getting things done

This post is a little different from most of my other posts because it’s not specifically personal finance related.  It’s more of a quality of life post.

So, for those of you not interested, I’ll catch you again next week.  But for those who would love to kick stress to the curb, read on.

I recently read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.  It was mind-blowing.

GTD is the ultimate guide to productivity.  David Allen wrote the original version of GTD back in 2002.  He revised and republished it in 2015 to include the world’s new technology and scientific research.  I read the 2015 version and loved it.

I am an ultra-organized person and have been using to-do lists on and off since…birth?  But in the past year and a half, I have come to use them consistently every single day and completely rely on them.

I often think back to my days before the perpetual to-do list, and I’m blown away that I didn’t forget everything.  How on earth did I remember to do my laundry if it wasn’t an automatically-repeating item on my list?

Oh, right…I didn’t.  I can’t tell you how many times I realized that I had no clean clothes for the next day at 10:00 PM, right before I was going to bed.  I’d have to get up, throw my clothes in the washer, and then set an alarm for myself for the next morning to put them in the dryer, hoping that they didn’t stink from sitting in the washer overnight.

Man, it stresses me out to even think about it.  When I started making a to-do list every single day, I found that my stress lessened considerably.  I thought I had a good system.  Until I read this book.

Although I was already doing many of the things in this book, it wasn’t good enough.  Since implementing the majority of David’s ideas, I have become more calm, patient, and stress-free.

I like to imagine a world where everyone uses this system and there are fewer fights, nervous breakdowns, headaches, ulcers, etc., and more time doing the things we love.  Authors, feel free to take that idea and roll with it.  If it ends up being the next big utopian bestseller, throw a little money my way, will ya?

If I haven’t made it clear enough to you yet, I highly recommend this book.  But don’t just read it.  As he makes actionable suggestions, do them.  You’ll be glad you did.

To entice you to read, here are a few of my favorite takeaways from the book:

The Project List

The GTD system involves a few different lists.  I won’t go over them all here, except to talk about two specific ones.  Your project list and next action list.

Your project list should be filled with every project you have going on now, or that you want to start in the near future.  A project is anything that takes more than one task to complete.  This list helps you keep track of anything that can’t be checked off your other lists by finishing just one thing.  It helps you remember that you have more steps to complete the project, and can help to remind you to take that first step with a new project that you may have otherwise forgotten.

Here’s an example of one of my projects:

I want to switch my husband’s HSA to a bank with lower fees.  This project involves many steps:

1. Call current HSA bank to see what fees will be involved with transfer/account cancellation
2. Research other HSA banks to find lowest fees
3. Call new bank(s) to find out about any future transfer or cancellation fees
4. Cancel old HSA account
5. Open new HSA account and deposit check

Why do I need a project list?  Why can’t I just put “Get new HSA bank” on my master list?  Clearly I know what goes into “Get new HSA bank”, so why do I need to have so many specific steps laid out?  That’s where the next list comes in:

The Next Action List

The next action list is like your master to-do list.  In the book, he ends up suggesting to split your lists into categories or places where you can complete each task, but that’s a little too high-level for this short summary.  I just want to talk about the “next action” concept.

Every task on your lists should be an action.  You need to specify the very next step to complete the project or task.

In my example above, if I had just put “Get new HSA bank” on my list, I would be more likely to put it off.  Why?  Because I have to think about what the next action is (again), without also thinking about the whole “overwhelming” task of switching banks, which may scare me away.

When I see “Get new HSA bank” I have to open my brain up to thinking (gasp!). If I’m nearing the end of my day and my energy level is nil, I may think “Nah, I don’t really want to think about what I need to do for that.”  Or maybe, if I’m actually motivated to take it on, I’ll think “First I need to call the bank, then I need to do internet research, then I need to…on second thought, maybe I’ll save that for another day.”

You need to be able to look at your task list and not have to think.  As my brother-in-law says “be a doer, not a thinker.”  It’s like you need to turn into a robot, just following the next action.  You spent time thinking about that task when you first put it on your list…you shouldn’t have to think about it again until you are right there, ready to do the next step.  You shouldn’t have to ask yourself multiple times through this process what the next step is.

The 2-minute Rule

This is possibly my favorite takeaway from this book.

When you are looking at your calendars or next actions lists, immediately do anything that takes 2 minutes or less.

I was pretty scared to implement this one.  I thought that if I didn’t get some of my dreaded or big actions out of the way first, I would never do them.

What I found was that I had extra brain power to do those less desirable tasks because I didn’t have my big daunting list in my head.  By immediately clearing out my less-than-2-minute tasks, I took my list from 50+ tasks down to 30ish.

Before, those 50+ tasks were weighing on my mind until I could start crossing things off.  Now, I start the day by immediately completing almost half of my list.  As you can imagine, that gives me a happy crossing-things-off high, frees up space in my mind, and prevents me from unnecessarily stressing about those things all day.  Win, win, win.

Mind Like Water

This concept comes from karate.  The idea is that our mind should be like water.

So think about the properties of water.  “Water reacts appropriately to forces against it (like a rock thrown into a pond) then returns to calm.  It never overreacts or underreacts.”   David argues that our minds should be the same.

A lot of our stress comes from keeping our minds filled with things we have to do. This quote from the book explains it perfectly:

“A big problem is that your mind keeps reminding you of things when you can’t do anything about them. It has no sense of past or future. That means as soon as you tell yourself you might need to do something and store it only in your head, there’s a part of you that thinks you should be doing that something all the time. Everything you’ve told yourself you ought to do, it thinks you should be doing right now. Frankly, as soon as you have two things to do stored only in your mind, you’ve generated personal failure because you can’t do them both at the same time.

As you’ll find out when you read the book, his solution is to get things on your list the moment you think of them.  Only by doing that can you hope to have a mind like water.

While I was reading GTD, I listened to an episode of the Optimal Finance Daily podcast that I felt was a great companion to the concepts in this book.  In the episode, they read an old guest post by Babs Wagner on the Budgets Are Sexy blog.

Babs’s post, called “Do One Small Thing, Then Do Another”, really hit home for me because it’s similar to David’s next action concept.  Babs advises that if something is overwhelming (like her New Years Resolution to clean and organize her entire house), start by doing just one small thing (clean off one desk).  Then, do another.  By taking things one action step at a time, in small, bite-sized pieces, we can complete big tasks (or projects!).

I’ll leave you with this quote from David’s GTD website, which just says it all:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

What are your favorite productivity hacks?

How do you ease the stress of daily life?

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