This is an article by guest writer Lawrence Cheok of A Long Long Road.
I remember those nights when I tossed about in bed, unable to sleep because I couldn’t get my mind off my work. Work-related stress is increasingly affecting more knowledge workers as we get overwhelmed in trying to cope with huge amount of work demands.
According to David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, one of the reasons that so much “stuff” is on your mind is because you have not processed and organized these loose ends in a manner that you trust. As such, they continue to occupy your mind, bugging you.
In my opinion, with too much of these loose ends in your head and no way to offload them, it gets overwhelming and stress kicks in — the same cause of my insomnia. I feel like there are a lot of open items that require my attention, but I haven’t really gotten around to them yet.
From experience, practicing David’s Getting Things Done method facilitates clarity of thought, which directs my daily actions to getting things done. The increase in productivity alleviates stress, helps me in focusing on key issues and enables me to live in the moment.
The following are some common sense tips based on Getting Things Done to help you increase your productivity and have a stress-free life:
1. Think About Your “Stuff”
A knowledge worker is paid to think. However, thinking actually takes conscious effort. How often have you opened a piece of mail, read it and left it on the desk, piling up — simply because you didn’t take the effort to think about the specific required follow-up actions?
When I say ‘think’, it’s a literal and conscious effort to define the “stuff” at hand. Do you need to act on it? If yes, do it now or later? If later, how can you be reminded? Do you want to keep it for reference? If yes, where to file it?
You see, that’s quite a bit of thinking required just to handle a simple item. The fact is that many people don’t have the habit of thinking about incoming items right away. As such, they leave stuff lying around and accumulate clutter.
Develop the good habit of consciously thinking about each item or issue that comes into your life. Determine there and then what is the desired outcome and action that is required. Once a decision is made, record the required action as a to-do item or calendar appointment so that you offload it externally.
Offloading allows you to temporarily forget about it until the point in time when you have a chance to act on it. This clears your mind to focus on new upcoming “stuff”.
2. Remove Clutter
To be productive, you must be able to focus on the task at hand without distractions. At the same time, you must have easy access to the required tools and information. The way to achieve this is to create a clean and clear working environment so that only information relevant to the task at hand is present.
Have you ever been in a situation where you needed some information to complete a task but you simply couldn’t find it because it was lost in the stack of clutter lying on your desk? Instead of focusing on the task at hand, your attention and energy are diverted into finding the information you need. Sometimes, because you can’t find the needed information, you put off the task — unnecessarily adding to your to-do list. This is a great waste of time and energy and encourages further buildup of clutter.
I have learned that the best way to reduce clutter is not to let it build up in the first place:
- Make it a point to keep your work environment clear of unnecessary things.
- Use the act-file-delete principle (see below); clear your e-mail inbox and physical inbox every day.
- Maintain a physical and electronic filing system. This applies to things that you don’t immediately need, but have future reference value. The filing system ensures you can easily retrieve information when you need it.
3. Handle Mail by Act-File-Delete
How often have you read an incoming e-mail message and left it in the inbox, thinking that you would come back to it later but never did? Such approach is one common cause of clutter buildup. The best way to clear your inbox is to follow the principle of Act-File-Delete. It’s a conscious decision-making process for each message that you open:
- If you can act on it immediately and it will not take you more than a few minutes, do it now. It can be something as simple as looking up some information and typing a few sentences as a reply. Those few minutes will allow you to quickly cross one item off your to-do list. Rather than allowing these minor tasks to accumulate and weigh on your mind, you finish them quickly and never have to bother about them anymore. The sense of clarity and freedom that this simple strategy brings is often understated.
- Another common scenario I face is coming across an article or paper that I find interesting, but it is too long to read at the moment of clearing my inbox. As such, I leave it there and forget to come back to it. Over time, these “to-read” materials accumulate and become clutter. If the mail doesn’t require your action but you still want to refer to it in the future, file it immediately so you can easily find it later (see point on filing system).
- If the mail is purely for information and no action is required on your part, simply read it and delete it. Some people hate to delete or throw away stuff; they think “what if I need this later?” If you’re not sure, just make sure you file it. Don’t leave it there and accumulate clutter.
4. Develop A "Done It Once" Mentality
A common challenge I face with implementing the act-file-delete principle is that I have a tendency to procrastinate. Having to act or file immediately on each mail is quite daunting sometimes. There’s this nagging thought that says that I can always do it later. Yet, from my own experience, I know that ‘later’ often means ‘never’.
Some productivity gurus advocate the “done it once” mentality. It simply means processing each incoming item only once so that you never have to waste time handling it again. When you procrastinate and don’t act-file-delete immediately, you’ll have to read the mail a second time before you can act on it: waste of time. In addition, more often than not, there’s a chance that you will forget about it, adding additional clutter to your inboxes.
Nowadays, when my tendency to procrastinate kicks in, I summon up the slogan "done it once". At first, I drag myself to act on the task, but once the action gets started, things just continue easily from there. When it comes to fighting procrastination, getting started is usually the toughest part: once you do it, the rest becomes very easy.
5. Use a Filing System
Another key to productivity is to have a systematic way of filing so that you can easily retrieve information when you need it. I remember I once had to fill in some credit application forms that required my income tax details: because I couldn’t find my income tax statements, I procrastinated and the forms were left there in my inbox for months.
Set up a filing system by having folders and storage for different types of information:
- Decide upfront the types of information that you want to file and reference back later.
- Label the folders clearly so that there’s no ambiguity.
- Stock up on filing stationery so that it is easy to file your documents.
6. Focus on One Task at a Time
In this age when multi-tasking is the buzzword at work, many are tricked into believing that we are more effective when we try to do many things at once. From my experience, that’s bunk.
The fact is that the brain works best when it’s focused on one task at a time. To perform a task, the brain has to retrieve relevant knowledge; information to help you act. When you switch between tasks, it introduces “processing overhead”, as it has to adjust to different contexts required by different tasks.
For example, I think that the e-mail alert is one of the worst enemies of personal productivity: it’s that little box that pops up in the corner of your desktop whenever a new incoming e-mail arrives. It’s surely an attention-grabber: I used to stop whatever I was doing and switch to reading the new e-mails. In doing so, my train of thought was broken. After reading the e-mail and acting on it, I needed some time to switch my context back into the previous task.
I have disabled the e-mail alert. Nowadays, I have learned to focus all my attention on the task at hand. Consciously, I refuse to get distracted by other thoughts or external events until the task at hand is completed.
Believe it or not, this single-minded concentration alone has increased my productivity a whole lot.
I have experienced first hand the differences that increased productivity can make in leading a balanced and stress-free life.
Getting things done eliminates worries. These simple tips help you act on things that need to be done, file away things that need to be addressed later and removes clutter that only serves to overwhelm you.
These are small daily actions that add up to make a whole lot of difference to your life. From my experience, it takes a while to develop these habits and attitude, but it’s not hard. Try these tips out for 2 to 3 days and feel the difference yourself — it’s a very rewarding feeling that once experienced will provide a very strong impetus for you to try it further and develop into a habit.
I wish you luck in developing these good habits and leading a stress-free life.
About Lawrence Cheok:
Lawrence Cheok writes about living a balanced life and provides tips to improve your career, relationships and money at A Long Long Road. Other than writing, Lawrence does business development and project management in his day job.