“If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run - Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And — which is more — you’ll be a Man my son!” - “If” by Rudyard Kipling
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last piece of advice for adulthood in Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is about Getting Things Done (GTD). I’ve had the great pleasure of working with exceptionally efficient and effective people in my career. Here’s some hacks I learned from them:
I had a boss some time ago that told me if I couldn’t concisely explain something to him in 3 sentences, then I didn’t really understand it. I would suggest that’s true of our priorities, as well. If you can’t concisely articulate your top 3 priorities, in order, then you probably don’t know what they actually are. It’s important to note here that concisely writing your priorities out in order shouldn’t take you 5 seconds the first time you do it. It takes a few drafts to get to what you actually mean.
For example, you may start off with these 3 priorities for the first quarter of your business:
Those priorities are good as a broad direction, are too unspecific to be reasonably actionable. A better way of synthesizing those priorities might be:
Generate cash within the next 3 months either by (a) developing compelling collateral for a capital raise from investors with whom I network, or (b) landing my pilot customer.
Recruit/hire a technical co-founder that can lead and execute beta product development according to current product roadmap in next 3 months.
Lead development of product in concert with market research or pilot customer to solve a problem that will generate a positive return on investment in 6 months.
Many of you will notice each of the new priorities are “S.M.A.R.T.” (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Reasonable, and Time-bound). That’s important.
One of my highly-effective ex-colleagues used to say anyone should only ever have 1 priority at any one time and press to its completion at all other costs. I would posit this isn’t entirely possible for a lot of roles, but it’s directionally correct because it’s ruthless and economical.
If something isn’t in your top 3 priorities, you should avoid it at all costs. The best people I’ve worked with just say no to requests. All. The. Time. They’re making sure that they’re focused on their priorities and only their priorities. From a mathematical perspective, the rate of creation of tasks can’t exceed the rate at which you’re able to accomplish them. That just leads to a backlog. When you try to do ‘too much’ then you just end up processing your GTD system all the time, context-switching, getting distracted, and not actually moving the needle on any of your priorities.
I would suggest that if someone asks you to do something your default response should be “No”. If you’re a self-motivated person, it’s unlikely they’ll ask you to do something you hadn’t thought of doing anyway. Or another way I’ve heard it phrased, as told by Derek Sivers to the inimitable Tim Ferris, is “No or Hell Yeah”- that the only Yes’s are extremely-enthusiastic-I-want-to-do-this-so-badly-I’m-so-excited Yes’s.
Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. WhatsApp. LinkedIn. Dating Apps. There’s a lot of distractions in today’s world. A lot of them take up time that doesn’t match with our priorities. If finding a partner becomes a priority, then by all means download every dating app and spend 3 hours a day messaging prospective love-interests. Otherwise you’re probably wasting your time.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have fun or relax or spend time messing around on Facebook. But it does mean you have to be disciplined. Probably the most productive (and privacy-conscious) thing I’ve done in the last year is delete Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp from my phone. Managing notifications so that you’re only plugging into those apps when you want to is also a good hack.
One of the best reads I’ve had on Getting Things Done is the eponymous book by David Allen. In it, he says if you have a task that will take 2 minutes or less to do, just do it then and there. [This model breaks, of course, if the volume of 2-minute tasks is very high for certain roles like personal assistants, so be judicious.] It’s a good rule, and one I see with effective people all the time. They take care of tasks in-meeting, they send that calendar invite immediately afterwards, they make the decision on the issue quickly. Speed applied to the tasks you can process quickly is powerful. Resist the urge to “do it later”.
My most effective friends and colleagues have always had a plan for taking a break. They work incredibly long hours to achieve their aims, but they also make plans to take a 1–2 week break at minimum every 4–6 months. One of them goes to Coachella every year, another goes scaling mountains in Patagonia, and another goes on a no-phones-allowed retreat in Japan for a week with a suitcase of books and just reads. To each their own. Psychologically, it’s just a way of having a break to look forward to, and a time to reflect and get away from the narrow focus of your priorities. Of course, research suggests recharging and taking a break is good for your effectiveness, as well.
In general, how you spend your waking productive time should reflect your priorities. So, for example, if you say that you want to invest in your kids’ growth but you’re spending less than an hour a week with them, then they are effectively not a priority. Similarly, if your priority is helping your clients and you’re spending 5 hours a day emailing your clients and 2 building the financial model that will critically help your clients, then you’re spending time on the wrong thing.
Furthermore, if you don’t carve out the time to shower, eat, train, and/or go shopping for life’s essentials, then you’ll probably do them really late/badly. That’s not being productive; that’s being stupid. Make time for essentials.
Every worker needs good tools. Modern cranes are better than whatever the Egyptians used to build the pyramids, so make sure you’re getting the cranes for your GTD system. There’s loads of stuff out there, and I won’t go into every permutation, but in general, you’ll need the following 5 types of tools:
A Place Holding the Clear Written Understanding of Your Priorities
A Place Where Every Commitment or Task Is Recorded
A Prioritised List of Tasks For When You Think, “What’s Next?”
A Calendar That Tells You What You Need to Do at Specific Points in Time
A Documentation and Archiving System for Easy Recall
Tools 1 through 3 are usually one thing, but don’t necessarily have to be. I used to use my email, and now I use ToodleDo (mostly because I found that for my current work email-based prioritization is not the correct prioritization- for past work it was).
There’s an important note here: Collecting tasks and writing them down is critical to making sure you fulfill your commitments, but if the rate of increase in task volume is greater than the rate at which you can reasonably accomplish those tasks, you’ll only succeed at creating a backlog of work. So, get good at saying “No” immediately and get good at understanding when a task can go on a secondary “I’ll look at it later when I have all the free time in the world” list (what I call my “Think About” list).
Everyone develops a system that’s good for them. A lot of the most operationally excellent people I know rely exclusively on a notebook where they write out their tasks and priorities every day. I used to do the same.
For several reasons (environmental, backup, security, and convenience), I switched to be electronic-based. The efficiency gains are moderate- you can generally type faster than you can write and pulling out your phone to record a task is less time consuming that using a notebook. It’s a big thing to set up an electronic process if you’re starting from scratch, though.
One final note on technology: none of the cloud-based systems people popularly use for organizing themselves are fully private and secure (i.e. maintain end-to-end encryption for anything you input to them; if you find one, please tell me). That means that someone can theoretically see what you’re putting into your cloud-based GTD system/calendar/email/docs/archive. Something to keep in mind if you’re doing work that’s commercially, legally, or politically sensitive!
The trap I’ve fallen into, and I’ve seen others fall into, is spending too much of their time planning and not enough of their time doing. Your GTD system should be an enabler, not a distraction. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
It’s worth bearing in mind that to truly become operationally excellent, you have to spend a lot of time on becoming operationally excellent, which in itself detracts from the time you can spend working on other things, like say, your priorities. You have to make self-improvement a priority, and I would say at times you need to make it your number one priority.
Critical to operational excellence is having an onthology to your life. Can you see the tree of priorities, projects, inter-relationships, and nested tasks in your mind? If you can’t, you’re probably either (a) dealing with too much, or (b) not organized enough to execute. This tree should directly relate to your prioritization and be reflected in how your docs and archive are organised and how you spend your time according to your calendar. That’s a really big project for most people, though, so caveat emptor.
What I’ve written here is just a few operational hacks. For some of us, wholesale systemic changes are what are required, particularly when there are major life changes (think job change, moving, or getting a new member of the family). Make sure you take the time to think about what in your system of organization and getting things done needs to change in order for you to stay maximally efficient and effective. Ultimately, GTD systems are never static and have to be flexible with changes in our lives. It’s a constant war, as a ex-colleague of mine once said. Obsolescence is not an option.
A good flag that you’re reaching the point of obsolescence is that you’re feeling overwhelmed or “not getting enough done”. You have to notice when that’s happening and react accordingly. In particular, I suggest:
Re-evaluating your priorities and discarding as many as you can.
Saying No to WAY more things.
Reducing the rate of the creation of tasks (by others or by you) by stepping away from things you thought were priorities; you can do this by renegotiating commitments.
Increasing the amount of time you’re spending doing things (this usually means less socializing/sleeping).
You’ll also have to deal with the backlog somehow. My preference is to light it on fire (i.e. delete it all or copy-paste into a file I’ll never look at again). If it’s important enough, you’ll surface it again in your renewed priorities.
This is actually the heart of GTD, but frankly a blog post isn’t sufficient to help anyone with life goal-setting. Goal-setting is truly existential. It’s about going through the process of what you want to do in life, nesting those goals into goals for the next 5–10 years, and what that means for your goals this year and now. It takes a good deal of introspection, reflection, discussion, and action, and incidentally many of the most brilliant business people I’ve worked with hardly ever do it. Who knew that those who are great at executing are terrible at thinking about the existential?
I come down firmly into the camp of believing that self-direction is extremely important in life. Others believe that responding in-situ to the signals life presents you is how you learn your direction. Neither view is wrong, of course, but it’s simply a choice. Personally, it’s anathema to me to have my life goals dictated by the conspiracies of the universe, although I listen to and respond to them. I prefer understanding myself and determining my direction from that. Others are different. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that to be operationally excellent (and happy) you either need to be blissfully iterative about your direction in life or agonizingly deterministic of it. There is no middle ground.
What’s my number 1 priority?
What are my top 3 priorities, in order?
What can I delete from my life that isn’t important (i.e. not in those top 3 priorities)?
Does where I spend my time reflect my priorities? What can I change or what do I need to renegotiate?
Do I have a place/tool/system that collects all my tasks and commitments?
Do I have all the tools I need to be productive? What do I need to build or hack?
Have I undergone a major life change recently and did I take the time to change my priorities or way of working to reflect that?
/Update 16 April 2018: Sam Altman, the President of Y-Combinator, published a great read on his productivity a few days ago here./
After graduating from London Business School in 2012, Eoin was lucky enough to work with top executives in Fortune 500 companies across 4 continents as a management consultant and then with the leadership of Silicon Valley’s Palantir Technologies across New York, Palo Alto, and London. He now lives in Dublin, where he founded Cantillon Labs, a firm that helps European startup founders scale their companies globally. This post originally appeared on Medium in April 2018.