Being in the zone is awesome. In fact, you are actually 500% more effective when you are in a state of flow. The difficulty? Very few people set themselves up to ever work in this state. Part of the reason is environmental, the subject of another day’s post, but the other necessary ingredient is a method of organization and a workflow that is conducive to frequently entering this state.
When I was in school, I was one of those crumpled-paper-stuffed-into-my-backpack types. Now that I wear my big boy entrepreneur pants, I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I got sick of what inevitably happens when you aren’t organized and prioritized. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
- Inbox 0? Try inbox 100
- You occasionally stumble across emails or notes with information or opportunities that you “missed” because you found them too late
- A typical day involves switching between half a dozen projects and sub-projects
- There’s a constant background stress that you are forgetting something important
The problem with typical to-do lists is that the list quickly becomes overwhelmed when you set 3 items for the day and at the end of the day your list has turned into 10. This creates the sensation that you have gotten nowhere and are not doing what is most important. If you manage to avoid that problem then you end up failing to capture ideas and new tasks, and you won’t have them on hand when you need them.
Personally, I was sick of it. So, upon the recommendation of a friend I picked up Getting Things Done by David Allen. Now I’m going to be honest…it was a terrible book. I have absolutely no idea why it is wildly popular. I couldn’t even get through it! BUT…the overarching point and method (which is extremely simple as you will see below) is golden, even if the book is lacking in the application department.
Warning: if you are lazy you should stop reading here, because you won’t end up following through with this. The system is relatively complex and will take a few hours to set up. You might even have to re-read this post a couple times to get it down. But once you do, it’s easy to maintain and you will end up saving tons of time and see an immediate increase in your productivity.
Summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen
The brain is a beautiful thing, but in some ways it has consistent, systematic failures. One major shortcoming that kills organization and productivity is how we have a terrible time remembering things at the right time. Instead, we worry, ponder, and have our thoughts race at 3am.
This kind of stress is most often a result of open loops which have 3 causes:
- A lack of clarity of intended outcomes
- Not knowing the next step for important projects
- Not having reminders of the outcome and immediate next step in a system that you trust
The Five Steps To Solve This Problem:
- Capture – record thoughts, ideas, and initiatives for all projects, large and small
- Clarify – understand what it means and how important it is
- Organize – put it where it belongs
- Reflect – review frequently
- Engage – actually do the task
For you visual learners out there… here’s a pretty flowchart!
If your organizational system is functioning correctly, it should always….
- Allow you to have the relevant information on hand
- Indicate what you should be working on at any given point in time
If your system does not have these properties you will inevitably lose track of that important note to send an email to your team at 1pm, or you spend all day working just to realize at 10pm you completely forgot to do that main project you originally intended to do.
Pretty simple right? The book doesn’t really give you a way to implement this process, so I’ve created my own system that I wanted to share with you which will completely transform the way you work.
Through months of trial and error I’ve created a relatively advanced organizational system and workflow which has allowed me to be more productive than ever. With this system you will be able to manage dozens of projects and initiatives without letting a single thing fall through the cracks, no matter how small. You will also always know what is most important, and what you should be working on, in any context or situation. Sound good? Great – let’s get started!
The Formula of Super-Achievers
The key to any organizational system is prioritization. This involves always doing the most important things, but even more importantly never doing the less important things. Your first reaction to that sentence might be to disagree with it, but just stop and ask yourself why you would ever do something that is not the #1 most important thing for any given moment! For more on this topic, listen to this great talk.
To summarize the formula of Super-Achievers, and to create a framework of prioritization we will be using later, we will focus on 6 principles:
1. STOP doing more THINGS (this is what fools do)
2. Master the FEW that MATTER (usually 2-3 things in any time period)
3. Out-focus everyone else
4. Outlast everyone else through unbreakable consistency
5. Measure progress
6. FAIL more than everyone else (through failing often and hard you will get the biggest breakthroughs)
We want our system to incorporate these ideas, but in reality few people are able to pick 2-3 things out of everything that they do, while dropping everything else. So instead, we will use a system that allows for focus on the few things that matter, without having to worry about those small odds and ends that will inevitably derail us.
This means our setup should always allow us to knock out those big, important, audacious projects, while keeping track of those less important tangents and distractions so that we can deal with them later.
Creating This System For Yourself
1. We will be using a very specific setup on the Evernote platform. The first step is to set up and account if you don’t already have one, then delete all unnecessary tags and stacks. Chances are you have probably used Evernote off and on but in a relatively disorganized way. I was in the same boat until two months ago.
2. Create a “GTD” stack with the following notebooks: Projects, Processing, and Completed. Also a shared notebook for your team if applicable. It looks like this:
3. Create a separate “Filing” stack with reference material for projects, learning, etc. I also keep a notebook for notes with important points from all books that I read. It should look something like…
4. Create a note for every major project (business and personal) and add to the Projects notebook.
A note on what qualifies as a “project”:
I’ve played around with a couple versions of this system, and one source recommended creating a project note for basically everything – every project and every step of the project. A note for “redesign blog” and “go to store to pick up toilet paper”. You can quickly see the potential problems you would run into – you’ll have 50-100 of these and there is no difference in prioritization between toilet paper and the next major step in your business! This is a total nightmare and best to be avoided.
Instead, we will be creating notes for larger projects, and a few categorical notes which compile less important items which still need to be done. Some examples of current project notes I have are: List of blog posts to write, Plan and run a webinar, Grow my email list, Product launch project, Online course marketing initiatives, Coaching, etc. Each of these notes should begin with an overarching description of a goal or desired outcome for the project (ex: get 3 new coaching clients) and include at least the first step you should be taking.
Finally, create an “Errands” project note that you can throw in the random odds and ends that are conducive to batching, such as shopping, filling up your tires, going by the post office, etc.
5. Create the following notes to add to the Processing notebook:
Screening: This note is for quickly jotting down everything when you are in a rush. Business ideas, to-dos, etc. You will be regularly sorting this, but having an initial place to jot everything down is essential.
Someday: This is where you store things you want to do “someday” but that are not CRITICAL right now. Be very harsh with what is important at this moment, otherwise you will be overwhelmed with too many projects.
Routine: This note is where you store your morning and evening routines, your work routine, as well as your notes on the workflow of this
Priorities: Create a list of ALL your projects. Every. Last. One. Then pick the top 2-3 that are most important this week. It’s difficult but extremely important to do this, and repeat this exercise at the beginning of every week, because often your priorities will shift from week to week.
GTD Method: It’s important to remember to screen your setup regularly to keep it optimized (thoroughly described below). As you are reading this post, take notes on the step by step process of this system, and put it in a note to review once/week for the time being. This way you remember how it works, keep it squeaky clean, and won’t lose track of something important, like forgetting that you even have a Screening note for example. Here is a screenshot of the most important part of my GTD Method note which I use as a checklist during a quick weekly review (to be discussed shortly):
6. Create the following tag breakdown:
You can copy the above structure exactly, with the exception of the “.Who” and “.Projects” categories. For these you will want to customize this for your own team and list of overarching categories of projects, such as youtube, blog, product development, course creation, etc. There might be multiple youtube projects, for example, which would all be listed under the “youtube” tag when you click on it.
Note: pay close attention to the exact way the tags are entered. The periods are intentional – they make the tag structure show up at the top of your tag list and in a particular order.
This tag structure is one of the fundamental parts of this system. This breakdown allows you the flexibility to choose what is most important to work on at any moment. If you are at the office, what do you need to be working on? If you have only 15 minutes before a meeting, what should you be doing? Etc.
7. Go through and tag all project notes you’ve made with the appropriate identifiers from the tag list above – when, where, relevant project, etc.
Integrating with Google Calendar:
So far everything that we have set up is great for prioritization and organization, but doesn’t capture events that happen at specific times. For those team meetings, business lunches, and webinar calls we incorporate something like Google Calendar. You can also use this to map out specific blocks of time to have uninterrupted focus on a larger project.
Other optional integrations:
Todoist – an alternative to Google Calendar if you favor list formats over calendar formats
Lifetick – good option for more advanced long-term goals and planning if you’d like something more intricate than a prioritization note
Typical Work Day With This Organization:
Preparation is everything. The night before, I always do a quick review of where I am with my current priorities and which project I want to focus on the next day, as well as any scheduled appointments or interviews I might have.
On the day of work, the first thing I always do is a very specific morning routine – the importance of which will be the topic of another post. Upon sitting down to work…
1. What priorities did I set the night before?
2. How much time do I have until my next interruption? This could be lunch, a phone call, or an appointment. This will often determine which initial list of tasks you should be looking at. If you’ve only got an hour, you probably shouldn’t be sitting down to write 2,000 words for your next book, as that requires uninterrupted flow.
3. Are there any other special circumstances in the moment? Is there a person at hand I normally don’t have access to, or am I in a location that I need to do certain things in?
4. Pick the applicable framework and get to work!
5. After lunch, process email – all emails should either be archived, responded to (if less than 2 minutes), or added to your “Screening” or “Someday” notes.
As you work – things will naturally come up. Someone asks you for a quick favor, you remember you need to grab milk, or maybe there’s a nasty product review you find that you need to address. Anything. If this new item takes less than 2 minutes, do it right away. If it takes longer and is not related to your chosen priorities for the day, immediately add it to your “Screening” note and don’t look at it again until the end of the day. This takes some practice and self-control, but I promise you will be more productive if you do this.
Towards the end of the day – review your “Screening” list (process below) and set the priorities for the next day, making sure to consider the context you will be working under the next day, in terms of location, interruptions, appointments, etc. Don’t pick a priority that will clash with your day. Set a daily reminder in your phone or calendar to do this step. This will help you add items to this list and immediately move on, because you will have the confidence that they won’t be forgotten. There are no “open loops”.
Maintaining The System:
Like any system, this one requires a bit of maintenance. As mentioned this requires a quick daily look at your “Screening” and
“Prioritization” notes. The final requirement to maintain this system is to do a quick review at the end of the week. For me this typically takes an hour and makes sure I keep kicking butt every single week.
Scheduled Sunday Maintenance:
1. Screening the “Screening” note
Just like at the end of each day, you will want to go back and process anything else floating around on this note. Here’s how to quickly process each item:
- Does it take less than two minutes? Do it now (you should have already done it)
- Is it not super important? Add to “Someday” list or “Errands” list
- Is it important and related to a specific project? Add to that project note, or create a new project note under the same project tag (depending on the size)
2. ” Someday” list review
Have any of these become important? Add to related project note. Have any of these become no longer worth pursuing or thinking about? Great, then delete them! Otherwise, just leave them.
3. Long-term goals
Whatever goal-setting method you use, it’s important to review these regularly, as this helps you prioritize your projects. Incorporate this into your weekly maintenance routine.
Here’s where you decide what you will focus on for the week. It’s extremely difficult to work with daily to-dos without getting stressed, but setting higher-level priorities for the week is extremely effective. Relate them to your long-term goals. Maybe you need to work on writing that next book, but landing 3 interviews might be a quicker win for that goal you’ve set to double your email list.
This system takes a couple hours to set up and about one hour per week to manage, but I can guarantee that it is a worthwhile investment. It forces you to be organized and prioritized, and if used correctly you will always know what you should be working on, even if you are juggling half a dozen projects like me!
I’ve been asked many times how I move so fast and do so many things while keeping track of everything. Previously: I was a stressed-out neurotic mess half the time. Now: I maintain a relaxed, organized focus.
Do you plan on customizing this system in any way? If so leave a comment and let me know! There’s always room for improvement.
Credit to The Secret Weapon for the inspiration for this system.