Each of us carries a long list of tasks that we need to get done. Things at work and things at home, hobbies and chores, alone and with others, on the phone and online. A mishmash that fills our brains and keeps us thinking about remembering, remembering not to forget.
David Allen, the guru of Getting Things Done, says that the average executive has a list of 250 next actions on her to-do list. I tend to forget things if I don’t have a system. I’m very comfortable with vision, less comfortable with detail, and I have found that technology can palliate my task-oriented stumbling. There are three things that I rely on to keep order, to provide a structure for success with tasks.
Three Apps I Use to Get Things Done:
OmniFocus is a very robust to-do application that I use on my iPhone, MacBook Air, and iPad, to keep track of bits of information that I need to discuss or act on. I have OmniFocus configured to remember tasks based on the location, on the activity and on the specific individuals with whom I work.
For example, I might have the following tasks:
- Talk about the scribe contract at our executive meeting.
- Talk to Dan about a case that needs to be reviewed.
- Remember to pick up the milk.
The first task, “Talk about the scribe contract at our executive meeting,” is an example of a meeting agenda item that I need to remember. At some time before the executive meeting, I will open OmniFocus and populate the meeting agenda with the various tasks I have captured. I can attach files, links to webpages and links to emails in the task. In this way, all of the supporting material that I need is available.
The second task, “Talk to Dan about a case,” is an example of a person-specific task. I keep a list in OmniFocus of the people I work with. As an idea that I need to discuss or a task that I need to assign pops into my mind, I enter it under the appropriate person. The next time I am with Dan, I look at OmniFocus and run the list.
The third task, “Remember to pick up the milk,” is an example of a location-specific task. I can assign tasks to specific locations. OmniFocus will use the location-aware service of the iPhone or iPad to prompt me to buy milk when I am at Whole Foods. It also knows that I don’t have executive meetings at Whole Foods, and it therefore will present geographically aware to-dos.
I have a hotkey combination on my laptop that I can type to rapidly enter tasks in OmniFocus using a pop-up window as I’m working in any program. It’s a very fast way to keep track of the tangential and cluttered thoughts that I tend to produce and harness them to create purposeful action.
It is easy to start to work on something and then get distracted by something else. I start working on a contract, and then I want to look something up. Then I check my email and start to answer it, but the phone rings. Then someone walks by the office and asks a question. Twenty-five unfocused minutes later, I’ve accomplished little.
I have found that I need short disciplined periods of focused and uninterrupted work to give me the clear space to finish single tasks. Pomodoro is a work timer for the Mac or Windows that I set for 25 minutes (one Pomodoro) to focus on completing one specific task. After 25 minutes, I take a five-minute break to do whatever I want, and then I start the timer again for another 25 minutes. I repeat this process throughout the day.
During a timed Pomodoro session, I set the following rules:
- I close the door.
- I don’t answer the phone, check email, or open the browser.
- If a distracting idea pops into my head, I can write it down as a brief note or enter it as a task in OmniFocus.
- If I get interrupted for more than two minutes, I start the Pomodoro over again.
For example, I’d like to improve my writing, and I use Pomodoro to accomplish a goal of writing for one hour each day. This translates into two Pomodoros; two 25-minute sessions with two five-minute breaks. I know that on average a post like this will take four Pomodoros (two hours) of writing, and I plan for it.
I can estimate that a policy review will take one Pomodoro, answering emails will take two Pomodoros, and so on. I set up my day to get things done. After I have completed a bunch of Pomodoros, I take a longer break.
Pomodoro hooks into my calendar and logs the hours I spend on work projects. It is an effective anti-procrastination tool. It helps me get things done.
3. Note Card
I keep a note card in the front pocket of my shirt. A note card is not technically an “app”; it’s not electronic, it’s made of paper, and I use a pen. However, it is a very efficient, simple, app-like PDA (Parietal Disgorgement Aid).
At the beginning of the day, I write down two or three tasks that I definitely need to accomplish on that day. It may be something simple like, “Mail letters,” or it could be something more involved like, “Talk with Mike about Med Exec.” I enjoy checking things off as I do them. Very gratifying.
I also use the note card to write down bits of info that I gather. Sometimes typing into an iPhone or into a computer during a meeting can make it appear that I am not listening, or that I am texting to friends. Writing on a note card can be a much more socially acceptable way to capture information. Typing to-dos into the iPhone is also too slow for my bumbling thumbs; a note card and pen is rapidly elegant for the job.
Things You Can Do
1. Read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. It is your first read when you are wanting to get serious about creating a method for productivity.
2. Read more about the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management technique created by Francesco Cirillo. You can go to his website to download a pdf about the technique for free. There are also links to various Pomodoro timers that you can install.
3. Read Marc Andreessen’s guide to personal productivity. Marc invented the first widely-used web browser, Mosaic; he sits on the board board of directors of Facebook, eBay and HP; and he runs a very successful venture capital firm. He writes about not keeping a schedule and creating an “Anti ToDo List”.
OmniFocus, Pomodoro, and a note card make up my current system of getting things done. These three items help me work efficiently. I am always on the lookout for a new program, application, or gadget to try that I can use to be more effective. What do you use?