It can be difficult to be mindful when your head is filled with the many things on your various to-do lists.
There’s the work email you need to send, that person you need to follow-up with, the phone call you need to make, that meeting you need to plan, the groceries you need to pick up and the errand you need to run.
As a mindful leader, we know that attention is a limited commodity and its essential to have a strategy that enables us to focus on doing the right thing at the right time.
This is where a trusted system comes into play.
A trusted system is your personal productivity workflow.
It’s the place where you capture, process, organize, review and complete ALL your various projects and tasks.
Popularized by David Allen in his classic book Getting Things Done (or GTD for short), GTD is a simple strategy for creating an effective and efficient trusted system.
Before I had a trusted system, I did what everyone else did: attempted to hold it all in my head.
Occasionally, I would write out to-do lists, but for the most part, I kept track of everything in my head.
Unfortunately, this was not very efficient.
I would forget things, I would let external factors get in the way of my priorities, and even after a long day of work, I was not getting my key projects done.
More importantly, not have a trusted system was hurting my credibility as a trusted professional because it looked like I was dropping the ball.
Now that I have a trusted system in place, I work much more effectively.
I do things proactively, and I’m rarely surprised.
When crisis does happen, I’m much more prepared to deal with it.
This has greatly enhanced my reputation as a trusted professional.
When your trusted system is working efficiently, you can expect that it will help you:
– Connect with your purpose
– Maintain your focus on your long-term goals
– Make regular progress on your critical projects
– Maintain keys areas of your life via positive habits
– Complete your most important tasks each day
– Be productive regardless of context and energy levels
What follows is an overview of GTD with some tips on how I’ve integrated it into my life.
Building Your Trusted System
A trusted system has 5 building blocks. They are collect, process, organize, review, and do.
I – Collect
The first building block is collect.
This is where you need to define the entry points into your trusted system.
The 3 rules of collect are:
1) Get it all out of your head.
Every incomplete project and unfinished task is taking up valuable mental real-estate in your head; it is what David Allen calls psychic RAM.
It’s only when we get out all the mental clutter that we able to use the creative power of our minds.
2) Minimize the number of collection buckets.
Common entry points into your trusted system will include:
– Physical in-basket
– Paper-based note-taking devices
– Electronic note-taking devices
– Voice recording devices
Having too many collection buckets will make it difficult to maintain your trusted system. Limit the number to two or three.
I have two: my email inbox and the inbox of my online to-do list software.
3) Empty them regularly.
You must empty your collect buckets regularly.
In the next building block, I will show you a quick and simple way to process all the items from each of your collect buckets.
II – Process
The secret to processing your various collect buckets is defining the next action.
A next action is the next physical and visible step required to achieve your desired outcome.
If there is no clear next action, you either:
1) Discard it.
Put in the trash. Letting go is extremely freeing.
2) Incubate it.
Maybe it’s something you want to think about and consider later. There should be a home for everything you want to incubate. This might be a tickler file or a place you will come back to review and process regularly.
3) File it.
If it’s something you want to reference for later, find a home for these things as well.
When you have identified the next action, you need to either:
1) Do it.
If the next action is going to take 2 minutes or less to complete, then do it, even if it’s not a high priority.
The rationale for the 2-minute rule is that often it’s going to take longer to store and track the item then to just get it done.
2) Delegate it.
If you are not the best person to perform the next action, you should delegate it.
Your trusted system should include tracking activities you have delegated so you can follow-up when necessary.
3) Defer it.
If the next action needs to be completed as some point in the future, you will need to defer it.
i) If the next action involves other people or should be completed at a particular time, then schedule it in your calendar.
ii) If the next action is a stand-alone activity, it should be added to your to-do list and tagged with the appropriate context.
A word about projects.
A project is any outcome you have committed to achieve that requires more than one action step to complete.
If the next action doesn’t achieve the outcome, then you have a project.
It is useful to have a list of your projects together in one place.
This will allow you to capture and process any remaining open loops.
This leads us to the next building block: organize.
III – Organize
The key to a trusted system is to get everything that is happening out of your head and into its proper place.
Here are the main categories:
– Calendar – For things that need to be scheduled. This includes meetings with other people or booking meetings with yourself to complete specific tasks.
– Projects – For those projects that you have made a commitment to yourself or others to complete.
– Next Actions – For the one-off things that just need to get done.
– Reference – This includes support material for projects and/or items you would like to access at a later date.
– Waiting – For those things that you have delegated and are waiting for someone else to complete.
– Someday/Maybe – For those things that you haven’t yet made a commitment or without a clearly defined next action.
What tools should you be using to organize all your stuff?
There are two ways to manage your personal productivity workflow.
You can go old-school and use paper lists, a personal planner, file folders and storage cabinets or go completely digital.
Checkout this post for the list of apps that I use to manage my personal productivity workflow.
IV – Review
You can’t just load your trusted systems with stuff and forget about them.
In order for your mind to truly let go, it must engage at some level with all your commitments and activities on a regular basis.
You must be assured you are turning your attention to the right thing at the right time and that you are OK to not do what you are not doing.
I review my trusted system at the following times:
1) Beginning of day.
At the beginning of my work day, I review my immediate projects and next actions to determine my 3 main priorities for the day.
When selecting my 3 main priorities, I usually select activities that are non-urgent yet important.
This keeps me focused on my goals and keeps urgency addiction at bay.
2) End of day.
At the end of my work day, I make a point of capturing all the loose ends into my trusted system.
This allows me to clear my head of the open loops from the day, trusting that I will pick them up tomorrow.
This also gives a nice separation between my work day and personal life.
3) Weekly review.
Every week, I review everything in my trusted system. Here’s a sample of what I do during my weekly review:
– I review all my active projects and next actions lists.
– I look at the week ahead to see if there are any activities I need to prepare for.
– I empty all my collection buckets ensuring that everything is captured in my trusted system.
– I follow up with everything that I’ve delegated.
– I review my incubate folder to see if I’m ready to define the next action.
– I review my goals to determine if there are any projects I would like start.
– I purge things that are no longer a priority.
I’ve found that the weekly review is the most important part of keeping my trusted system working effectively.
Without the weekly review, your brain will no longer trust your trusted system and it will go back to keeping track of stuff in your head.
V – Do
We have finally reached doing.
How does your trusted system support you to determine what activity you should perform next?
The key is to have a balance between:
– Staying focused on completing your highest priorities
– Utilizing your context, time, and energy
– Being flexible enough to deal with the unexpected
1) Determine your highest priorities.
A tool that has really helped me to move away from urgency addiction toward important long-term priorities is the time management matrix popularized by Stephen Covey.
– Quadrant I (top left) – Important and Urgent – items that require your immediate attention.
– Quadrant II (top right) – Important and Non-urgent – items that do not require your immediate attention but demand you be intentional with your focus.
– Quadrant III (bottom left) – Non-important and Urgent – items that are a result of poor planning and should be minimized or eliminated.
– Quadrant IV (bottom right) – Non-important and non-urgent – items that are time-wasters and should be minimized or eliminated.
The secret to long-term success is to spend the majority of your time in Quadrant II (top right): Important and Non-urgent. This is the quadrant that we should focus on for long-term goal achievement.
2) Effectively use context, time and energy.
In any given moment, you can be doing any number of things.
Determining your next action based on context, time and energy is an essential part of GTD.
What tools do I have available to me? Do I have a phone? Do I have wi-fi connection for my laptop? Do I need be in the office or at home to complete this activity?
A common GTD approach is to tag all your next actions based on context.
Some of the context tags I use are errands, email, read, follow-up, calls, home, and work.
This allows me to batch common tasks together and avoid multitasking.
Most to-do list software support some sort of context tagging.
How much time do you have to complete an activity before you have to start something else?
You would pick a different activity to do right now if you had a meeting starting in 10 min than you would if you had the next few hours available.
Your energy levels move up and down throughout the day.
Are you most productive in the mornings, afternoons or evenings?
Make sure you take the time to discover what time of day your energy levels are at the highest and reserve this for your most important activities.
I also find it useful to have a list of low energy (aka brain dead) activities that I prepare in advance.
This way I can still be productive even when my energy is low.
The key is to prepare this in advance because when you are brain dead, it’s very difficult to think of productive things to do.
3) Dealing with the unexpected.
When your trusted system is working effectively, you can expect to move from task to task with the speed and precision of a highly-tuned machine.
However, there will be time when things will happen that will disrupt this rhythm.
The boss drops something on your desk. An urgent email grabs your attention. You get an unexpected call from an old friend.
Each of these activities can pull you away from your priorities.
The beauty of a trusted system is that it allows you to evaluate and consciously choose your next action as opposed to simply reacting on autopilot.
Do you have a productivity tip you have found useful?
I’d love to hear about.
Enter it in the comments below.
I’m looking forward to your response.