How I get things done

Wed, Jun 2, 2021 5-minute read

After years — decades — of experimentation, I've learned this about myself: when I follow a certain workflow, I'm happy and productive. When I don't follow it, I'm stressed, anxious, and unproductive. There's no in-between state. If I want to feel good about all the cool things I'm doing, I have to trust the process and follow it rigorously.

These are the things I use to stay sane and productive.

An inbox

My workflow is inspired by Getting Things Done (aka GTD), but I'm not dogmatic about most of it. The critical part is that I have an "inbox" where I record all of the things I need to do. This isn't like an email inbox where people send me things they think are important, but the opposite: I decide what's important enough for me to remember, and those things go into it. I can't overstate the importance of having this.

Rationale

The GTD book goes into detail about the psychology of it, but the gist is:

  • If I've recorded all the commitments I've made in a place where I trust myself to remember them later, my mind can let go of worrying about remembering to do them.
  • If there are things I haven't recorded, my mind will get hung up dwelling on them: "don't forget to buy the widget! Don't forget to email your boss! Don't forget to respond to the customer!"

It's the intrusive thought that I'm about to forget something vitally important that creates stress and diverts my attention from what I'd prefer to be thinking about.

Specific recommendations

I'm a huge OmniFocus fan, and I recommend it for everyone serious about organizing their whole life this way. Anything is better than not having a system, though. If you have Apple devices, the built-in Reminders app is a great way to get started. It lacks OmniFocus's powerful features, but has everything needed to get up and running for free. There's even nothing wrong with a notebook and pen, although that's a lot less flexible in important ways and those are more things I have to remember to always take with me.

Don't underestimate the convenience of a voice assistant here. If I'm out running with my wife and suddenly remember something I need to do, I can say "Hey Siri, remind me to …" and trust that it'll be waiting for me later. Then I can go back to paying attention to how much I hate running.

A daily plan

Every workday, I sit down and sort the things I've recorded in my inbox into project areas like "Personal", "Family", "Work", or a few others. Then I decide what I'm going to try go get done that day. I review each of those project areas for urgent things such as paying a bill or preparing for a meeting, and flag those for my "today" list (which is an OmniFocus "perspective" that shows all the things I want to work on right now). Then I choose a few more things I'd like to get done until I feel like I've planned a day's worth of work.

Rationale

Sorry, GTD purists! This is where my process diverges from The GTD Way, which looks closer to:

  • Find the most important thing to be working on right now.
  • Do it.
  • Repeat.

I've tried to follow that flow many times but it doesn't work for me. I'd rather dedicate time each morning to planning my day than continually revisit my list of possible tasks as I go.

A timer

Deciding what do to is good. Doing it is better. I use the pomodoro technique to make that happen. The short version is:

  • Pick the first thing on my daily plan.
  • Work on that thing for 25 minutes uninterrupted. This time is sacred: I don't do anything else, with the minor exception that if I discover something else I need to do, I'll pause for a moment to add that thing to my inbox so that I can stop thinking about it and go back to the current task.
  • Take a 5 minute break, doing anything but working on the task at hand. Return texts. Check Slack. Browse Hacker News.
  • If I've finished the task, mark it off and move on to the next one.
  • Repeat.

Rationale

I can't work on 1 thing for 8 hours straight (unless it's something that's letting me procrastinate, in which case I'll see you tomorrow). I can't do it. But I can work on anything for 25 minutes, even if it's not something I enjoy doing. That's long enough to get an appreciable amount of work done, but short enough that my focus doesn't drift. It allows me to concentrate intensely on 1 thing at a time without worrying that I'm neglecting important messages from family or coworkers — or worse, getting bored. Because I know that I'll be able to check my texts a few minutes from now, I'm free to think about my current work.

Specific recommendations

I like Focus by Masterbuilders. It works on all the platforms I use, has nice reports, integrates with OmniFocus, and syncs perfectly. I've tried every similar app I can find, but keep returning to Focus.

But any timer can work, from an app on your phone to a physical wind-up time stolen from your kitchen.

Conclusion

Put together, these 3 ingredients give me superpowers:

  • I never forget the things I've promised do to.
  • I always know what the most important things are.
  • I have a way of getting them done that matches the way my brain works.

Without them, I'm a ball of unproductive anxiety. With them, I can do anything. When I find myself feeling swamped by new things to do flying at me faster than I can finish the old ones, my mantra is "rely on the tools". They always see me through.