Monthly Archives: June 2007

How to order yourself around

So how do you make your to-do’s
doable? When it’s time to add something to your list, stop and think it
through, using the following guidelines.

  • Break it down. The best way to make yourself avoid a task like the plague is to make it a vague monstrosity. The Getting Things Done
    productivity system defines projects differently from tasks: projects
    have multiple sub-actions. That’s an important distinction –
    internalize it, because your to-do list is not your project list. Don’t
    add multi-action tasks to it, like “Clean out the office.” Break it
    down to smaller, easier-to-tackle subtasks like “Purge filing cabinet,”
    “Shred old paperwork” or “Box up unneeded books for library drive.”
    Because Assistant you is going to run for the hills when Boss you says
    “Clean out the office.”

  • Work through projects using next actions.
    If you’ve got a multi-action task – that is, a project – only keep its
    next sequential action on your to-do list. When the task is complete,
    refer back to your project list (again, separate from to-do’s) and add
    its next action to your to-do list. At any given moment, your to-do
    list should only contain the next logical action for all your working
    projects. That’s it – just one bite-sized step in each undertaking.

  • Use specific, active verbs.
    When you’re telling yourself to do something, make it an order. An item
    like “Acme account checkup” doesn’t tell you what has to be done. Make
    your to-do’s specific actions, like “Phone Rob at Acme re: Q2 sales.”
    Notice I didn’t use the word “Contact,” I said “Phone.” Contact could
    mean phone, email, or IM, but if you’re taking out all the thinking and
    leaving in only action, your verbs will be as specific as possible.
    Literally imagine yourself instructing a personal assistant on her
    first day on the job what you need done.

  • Keep your list short.
    Just like no one wants to look at an email inbox with 2,386 messages in
    it, no one wants to have an endless to-do list. It’s overwhelming and
    depressing, like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I keep my
    to-do list under 20 items. (This morning it’s only 17 tasks long, and
    I’d call myself a busy person.) Does that sound like too little?
    Remember, your to-do list isn’t a dumping ground for project details,
    or “Someday I’d like to” items. These are tasks you’re committed to
    getting done in the very near future – like the next 2 weeks. Keep your
    projects and someday/maybe items elsewhere. Your to-do list should be
    short, to the point commitments which involve no more deciding whether
    or not you’re really serious about doing it.

  • Keep it moving.
    While my to-do list is only 20 items or so, it’s 20 items that change
    every single day. Every day 2-5 tasks get checked off, and 2-5 tasks
    get added. Remember, your to-do list is a working document, not some
    showy “look how organized I am!” thing that quietly gathers dust
    because you’re off doing real work which isn’t written down anywhere.

  • Prioritize.
    While your to-do list might have 20 items on it, the reality is you’re
    only going to get a couple done per day (assuming you’re not writing
    down things like “get up, shower, make coffee, go to work…”). So make
    sure those tasks are at the very top of your list. How you do this will
    depend on what tool or software you use to track your to-do’s, but do
    make sure you can see what you need to get done next at a glance.

  • Purge.
    Just like you should be able to see what tasks are top priority on your
    to-do list, you should be able to see what items have been on your list
    the longest as well. Chances are you’ve got some mental
    blockage around the tasks that have been sitting around forever, and
    they’ve got to be re-worded or broken down further. Or perhaps they
    don’t need to get done after all. Deleting an item from your to-do list
    is even better than checking it off, because you’ve saved yourself the

  • Log your done items. Like any good assistant,
    you want to show the Boss exactly much you’ve gotten done. Make sure
    you stow your done items somewhere so you can revel in your own
    productivity. Also, your “done” list is a great indicator of whether or
    not your to-do list is working: if more than 2 days goes by without a
    new done item? It’s time to revamp your to-do list and get back to best

7 Secrets of the Super Organized

Thanks to the Dumb Little Man

So here are the 7 habits:

1. Reduce before organizing. The mistake most people make when trying to organize their stuff or their tasks or their projects is that they have a whole mess of things to organize, and it’s too complicated. If you have a closet crammed full of stuff, sure, you can buy a bunch of closet organizers, but in the end, you’ll still have a closet crammed full of stuff. Same thing with time management: you can organize a packed schedule, but it’ll still be crammed full of tasks. The solution: reduce, eliminate, simplify. If you take your closet full of 100 things and throw out all but the 10 things you love and use, now you don’t need a fancy closet organizer. Same thing with time management: if you have 20 things to do today, and reduce it to just the three most important tasks, you don’t need a schedule anymore. How to reduce: take everything out of a closet or drawer or other container (including your schedule), clean it out, and only put back those items you truly love and really use on a regular basis. This will leave you with a pile of other stuff — get rid of it by tossing it, donating it, selling it or giving it to somebody who will love it. If you can’t bear to part with some of the stuff, put it in a “maybe” box and store it in your attic or basement or other storage space. Label it with a description and date, and six months later, when you haven’t needed any of it, toss it.

2. Write it down now, always. Our minds are wonderful things, but they leak like a sieve. We don’t remember things when we need to remember them, and they continually come up when we don’t need them. Instead of using your mind as storage for things you need to remember, write it down. I carry a small pocket notebook wherever I go, and write things down immediately. Then I process the ideas and tasks later into my calendar or to-do list, so I don’t forget.

3. Have one inbox & process. Well, actually you need two inboxes – one for home and one for work. But many people have many more than that — paper comes to their desk and lands in a number of places. Phone messages get placed everywhere. Notes to self are posted all over the place. Instead, have one inbox, and put all incoming stuff in there. Then, once a day (or once a week at home if that works better for you), process the inbox to empty. Take an item out of the inbox and decide what to do with it, right away: toss it, delegate it, file it, put it on your to-do list, or do it now. Do the same thing to the next item, until your inbox is empty. Don’t defer these decisions for later.

4. A place for everything. Related to the above tip is to have a place for each item in your life. Where do your car keys go? You should have one place for them (next to the door is best) and you’ll never lose them again. Where do your pens go? How about your magazines? I teach my kids to find a “home” for every toy or other item in their rooms (even still, their toys are mostly homeless wanderers, but they’re kids) and that’s a concept that works for us grown-ups too: each item should have a home, and if it doesn’t, we need to designate one. Labels can help you remember where those homes are. Now, if you find something on your table or counter top or on you bed or on your desk, you know that it doesn’t belong there. Find its home — don’t just toss something anywhere. The same concept applies to information: do you have one place where you put all your information? If not, try a personal wiki — it’s accessible from work and home, and you can create pages for each type of information in your life — schedules, goals, to-dos, movies to watch, books to read, notes on projects, etc.

5. Put it away now. Most people have a habit of putting something on a table or counter top or on their desk with the intention of “putting it away later”. Well, this is how things get messy and disorganized. Instead, put it away now — in its home. It only takes a few seconds, and this one habit will save you a lot of cleaning and sorting and organizing later. When you find yourself putting something down, catch yourself, and force yourself to put it away now. After a little while, it will become second nature.

6. Clean as you go. Closely related to Habit 5, this habit is effective because it’s much easier to clean things as you work or as you move through your day than to let them pile up and do a big cleaning session later. So if you’re cooking, try to wash your dishes as you use them, and wipe the counter, instead of leaving a huge mess. Same principle applies to everything we do. If it’s easier to do it in smaller increments, we are more likely to do it. If there is a huge mess to clean, we are more likely to be intimidated or overwhelmed by it and leave it for later.

7. Develop routines & systems. If you’ve gotten everything uncluttered and organized, you might sit back and enjoy the pleasantness of it. Being organized and having a simplified working environment or home is tremendously satisfying. But the problem is that after a little while, things tend to start to get disorganized and cluttered again. Things tend to gravitate towards chaos. The solution: you need to develop systems to keep your organization in place. For example, the inbox processing mentioned above is a system: you have specific procedures for processing all incoming papers, and you have a routine for doing it (once a day). All systems follow the same guidelines — specific procedures and a routine that is done at a set interval (three times a day, once a day, once a week, once a month, etc.). It’s important that you identify the systems you have in your life (and they exist, even if you don’t know they do — but they may be complicated and chaotic) and write them out so that you can make them efficient, simple, and organized. Develop systems for dealing with paperwork and mail, with kids schedules, with errands and laundry and chores and exercise and everything else. Once those systems are in place, you need to be vigilant about keeping them going, and then things will stay organized.

The Go-to Guy

The Go-To Guy — From Management by Fire a Conversation with Chef Anthony Bourdain, excerpted from the July 2002 Harvard Business Review:

Every kitchen has one evil genius who’s tolerated—someone you turn to when all else fails—a rule breaker, a scamp who’s willing to make a hard and sometimes unlovely decision for expediency. There’s actually a name for this person—the debrouillard, the person who gets you out of a jam.” Every project team needs one. Have you thanked him or her recently?”