Thursday, October 25, 2012

Clearing Your Head

Lately I've been feeling very scatterbrained. I have ton of small projects and tasks that I want/need to get done--at home and at work. I really hate that. Give me one big, time-consuming project, like a wedding or a user guide, and I'll dig in no problem. But give me a bunch of smaller things to work on and I'm about as focused as Honey Boo Boo doing an interview.

It's times like this when I need to revisit the basics of organization. At my last job, the CEO got on a big productivity kick. This resulted in two things: 1) we all got free personal label makers (sweet); 2) we had to listen to a "Getting Things Done" presentation by someone from the David Allen Company. We also got a copy of his book, but honestly the label maker was way more exciting.

I never fully immersed myself in the GTD system, but I did take a few practices and tips away from the presentation. The crux of GTD is that you want to free up your mind to focus on the task at hand. If you're trying to remember everything you need to get done, you're going to be distracted. You need a dedicated system for organizing your tasks so you can stop worrying about them. This is called distributed cognition.

A few of my favorite tips are:

  • Get your inbox empty every day. Look through your inbox every day and "process" each item. This means deleting it if you don't need it, moving it to another folder for reference, or attaching it to a task. 
  • Do not get distracted as you're going through your inbox. If a task will take 2 minutes or less, do it right then and there, as you're thinking about it. Otherwise, write it down for later and move on.
  • Schedule time each day to go through your inbox and get it back to empty. Also set aside time to review your task lists, adding any new task and updating existing ones. Some people choose to check their email only two times a day (for example, noon and 4pm). That way, you're not constantly interrupting your work. If you go this route, you might set Outlook to manual send/receive so that you're not distracted by new mail.
  • Set a task list for the next day before you go home. When you come in the next morning, you know exactly where to begin.

But, by far, my absolute FAVORITE practice from this system is the brain dump exercise. Seriously, do it when you're stressed and it will feel like you just got hit with the Care Bear Stare.

(photo stolen from

So here's what you do:

1. Grab yourself some scratch paper (or open a blank Word doc or Notepad file or whatever).

2. Write down EVERYTHING that's on your plate. This can be work-related or not, things that are already in-process or things you might want to do some day. Just grab anything floating around in your mind and smash it onto the paper. Don't worry about order, structure, anything. Here's an example:

I kept my list to non-work things only because I figured it's probably not cool to post work info on my personal blog. As you can see, I started out with a parallel structure, but then the brain dump frenzy overtook me and I just got CRAZY and began some of the items with NOUNS. WHAT??

3. Choose where you're going to keep your list. It helps if you can keep everything in one location, but I don't. For work items, I use the Tasks pane in Outlook. For personal items, I use the "Errands" app on my phone. It's not my favorite, but it's free. I've heard "Teux Deux" is an amazing app. There's also "Remember the Milk" and "Evernote." If I get over my aversion to spending money on apps, I might try one of those some day. If you're not very techie (but still read blogs?) get yourself a pretty notebook.

4. Create categories in your application (or pages in your notebook) for organizing your tasks. My categories are: Home, Computer, Calls to Make, Errands, Christmas, Planning/preparation, Work. I really like Christmas.

5. For each item in your brain dump list, create a task. Identify the next action for that item so that your task gives you a clear call to action. Take, for example, the "Halloween candy for trick-or-treaters" item on my list. I'm not going to go out and buy Halloween candy as a separate errand--I just need to remember to pick some up when we get groceries this weekend. So my task would be "Add candy to the grocery list." But that's silly. Why would I create a task for it when just adding candy to my list takes the same amount of time? If a task takes less than 2 minutes, just do it then and there.

You can bundle some tasks together, if it makes sense. For example, in my list, I had a few things I needed to talk to my sister Abbie about. Apparently we really need to catch up!

I created one task: "Talk to Abbie about". I set the task to create a check list out of my notes and then put each task from my brain dump as a line in the note section. I made a similar combined task for emailing Pete.

The GTD system does not advocate creating reminders for yourself--the idea is you train yourself to turn to your list whenever you have time to work it down. You don't want to set yourself up for distraction. I don't follow that. I find that scheduling reminders helps. For example, I want to be reminded to talk to Abbie about some key items when I meet up with her tonight for a cold-weather running class. So I scheduled a reminder for that task at 7:30pm, approximately 1 hour after the class starts (when it should end).

6. Schedule time weekly to perform a brain dump exercise and update your task list. Friday before leaving work seems to be a good time.

The problem is, you have to be very rigorous with forcing yourself to follow these practices, and I'm just...not. When I find myself buried under tasks, I bust out these tips. But, honestly  I think the brain dump activity is most fun when you haven't done it for a while. Which is a silly reason to allow myself to get swamped. Hopefully this time I'll keep up with the GTD system (and finally manage to get my Inbox emptied).

By the way, I owe you a food log from yesterday, so today you get two!

Tuesday food log

1 container Fage Greek yogurt 0% with blueberry acai - 3 pts
2 cups coffee (Vanilla Hazelnut) - 0 pts
2 packets Equal sweetener - 0 pts
4 Tbsp half and half - 2 pts
2 Tbsp 2% milk - 0 pts
2 cups mixed salad greens - 0 pts
1/4 cup cooked broccoli - 0 pts
1 packet Holy Guacamole 100 calorie packs - original flavor - 3 pts
1 Tbsp Newman's Own Salad Dressing, Olive Oil and Vinegar - 2 pts
2 oz canned chicken - 1 pt
1/2 sweet potato - 2 pts
2 tsp ground cinnamon - 0 pts
1 banana - 0 pts
2 Tbsp peanut butter - 5 pts
3 oz cooked chicken breast, seasoned with oregano and garlic powder - 3 pts
1/2 cups white rice with 1 tsp butter - 4 pts
1 cup cooked green beans with 2 tsp brown sugar and 1 tsp butter - 2 pts

Wednesday food log

1 container Fage Greek yogurt 0% with blueberry acai - 3 pts
2 cups coffee (Vanilla Hazelnut) - 0 pts
2 packets Equal sweetener - 0 pts
2 Tbsp half and half - 1 pts
4 Tbsp 2% milk - 1 pts
1 cup WW hearty turkey chili - 6 pts
1 apple - 0 pts
2 plain unsalted rice cakes - 2 pts
3 Tbsp peanut butter - 8 pts
1 banana - 0 pts
Vegetable omelet: 1 egg and 2 egg whites, spinach, onions and 1 oz reduced-fat colby - 8 pts
1 slice white toast with 2 tsp butter - 4 pts
Evening snack
Chocolate banana ice cream: 1 frozen banana in the food processor with 2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder - 0 pts

Do you have any productivity tips you swear by?
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