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Matt Wilcox

Musing

Nov 09th 2014

Getting Things Done

My mental to-do list has grown out of control, so I've changed a few things to help get stuff done.

I have often had a problem getting the things I want to do done. My first problem is one of choice; I want to do a lot of things and there's a paralysis that sets in when there are too many options (someone wrote a book about it called The Paradox of Choice). While I've got a lot of interests to explore, books to read, potential projects to complete, etc… few ever seem to get done because I waste a lot of time trying to decide which I 'should' do next. It's at that point where a second problem rears its head: Analysis Paralysis – this is where a problem is broken down so much that it becomes overwhelming. In trying to decide what I 'should' do next I get lost analyzing the choices, waste time, and lose motivation.

Not any more. I've changed three things over the last few weeks and so far they're working well for me.

To Do Lists

Firstly; I spent an evening doing a brain-dump and put all that stuff into to-do lists. Specifically I've chosen OmniFocus to manage this, but it wouldn't really matter how I did it. The point is, I've now got a large bunch of 'things' out of my brain so I'm not worrying about them and don't end up forgetting them. I've also broken each down into steps that would be needed to get the larger task accomplished. I now have a list of all my goals and an outline for what each requires, broken into in manageable chunks I can tick-off as I go.

Benefit: My mind is free to do things other than worry about what I want to do – I can just check the list. By ticking off the smaller items I get to see that progress is being made on the larger goals, which keeps my motivation up.

Getting up earlier

Secondly; I am getting up two hours earlier every work day and allotting that time exclusively to things on my to-do list. As I now live right next to where I work, my daily commute is less than ten minutes, and I was using much of that time for sleeping. Not now. Getting up at 6am gives me time for my morning rituals plus an additional 2hrs per work-day, which are dedicated to those to-do lists. That works out as 10hrs per week, 40hrs per month, or 480hrs per year. 480hrs is a lot of time to claw back from nowhere (20 full days in fact).

Sure, I now need to go to sleep a little earlier, but I never could get anything done in an evening anyway – so, post work is now dedicated relax time. That frees me up from any guilt over 'trying to decide what productive thing to do' in an evening. New choice: do nothing 'productive' in an evening. I was hardly ever in a good frame of mind and usually too tired for anything requiring concentration anyway. Turns out I'm doing a lot better by working early rather than late.

Result: my evenings are guilt free relaxing time, and I've got 20days worth of 'new' time to work on my projects each year.

Setting a schedule

Thirdly; I set a schedule for my week-day mornings. OmniFocus lets me specify due-dates per task, and tasks can be set to automatically repeat in a given duration. I've got half of my projects 'on hold' as they are lower priority, and from the other half I've assigned tasks to specific days of the week in one-hour chunks. So Monday morning for example, I've got an hour reading about networking systems from my Linux System Administrators Handbook, and an hour reading about Japan from my book about Japanese culture. Each day is different, and in this way I get to make noticeable dents in a number of bigger tasks without having choice blindness or analysis paralysis.

Once per week I review the complete set of to-do lists and make changes accordingly at that time.

Result: I waste no time considering which project to try tackling, it's already planned out. I get a week of productive action and only at the end do I review if I ought to make changes.

In conclusion

I'm finally getting stuff done. Not everything I want to do fits into this particular set-up though; I can't go sawing or hammering wood at 6am for example. But, I'm in a much better state of mind with it all, progress is being made, and I'm looking forward to this continuing. Next up is trying to find an additional hour or two in an evening once a week to get some of that woodwork done.