In my previous role as COO at the Effective Altruism Foundation, I was seeking answers to the question of how to become an excellent business operator—both for myself, the people I managed, and others in my network. I condensed my best guess into a roadmap.
To be productive at work without struggling unnecessarily, you need to have a reliable way of organizing everything that’s part of “your world”, including tasks, deadlines, meetings, external dependencies, etc. This post outlines a minimalist approach to designing a productivity system that helps you do your best work.
Getting Things Done, or GTD as it’s often referred to, is a popular time-management system developed by David Allen. GTD is a framework for organising your todos, priorities, and your schedule in a way that makes them all manageable. While the system has its merits, it often tries to do too much and requires a considerable amount of time just to maintain the system. Furthermore, GTD is a bottom-up, runway-level system and doesn’t put enough emphasis on your goals.
In this post, I have tried to simplify GTD and break it down into a few essential habits that you can adopt step by step. This was inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done. People who want to implement the most simple system possible should focus on the first four habits listed below.
Habit 1: Collect
- Externalize your thoughts; write them down.
- Carry a small notebook (or whatever capture tool works for you) and write down any tasks, ideas, projects, or other information that pop into your head.
- Pen and paper
- Emergent Task Planner
- Bear (only Mac/iPhone)
- Do-Button (IFTTT)
- Things (only Mac/iPhone)
- Send an email to yourself
- Siri, Google Assistant
- Have a way to capture ideas that’s always available, in every context. Your best ideas about work will often not come to you at work.
- Every place where you collect information is an inbox. Cut the number of inboxes you have down to the smallest number possible.
- Only drop notes in inboxes that you actually trust yourself to check in time
Habit 2: Process
- Check and process your inboxes frequently—for instance, once a day. Don’t allow your inboxes to overflow. If necessary, set reminders such as calendar events at times when you want to process your inboxes.
- Start with the top item in your inbox, and make an immediate decision. Don’t skip over it or put it back in or delay the decision. Note that the items below contain references to a later section; Habit 5: Simple System.
- Delete: Throw away, shred, or recycle anything that has no potential future action or reference value. Make this your first choice.
- Delegate: Are you the person who should be doing this? If not, send it to someone else and create a note on your “Waiting For” list. Record the date on everything that you hand off to others.
- Do it immediately: If the task will take 2 minutes or less, just do it rather than adding it to your to-do list—the efficiency cutoff is at about 2 minutes.
- Defer it for later: If it will take more than 2 minutes, add it to your to-do list to do later.
- If you need to do it at a certain date or time, put it on your calendar to get a reminder.
- If you don’t need to do it anytime soon, put it on a “Someday” list, so it doesn’t clutter up your more important to-do lists.
- File it: If it’s just something you need for reference, file it in your reference system.
Habit 3: Plan
- Separate planning from doing. These activities require different ways of thinking.
- Take planning seriously – it can multiply the value of every working hour where you execute the plan (see Habit 4 below). Your planning time is when you make tough decisions about which trade-offs you want to make. Done well, this work should feel taxing, but the rest of your work should feel comparatively easier as a consequence: Tough planning, easy execution. Easy planning, tough execution.
- Each month, conduct an in-depth review. Evaluate progress on your goals and set new goals. Reflect on several levels (for instance, current actions, current projects, areas of responsibility, 1–2-year goals).
- Each week (ideally, Monday morning), sit down and look at your to-do list. What 4-6 things do you want to accomplish this week? These are your “Big Rocks”. Place them in your weekly schedule. Place only one or two per day, so you aren’t overwhelmed. Place them in 1-2 hour blocks, early in the day if possible.
- Each day, create a list of 1-3 “Most Important Tasks” (MITs – basically your Big Rocks for the day) and be sure to accomplish them. Block out time for them early in the day to get them out of the way and to ensure that they get done.
Habit 4: Do
- Choose a Big Rock: First, select a task (preferably one of your MITs) and decide that you are going to work on it either until it’s done, or for a set amount of time (say 30 minutes).
- Get zoned: Before you get started, eliminate all distractions. Shut off email, cell phone, Internet if possible (otherwise just close all unnecessary tabs), remove clutter on your desk, anything that might interrupt you. Focus on one task at a time.
- Timed burst: Set a timer if you like, or otherwise just focus on your task for as long as possible. Don’t let yourself get distracted from it.
- Interruptions: If you get interrupted, write down any request or incoming tasks/info on your notepad, or toss the document into your inbox, and get back to your task. Don’t try to multi-task. If you feel the urge to check your email or switch to another task, stop yourself. Re-focus yourself and get back to the task at hand.
- Urgency: There are times when an interruption is so urgent that you cannot put it off until you’re done with the task at hand. In that case, try to make a note of where you are with the task at hand, and put all the documents or notes for that task together and aside. Then, when you come back to that task, you can pull out your folder and look at your notes to see where you left off.
- Relax: Take deep breaths, stretch, and take breaks now and then.
Habit 5: Simple System
- Keep simple lists and check them daily. Use a simple setup and simple tools so that your system does not need to be maintained much. Below is a sample setup that may differ substantially from your system.
- Inboxes: Every place where you collect information is an inbox.
- Email inbox (try to have just one)
- Task management app inbox (Asana/Trello/Things/etc. — check out this article for an overview of the best apps out there)
- Integrate with Chrome: Use the Trello extension to create new cards and send them to your inbox.
- Integrate with Gmail: Use Zapier (this template) to create Trello cards from new starred Gmail emails.
- Integrate with Slack: Use Zapier (this template) to create Trello cards from new starred Slack messages.
- Evernote app (phone and desktop)
- Paper notebook (for instance, the Emergent Task Planner)
- Physical in-tray
- Calendar: The calendar provides the “hard landscape” for the day. Record all your events in one place. Example tool: Google Calendar. Things that go into your calendar:
- Time-specific actions: Appointments
- Day-specific actions: Things that you need to do sometime on a certain day, but not necessarily at a specific time.
- Day-specific information: Things you want to know about on specific days – not necessarily actions you’ll have to take but rather information that may be useful on a certain date.
- Lists: Below is just a sample of lists that you may find helpful. Previous sections in this post referred to a “to-do” list, which you can read as all of the lists that you use.
- “Projects” list: A list of project titles, descriptions and intended outcomes of the projects. A project is any objective that takes more than one action. Example tools: Google Document, Trello board, Asana.
- “Next Actions” list: A list of tasks that should be done as soon as possible, and that you can choose to do at any moment. Example tool: Google Document.
- “Someday” list: This list contains ideas and projects you might want to realize at some time in the future. Limit the number of items on that list to below 20, or it will cease to be useful. Example tool: Google Document, Trello board.
- “Waiting For” list: Take a note when you delegate work to others, send an email you expect (or need) a reply to, order something, or have a task that is “blocked” because you are waiting for someone else to do something. These items should always be marked with the current date so you can refer to it later. Example tool: Google Document.
- “Streak” or “Boomerang” are Gmail extensions that can notify you if you haven’t received a response to your email within a pre-set amount of time
- “Issue Log”: Record your mistakes and learn from them. Anything that goes wrong must be “issue logged” with the severity of the issue, who is responsible for it, and how to fix it. Here’s a template that you can use.
- “Read/Review” list: A list of things that you want to read. The idea is to have this material available whenever you have a few minutes to kill. Example tool: Save to Pocket.
- Reference system: Reference material that requires no action but may have value as information. Example tools: Google Drive and Documents.
- General-reference file: Use a Google Document (or any software that you’re using) that is close at hand for storing ad hoc information that doesn’t belong in some predesigned larger category.
- Password manager. Example tool: 1Password.
Habit 6: Organize
- Find a “home” (physical and digital) for everything, then put everything in its home. Every physical item in your house should have a place where it is supposed to rest. Every task, event and project should have a place in your system where it will wait.
- The 30 seconds test: Can you find anything you need in 30 seconds?
- Put it away immediately.
- Keep flat surfaces clear.
- Digitize everything, make backups.
Habit 7: Review
- A Weekly Review helps you get things together and refocus yourself on what’s important. Do the review at a set time on the same day every week. For instance, do it every Monday at 9 am.
- Review your notes: Find unfinished tasks, people to enter into your contacts, etc. Just do a quick scan and jot down any unfinished items.
- Review your calendar: Look back over your last week’s calendar items to see if there’s anything that needs to be moved forward, and to see if there’s anything that triggers new tasks that need to be done. Also look over your upcoming week’s calendar to see if there’s any tasks that need to be done.
- Review your lists: Whether you have multiple context lists or one to-do list, it’s important to look over them, to make sure they’re up-to-date. Cross off completed items. Also review your follow-up list, your Someday list, and your project list, if you keep them.
- Review your goals: Evaluate progress on your goals and set new ones. Set your short-term goal this week and plan your Big Rocks.
- Brainstorm on new tasks and goals: Write everything down on a white sheet of paper. Don’t judge or evaluate. Go for quantity, not quality. Put analysis and organization in the background. Determining what might go most wrong in a situation is at times the best way to generate the best ideas about how to make it successful.
Habit 8: Simplify
- Eliminate: Take a few minutes to review your task and project lists, and see how much you can simplify them.
- Know what’s essential: You know what’s essential by knowing what your main goal is, and other goals if necessary. Work on your 1-3 most important projects whenever you’re not bottlenecked by external forces. Focus on completion.
- Biggest value: Focus on the tasks that create the most long-term value. Those are your Big Rocks and MITs.
- Batch small tasks: Take a look at your lists and find ways to put smaller tasks together. This saves time and cuts down on interruption. Small tasks might be calls, emails, writing a short letter, doing paperwork, etc. Try to do them quickly and knock them off your list.
- Simplify your commitments: Value your time and learn to say no.
- Simplify your information system: This includes RSS feeds, news platforms, TV, email, etc.
Habit 9: Set Routines
- Create daily and weekly routines to give your week more calm and order.
- Daily routine: Look at your lists and see which tasks need to be done every day. Those might include planning your day and setting your MITs, answering emails, making phone calls, writing in a journal, exercise, and more. Plan out your daily routine. Don’t schedule every minute of your day, but have certain set times each day when you do these daily tasks.
- Weekly routine: The stuff you do once or twice (or more) a week, but not every day, should be on your weekly routine. This could be things like your weekly review, laundry, reviewing goals (although this could be put in your weekly review), exercise, and more.
- Trying it out: Try to stick to a new routine for at least a week, then review how it went.
- Sticking with it: Once you find a good set of routines that work for you, if you can stick with them for 30 days, it will become a habit.
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, here are a few resources that you’ll find useful: