The Basics of Getting Things Done

A lot has been said and written about productivity. Over the years, I read and tried a lot, and while I'm far from optimal productivity, I did learn to make more consistent progress over the years. Here's my take on the important underlying principles behind most productivity hacks.

While the following list might seem obvious, developing habits to consistently follow those basic principles is hard, and can take years of deliberate practice.

1. Organise

aka Getting Things Done, Next Actions, use external memory

Write down everything you want to do in one central system. If you've never done this before, it will be an enlightening experience: set away one weekend and keep writing until your head is empty. Your mind has to trust the system that's being used for capturing, so it can stop worrying about everything that needs to happen. Keep a Todo list (Todoist/Trello/Notion or just a text file) with concrete Next Actions for all of your projects. When adding, consider if it's actually important; discard immediately otherwise (and feel good about it). Have and use one calendar system. Have a place for non-actionable reference material (e.g., personal wiki or notes app). Have a well-organised directory structure for documents. Setup automatic backups.

2. Prioritise

aka MIPs, cut the crap

Create a Most Important Priorities list first thing in the morning (or the evening before). What are the 1-3 top priorities today that absolutely need to happen? Make them happen before doing anything else (email, news, chit-chat with colleagues). Feel satisfied about the day when you accomplished them. Forty hours per week is an arbitrary target.

Create a to-don't-list. Include your most common time-wasters.

Don't be busy, don't invent things to do instead of those high-impact tasks that move the needle. Be effective, not efficient. Also be efficient, but only once you have your priorities straight. Learn and recognise the difference between urgent and important tasks; most urgent tasks are not important and can be ignored with minimal cost (a small cost for keeping you sane). Schedule the big rocks first, don't sort gravel (it's a lost battle).

Read email (or listen to voicemail) only 1-2x a day, and not first thing in the morning. Don't follow the news (you'll hear it when there's something important; or read a quality paper once per week). Keep yourself on a low-information diet: to produce more output, consume less input.

3. Focus

aka Flow

When executing priorities (e.g., "working"), focus relentlessly, don't multitask, and batch activities to minimise start-up costs. Have systems and habits in place to prevent distractions (disable internet or at least email and chat notifications, wear headphones to signify 'don't disturb'). Find out what gets you into the Flow, but also practice focussing without optimal circumstances. Consider using the Pomodoro technique, doing 100% distraction-free 25-minute stretches (headphones on), then 5-minute breaks (headphones off).

4. Invest time

aka Deliberate Practice

To reach your goals you'll have to invest time. There is no "lifehack" to circumvent this fact. You can't 'make time', you can only reserve it. To make progress, reserve daily / weekly slots on forehand to spent on whatever goals you're trying to accomplish. Defend your time slots relentlessly; even though urgent matters or pleasant distractions will show up, learn to say no to everything popping up and force people to learn to respect your time schedule. This is hard especially for personal goals, including side-projects, self-education, and (potential) hobbies. Set clear goals (e.g., SMART: Specific + Measurable + Attainable + Relevant + Timely).

Start. Track progress. Keep going. Have fun. If you're having trouble keeping motivated, find goal partners (colleagues or fellow students, hobby group, a mentor), hold regular meetings, and keep each other on track. No genius ever became an expert without deliberate practice.

Great resources

  • Getting Things Done - the classic
  • The 5 choices - no-nonsense tips for knowledge professionals
  • The 4-hour work-week - cut the crap
  • The Power Of Habit - convert good intentions into permanent habits

Tech career focussed:

  • Pragmatic Thinking and Learning - practical ideas on how to operate your brain
  • Soft Skills, by John Sonmez


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