In the past 3 years I’ve totally remade my productivity habits. The key is that I don’t keep “to do” items hanging around. I either do them immediately, file them in a “trusted place” where I know I can’t forget them (more on this below), or just delete them.
Basically the system is about focus and time horizons: if a task is on a horizon of “right now” I just do it. If the horizon is “very soon” I file it in my trusted place. If the horizon is “sometime” I just forget about it. I long ago discovered: truly important “sometime” tasks generally become “very soon” items all on their own. Usually because someone else has a stake in the problem and will ride me for status updates or a deliverable or something. Altogether the system has the effect of focusing me on what I need to do right now, and I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about all the things I should be doing.
My “trusted place” is two things: email (because most requests arrive via email), or a waiter’s notepad. If I’m not at my computer (like in a meeting) and someone asks me for something (like “can you email me the latest wireframe for project X”), I write it on my notepad — ONE ITEM PER PAGE. My notepad fills up a little during the day, but as soon as I’m near a computer I go through it. I either “fill the order” (i.e. do the task) then throw away the sheet, or I send an email to myself (i.e. put it in my “very soon” queue), or I just throw the note away.
It’s very satisfying to throw away all these little slips of paper during the day. And they are very insubstantial, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting paper. I do catch a lot of crap for “taking orders” during meetings or whatever.
You can buy waiter’s notepads by the brick at office depot.
Interestingly, my work philosophy has come to pervade my personal life, but in a less direct way. I don’t generally write down my personal-life “to do” items on a waiter’s notepad. But I have gotten myself into the habit of doing small, easy tasks (like washing dishes, or dropping off library books) immediately, so they don’t clutter up my mental plumbing. By the same token, I’m learning which stuff that seems important (teach myself Django? hange new curtains? switch to CFL lightbulbs?) actually is important (five year anniversary! 24-week ultrasound! walk the dog!)
I’m told this is a lot like David Allen’s Getting Things Done but I’ve never read the book so I can’t say. I do read Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders website from time to time so I’m familiar with the general concept. Unlike Allen’s or Mann’s systems, my system doesn’t have a devoted following or a long-running blog or a philosophy. It does have a name. I call it “perspective.”
(This post was inspired by a recent post on Scott’s Simply Internet Trash.)