In my experience, getting things done is less about productivity and hustle and more about planning, setting realistic expectations and preventing panic. Whether you’re worried about learning music or just making it through your busy day, it is possible to make progress on the things that matter to you as long as you don’t let the wave pull you under.
I love watching surfers ride the ocean waves. (I am a watcher, not a surfer – a boogie board is enough of a challenge for me!) Surfers watch and wait for the right wave, trying to catch it at the perfect moment for a great ride.
Sometimes they make it to the beach. Often they fall off the board, and I see them go under the water and resurface a moment later, already watching for the next perfect wave.
I think getting things done is a similar pursuit. The wave of demands on our time and energy is powerful, and we should realize from the start that it will pull us under. But it doesn’t have to sink us; we just need to regroup and get back on the board.
I use an 8 step system to keep myself from getting swamped by my workload. I use it to organize my practice, my blogging and every day. I developed it from necessity. It works for me because it’s low-tech and because I use it daily.
It has two phases – the planning phase and the action phase. The planning steps take the longest initially, but once you have done them the first time, it’s a quick process to review them and make changes as necessary.
As with any process, the secret is in the action phase. The best planning is useless if you don’t follow through and act.
Getting Things Done: Planning Phase
1. What is done? What do you need to accomplish? Do a brain dump and write it all down. Don’t worry about the monstrous size of your list. Just get it all out – you will sort it out and make sense of it later. I do a weekly brain dump to keep myself on track and make sure I’m not missing crucial tasks or project deadlines. I can’t say that it always prevents me from slipping up, but it does keep most important things from falling through the cracks.
2. When is done? For each item on your list, identify it as a one-time task, an ongoing project, or a bigger goal. Is there a specific time deadline, a level of achievement, a performance date? Knowing the due date for anything you have to do is crucial to your planning.
3. What do you need to do to get it done? First, put all the tasks from your list, the ones not related to a specific project, on a separate list. These are the things like “pick up the dry cleaning.” These tasks may be part of your daily life, but not part of completing a bigger project. They are checklist items.
Then, create a plan of action for each project or goal item on your list, simply making a checklist of the steps that will be required to complete it. I like to organize my projects on separate pieces of paper, or even in separate file folders. I write on the file folder all the tasks I need to accomplish that project, and use that as my “master” list, one I can add to or check things off of. The best part is that I never have to recreate it because I have misplaced it or thrown it away thinking it was the old grocery list.
You may find that in organizing these lists you see a structure to your project that wasn’t obvious to you before. You also may find that some of the items you identified as tasks are really part of those bigger projects. This will help your task list seem more manageable.
4. Less is more. Often by doing less, we can do it better. What do you really need to get done? Examine your tasks and projects. Are there unnecessary steps you could eliminate? Steps or tasks you could combine? Even better, are there things you could (and should!) delegate to someone else?
5. Eliminate one Time Black Hole. You know what this is: something that is to some extent unnecessary or unproductive that always seems to take too long. Whether you have thought about it that way before or not, it’s easy to identify a Time Black Hole from that little hard kernel of impatience or resentment down in your gut. What normal everyday task, chore or activity could you reduce, reschedule, eliminate or delegate to give you more breathing room, to make getting your things done easier?
Now that you have made your plan now we just need to put it into action.
Getting Things Done: Action Phase
6. Schedule it. Most of us let our calendars (whether paper or digital) rule our lives. We set reminders on our phones for appointments. You must schedule your projects and tasks as well. Once you know what you need to do and how long it will take, put it in your calendar. Even if you need to shift it later, you won’t schedule over it – you can just re-schedule it and still make sure that you get it done.
I always schedule my practice in my calendar. It’s the only way I can be absolutely positive that I won;’t schedule something else over that time.
7. Prioritize, Concentrate and Move On. Prioritization is simply knowing what is most important to do, and doing it. But prioritizing alone isn’t enough. Be sure you are focusing on the task you want to accomplish. Your lists and your schedule have freed up this time for you to concentrate on this most important thing. Don’t distract yourself with other less important things. You have dedicated this time; use it well.
On the other hand, don’t become so focused that you ignore other essential things on your list. When your allotted time on one task is up, move on to the next thing. If you need additional time, put it in your schedule for later, but don’t disrupt your carefully created plans.
8. Ask for help. Don’t wait until you’re in the quicksand up to your eyeballs. Ask for help before you get so desperate that you throw your plans to the wind. Ask your family for help in respecting your practice time (remembering that if you don’t respect it, neither will they!). Ask your teacher for help to keep your progress on track. Ask your friends for help; perhaps you can trade babysitting time or share errands.
One last thing. Keep in mind that you don’t need to get everything done; it’s not possible for anyone. Expert surfers know the power of the waves. But they also know that getting back on the board and riding the wave is the best way to get to the beach.