Warren's Warning

Do you feel like your mind is always running? Like you’re never able to focus on deep and focused work because you are always thinking of what you have to do, need to do, or should do? I used to feel like there was multiple times during the day where I would be constantly thinking about all the things I had to do. No place was safe. I would think about these things subconsciously when I was getting ready in the morning, brushing my teeth, walking down the street, working out at the gym, or even sitting while I was sitting in meetings or talking to someone.

Recently, I’ve fixed this problem. I’ve implemented a system that allows me to be consistently present, allow myself to deeply focus, and rarely think about all the things I need to get done.

I came across this system through Tiago Forte’s course on Building a Second Brain and David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Since using my new system, I’ve become 75% more productive (yes, I measured it), I work on more impactful things, and I have an increased level of focus and presence.

This is the first of two parts I’ll discuss about my system. This one, The Guide to Getting Things Done and the second part will be My Digital Brain.

Figuring out what we need to work on is exhausting

If I were to ask you “What projects are you working on?” Or “What tasks do you need to complete?”, would you be able to quickly list them all out without needing to think about it? If not, it may be a problem for your personal productivity. There’s a lot of cognitive power that is needed simply to work on our projects and tasks, so why make it tougher on yourself by needing to remember all of the things that you need to complete? Instead, you can take advantage of digital tools to remember all of your projects and tasks, and now you only need to worry about getting the actual work done.

For many of us, our to-do’s are scattered across the following:

  • Email
  • Your brain
  • Text Messages
  • iPhone Notes app
  • Wunderlist to-do app
  • iPhone Reminders app

Not only does this make all of our tasks disorganized, but you also need to go through these multiple places to just find what you need to work on.

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Enter my new system: A centralized list where you collect all of your tasks and projects. A system that includes a process for performing quick reviews to make sure everything is getting completed and nothing gets missed.

Why we should operate like a Hospital

Let's use an analogy to think about why this system can be so impactful to increasing your productivity and focus.  

In a hospital, patients are walking through the door every minute. The front desk clerk will greet these patients and collect their information. The clerk will then determine which department the patient needs to be directed to based on their reasoning for coming into the hospital: Allergy, Anesthesiology, Cardiology, Dermatology, etc. The patient is then met by a nurse and brought to the doctor’s room. The nurse will ask a few questions so the doctor has organized notes to review before he goes in and works on the patient. Finally, the doctor will come into the room and perform the final step in this process, which is actually working on the patient. A week later the doctor may follow-up to review how the patient is doing. This closes the loop on the entire process.

Now, imagine a hospital system where the front desk clerk greets the patients, collects their info, brings them to the room, and evaluates and works on the patient. Even in an unimaginable scenario where the front desk clerk actually had the medical expertise to treat the patient, what has happened to all the other patients that came into the hospital during the time the front desk clerk was doing all of these tasks? Those patients are piling up at the front door, resulting in chaos.

If we have a system to get things done, we operate like a well-run hospital. If not, our life and productivity is in chaos.

In our system, we must do the following:  

  • Step 1 - Collect our Open Loops (Patients walking into the door)
  • Step 2 - Process (The Front desk clerk directing the patients to a department)
  • Step 3 - Organize (The Nurse organizing the patient’s info so the Doctor can understand the symptoms of the patient)
  • Step 4 - Do (The Doctor goes to work)
  • Step 5 - Review (The follow-up call from the doctor to see how things are going)

Below I’ll dig into each step to show you how you can apply this to your life.

The Guide to Getting Things Done

Step 1 - Collect your Open Loops

Step 1 is collecting all of your "Open Loops”. Open Loops are all the things we must take action on. They can be any of the following: an email from your colleague asking you for something, a text from your wife asking you to pick up milk from the grocery store, and it can be a great idea that pops into your head during a workout. It can even be a generic email you receive that you may end up deleting. Think of Open Loops as the patients that are walking in the front door.

Throughout your day you will be asked of things to do or you will remember things you need to complete. Whenever this happens, you must immediately collect this Open Loop by writing it down in your To-do app. I’ll discuss the app more in Step 2 below, but remember this for now: You never want to “store” any to-do’s or ideas in your head. You must immediately log these thoughts in your digital apps.

For most people, their largest area of Open Loops is their email inbox. The primary purpose of email is to communicate. However, most of us use our email as a place not only to send and receive emails, but also to store reminders, notes, attachments, and to-do’s. If there is one thing you take away from this entire system it will be this: You can finally achieve INBOX ZERO.

For you, you want to figure out where all your Open Loops are located. Remember, in this phase the front desk clerk is Collecting the patients coming through the doors, in the next phase we will learn how to process them.

Step 2 - Process

Now that you’ve figured out where all your Open Loops are, you must Process these Open Loops. Processing Open Loops simply means when you get that email, text, or idea that popped into your head, what do you do with it? This is the Front desk clerk directing the patients to a department.

Your open loops must go into a container or be deleted. The container collects all of your tasks, projects, notes, and ideas so you have a single location to go view what you need to do and then you can take action immediately without going through the cognitive exercise of needing to locate what you need to do.

I have two containers: 1) My To-do List app (Things), and 2) My Notes app (Evernote). All of my to-do’s (tasks I must take action on) go into Things and all of my notes and things I want to reference later go into Evernote.

As I mentioned above in Step 1, whenever anything pops into your head throughout the day whether it is a task you must complete, an idea that popped into your head, or something you came across that you want to remember, you must always log this in Things or Evernote, depending on what the item is.

Most of the open loops will be in your email. There’s four types of decisions you can make when you are processing open loops. Each step should take no more than 10 seconds of thinking for any given action below:

  1. Delete — if not actionable or valuable
  2. Actionable — Send to Things
  3. Someday — If it’s not currently actionable, but you want to do it someday, send it to Things
  4. Reference — If not actionable, but valuable and something you want to keep for later, file in Reference (Evernote)

To use email as an example, you can very quickly decide which of the four steps above you will perform when going through your email. You delete an email, add it to your to-do list, or send it to your Notes app based on the four criteria above.

One side-note:  if an item is actionable it means that you need to do something. Instead of writing something vague in your to-do app such as, “talk to Jeff”, or “touch base with Jeff”, you want to be as tactical and concrete as possible so you know EXACTLY what you need to do. I will stress this point again: this reduces the cognitive overhead of deciding what action you must take, and instead you can simply focus on the execution of what you need to do. In this example,  you may write “Send Email to Jeff”. You always want to write your tasks in Things as very concrete next physical actions you need to perform.

Now that we’ve learned how to process our tasks (or in the case of the front desk clerk, process our patients), now we need to make sure that everything is organized.

Step 3 - Organize

Keeping your system in sync across Things and Evernotes will help you stay organized. This is like the Nurse categorizing the patient’s symptoms at a higher level and tidying up the room so the Doctor can come in and make sure everything is organized and he knows where to find things.

I have found that I can organize my Things and Evernote applications by “Projects” and “Areas of Responsibility”. I define Tasks, Projects, and Areas of Responsibility as follows:

  • Tasks: Tactical next steps that need to be completed (e.g. Read article, send email, call someone)
  • Projects: Something you are working on that has goals to be achieved, are time-limited, and usually consist of multiple tasks (e.g. Launch product, Complete taxes)
  • Areas of Responsibility: broad categories in your life where you’ve committed to a certain set of standards and are indefinite in duration (e.g. Health, Finances, Professional Development, Relationships)

Below are great visuals from Tiago Forte’s class which show how how Tasks, Projects, and Areas of Responsibility relate to each other.

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Now, you want to make sure that your Projects and Areas of Responsibility are synced between Things and Evernote. The reason for this is because if you have a system that is in sync using the same wording and structure, it will reduce the cognitive overhead needed when switching back and forth between these apps for different reasons. You very easily know where to go, what you’re looking for, and how to find it.

Below is another visual from Tiago Forte which shows how he keeps his Projects in sync across Things and Evernote. Remember, Things will capture your actionable items, and Evernote will capture your notes, project plans, and other reference materials.

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Now that we have organized our system, or the Nurse has organized the patient’s notes and the room, it’s time for the Doctor to go to work.

Step 4 - Do

Step 4 is all about “Doing”. This is the execution of of your tasks. Think of this as a combination of the Nurse prepping the Doctor’s day of appointments, as well as the Doctor performing his work. At the beginning of the day, you have a very simple routine that you go through to identify what you need to work on and complete that day.

Here’s my routine:  

  • Write for 30 minutes
  • Read the Wall Street Journal
  • Clear email inbox (using the principles above in Phase 2. I am not responding to emails, I am simply processing them)
  • Process Things Inbox (As I mentioned in Step 1, you may have been collecting to-do’s in your Things app, so in this step you categorize those to do’s under a Project or Area of Responsibility and also determine when that task needs to be completed)
  • Review Things “Next Actions” and decide on day’s tasks. (You determine what you need to complete today)

After completing these steps, now I have a list of all the tasks that I need to complete during that day and I am off to the races. One unique part about this system is that you can decide what you want to work on based on your energy and mood that day. For example, if in the afternoon you are in the mood to read rather than do some type of deeply analytical work, you can go to your list of tasks you need to accomplish and choose the task that best fits with what you are in the mood to do. This is an often overlooked principle in productivity, which is matching our work to our energy and mood.

Now that the Doctor has completed his work, there’s only one thing left to do: follow-up with the patients to ensure his actions are working, and if not, he can adjust.

Step 5 - Review

The review is one of the most beautiful parts about this system. First, it is simple and quick. Second, it allows you to prioritize and execute. And third, it gives you time to review what you work on, how you feel, and if your work is serving you. The beauty of this system is that if you happen to miss a review, the system does not crumble. Again, think of this as the doctor following up with the patient to determine if his actions are working.

You perform a daily, weekly and monthly review. Below is my list of steps in the daily and weekly review:

Daily review: The 3 phases you’re focused on are Collect, Process, and Do. (Remember I do this in the morning and also in the evening when I finish work)

Morning:

  • Clear email inbox
  • Process Things Inbox
  • Review Things Inbox and decide on day’s tasks

Evening:

  • Clear computer desktop
  • Clear email inbox
  • Process Things Inbox

Weekly Review: The 3 phases you’re focused on are Collect, Review, and Organize.

  • Empty mind of open loops
  • Clear email (don’t reply. If you need to take action, log it in Things)
  • Clear Things inbox
  • Clear computer desktop
  • Review Waiting For list for any follow-ups (In Things, I log if I am waiting for anyone to get back to me on something)
  • Process Evernote Inbox (Throughout the week, any Reference material or Notes I have been sending to Evernote. At this point, I categorize those notes within the Projects or Area of Responsibility it belongs to)
  • Review overall productivity system
  • Review Projects list to see if any new projects and tasks to be activated or any changes to be made

Monthly Review example: The 1 phase you’re focused on is Review.

  • Review Areas of Responsibility
  • Review Goals
  • Review Someday/Maybe for new projects

The review works well because it is quick, efficient, and allows you to determine if your system is working well and how you can improve. If you miss a review, it’s ok. The system continues moving along, which is even better because there are times where we will miss reviews.

This is my Personal Productivity System that has helped me increase my personal productivity by 75%. It took me a few hours on a Saturday to set up. I have continued to make minor tweaks to continue to improve as I find new things that help me stay organized, present, and productive. The best part about the system is that it's lightweight and sustainable, even when I forget to do the quick reviews.

With this system you have a sustainable way to collect all of the activities you need to work on, prioritize them, and execute them. On top of this, the ability to have a clear mind throughout the day without distractions will allow you to unlock another level of effectiveness and focus.