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I drew this on a screenshare today while talking to a MassLandlords manager.
I don’t remember where I learned it*. The basic gist is that lots of people will suggest lots of things for you to do.
Some things are going to be hard and have a low impact on your goals. Write them down, but don’t do them.
- These might become more relevant or less difficult in the future.
- Writing them down, as opposed to outright rejecting them, lets you return to them in the future. It also is more politically palatable to a requester to hear that it’s in your system, albeit lower priority, than “I have deleted your request.”
Others are going to be easy, low impact. Most administration falls into this category. Hire for it if you can. If you’re not able to hire, do these items when you’re tired.
- Anna Dietrich described these items as “zombie tasks” or “shooting zombies” because they are repetitive and won’t ever die. I like that analogy.
- When possible, try to eliminate the source of the zombies. Automation or process changes can eliminate a lot of the low impact work we take as given.
Some things are easy and will have a high impact on your goals. Do these asap.
- This is the most difficult thing for someone detail-oriented like me to do. I like to have a clean desk and inbox zero. Much of my best work happens because I ignore the other pressures.
The final set are things that will have a high impact but are hard. These require project plans and a longer-term commitment.
- It’s extremely important not to let a “high impact” item linger because you haven’t created the project plan. Oftentimes the first “action” is a brainstorm or research. Get these items into your task list. David Allen’s advice is invaluable on this front. Define the next action. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I don’t like spending lots of time bucketing items into different categories. I don’t like systems that have nine or 16 squares. This four-square framework can be useful for communicating when you will or will not work on something. Otherwise, just get back to work.
*Covey’s Original Prioritization Framework
It turns out Stephen Covey popularized this, but he didn’t have “difficulty,” he had “urgency.” This switch hides any recognition that management or project planning might be needed. I might have learned to replace “urgency” with “difficulty” at Pratt & Whitney, I don’t know. Suffice it to say I think of the grid above when I think of priority frameworks.
Thinking of “urgency” works better in the “personal productivity” space, but less well in organizations. Everything is urgent to the requester.
Back in September I wrote a short piece about how I was spending my time. Since it’s about six months later I thought I’d update the graph.
These are 40 day moving averages. When I think about where my financial future lies, I think it’s mostly ArtistBomb and partly MassLandlords.net. The way I spend my time backs that up.
The period in December where I focused less on ArtistBomb and more on the Worcester Property Owners Association (WPOA) coincides with the end of the restructuring effort at the WPOA. This put in place a new Board of Directors and a new action team, and roles were changed for most folks. Now WPOA is moving forward smoothly and the focus there is on MassLandlords.net, which I’ve spiked out separately.
MassLandlords.net has the potential to be a unified source of digital resources for landlords in Massachusetts. I’m enormously proud of the work done by Stellar Web Studios and the WPOA Board of Directors to help get this project off the ground.
You can see that other projects, like the BagPack for Hands Free Groceries, and even this blog, are getting less attention now. Partly this is because they’re getting less traction, partly it’s because they’re more clearly “lifestyle” activities. Yes, I like selling little grocery carrying straps on the side.
ArtistBomb.com and MassLandlords.net have been improved by what I learned with Hands Free Groceries and dougjq.com. So even if the latter properties aren’t as valuable, it’s not like the time spent there has been wasted.
Last month I commented on an article written by Rob Go that included the idea entrepreneurs should focus on “one company at a time”. I think about that when this graph gets updated every couple of days. Would either ArtistBomb or MassLandlords.net go faster if I wasn’t also actively landlording? Yes. Would they go faster if I were focusing on one and not both? Yes. Well, am I doing the wrong thing by splitting my attention so?
It seems like both businesses – ArtistBomb and MassLandlords.net — have the same kinds of challenges. In particular, can you reach enough of your customers at a low enough cost to make it worthwhile? The interesting thing about working both at the same time is that each has a different set of tools available. So in theory I can work with two different teams trying different tactics. What I learn at one can be brought to the aid of the other immediately.
From that point of view, I don’t think split focus is really so bad. Not right now, anyway.
Thoughts? Leave a comment.
It’s nice to look back on a day and think how productive we’ve been. But all too often our natural ups and downs take us to a point where we’re too tired to get things done. The best advice I was ever given wasn’t about “taking a break,” or “getting some coffee.” But those do help sometimes. Really, the advice boils down to “prepare to be tired.”
What does it matter if I’m not productive?
Think about your bathroom at home. If you’re like me, you don’t have a maid to come in and clean it. You have to clean it yourself. You really have one choice about it: clean it yourself or don’t. No amount of preventative care is going to keep grime from coating every surface. If you’re productive enough to keep it clean, you’ll enjoy a higher standard of living than someone who isn’t and who doesn’t.
The same applies to your work. The same applies to everyone’s work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the data to make this graph, which shows relative non-farm productivity per hour since 1947.
This gives some value to how much higher our standard of living is now than in 1947. We enjoy at least four times the standard of living. Three examples: quick healthy food options, Internet data sources, and cars that start reliably in zero degree weather. I’d say those three are at least 10x improvements.
So you can sit back and relax, or you can do something to work towards that car you’ve always wanted. (It’s not a mid-life crisis, it’s about standard of living!)
So how do you get things done when tired?
Don’t do easy stuff when you’re full of beans.
Let me reiterate that: being productive when you’re tired is more about not doing than doing.
Here’s the example that drove it home for me. I used to grade papers and write problem set solutions for a technical class. The professor running the class looked at the dark circles under my eyes and said, in effect, “I can see you’re not coping.” (He likes to cut to the chase, and I appreciate that.)
“Grading is easy, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“These problem set solutions are not very good, are they.”
“Do your problem set solutions when you’re fresh. Knowing you, I’d say that’s in the morning. Grade papers late at night. All you’re doing is pattern-matching against the solution anyway. You can do that in your sleep.”
And he was right. Very, very right. It’s been a while, but maybe I can still grade thermodynamics in my sleep.
The Getting Things Done Implementation
To prepare for being tired, you need to resist the temptation to do easy things when you’re fully alert. But you don’t want to forget the easy things that still need to get done. Enter David Allen’s seminal book, “Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”
Allen advises a “collection habit.” That means when you think of something that needs doing, you write it someplace you’ll check later.
For me, that’s an Excel spreadsheet.
Whatever format you use for your task list, it should indicate the context in which you’ll do the task. Some tasks require a phone. Others require a specific person. Any task can be put in the context of your energy state. Here’s a screenshot of my actual task list:
The column headers are
- Which project does this task support?
- In what context can the task be done?
- What is the task? (Really specific, so I don’t have to think too hard about it)
- Status. (blank = not done, “waiting for” means we’ll filter it out until the tickler comes up. “maybe someday” is a parking lot)
- When do I want to be reminded about this task?
You can see down the “context” column that all these tasks require a network connection (most do nowadays), and
- The “high energy” tasks are things I do when I’m energized. They’re often long tasks.
- The “scattered” tasks are the things I do when I’m over-caffeinated, likely to be interrupted soon, or tired. They’re all short little things or things that don’t need much concentration or willpower to do.
- The “leisure” tasks are things I do when I have some fun time.
The natural implementation
If you’re too tired to filter a spreadsheet down to “tired” tasks, just look around your desk. Something can be filed. Something else can be shredded. That collection of receipts can be entered into QuickBooks. That coffee mug can be washed out.
That is, as long as you didn’t do those this morning when you were operating at 100%. If you did, you’ll be staring at a clean desk with an egregiously difficult cover sheet to write for that TPS report. Not good.
Saving these light-weight tasks amounts to planning a productive little break. While your tired brain is resting, you’ll still be doing productive things that need to get done.
Try it and see for yourself.
I’d like to share some interesting time management data I’ve collected over the last nine months. When I first left Terrafugia, in October 2012, I started what my McKinsey friend called “search.” That’s when your full time job becomes finding your next full time job. I was busy with “search” the very first day off of work, finding entrepreneurial networking groups, looking into various business ideas, and meeting with all kinds of people about all kinds of topics.
After a time, it became clear that certain projects would earn my regular and ongoing attention. The graph below shows one series for each such project. The data begin on January 24, 2013, but they’re smoothed out as 40 day moving averages. The vertical axis shows “level of effort,” or what percent of my working hours went to a given project.
A short legend:
- “mtl 7” is my rental property. It’s a steady 10% effort except during vacancies, like in March and April.
- “ArtistBomb” is a bona fide tech startup with real potential; it’s where I put most of my effort now.
- “ghost bear” was the code name given to a project to develop a luxury consumer product. This was canceled due to what we forecast as shrinking margins and rising development costs.
- “stocks, finances, and accounting” is the time I spend keeping my financial house in order.
- “wpoa” is the Worcester Property Owners Association, a volunteer effort with far-reaching possibilities down the road
- “blog/consult/elance” tracks my time developing this blog, doing ad hoc consulting, and learning how to use elance both as buyer and seller. They’re grouped because these activities happen under the same entity.
- the “bagpack” is the BagPack for Hands Free Groceries, a consumer product that was able to get off the ground. (We’re still looking for a real model.)
- “search” includes the wide variety of projects with which I’ve had some contact, including apps for local search, hardware and software for robotic vision, and just over a dozen other concepts pitched to me. It also includes my networking time before I started representing ArtistBomb exclusively.
- “business of life” is my catch-all for things like “getting new tires” or “getting new cell phone.” They directly benefit my productivity but can’t be allocated fairly to any project.
I find it interesting to look back and see how my attention has shifted hither and thither. Some projects require constant nurturing, some develop wings and fly off on their own, some have to be taken around back and shot. But that’s the risk with any new venture. Good time management ensures that you’re getting the most out of yourself, even if sometimes you head down blind alleys.
If you’re interested in knowing how I track my time like this, check out my previous article.
What do you think? Have you pivoted your time away from some things and onto others in the past year?
Yes, I guess I am, but I don’t feel that way. Below are some fun statistics from my personal task list, and one big surprise at the end.
(For those of you that don’t know, I follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done to stay in control and Making it All Work to keep perspective. The gist of the first book is simply that you should write down everything that occurs to you and keep this all in one place. That way you never panic that you’re forgetting something. The gist of the second book is that you should keep a separate, shorter list of bigger things that matter.
I also follow Andrew Grove’s High Output Management, which is what inspired me to start taking data on this stuff.)
This first graph shows task completion since I started tracking data last winter:
My collection habit means I go through phases, like May to early June, where I add much more to my list than I can remove. If the blue line stays above the red line indefinitely, my task list will expand forever, and that’s bad. So I want that red line up high. Overall, the red line makes it looks like I only do five things a day. I guess most of what I do is so spontaneous and isn’t on the list.
This second graph shows the quality of my tasks. One of the things David Allen goes on about is making sure that your tasks have a context. So I want that green line down near zero. Most folks would also want that purple line down near zero, too, because that would mean they could retire (nothing left to do). But for me, always thinking about what could be better, I’m okay with letting it pile up until I get some help.
You can see the effect of tracking metrics in these first two graphs. When I first started back in December, I saw literally hundreds of task list items that had no context and appeared undone. I reviewed these all until they had moved to wherever they belonged. Some of them were given contexts and/or set status = “complete.” Others were set status = “maybe someday,” which means I still might get to them. For instance, some day, maybe, I want to dedicate a statue in a park. Doesn’t need to be on next week’s “to do” list.
This final graph speaks to my ability to follow-up. David Allen defines a “tickler” as a reminder to do something. As of yesterday, there were about ten ticklers overdue. The red line indicates that I’m waiting for something and I haven’t set a tickler date. That’s not helpful, so I want that down near zero.
So what’s the big surprise? Since I started tracking data in December, I’ve completed 937 tasks and 23 major projects. That’s about one project a week. Here’s a sampling:
- Win my first freelance consulting job.
- Prove that some physics we were testing in one program works.
- Rent out one apartment. And then another.
- Help Team #1 launch a consumer product (Hands Free Groceries).
- Write a business plan for XYZ (didn’t start).
- Help Team #2 launch a tech startup (ArtistBomb).
- Help Team #3 rewrite the bylaws for a non-profit (had some help on this one).
And I’m not breaking a sweat. Thank you, David Allen and Andrew Grove.
It’s winter in Boston and it’s dark by 5p. When it’s night already and you didn’t get much done, you can feel like the day just escaped you. Here’s a trick to keep a sharper look-out on your time: keep a time log. All you need is a small, reporter-style notebook and a pen. Here’s how it works.
Your First Time Log
Just for a couple days, every time you switch from one activity to another, jot down the time and a short description of what you were doing. Then, when you have a couple of days’ worth of data, look at where you spent your time.
Oftentimes, the simple act of paying attention to what you’re doing is enough to help you use your time more effectively. But sometimes when you look back over a day’s work, you’ll see surprising things. When I first tried this, I was amazed at how much time went to helping coworkers figure things out. I had previously thought of these drop-in tasks as interruptions, but when I realized how much time it took, and how important it was, I started thinking about it as my major job responsibility.
That’s a good example of where time tracking can eliminate a stressful perception about “wasted time” that really isn’t. It can also shed light on the timesinks. Email, for instance, is crazy-inefficient compared to high-bandwidth phone calls or face-to-face meetings. If you find yourself spending a long time in a general bucket, like “email” or “errands,” try to rephrase it in terms of what you’re actually accomplishing. If the email is related to that new product launch, then that time spent emailing counts as “product launch” time. If you thought about “product launch” as your goal, would your first action be to check email?
To summarize your activities, you might take a clean sheet of paper and write down in one column “activities,” and then in another column write down “blocks of time.” You can get very sophisticated with this, and in fact, it’s the essence of cost accounting for professional attorneys and hourly contractors.
A few tips
- There’s no need to be very precise, just put down times to the nearest quarter hour.
- Try to make the activity descriptions useful for your review. For instance, if you split your time among three projects, better to write down “project A” or “project B” rather than, “typing report”
- If you’re focused just on time management while at work, leave out out-of-work activities.
I’m curious to hear whether you find out anything surprising. Drop me a note, or leave your comments below!