Skip to content

10 Solid Tips for Getting Things Done

Lately I’ve been a bit obsessed with productivity and finding the best system for getting things done. There are tons of them out there. Umpteen different ways you can do everything faster and be more productive. I’ve found a some of them work well for me and some don’t.Most of the sites online focus on one sort of system. You should probably use some sort of system for organizing the things you want to do but there are usually many different ways to do it. You can use any sort of medium for your system. A notebook, whiteboard, note cards, a Word file, a website, almost anything will do. You just need to use it and use it regularly. Here are 10 tips I’ve come across that has really helped me to get organized and stay that way.Use a systemReferring back to what I alluded to above, any kind of system is very helpful for getting things done. Not having a system looks like chaos and that’s literally what it is. Think of trying to cook a meal or living in a kitchen that didn’t have a system. Plates, bowls, mixers, cups and food would be in every imaginable place. It would take hours to find everything you need just get started on your meal. It would even take longer cleaning up because you have no idea where anything would go. You’d need to decide on the fly for every item you were putting away where it would go. That is no way to manage a house or kitchen and it is really no way to manage things to do in your life. Yet that’s how most people get things done.I have to admit, I’ve not had much of a system until now. My email inbox, and friends, family and coworkers were my system. If I forgot something I would be reminded what I needed to do very quickly. Sometimes I remembered, sometimes I didn’t. As things piled up I usually just worked on what I could see in front of my face. Sometimes there was the start of a todo list on a sticky not or a couple notes on my whiteboard. Often things slipped through the cracks. As the number of projects I started working concurrently rose dramatically so did the things that that slipped through the cracks. I had no idea what my workload would look like the next day, it depended entirely on what I could remember. If I couldn’t remember something, it wasn’t on “the list”. It’s a horrible way to try and stay productive and it was stressing me out.To solve this problem I’ve embarked on a project of sorts to find the best system for me. I’ll be reviewing every program and method I can find on the rcThink to see what each does, what they’re good at, and what they suck at ¬†all in an effort to find exactly what works for me. Currently I’m using a hybrid system of a few different things, some online and some offline.For online, projects at my day job are kept in ManyMoon because I like the milestones feature and Google Docs integration. For home and personal projects I’ve started to use the Action Method, an award winning project manager from Behance. I’m currently reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, founder of Behance, and it’s changing the way I think about projects and getting things done. I’m also using ToodleDo to manage random one-off tasks. ToodleDo has been my ToDo list for a couple years now because of simplicity and integrated iPhone app but I think it might be replaced by the Action Method, which also has a slick iPhone app.Offline, I use a notebook and whiteboard. That’s it. After steering clear of paper for so long since I didn’t want to write things out and then type them again, I’ve come back to paper because it has a different feeling. Whenever I’m in front of a computer I’m immediately barraged with thoughts of everything I want to do, should do or could do and it’s tough to keep things straight. Paper is so simple. There is the paper and the pen and all you can do is write. It keeps things simple. I break out the whiteboard if I’m trying to work through an idea. If I’m mindmapping or trying to get the flow through a program, a whiteboard is the best way I’ve found to have it all in front of you at once. My whiteboard also has a few tasks on it that I’m currently working on but I’m pushing myself to ditch that in favor of one system for every single task.The important point is to have a system. Not having some sort of system to work with results in chaos and stress. Your system will probably be different than everyone else’s. Any system is better than none.Clearly lay out what you need to do If you don’t know what you’re going to do, how are you going to do it? I know from experience I’m much less likely to do things I don’t know how to do. If I’m stuck on a programming problem, I’ll often switch to writing as a form of procrastination or anything else that I know how to do. Resist the urge to switch to something easier and stick to what you’re doing. You’ll break through as long as you stay with it. First you have to start, though, and the best way to do that is to lay out exactly what you need to do. Write detailed instructions of exactly what you need to do in your To Do list or in your documentation of what you’re doing and you’ll know exactly what needs to happen before you sit down to do it.Look at what you need to do all the timeYou can have a great system and know exactly what you need to do but if you keep forgetting that you need to do it, then things will never get done. Part of the reason using one system every single day is that you’ll see other things you’ll need to do every day. You’ll never forget things again if they are all in one place and you’re always there.Identify the next stepThe first thing I do when I’m feeling swamped is to find the next step. Often there are just too many different possible courses of action you could take, but how do you choose which one to take? The instant I’m not exactly sure what to do next I start to procrastinate. All of a sudden I’m hungry and need some lunch or my coffee cup is empty or Facebook has some important messages I need to read. If I realize whats going on, I can stop, confirm my current project and goals and then identify the next step in achieving those. Once I’ve done that then it’s right back to the trenches on the next few tasks.The Action Method iPhone application has a “focus area” that lets you focus on a few tasks at a time without being distracted by all the other projects and tasks. Once you’re finished those you’ll need to re-organize and move a few more things into your focus area. You don’t need an online application or iPhone to do this. Take a piece of paper or page in your notebook and focus on completing what’s on that page. Beware of adding too many tasks to it. Listing out more than a few will take too much energy to figure out what to do next when you look at it so limit it to 3 or 4.Label the endHow do you know when you’re done your task or project? If there is no defined end to what you are doing it might go on forever and that’s not a lot of fun. If you know exactly what needs to happen for things to be finished, you’re much more likely to focus on that and do what needs to be done. My most successful software projects have been when I know exactly what needs to happen right through to the end. You may not know every tasks when you start but fill it in as soon as you can. If a project or task is too big to see the end, consider breaking it up into smaller projects or milestones. You’ll know when those are finished and you can more accurately gauge how much you’ve done and how much is left to do.FocusThis is really a tip for doing anything. If you’re not focused on what you’re doing, things will take longer and you won’t be as happy with the result. You will also be easily distracted and start working on other things that you’re not supposed to be doing. I can feel when I can’t focus when I’m at work. I’ll be working on a web page and all of a sudden I’ve followed a train of thought about a new blog post about skiing for about 5 minutes. The code I’ve just written is probably crap, if I’ve written anything. Having a system helps with focus. If you trust in your system and know that every single thing is scheduled (see below) and in your system, then there is no need to worry about errant tasks. All you need to focus on is the task at hand.Schedule everything and schedule nothingOk, I’ll explain the title to this section. The first part means that if you are going to do something it needs to be scheduled. Even if it’s just listing the days things are going to get done on, you’ll know when it needs to be done by and whether you were successful or not. Having a huge list of things that are not scheduled is not fun at all, trust me. I used ToodleDo for a while this way and while I knew exactly what I had to get done, it was overwhelming. I would get lost in all the tasks that weren’t for the current day. Having a system that allows you to see the next few tasks or just the tasks for that day is well worth it. If you’re not a computer whiz, just use a piece of paper. You might be duplicating your tasks when writing them out again but if you just list what you need to do that day, you’ll be able to focus much better on those few things.The second part doesn’t really makes sense, but, then again, does if you think about it. When you’re busy scheduling your day, putting things into a list for today and adding items to your calendar your likely to put too many things in. Especially when scheduling personal projects and things at home, stuff comes up that you can’t schedule or wouldn’t have known about. Stuff just like hanging out with friends or with your spouse should be allowed into your tight schedule. A lot of things will take longer than you think as well so a good practice is to schedule more time than you think you’ll need. You’ll have breathing room if random tasks come up or if some tasks is way bigger than you thought. You’ll get better at estimating the amount of time things will take the more you do it. Keeping an eye on how long items take will help estimating with any accuracy. Estimate it’s time, do it, then see how close you were. Scheduling nothing to catch up on life leads well into the next section, Balance.Balance things, you are not a machineI mentioned in the previous section the need to schedule nothing in case something comes up or just to have a life. It’s near impossible to schedule everything that’s going to happen in your life. Do you really want to schedule every single thing in your life anyways? It’s good to have an open time for some things, say an hour to clean your house. You get what you can done and then the rest is left for the next time you have to clean. If you really do need to schedule everything down to the last task, make sure some fun in there or just nothing so you can just relax and do whatever you want to do.Make sure the goal still makes sensePoke your head up out of the weeds every once in a while and check out your end goal. Does it make sense still? Part of getting things done is deciding what you don’t need to do as well as what you need to do. If all your time is being taken up by a project that has been made meaningless by some recent event, you might want to change course or scrap the project. The best to do list items are ones you don’t even have to do!Review and Update your system regularlyNo system is perfect forever. I’m going through system after system right now, mostly just to find out what I like and what I don’t. There are things in each that work for me and things that don’t. Sometimes you’ll hit a deal breaker and won’t be able to use a system for one reason or another. There are always ways to make updates and make your system even better. Just make sure you don’t spend all your time on making your system better and not getting any work done!Further ReadingHere are a few great posts on Behance’s productivity blog The 99 Percent for some additional tips:10 Laws of ProductivityAction Method II: Keep Projects AliveBreaking Projects into Primary Elements