When you think “time management,” what are the productivity practices that will make the most difference? We’re always trying to squeeze as much as we can out of our days. But here’s the thing: there are only so many hours in the day and only one of you. I’ve finally surrendered to the fact that there will never be enough time to do everything I want to do. But there’s always time to do the most important things, as long as you have a good system.
Which brings me to a recent conversation I had with David Maxfield, VP of Research for VitalSmarts, and co-author of several New York Times bestselling books, including one of my favorites, Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. I interviewed David to learn more about a partnership that the VitalSmarts team has formed with productivity master David Allen, of the Getting Things Done® (“GTD”) methodology.
David Maxfield (identified as “Maxfield” in this post to distinguish him from David Allen) offered me three simple ways to get started on how to create more productivity, while reducing your stress. His suggestions are based on Allen’s GTD model. VitalSmarts research has found that people who follow both effective communications practices and productivity tips like the ones below are 18 times less likely to feel anxious and overwhelmed at home and at work than their less productive peers.
Here is an excerpt from my conversation with Maxfield, along with my personal observations about the productivity tips offered.
Step 1: Capture everything that comes in and out of your head.
Says David Maxfield:
It’s important to have a small number of ways that you can capture ideas, the to-do’s, assignments, tasks. For me, it’s this: I carry a pad of post-it notes and I have it near me wherever I am. I use my email inbox and I use a pad of blank paper. So, nothing real fancy. But whenever I have an idea or I get an assignment or whatever, I record it on one of those three tools. That’s what I mean by a “small number” of ways. Probably not more than three. Make your tools reliable and simple, so you can catch everything. David Allen is famous for saying, “Your mind is for having ideas not for holding them.” You’ll be able to create a lot more ideas if you are not busy holding them.
Jen’s reaction to this idea: I like how this system is decidedly low-tech and low cost. Of course, in today’s digital age, you could do an electronic version of note keeping with an app or even simply use the notes feature on your phone. The key thing is, you can’t keep everything in your head; you won’t remember it. One additional thing Maxfield told me: whatever you choose, make it something you can (and will) use. I’ve tried various digital apps and they just don’t work for me, so I’ve moved back to analog for most note-keeping and then once a week, I pull everything into Trello for flagging and project tracking.
Step 2: Clarify everything in your “inbox” from top to bottom at least once every 24 to 48 hours.
Says David Maxfield:
Your “inbox” means all of the data that you’ve captured. Go through your email, go through your post-it notes, go through notes on your lined paper at least once every couple of days and clarify them to determine, “what is the next step that needs to happen here?” And put it where it needs to go. The mistake people make is they use their email as a storage bin. I’ll talk with people who have 300, 400 emails; and it’s not that they’ve never read them. They have read them 12 times, because each time they read them, they say, oh, well I’m not going to do that one yet. But they don’t clarify what the next action would be or where it should go. So I say, “Top to Bottom”: Begin at the top and go to the bottom. Do this once every couple of days to keep things moving forward.
Jen’s reaction to this idea: True confession time: I positively, absolutely, stink at this step. It’s what hangs me up Every. Single. Time. I know David Allen is famous for saying, “get the inbox to zero.” Frankly, I don’t think that’s possible. But I think a person can get a lot closer to zero inbox items by creating discipline around this step. I’m going to attempt to ask, “what’s the next step?” each time I realize I’ve “parked” something in my inbox or To Do list.
Step 3: Take stock once a week.
Says David Maxfield:
Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself, at least once a week, to catch up, to get current, and to align with your priorities. The purpose of this meeting is to check in with yourself: are you spending your time on the right kinds of tasks? So, they include your home, your work, your aspirational goals, your reactive goals. Ask yourself, are these [goals] finding their way into [your To Do list]? It’s a chance to analyze and adjust.
Jen’s reaction to this idea: this is the most important element of the three tips listed. After all, what good is “getting stuff done” if it’s the wrong stuff? I’ve listed this as the third suggestion because it’s the order in which Maxfield listed it. Personally, I would put this first on the list. I’m old-school and learned time management from Hyrum Smith, who espoused a values-based approach to deciding what goes on the To Do list.
The bottom line of these productivity tips:
This 3-step process isn’t brand-new by any means. In fact, Maxfield joked with me that his wife says he only studies things that are painfully obvious. Maxfield told me, “I love it when two things happen: when common sense isn’t very common and when common sense makes a lot more sense than people realize. And I think these principles fall into that category. Very few people do them, but the ones who do them experience incredible benefits, both to their performance and to their stress levels.”
Thank you, David Maxfield for bringing a new focus to time-tested ideas for personal productivity!
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