Learn to Be More Productive

You can better manage the daily barrage of tasks by decluttering your brainpan

Learn to Be More Productive

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If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the never-ending onslaught of tasks and to-dos that accumulate with mind-numbing frequency every day, Steve Willis has some advice: Free your overtaxed brain by embracing the principles of Getting Things Done.

The GTD productivity approach stems from a book written by productivity consultant David Allen and published in 2001. Called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, the book outlines a time management system in which adherents literally get tasks off their minds and break them down into actionable items, ranked according to their importance.

VitalSmarts partnered with Allen about four years ago to develop a GTD curriculum that could be taught and replicated at companies, Willis explains. He’s the vice president of professional services for VitalSmarts, a corporate-training company that focuses on behavioral changes that can reshape company cultures.

“David Allen says that minds are for having ideas, not holding them,” Willis says. “If you think about it, we often use our minds to track all of our obligations and commitments, and the brain tries to hold on to all those things, which leaves us overwhelmed.

“We feel pulled in so many directions — stretched so thin that there’s never enough time to focus on what matters most. And most of this happens because of how we interact with all those inputs. You keep holding all those things in your head, but your mind is an awful office space.”

The CCORE of the issue

To make the GTD strategy work, it’s essential to understand its five basic components: Capture, Clarify, Organize and Reflect and Engage.

• Capture — This step focuses on getting tasks out of your head and putting them in a convenient place, so your brain no longer needs to hold on to them. Research from the 1950s showed that the average memory can only handle about seven things at a time, which is why phone numbers have seven digits (not including area codes), Willis says.

But more recent studies show that number actually is closer to three or four. 

“That’s why when you make a mental list of things to get at a grocery store, you tend to forget one or two items,” he says. “So you can help the brain do its job better by putting things in a place (think sticky notes, a notebook or an electronic device), which then frees up the mind to be more creative, present and productive.”

• Clarify — This next step requires you to ask what action is required of each task. This includes dividing them into actionable and nonactionable items. Nonactionable items include things that must be filed away and those that need attention in the future. “This helps you get to the doing part,” Willis says.

Delegate, do or delay

Actionable items get a similar treatment. Under GTD principles, you should file them under three categories: things to delegate, things to do now and things to do soon.

“As you clarify, you may come across items that can be done in two minutes or less,” Willis says. “You should do those right away because it helps eliminate some of the clutter and puts you in a good frame of mind to keep getting things done.”

• Organize — A natural extension of the clarify step, this involves breaking down the larger, overall to-do list of actionable items into smaller lists with different demands, such as phone calls to answer, projects to work on, etc.

“You’re effectively setting up an external brain to keep track of things,” Willis says, noting he keeps his lists in a small notebook. “But it requires a weekly review because new inputs always are coming in. So you need to take a half-hour and assess the new captures, clarify the things that haven’t already been clarified and reorganize the smaller lists accordingly.”

• Reflect and Engage — After you’re properly organized, this final step becomes easier. Reflect centers on examining your lists in order to set priorities, which in turns helps you engage (or execute) tasks more effectively, Willis says.

“Most people let their emails prioritize their days when they start work,” he says. “Instead, reflect on appointments, work and other priorities.”

Start out small

This all may sound like a lot to digest. But Willis says it helps to start out by focusing on small behavioral changes and gradually work GTD strategies into your everyday work routine. After you can consistently use one new skill for two weeks, move on to the next step, he recommends.

“Even just small shifts in behavior can change your overall experience,” he notes. “You have to keep chipping away at it and build momentum as you start to see results.”

GTD is time-consuming to learn and implement, Willis says. But if you don’t take the time to follow the basic principles, the lack of prioritization and organization sucks up even more time in the long run through lost productivity and inefficiency.

GTD works because it relies on changes in behavior to increase productivity, rather than on technology. Willis says he’s tried electronic devices designed to make him more productive, but all of them ultimately failed because they don’t change how people approach work.

“People assume that to be more productive, you have to put your head down and do more work. We step on that productivity treadmill every time we come to work, turn up the speed and keep staying on it longer,” he says. “But if you prioritize your work and obligations, you can be better at deciding which tasks need your attention now instead of being driven only by the latest and loudest demands on your time, which gets exhausting.

“Thanks to GTD, I’ve found over the years that the ability to get things done doesn’t depend on the number of things you do or the number of hours in a day, but how you interact with all those things. The GTD skill sets help you interact with those things more effectively — help you be present when it matters most.” 



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