Over the last few months I’ve got a lot better at getting stuff done, and I’m going to share some of the techniques that have made this happen. This website isn’t about productivity, it’s about inner freedom and wholeness, so why am I writing this? It’s because of the effect that productivity, and lack of productivity, has on your state of mind.
I’ve been amazed what a difference getting on top of my to-dos has made. My mind feels more relaxed, open and calm, and a little knot I often felt in my solar plexus is gone. We often look to spiritual or psychological approaches for this kind of thing, but this can, to borrow a phrase from Thai, be like riding an elephant to catch a grasshopper. Not only is it unecessary, it’s not the most effective way to get what you want. When you’re riding on the top of an elephant you’re going to find reaching down to grab that insect difficult.
My life generates a huge amount of little tasks: a form to fill in, an email to reply to, a doctor’s appointment to make, a shelf to tidy. I guess your life might be similar. The problem is that when tasks pile up, you get buried beneath them. When there is a backlog of little things you know you should do, but which don’t have to be done right now, just some day, maybe next week, or when the next vacation comes round; oh I’ll think about it later, it’s not urgent, after all… you find yourself struggling under its weight. These little (and big) to-dos require processing by your brain. Without realising it, you’re living with a constant source of background mental noise and, at least for me, this creates tension.
I’m going to tell you the four things that have helped me get out of that trap.
1. Do it now
If you can do a task now, and you have time, do it. Your default reaction might be to a task to put it on a to-do list, but this means extra work for yourself because you have to 1) write it down and 2) review that list, and decide when to do it, which is extra mental work. Make your default reaction to do it now, unless there’s a good reason why you can’t.
One good reason why you can’t do it now is because you need to rest. Rest is an excellent reason. We need rest throughout the workday, at the end of the workday, and at the end of the working week. More on this in the next section.
2. Give yourself a break.
Lots of breaks. You will not thrive by over-working yourself. Since I’ve starting using this system I stress less and do more. Before my work day looked like this: I would sit down to my computer in the morning and come up for air two hours later wondering what exactly I had been doing, why I hadn’t completed any of the tasks I had planned for the day. I would then plunge back in for another two hours of more focused activity, but have to stop because I was feeling restless and hungry. I would do another three or four hours after lunch, without any real breaks, finishing hunched up in a poor posture, stressed, and needing a strong drink.
Bugger that. The system I now follow looks like this. You work in 90-minute periods, because that’s enough time to get a lot done, and after 90 minutes of focus you are probably ready for some kind of break. The break should be 20-30 minutes, if you’re in a job that allows that, followed by another 90-minute period. That’s three hours of real focus, and you will then be ready for a leisurely lunch. This break will preferably be well away from your work place, both mentally and physically, and last one to two hours. The afternoon has two more 90-minute periods.
If that seems like a relaxed work day, it’s because it is. I work best when relaxed and at ease, and get significantly more done in three or four of these ninety-minute sessions than I used to get done in much longer, more stressful workday. And in the evening I am freer to enjoy myself because I haven’t got stressed.
If you have a boss, she might not allow this kind of schedule, but you might still find a way to work in some of its principles. It might for example be about going to the coffee machine after a ninety-minute session and having a good chat with colleagues and not feeling at all guilty about it: it’s part of your system of productivity.
One of the keys of this system is that ninety minutes doesn’t seem like a long time. Before this, I would think “I have a whole day ahead of me, which must be plenty of time to get things done”, so I would start with email, social media, and getting lost in endless trails of fascinating google searches. Now *I only have ninety minutes*, and there’s no way I’m going to make Facebook my home base for that short length of time. I don’t check my email at the start of the day, because *I only have ninety minutes*. And I’m going to get stuff done.
The more I force myself to rest, the more I get done.
3. Inbox zero
As soon as I came across this concept, my email habits were changed forever.
I get peace of mind just looking at this screen.
I used to believe that checking my email was a time to read friendly messages from loved ones. Then I woke-up to the fact that almost all of the emails I receive are actually jobs for me to do. So I turned off push notifications, and starting checking my email only when I actually have time to read, reply, and do, all in one sitting. If it’s something I can’t do now, I will leave it in the inbox (for something I know I can do within this week), or file it in a ‘waiting’ folder and set a reminder to deal with it on a certain date in the future. If it’s personal, I will enjoy reading it and then file it in a personal folder. There’s no pressure to reply to these, as they’re not tasks.
Once you’ve experienced an empty inbox, you’ll never want to go back to all that chaos.
4. A book
I’m reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. People rave about it, and follow the system almost religiously, and I can see why. If you want to go deeper with this productivity stuff, read the book.
The techniques I’ve mentioned here might seem too rigid. But they don’t have to be. I don’t follow them like laws, rather as principles. The more often I achieve them, the better I feel, but I never beat myself up for not doing them right.
OK, I’ve been working on this long enough, time to go and get a nice leisurely breakfast.