Getting More Done

This article is a guest post by Ray Sidney-Smith. Ray is a productivity technology consultant, trainer and presenter at [email protected].  He is a fellow Evernote Certified Consultant and is an Evernote Regional Leader for North America. Ray is a Google Small Business Advisor for Productivity, Trello Leader – Washington D.C. Trello Events, and Hootsuite Global Brand Ambassador. Ray produces three podcasts: ProdPodProductivityCast, and Productivity Book Group.

I’m delighted to be back on Dr. Buck’s blog to continue this conversation about Evernote. The last time I wrote in A Workday in My Life with Evernote, I walked you through my morning, midday and evening, with examples of how I used various features of Evernote to get things done. For this post, I thought I’d give a “brief” overview of my new, albeit 20-years-in-the-making personal productivity framework, Getting More Done, and how I get more done at work using Evernote.

Getting More Done, in Brief

Operating from the Center

Getting More Done is a values-driven personal productivity framework for getting more done in life and at work. At its core, it’s not about managing one-time projects and actions, but about the fundamental and ongoing routines we manage that make up most of our personal and working lives. In that way, personal productivity methodologies, such as Getting Things Done (or, GTD), Personal Kanban, and even Bullet Journal, work alongside Getting More Done (GMD); GMD is mutually inclusive to other approaches, principles, strategies and techniques that don’t specifically contravene the framework. Akin to Bruce Lee’s martial art, Jeet Kune Do, GMD takes what works from the research and time-tested practices, and leaves the rest behind. I will explain the primary foundation of GMD and its four tenets of practice, before we get into how Evernote and similar tools can facilitate implementation of your personal productivity system.

At its core, Getting More Done is a framework for operating productively from the center as opposed to from the top or bottom. The top-down approach is the focus on your purpose, vision and/or mission; the “if you believe it, then it will happen” or “think big and take massive actions” thinking of many great thinkers. The bottom-up approach is identifying granular, physical actions to achieve your unique goal (or project). Neither of these are trivial in Getting More Done, but, in my view, represents a much smaller body of productive output in life.

So, what represents the largest body of your productive life? These are the things in the center—what areas of your life you plan to maintain, are held responsible for, and want to improve? Like the hub and spoke of a tire, these individual compartments of life, or “Life Categories,” are stronger together by providing flexibility, distribution of stress, and balance to your operations. Not all Life Categories (which have been called different things over time—Bagua, Wheel of Life, Four Intelligences, and Areas of Focus and Accountability) are equal allotments of your time nor should they be. Life-work balance is a series of weighted percentages you choose based on your circumstances, needs and wants.

Exploring Your Life Categories

While there are many ways you can come to defining the parts of your life, I believe one must divide and conquer to get more done. Don’t look at life as one big blob. It’s dynamic and multifaceted. This is where identifying each Life Category becomes important. So, how do you decide on breaking up your life into its vital parts?

Getting More Done

For me, I started with the Bagua (an example is pictured above) and then modified it until I had all the parts of my life outlined. Here’s a sample Life Categories note you can use to start. I highly recommend that you personalize (and simplify where possible) to make your Life Categories your own.

Getting More Done

The simplest set of Life Categories can be Home and Work, or Personal and Professional. This bipartite view tends not to be granular enough for most people. At the same time, if you have 20 or more Life Categories, perhaps some simplification is needed. This is not a project-by-project division of your life and work. It’s higher-level than that. I find most people land on between 8 to 15 Life Categories. Feel free to share your Life Categories in the comments, so others can see the diversity available.

Once you determine your Life Categories, next comes the four tenets of your ongoing Getting More Done practice: 

  • focus – different than mental attention, in this context, this is the decision to prioritize one routine over others to achieve mastery,
  • routine – habitual behaviors connected together,
  • accountability – finding the right type and amount of personal or social motivation, and 
  • taking action – organizing the rest of your life around your routines. 

Each of these domains requires and represents some level of study, practice and performance which overlap one another at each stage and phase of your life and work experiences. The most important thing to remember is that you need each of these daily in pursuit of getting more done. I’ll explain these four tenets more below as I show you how I use Evernote in partnership with Getting More Done to do just that.

Focus, Routines, Accountability and Taking Action

Focus

So often, at work (and personal) life, we have too many competing priorities and not enough focused direction. We take a lot of steps in many different directions (i.e., busy-ness), but not the vital few steps needed to move in the most important direction. For you to achieve anything, you must create a productivity compass so that you know in which direction you will take your first step. I invite you to create that direction however you see fit. 

I’ve created a Getting More Done — Focus at Work Evernote template to help you define your professional focus that becomes your productivity compass. (You can then replicate this to other Life Categories.) In the template, you will be able to identify current active projects, recurring projects, and current independent tasks (i.e., one-off tasks you’re currently responsible for). I’m only concerned with you identifying one of those recurring projects as it relates to getting started with Getting More Done.

Getting More Done

This exercise may require you to meet with your boss, manager/supervisor, colleagues, staff/employees, or a combination of all of them to determine where you are and where they are related to your priorities.

In order to get more done, determine the single role or ongoing project that will be your focus for some period of time until you develop focus mastery. You keep “sharpening the saw,” in the late Stephen R. Covey sense of the phrase, until you know how to get more done in other areas of your life. Focus mastery means you know how to initiate, find your stride and complete the responsibilities of the role or project successfully with a high rate of success. This is typically good for recurring projects or current projects that have similar operational characteristics.

For example, much of my work requires reports of recommendations to my clients, typically small business owners seeking guidance on digital marketing, technology training, productivity / business process improvement, ICT infrastructure, and (more and more today) cybersecurity best-practices. Writing these reports is not one of my favorite activities in the business and I’ve done everything to eliminate doing them where possible (including audio/video recording meetings with clients so they can take notes and review the recordings afterwards instead of me writing the reports).

However, there are still enough occasions I need to open my document automation software and produce these reports, then copy it into Google Docs (my company’s word processing software) to finish the writing of these reports. And, much of the writing requires describing complex thoughts specific to each client. So, this is the perfect type of project that can be used for focus mastery.

For the better part of six months, I worked on my practice of writing those reports. And, I became proficient at turning more and more text into snippets I could add to my report template. This leads me to how I use routine with GMD along with Evernote.

Routines

Fitness is stretching your “work muscles” regularly. In GMD, each Fitness—physical, emotional, mental, sleep/rest, nutrition, social and rejuvenation—is a focus mastery project by itself. While I spend a good part of my time explaining GMD through these biological fitnesses that drive most of our productivity, I’m going to limit my discussion on routines here to work. Let’s learn how to stretch a work muscle with a specific focus mastery project.

In my example of writing recommendation reports, it’s imperative that I find a routine for getting better at getting more done in this context. This is not a casual exercise in doing more in less time. I see anywhere from 50-60 business clients, SBDC counseling clients, and business mentees per month, so I can have upwards of three reports to write per day. This activity is a vital part of my work and it serves as a foundational skill-set for getting more done in other work contexts. So, I determine there are several steps that must happen in the course of creating the reports, and I make sure all steps are accounted for in some form of checklist; for me, I like to formalize these checklists in a digital tool (such as Evernote, Workflowy or Process Street) but you organize them however you deem fit.

At the start of every workday, my routine kicks into gear. It doesn’t matter if I show up at the office at eight o’clock in the morning, or if I am coming in from a morning client meeting at three o’clock in the afternoon. The implementation intention here is when I get to the office, I settle in and review my list of recommendation reports to write. Then, I begin down the checklist I’ve created for myself.

In my case, I’ve got a trigger for my habitual behaviors (my when and where) along with how (using my checklist) for writing my recommendation reports. With my routine in place at work to gain focus mastery, now I can move on to explaining how to use accountability when routines are high-friction and you resist doing them.

Accountability

Stop searching for motivation. Not all work is fun. Some work is downright mundane and aversive. But, that can’t stop you from getting more done. This is where a command of motivation and its strongest tool—accountability—come to the rescue.

Discussions about motivation usually describe it in two flavors—intrinsic and extrinsic. And, motivation gives rise to internal and external rewards. For sake of brevity, know intrinsic motivations are better than extrinsic ones. But, I see motivation through the lens of human development.

We are social creatures and advance as a species when we embrace enlightened altruism/self-interest. Therefore, it’s through accountability that our motivations can best flourish. Accountability comes in four of its own flavors, in ascending intensity and risk: self-, one-to-one, group, and public accountability. Gretchen Rubin, in her books, Better Than Before and The Four Tendencies, attempts to peel away the reasons for why “Upholders” easily keep themselves accountable, and why “Rebels” resist outer expectations like the plague, among the other tendencies. For me, the science bears the fruit for what I need to get more done: use the flavor of accountability needed to match the risk-reward needed for the routine.

Focus mastery requires accountability. I need only hold myself accountable to get my recommendation reports, so self-accountability works. If I needed more accountability (read, motivation), I can invite a colleague to have a regular “working meeting” to help me stay on task in writing my reports. Perhaps if that doesn’t work, I’d join a weekly writer’s group, where my stated purpose would be to complete all my reports at each meeting. And, finally, to really light a fire under me, I could publish a Google Sheets workbook and share it with all of my colleagues and daily I would explain to them I will be publishing how many reports I have completed for everyone to see.

As hopefully has become obvious, I increase the number of people with eyes looking over my shoulder to increase the social pressure and reputation damage for not completing the routine. These arrangements all can come with personal and professional options. When a personal arrangement with a friend or colleague doesn’t work, you may need to hire a professional coach to keep you accountable, or simply outsource the work to a consultant. I’m not interested in fighting uphill battles, and sometimes the path toward getting more done is delegating or outsourcing.

Once we have an understanding of all the power and responsibility that comes with focus, routines and accountability, we arrive at the final stage of tracking and maintenance of actions.

Taking Action

Most people attempt to organize their use of discretionary time in creative ways. Some use calendars to block out all of their event- and task-based work. Others utilize an agenda planner with tasks written next to their appointments. Yet more have independent digital calendars and task management software.

I’m a proponent of Getting Things Done (or “GTD” as its known), the book and methodology based on David Allen’s work over the past 30 years. I have been a GTD practitioner for nearly 20 years, and have run two of the largest GTD-inspired personal productivity Meetups in the United States (in DC and NYC) over the last decade. To say I think some aspect of GTD can work for anyone is an understatement. But, do I think you need GTD to be successful at Getting More Done? Unequivocally, no.

Choose the organizational methodology that works for you.

Organizing at the Life Level with Evernote

To get you started, though, here’s a way I’ve set up Evernote to handle task and project management using GTD principles. First, I’ve created a stack, Productivity, and in that a series of notebooks:

  • Actions
  • Commonplace
  • Inbox (if you want Inbox to be at the top, change it to .Inbox)
  • Later
  • Projects
  • Done (or Completed, or zCompleted to push this to the bottom of the notebook stack)
  • SomedayMaybe
Getting More Done

Each notebook holds notes of a specific nature:

  • Actions notebook holds individual notes that represent a specific, physical next step to move you toward completion of an outcome.
  • Commonplace notebook holds notes from meetings, musings, doodles, and anything else you might capture in a traditional commonplace notebook such as DaVinci’s.
  • Inbox notebook holds items of any nature that come to mind or from any other source that needs to be clarified/processed potentially into projects and/or actions.
  • Later notebook contains anything that you want to consume (read, listen, or watch) later.
  • Projects notebook represents all of your outcomes and goals in work and life.
    • Create a note called Major Projects Queue and this note manages your priorities and Routines. More about the Major Projects Queue in a bit.
    • Create notes for:
      • Horizon 5 – Purpose
      • Horizon 4 – Vision/Mission
      • Horizon 3 – Goals
      • Horizon 2 – Areas of Focus and Accountability
    • Create a note for each project you have in your life and work.
  • Done are where you place completed projects and actions.
  • And, finally, SomedayMaybe holds two types of notes: ones you plan to do someday but aren’t yet ready to make active, and those wish list type items that may be of interest in the future, but not right now.

For much more on the setup and make-up of this GTD setup in Evernote, please see my archived Webinar, Using Evernote With Getting Things Done.

Major Projects Queue

Over the years, I have modified my GTD project management methods in some key ways. One of them pertinent to GMD is the Major Projects Queue. This tool allows me to create focus in my life when it might otherwise spiral into chaos or distraction. The Major Projects Queue (MPQ) is a device for prioritizing and limiting what you’re working on to a few temporarily for greater output. Using your past experience to inform your present decision (i.e., intuition), decide what one to three projects you deem most important in work and life in each Life Category. A good rule of thumb is using Eisenhower Method with your list of current active projects and seeing which ones fall into the Important-Not Urgent quadrant.

From there, you have the opportunity to add new items to the queue in the “Next” section your MPQ. However, you’re committing to completing the projects you ordered in this list first before starting on the next in that Life Category. Focus is your friend. You will achieve more by focusing on a single project (or just a few) at a time in each area of your life.

N.B. You may find that one project or another make take super-precedence over the others and so you need to pause all other projects in the MPQ until that one is completed. For example, your doctor directs you to lose forty pounds and undergo an angioplasty in the next six months. It’s reasonable to suppress the priority of all other projects to the routine needed to make that happen. Yes, you may be able to make small amounts of progress on other projects in small bursts here and there. But, in super-priority projects like this health matter, why risk it?

Next, we want to create a Routine section in the same space as where we are queuing up our important, current active projects. I suggest you start with one routine, but as you advance in focus mastery, you might be able to work on multiple routines at once. By placing your routine(s) here in the MPQ you’re working to achieve focus mastery. You are creating a visual, objective map of what takes priority.

Do you want to get more done? Or, do you want to achieve this specific, one-time project/goal? Do you have enough time right now, given all your responsibilities and time commitments, to advance this routine? And, do you have enough time in your day to finish project A to your standards at this moment in your life? These are hard questions, but they need to be asked every time you look at this list. Focus mastery mirrors your values, and it paves the path toward getting more done.

A sample MPQ could look like this:

Routine

  • Increase number of reports of recommendations (RoR) produced on a weekly basis. (90 minutes per day)
    • When I arrive at the office, review RoR checklist and work for 90 minutes on each client RoR in FIFO order.

Home

  • Build the treehouse for the kids.
  • Map out, purchase equipment and setup the new entertainment center in the downstairs family room.
  • Plan and take the vacation to Budapest, inviting Mom and Dad to come along with us.

Work

  • Pass certification exam so I can start teaching classes at the community center.
  • Upgrade Adobe Creative Suite and learn software suite (through Creative Live or Lynda.com courses) so I can expand my marketing skills.
  • Open a new location in the downtown area to start capturing more of the tourism market developing.

Next

  • Learn French and take a trip to Paris to practice skills.
  • Rekindle friendship with Suki; invite out to basketball game during the upcoming season.
  • Hire new manager for new downtown location.

I have helped many people develop MPQ’s over the years and they come in all shapes and sizes, and they are modified to match the needs, wants and pressure tolerance of the individual. By creating the Next section of the MPQ, it’s the bypass valve to relieve the pressure that you are giving up on a project that’s important to you. It’s simply deferred and given more prominence than other projects you may be tracking and maintaining elsewhere in your productivity system.

Getting Started With Getting More Done

Everyone asks me, then, how do I start getting more done?

First, as we discussed at the start, outline your Life Categories. If your life was a pie chart, what are the slices of the pie?

Second, what is one Life Category you can focus on for the next three to six months to master one aspect to learn the requisite skills at getting more done in other areas of this Life Category? Commit to that focus.

Next, determine the series of habitual behaviors you plan to use daily (or on a regular frequency of several times per week) based on an implementation intention (i.e., when, where and how). This is your Routine.

And last, identify and establish the accountability needed to match the motivation available with friction you have from doing the embedded actions in the Routine. Track your Routine in your MPQ alongside any important, current active projects to see your progress over the next weeks and months. If you want to be an overachiever, track your Routine daily (or whatever frequency you committed to) and limit your Routine to only one for this initial focus mastery period.

I haven’t found a person in a decade who, after having implemented Getting More Done’s initial Routine, hasn’t started to get more done in almost every other Life Category. There’s something mysterious about how excelling in one Life Category in a material, systematic way breeds the same excellence across the board.

Keep in mind this is the tip of the iceberg as it relates to Getting More Done, but it’s a healthy start to achieving what most of you truly want…to get more done.