How do you organise all your projects and to-dos? Do you organise by project, context or some other way? Well that’s the question I’ll be answering this week.
Hello and welcome to episode 119 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
This week, I have a well-timed question about how to organise your to-do list manager and your work. Well-timed because I recently I changed the way I organise my to-dos and projects to better reflect the way I work today and I have been getting a lot of questions about this new set up. So, it seems appropriate to answer this question this week.
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Okay, it’s time for me now to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.
This week’s question comes from Anna. Anna asks, Hi Carl, I’m really struggling to find the best way to organise my projects and to-dos. I’ve read Getting Things Done and I think I understand it, but I am confused about how to organise my projects. Can you help?
Hi Anna, firstly, thank you for your question. I find this is a very common question for a lot of people who have read Getting Things Done (GTD) because David Allen intentionally left how to structure your stuff vague. I say “intentionally” because David understands we are all different and we all have different ways of thinking and organising our stuff.
That said, I feel there is a problem with the way people follow the GTD book and that is what I call the “because David Allen says…” problem. This is where a person takes everything written in the GTD book literally and tries to build the ‘perfect’ GTD system. You see the thing is, the ‘perfect’ GTD system does not exist. It can’t exist because machines are not operating GTD. Humans are and we have emotions, variable energy levels and are prone to be distracted from the work that we want to or should be getting done.
If you have read the most recent version of GTD, the 2015 version, you would still need to go out and buy yourself a load of file folders, a labelling machine and a set of drawers to keep your project files in to follow the book. In reality, I’ve not needed any of those things for around eight or nine years. I went completely paperless three years ago and even had a small ceremony to celebrate when I threw my printer away.
This is one of the reasons I developed COD three or four years ago. COD stands for Collect Organise and Do and takes the core, fundamentals of GTD—the capturing and the organising and simplifies it so you can create your own way of managing your commitments and work.
If you step back and think about what a good productivity system needs to do for you it needs to give you a simple and fast way to collect your stuff—your ideas, your to-dos and your commitments. It needs an ‘easy to find stuff’ organisation system and it needs to get out of the way so you can spend the majority of your time getting your work done. The more time you spend in your system organising, tweaking and searching for stuff, the less time you have to do the work that needs doing.
So COD is all about maximising the time you have available to do your work and minimising the time needed to organise your stuff. Essentially, COD is all about maximising your ‘doing’ time.
So what is the best way to organise your work?
Like most people who have read a lot of time management books over the years, I got caught up in believing the only way to organise my work was by project. This meant the best way to organise things was to create the same project folders in my notes app, my to-do list manager and my files on my computer. Then, when a new idea, commitment or task came in all I had to do was decide what something was and what project it belonged to.
Sounds simple yes? The problem is a lot of the stuff we collect each day does not neatly fit into specific projects. So we have to create new projects or have a single actions folder for all those unspecified (or I can’t decide where it goes) tasks, ideas and commitments. Pretty soon you find you have a huge list of projects (and sub-projects) that now need a lot of reviewing just to stay on top of. When you are reviewing you are not doing and so now you may have captured everything, but you have a lot less time to do your work because all that captured stuff needs managing.
So what is the best way to organise everything?
When I did my annual systems review last year, I realised organising all my stuff by project was not working effectively. I also realised that GTD contexts no longer worked for me. I rarely ever looked at a context list and I was not working from any particular project view. I worked from my daily list of tasks and my calendar. My calendar told me where I needed to be and when and my to-do list told me what tasks I wanted to get done that day. When looked at that way, I saw a much simpler way of organising my work. By time.
What I mean by organising by time is all the work you have needs to be done by a particular time. Some tasks are more time-sensitive than others. For example, if a client asks you to send them a document by the end of the day, then that task is more time-sensitive than cleaning your living room. Both are tasks that need doing, but one needs doing urgently—ie today, while the other may be nice to do today, but it could just as easily be done tomorrow or at the weekend or even next week.
If you organise your work by time—when a task needs to be done—then after collecting the task the only decision you need to make is when are you going to do that task? There may be other decisions like how much time will you need to complete this task? But essentially even with that knowledge what you really need to decide is when are you going to have time to do the task?
This led me to realise project folders were not always helpful. In fact, project folders often created several problems. The first one was that it was easy to throw a task into a project folder and forget about it therefore run the risk you would miss the deadline or only discover the task again when the deadline was imminent. To overcome this risk, you had to add a date. Okay, that’s fine. But what about a task that was not particularly time-sensitive or urgent. In that case, you added an arbitrary date for sometime in the future only to find on the date you gave it you had a lot of other tasks and so it had to be rescheduled.
This can happen to a lot of these tasks so your daily to-do list is no longer a to-do list for that day, it becomes a hope to do list. Hope to do lists are useless. There’s no motivation to do the tasks and you spend too much time rescheduling and feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks.
With all these rescheduled tasks being given new dates it creates a vicious circle. There is no end to non-essential tasks coming at you every day and your daily to-do list keeps growing and becoming more overwhelming and stressful by the day.
So what is the solution?
Organise your tasks by time.
What I mean by this is you really only need six folders in your to-do list manager. These are:
When you organise by time in this way the only decisions you need to make are when will you do your tasks? For example, if I am given a task that needs to be completed by Friday all I have to do add a date for when I will do the task (probably Thursday) and drop it in my “this week” folder. If I have a task that does not need doing until next week or later this month, then I can drop it into my “next week” or “this month” folder. I don’t need to add a date at this stage because I can decide when I will do it when I do my weekly planning session at the end of the week.
Processing your inbox becomes easy. You no longer have to think about what project a task belongs to and when you will do it, you only have to decide when you will do a task. You do not have to create more and more projects (in GTD a project is anything that requires more than one task to complete which can result in a huge list of projects).
Now, as long as you do at least a weekly planning session each week, which with this method does not require a lot of time—you really only need to pull forward your next week’s tasks to this week’s tasks and review your this month folder—you will be ensuring you don’t miss anything important and you will be hitting your deadlines.
Now for this way of organising your tasks to work you do need to have a paradigm shift in your thinking. For anyone who has read books and articles on organising your to-dos you will have a belief that you should organise your work by project. For this time-based way to organise your work, you will need to start thinking about when you will do your tasks rather than what a task is connected to. It can be hard to shift your thinking, but when you do, you will have a system that is easy to manage, simple to keep on top of and will allow you more time to get on and do the work instead of organising your work.
Recently, on my YouTube channel, I have posted a couple of videos showing how to implement this system using Todoist and Apple Reminders. In future videos, I will show how to implement it using other to-do list apps so if you want to see this way of organising your to-dos in action, then head over to my YouTube channel. The link for which is in the show notes.
Thank you, Anna for your question. The real answer to your question is to choose a way to organise your tasks that works for you. What might work for David Allen, me or anyone else, may not necessarily work for you. What’s important is the way you organise must work for the way you work.
I hope this answer has helped you.
Thank you also to all of you for listening. Don’t forget, if you have a question you would like answering, all you have to do is email me at email@example.com or DM me on Twitter or Facebook. All the links are in the show notes.
It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.