself a few questions:

    • How can I enjoy this task?
    • What can I do to make this task fun for myself and possibly for others?
    • How can I make this work the best part of my day?

    As long as you learn to have the definite expectation of any task being potentially enjoyable, you will start to feel motivated.

    Some of you will probably think of a thing or two which are valid exceptions from this statement, like something you always hate doing no matter how hard you try making it fun. You’re probably right, and that’s why I don’t claim everything to be fun.

    However, most tasks have a great potential of being enjoyable, and so looking for ways to have fun while working is definitely a good habit to acquire.

    3. Change Your Approach And Don’t Give Up

    When something doesn’t feel right, it’s always a good time to take a moment and look for a different approach for the task.

    You may be doing everything correctly and most efficiently, but such approach isn’t necessarily the most motivating one. Quite often, you can find a number of obvious tweaks to your current approach which will both change your experience and open up new possibilities.

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    That’s why saying “one way or another” is so common — if you really want to accomplish your goal, there is always a way; and most likely, there’s more than one way.

    If a certain approach doesn’t work for you, find another one, and keep trying until you find the one which will both keep you motivated and get you the desired results.

    Some people think that trying a different approach means giving up. They take pride in being really stubborn and refusing to try any other options on their way towards the goal.

    My opinion on this is that the power of focus is great, but you should be focusing on your goal, and not limiting your options by focusing on just one way to accomplish it it.

    4. Recognize Your Progress

    Everything you may be working on can be easily split into smaller parts and stages. For most goals, it is quite natural to split the process of accomplishing them into smaller tasks and milestones. There are a few reasons behind doing this, and one of them is tracking your progress.

    We track our progress automatically with most activities. But to stay motivated, you need to recognize your progress, not merely track it.

    Here’s how tracking and recognizing your progress is different:

    Tracking is merely taking a note of having reached a certain stage in your process. Recognizing is taking time to look at a bigger picture and realize where exactly you are, and how much more you have left to do.

    For example, if you’re going to read a book, always start by going through the contents table. Getting familiar with chapter titles and memorizing their total number will make it easier for you to recognize your progress as you read. Confirming how many pages your book has before starting it is also a good idea.

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    You see, reading any book you will be automatically looking at page numbers and chapter titles, but without knowing the total number of pages, this information will have little meaning.

    Somehow, it is human nature to always want things to happen in short term or even at once. Even though we split complex tasks into simpler actions, we don’t quite feel the satisfaction until all is done and the task is fully complete.

    For many scenarios though, the task is so vast that such approach will drain all the motivation out of you long before you have a chance to reach your goal. That’s why it is important to always take small steps and recognize the positive different and progress made. This is how your motivation can sustain in long term.

    5. Reward Yourself

    This is a trick everyone likes: rewarding yourself is always pleasant. This is also one of the easiest and at the same time most powerful ways to stay motivated!

    Feeling down about doing something? Dread the idea of working on some task? Hate the whole idea of working? You’re not alone.

    Right from the beginning, agree on some deliverables which will justify yourself getting rewarded. As soon as you get one of the agreed results, take time to reward yourself in some way.

    For some tasks, just taking a break and relaxing for a few minutes will do.

    For others, you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee and even treat yourself a dessert.

    For even bigger and more demanding tasks, reward yourself by doing something even more enjoyable, like going to a cinema or taking a trip to some place nice, or even buying yourself something.

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    Your progress may not seem to others like anything worth celebrating but, take time and do it anyway! It is your task and your reward, so any ways to stay motivated are good.

    The more you reward yourself for the honestly made progress, the more motivated you will feel about reaching new milestones, thus finally accomplishing your goal.

    Mix and Match

    Now that you have these five ways of staying motivated, it is a good moment to give you the key to them all: mix and match!

    Pick one of the techniques and apply it to your situation. If it doesn’t work, or if you simply want to get more motivated, try another technique right way. Mix different approaches and match them to your task for the best results.

    Just think about it: Finding good reasons to work on your task is bound to helping you feel better; and identifying ways to make it fun will help you enjoy the task even more.

    Or, if you plan a few points for easier tracking of your progress and on top of that, agree on rewarding yourself as you go; this will make you feel most motivated about anything you have to work through.

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    Featured photo credit: Lucas Lenzi via unsplash.com

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