Less than a year ago I happened to attend a crowded birthday party in Latvia. It was back in those mythical times when people were casually gathering in large numbers without breaking the law or creating a health threat. While mingling at the party, I struck up a conversation with a guy I did not know.
As it turned out he worked at the Central European sales arm of a large global IT company. The conversation strayed to a subject familiar to me – what it’s like to run salesmen of different nationalities and to keep up with the ever growing number of orders.
My new acquaintance told me he'd had to stand in for his boss once who had gone on a vacation. And all of a sudden he had found himself struggling to stay afloat in the flood of information – his head had been spinning with the multitude of pressures he had to face during the day, making it very difficult for him to understand what decisions to make and how not to drown in this maelstrom of information.
I have dealt with similar challenges now and again but the situation became critical about a year ago when I was sleeplessly tossing and turning in my bed almost every night, my brain replaying the events of the day and reviewing the plans for tomorrow over and over again. I think many people can relate to this
– you know you must sleep and get some rest but your mind is like a runaway train racing at a crazy speed that would not stop. Eventually this leads to depression, burnout and some other quite nasty health consequences.
While I was working in Latvia, organizing my life came naturally to me. However things got out of hand when I moved to the U.S. with this country's countless options – I felt like a kid in a candy store, eager to taste everything on display, but with a little money in my pocket.
The Art of Stress Free Productivity
When you have a problem interfering with your life, you look for a solution. I started seeking for advice from people who knew a thing or two; and sifting the web until I found the GTD (Getting Things Done). It's a methodology developed by David Allen, an American living in the Netherlands. He has published a book of the same title on the work-life management system that alleviates overwhelm, and instills focus, clarity and confidence, while also being a productivity consultant to some of the world's most high-ranking customers. The book and a rather recent podcast episode by one of my favourite podcasters Tim Ferris interviewing Allen are available on the web. The book belongs to the “personal productivity” category and hundreds of similar methods have been developed but I am going to share my personal experience in applying the GTD methodology.
The underlying idea of GTD is simple enough – a human brain is not suited for handling thousands of facts and pressures at a time. Therefore the most important things should be written down. The therapeutic effects journaling are well-known – once you put things down on paper, you get them out of your head along with the associated emotions so that you can look at the situation from aside.
GTD mainly deals with various principles for sorting and organizing information and breaking it down into actionable work items. It reviews the techniques for capturing the information first and then arranging it in a number of inboxes for easy retrieval in the future. The book speaks in detail about the calendar, to-do lists and project lists. The method requires weekly review of tasks, projects and the calendar, making plans for the next week, as well as reviewing the long-term priorities and the current project folders once a month.
I find it appealing that the approach can be successfully implemented using notepads, paper diaries and filing cabinets, as well as electronic organizational systems, such as Evernote, Google Docs or Microsoft OneNote. The technical arrangements are secondary. What matters is to figure out what helps you become focused and organized and, most importantly, how to clear your head and avoid stress and burnout.
I have been implementing GTD for about a year now and I still keep finding ways to make this method more convenient and efficient for my use. An up-to-date day planner where I enter the scheduled appointments, the information obtained and next actions is an essential element. This personal organizer enables me to easily reconstruct each day and to prepare for the following meetings much better. Interestingly, with time the method alters your perception and obtaining information that can be later transformed into actions becomes the key purpose of any communication. This is particularly useful when you have a business to run.
Photo: Steven Broom
Another element is the to-do list of current tasks, and GTD offers tips to help you with their classification – from tasks that can be done quickly, such as making a phone call or writing an e-mail, to daily routines, such as shopping for something or doing household chores. Some tasks that require more thought and planning, such as writing this blog post, in which case it may not even qualify as a task but should be filed in my system as a project because a project is defined as a task to be performed in multiple steps, involving collection of information and completion of several successive tasks.
Now for the first time in my life I do not fear forgetting anything. But wherever I may be – at my computer, waiting in a line or in the middle of a forest – I am always able to pull out my phone and find a task that I can do right then and there. It may be a phone call, an e-mail, a banking form to be filled in, an invoice to be paid or a purchase to be made.
I sleep well at night and the day’s pressures are no longer on constantly played back in my brain because everything is neatly tucked into appropriate inboxes and whatever needs to be done has been written down. And suddenly my chakras open and new ideas, previously drowned out by the cacophony of old problems, freely flow into my mind.