Any opinions expressed within this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily held by Workplaceless itself.
When was the last time your mind was calm, still, and rested? If you’re like me, your mind is your office. It handles a flurry of inputs each day, from emails and texts to social media at-mentions to school papers and bank statements. It doesn’t take long to feel overwhelmed by the pace and expectations of modern life and work.
People today process more new information per day than ever before. Yet most of us lack a framework for managing this complexity and keeping our commitments. When we can’t keep track of things, we feel more and more overwhelmed, like a debtor desperately trying to pay back a loan while the interest keeps rising. This nagging sense that we’re falling behind makes it harder to achieve the clear headspace necessary to do our best work.
I’ve been there. I’m the father of two young children, and I’m the founder and CEO of Cantilever, a remote website consultancy. My life is complex even before I add in side projects and goals like co-hosting my soccer podcast and trying to exercise every now and then.
Before I discovered the “Getting Things Done” (GTD) method, I was drowning. It took me a few years to find and refine my GTD practice, but today it is the single most important tool I have for improving my work and life.
Many people think that they aren’t achieving their goals because they just don’t have time. The secret is, if you don’t have a good plan to use the time you have, adding more time won’t fix the problem. If you set up your life for success, you will be amazed at the results you can achieve in the same time it used to take you to do much less.
But GTD isn’t about cramming more work into your day. It’s about fulfilling your commitments efficiently so you have time and energy to do the things you want to do. It doesn’t squelch creativity, it allows it to flourish. If your goal is to get promoted, sure, GTD can help you. But if your goal is to watch as many Netflix shows as possible, GTD can help you just as much.
It’s unlikely that my particular approach is best for you. What’s important is understanding the principles behind why it works, so you can adapt them to your specific situation. Developing and maintaining a system for managing your life is particularly useful for remote workers (whose home and work commitments are even more intertwined than normal).
Getting Things Done is a philosophy for managing your life. It was originally developed by David Allen, who wrote the original GTD book in 2001. The philosophy has inspired thousands of other authors like myself to spread the word, including this wonderful recap video.
The core idea of GTD is:
Your mind is for solving problems, not storing information.
If you try to rely on your brain to remember, categorize, and prioritize the things you need to get done, you won’t have the mental space to successfully do the work. Your brain will be cluttered and fractured. You need to develop an external system where you store and organize your commitments. Then, with your mind clear, you can tackle that work bit by bit.
Your system can be anything from GTD-specific software like Omnifocus to a plain yellow legal pad. It just has to be consistently available to you and must suit your mental processing style.
Your system has to have two major parts – an “Inbox”, and a series of other lists representing the “Projects” you have in your life and the “Contexts” you can do them in (the things that are required to do the task).
Any time you decide to do something – personal or business-related, now or years from now, small or large – add it as a Todo to your “Inbox”. As you check your digital communication inputs (email, texts), throw any new commitments into that system. You can even skip replying to an email and give yourself a Todo to reply later, and archive the email.
At least once a day, go through your Inbox and evaluate each item. If it can be done in two minutes, just do it. If it is straightforward but more lengthy, find a good place for it within the rest of your system and log it there. If it is a multi-step effort, it might be a new project. Think through the quick actions involved in executing that project and start a new list.
Once a week, go through your whole system and make sure it is accurate and that all todos are actionable.
With every single commitment in your life logged in one place, your mind will start to find clarity. GTD encourages a “mind like water.” Imagine a rock tossed into a pond. The surface ripples momentarily but quickly returns to flatness. So should your mind when new information is thrown at it. From this placid state, your creativity can emerge.
When you work in an office, it‘s easier to get a sense of priority and direction by your proximity and frequent casual interaction with your team. You can see over people’s shoulders and hear their conversations. People can see how long it’s taking you to do something, and might intervene. Working remotely, you are more independent, and therefore are more responsible for managing your own schedule and priorities.
People who are new to working remotely often find this a major challenge. At Cantilever we use a communication hub, Basecamp, but Basecamp only goes so far in defining specific fine-grained tasks that someone might need to accomplish. For instance, we might have a todo for our art director titled “Design About Page”. Included in that are dozens of smaller tasks:
Often these tasks are handled by more than one person and must interweave to meet a final deadline. We encourage members of our team to adopt their own task-management strategy that allows them to successfully keep track of and deliver on the commitments they personally make within the context of our team’s final deliverables.
Remote workers often work at home, and personal commitments are much more top of mind. I don’t bother to segment my time rigidly between work and home commitments. Instead I allow myself to switch contexts rapidly and regularly throughout the day. I’ll sit down to process my inboxes, take 20 minutes to walk my kids to school, come back and review a new site design, take lunch with a visiting family member, handle some medical bills, do some meetings with Cantilever colleagues, and so on.
I might work for 30 minutes at 9pm, or I might take off for 30 minutes at 9am. The beautiful thing about GTD is that when your commitments are logged and organized, it becomes infinitely easier to switch modes. The mental energy wasted on “did I remember X?” goes away. I trust that everything I need to take care of is in my system, and that if I follow the steps I laid out by the dates I set for them, everything will work out – both in my work and my personal life.
Check out the video I linked above. If the concept appeals to you, I highly recommend reading the book. For some people, this structure may feel oppressive or rigid. Maybe that’s you. If that’s the case, I still encourage you to learn about it and draw from its core principles in designing a life-management framework of your own. And if you need some advice, please feel free to message me on Twitter @tyfuji. Your request will be logged in my system and handled efficiently, I promise!
We are unreasonably obsessed with the web. We create bespoke websites for mid-to-large companies who aren’t getting the results they need online. We are huge fans of Workplaceless and are thrilled to see them making the internet a better place for remote workers. You can find out more about our work at https://cantilever.co.