I have been a student of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodologies for four years now. The collect, process, organize, review, and do phases are like second nature to me now for the most part. Having said that, I think there is still room for improvement, especially in the “Do” phase of workflow.
About two years I read Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. It didn’t make much of an impact on me at all and I just placed it on the bookshelf when I was finished. A few weeks ago, Matt Cornell posted his Conversation with Mark Forster, which inspired me to read this book again. I was amazed at how much of an impact it had this time and how much insight I saw in Mark Forster’s writing and research. If you are looking to patch some of the holes in your own GTD implementation, I can highly recommend this book–but don’t just read it, study it! Do the exercises and actually implement some of Mark’s ideas.
Mark starts out with an exercise in the Introduction of the book: Every evening, decide one thing you will do the next day without fail. Each day you should choose something more challenging and gradually add more items and more challenging items. In Mark’s follow-up book, Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management, he notes that few people have been able to do this exercise successfully for more than a few days. That sounds amazing, but I can verify that it is true for myself.
The foundation of the book is that our biggest time-management problem is that we need to learn where and how to focus our attention. We must learn how to overcome resistance and how to focus our attention.
In Chapter 3, Mark encourages us to start saying “No” more often. He even suggests that we make a game of it to see how many times we can say, “No” to new commitments that may come up in our day. David Allen says that once we have a full list of everything that we are committed to, we will find it much easier to say, “No” to things. It may be easier, but Mark gives us some tools in this chapter to take that to the next level.
Chapter 4 was one of my favorite chapters. In it, he looks at the six most common time-management techniques and shows where they are flawed, and in what instances they are good techniques:
Prioritising: The real question isn’t what priority somehting is, but whether we should be doing it at all. If we should be doing it then it already has a priority. Things with a low priority tend to get put off indefinitely and are probably things we shouldn’t have committed to at all. Prioritising does have its place in dealing with crisis though.
Do It Now: This is an extremely useful mindset when establishing systems, but not practical on a daily basis. It should only be be used as the next step in a chain of previously decided next actions to keep us on course.
To-Do Lists: Many people fail to make lists on a consistent basis, or they become prisoners to their lists. They are ineffecient because they are typically lists of unrelated next actions and the lists get longer as you work from them. Convesely, check lists are good things as the next actions are all related and the lists get shorter as you work on them.
Schedule Your Day: This is just a to-do list with times attached. The problem is that it all too easy for some interruption to totally alter our schedule, or for us to still decide to ignore it. He contrasts Schedules with Programs and states that Programs are very useful things to keep a group of people on track and efficient. Schedules should only be used for things that involve other people.
Do the Thing You Fear the Most First: Mark makes a distinction between what we fear, and what we resist. Resistance can be used like a compass to point us in the right direction, while fear can just be downright discouraging.
Go with the Flow: The concept here is that instead of trying to manage time, we should just surrender to it. The problem with this is that a flowing river must have banks to provide resistance in order for it to flow, otherwise it becomes a swamp and stagnates. We do need to flow, but we need good banks to our river in order to keep from stagnating.
Techniques and exercises are scattered throughout the book. In Chapter 7, Mark presents his primary technique for overcoming resistance–the burst method. The idea is to work for a set amount of time on one action, then at the end of that time, work for a set amount of time on another action, and so on. The method as he presents it is to work on a list of items for five minutes each, then work on any unfinished items for ten minutes each, then fifteen minutes each, and so on, until all the items are complete. This didn’t work for me at all, but it was interesting to discover just exactly how short 5-minutes really is. Through experimenting with the general methodolgy, however, I have also discovered how short 30-, 45-, and even 60-minutes are as well.
The concepts behind the burst method is that:
- We crave completion.
- We can do anything for five-minutes and once we start moving, the resistance fades away.
- We are more effective when we work for defined periods of time.
- The End Effect: Our most effective work is done at the end of a time period, especially when there is a definite cut-off point.
- When we leave an activity and return to it, our mind continues to work on it so that our ideas progress further than if we worked without breaks.
Merlin Mann presented his (10+2)*5 Procrastination Hack which incorporates the burst method to some extent. This didn’t work well for me either though. What I have found works is to focus on two items in a rotation. The biggest item is usually a writing project and the second item is quite different. Sometimes I will work on item 1 for 25-minutes at a time and then item 2 for 5- minutes, until they are done, or until my workday is over. 50-minute and 10-minute bursts work well also. I would encourage people to experiment and see what burst lengths work best for them. Along these lines, some activities may need shorter or longer bursts than others.
In Chapter 9, Mark presents his “halving” technique for dealing with big projects. Essentially, the idea is to look at the whole project and define what would be the first and second half of the completed project. Then we take that first half and divide it into two halves, and so on, until we get down to one action that we can handle. This is comparable to David Allen’s method of defining the very next action on a project, but it expands this to help with fully planning a project. It may also help when the very next action isn’t readily apparent.
In Chapter 11, Mark talks about the Resistance Principle. Essentially, if we are resisting something, it likely indicates that we should be doing something. When we are resisting something it becomes easy to procrastinate and we allow ourselves to be interrupted. A wonderful exercise in this chapter is to say the word “Impulse” every time we start to do anything on impulse. It’s amazing how frequently we can distract ourselves with trivial things like checking email, changing radio stations or CD’s, or even getting something to drink. His suggestion is to do the thing that we resist the most, first thing in our day.
In Chapter 13, Mark encouages us to build Depth Activities in our lives. Depth activities include walking, writing, and meditation. These activities help us to become more deeply involved in ou r experience of the present. I would also add reading and studying to this list as well. A few weeks ago, I added reading productivity literature, and the Bible, back to my list of things I do as soon as I wake up in the mornings. It helped me to get back to rising very early again (i.e. 5AM instead of 7AM) and helped to start the day off on a good foot.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of the nuggets that are in Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. I’m also reading Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management. I am also a regular reader of Mark Forster’s blog. I’ll periodically be writing about my experiences in applying these techniques within my GTD system. I would highly encourage anyone to buy and study these two books themselves. If you have any questions, feel free to post a comment.