I want to tell my story. It’s about how, up until 2 years ago, I never felt productive in my work. It went something like this: It’s a Friday or Saturday night and I have some free time to work on personal or freelance projects and I wouldn’t know what to start on. Or I would work on something but never feel like I was working on the right thing at the right time. One reason was that I had an endless mental list of projects, both personal and freelance, that I wanted or needed to complete. It ranged from wanting to redesign my personal portfolio website, shooting more photos, learning new photo editing techniques, completing one of many current freelance website projects, and so on.

The source of negative feelings about your work is related to agreements that you made with yourself and have broken. They are symptoms of disintegrated self-trust.

—David Allen, Getting Things Done

For the first 4 years of my freelance business, I always had at least 3-4 current freelance projects going on at one time. That didn’t include personal hobbies, a full-time job, and a significant other. I was spread so thin, that I was going insane. Oh yeah – and I was a devout fan and follower of Gary Vaynerchuk who encourages and perpetuates the idea of working your ass off for some greater payoff.

Being a fan of business and self-improvement books (did I mention Gary Vaynerchuk?), I came across the book, Getting Things Done, by David Allen. When I read books, I read them with notebook in hand and I take diligent notes. I want the book I’m reading to change me for the better. I’m not one to read books without it resulting in a big change.

Getting Things Done lays out a set of principles and ideas for being more productive. My current take-aways are:

  • My brain is for thinking not remembering.
  • Always keep my head empty by notating everything on my calendar or lists. This is really hard to do, but well worth working toward. This ties in with point one above.
  • Maintain a to-do list system that can be accessed anywhere. I use Wunderlist. See screenshot. Here are some to-do lists that I use:
    • New year’s resolution list with reminders set – and review them weekly during the weekly review. I personally set quarterly goals, rather than annual goals – so I can asses and re-adjust every 3 months, rather than every 12 months.
    • ‘Grocery list’ shared with spouse – we both add items to it as we think about them, and can use it while we are in the store to check items off the list
    • ‘Next month budget’ shared with spouse – we both add budget items we will need to buy during the next month, so we don’t forget anything when we do the budget.
    • ‘Add to Quickbooks’ – a list where I notate the income and expenses I need to add to Quickbooks, so I don’t forget anything.
    • A list for each project with tasks for that project.
    • ‘Waiting’ – a list where I place items that are waiting for someone else to do something. I set reminders on these for the day and time when I need to check-in on those items.
    • Wunderlist allows using hashtags and viewing lists of items marked with each hashtag. I sometimes will mark list items as #home, #work, or #anywhere – This way I can see a list of things I can only do at work or home. I’ve not found this technique very useful – but keep trying it just to see if I’m missing something.
  • I need to know the next specific action for every current project.
  • I should do a weekly review, where I review my upcoming calendar, current projects, and all lists to ensure everything is up to date and that I know the next action for every project. This is a good time to ensure I’ve emptied my head of everything that should be put on my calendar or lists.
  • Set do-dates (when I will do the task, not when it’s due) – I think I learned this one from the podcast, Homework – but it ties in well. Almost all tasks on my lists have reminders for days and times when I should work on them. This takes a lot of stress out of the picture and keeps me realistic about my workload.
  • If there are regular tasks I often forget about, I set a regular reminder. My favorites are my reminders to take trash and recycling to the road – and which weeks recycling needs to go out. Too much time is wasted remembering things that can be automated.

This list take-aways is a wildly truncated and paraphrased version of what the book teaches. If it is interesting to you, I recommend reading the book, and not just taking my word for it.

How it’s going

In mid-2014, I started following these principles consistently. After a few months, I felt a load of stress being lifted from my shoulders. I began feeling productive. I would sometimes simply remove tasks or projects from my lists and decide not do them, because I was deciding to say, “no”, so I could say “yes” to something better (a stress-free life).

Where I fail

I’ve continued to follow these principles consistently for almost 2 years. The stress-free feeling is still there. I do notice that I could be even more stress-free if I was more consistent with the idea of emptying my head so I’m not having to remember things – and I can rely on my list and calendar system. Additionally, I often let my task reminders lapse and not get to my tasks on the day I’m reminded about them. This introduces stress back in to my life. I’ve often thought that for the work day, if I had reminders set for every few hours of projects or tasks I need to work on, I’d be much more productive – but I don’t think that this idea is for everyone nor a core principle of Getting Things Done.

If you have thoughts about Getting Things Done, or would like to share you personal productivity method, let me know in the comments!

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