Getting the Right Things Done

Posted on April 08, 2014.

Getting the Right Things Done

You have to love David Allen and Getting Things Done (GTD), right? A philosophy that helps you narrow the list of things that you're looking at so you're (supposedly) only looking at the list of things that you're (supposedly) going to do.

Have you ever looked at the length of your To Do list and been put off simply by the sheer number of items on the list? It saps the very will to do out of your life, right? We all have so many "things to do" or as I call it our "Have To Do" lists. Part of the problem is "how did so many things end up on our list in the first place?"

Sometimes they're there because you thought they were important and never thought to check whether they were still important. Let's call them "left-overs." Ditch the left-overs. Purge them from every level of your system. But usually it's because people are so busy trying to understand the GTD as an organizational system that they overlook the subcontext -- the idea that you have to truly look at this list from the higher points of view of goals, values, etc. so that you remove everything "not worth doing" from the list.

Both David Allen and Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) cover this top-down view -- with Covey doing a lot more work on the top-down, and most people only paying attention to Allen's bottom-up technical approach. People love gadgets, they think this system is a quick fix -- that they won't have the hard work of actually thinking ABOUT what to do -- just show me what to do, I'll go do it.

But no, as they pile up all these things — sans good habits — it becomes more and more difficult. Overwhelming. And if you try to blend habits with things to do you can get a headache trying to make paper or tech tools work within the limitations of both systems. Here's something to do differently:

Change your "(Have) To Do" list into a "Want To Do" list -- and if you can't maybe these "things" you're trying to build "habits" to "get done" are going to go in the round bin. Face it, there's only so many things we can try so hard to do and get done, no matter how many effective people's habits we try to incorporate into our lives. You have to apply a new effective habit to the list of things to get done.

You build a "Want To Do" list. Follow your why. WHY are you doing it? The why is shorthand for saying "How SACRED is this to you?"

SACRED is this acronym we came up with, and we're rather fond of. We created it specifically to battle the overwhelming burden of the SMART goal -- while still being SMART-compatible if you absolutely must insist -- it means:

Find a way to find a goal fulfilling -- this is an important part of your Why, and helps change "Have To"s into "Want To"s. You can fake reasons as long as you actually can feel it.
A in SMART is Achievable -- Otherwise, why bother? But wait -- it's not that it always has to be achievable -- you can recognize a goal where the process is of value such as a goal to move towards "energy independence" -- maybe you consciously decide that it may not ever be 100% achievable but it's still a worthwhile journey to try -- it's an adventure, not a destination. Not all worthy goals are deadline-compatible. To keep these types of goals SMART, pick shorter-term mileposts and deadlines to measure against, but really try to keep your eye on the prize and keep the passion, don't beat yourself up about missing a milepost or deadline.
Brainstorm new ways to achieve the goal: game, music, songs, dance, play... Why do it the same old way? Try to shake it up and make it yours.
When the goal itself is rewarding, then you spend less energy fighting it. If you put the end reward into the "To Do" it's more likely you'll get it done!
Ever have a goal that woke you up every morning and you couldn't wait to get out of bed and get back to working on it? That's what you're looking for. Something that wraps you so tightly in its presence in your life that you forgot to have your coffee in the morning.
Not draining. It should have its own power. Shouldn't every goal have so much pull that it drags you in -- willingly?

Not all goals are 100% SACRED, but it's a much better direction to aim in than simply aiming for something being SMART. Fancy if a goal were both?

How do we make a goal or project SACRED?

Although oversimplified, the quickest way is to start to change your goal from using obligation language to using passion/desire language. There's more you can do — but this can immediately lighten the burden.

Obligation words:

  • must
  • should
  • have to
  • need
  • have got to (gotta)

Passion words:

  • want
  • desire
  • love to
  • like to
  • looking forward to

So you might have a project of "Finish son's science fair project" (whether or not it's written into any system; it may be in your head) and a To Do list task of "buy project board" scheduled for Thursday afternoon (again, whether mental or on a list) with a context of @errands or @Staples. There's hidden words in here of "I have to". This is our norm in society. The "to do" list is really the "have to do" list. The obligation is understood. And it's not exciting at all.

How can we tell it's the hidden word on the list pad? If you add "Have" in front of "To Do" it doesn't really change anything.

So instead, write the word Want in front of To Do on a list pad. Or in a notebook, bullet journal, etc. "Want To Do". Now how do you feel about this list?

Taking the project example above, let's rewrite the project whether in our head or on paper.

Project (I want to…) help my son complete his science fair project.Tasks (I want to…) buy the project board Thursday.

For us, this is less of a burden. How about you? Now, we have particular baggage with "wanting" things, and if that word is a turn-off or trigger, find another. For example, you could have a "would like to do list". You've probably been procrastinating the items anyway, so why lie to yourself that you must do them when the fact is you'd like to do them, and it may well be beneficial.

Project (I want to…) help my son complete science fair project for a memorable experience. Tasks (I want to…) buy the project board Thursday so we have it to work on over the weekend.

So first ask if you should even consider having something on a list in the first place, then try to make it so powerful it has a life of its own. You might have to massage it, reword it, remind yourself of what the real effect of all those droll boring tasks is going to be. The whole reason GTD has you group tasks under projects under goals is so that you don't lose sight of the SACREDness of the actions (Value: Family -> Goal: Build Lasting Memories with Son -> Project: Help son with science fair project -> task: buy project board by Thursday.) -- but not enough stress is placed on keeping the fire and passion in the list.

There's so much time and energy spent on HOW to list, how to shuffle papers between folders or tagging items in a to-do system, that we lose sight of the Getting the Right Things Done and bogged down in the energy-draining details of how to track the items over how to make sure they are worthy of being tracked in the first place.

How does it feel if you change your To Do list into a Want To Do list?

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