How To Get Sh*t Done
Originally published October 2018
You know what makes me feel good? Getting shit DONE. And in my experience, the more work there is to do, the more work I will finish; an argument which is 100% legitimate because I can quote Benjamin Franklin in support. By the way, the man wasn’t just an inventor and supplier of pithy sayings, he was obsessed with productivity and time management, and much can be learned from his systems. Anyway! You can read all about his genius ideas later, for now, let’s focus on some of my brilliant solutions.
Labeling and Sorting
As much as I hated my old job, I did learn quite a bit. Working in that super-corporate environment, with all its departments and hierarchies and hundreds of employees, was a trial-by-fire productivity school.
When I first began, I was a “permalancer” and the only other member of a two-person Creative Services group. I worked on presentations for employees throughout the entire firm, in addition to producing monthly and quarterly factsheets, brochures and ad hoc sales sheets. One day my entire 12-foot span of L-shaped desk space was hidden beneath piles of presentations to start or edit; pages and pages of handwritten number updates and word changes — that was the start of my productivity hacking career.
I needed to come up with a system that was quick, lo-fi and effective. Nearly all of the projects coming in had deadlines either within a few hours or a few days, so there wasn’t a lot of time to plan, nor funding for some fancy schmancy project management tool. Post-its and markers are what I settled on, and my system was born. I labeled each project a single sticky noting the contact person and deadline, then spread them all out in the order in which they were due. I realize this probably sounds ridiculously simple and underwhelming, but it worked.
To illustrate more clearly ‘why’ it worked: if you are not organized, you will be overwhelmed, and if you are overwhelmed, you are going to miss deadlines — and being organized means KNOWING PRECISELY WHAT YOU ARE WORKING ON AND WHEN IT IS DUE. It is infinitely easier to sit down to work when you are fully aware of all the details from the start than to be fumbling around for the answers as you go. By employing that ridiculously simple process of ‘labeling’ and then ‘ordering’ each project in a neat row to my right [the long side of my desk], I had a complete picture of what I needed to accomplish and knew exactly what required my attention and when. And then bam! bam! bam! I’d grab the assignment due first, get it done, put it to my left, grab the next, get it done, put it to my left, and so on and so on until I ran through that entire line of work.
A major contributor to this model’s success was the ability not only to monitor what I had left to do but what I had already done — the accomplishments. I placed each project I finished in a pile on the opposite side of those still left to work on, and so I was able to register progress quickly. Eventually, the ‘done’ pile was huge, and even if I still had 20 jobs left to work on, I already felt good because I had physical evidence demonstrating my efforts. That evidence motivated me to keep going, keep working, keep building the pile; I was an accomplishment machine.
As the years went by and my workload became increasingly digital, my process evolved and adjusted to satisfy the new circumstances. Instead of labeling hard copy assignments, I would write down my tasks as they came in, arriving via new fancy schmancy project management software, email or phone. Whenever there was something ‘to do,’ I would take the Post-it naming the task and place it on my desk to the left of my keyboard. As I completed each item, I would then move the Post-it to my right. This process was both like a paper version of an inbox/outbox system and an analog “Trello board” (more on that in a minute). Each Post-it included not only the specific task but the date it was due. Again, my DIY solution provided a quick read of what required my attention next, and how much work I had already done.
I mentioned this system was much like a “Trello board,” which I didn’t even know was a thing until a few years after I started this practice and then read about it on Lifehacker. Trello is a web-based project management system that organizes items into the following buckets ‘To Do,’ ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’ — sound familiar??
Here are some ways I’ve enhanced the task board system over the last few years:
Color. Use color to identify categories or indicate priority. Hallelujah, my beloved Post-its come in a bajillion hues and can assist with this enhancement. Organizing ideas by color is quick and convenient and also makes a workspace feel cheerful. I can use one color for labor-intensive tasks, another for quick and easy items, and yet another for personal errands I need to complete.
Micro breakdowns. Take a big ‘to do’ and break it down into many little ‘to-dos.’ For example every week I send an email to my subscriber list. I could just write ‘WEEKLY EMAIL,’ along with the date of the upcoming blast, but that would be dismissive of all the little things I need to do to send that weekly email. I might feel unnecessarily overwhelmed just looking at a note reminding me of such a big task. Subconsciously I would register all of the little things involved in completing that one thing. In turn, I may result in procrastination. The solution to this struggle is to list each little thing on individual Post-its. In the example of my weekly email, my one big task would become six: 1) create new Mailchimp campaign, 2) write body copy, 3) create email-specific images for links (each image could be broken down as it’s own task btw), 4) proof links and copy, 5) send test email, 6) schedule the send. It is much easier to start and finish a bunch of little things than one big thing, not only because it’s less overwhelming, but because it increases the payoff. Upon completion of my email blast, I would have six accomplishments instead of just one, and that feels pretty good.
Limbo area. My limbo area is a melting pot of things I need to remember: phone numbers, hex color codes, inspiring quotes and whatever else isn’t time sensitive. At times it also serves as a space for big projects or ideas coming in the future, as a means of keeping them in sight and mind while I work on other items with specific deadlines. It can also be an area for posting things that always need to be done, like taking medication regularly, calling your mom every week or watering the plants
The Five-Minute Rule
The five-minute rule involves doing the thing that takes the least amount of time FIRST; another solution based on maintaining momentum and the benefit of racking up accomplishments.
As the years went by at my old firm, the deadlines got smaller, but the work got bigger. Internal clients would visit our room to negotiate when their assignments would be started; one of those clients was a marketing guy who had just read some book about being more productive, and he attempted to use his new wisdom to coerce us into starting his job first. His reasoning was this: it will only take five minutes! According to his book, something quick makes the most sense to work on first because it’s the easiest thing to complete. Someone gave in, grabbed his “five-minuter” and off he went.
Once he left the room, there was some discussion about the theory, some laughter at his expense, and then the argument was quickly dismissed by most — but I held onto that moment. I can’t remember if I was the one who wound up doing the “five-minuter” or if I was the lucky recipient of other forthcoming “five-minuters,” but it doesn’t really matter. Experiencing the benefit of doing the small, quick thing first, resulted in the five-minute rule becoming a regular part of my productivity toolbox.
Many people scoff at this approach, most often in the face of projects with extremely time-sensitive deadlines. They argue that if something is due in an hour, it wastes time to work on something small beforehand. But much like a single large task is overwhelming, so too is a single task that is due RIGHT AWAY. The stress! Now imagine how you would feel if, instead of giving in to the pressure and agony of rushing, you tackled the “five-minuter” and got the endorphin surge of accomplishment? Better right?
Not only does this approach work to boost your confidence and good-feeling hormones, it works as a trick to break a cycle of procrastination. Much like reverse psychology, telling yourself “I’m only going to work on this for five minutes!” is an easy way to get started because it lowers the expectations and subsequently, the amount of pressure you place on yourself. I am a gold-medal procrastinator and there’s nothing more daunting than getting started. Becoming productive after any period of inactivity requires an incredible amount of effort; just as in physics: a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Setting a small goal like five minutes is an easy method of motivation.
Developing task systems and learning how to manage my time has allowed me to accomplish more than I ever thought possible. I still surprise myself with how many things I’m able to juggle at once. This is not to say I never drop the ball, but it’s much less frequent than say, 15 years ago. I fill my days with broken down tasks, track each of my ideas and errands, thoughts and projects, and all because I expand my production “toolbox” to meet the increasing scope of my work. It is possible to get it all done, you just need a system!