GTD

The Daily Coffee Check-In

'I'm too busy to plan' is one of the most unhelpful things we tell ourselves when we're overwhelmed with work. By buying into this mistaken belief we deny ourselves what we most need when we're buried in work: a little space to gain some control, perspective, and relief. It can take as little as 15 minutes to rise above the chaos and map out your day, and you don't need to lock yourself in a room with a whiteboard to make it happen.  I've written before about the morning meeting with yourself, which involves taking the first few minutes at your desk to get a handle on what's ahead.

Starting even earlier in her day, a client of mine does her daily planning ritual each morning during her subway commute. She calls it The Daily Coffee Check-In.  A parent who directs a national program on 3-day-a-week work schedule, she has to be strategic with her time in order to accomplish her work without it spilling over into her non-work days.  So, every workday, as she juggles her coffee on the train, she fills out this checklist:

The Daily Coffee Check-In:

1) What’s lingering in my mind?

2) What do I need for meetings today?

3) What must I accomplish that can’t wait until the next day in the office?

4) When can I devote time to this? Should I reschedule anything?

5) When do I need to leave today? What time may I have tonight/tomorrow if absolutely necessary?

With these five questions, she enters her day with clear intention, a sense of her bigger picture, and a plan for getting her work done.

Inspired by my client, I set out to design my own Coffee Check-In.  I came up with this:

Sarah's Coffee Check-In:

1) What's on my schedule today?  How do I need to prepare for each appointment?

2) Which non-urgent project(s) do I want to make some progress on today?

3) What must I do today in order to feel today was a success?

4) When will I take a lunch break?  When will I complete my work for the day?

5) What one thing have I been putting off that I will finally address today?

What questions would be on your morning coffee check-in list?

10 Things You Can Start Doing TODAY to Feel Less Overwhelmed

Best practices gleaned from Getting Things DoneThe Power of Full Engagement, 7 HabitsThe Fire Starter Sessions, and my brilliant clients. 1.  Identify & make space for your top priorities first. Identify your major priorities and make time for them in your schedule first. Then, make your lower priorities fit in around the big stuff. If you fill up your time with the little things, it becomes impossible to fit in the big things later.

2. Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system. As David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Get every nagging thought about something you have to do out of your head and onto a list or calendar.

3. If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. Don’t put off a small task for later if you could get it done now in 2 minutes or less.

4. Keep a list of next actions & start every next action with a verb. Keep a list of the very next things you need to do. Each item should be as specific as possible and start with a verb. You are more likely to take action when you see “ask David about timeline for final report,” on your list than when you see something like “final report.”

5. Have a daily meeting with yourself. Once a day (preferably at the start of your day), take 15 – 20 minutes to check in with your top priorities next actions list and calendar. Identify the 3-5 things you must do today to make the day a success.

6. Review everything on your plate weekly. Take 60 - 90 minutes a week to review all of your commitments, assess the past week, and look ahead to the coming weeks. You will catch things that would otherwise slip through the cracks.

7. Use your “power hours” for your most brain-intensive work. Figure out what time of day you are most alert, sharp and energetic. Do your hardest work then & save the mindless tasks for when you’re spent.

8. Charge your electronic devices outside of the bedroom. Get your inbox out of your bed! Purchase an alarm clock if you’ve been using your phone & put your devices in the other room when you turn in for the night.

9. Create intentional time and space away from technology. This can look like: blocking your internet access when you are writing, unplugging from all technology for 24 hours once a month, not looking at your phone between work and when the kids go to sleep, or sitting and focusing on your breath for 5 minutes a day.

10. Do what you say you’re going to do. You’ll gain the trust, respect, and admiration of others – and yourself.

3 Steps to Focusing at Work When It Really Counts

Are you able to focus when it really counts? When deadlines are looming -- when funder reports are due (or maybe were due a week ago), when you need to submit that important journal article -- how do you carve the time out of your already busy week to produce great work?

It's not like you can make the everyday emails, meetings, and work tasks stop while you work on this one really important thing.   You have to fit it in somehow.  Here's how.

Step 1: Identify The Conditions You Need to Do Your Best Work When, and under what conditions, do you get your best work done?  If trying to squeeze in a big writing project at the end of a busy day clearly won't work for you, what would work?  Some things to consider:

  • Time: Do you do your best work early in the morning, or  do you kick into high gear after everyone else has gone to sleep?
  • Place:   Can you do focused work at your desk, or do you need a change of scenery?  Consider taking a chunk of time out of the office if your everyday setting is too distracting.
  • Duration: At a certain point, you will face diminishing returns.  A 90 minute sprint of focused work (at your most productive time and place) may produce better results than a 4 hour marathon.

Step 2: Book It Once you know when and where you can get your best work done, schedule it.  Put it in your calendar in no ambiguous terms: "8 - 11 AM, report writing at public library."  This now represents a commitment to yourself.

Step 3: Do Everything You Can to Protect Your Focused Time This is the most important step -- because if you do the first two steps and then let the time disappear, you're back to square one.

  • Protect the time from others: Don't schedule meetings or phone calls during the time you've set aside for this important work.  Let others know you will be unavailable, and that they shouldn't disturb you.  If you are staying in your office, you might want to put a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your work space.
  • Protect the time from yourself:  Before starting work, preemptively eliminate whatever distractions might pop up and pull you off course.  Turn off your phone and use web blocking software (I use this and this) to keep yourself from wasting time online. If you're working offsite, bring only the materials for this one project so that you won't be tempted to work on others.

Once you've taken the three steps above, you've created a solid container for doing your best work.  Now all that's left is to hunker down and be brilliant!

What have you learned about the conditions in which you do your best work? 

The Most Important Meeting of Your Day

My clients often struggle to balance busy schedules that are packed with meetings.  So, it may come as a surprise that many find relief by adding one more appointment to their day. What is this magic meeting?

It's the morning meeting with yourself, and it may be the most important meeting of your day.

The morning meeting with yourself can be short - 10 to 20 minutes.  It should be the first thing you do when you start your work day.  Here's your agenda:

  1. Assemble Your Tools:  Start with a blank piece of paper, your calendar, your task management system (to-do lists), and your browser open (but don't go into your email yet).  Take a deep breath.
  2. Eyeball Your Calendar:  What's on your schedule today?  Is there anything you need to do to prepare for today's appointments that you haven't done yet?  If so, make a note of it on your paper.  Now glance at the next two days on your calendar.  Anything coming down the pike that you need to prepare for?  If so, make a note of what you need to do, or block off time on your calendar to prepare.
  3. Review Your Tasks:  Look over your task lists (if you practice Getting Things Done, this would be your Next Actions and your Waiting Fors) .  What absolutely must get done today?  Make a note of it.  What should get done today?  Make a note of these things too.  If you have open blocks of time, what will you work on?
  4. Scan Email and Voicemail:  Do a quick once-over of your email for "hot" items and listen to your voicemail.  Take note of anything that changes your plans for the day (a cancelled lunch or an emergency conference call) or that contains an action that absolutely must be done today. Note these.  Do not answer emails or return phone calls at this point (you're in a meeting, remember?).
  5. Start Your Day:  Take a deep breath and think about the day ahead of you.  Review your cheat sheet of must-do's once more, noting anything you neglected to capture in the steps above.  Take another deep breath, and get to work!

The reason this meeting is magic is that it gives you a chance to set your own agenda for your day before the madness begins.  Unlike overly detailed work plans, it allows you to adjust to shifting priorities day-by-day.

This meeting won't take things off your plate or clear your schedule, but it will enable you go into your day with a sense of clarity about what's ahead.  With this clarity, you'll feel more grounded in saying "no" to people and distractions that would derail you from your priorities.  And, you'll be less likely to suddenly remember that thing you meant to do today when it's 5:30 PM and you're getting ready to wrap up.

You will find that once you start your day this way, it will quickly become habit and soon you'll intuitively know what you need to review to feel good about starting your day.  This meeting is not a substitute for doing a regular, in-depth review of everything on your plate, but it is the best way to make sure you are on track for today.  It's a great way to start your day.
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Guard Your Time with Defensive Scheduling

Sometimes it feels like our schedules happen to us.  What seems like a relatively calm week on Monday gets jammed with meetings and phone calls by Thursday, and all of a sudden there's no time to do all the work we know we need to get done. Most often, it is the "important but not urgent" tasks like planning, relationship-building, and big-picture thinking that get squeezed out when schedules get tight. This can create the feeling that we are flying by the seat of our pants and not really attending to everything that needs our attention.

While none of us has complete control over our schedules (we must cede time to superiors, funders, and unexpected events), we could all find a little more wiggle room in our calendars if we practiced proactive, defensive scheduling.  Here's how.

Time Blocking Block out time in advance for the important projects that you would otherwise neglect in the rush of everyday work.  If you have a board meeting in six weeks, schedule two hours of prep time three weeks from now so that you don't find yourself scrambling to prepare the day before the meeting.  If a conflict arrises, be sure to reschedule this time block as you would any other meeting.

Meeting with Yourself It's impossible to keep work flowing without stopping from time to time to step back, take stock, and course correct as necessary.  Most of us will need to review our current work load weekly and take an even bigger-picture look every month or two.  Schedule this meeting time with yourself -- a weekly hour or 90 minutes to review your current work, and a bi-monthly big picture check-in -- and then defend against all who would seek to impede upon this time.

Time Batching In any given week you may have  work to do on 7 different projects.  Rather than flitting around from task to task, project to project, give yourself chunks of focused time each day to work on a single project.  Maybe on Monday you devote time solely to projects 1 and 5, Tuesday is all about project 2, Wednesday it's 3, 4 and 7, and so on.  Rather than staring down 7 projects at once and scattering your attention amongst all of them, you will make significant progress on one or more project each day, adding up to a much more productive week.

Playing Nicely With Others Meetings scattered throughout the day and throughout the week can leave little solid time for at-desk work.  To remedy this, set scheduling boundaries on meetings, such as: no meetings on Tuesdays, (or, all meetings on Tuesdays), no meetings after 3 PM, or only phone meetings on Friday.  You won't be able to hold to these structures in all cases, but you will probably be surprised how much agency you do have once you start asserting your meeting boundaries.

Give Yourself A Break No more back-to-back meetings!  After every meeting, you need time  to capture, process, or reflect upon the outcomes of your last meeting before starting the next (if only for a few minutes).  What's more, your body needs to stretch, eat, use the restroom, take a walk and generally renew itself after a period of intense focus. Give yourself 20-30 minutes between meetings to take care of these essential tasks.  Otherwise, you risk losing ideas and actions generated in your last meeting and you compromise the quality of your attention going into your next meeting.

Say No Probably the #1 thing that you can do to defend your schedule and create more time for yourself is to simply say no.  No to attending that meeting when your colleague could do so; no to that extra committee; no we cannot pursue this funding opportunity given our current workload.  The incredible thing about saying no is how much it frees you up to do a better job at fulfilling the commitments you say yes to.

What are the biggest time-eaters in your schedule?  What strategies do you use to defend your time? 

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The Good News and The Bad News about Getting Organized

What does it really mean to get organized at work?  Let's break this down:

First, the bad news:

You actually have to deal with everything that shows up. You can't ignore anything (papers, emails, phone calls, tasks).

What happens when you ignore stuff?

  • Work (literally) piles up
  • You piss people off -- "Why didn't you respond to my email/phone call?"
  • You lose people's trust -- "She never gets back to me, I'll ask someone else."
  • You miss opportunities -- deadlines, events, meetings, etc. due to poor scheduling, but also the opportunities that flow from showing up in the world  focused and ready to go.

Now, the good news:

You don't have to DO everything. You just have to decide what needs to be done (and then do some of it).

Getting organized really means:

  • Getting in touch with all the "incompletes" in your universe.
  • Deciding what to do about each incomplete -- it could be "do it," but it could also be  "give it to someone else to do," "delete it," or "defer it until I have more time/information/resources."
  • Capturing your "incompletes" in a system (calendar, online to-do list, pen and paper) you trust and like to use.
  • Reviewing and repeating, on a regular basis, the three steps above.

This, at its essence, is how I understand Getting Things Done.  It's no magic bullet, but it's a great place to start.

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My GTD Second Year Review - What's Stuck?

A year ago, I wrote about my first full year applying the Getting Things Done methodology to my life and work.  For the uninitiated, GTD is a system created by David Allen for organizing all of the "stuff" that comes at you in life -- all the to-dos, projects, things other people owe you, etc. (The best entry point to GTD is to read the book.)  GTD was a revelation for me, helping me gain control of a lot of loose ends and allowing me to clear both desk space and head space as I left a longtime job and went back to school. So, a year later, has it stuck? In large part, yes.  While I'm less regimented/disciplined about the way I employ GTD these days, its principles are what guide the way I stay on top of everything going on in my life.  Here are a few of the ideas that have been most central to my implementation of GTD in the second year:

First things first, it's not about the technology. David Allen says this, but most of us have to figure it out on our own.  I, like my time management coaching clients, spent a good deal of time looking for the "right" technology to implement GTD.  Is it Remember The Milk or OmniFocus?  A simple list on my smartphone or a pen-and-paper list in a notebook? And should I be using Evernote?

My learning here is that there is no "best" technology for GTD - the best technology is the one that works for me.  Further, what is best for me may change, and that's okay.  There are weeks when I need to have everything on my phone so I can access it anywhere.  And there are weeks when I need to have a handwritten list staring up at me from my desk.  Both are okay, and I adjust for what will work for me at any given time.

Second, GTD is not about perfection. When I first started doing GTD, I wanted to do it perfectly: everything captured on the appropriate list, email inbox and desk inbox empty at the end of each and every day (no exceptions), a weekly review chiseled into my calendar.  What I've learned is that I don't have to do GTD perfectly for it to work for me.  I fall off the wagon for weeks at a time, start to feel the disarray that results, and then get back on.  GTD is a very forgiving system -- and once you learn the basics it is there to help you clean up however messy you've let your life become.

But it is about the principles. The basic GTD principles are what have continued to work for me over the two years.  Among them:

The 5 stages of workflow: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, Do. When things feel out of sorts, it's usually because I need to jump back in on one stage of this process.  If you are still thinking of the things on your plate as just "done" or "waiting to be done," the 5 stages of workflow will be an eye-opener. Chapter 2 of Getting Things Done, which explains the five stages, is something I return to again and again.

The inbox. Having ONE place where all incoming stuff lands -- my physical inbox in my home/office space and my email inbox in virtual space -- means that I always know where to put and where to find stuff I haven't dealt with yet.

The full capture. When I'm feeling an ambiguous sense of overwhelm, it's usually because I have stuff bouncing around my head that I have not yet captured on a list.  This will happen when I'm trying to focus on some big project but all the while feel a nagging sense of all of the other stuff that I need to attend to.  I've learned that when this happens I need to stop what I'm doing for 5 minutes and do a full capture -- or what D.A. calls a mindsweep -- of all the loose ends that are taking up space in my working memory. That list goes into my inbox for future processing, and I can go back to my project with a clearer head.

The review. This, along with the full capture, is the other instant stress-reliever.  Knowing that I will regularly sit down and review everything on my plate - big and small, from the recent past to the near future - allows me to relax into the moment and not worry about things slipping through the cracks. David Allen preaches the virtue of the Weekly Review of everything on your plate  -- and yes, ideally the reviews are weekly -- but I've allowed my review schedule to be a bit more fluid and driven by my internal sense of when I need to step back.

For those of you just thinking about starting GTD or something like it, my advice would be to first adopt, then adapt.  Jump into it with both feet -- listen to the man when he says to use only fresh file folders and to use a label-maker.  But then, once you've gotten a hang of David Allen's way, make it your way.  Modify it to fit your needs, and don't worry that you're not doing it "right."  What's right is what works for you.

How have you made GTD your own?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Golden Guidelines for Working from Home

Note: Student of Change is now Do Your Best Work.  Welcome! For seven years I had a full time office job -- and then I had none.  In making the transition from office worker to full time student/part time consultant, I had to learn a new way of working. Gone were the opportunities for casual interaction with coworkers, the sense that others noticed whether or not I was busy, and the pre-defined work hours.   Full days stretched out in front of me, and it was up to me to fill them productively.

Working from home -- whether it's your full-time gig, a once-a-week thing or a special arrangement with your boss to get that report done -- requires adopting a new set of behaviors.  Of course, having increased flexibility and the option to see a friend, bake a cake or go to yoga in the middle of the day is one of the reasons we choose to work from home.  Still, I find it useful to keep these guidelines in mind to make sure that I'm on track and as productive as I want to be:

  1. Get dressed in the morning. It really makes a difference.  Also: make your bed.
  2. Protect your time from others. It can be tempting, especially at first, to set up a lot of lunch dates with friends across town - just because you can.  But with that lunch date goes half of your day.  Schedule social engagements during work time sparingly.
  3. Protect your time from yourself. This is about setting boundaries between work and non-work.  Don't let household projects, non-work email or heaven forbid, TV, become procrastination devices.  On the flip-side, don't let work encroach on non-work relaxation & renewal.
  4. Worst/best first. Two ways to approach this: get the worst thing you have to do all day out of the way first.  OR, start your day with the best thing you have to do -- usually the most creative and thus most energy-consuming but also energizing.  I vary my approach depending on what's on my plate.
  5. Create colleagues.  Find at least one other person who is also a solo-worker and make a regular date to check in.  Gaining additional perspectives and support from others in your field is essential to your sanity and your growth.  And, your partner will appreciate not having to play the role of coworker at the end of his/her own long day.

Do you work from home?  What are your Golden Guidelines?

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Joan Rivers and Twyla Tharp, Organized Artists

I saw the hilarious and disturbing  Joan Rivers documentary this weekend. One of my favorite parts was seeing Joan's low-tech joke library. Take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87yztkvEsIk

Joan is onto something.  Though artists have a reputation for being messy and spontaneous, many have organized workspaces because their art demands it.

Organization is in part about being prepared for the moment when insight strikes.  It's about creating the conditions for creativity to flourish, so that when you enter into creation mode, your physical world is set up to support you. Being organized also creates the mental order that many people need to be able to put aside mundane things and enter a creative head-space.

An organized workspace, for artists an non-artists alike, needn't mean office-standard manilla file folders and labelmakers.  In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp describes the  unconventional system she uses to support her creativity*:

Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me...

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet... Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box….

As different as their systems (and their art forms) are, Joan and Twyla's methods are fundamentally similar.  When they are ready to create, neither the comedian nor the choreographer wants to spend time searching for things -- they want to be able to quickly access what they need and get down to creating what they want to create.  Both feel grounded knowing that their creative works-in-progress have a safe home outside of their heads.  That's one sign of a working system - it makes you feel better.

No matter what form it takes, a good organizational system supports you to do your best work by allowing you to put your brain power where you want and need it to be. For some people that system will be a cardboard box of ideas, and for others a card catalog of naughty jokes.

Do you have an unconventional organizational system?  If you're an artist, how do you organize your workspace?

*With thanks to Merlin Mann for introducing me to this passage.

Make a List. Your Brain Will Thank You.

Lists can literally take things off your mind. Image from www.brainexplorer.org
Last month with my birthday approaching, I sat down and made a list.  Not a list of gifts I wanted, but a list of ways I would like to spend my day:
have coffee and an almond croissant
meditate
go to a museum
take a nap
walk around the city
bake something

Though my birthday has passed (I had a great day, and did do a number of things on that list) I've kept the list posted up near my desk.  It serves as a reminder of things that make me happy. I feel happy just looking at it.

Lists can be a vehicle for satisfaction and even joy; they can facilitate focus, relief, and clarity.  (Lists can also stress you out, more on that, and the cardinal rule of list-keeping, later.)  Crossing things off a list is one of life's simple pleasures.

Ever notice how putting something on a list can take it "off your mind"?   There's a neurological basis for this effect.   As David Rock explains in his book Your Brain At Work, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) -- the part of the brain engaged in conscious thought, interaction, and decision-making -- has very limited resources.

Try to hold too many things in your conscious mind at once, and your PFC will become overloaded.  You'll inevitably drop some things and lose track of others.  Thoughts you've already had but failed to do anything about will pop back up at the most inconvenient times.

But externalize those thoughts by making lists, and you will essentially expand your mind. By taking thoughts out of rotation in your PFC and putting them on a list, you will free up precious brain space to have new ideas and make decisions about existing ones.   This is what productivity-guru David Allen means when he says, "your mind is for having ideas, not holding them."

I asked my friends what kinds of lists they keep, and their answers spanned from the mundane (groceries, chores) to the sublime (inspirational ideas, big wishes).  Their lists express both the the need to simply keep moving, and the desire to keep life moving forward.

Here are just some of the lists kept by a handful of my friends:

bike trips
songs I like
business ideas
people to care for in my congregation
thank you notes to write
groceries to buy (staples/specific meals)
bills to pay
chores (as authored by the list-owner's partner)
wish lists for big ideas
things to pack for trips
great movies  I've seen
short-term goals
long-term goals
people I've been meaning to hang out with
master project list
places I want to visit
things I  want to learn
birthdays
inspiring ideas
things to look forward to

I keep the core Getting Things Done lists: Next Actions, Projects, Waiting For, Someday/Maybe.   I keep store-specific shopping lists and lists of blog post ideas. I've always kept a list of activities that make me happy (much like my birthday list).

I was inspired by blogger Jennifer Ketcham to keep not only this happy list (she calls it a "Hooray" list) but also to keep an "Uh-Oh"list.  Jennifer's "Uh-Oh" list enumerates the signs that she is slipping into a rut; it includes things like letting dishes pile up, watching too many Law & Orders in a row, and letting voicemail go unchecked.  When she notices these things happening, she does what she needs to do to prevent herself from slipping further into this undesired state.

The cardinal rule of list maintenance is this:  Review Often, and Let Things Go. As much joy as lists can bring, when they get stale they will fill you with dread.  Who wants to look at a list of things you once committed to doing but now no longer have the time/resources/desire to do?  Ugh.  If you wanted to learn Spanish a year ago but no longer care to, take "buy Spanish instructional books" off of your daily to-do list.  Move it to a Someday/Maybe list, or erase it altogether.

If your lists feel "heavy" to you -- if there are parts of your lists your eyes skip over or your mind tries to avoid -- this is a good sign that it's time to review your commitments.  Either do it, schedule it to be done, or take it off the list.

What kinds of lists do you keep?  How do you keep your lists fresh and relevant?

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8 Great Uses of a Snow Day (Or Other "Found Time")

My former boss used to talk about the wonderful feeling brought about by "found time."  Found time is when you unexpectedly gain free time -- because of a cancelled meeting or a postponed lunch date -- and get to decide how to use it.   As over-scheduled as most of us are, a few hours of found time can feel pretty luxurious.

Much of the East Coast is getting some found time this week in the form of a snow day (or three).  Why not make the most of it? While I wouldn't suggest doing ALL of these things in one day -- after all, you should relax -- I guarantee that taking on two or three of these activities will make you feel more energetic and accomplished than, say, a whole day spent watching HGTV (ahem).

  1. Do one task you've been putting off. Crossing something off your list will feel so good, you might even be inspired to do something else. For me, this will be finding out how to change the address on my driver's license.  I moved two years ago, so I expect that finally doing this will feel pretty good!
  2. Plan your charitable giving for the coming year. Many of us only make donations at the end of the calendar year or when disaster motivates us to give.  But nonprofits need our generosity year-round for the work they do day in and day out.  Think about how much you are able to donate this year, and consider donating now or in installments over the course of the year.
  3. Pick a small area to declutter. What space in your environment aggravates you, embarrasses you, or slows you down? It could be your desk drawer or your sock drawer, the pile on the kitchen table or that black hole where you toss instruction manuals.    Pick a manageable area that you can declutter in an hour or less, and get it done.
  4. Check in with your New Year's resolutions. It's February: how are those resolutions going?  It's okay to refine your resolutions or  drop one altogether.  Just be intentional about it!  If you did any end-of-year reflection, revisit your notes from that process.  What's changed already since 2010 began?
  5. Do a brain dump. When was the last time you got everything off your mind?  Sit down for 15 minutes and write down everything that is taking up your attention right now - from upcoming birthdays to grocery lists to the broken dining room chair.  Then, identify the next action needed on each item, and put it in your trusted system (a sure-fire process brought to you by David Allen).
  6. Create something. Make soup from scratch, build a shelf, assemble homemade Valentines, crochet a scarf for your dog.  There is little as satisfying as creating something from start to finish in one sitting.  Short projects provide instant gratification and don't hang over your head like that sweater you started knitting two years ago.
  7. Set a date.  Not to get married (though a blizzard engagement would make a nice story) but to get together with that person you've been meaning to see.  Look at your calendar, find three dates that would work for lunch or for coffee, and suggest to that long-neglected colleague/cousin/college buddy that you finally get some face-time.
  8. Write down ideas for how you'd like to use your next block of found time and put your list in a find-able place.

Bonus activity: Subscribe to my blog, via the email box on the top right, or by pasting www.studentofchange.com in your feed reader of choice (I use Google Reader).

What are your favorite uses for found time?  If you have a snow day today, how will you use it?

It's 2010. Do You Know How Many Emails Are In Your Inbox?

The new year presents an opportunity to revolutionize your relationship with email.  Many of us allow email to pile up and overwhelm us in a way that we would never permit to happen with physical clutter.

The good news is it's not that hard to develop healthier email habits.  Here are some ways to start: Start treating your email inbox like an inbox -- not a filing cabinet, calendar or reminder system. Would you keep 10,000 messages on your voicemail if you could?  Or allow five years worth of information to pile up in your physical inbox?  It's probably not the greatest idea to use your email inbox in this manner either.

The key to an inbox -- any inbox --  is that things come in, and are regularly processed out.  About a year ago, I went from 36,000 emails in my work inbox to ZERO.  Productivity guy Merlin Mann has written and spoken about how to do this -- his system is called -- wait for it -- Inbox Zero.

Unsubscribe from junk mail clutter. As a Gmail user, I find that I get very little spam.  Most of the "junk mail" I get is from lists I actually signed up for but no longer care about, or from one-time purchases that enrolled me in a lifetime of sale alerts.

Treat this stuff like what it is -- clutter -- and purge it.  Rather than ignoring or deleting each message as it comes in, open it, scroll down to the teensy-tiny print at the bottom of the message and hit "unsubscribe." And, when you make online purchases, think twice about opting-in to sale notices and updates.

Use your own email habits to lead by example. Hate getting work emails at 11:30 PM on a Sunday night?  Stop sending them yourself.  Your colleagues build their expectations about your availability based on how available you make yourself.  Most things can wait until morning.  Others will catch on.

Be intentional about checking your email. If you are being interrupted by the "ding" of incoming email every five minutes, you are allowing yourself to be interrupted about a 100 times during your work day.  Try turning off your automatic email notification for a couple of hours, for a day, or for good.

Check your email when you actually have the time and head-space to process what you'll find in your inbox, and when it won't serve as a distraction from the work you are doing.

What are your best strategies for keeping email under control?

My GTD Year in Review

This time last December, I was working in an office crammed with stuff.  Conference programs, old speeches, copies of travel receipts, notebooks brimming with ideas from half a decade ago, and drafts of reports long-ago published were filed and piled around me.  I wasn’t a hoarder – I just considered stacking things to be a valid organizing system. Since I was generally able to find what I needed when I needed it, I didn't consider myself disorganized.  Psychologically, my stacks served as a symbol of the important work that I was doing – work so important that it kept piling up and didn’t wait for me to get around to filing it.

At the same time, I knew my stacks weren’t really doing me any favors.  They took up valuable real estate on my desk, limiting my ability to spread out when I needed to do “big thinking” on projects. Occasionally I would fail to do something or be somewhere because the information I needed was buried and forgotten in a stack. I would sort through my stacks, filing and shredding from time to time, but the stacks never went away.  They were weighing me down.

Enter David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system, recommended to me by a number of trusted colleagues.  GTD is a system for collecting, processing, organizing, reviewing, and doing all of the “stuff” that comes into our lives.  Though there are many different products & commentaries on GTD, the place to start is David Allen’s book, which is a cheap and quick read.

I embarked on the first stage of GTD during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  For five days, I went through every piece of paper, every receipt and takeout menu. Armed with a label-maker, a stack of fresh file folders, and an inbox, I followed David Allen’s instructions and began to bring order to my office.  By the first week of 2009, I was back to work with an organized workspace and a new system in place.

My desk and my mind clear of clutter, I was able to clarify my priorities and take care of first things first.  Trusting that every email, meeting request, or task I agreed to do would be captured and processed in my system, I was able to shed the nagging feeling that something was falling through the cracks.   My follow-through on the commitments I made radically improved, and I developed peace of mind that I was doing what I should be doing at any given moment.

This summer, as I prepared to shift from full-time office worker to full-time student and part-time consultant, I brought GTD more fully into my home.  I set up a home office and have maintained a zero-tolerance policy on stacks of papers.  The only place that papers are allowed to pile up is in my inbox (which gets regularly emptied), meaning that on more days than not, my desk actually looks like the picture above.

I now allow myself the time to do the regular maintenance that I need to keep my work, and my life, moving in the direction I want to be going.  When I wasn’t giving regular attention to all of the things that needed attending to, stuff quite literally stacked up. I used to feel that I couldn’t afford to spend time “organizing” – work and life moved too fast.  Now I realize that I can’t afford not to.

This is not to say that life feels totally under control and my time spent is always aligned with my priorities – far from it. But GTD has helped me develop a “new normal” for myself.  And this calm, organized normal feels a lot better than the overwhelming stacks of unaddressed stuff I was living with before.

Free Getting Things Done (GTD) Resources

In the future I'll probably write about Getting Things Done (GTD, for short), David Allen's bestselling book about productivity and stress reduction.  I am a huge fan -- not a day goes by that I don't actively use GTD's core principles. The best place to start with GTD is to read the book, which costs about $10 and is a quick and engaging read.

Once you're ready to learn more, check out this list of free GTD resources available from the David Allen Company.