How I Get Things Done
The question of where and how my time is spent most effectively has been constantly on my mind since I have been aware time existed.
- Is this where my time is best spent?
- What is the return I'm getting on this particular activity?
- What else could I be doing?
It's not just a question of whether I'm doing one of those thousands of things I have on my to do list though. The question is whether what I'm doing at this or any exact moment is what I WANT to do then. It's impossible to answer that question though. It's not like a market where prices can rise and fall to tell individuals what's the most valuable use of their time. It's simply a matter of preference on what one wishes to do at that moment and what they wish the outcome to be at some point down the line. Since there's no scientific way, at this time, to build a list of the things one should accomplish to maximize happiness, the best one can do is maximize the time available to complete those tasks. That's where a getting things done method comes into the equation.
There are an infinite number of ways to attack this problem, and my means is by no means perfect. However over the last two years, I believe I have been able to build a system for myself that is, at least, powerful enough.
A few weeks into my first semester of college, I picked up "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. The book is considered by many to be the gold standard in efficiency. The book discusses dozens of different methods to add just a little bit more efficiency. The ones I found most effective were
- If the task takes less than two minutes, you should stop thinking about when you're going to do it and to it NOW.
- Get things out of your head and to some place you will check before they're due. It is not important that you're loyal to a specific app you spent an absurd amount of money on. If you don't see the reminder, it was worthless.
- Break larger tasks down into very specific actions. "Write study guide" & "Read study guide first time" are hills you can climb. "Study" is a mountain you don't want to think about.
Where this has REALLY worked for me
In high school and before high school, I would drive myself insane putting off studying for a test. It usually made no sense to me a day later, especially after looking at the grade I received. I just didn't want to study. Why would I spend so much time on something where the reward was so little. My grades were fine. I wasn't failing by any means, but I also never quite excelled. In college, by some miracle, that changed.
I was the kid in your class who always claimed to not try after receiving a mediocre grade. At some level I was scared when I did push myself others would still beat me grade wise. I never wanted to know for sure whether the kid sitting next to me getting A's was actually smarter than me. After 13 years of mediocre performance in school, I "turned it on."
By turning studying into a set of about five very specific tasks, I was able to cut a seemingly insurmountable task into several easily doable tasks. Here's what my normal study attack plan is:
- Compile notes into a study guide in question & answer form. - Reading notes has never worked well for me. I get distracted. By changing them to question and answer form, I was required to process the information at least once and turn it into somewhat of a game I could win.
- Read the chapters associated with the test for the first test in the class. Depending on my grade on the first test, I may or may not read for later tests. - Remember, time is of the essence here. If you get a 98% on the first test and set the curve. It is no longer required that you read. The goal is to get an A, not an absurd grade that doesn't affect your GPA. DO NOT READ MORE THAN ONCE. That is a waste of time. Your return from reading twice will almost NEVER be of any use to you.
- Read through study guide 3 - 4 times at least one hour apart. - As much as you believe nothing's going into your head on the first round, it is. By the 3rd and 4th times through you'll start recalling subtleties in your writing before you read it. You can read the study guide more than four times, but that's probably a bit obsessive. Four is almost always enough for an A. At five, you might not even gain a percent for each read through, which means you're wasting time.
- Whatever your teacher suggested you do, do that thing. - The individuals who stand up in front of the class and talk at you for hours on end also write the tests most of the time. Whatever they suggest looking at, you should study.
- Go to sleep. - I actually sort of enjoy this one.
This plan won't get you an A on every test, but it will get you an A in almost every class, pending you use a similar system for writing papers and building projects. (If you follow it exactly, you will probably get an A in every class. Sometimes I'm super-lazy.) I don't have a 4.0, but it's pretty damn close. I like to think the few A-'s and B's I've received, give character to my GPA, and honestly, who really wants to hire the individual who studied so obsessively they received an A in every class in college?
My day-to-day System
I've never been able to take absolute control over my seemingly insurmountable list of to dos. However, I have built a system that - like the system for studying - works well enough.
There are infinite applications that manage tasks. My choice is Omnifocus, which is strictly based on David Allen's system. The app allows me to sync a list of things between iOS and OSX, notifying me when something needs to be started or finished. It also allows me to keep a list of "Someday; Maybe" items, which I probably won't be able to complete immediately or in the near future, but at they are labeled, I'd like to do eventually.
I'm sure someone I know is reading this and scoffing because they can name five different things I should have done, said I would do and either never did or took forever to accomplish. As I've stated previously, the system is not perfect and my implementation isn't near perfect, but the amount of actions the system does catch a high enough percentage of tasks that it has allowed me to accomplish almost every one of the big picture goals I've set for myself over the last two years.