Tag Archives: persistence

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?

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.

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.

Ultimate Mindfulness Planner: The Trigg Life Mapper Review

I was gifted The Trigg Life Mapper at Christmas, by someone who had no idea that it was on my purchase list, which was a lovely surprise. Of course, it is exactly my sort of thing.

My morning review. It’s so dark here in England right now.

According to the guys over at Think Trigg it:

“fuses the principles of planning, productivity, habit, mindfulness and gratitude to provide a daily, weekly and annual framework that will ensure you work less, get more done and constantly strive towards meaningful targets”

I’m always trying to fuse the principles of productivity and purpose, so I couldn’t wait to try this out. There have been a few stand out features so far.

Think about what you should do, not everything you could do

It is the first planner that has forced me to use the Covey-style matrix on a daily basis. Anyone who has read anything about time management or productivity will know what this is, but it is another thing entirely to do it as the core planning task of your day. So far it has forced me to be more focused (and therefore more productive) than anything I’ve used before.

Best feature – the focus on what matters most

 

Because I do more granular planning in my Leuchturrm Weekly Planner (see here for my overview post), the appointment section doesn’t work for me. Instead, because it is fairly inobtrusive, I simply use it to list 3 things I am grateful for as I start my day. I found that to work quite well, although I appreciate I’m probably a bit of an edge case here.

Appointments section – easily modified if required

 

Although the planner has a daily focus, it is also designed to force a weekly review – something I believe is critical to any kind of success. The review section is quite small, but it is followed by a ‘Priority Planning’ page to allow you to set up your ideal next week.

Review section with quotes to ponder

Revisit your goals and projects each week

Other reviews are at the six month and end of year points. This is probably sufficient for most people, although I’d like there to be monthly/quarterly review points as well to allow for course correction earlier in the process.

6 month review section for each life area

For those of you who plan out your weekends as heavily as your weekdays, Trigg – like so many other planners out there – gives a reduced space for Saturday and Sunday. There is also no specific structure for these days, just a standard blank space.

Weekend mindfulness and focus optional

The one thing I don’t really use is the Month by Month Theme section. I appreciate the idea of having a theme for each month, but I can’t quite factor out how to use this in my own process as the date spaces are too small for any meaningful annotations.

Lamy safari for scale

Begin with the end in mind

The key to getting the most out of the planner is to take the time in the beginning to set it up right. I can see how this is daunting for most people. After all, it starts with a declaration of who and what you intend to be.

Daily reminder of what I’m aiming for

You then set out your yearly intentions in the key life areas of Self, Relationships, Passions and work. As with everything, this will only work if you review it daily, but it can certainly help you set your big picture planning for the year.

Knowing what you really want is always the first step

If this seems a bit daunting, then there is a help section on how to think about the annual forecast. Honestly, if you’re ready for the Trigg planner, you probably already have some sense about what you want. So although it seems intimidating, it took me only an hour or two to set up fully.

Quick reference guide

Begging for a simple design tweak

There’s so much good stuff in here that I really feel like a single bookmark is not enough. Just putting that out there so it can be considered for next year’s edition!

Trigg, Leuchtturm and coffee, my 2018 morning setup

So, in summary, there is no such thing as a perfect planner, but it is possible to modify and mix to create something that works well for you. Trigg has added a whole new level to my morning mindfulness. I now organise the granular detail over in my Leuchtturm planner with much more intention, rather than creating a crazy-making ‘To Do’ list. The result? I had my first guilt-free weekend in about a year. That’s priceless.

I’d recommend this for anyone who is ready to take their focus to the next level.

You can buy the Trigg Life Mapper from Amazon or over at Pocket Notebooks

Personal Post: The Year That Was 2017

Is it a sign I’m getting older that my first thought is about how quickly the year has gone? Probably. But here we are on the cusp on 2018 and I find myself at that point in the year when I look back and see what I can learn before moving forward.

Lesson 1 – The best laid plans…

I spent the early part of 2017 setting up my life so I could become entirely location independent. Armed with a laptop, all I needed was a decent wifi connection and I was good to go. I got to spend months in the sun, living the dream and writing. Then, happily but ironically, circumstances have changed so that for the next two years I have virtually no choice but to be tied to that place called home.

Lesson 2 – Marketing makes no sense…

Never trust anyone who promises you a fool-proof system to fame or money. Whether it’s sales, platform building, advertising models or social media, no one has all the answers. In a world that is rapidly transitioning towards entrepreneurs and gig economies, there are more scammers out there than there are genuine business minds.

Lesson 3 – It’s all about helping others…

I’ve done some amazing things this year. But the thing that has given me the most satisfaction is hearing from people who have found The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free useful. Some of the Amazon reviews have been amazing and I am so very grateful. It was because of this I wrote The Realist’s Guide To Resolutions. There are so many self-help achievement books out there that are really boring for the vast majority of readers. I happen to love them. So, once again, I studied, distilled and made a light and fun read for other people to get the benefits without having to wade through books that are, ultimately, trying to get business people to buy consulting services.

Looking forward…

I’ve come to realise that the main thing is about being happy with what matters to you. It’s not about being what other people expect you to be. If I can continue to stay true to myself in 2018, help others along the way and take it some spectacular sunsets, then I’ll be fine.

Whatever you want from 2018, I wish you every success.

The Realist’s Guide To Resolutions – How To Set Goals and Stay Motivated In The Real World

If you want to stop smoking, lose weight, get fitter, improve your career prospects or simply finish a project that’s been hanging around on your to do list for the past ten years, this book will give you the kick up the backside you’ve been looking for.

Books for writers: Shadows Beneath (Writing Excuses Anthology) review

With NaNoWriMo only a week away, instead of my usual ‘book for entrepreneurs’ review, I thought I would focus specifically on a book for writers.

Most writers (aspiring and published) have read Stephen King’s On Writing. I love that book, but most of the engaging content is the autobiographical stuff, rather than the writing parts. So I thought I would take a look at a much more hands on, practical book: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.

The book was released in 2014 and often gets overlooked as being a short story anthology, rather than a practical guide to writing. It follows the writing process of the four main Writing Excuses hosts from story concept to finished work. Side note, if you’re a writer and haven’t checked out the Writing Excuses Podcast then go there now. It’s one of the best ‘craft’ podcasts out there in a realm of marketing ones.

The first part of the book contains the completed short stories. This means that those who aren’t interested in the writing process can just enjoy reading some quality fiction. For writers, it is the second part that is interesting: the ‘making of’ section.

For each of the stories, we can read a transcript of the Writing Excuses episode where they brainstormed ideas. For people who wonder where ideas come from, this is gold in itself. Then there is the first draft of the story, transcripts of workshopping discussions and intermittent drafts and commentaries from the authors. Finally, there is a version showing all the edits from the first draft to the published edition, full of cuts and additions.

So why read this book?

During NaNoWriMo, the idea is to take an idea and write. Write each day and get 50,000 words down by the end of the month. Editing has no place here. Often at the end, we are left with 50,000 words that need some pretty serious work. Shadows Beneath is a great way to see that even without these crazy time pressures, the first draft is never perfect. It can be hard to imagine that our favourite, successful authors struggle to write a first draft and that it often doesn’t work. It can be hard to believe they reach out to others and say ‘hey, I’m struggling with this and could use some help’. This book will teach lessons in craft and development, but it also shows the spirit of community and encouragement.

Which, when you think about it, has always been at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

You can buy Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology here. If you can, I’d recommend getting the print edition, as it allows you to flip back and forth much easier when following the revision process.