Does this sound like you? Even with an assistant, you can’t keep up with phone calls and callbacks, juggling meetings, dinners to attend, and dozens of emails requiring an answer. Your desk is littered with unpaid bills, unanswered letters, unfinished tasks and unfulfilled promises.
You have self-control in certain ways, but when it comes to your Inbox and To Do List, your organization skills are tossed out the door. You are fed up with the mess in your office. You have boxes of paperwork and an overflowing desk. Both sides of your computer are covered with paper and unopened mail. You wish you could sit in the mess, go through your emails and get your work done. But you can’t because your mind is not at ease. In the back of your mind, you feel guilty. You feel guilty that you have to go through emails, clean your desk and organize all the paper.
For millions of people that arrive at work everyday, this is a recurring picture. This scenario is paraphrased from a passage in the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. It is about a typical day in the life of Drew Carey, a well-known American actor, comedian, and sports executive and game show host. Regardless of fame and wealth, getting our professional and personal lives in order is hard.
In my day-to-day life as an information technology (IT) professional, I am often called on by a customer because their computer is down and they need to finish a deadline.
They view me, the ‘techie’ as a kind of magician, who enters the scene, clicks on a few buttons, types in some commands and swaps a component with a new one to make the system work in no time at all.
As every IT professional knows, while we wish it was that quick and easy, we know that without our notes, plans and daily To Do lists and continuous learning, we would be overwhelmed ourselves. Time pressure is a daily reality for IT professionals to solve problems because of a perceived ‘crisis’ and urgent need in the customer’s mind. The consequence is that an IT professional is often required to switch gears on the fly and make countless small decisions and actions on behalf of a client to solve their problem.
Like anyone, IT professionals need downtime to spend time with family and friends. Due to the demands of the job, we find ourselves taking self-improvement course in non-tech subjects like communications, relationship building, time management and productivity. My view is that to be successful as a technology professional, one must spend 70% of their time on self-management and 30% on technology.
Coming to cluttered desks and overflowing email inboxes, I want to provide some tips to better develop habits of efficiency and productivity. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, is the person Drew Carey called for help to get his professional life in order. Allen has been at the forefront of helping people and techies increase productivity and reduce stress over the past decade.
While Allen covers many topics in his book, three simple lessons include:
- Keep the mind clear at all times while focusing on your next action
- Break down large challenges into small projects and then divide them into lists of concrete and real world “next actions”.
- Train yourself to rely on and trust this system in order to avoid worrying about whether you have it all under control.
A “To-Do” list is familiar to most people. However, David Allen’s GTD lessons may be newer in showing people how to leverage their time and potential. The “To-Do” lists we are familiar with involve things like “solve this problem” and “handle this issue”. These lists can be messy, vague and disorganized, and are sometimes counter productive. The reason for this is that doing, “Address this issue” does not specifically indicate what next action you need to take.
David Allen frequently references the RAM metaphor (a popular computer acronym). He says our conscious minds are like RAM in a computer and the many nagging thoughts of “I should be doing this” or “I must not forget to do that later” are bits of information floating around in our RAM. They are stress inducing and counter productive. The problem is further compounded with frequent interruptions from colleagues and clients who invariably end up putting more, not less, on your plate throughout the day. Allen’s philosophy states that: “if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear”.
I consider myself a lifelong student of Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method. The small daily habits I have worked on have been beneficial and moved me towards my goal to stay on track every day. The GTD method is flexible in what tools I use to create lists and get my mind clear. The goal is a clear mind as often as possible. Tools range from a Microsoft Exchange calendar, third party software, mobile apps or even pen and paper. Ultimately, you want to quickly and effectively deal with every new commitment and break it down into clearly defined actionable steps. Getting it out of your head provides clarity.
Once you have clear mind, the next step is obvious. Focus on your most immediate tasks, which are your ‘next action’ steps. My personal example about using GTD is that rely on my iCloud calendar, which has alarms and alerts for all time sensitive tasks.
Additionally, I used an iOS app call “Errands” for lower priority tasks, which can be performed any time soon or by a certain future date. It is important to stay on top of this list. This involves regularly scheduled “reviews” of outstanding next action items, marking tasks no longer relevant and marking completed tasks.
I have learned that getting better with self-improvement and productivity requires practice and repetition. Even making your bed every morning matters according to like making your bed every mornings. In a commencement address, according to Naval Adm. William McRaven, making your bed may be the best way to get things done the rest of your day. Another suggestion I have for you is the listen to Allen’s Getting Things Done audio book, in your car or during your commute to and from work. Remember that listening and doing is required to learn a new habit. Before you know it, if you stick with his lessons, you will get more done at home and at work, feel less stressed and be more focused and happier.