Getting Things (That Matter) Done

Productivity. Billable Hours. Commitments. To Do Lists. Deliverables. Frazzle. Blah.

In our careers, I think we all go through periods of peak performance – those times when work is intense and the pressure is high, but things just seem to be flowing.

And then there’s those other, stressful times. Times when the workload overwhelms us and instead of rising to the challenge we fall into the grey blur of frazzle mode – spread too thin to give any one thing the full attention it deserves. The times when stuff falls off the list and life – work life, home life, inner life – suffers.

Of late, there’s been rather too much of the latter and not enough of the wonderful, exhilarating, rewarding former.

Enough. I miss that good zone. Time to get back.

In the time-slicing, multi-tasking world we inhabit these days, there’s no end of tips and tools, self-help sites and books aimed at helping us create that zone for ourselves, manage it and stay in it.

Problem is, I find the idea of these things has a certain enduring appeal, but I’ve never quite managed to find the plate-spinning system that just feels right and natural for the way I work.

From the relatively simple and intuitive single tactical ideas (task lists, time boxing), to the comprehensive systems like Dave Allen’s legendary “Getting Things Done” – I’ve researched (and tried) a bunch of them. I have good friends who swear by some of these things.

They’re all attractive and effective for me to some degree, but so often seem to require a certain significant re-wiring of the way my head works. It’s been a long search for the system that feels like me.

Then in the last few days, a coincidence of influences and discussions led me to something of a mini-epiphany earlier this afternoon. A simple twist on established approaches that might just be a part of what I’ve been looking for.

I know, I haven’t blogged in a loooong time. As it turns out, that’s one of the things that has probably contributed to that pervasive feeling of “the blahs” I’ve been feeling.

I miss blogging. I miss the simple act of putting one word after another; miss the feelings of engagement and community. There have been other contributing blah factors of late, but I won’t dwell on those here.

And then four things happened. It started with re-reading this old post on my boss Joe’s blog: “Why I’m Posting Less Frequently”. There’s a lot of simple, straightforward sense and truth in that post.

“There is simply too much information out there that I would like to read and not enough time to read it all,” Joe says. Amen.

Reading Joe's post also reminded me of something the inimitable David Weinberger wrote a while back: "No, I'm not keeping up with your blog." Heh.

And it’s not just the time to read, it’s the time to contribute that is in such short supply.

Then the other night I finally had a chance to meet one of my oldest blogosphere friends in the flesh - Brian Moffatt. Can't remember when I first came across Brian - 2003? 04? But the first time I read his stuff I knew I'd found a kindred spirit. Good ol' BMO.

We met up for over-priced caffeine on the way home earlier this week - as our blogs have intersected, so have our work lives. We shared tales of podcast projects and other social media experiments we've been involved in through our client work; started to think about ways we might get to work together.

We also compared notes on our mutual, individual blogfade. We've both been blogging a long time. We've both gone through extended periods of blog-hiatus.

I remember something Brian wrote to Frank Paynter way back in one of his first haituses (haitii?):
"I was finding the whole experience depressing. Physically I mean. The logistics of blogging. The linking, the maintenance, the obligation. I felt guilty blogging and I felt guilty not blogging daily."

Yup. Been there. It's a weird thing, that obligation part. We all crave an audience - one way or another. I guess we all do it because we enjoy the act of writing. But when feeding the statmeter starts to feel like work; when the guilt that you're not jumping into every thread, not adding to every conversation because there's just too darn many of them (and all the people you like have already written all the things you wish you'd thought to write anyway) - that's when the joy of it fades.

Over-thinking. That's another thing I've got to watch out for. And wandering from my point...

Brian and I agreed that we miss blogging when we're not doing it. That was a good nudge. With Joe's and David's posts still fresh in my mind, I realised that the guilt part is just a huge energy sucker and completely unnecessary. Like my scant handful of readers really give a hoot if I'm not all over every meme the second it first spreads its tiny wings. Hah!

Point is: with the pressure of work, the stress of still not having found that personal GTD magic, the usual insane juggling act of our busy home, and the pointless guilt inflicted by not pursuing one of the big creative outlets I love so much, of not feeding the blog-craving - with all this I was well-primed for the little coaching help that led to today's epiphany.

I've been working for the last couple of weeks with Eileen Chadnick - coach, communicator, and "friend of Thornley Fallis", and I have Eileen to thank for nudging me towards this idea.

We were talking about To Do Lists - why they just don't seem to work for me, and why it's so often the stuff that isn't on the list (but really should be) that gets in the way of achieving what you set out to do.

You know how it goes: you start the day with 5 big scary items on the list. Then you've got to make time to get on top of email (which wasn't on the list). One or two of those messages require additional work - your list is invisibly growing before you've even tackled item one. The phone goes. It's a client with something that needs rapid turnaround (not on the list). Then it's time for your 11am (already?!). OK - 11am done (with two brand new items for the list). Get that quick task turned around for the client. Now - back to item one. Oops - one of your staff needs some advice. Your 1pm is looming. And forty-six new emails. Crap! Item one again. Darn it - must just get my timesheets up to date. And I still haven't blogged today... or read through my feedreader... and I'm not going to be able to make it to that lunch tomorrow... the phone again...arrrgggh!

Eileen and I got to talking about "Covey's Quadrants" which I've read about, heard about, and - heck - even quoted to staff many times over the last few years.

In Stephen Covey's view, work tends to fall into one of four "quadrants":
  1. Important and Urgent (crises, deadline-driven projects)
  2. Important, Not Urgent (preparation, prevention, planning, relationships)
  3. Urgent, Not Important (interruptions, many pressing matters)
  4. Not Urgent, Not Important (trivia, time wasters)
Claire Tompkins summarizes the concept pretty neatly here:
This popular technique (definitions courtesy of Amazon review) offers a way to prioritize tasks and to see what you shouldn't be (but often are) spending time on. People tend to get swept up in quadrants I and III because they’re happening right now, they involve other people or outside forces, they are time sensitive and they promote a sense (sometimes illusory) of progress. They spend time in quadrant IV when they’re goofing off (note: this category does not include rest and recreation), hiding out and procrastinating.
As we were talking through ways to apply the lens of these quadrants to managing a daily task list, and talking about making time to take that mental "walk in the snow", we made a couple of leaps and, well, I'm not quite sure how we got to this point, but it struck me that the real list I need to focus on is one that maps out the Things That Matter.

Things That Matter fall into a few simple and obvious buckets:
  1. Things That Matter To Me
  2. Things That Matter To TFC (i.e. to my employer)
  3. Things That Matter To My Clients
Bucket #1 is full of things like: family, health, reading, learning new stuff, walking in the woods, geeking out, and - yes - blogging (both the ing and the ogg of it - the reading and contributing).

Bucket #2 is - obviously - stuff like the billable hours, winning business, recruiting and building great people, effective project and account management (plus other, less prosaic things).

Bucket #3 is chock full of delivering results, quality work, meeting commitments, responsiveness, creative ideas, excellence in execution.

Of course, as Eileen pointed out, this really ought to be done as a Venn diagram - there's necessary and healthy overlap between the three buckets.

It struck me that the central intersection of the three categories is a kind of Michael-ized equivalent of Covey's Quadrant 2 - or it is, at least, that space where you really want to be spending most of your time.

The important thing about this approach for me is that it helps me frame the stuff that's necessary to a healthy work-life balance in a way that feels intuitive. If we don't plan time to do the "Things That Matter To Me" - if we don't "set the intention", as Eileen puts it - then it probably won't get done. That's the first crack through which the stress creeps in - all work and no play.

When Bucket #1 is empty, the other two are too heavy to carry, and the stuff inside them starts to slosh out onto the floor. Balance comes first, as my T'ai Chi teacher says.

So there it is. A pinch of GTD, a nod to Covey, and my own little twist.

I took ten minutes before I left the office tonight to map out a first Things That Matter list for tomorrow, mapped against the time slots in my calendar, with what I think is a healthy balance of ingredients from all three buckets. Fun to do, and I didn't feel any of the tyranny of the never-ending To Do List in the thing.

Will this help to manage the interrupt-driven nature of a typical work day? Not on it's own, no - but it feels like a system I can stick to as it's one that comes from within. Pulling the day back towards the Things That Matter and making sure to categorize the new stuff into the right bucket (or toss it out if it simply doesn't matter) - that feels natural and right.

Next thing you know, I'll be designing a line of customized leather-bound day-timers and TTM™ templates.

TTM™. Tee heeee.