Three Ways to Get Things Done and Get On With Your Day

Photo: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

I love a good time management system, and… I never seem to have one. But maybe, it occurred to me recently, the problem is that I always have too much to do. And actually, so does everyone.

In the New Yorker, bestselling productivity author Cal Newport writes about “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done”:

The time management system… called G.T.D. had been developed by David Allen, a consultant turned entrepreneur who lived in the crunchy mountain town of Ojai, California. Allen combined ideas from Zen Buddhism with the strict organizational techniques he’d honed while advising corporate clients. He proposed a theory about how our minds work: When we try to keep track of obligations in our heads, we create “open loops” that make us anxious. That anxiety, in turn, reduces our ability to think effectively. If we could avoid worrying about what we were supposed to be doing, we could focus more fully on what we were actually doing, achieving what Allen called a “mind like water.”

Newport goes on to analyze how the G.T.D. system — and other personal productivity systems — have influenced “knowledge workers” for decades. But in the end, he notes, personal productivity systems like G.T.D. “don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects.” Overload culture is probably here to stay.

So, if you feel perpetually overwhelmed by emails and Slack messages and a never-ending to-do list… it’s definitely not just you. That said, there is still value in coping with the effects. Here are three ways to survive the work day with your brain intact, overwhelm culture be damned:

1. Sweep for open loops

David Allen’s “open loops” concept remains as relevant as ever, so might as well sweep for those undone tasks and obligations that are nagging at your subconscious and see if that clears your mind at all. (Spoiler alert: It totally will.)

2. Aim for three hours of deep work

In his book Deep Work, Newport posits that the key to being really productive is setting aside three to four distraction-free hours a day for uninterrupted concentration. This may not be an option for people working from home these days (especially if there are children around). But earmarking a block of time to accomplish a specific task—even just 15 minutes—helps ensure that the really important stuff on your list gets done.

3. Put time on the calendar to check email

Newport notes in his article that since the spread of email made it possible for “anyone [to] bother anyone else at any time,” workdays have become less structured and more chaotic. Jon Zeratsky recommends a no-frills approach for reinstating basic boundaries around your digital communications: Use one inbox, take email off your phone (!), and schedule blocks of time to check and answer email, so it’s a pool, not a trickle.

Now get out there and slay the day! Just kidding. But personally, I’m going to try these today. (Wanna join me? Let me know how it goes in the comments!) (No, I didn’t just add something to everyone’s to-do list. I swear.)

Senior Editor, Forge @ Medium // Bylines: New York Times, Oprah, Slate // Latest novel: Unseen City

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