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Productivity Made Simple: The Key to GTD – Your Daily Graph of Activity

Productivity Made Simple: The Key to GTD – Your Daily Graph of Activity

    Sounds serious, doesn’t it? Thankfully, the whole idea turns out to be quite easy to grasp.

    But first…

    At this point you already know what the main elements of productivity are and where to start with GTD. This is all great, but we’re still lacking one important piece of information…

    What the hell to do with all this stuff?!

    And today, we’re going to cover exactly that.

    Understanding the Diagram of Action

    When working with GTD you’re basically doing one of three things at all times:

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    • Take care of defined tasks.
    • Take care of undefined tasks.
    • Plan (define) your tasks.

    These things fall into a loop, and repeat themselves throughout the day, week, month, and so on.

    Planning your tasks will be the topic of the next post in this series, so let’s leave it for now and focus on the first two things.

    • Defined tasks/activities are everything that’s in your Projects List, Next Tasks List, Future/maybe List, and Calendar. You know, all the stuff you’ve planned to do eventually.
    • Undefined tasks/activities are everything that comes at you by surprise, forcing you to take some kind of action. Like when your spouse calls you and yells that your house is on fire. (That’s an extreme example, but I’m only trying to get my point across.)

    Defined and undefined are the only possible types of tasks you might stumble upon on your way through life. Everything is either familiar to you (things you’ve planned for), or new and unexpected (things you didn’t predict would happen).

    So defined tasks we’ve got covered. Whenever you’re in the mood for work you just pick one from your Next Tasks List and execute it. But what to do when undefined tasks happen? Do we simply do them, or what?

    This is where the Daily Graph of Activity comes into play.

    Getting to Know Your Daily Graph of Activity

    First, the graph itself. Don’t get discouraged right from the start because the thing is actually quite easy to grasp — as I’m explaining below.

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    GTD graph

      There’s a thing called things on top of the graph. Things are everything that crosses your path during the day – everything your life hits you with (the undefined tasks). Getting an email is a thing. Coming up with a new idea for something is a thing. Receiving a phone call is a thing. Getting a direct order from your boss is also a thing. In a sentence – everything that requires any kind of reaction on your part is a thing.

      So the things go into your inbox. The inbox doesn’t have to be an actual inbox, like an email inbox or a traditional mailbox in your front yard. This is simply a place where all the incoming things land.

      You can create a folder on your computer’s desktop, for example. Or write everything down on sticky notes and stick them to your computer’s screen. Or have a special container next to your desk. The choice is truly up to you. Whatever makes the most sense to you can be used as an inbox.

      So everything lands there and waits until some further action on your part. What you do is pick something up from the inbox and answer the first question: What is it? Do I have to (or want to) do anything about it?

      If the answer is no then you have four main options you can do next.

      • Trashing the thing. Pretty self-explanatory.
      • Putting it in your Future/Maybe List. If you think you might want to work with this thing in the future.
      • Scheduling it in your Calendar. If you need to take action on it on an exact date and time (remember, your Calendar is sacred).
      • Putting it in your Reference Files. If it’s just some piece of information you want to keep, but it’s not actionable in any way.

      If the answer is yes then a second question arises: Is it the next possible action?

      The undefined things you’re hit with during the day can be constructed very differently. They can be simple one-action activities (like an email saying, “Take out the trash”, or they might as well start massive projects (like, “Start the marketing campaign for Coca-Cola”). So the question above is where you decide if it’s the former or the latter.

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      If it indeed is something that sounds like a new project then you need to put it in your Projects List, and then do some planning around it to come up with a list of possible tasks for it (I’ll cover this more in the next post in the series).

      However, if it is just a simple one-action activity/task then you should consider taking care of it immediately. Hence the third question on the graph: Can I do it in less than 2 minutes?

      Why the 2 minute restriction? Because if you were to take care of every one-action task someone sends you right at the spot you wouldn’t be able to do anything else in a day. GTD simply protects you against a situation when incoming tasks are sabotaging your way of working.

      So, if you can indeed do it in less than 2 minutes then simply do it. An example of such a task is one I gave you a couple of paragraphs above – someone telling you to take out the trash.

      Unfortunately, most undefined tasks cannot be done in less than 2 minutes. That’s just life.

      There are two choices for you in such a case. You can either delegate them, or defer them.

      • Delegating something means to simply send it to someone else. Your assistant, your contractor, or whoever else you have to spare or find the thing to be a suitable task for. Once you send the task to them, simply put it in your “Waiting for” List so you don’t forget to get back to that person and ask about their progress.
      • Deferring something means placing it in one of two possible places: either your Calendar or your Next Tasks List.

      Put it in your Calendar if it absolutely needs to be done on a specific date, otherwise put it in your Next Tasks List so you can get back to it when you decide to work on your defined tasks.

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      That’s all there is to the graph. Following it honestly lets you handle every undefined task very effectively.

      Undefined tasks are the ones that can completely ruin your perfectly planned out day; GTD can help you to prevent such a situation.

      Now what?

      We know what to do with our defined tasks (simply do them when you have some time) and we also know what to do with our undefined tasks (define them as explained above). But there’s one more quick thing I want to share with you today. And that is how to review your work each day/week, and actually be aware of what’s going on.

      Here’s what I personally do.

      1. Each day I start with my Calendar. Because I know that the most important tasks for a given day are right there. Tasks that can’t be overlooked. I advise you to do the same and start your day by checking out your Calendar as well.
      2. When I’m done with the Calendar I take my Next Tasks List, pick one task and start executing it. Then I pick another task, then another and so on.
      3. Additionally, once a week I do a bigger review and have a look at all my lists: Projects List, Future/Maybe List, Waiting for List, and I make sure that my priorities are still the same and that I still want to execute all those things that are there. I also plan my next week and update everything so it’s perfectly in tune with my current goals and matters. This is also the time for creating new projects and deleting old ones — you know, cleaning stuff up.

      And that’s it. This whole methodology comes down to these simple activities:

      1. Take care of your Calendar.
      2. Take care of your Next Tasks List.
      3. Review everything.
      4. Repeat.

      And that is why GTD is so effective in a real-life environment.

      (Photo credit: Decision Making Phrase 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 July 21, 2021

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

      Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

      Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

      A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

      Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

      In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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      From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

      A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

      For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

      This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

      The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

      That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

      Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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      The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

      Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

      But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

      The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

      The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

      A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

      For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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      But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

      If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

      For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

      These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

      For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

      How to Make a Reminder Works for You

      Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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      Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

      Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

      My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

      Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

      I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

      More on Building Habits

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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      Reference

      [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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