Getting stuff done: how to organize tasks and stay focused

This is the second post in my series on getting organized. Today we’re focusing on how to prioritize tasks and stay focused until they’re finished.

#1 Use a system that reminds you

I’m a huge fan of Getting Things Done (GTD). To get a feel for the concept behind todoappsGTD, ask yourself, “Does my brain consistently remind me what I need to do when and where I need to do them?” If so, that’s awesome. If you’re like me, you remember that you needed to buy milk while you’re in the shower instead of at the grocery store.

So, this leads to the idea that you need a reliable system to keep track of, and remind you about, the things you need to do.

highly recommend digital to-do lists like Wunderlist or Asana, but if a handwritten list works better for you, check out the Bullet Journal Format or Franklin Covey (a time-tested planner system).

#2 Identify all the things you need to do

Do an initial brain dump of every single thing you can think of that you need to do. The initial brain dump could take a LONG time depending on how many ideas and responsibilities you have.  Once you’ve done this you’ll probably feel overwhelmed, so…

#3 Prioritize all the things

Now that you have this monstrous list of things, use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle to figure out what to do now, soon, later or never.

Basically, you organize your tasks into four buckets:

  1. The important and urgent things.Urgent/Important Priorities
    • Ask, “Is this really as urgent as it seems?” If so ask, “What is the quickest way I can get this off my plate?”
    • This may mean delegating or getting it to a “good enough” place so you can focus on #2.
  2. Important but not urgent things.
    • This is where you want to focus most of your energy.
    • These are activities that help you achieve your goals.
    • Ask, “What other things do I need to say ‘no’ to so I can make this happen?”
  3. Urgent, but not important.
    • Avoid these whenever possible. They easily absorb the time and energy you need for #2.
    • Ask yourself, “Is this really as urgent as it seems?”
  4. Not important and not urgent.
    • Ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?”
    • If the activity is to help you destress/unwind, ask yourself, “Does this activity actually refresh me?” If not, try something new until you find activities that bring more energy to your life.

Other questions to help prioritize

  • Ask, “what will happen if I don’t do this?”
    • When I was a project manager I would often prioritize tasks that would lead to a lot of interruptions if I didn’t get them done first.
  • Ask, “What’s one thing I can do right now to make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

#4 Focus on the important things

Once you’ve prioritized what’s important it requires discipline to actually accomplish the important things.

Say “no”

One of the most important actions you can take that will help you stay focused is saying “no.” By making intentional decisions on where you invest your time and energy you can make progress toward the things that are truly important to you.

Get started; Decrease procrastination

I haven’t found the magic potion to eliminate procrastination, but here’s how I deal when I have an activity that I’m avoiding:

  • Be a “productive procrastinator.” I’ll knock off all the easy/little tasks that I pomodorocan find. These are often from buckets #1 and #3 (see above). This ends up freeing up mental space so I can focus.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique which alternates 25 minutes of focus with breaks. I can typically find motivation to focus for 20-25 minutes. And then after the first break I’ve normally found a groove that gets me to keep going. I use the Block & Flow iPhone app.

Stay on task

The things that help you stay on task will be unique to you. Ask yourself, “What distracts me? What are some creative ways I can combat that distraction?” Here are some of the things I do that work for me:

  • Keep my phone on vibrate and limit the number of apps that send me notifications
  • Work in quiet space or use earplugs
  • Do the “heavy lifting” when I first wake up before I talk to anyone. This is my peak performance time. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is different. To find your peak time ask yourself, “What time during the day do I feel the most effective/productive?”
  • Rewarding myself after I complete big things. (Frozen yogurt!)
  • Have a post-it note with a short list of my current priorities in the order I need to complete them.
  • If I keep thinking of other things I need to do, I do a brain dump of all the things so I can add it to my to-do app and get it off my mind.

#5 Stop keeping tasks in your mind

Instead, when you think of a task, add it to your list. Keeping all your tasks out of your head creates space to think about new ideas and to focus on the thing you’re doing right now.

Check out the rest of this series

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