Getting Things Done, A Guide

I was inspired by Sarah Knight‘s, Get Your Sh*t Togther book here, and optimized her ideas for my needs. I read it once, then reread it right after, because it was so engaging. Buy it and read it yourself.


The Way

I start with four lists. First is my ‘To-do’ list, which is my generic catch all list for ideas. The next is my ‘Must-do’ list. This is the important list that requires daily attention. I take the highest priority items in the ‘To-do’ list, and pull over the items that must be done on the day into the ‘must-do’ list. The third list is the ‘Doing’ list. I pull one item from ‘Must-do’, and pull it into ‘Doing’ until it is complete. The last list is the ‘Done’ list, that starts out empty every morning, and is satisfyingly full at the end of every day.

The To-do List

The To-do List is meant to be an open catch all for tasks and items that creep into my head over the course of a day. “Get to the grocery store…”, gets added to the list. “Get the bikes tuned”, check. “Workout for {date}”, added to the list.

Sometimes I get a random thought, and I just add it to the To-do list, if only just to allow myself the freedom to say “this is worth spending some time thinking about, but it’s not the priority now.” The value here is that those things that are ‘wishes’ become things I allow myself to treat as eventually ‘doable’, just not as important right now. This works well for my ‘I need to rewrite this in F#’ feelings.

Prioritizing the To-do list

One of the major functions of the to do list is to show me a pile of all the things I’ve been thinking about, and enables me to stack them in a simple list of most important to least important. Simple and small items tend to get to the top of the list, if only because I know how to do them quickly, and the process of getting things done feels good.

Pro tip: Hack of the to-do list by making tasks small and manageable. “Spend half-an-hour on Udemy course” is MUCH simpler to schedule and accomplish than “Get Better with Machine Learning and AI.”

Prioritization is function of my values. One of my values is making sure my personal finances are in shape, as they were not, for an embarrassingly long time. My to-do list consistently has budgeting and finance items right at the top of the list. Self-care with physical fitness is also a high priority for me right now, so daily physical activity takes the top spots as well.

The Must-do List

The ‘Must-do’ list is where I put top priority items from the to do list. My ‘to-do’ list will contain forty or fifty things. The ‘Must-do’ list I keep less than eight, and only add items to it as items are completed. That keeps the list doable over the course of a day, and creates a simple block around what is actually possible.

Items that are regular ‘Must-dos’:

  • Daily workout.
  • Daily budget/finances check.
  • Write for 45 minutes.
  • Log food for the day.
  • Correspondence.

Putting these items as distinct tasks allow for some distinct optimizations. A daily workout is a scheduled item that ends up on my calendar. In COVID times, that has been a Zoom session, and with the update to phase 1.5 in King County, it’s a small class session at my old gym.

Correspondence tasks can tend to elongate over the course of a day, e.g. who hasn’t spent multiple hours on a slack channel, but when I treat it like a task with a defined end things take on a different mode. Personal email is managed in the morning. Work email is managed immediately afterwords, and then once again in the afternoon. Slack communications can follow the same cadence, and once folks are aware that is how you are working, the immediacy of the medium is not as demanding as it seems.

Logging food is usually a simple task, which can <5 minutes after any meal, but can be done at the end of the day. The point is to remember the intent of the task. I log food to remind myself to measure portions and be intentional about my consumption, not to be 100% accurate down to the calorie. I accept the risk of inaccuracy (did I eat 100 grams of blueberries or raspberries in my yogurt this morning?) for time management.

The Doing List

The Doing list is the loneliest column because I allow one thing in it at a time.

I cannot multitask. At all. In order to do anything competently, I need to focus on one thing at a time.

One valuable feature of the single ‘doing’ list, is that, when my brain has wondered I can quickly glance at the doing list, and ask myself “Am I really doing what I said I’m doing?”

If I have Twitter open, and my ‘Doing’ task doesn’t read ‘read Twitter feed and get pissed off’, there’s a good chance I need to re-engage myself on what I want to spend my time on.

The Done List

The Done list is the most fun list, obviously. I start with a clean list and as I complete tasks from the Must-do list, I put them on the Done list. Initially, an empty Done list is underwhelming, but as the day progresses, it can get satisfying and full. What makes this particularly satisfying is the list ends up usually in the 15-20 items completed over the course of a day, and all of them are the priority items according to what I value the most.

I prioritized ‘daily workout’ and got it done.
I prioritized ‘developer coaching session’ and got it done.

Getting done what I chose and prioritized is empowering.


Further Optimizations

One optimization I have made to this structure since starting it has been creating two other lists to assist some work items, and a few more ‘values’ based optimizations.

First, I created a ‘work week done’ list that simply contains the tasks I have done specifically for work. This helps me write full and accurate weekly status reports for work. In work-from-home COVID times, being able to communicate what I have accomplished over the course of the week seems invaluable.

Second, I created a ‘Do Every Day’ list that I use a simple copy feature to move to the ‘Must Do’ list. This saves me the few minutes spent putting the everyday tasks in the To-Do list.

2 thoughts on “Getting Things Done, A Guide

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