Tag Archives: motivation

GTD – Mastering Workflow, Mastering Life

This post is the first in my series about mastering productivity from the perspective of a full time working mom of a toddler with a side business. That’s me with the side business, not the toddler. 

If you’re looking to be more productive, more effective and grow as a person, then there is a bewildering world of self-help business books out there to choose from. Some are fashionable for a year, others stand the test of time. David Allen’s Getting Things Done has been successful enough to warrant a brand new edition in 2015.

It’s always the book I recommend that people start out with. Not because it is a literary masterpiece, but because the methodology he describes allows you to sort out the little things so you then have the mental clarity and space to then deal with the bigger life questions. Books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People start with life purpose and other lofty aspirations. I really don’t recommend that as a starter for anyone. Ever.

Despite saying the GTD method is for everyone (and it really is), the book is nevertheless aimed at business executives, with the secondary motivator of selling consulting services. I’ve never had to worry about forgetting to get flowers for my secretary’s birthday (although in the 2015 version I noted that’s been changed to a less culturally charged ‘assistant’). With that in mind, I want to show you over this series of posts how I’ve implemented it in my work, personal life and side business as a writer, without the requirement for a corner office.

Since 2009, I’ve probably read Getting Things Done at least once a year. That’s what I’ve always believed anyway. When I decided to write this series, it forced me not to just choose the bits I was most interested in, or needed a refresher on, but really read what he was saying like it was the first time I’d come across it. I’m not going to lie: the chapter on Mastering Workflow took effort.

I’ve heard so many people say they found the material ‘dry’ and ‘hard-going’. I’d never really thought that to be the case, but re-reading a chapter like this, so early on, I can see why people got stuck here. In a single chapter, he gives you the entire methodology. The remainder of the book is the detailed ‘how to’. I’m a fan of the big picture, but this is intense stuff.

Luckily, it can all be summed up in a handy flowchart. Get a copy. Put it where you’ll see it. It will be more helpful than constantly going back to this chapter while you’re starting out.

© David Allen

I find it interesting that the flowchart remains unchanged, but the titles for the stages have been updated between the two books.

What next?

“Every decision to act is an intuitive one. The challenge is to migrate from hoping it’s the right choice to trusting it’s the right choice.” – David Allen, 2001 Edition

Instead of being overwhelmed by this chapter, I’d suggest doing a quick assessment of where you are now. Some simple things to consider:

  1. Do you already have an existing tech or analogue system you need to use? There are some great ones out there that are designed with GTD specifically in mind, but learning the methodology can be hard enough without being distracted by a new tool as well.
  2. Are there some things you can do straight away? The 2 minute rule (see flowchart) is easy and doesn’t require any further support structures.
  3. Which area of your life is causing you the most stress? Ignore the work-life balance for now. If you’ve got a single project causing you problems, then decide if you could implement a GTD strategy just for that. If it works, you’ll find the momentum to expand out into other areas.
  4. If you’re like me, you don’t naturally trust other people to do what they’re supposed to. As a result, doing work that isn’t technically yours to complete can be the source of many feelings of overwhelm. Make a master list of things you are waiting for and then hand off those tasks. The list will allow you to control what you’ve delegated and you can check back in with people at any time.

“Basically, everything potentially meaningful to you is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your mental space.” – David Allen, 2015 Edition

David Allen sets us up in this chapter for doing hard work. Getting through it separates the wheat from the chaff. He wants you to go all in on the method and promises a life of ‘stress free productivity’ and ‘mind like water’ as the end result. He’s also been quoted as expecting it to take the average person two years to really master the system. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but I believe you can implement an effective enough strategy in a few months or even weeks. If you want to take it further then that solid foundation is one you can build on when you’re ready.

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What got you here won’t get you there

As I move deeper into a year focused on doing what matters, the saying ‘what got you here won’t get you there‘ (made popular by Marshall Goldsmith) has begun to resonate more and more. When life changes in some fundamental way, then you have to change too. This applies to career, family and everything that gets wrapped up in those banner labels.

What has got me here, certainly won’t get me there. Why? Because of that other buzz phrase right now, the one about doing things for ‘the season you’re in‘. Now that one resonates even more.

When you have a child in your forties – your first child especially – you suddenly enter a whole new season. The real problem isn’t that you have to adjust, it’s that, if you think about it, your seasons are now out of order. Another spring has followed summer and now it looks like your autumn and winter are probably going to be rolled into one.

I’m fortunate to have done so many amazing things in my life. I’ve lived in several countries and traveled to many more. I’ve had a few fulfilling jobs (and a few less-fulfilling ones). I’ve been employed, self-employed and consciously unemployed. I’ve written a book that received a best-seller tag from Amazon and plenty more that should never see the light of day. I implemented a successful morning routine and got my health in order.

Now I stumble into the bright lights of the office each morning and need to double-check that I really have got dressed. My morning boot up sequence has been cut from an hour to a maximum of fifteen minutes. Journaling has kept me sane – I refuse to sacrifice that. As for my health, I frequently fall into the spiral of no sleep = poor decisions + low energy. I am officially a different person to the one I was a year ago. A person whose spring is just starting and those seeds I’ve planted have yet to sprout into life.

What got me here won’t get me there. It will again one day, but not just yet. Those seeds will become flowers again at some point, but until then, I have to keep moving forwards.

But how?

I need to ask better questions. Create new routines, not just abandon old ones and let chaos reign.

It’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s also not a quick fix, super-easy solution. With my morning routine, there are some things which are sacred and others which were luxurious habit (see my previous post on streamlining my morning using the MD Paper diary notebook). Reading isn’t happening right now, but it will be again. I know that writing 1000 words each morning can be curtailed by sudden wailing, but I’ve become less fixated on the number and more on at least writing something. 400 words might not be as good as 1000, but it’s better than zero because I’m worried the baby might wake up.

This new season – I have to learn to go back to small wins. Small habits. What are the building blocks I used last time to build the castle. Which ones can I re-use? Which ones are the foundation stones.

I don’t have the luxury now of an hour to exercise in the evenings if I want. Not without compromising other things that now suddenly matter more. The lack of sleep means that I tend towards inertia at every moment of calm. The only way out of that is to remove anything that causes friction between myself and an activity. I’ve always advocated for that, but now I need to recognise just how small those barriers might be. I need to monitor and measure things that I’ve long since taken for granted.

So here’s my simple five step plan. I’m doing it and sharing it so that no matter what season of life you’re in, if it’s flowing along nicely or a momentous change has suddenly derailed you, it’s possible to make a change.

Make a conscious choice. Then make changes.

  1. What are the cornerstones you already have?
  2. What are the unconscious habits you need to let go of or change?
  3. What are the small changes – the tweaks – you can make that will have disproportionate results?
  4. What are the friction points stopping you from getting started each day?
  5. What are the goals, dreams and plans that you need to let go of, even if it’s just for now?

5 Tips to survive sugar free February

Dry January (or Veganuary) is behind us. For some people, they fell by the wayside after day three. For others, they will have begun to instil the habits that could lead to a complete change of life. Sugar Free February is not just the health kick fad of calendar month 2, it’s also a great way to raise money for Cancer Research.

Copyright Cancer Research

Ready to take the plunge? Most people are surprised by how difficult it is to go sugar free. The reality that you have to do  more than simply cut out chocolate sets in pretty quickly. So how do you make sure you survive for a whole 28 days?

Before we get to specific tips, you have to define what you mean by ‘no sugar’. Are you eliminating any kind of sugar? Are you focused on fructose specifically? Or do you just want to avoid any food products with added sugars? The chances are that whatever you decide, it will still be a big improvement from where you are now. If you’re a complete newbie and only intend to do it for a month then I’d recommend simply avoiding food with added sugar (there’s lots of label reading in your future, sorry).

So what are the 5 keys to success and staying (relatively) sane throughout February?

1. Remove temptation

Your willpower is not as strong as you think it is. Having to consciously choose not to eat those delicious tasty treats every time you open the cupboard is both exhausting and likely to trip you up the very first time you come home late after a bad day. If you don’t want to throw perfectly good food away, then donate it to a friend or family member. If you’re planning to devour it in March, then lock it away in the garage or attic (or any other place you don’t habitually scour for snacks) until then.

2. Find Support

If you can’t convince anyone in your real life to come on the journey with you, then join an online group, browse forums, read blogs. Feeling you are not alone in those moments when you question your sanity about this whole thing can stop you from ramming a whole packet of cookies into your face in one sitting. A lot of people are shocked to discover how hard this is to begin with, even for a month. See the next point.

3. Be aware of the physical response to addiction

Urgh. My least favourite part.

Sugar is addictive. Combine it with fat in a treat and you’ve got an instant brain high that leaves you wanting more. That chemical reaction is something your body misses within a few days. The physical effects of sugar withdrawal are the same as any other addictive substance and people don’t talk about it enough. So go into this being prepared. Irritability, headaches, lack of concentration and sometimes feeling like you have the flu are all possible short term side effects of quitting sugar. My advice: be prepared.

Oh, and apologise in advance.

4. Plan your social life

Just because you’re quitting sugar for the month doesn’t mean you need to quit life. It does mean you need to plan in advance. If you have any say in the location, then choose somewhere that has tasty but low sugar foods on the menu (a sauce can ambiguously contain a multitude of sins). If you don’t have any control, then check out the menu in advance. There is usually something that’s allowed. Find it, make the decision in advance and then do not look at the menu again when you get there. Trust me, we’re always weaker in the moment, especially in those places that have actual pictures of the desserts to tempt you.

5. Remember why you’re doing it at all times

If you’re committing to this month to raise funds, then I salute you. Remember to salute yourself too. When you’re in the middle of a terrible day and your colleague brings in birthday cakes, remind yourself that you can say no because you are doing something awesome.

If you’re doing it because you hope it’s the start of a new way of eating, then avoid thinking about being deprived and think instead of the long-term outcome. Sure you’re missing that slice of cake now, but soon your clothes will fit better, your energy levels will be higher and your body will have had chance to clear out the processed gunk you’ve been filling it with for years. Keep your eyes on the prize.

And remember, if you don’t want to commit to a whole month without sugar, then you can still make a one-off donation to a great cause. Imagine if we could eradicate cancer mortality in our lifetime.

The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free

How to quit sugar and stay sane in the real world.

Five ways to create a flexible planning system

As you may have noticed, there haven’t been many new posts here lately. It would be so easy to say that life got ‘busy’. In reality, life changed and the systems I had in place weren’t flexible enough to handle it.

Is your productivity system flexible enough to handle change?

Many people from a GTD background spend years getting their system to work just the way they want it to. One of the major strengths of the Getting Things Done system is that it is inherently flexible. There is no preferred tool and you can customise the set up to suit your needs and circumstances.

But once we find a way of doing things that feels right to us, humans develop an overwhelming resistance to change. The system might be flexible, but we become inflexible. Without realising it, I had found myself in this trap. Setting aside the time for creative thinking and writing of posts fell through the cracks as a result.

So how do we make sure that our systems are flexible enough that changes don’t bring everything to a grinding halt?

Don’t be wholly reliant on a system that isn’t transferable.

Whilst we all have our favourite tools (both digital and analogue), there is an inherent danger in being completely tied into one. It may have the best features in the world right now, but when it stops being supported and you can’t export your tasks and projects, you’re in big trouble. Frictionless access to your next actions is vital.

Separate life and work

For many years, people argued that when it came to life and work, it was all one and therefore only one system was needed. Whilst in some ways this is true, ‘work’ changes at a much faster rate now than when GTD was originally published back in 2001. Not only do we change employers much more frequently, many of us now have developed side hustles to cope with a crazy economy in a crazy world. If your system is all nicely integrated to your day job but that changes every few years or even months, then it can be a painful process to routinely unpick it all. With constant data breaches, companies are getting more and more antsy about accessing different tools on their systems.

Letting go is not the same as giving up

We can become deeply wedded to an idea of something we want – or think we should want – to do. When circumstances change, it may no longer be relevant. Sometimes it can hurt to let something go, or feel a sense of failure for not completing it. The end result is a system full of junk that you once wanted to accomplish, but now have no real intention of taking action on. Over time, this clutter can slow everything down until you stop noticing the things that remain important even once life settles down again.

Attractive tools that are easy to use

It’s a simple fact that the more you want to play with your toys, the more time you’ll spend with them. A task management system you don’t like will be a task management system you ignore. The same applies when things change. It might be that your app worked fantastically with email input at a time when most of your tasks appeared that way. But if it is cumbersome when you have to add a task manually and that becomes your new normal, you’re going to stop looking at and updating the tool pretty quickly.

Don’t be a chronic-optimist

When your circumstances change, the new tasks you need to complete take their toll on other items, even if they are seemingly unrelated. Learning new things and using your day in different ways tires you out in the beginning. This means a task you have been completing in 30 minutes at 6pm for years can suddenly take double that amount of time when you’re forced to push it back to 8pm and your brain is extra tired. Before you know it, you’re in backlog with tasks that you haven’t got round to. Like writing this post, for example…

So, after nearly six weeks of tweaking my system after my third major change in two years, I think I’ve made it slightly more adaptable.

Only time will tell.

The legacy of Roger Bannister

Although it seems a particularly inappropriate time to say it, over the past few years I grew sick of hearing about Roger Bannister. Working in personal and corporate development, it seemed like every book or PowerPoint presentation wasn’t complete without a reference to the four minute mile.

As if getting someone in a suit to reach inbox zero was on par with breaking a time /distance record that had held since man developed accurate timepieces.

That record lasted less than 50 days before it was broken by someone else. The commonly held perspective is that once someone had proven it was possible, others could finally believe it and do it themselves. This is, of course, somewhat simplistic, as a group of runners were all hitting around that mark, but the story does have a nice ring to it.

For me, the real lesson to take away from Roger Bannister’s four minute mile was that he was an amateur. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of professional athletes, where running or kicking a ball is a career in itself. That famous four minute mile run almost never happened because of bad weather. Harder to imagine is that Bannister came to do it after going to work that day and the success built on a training regime of sneaking in a mere forty-five minutes daily.

It’s not so much about proving something so others can do it. Instead, it’s having the grit and determination to do something yourself, even if it’s not your main priority in life.

 

The 5 best bullet journal health tracker spreads

With all the apps out there focused on health and habits, analogue still remains a fantastic way to set goals and easily monitor your progress. I’ve been using a modified bullet journal for years now and its best feature is that the system does whatever you want. When it comes to tracking your health, a simple one or two page spread is all you need.

I have limited artistic skills to say the least. My bullet journal set up needs to be simple or I spend more time doodling than doing. So the following examples don’t all focus on exquisite calligraphy or time-intensive set up. Of course, they could all be made simpler or more elaborate depending on your personal preferences.

Remember, your healthy habits will be personal to you, so don’t worry about tracking things you don’t care about because someone has included them here. Alternatively, you might see something you’d never considered before.

1 – Minimal

Image: marianeofcysn

This is the kind of tracker I use. I can just about manage to draw small squares without going too far wrong. With the habits listed down the left hand side and the dates across the top, it gives a quick and easy visual of missed days and progress.

2 – Data driven

Image: oak.tree.journaling

These simplified graphs allow you to see much more than a yes / no response to your habits. This is particularly useful if you are setting yourself sleep, calorie or water consumption targets, for example. The space for notes is helpful for noting any external factors that impacted progress to add more context to the images.

3 – Funky

Image: Boho Berry

There is literally no one who bullet journals who hasn’t heard of Boho Berry. With good reason too – she’s always tweaking and experimenting so you don’t have to. With this tracker, I love the sense of full circle you get for the month. It is also a fantastic way of quickly assessing if there is any correlation between your habits. If you eat badly after a poor night’s sleep, then chances are you’ll be able to spot the pattern quickly with this one.

4 – Wordy

Image: b.izzi

Like the minimalist tracker above, this is the kind of spread I can get behind because it uses more words than images! This is great if you want to track at a greater depth on a weekly, rather than monthly, level. Instead of simply recording whether you hit (or missed) your goal that day, you get space to think about and record the reason why. This is especially useful for those who like to review for strengths and weaknesses so they can course correct as necessary.

5 – Visual

Image: mybulletjournal18

Although this one is also simple in terms of its components, visually it packs quite a punch. The bright colours and easy to read progress bars are great for those who like to take in their information in a visual way. Colour co-ordination really comes into its own with a spread like this and allows you to see where you need to focus your attention as the month progresses. It’s less useful if you’re trying to establish a successful streaking process.

Don’t forget to check out the creators of these spreads (click on the images) to get other ideas that might work for you and see their work in more depth. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of options when you scroll through instagram, so if you’re new to it, start out simple and focus on what you need. There’s plenty of time to tweak it later.

For more information on building habits and healthy eating, check out The Realist’s Guide to Sugar Free and The Realist’s Guide To Resolutions.

            

January Monthly Review: Fear Setting

January is a strange month. Everyone starts out with a higher level of enthusiasm which then fizzles out faster the the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Now we stand on the cusp of February and it’s easy to wonder where the past month went. For most of us, the lofty goals we had in mind when the calendar ticked over have already fallen by the wayside. That doesn’t mean we should abandon them completely.

Technique One – Monthly Review

Regardless of whether you abandoned your goals back in week one or if you’ve been grinding away on them the whole way through, a monthly review is an essential technique for staying on track.

Before you begin – no judgement. Don’t beat yourself up for not doing as well as you’d hoped, you’re only human. The fact you are taking the time to do a review at all puts you ahead of the rest of the pack.

Look back over January with an honest pair of eyes. Were you realistic about what you wanted to achieve to begin with, or were you just flush with optimism for the future? Do you even still care about those goals you set? If you don’t, then there is nothing wrong with abandoning them and moving onto something else. The real value is progress on what matters, not for progress’ sake itself.

The final question to ask is what you did right / wrong when it came to working on your goals and plans for the month. Learn the lessons so you don’t make the same mistake again. Improve on your strengths to get even more value from them.

Now set yourself up for a great February. It doesn’t matter about January anymore. Let it go. Instead, focus on how you can gain the momentum that will carry you forward for the rest of the year.

Technique Two – Fear Setting

Tim Ferriss did a great Ted Talk explaining fear setting better than I can. It’s a great technique you can use if you’re not making progress because something is holding you back. If you’ve struggled to really commit to your goals, then this is a reversal of the process. Instead, you define your fears.

For most people, thinking about their fears is counter-intuitive. Why would you spend so much time and energy thinking about the things that induce anxiety and discomfort? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what we are told to do for a happy life? Mindfulness is a hot topic for a reason.

Fear setting is hard, but by going the extra mile and breaking down those fears, you take away their power. Fear is often a series of unanswered ‘but what if?’ questions. They spiral and debilitate. The power comes in getting to those answers.

Like a monthly review, the process is quite simple. You just follow a series of questions and steps to get to a place where you are able to action the right things.

Firstly, you have to define those fears in the extreme. What is the very worst thing that could happen. Be as detailed as you dare.

This is the point where most people stop in life. This is the anxious point. But what could you do to prevent those things from happening? This is the second question Tim asks as part of the technique and it’s amazing how easy it is to come up with answers. Pre-empting the worst case scenario often prevents it.

But what if that bad thing holding you back actually happened anyway? Before it does, take the final step of working out all the things you could do to get out of the hole. It’s amazing how resourceful you can be. That’s because by doing it up front, the pressure is off. When you’re in that place, the fear is the stronger emotion and it stifles ingenuity and creativity. By fear setting up front, you’ll already have the answers should the worst happen.

So by combining the two, you can guarantee yourself a better February, no matter how the year has gone so far.

Need more help? The Realist’s Guide To Resolutions is a practical approach to goal achievement, no matter what time of year.