This week, in a special episode, I explain why it is important to question your assumptions about how you go about doing your work and achieving your goals.
Hello and welcome to episode 120 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.
Last week, on my YouTube channel, I posted my latest Todoist setup and it sparked quite a lot of questions. In recent months my whole to-do list organisation structure has gone through some radicle changes and that was because when I began my annual systems review last October, I decided not only would I look at how I was organising and managing my work, I would also question my assumptions about how I think a to-do list manager should be organised.
Before I get into explaining my thinking and why I changed my system so radically, I just want remind you that my Productivity Mastermind course on building your own workflows is out now and the early bird discount period will be ending tomorrow (Tuesday).
This course takes you beyond the to-do list manager and into building a custom daily workflow for yourself then ensures you get your most important work done each day and gives you a framework to focus on making daily 1% improvements to the way you do your work and live your life so you are always making progress on your goals and developing the right habits to build the life you want for yourself.
It’s a great course and will transform the way you work today to a more effective way of building on habits and making improvements where you identify you want to make improvements.
Full joining details are in the show notes.
Now, like most people who have read and implemented David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, system, method or best practices (whichever way you want to call it) I bought into the belief there were just two ways to organise my to-dos. By context—people, place or thing—and by project. And for the last eleven years, that's how I have organised my to-dos.
At various times I had up to fifty project folders and well over twenty to thirty different contexts. After all, this was the way to organise things right? I needed a place where I could review all my projects, open loops and tasks.
Now, I guess like most people who have thrown their hats into the GTD ring, you quickly discover that you are spending a lot of time reviewing stuff. There's a quick daily review and there's the massive weekly review--The one or two hours each week where you review everything—On top of that you need to regularly process your inbox (at least every 48 hours) It often felt like I was doing more reviewing than actual doing, which never seemed right to me for a method or system that claimed to help you to “get things done”.
One of the funniest things I have come across are GTD purists telling people if they are not doing a full weekly review each week they are not practising GTD. This completely misses the point. It’s called “Getting Things Done, not “Getting Reviews Done”. The whole point is doing the work, not reviewing the work. That’s just the old proverbial shuffling papers to look busy trick. It doesn't get the work done. It just reorganises work.
Now, of course, knowing what work you have on and where everything is is important, but you should not be spending so much time reviewing stuff either. If you apply a little common sense you would know where a project status is and what needs doing next—or if you are properly engaged with your work you should do.
As I was questioning my assumptions, I began wondering why I needed to organise my lists by projects and contexts. For me contexts have never worked well and since I have been able to do almost all my work on my iPhone as well as a laptop and so in recent years I have pretty much completely stopped using them.
I should point out that I am self-employed and don't work with a team of people, so I’ve never needed a context related to people and as I can do my work from almost anywhere I don't need any place contexts either.
As I analysed how I use a to-do list, I noticed I was creating lists of tasks each day based on my 2+8 Prioritisation method—two objectives and 8 would like to do tasks each day. My routines took care of themselves because they just filtered into my daily list when they were due. So on a day to day basis, it was my Today view that I was looking at. I could not remember the last time I went into a project view. All I wanted to know was what to work on that day and as I did my 2+8 each evening I knew when I began the day what I was going to do anyway.
This led me to ask if I don't use a project view, how would I like to organise my tasks? Every time I looked at this, I kept coming back to the same thing. “When?” When do I need to see a task? And when do I need to do a task?
Every time I kept coming back to this I kept seeing the same problem. When you organise by project you feel obliged to review not do. There was something about reviewing that made it feel I was doing something important, but I was actually doing nothing important at all. I was just shuffling papers so to speak.
There’s a bit of a give away in the title of a to-do list. It’s a “to-do” list, not a to-review list. If I need to review something I can create a task that says “review ABC report progress”.
What happens when I do want to review a project? Well, there always something around related to that project. For me, it’s likely to be a folder in my files. I have a folder for example for all my online courses. Folder contains all my project work.
For example, my recent Productivity Mastermind course began as an idea in my notes app. Over a period of a few weeks, I added more ideas to that note. Eventually, I decided this could make a great course so I began developing an outline in Numbers. It was at this point the course first appeared in my To-do list manager. The task was “continue working on my Productivity Mastermind course outline”.
For the next three or four weeks that task continued to come up. I would allocate it a date, say Wednesday. I would work on the task, and once that period of work was complete, I would change the date on the task and schedule it for another day in the future. The Numbers file stayed in my Numbers iCloud folder. So, even at this stage, there was no dedicated folder for the course. There was a task in my to-do list, a note in my notes app and there was a file in my Numbers folder.
Looking back at this, there was absolutely no reason for me to have a project folder in my to-do list. I only needed one task and I had that. I was not going to forget that task because it was dated, it was current and I was doing a lot of work on the outline. For me to forget about the project, even with all my other work going on at the time, I would need to be suffering from severe amnesia!
Back then, I had an area of focus project called “online courses” in my to-do list and that was where this task was living, but I also realised if I had a folder called “This Week” or “Current” that task would work in there too. And that is when I began considering “timeboxes” or “time folders” for organising my work.
Essentially, what I wanted was to spend less time reviewing and organising and more time doing. Reviewing and organising did not get my work done. All it did was remind me of my commitments and often that just caused anxiety and stress. What I wanted was a system that told me what I wanted to, or needed to, do and when and for the rest of the time get out of my way so I could get on and do the work. When I was doing the work, I was giving myself more time to do the things I wanted to do instead of spending hours in my to-do list manager trying to decide what to do next which meant I was putting myself under unnecessary time pressure.
So from that initial question: how can I speed up my reviewing and processing? I started asking questions like: Do I really need project folders? Do I need areas of focus? And if I did away with these, how would I organise my to-dos? Leaving them in my inbox would just create an overwhelming list of tasks.
Again, I came back to time. I wanted to see my to-dos based on when they needed doing, not what project they were related to. I have project folders, I have a parent folder in my cloud storage called “current” so I have a place where my current projects live. If I want to see the current situation with a project, that’s where I would go. That’s where I have always gone. That tells me the real situation. My to-do list might not be up-to-date. My project folders are always up to date because they are live, they are real.
So after completing this review I had a set of radicle ideas about how I wanted my to-do list to work, the next question was could I really organise things without project folders? Like most people I was wedded to the idea to-do list managers had to be organised by project folders. I could not imagine not having project folders. It was inconceivable, right? I mean how else can a to-do list manager be organised?
It was very hard to get over this thinking. This belief that projects folders were necessary. But the more I looked at it the more I saw this was simply not true. In fact, the more I looked at it the more I realised project folders were slowing me down. They were creating unnecessary anxiety and they were places tasks could disappear and never be seen again until it was too late—or I added some arbitrary date so I did not forget about it making my today list meaningless.
So, I decided to take the plunge. I removed all my project folders in my to-do list manager and replace them with folders related to time. I created six folders. This week, next week, this month, next month and long-term. I also retained my routines as these just had to be done on a specific day so nothing needed to change there.
Now, I have covered this set up on my YouTube channel in both my Apple Reminders video and Todoist. If you want to see these folders in action, head over there. The links are in the show notes.
What happened was something remarkable. By no longer having contexts and projects to think about I didn’t need to waste time thinking about where tasks went or what I needed to complete the task. Instead, all I had to think about was when was I going to do the task; this week, next week, later this month or next month or beyond? This was so liberating! Processing time halved. It was so easy to just have to think about when I wanted to do a task. If I got it wrong it was not a problem because I would see it when I did my next weekly planning session.
And those weekly planning sessions instead of taking 40 to 60 minutes to complete now only took 20 minutes! When I first did it I thought I must have missed something because I have become accustomed to taking about an hour each Sunday afternoon. But no, when I double-checked, I hadn’t missed anything and I had wonderfully planned weeks that occasionally I don’t manage to complete the tasks for the week, but these can easily be rolled over to the following week.
So there you go. That’s why I have changed the way I organise my to-dos. I have finally got away from the false belief that everything must be organised by project or context. That anything involving more than one step must be a project and I need to organise my tasks with next actions and complete a full weekly review every week.
Now I have a system that works for me. And I must stress that. This system works for me. It may not work for you. What I would say is don’t get trapped by the thinking of other people. Don’t always believe that what you read in a book or see in a video or article must be the correct way to do things. It is not. There are always other ways and some of those might be better for you. Robin Sharma advocates waking up at 5AM every morning. I tried that for a year, but as I have coaching calls often at 11PM not finishing until after midnight waking up at 5AM does not work for me. Waking up at 7:00AM does.
Likewise, GTD contexts do not work for me, they never have, yet I spent years thinking I was doing something wrong because I could not get them to work for me. The reality was I was not doing anything wrong, it was the way I had set up my workflows that meant I did not need contexts.
So find your own way, find a way that works for the way you think, the way you work and the way you want to see your tasks presented. Being more productive is not about the system, it is about being able to get your work done in the most efficient and effective way you can so you can spend more of your time doing the things you want to do with the people you want to doing them with.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I hope you got a lot of value from it. Feel free to ask me anything you like either by email email@example.com or by DMing on Facebook or Twitter. And if you want to see this set up in action, head over to my YouTube channel.
It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.