There is a growing body of evidence that multi-tasking is ineffective and that our brains can only fully focus on one thing at a time. If your ability to multi-task has been a point of pride, you may need to think about another way to maximize your time.
I attended a seminar called “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen. I found the approach very useful and would like to share the basics. I would refer you to the website for detail: http://gettingthingsdone.com/. The initial step in the process is to designate a weekly time to focus on your upcoming week. The process should take 20-30 minutes and has several steps. Recording the information is key (on paper for my generation, digitally for the younger set) because once the information is recorded, your mind is free from trying to remember all your large and small tasks, allowing you to focus on the immediate task in front of you.
The system uses a double-sided sheet. One side is lined but otherwise blank and is used for a “mind sweep” to record every item that is swirling around in your brain, big or small. For me the list is usually 30-50 items. This could be anything from preparing a presentation to caring for a sick family member to making an appointment for a haircut. The point is to get it all down so that you don’t have to worry about forgetting anything.
The other side of the sheet is divided into four quadrants: Projects/Outcomes, Next Actions, Waiting For, and Someday Maybe. The Project/Outcome list is the chunk of things you are working on, like preparing a blog post for ASSH, organizing a party, or doing your taxes. Each project has a number of steps, one of which is the Next Action item. Breaking projects down like this keeps them from feeling overwhelming and helps keep things moving. For example, if a project is preparing a presentation for the ASSH meeting, the next step might be choosing a topic. When that is done the next step might be submitting an abstract, and so on. For planning a party, the next step could be picking a date. A house renovation may start with calling a contractor. If there are other simple tasks that have only one step, they go on the Next Actions list as well. If the item will only require a couple of minutes, you can just complete the task (e.g. claiming your CME from the ASSH meeting) as you are putting it on the list.
Many times, completing an action item will put the ball in someone else’s court. These things go in the Waiting For list with the name of the person responsible and the date you expect to hear back. That list helps you keep track of things you have handed off in case the person doesn’t get back with you.
Things you may want to do go on the Someday Maybe list. Examples might be a future trip, a class you want to take or a purchase you may want to make.
There are many different systems for time management and many books that have been written on the subject. The Getting Things Done system has worked well for me in decompressing my brain and keeping track of a lot of projects at once. It is certainly important to take a bigger step back occasionally (at least yearly) to think about your larger priorities and where your life is headed. As Steven Covey points out in his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” it is quite common for people to continue climbing a ladder and then to find out that the ladder is on the wrong wall. I have frequently used the quieter time around the holidays to sit in front of a fire with a nice glass of wine and think about priorities for the coming year. It is important to involve your important people (spouse, etc.) in this type of planning.
Our lives are busy and it is easy to lose control of your time and to react to events and situations instead of taking control of the direction of your life. Regular planning, both on a macro level and a smaller weekly scale will help you feel that you are in charge of your destiny. Good luck.
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