I consider myself a very productive person. I get a lot of things done. I’ve accomplished quite a bit. I’ve written two novels, designed many websites, worked on Alternate Reality Games for organizations like the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and The World Bank, maintain an active social, family, and most importantly spiritual life. I take care of my health with doctor’s and therapy appointments, meet weekly with my writing group, craft excessively, serve in multiple church callings, and blog now and then. My plate is overflowing, so let’s just say I’m up to some big things! However, to date, I’ve managed to do all this without any significant structured planning of my time on a day to day basis. Maybe you’ll find it impressive that I’ve gone so long without any sort of a schedule or plan, just doing what seem right in the moment, as it occurs to me. That’s code for “whatever task is stressing me out the most that second”.
Enough is enough.
I decided it’s time to try Getting Things Done in a more organized way. Conveniently for me, Getting Things Done or GTD, as it’s often referred to by its adherents, is a system for just what its name implies – getting things done. It was created by David Allen, and there’re plenty of resources in other locations where you can learn more about GTD. But for a quick overview, check out this infographic:
Getting Things Done David Allen Infographic
Once I learned about this system, and with some help and advice from others, I decided to focus on creating a schedule for myself based on GTD. The idea being I would now have set “Bucket Times” to manage all the areas on my life according to the principals of GTD. But I’ll get back to Bucket Times later.
The main problem I was facing with finding a system that would work with me was finding something I could stick with. In the past systems either were so cumbersome, scheduling and planning me so rigidly that I couldn’t realistically do it long term. Or on the other hand, the systems were so vague and abstract, focusing only on broad goals that they didn’t help me commit to anything. The third category of problem systems were ones that were incomplete, only addressing certain aspects of what I needed from an organization system and leaving me feeling semi-organized but ultimately even more overwhelmed. Why? Because now I knew exactly what I needed to do but had no structures in place to help me accomplish any of it.
To address of this, I there are 4 major components to my personalized GTD system I am putting into place initially. (This is just to get started. After these are going well I will add more.)
Identify 6-9 Major Areas of Life
Roles and areas are the major categories of your life such as Family, School, Faith, Friends, Work, Writing etc.
List 10 Most Pressing Tasks Under Each Major Role/Area
Most pressing tasks are tasks that currently need to be taken for that area. For example, for Family, it might be something like “Spend time with Mom” or “Game Night.” For Work, it might be “Sign the Parsons contract” or “Return Sonya’s phone call.” Any task that has more than two steps is called a Project.
Create A Weekly Schedule of Bucket Times To Stick To Each Week
Bucket Times are blocks of time designated at the same time every week for completing tasks in each of your Major Areas. For example, I created Spiritual Time every evening from 10pm – 11pm. During those times I will refer to my List of Tasks for that Area of Life for to do items to complete. See the Downloads Section at the bottom of this post for an Excel template tool to help with this!
Generate Mind-Dump Of EVERY Open Loop In Life
Open loops are thought processes that are incomplete. They keep the mind’s inbox full when it’s most productive empty. Empty that inbox by downloading everything in it! Generate a complete list of everything, every to do, action item, task, someday task, maybe task, goal, dream ,wish, hope, plan, etc. Include everything from “Remember to pick up the milk” to “Improve relationship with Dad” to “Travel the world”. Get that mind completely empty and onto something tangible and permanent that is workable for future reference.
Once I had a plan of action, it was just a matter of putting it into place…
Starting is always easier said than done.
I needed some help getting started. So I decided to enroll someone else to do this thing with me. No, not all of you readers! My dear writing buddy who I create my day with every morning. I told her all about his idea and explained GTD to her (the Cliff Notes version). She was on board.
Over Skype, we came up with our Major Areas of Life. This is mine:
Weekly GTD Schedule – Major Areas of Life
Next I began to list my lost pressing tasks under each area. I’m constantly working on my list.
Then I created a schedule by which I would process the list of tasks. But instead of a rigid list of strictly scheduled times like ones that hadn’t worked for me in the past, I am working with a schedule of Bucket Times. The beauty of Bucket Times is it structured enough in that it gives you a set time you are committed to making forward progress in an area of your life, but it is flexible enough that you still get to choose what is most expedient to do within that Area. Furthermore, the whole schedule isn’t so rigid that the whole thing risks being thrown off if you go over a few minutes. As I see it, if you get behind you are often still within your bucket time for that type of item. And even if you aren’t you can rest assured that you have more time scheduled for that item soon. So file add it to your Bucket Time list for later. Lastly, the overarching rule is that this isn’t a rigid system, meaning the operative work is: expediency.
When all else fails, do whatever is most expedient in the moment.
I am committed to using this new system for a trial of the next 3 months. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing an upswing in my productivity. And more importantly a decrease in my feelings of overwhelm at not knowing how to handle the overflowing plate that is my life. In this analogy, I’ve been eating off an overflowing plate for a long long time. Sure I’ve been digesting my food and getting nutrient, but lots of things haven’t been sitting well. GTD is a set of silverware – tools to help me eat my food, so that I can take small manageable bites and digest it easily and effectively. The schedule works like a restaurant menu (thanks Paul for that one!) with various selections for each category of food or area of my life. Some items or Tasks on the menu are more bland and others are the spice of life!
Give me a helping of work every weekday. Indulge in a double portion of friendship on weekends. A spicy side dish of romance if I’m so lucky! Pile it on my plate and enjoy a delicious, nutritious, and satisfying life!
Stay tuned for Part Two of this post series on Generating a Mind-Dump of All Your Open Loops coming soon! Get an email reminder when it comes out! Subscribe to the newsletter!
I hope you enjoy the Downloads below. The Weekly Schedule Templates for Microsoft Excel should be helpful tools for planning a schedule in the fashion described in this post. Please post comments with ideas for improvements, and I will do my best to make them.
It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.
Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.
You are never too old to set another goal
I set goals for myself every morning with my friend over Skype. We talk about the space we are in, clear the air, and set goals for what we want to accomplish for the day and the kind of people we want to be while we accomplish it. For example, I might set a goal to write for two hours on my novel, and I create a context of doing that in a playful and creative mood. But setting the goals is only one side of the coin. The followthrough is just as crucial as the goal setting. Why do I set goals? I set goals because it gives me direction. More than that it creates the idea of the future I can then live into. It’s a powerful thing. The President of my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, told this anecdote:
Several days ago, while driving to my home, I approached the entrance to Interstate 15. At the on-ramp I noticed three hitchhikers, each one of whom carried a homemade sign which announced his desired destination. One sign read “Los Angeles,” while a second carried the designation “Boise.” However, it was the third sign which not only caught my attention but caused me to reflect and ponder its message. The hitchhiker had lettered not Los Angeles, California, nor Boise, Idaho, on the cardboard sign which he held aloft. Rather, his sign consisted of but one word and read simply “ANYWHERE.” Here was one who was content to travel in any direction, according to the whim of the driver who stopped to give him a free ride. What an enormous price to pay for such a ride. No plan. No objective. No goal. The road to anywhere is the road to nowhere, and the road to nowhere leads to dreams sacrificed, opportunities squandered, and a life unfulfilled.
Thomas S. Monson, Which Road Will You Travel?
But how do I turn goals from dreams into reality? I find that it’s all about accountability. And accountability starts with a good plan. I was recently introduced to the SMART Goal Method of goal setting. SMART stands for:
Specific: What will I accomplish?
Measurable: How will I and others know I’ve reached my goal?
Attainable: Do I have the commitment and resources to realistically achieve this goal?
Relevant: Why is this goal important to me?
Time-Bound: When do I expect to complete this goal?
I’ve also found it really helps to think of the most powerfully positive outcome I can have around this goal. So I ask myself the following questions:
If I were to have a breakthrough miracle in this area, what would my life look like?
What are the benefits of achieving this goal?
It is great to make goals, but it’s vitally important to put a plan for that goal into action. So I make a list of tasks or to-dos that will help me achieve the goal with target completion dates.
A Goal Without A Plan I Just A Wish
It’s important to have a contingency plan for possible challenges I might encounter while achieving my goal, so I make a list of possible obstacles and ways to overcome them.
Finally, I find it infinitely helpful to have someone who helps me stay accountable in my goal making. That is why my morning goal making has been so life changing. Out of that I’ve completed multiple drafts of both my novels, increased my productivity at work, and found more time left over to do the other things I love to do. I also haven’t forgotten to be grateful for how precious this life is and enjoy the journey.
In order to facilitate my goal making, I’ve made a custom worksheet in PDF format. If you download the worksheet you’ll be able to fill it out on the computer (you’ll even be able to check the to-do items off your list), save and print it. It’s free to download. I only ask that you don’t sell it. Also please don’t republish it without attribution (a link back to this article). Finally, please let me know if you have any feedback or suggestions on how to improve upon it! Enjoy!
It is a common misconception that constructive criticism is easier to take than unfoundedly mean spirited criticism. More often than not, this isn’t the case. While it can be fairly easy to ignore and move on when criticism doesn’t resonate, when it rings true, pain really sets in. It’s hard to see your reflection and dislike what you find. And when someone else holds the mirror, it’s even worse. But I found that I can be resilient in the face of such genuinely painful critiques.
Last week, in my writing group, I discovered just how much the truth can hurt. I’ve been working so hard on my second draft of my novel The Particulars, and I really thought I was making good progress. So when it came my turn to submit to my weekly writing critique group, I was excited to hear some feedback. My group usually loves my writing, so I was caught completely off guard. Though their critique of my opening chapters was very constructive, it certainly wasn’t favorable.
It was rough, listening to nearly two hours of how my writing wasn’t working, so when I finally got off the Skype call, I broke down. I cried more than I had in a long time. I was just so frustrated and disappointed in my writing and in myself. I felt stupid for thinking it was good when it wasn’t. And the worse part was I really didn’t think I knew how to fix it.
Once the tears stopped flowing, though, I had a choice. I could choose to be resilient in the face of a difficult situation. Here’s some tips that helped me:
Don’t read into it.
The biggest mistake you can make when dealing with a harsh critique is to read into what it means about who you are as a person. I could have told myself that because the opening of my book wasn’t working, that I was a terrible writer or that I’d never be published, but there’s nothing productive that will come from thinking those things. Besides those things aren’t even true.
Get right back on the horse.
The very next morning after the critique, I forced myself to start again because I knew the longer I waited the harder it would be to start again. So don’t wait. No time like the present.
Look for the opportunity.
I realized I could choose to be burned by this critique, or I could rise for the ashes a stronger writer. This was my chance to grow and improve, if I choose to use it that way.
Since my writing wasn’t very effective in my first draft, I gave myself permission to come at it from a different perspective and tried something totally new. I scrapped the first three chapters of my novel completely and started over from scratch.
Don’t give up.
The only way you can really lose in these situations is to give up. There would be an upside, if I stuck with it.
So I rewrote my first three chapters, and what I came up with was so much better than what I had. At least I was pretty sure it was. But to make certain I had to submit myself to one more critique. I asked one of the group members to read it again for me, and to my relief, she absolutely loved my new direction. And the fact that I was able to do so despite my pain and sweat and tears, made the victory all the sweeter.
Here’s the new opening paragraphs of The Particulars as it stands now:
Veril Maloit picked up his manuscript and dumped it into the trash. It was no use. It was no good. He was no good. He kicked the overflowing waste bin. There was no evil worse than writers block. He glared at his desk. It looked so empty without his novel cluttering it up. Two hundred thousand words in, and he didn’t even know what it was about yet. What a waste of trees.
He took a deep breath and gagged. What was that strange odor? By the smell of it someone had just run over a skunk with a truck of herbal medicinal supplies. He coughed and pinched his nose closed with two fingers.
Sometimes I’m just really so grateful for my life. And though everything is ultimately all in God’s hands, I also know that God doesn’t want us to sit around and wait for Him. Going forward with faith, it’s really clear to me that there’s so much I can do to create what I want my life to look like. And so much of that has to do with attitude and structure.
I can chose to be apathetic, bored, isolated, or depressed about my life or I can choose to be excited, engaged, connected, and grateful about my life. And then I need to put that into a structure that reminds me and helps me fulfill on how I’m choosing to be about my life.
To give a concrete example, here’s what I’ve been doing recently. I’d been wanting to change how I’m being about my writing in my life. So now, most every day (six days a week), I get up and start my day at 8am by checking in via Skype with my writing buddy Yudit. In our conversation, we talk about where we are with our writing and what we are going to write next. We also talk about what’s going on in our lives and how we want our attitudes to be for that day. We put how we are going to be into words. For instance, today I’m my attitude has to do with being in touch with divine light in humanity, joy, and connection. Then we write until ten-thirty when we check in again to see how each of our writing projects went.
As a result, not only has my relationship to my writing transformed, but my whole life has transformed. I’ve gone from inconsistently writing about a thousand words a week to writing nearly a thousand words a day consistently. I’m now rapidly approaching the end of the first draft of my second novel, The Particulars. Things have shifted in my life as well. I start out the day now feeling so accomplished that my productivity has increased in every area of my life. I’m getting more website development done. I’m making more progress on the Alternate Reality Game I’m designing. I’m fulfilling on my spiritual goals by reading my scriptures and doing my callings.
And life is just plain good as a result. No, good doesn’t even begin to cover it. Life is wonderful. Life is miraculous and awesome. And I can’t help but feel so very grateful for the wonderful blessing of being alive to enjoy it.
I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions. They seem too arbitrary. Too easy to make. Too easy to forget.
In my life, I’ve found that everyday is the perfect day to make a resolution. Everyday is a perfect opportunity to commit to something that will transform my life into whatever I am determined to make it.
The key word for me is commitment. Doing what I say I will do when I say I will do it in the way it was meant to be done. This is no small feat. Days are busy and intense, and what I’m committed to often gets buried under layers of things that seem more urgent but are in reality less important.
Fear, too, can be commitment’s nemesis. Like so many people, I am afraid of change. I am sometimes afraid to commit to the very things I ultimately want. But it would be tragic to let fear of abandoning what’s not working but is comfortable determine what I am willing to commit to. So commitment takes courage. The best definition of courage goes like this: courage isn’t the absence of fear but a willingness to act in the face of fear.
So what am I committed to?
Three things immediately come to mind. Writing, health, and faith.
I call myself a writer. And writers write. It’s not hard to realize that I need to write. I have two novels I’m working on. One is a first draft and one is a second draft. I am committed to finishing them and getting them published. It’s great that I say I’m committed, but that is not enough. I need to take actions towards my commitment and be accountable for them. So over a week ago I set up a structure in my life to help me meet my commitment. I got in touch with one of the members of my weekly writing critique group and told her my commitment. I told her that I wanted to be working on my writing for 2 hours every weekday. And I asked her to be my accountability buddy in this commitment. She agreed and requested that I be the same for her. So last week, everyday at 8am we’ve checked in via Skype to talk about what we’ll be writing over the next two hours. The we’ve written until 10am at which point we’ve briefly checked in again to discuss how it went.
It has been a great experience so far. And it’s given me insight into a pattern of steps I need to take to meet my commitments. They are:
Account for it.
“Say it” is just like it sounds. It’s declaring what I’m committed to and what actions I’m going to take to meet that commitment in a formal fashion so that it is clear what I’m committing to and what I’m going to do about it.
“Do it” means following through on those actions I committed to.
And “Account For It” means to in some way set up a structure of accountability for what I am committed to. That could be another person I ask to hold me to account or it could be something entirely different such as a reward structure for when I meet certain commitments.
So far I have a great structure in place for my writing. I’ve started to setup something similar for my health, but I’ve come up short in the “do it” and “account for it” departments. That doesn’t mean I have to beat myself up for not following through. It’s merely an opportunity to re-commit to my structure. And finally I plan to figure out some sort of structure to support my commitment to my faith.
So this year isn’t a year for New Year’s resolutions so quickly out of sight, out of mind. It’s a year of commitments. Commitments I recommit to everyday, every hour, every minute.