Small Changes, Big Effect

I recently made a simple tweak to my workflow that has completely changed my mental clarity.

I recently wrote about how my GTD system turned into a database of information that was unwieldy and overwhelming. Luckily, I was able to accurately critique my situation and realize what my system lacked curation. Once you get good at maintaining a GTD system it's easy to let it get out of control. Paradoxical, I know. Reintroducing a certain level of curation helped me regain my composure when it came to keeping track of what I wanted to do.

The real difference-maker, though, was something completely different. Before I introduce it, let me explain what my brain felt like a couple weeks ago.

I have a lot of large and interesting projects that I'm currently working on. I recently moved to Prague and am working on writing a research proposal. I'm organizing a day long TEDx event for over 600 people. All of my volunteers live in the United States and I'm in Europe so the already daunting task of leading a team of 20 volunteers is compounded by distance. I'm trying to build my coaching and consulting business while challenging myself to write more in-depth and well-researched articles (like this one on passion or this one on grit). I've also just started working on a major product that I'm hoping to release to my readers some time before the end of the year. Needless to say, I have a lot going on.

Most days I felt like I was in a constant struggle to move all of these projects forward. It was as if I had 25 soccer balls lined up on an open field. Each soccer ball represented some kind of project or commitment. Each day I would go from ball to ball to ball just barely tapping each of them down the field. I'd tap the first ball a couple inches and then move on to the next one. And then the next one, and the next one. I'd look back at my progress at the end of the day and all my projects had moved forward an inch or two. Perhaps some people would look at this and appreciate the amount of work that had to go into moving so many balls just a couple inches, but I usually felt profoundly deflated.

I decided to change my approach to getting those soccer balls down the field. Instead of tapping all of them forward a couple inches, I decided to focus on one or two and really boot them as far as I could. In GTD-speak, I told myself I'd focus on one "Area of Responsibility" per day. In that first week I decided to do this I worked on TEDx stuff on Monday, stuff on Tuesday, coworking stuff on Wednesday, TEDx stuff again on Thursday, and left Friday open to work on whatever most had my attention. This simple tweak in how I approached my workday allowed me to get SO much more done (or at least feel like I accomplished more).


I think the key to adopting this approach requires a couple things. First, you have to have a certain level of control over deciding when you're going to work on things. There are many jobs where that luxury isn't possible. Luckily, all of my work has pretty nebulous due dates so it's merely up to me to figure out how it all gets done. The second key is actually scheduling your week in advance. I'm not talking about breaking down your task list and assigning it to 15 minute blocks. I've tried scheduling things like that and while it may work for a day, the first time something unexpected happens and your schedule gets completely shot it can feel like a waste of time. My previous mindset was one of, "Ok, this project I'm working on is important and I like it. But, I really need to be moving this other project forward. I haven't done anything for it in awhile." That's how I found myself interacting with 20 projects a day and feeling like I got nothing done. Now, when I begin to feel stressed out about the other things I need to do my mental chatter goes something like this, "Man... I really should be writing for instead of doing this research. Wait! I've got all of Thursday scheduled to work on stuff. Awesome! I don't have to worry about it right now."

Being good at GTD made it easy to shift between projects. I always had a next action written down and ready to go; just like you're supposed to when you adopt GTD. And because I was so good at GTD I always had a well (perhaps over) populated project and task list. The problem was that even though tasks were out of my head and in the system, I felt like I should do something to move the project forward all the time.

It's kind of silly as I look back on this problem and what I've written so far. I realize now that I was good at focusing on one thing at a time but I wasn't giving myself enough time to actually get dirty with a project. I'd brush it off, engage with it on a superficial level for an hour or so, and then feel so worried about everything else I needed to do that I'd end up putting it back on the shelf and engaging with something else. It really was just a matter of giving myself enough time to really dig into it and feel like I've given made significant progress. Roughly scheduling my week into Areas of Responsibility or significant projects seems to release my brain from feeling like it had to be doing everything at once all the time.

This may be old hat to a lot of you but I was always highly resistant to scheduling my week in advance. I realize that I've failed with it in the past because I've tried to take it to too granular a level. There's a continuum of planning that I had largely left uninvestigated, though. Are you having trouble feeling like you've accomplished anything at the end of the day? If so, try committing a specific day of the week for the projects that are swirling in your head and give yourself permission to go deep with whatever you're working on right now. You're likely to feel better at the end of the day and get more meaningful work done as well.