Chris Alexander

On Engineering

Top Tips for Getting Things Done

8th October, 2010

Today I have an extremely busy day, as I have a lot that I know I need to do. There are lots of tips that I make use of to make sure I maximise my day and get the best out of it. I jotted them down below so hopefully others will be able to benefit from it.

Know you’re going to be busy

This one may sound simple or crazy, but the best way to prepare for having a lot of stuff to do in a short amount of time is to recognise this as early as possible. I was at an event all day yesterday so wouldn’t have any opportunities to do anything, so I recognised about half way through Wednesday that Friday is going to be a tough one.

I strictly keep a todo list. I tweeted the other day that “If it’s not in my calendar I don’t turn up, if it’s not in my Inbox it doesn’t get read, if it’s not on my ToDo list it doesn’t get done” - and this is literally true. I use the excellent Astrid application for Android to keep everything organised, prioritised, and tagged, but you can use any solution that works for you. Just make sure everything’s on it and given deadlines and priorities, then you can see in advance when there is going to be a busy day.

Prepare for being busy, and prepare early

Obviously if you have time, work on as much as possible to make your busy period easier. For example, if you need approval or input from other people, get the information they require to them as early as possible, so that when the busy day or days turns up you have everything you need to get going. I find a great personal example of this is writing news articles; if I know there will be comment required, I get those e-mails out as early as possible and then you have a chance to get the right quotes for when you come to write the article. This also allows your brain to start thinking about the task in advance, so you may have an easier job when you come to actually doing it (for example, you may have the general article structure already worked out in your head).

This also means physically preparing yourself. As you will see in the coming tips it is vital that you are on top performance mentally and physically for the busy period. This means getting more than sufficient sleep the night before (even with an early start) - for me this means 8 hours+, but for you it could be slightly more or less. Just make sure it is enough!

You also need to ensure your sleep is good. If you have a lot to do the next day, it is easy for your mind to be filled up with thoughts of what you have to do, constantly switching between them; and trying to remember what you have to do. This just means your sleep will be poor and your early night will be in vain, without contributing any useful ideas to the problems or tasks. This is where the ToDo list helps - whenever you think of something you have to do, write it on the list; then you no longer need to think about it and can sleep more easily. This also applies if you think of something just before you go to sleep, or have something to add to an existing item to help you do it quicker or easier - get it written down and out of your mind!

If you have items that need doing at a fixed time, get those in a calendar or organised by time in your ToDo list as soon as possible. This will help you plan and structure your busy day, and optimise what time you have to get stuff done. Use reminders to prompt you an hour or 30 minutes before you have to be at a meeting / something has to be complete. This will help bring it to the front of your mind as you approach the deadline and then you won’t miss it or forget because you are doing other things.

Start early

You cannot un-sleep. So start early in the morning, and then you can take breaks later in the day if you have to. However if you get up late, you can’t claw that time back anywhere near as easily. Taking into account the point above about plenty of sleep, this may mean going to sleep at 10pm - do what you have to do!

Have a hearty breakfast; it may seem better to just get on with what you have to do, but when it is 11am and you are famished, it will not help your concentration and only slow you down. It is worth taking half an hour in the morning to sit down, have a quiet, decent breakfast with your favourite drink and make sure you are properly prepared for the day. Then, when it gets to 12pm and you are still working efficiently and thinking about your task rather than your stomach, you will be glad.

Have everything to hand

Make sure before you start you have everything you need close at hand in case you need it. This includes your phone, laptop or other portable devices you may need to call upon, your paperwork or notes, wallet, and - most importantly - a supply of your favourite beverage. If you like cold drinks this should be easy, if you prefer something hot then get a travel mug, teapot, or similar contraption. Then you can carry on working if you are concentrating well but need a little refreshment.

Having all of these items together will mean your thoughts are uninterrupted if you need to check something or retrieve something from one of the things collected around you, rather than having to go and find it which wastes time and will reset your concentration so you have to start again.

Break when you need to

If you’re concentrating and can keep going then great, go for it. However if you find yourself getting distracted or in need of a break, then go and do it straight away. It is better to have a 5 minute break to go and read for a bit than to spent an hour working less efficiently because you keep flicking over to YouTube.

When possible, while having a break make sure you get out from where you were working. So leave your desk and go to the kitchen for a drink, find another room with comfy seats to chill out in, or anywhere else really. Try and set an end time for your break when you start it, and then stick to it. This will help your mind prepare for starting concentration again and when you get back to your desk you will be ready to go again.

Stick to the ToDo list, rigorously

I use the ToDo list and calendar combined to structure my day in advance, and then when I get to the busy day I stick to the order on the ToDo list pretty rigidly. Barring something that comes up as more important during the day I simply work from top to bottom, on a list ordered by date then priority. This ensures everything that is important is done first, and if it’s not on my ToDo list then it doesn’t get done.

You may find that a different strategy works better for you, but I cannot highly enough recommend that you do have a strategy and stick to it.

Continuously self-optimise

During the day it is very tempting to keep ploughing on through tasks. However organising yourself provides such time advantages that it is work taking 5 or 10 minutes out of an hour to keep your ToDo list up to date, your Inbox in check, and making sure you know what you have to do for the next period of time.

Find your own way

This is probably the most important bit - these tips all work great for me. You may find, however, that there are better ways for you to work, so I highly recommend you explore a little if you can, and let me know in the comments below if you found any of these tips useful or have any of your own.