The Secret to Getting Things Done
The hardest part of getting things done is doing one thing at a time. The second hardest part of getting things done is choosing the right task.
Choose the task:
The best way to choose a task is to set a goal. Use goals to define to-dos.
Goals are accomplishments. The question isn’t, “What do you need to do?” The question is, “What do you need to accomplish?” The goal of exercise is health, for example.
There are two things that make goals useful.
First, decide what matters today by adopting a medium-term perspective. For example, with Friday in mind, what matters on Monday?
The second thing that makes goals useful is a deadline. A goal without a deadline is a dripping faucet that sucks joy out of life.
Move forward with resolve:
Deadlines clarify timelines and accelerate results. But don’t live with constant stress.
Have you ever met a fulfilled leader who ran around with their hair on fire? Hurry is the enemy of excellence and fulfillment. Don’t hurry, but don’t lollygag.
John Wooden said, Be quick, but don’t hurry. This morning was the first time I understood the distinction between being stressed and moving forward with conscious resolve.
Adopt Larry the Cable Guy’s advice, “Get’er done.”
The secret to resolve is a deadline.
Focus on one thing:
When you do two meaningful things at the same time, both lose their satisfaction. For example, it’s dissatisfying to kiss your spouse and think about mowing the grass at the same time.
Thinking about the next thing while doing this thing makes both things irritating.
The secret to focusing on one thing is eliminating distraction.
- Establish a do not disturb hour with your team.
- Turn off everything that might distract you.
- Engage in activities that enhance focus.
What prevents people from getting things done?
What enables productivity?
Deep Work (Book)
17 Tricks to Get More Things Done During the Workday (Entrepreneur)
6 Ways Productive People Consistently Get Things Done (Inc)
The secret to focusing on one thing is eliminating distraction. I’ve learned I need to align my mind in a certain order to complete tasks. For the larger tasks (and it always seems to be sets of different spreadsheets) I focus on each of those attempting not to interrupt with other similarly focus minded tasks because as hinted above one will end up diluting both efforts. I’ve also found it helps and I can divert to various smaller tasks while in the envelope of the larger. Call it mind breaks. Others tend to attempt to get me to do 2 or 3 larger efforts at the same time but I push back. They do this because they do not understand and have not had the “pleasure” of doing those larger tasks in the format that I do. Through this all whether singularly or with team members I have to do what aligns with how my brain works best.
Thanks Roger. You remind me that performance is about strength not weakness. We’ll all do better if we view others through the lens of THEIR strengths.
Great reminder, just what I needed today. Thanks Dan.
Thanks Tim. Have a great day.
Dan, great as usual. Note that both your links “17 Tricks…Entrepreneur” and 6 Ways…Inc” link to 17 Tricks…Entrenpreneur.
Thanks Jackie. Fixed!
I agree: the more you hurry, the slower you actually go. When hurrying, you’re probably going to forget crucial elements of a project, or at least do them poorly. It’s counter-intuitive for many, but completely stepping away can help productivity quite a bit. Whether it’s stress or disinterest, having some mindfulness tools in your toolbox can be very helpful in realigning your trajectory and make you much more productive in reaching that accomplishment stage. These days, as most of us are working from home, it can be very difficult or very easy to step away from minute to minute. My home situation includes two children, but also a meditation space. Depending on what’s going on, I could be managing an online writing retreat while checking homework, or in one of those transition periods, which is a perfect time to do a quick mental check in.
An office environment is different, clearly. However, the example/culture/tone leaders set, will reverberate throughout a workplace. For example, these mental check-ins act as a very effective preventive tool. Rather than waiting until stress or panic hits to mitigate the productivity crash, scheduled moments of mindful grounding exercises could easily be implemented. Call it a check in, a reset, a break, it doesn’t matter. Regardless, it’s an excellent mechanism for productivity.
As a leader it’s also important to recognize that what a distraction or a focusing tool looks like differs from person to person. When I’m writing a paper or doing research, I work best with music on. Otherwise, I’ll wander off, mentally, and some times physically. I’m one of those people who work really well in really loud coffee shops. The likelihood of attempting to multitask goes up the quieter it is!
Something that’s interesting about the things we try to accomplish simultaneously might actually be best accomplished sequentially. It’s worth investigating, when deciding which task to accomplish first, if the completion of one would serve the completion of the other.
Keep in mind that there is a distinction between
Doing something, and
(e.g. “washing the dishes” and actually getting them clean; “having sex” and making love; eating and having a meal; etc. )
You can’t git’r’dun unless ‘r’purpose is fully-filled …
so if you don’t know the purpose (or give it your best attention) you almost certainly won’t fulfill it.
We often lose track of the point of doing something (the why/achievement) by occupying ourselves exclusively in doing something (the how/occupation) – and not setting appropriate benchmarks (the what-when/milestones).
How do we know when we are “done” if we don’t know what ‘r’ is?
Exercise may or may not result in “health” – but being able to persevere and run a marathon and/or being strong enough to bench press twice my body weight are achievable (critical path) indicators of general health (but not guarantors).
The point being that “health,” or “growth,” in business terms, are open-ended “programs” that may or not be necessary – or meaningfully achievable and sustainable – but closed ended “projects” are (fixed scope, cost & schedule with a critical path).
And that takes vision, planning, capacity-building, coordination, management, production, quality control, etc- lots of room and time to lose sight and memory of just what the purpose was … sometimes done ain’t done, and never will be, if we forget.
Thanks Rurbane. I’m glad that part of your comment speaks to purpose. Of all the things left out of this post, that’s the one that matters most.
The other thing that came to mind while reading your insights was the value of pursuit. You may not achieve “health” but you can pursue it.
I also find that having a due date or deadline that is either non-existent or too far off is one of the easiest ways to lose motivation and perspective. When I am faced with this, I make small goals for myself throughout and measure my own progress. This tactic particularly applies to my experiences in sports. I train entirely on my own for long distance races, and I know I cannot wait until the last month to kick my training into high gear; this will only leave me tired, under prepared, and at worst, injured. Instead, for about four months before a race, I have a set of goals to accomplish on a weekly and monthly basis. This keeps me on track, helps me celebrate small goals so I don’t burn out, and gets me to the starting line feeling stronger and more prepared.
Similar to the “do not disturb” hour, I often give myself a “power hour” when I am struggling to be productive or if I am distracted. I turn off anything that is distracting me, and I focus on getting an array of “small” tasks done, like answering emails, organizing my schedule, and finishing up small assignments. This practice aims to declutter my to-do list so I feel less scattered and can focus on one of my larger tasks.
Thanks Keri. A quarterly goal doesn’t matter until two weeks before the deadline. 🙂
Weekly goals are effective. Much beyond that and it’s just noise. Like you, if we break a large goal into small goals we are more likely to achieve it.
I’ve noticed there’s a barrier to push through to get the brainwaves flowing, where work is engrossing and enjoyable. Sometimes it’s physical. My daughter physically left the house to work on a major project. This adorable cat, and that tempting tea, a pesky brother and soft bed all conspired to keep her out of the zone. Sometimes emotional. If you decide on a certain direction, all the other options are, at least temporarily, decided against. For this reason, I think your ‘2nd hardest’ part is harder for many, growing in difficulty as information becomes murky, outcomes are uncertain, and no option is ‘perfect’. The solution, to keep moving forward in a roughly correct direction, exact instructions are somewhere here in the LF archives 🙂 . Stay well, all
Thanks Cate. You remind me that real work often happens outside the office, in a coffee shop for example. It’s interesting that sometimes we have to leave the traditional place of work to get work done.
Some many gems…
Doing only one thing at a time is a challenge for a lot of people, including myself. I have always taken pride in being able to multi-task, but sometimes it is necessary and relieving to just focus on one thing at a time. This enables a person to really focus in on the task at hand giving it 100 percent of one’s attention and reduces room for errors. Giving your undivided attention to one thing is harder said than done though. I previously worked in a lab testing for the quality of agricultural products, where my coworkers and I were actually expected and required to work on multiple things at a time. Multi-tasking was necessary for that job in order to get results out on time, but it did cause a higher stressed environment and also caused errors to be made sometimes. I agree that deadlines can help a person focus on what really needs to get done. Having a deadline pushes a person to get the task done on time and can prevent lollygagging or procrastinating. I think distractions often prevent people from getting things done. Distractions can vary and can be physical or mental. A co-worker stopping by your desk to chat is one example of a common distraction that I see a lot at work. Getting distracted by your phone and social media is another common distraction. Having a stressful home life, issues with your marriage, or an ill loved one can also cause stress and anxiety. Eliminating or minimizing these distractions can help enable productivity.
Thanks Kaitlin. I’m a squirrel chaser. Any shiny object distracts me. That’s why I enjoy a small office and low light. Also, I’m learning to keep my desk clear. It’s definitely not natural.
Your observations about multi-tasking are instructive. Organizations should realize that multi-tasking doesn’t work. As you say, there are more mistakes. There’s research to back this up.
Hi Dan. This is such a great conversation. I find that I have to have these conversations and “time dedications” more now than ever. As I balance family, school, a move back to Washington DC, an active 4lb YorkiePoo, and embarking on a more visible career, I see so many more plates that need to be spinning far before they are in my wheelhouse. I recently listened to a leadership webinar with 3 highly productive leaders (in public and military service). It was very enlightening and a reminder to understand what makes “you” productive and efficient. Some people schedule showers into their day, others need to schedule exercise, calls to their children and lunch with key partners. In these times where we have tons of demands that previously included traffic, parking, meeting locations, we are now ensuring our home office (if you have one), is quiet, we remain focused and balance life. Some may find it easier while others need that positive stress. I think awareness of goals, productivity, and inspiration starts with an individual and encompasses the team. Deadlines? They can be the second evil for a team. I use to advise senior leaders that “giving poor deadline space normally produces poor product development.” As leaders, we must consider what we are asking with what we expect.
Thanks Kishla. Someone asked me about earning my MBA. I love learning, but it was the worst two years of my life!! You have my respect and best wishes.
I wonder if a collaborative approach to deadlines might help. When deadlines are imposed by disconnected leaders they may be more oppressive than helpful. Perhaps setting deadlines with the stakeholders might help.
What prevents people from getting things done? The common bond appears to be distractions are #1, granted me first can be an issue as they think they are more important. Learning to prioritize is the main option
What enables productivity? Maintain the concept of one task, prioritizing what needs done first, learning to delegate when too many options are there.
Thanks Tim. Respect for your insights. We need a little more focus on the meaning and value of priorities. Some have suggested that when you add “s” to priority you have defeated the purpose.
For some personality types (that would be me), you have hardest and second hardest reversed! I know to focus on one thing at a time, but I can spend all day (or week) picking which thing to focus on. (Yes, it’s frustrating)
I have a silly graphic that shows this. Basically, task A takes so much time, task B takes a similar time, but the long bar on the graph is decided whether to do task A first or task B. 🙂
Thanks for jumping in Tony. I’m so glad you chimed in. Those first sentences reflect a limited point of view. One things is sure. Once you decide, you can’t be stopped.
Taking things one at a time is key to getting things done. No one is a good multi-tasker, and I’ve heard that the better someone thinks they are at it the worse they really are.
Obviously as a leader you have to have multiple balls in the air at once, but that what delegation is for. When you check in on each project focus on one at a time and complete your task before moving on. I find that really helps. When I try to do too many things at once I end up doing a subpar job at all of them and it’s often not until I go back and review the work that I even notice.
What I hadn’t considered was how trying to do more than one thing at a time interferes with not just with the quality of the work, but also the satisfaction of getting things done. Often I can get so caught up with my to do list that I forget to celebrate accomplishing one task before moving on to the next. Why am I working at all if I can’t take a moment to be proud of my accomplishments? Henceforth I will endeavor to keep this in mind with my work.
Thanks Angela. Finish one thing before moving to the next thing. Nailed it.
A brief pat on the back – acknowledgement of completing a task – reminds us that we’re accomplishing something. When we get to the end of the day and wonder what we got done, we didn’t celebrate enough.
I’m going off the track a bit, but you mentioned meaningful work. To me, one must have or is doing meaningful work to keep distractions away. I find that I tend to lag behind in work that is not as meaningful to me or the mission of my organization. That lag leads to multiple distractions and eventually I am behind or missing the mark of the task when completed. Having meaningful work is not the end of distraction, but I find it can help keep some distractions away.
Thanks Tim. What a great reminder. I wonder about the connection between enjoyment and meaning. I think we enjoy what is meaningful. Enjoyment is energy to press forward.
I have always been a “list” person. I can have 100 different things that need to be done, floating around in my head and nothing seems to get accomplished until I sit down and make a list. I used that concept to create my vision board as well. Mine is set up like a list rather than magazine cutouts. It feels good to cross out the things that have been completed and it gives me a sense of satisfaction to complete an entire list. Setting deadlines for myself is new to me, though. I think I will give this a try to see if it helps to make a more efficient day. Thanks!
Thanks Tanya. I’m a amateur list maker. I don’t do it all the time. The thing that I struggle with is focusing on getting something done so I can get to the next thing. I’m trying to learn to focus on the thing I’m doing and set aside the next thing until it’s time to focus on it. 🙂
best wishes with trying deadlines.
The ability to finish a given work relies upon the concentration and interest in the appointed work. Ordinarily, we will, in general, continue postponing work until the latest possible time. The more we continue pushing work, at long last, it gets all the more debilitating. A definitive point ought to be to finish the task with high proficiency and best outcomes.
More often than not we lose our focus on account of minimal enthusiasm for the work or simply being sluggish to do as such. We should treat each sort of work or task as same. At times, we incline toward first to finish the work which is simpler and takes lesser time, at that point setting aside an effort to finish the longest one. The usefulness of this booking works except if and until it’s done before the time. If there are slight changes in the planned time, at that point the entire overseeing period breakdown, using up all available time, low quality work, slip-ups, and below-average work as the result. The most widely recognized interruption is a web-based social media, pointless readings, posting, and without realizing we invest much of the energy in it. Keeping yourself increasingly inspired and progressively open with the work, time the board, making daily agendas, accomplishing work without interruption, making strategies or bit by bit work format, dividing each workload into the parts to do more precisely and balance. Some time to think and then work makes easier because of the advanced planning. Keeping each day similar to be in the rhythm of the daily workforce because giving excessive work time for one day and other days without work interrupts the cycle and our mind gets more tired.
Thanks Jeenal. “concentration and interest” seem like a great combination. I can press through tasks that I don’t want to do, but only in the short-term. I think we all have to do things that don’t interest us. But, when there’s interest, concentration is easier.
I can definitely relate to this post- I feel like I have an endless to do list (which truthfully can be anxiety-provoking at times). Even with this long list of to do’s I don’t feel like I have an end goal that I am working towards. To be honest- I feel like many of my to dos without deadlines do not end up getting completed. While the thought of this used to stress me out- I came to realize that If they were important enough than they would have gotten done. Maybe I did not really need to buy more glue or tape- if I needed it badly enough I would’ve crossed it off my list by now.
Focusing on one thing at a time is definitely a skill set I have yet to master. Beyond losing enjoyment for what I am doing in the present- I feel like it can be stressful thinking about all of the other things I need to do while I am already in the middle of something. I agree that do-not-disturb hours can increase productivity. I know there are many apps you can use on your computer to block out distractions- perhaps this can be helpful for many as we work from home.
When tasked with getting something done regardless of the severity or magnitude of the task, personally I like to set small manageable size goals that make completion of whatever it is I’m working on that much easier. This way I can effectively manage my time to not only remain effective in working to meeting a certain deadline, but also allowing myself to free-up for other responsibilities that I may have along the way. Avoiding stress while getting things done is crucial for ensuring your productivity does not remain altered and you can effectively complete the task. By having a looming deadline without tackling your task in manageable size chunks increases the possibility of mistakes and other implications to occur by rushing. External factors that may distract you from deviating from a task should be eliminated or minimized whenever possible, by welcoming in distractions you are only prolonging of completing a certain task. One thing that I’ve noticed between effective leaders and ineffective leaders is being tasked with a great deal of responsibility, remaining calm and level-headed in the process. Great leaders prioritize tasks and approach them in manageable sized chunks to allow them to think concisely without compromising quality. By setting small goals and not trying to complete multiple tasks at once can be the difference of getting work done or missing important deadlines.
It can be difficult to get things done, especially in a time of lockdown when there is an eclectic plethora of distractions. Distractions are the main obstacle preventing individuals from getting something done. There are many reasons that distractions may pop up. One of these may be a flimsy schedule. If one does not have any deadlines, or a task list, they may put things off in order to partake in activities that are more enjoyable than work. Another reason that distractions may get in the way of someone getting tasks done is that the person may not be engaged in their work. This may mean that the task is beneath them, that the task is far ahead of them, or that there are some deeper issues within the structure of the organization.
What would enable productivity would be motivation, and the lack of distractions. There could be many ways to accomplish this. First, you would want to make sure there are clearly set expectation for the work, and deadlines. Additionally, you would want to make sure that the individual is fulfilled at work. This will come from a higher level in the organization, whether that is a leader or the organization.
Hi Dan, Thank you for the post “The Secret to Getting Things Done”. You are definitely touching on some points that I am struggling with.
I like the quote “ Thinking about the next thing while doing this thing makes both things irritating”. That is funny, but true!
As a mother, student, researcher and wife, I am accustomed to multitasking assignments, events, and other obligations that I face on a day to day basis. However, under the current circumstances (Pandemic) that we are presently under, I have found my everyday tasking difficult, stressful and full of anxiety. I am surprised about my body’s reaction to all the stress around me ( I just sit on the sofa like a lump on a log). But I am thankful that I am aware of the changes and I have not overindulged into anything that will be harmful to myself or my family. Trust me my family knows something is wrong because my tone is a little louder and my patience is a little shorter, but I am ok.
The only thing I can add to your post is to:
1. take a deep breath
2. step away from the task at hand for 30 minutes and try again. And another 30 minutes and another.
3. Start small, do the smallest task first to get yourself started and motivated. This will help you to accomplish the next task, then the next.
Thank you so much Mr. Dan for reading our minds and allowing us to share and help someone else
We live in a culture in which I’m easily distracted. I’m so thankful for technology, but I also have to be careful not to waste valuable time getting sucked into social media scrolling – something that I almost did earlier this afternoon. I set boundaries with that to help me refrain from wasting time (no phone/internet when I get in bed, no checking emails/texts during the first hour I’m awake, etc.).
I’m a goal-setter who loves to reward myself when I reach goals. I celebrate them whether they’re big or small, and I create a daily task list for work. I do an electronic calendar, but I’m much happier and effective when I use my cute notebook and colorful pens.
When I use paper instead of technology, I find it easier to eliminate distractions. I’m able to look at my objectives and focus on marking things as completed on my list, which I find gratifying. I also like to look at the list and start with things that are easy to accomplish and spreading out things that may take more time to complete. This strategy has been as helpful in my season of remote work as it is in the office. There are distractions in both places, so I’ve gotten comfortable with putting my vast amount of Apple products on Do Not Ditrub long enough to complete things.
As an avid procrastinator myself, I found that it is easy to get caught up and become overwhelmed with completing tasks. When dealing with a project, assignment, or even something like cleaning the house, I find myself using distractions and further procrastinating. To avoid this build up, I highly recommend using a list. Rather than using an app on my phone to complete a list, I handwrite all the tasks. By doing so, it feels rewarding physically checking off every completed task for the day whether it be big or small. In addition, I like to split up my “to-do” list through categories depending on the urgency.
While performing these tasks, I typically refer to the “Pomodoro Method” where I am productive for about 30-45 minutes, then take a mental break for 5-10 minutes. These intervals allow me to relax and take my mind off of things rather than get completely engulfed in work. If I tend to focus on a project for hours and hours without a break, I find myself drained and mentally exhausted. My productivity has improved when following these two methods with both school and work.
Everyone will have their own unique method of successful productivity so these methods may not work for all. Some may wait until the very last minute (as I have found myself doing so many times) causing anxiety and additional stress, so avoiding distractions is extremely important for those who struggle to focus.
What a relevant topic to the times in which we are living! I think that one of the most challenging aspects of Social Distancing is the absence of things that used to add structure to our lives. For many people, a daily routine used to mean waking up, getting ready, and physically going somewhere for work or school. Now, with social distancing, many people no longer clock in and out at work, whether literally or figuratively. To me, the message of this blog post is important because I agree that it is important to have self-discipline. As this blog post says though, self-discipline can also go to far and turn into putting too much pressure on yourself. In the past I have definitely struggled with undertaking too much at once, or gotten caught up with trying to make one thing perfect. As a result, I now try to set realistic expectations for myself that are ambitious, but also achievable. The comment in this blog post about deadlines also spoke to me. I have found that while doing school work from home, it is tempting to work all of the time, or work at odd hours. This got stressful quickly and I have been trying to keep to a schedule and set deadlines for myself.
Boy oh boy does this post resonate with me. I am a professional procrastinator. I am well aware of this flaw and yet I still struggle sometimes with getting myself on track. I tend to start a bunch of little tasks instead of tackling the big stuff. Once I make up my mind to accomplish something, however, there is no stopping me. I find that my procrastination only applies to certain tasks though, such as schoolwork. I never procrastinate with professional tasks, and I am proud to say that I am procrastinating much less with my master’s program than I did for undergraduate.
I think what prevents people from getting things done is the dread of starting the tasks, or at least that is the case for me personally. Getting over that mental block and just getting the job started is the main hurdle. Another thing that prevents me from getting things done is social media. So much wasted time and energy! It is an addiction and I am trying to limit my time on it as much as possible to boost my productivity with school. I think that a couple things that enable productivity are rewarding yourself for accomplishing goals and taking small breaks between tasks to refresh and refocus on the next task.
Great advice about deadlines. I find that with projects that have a long or extended deadline I try to set a “fake,” earlier deadline. But this doesn’t always work- procrastination is a fickle mistress. Any advice on how to manage long term deadlines?
I can certainly relate to juggling two meaningful things at one time and that targeting focus to just one is important. But, related to the deadlines, I find it difficult to balance two meaningful tasks with the same deadline. How do you prioritize? I also find that switching gears between two meaningful projects can help manage my project fatigue. Would you agree, or suggest completing one meaningful task fully first, and only then moving onto the second?
What I cannot argue with is how distractions prevent productivity, especially in today’s social media world. While I try to convince myself that instagram is just a “mental break,” it almost always sucks me into a black hole of lost time. To enable productivity setting a clock is helpful, turning off notifications, and making a checklist helps me. I love checking things off my to do list, including work tasks. It tends to keep my focused on the now and stress less about those upcoming tasks.
Thanks for the share!
Learning how to focus is the most important aspect in getting things done. This is one of my biggest problems. Knowing that there are multiple items that need to be completed within a close timeframe, makes it difficult at times to focus on one task at a time. Prioritization is key in making sure that the work gets done and is completed with accuracy. I like to organize my work by importance and dedicated a certain amount of time per day to each item based on what will take the most time and what needs to be completed first. I know I am unable to push one task to the side until others are completed, so this is my way of ensuring each task is given the necessary attention.
Productivity is enabled by outcomes. If the end goal or reward is known and shared within a team, the tasks will more likely be completed with greater efficiency. Providing feedback to each team member will also likely improve quality of work by maintaining clear communication of expectations and providing both positive and negative feedback. If there is motivation driving their actions, the employee is more apt to execute the plans.
Distractions are the biggest factor that slow down or prevent good, efficient work from getting done. While it is easy to recognize distractions as an easy culprit to blame for loss productivity, nailing down what is or is not a distraction is not so easy.
Distractions can come in many forms. One of the most common is side talk. Side talk is so common it can be easily dismissed out of hand, until it gets out of hand. Side talk may start with a little joke or comment, either provoking a laugh or altering the course of the discussion. Side talk may be as innocent as the company jokster making another one of their innocent comments. Side talk may be as bad as derailing the topic onto something completely counterproductive yet infectious to the group. Judging what comments you let slide and what comments you cut off at the head are all based upon your personal disposition and the group dynamic. While the attempt to cut off distractions is noble, it is never received as such. Know your audience. Build those relationships so you know if they like football or soccer, compare those simile’s, and keep the topic on point one way or another.Another trick is to let your group know what your expectations are as far as group meetings go. This can be done as a group, or it can be done one on one.
Another form of distraction is outside media and technology. If you expect your group to have their cell phones off, always have your cellphone off. There is nothing worse that engenders malcontent than a leader who expects one thing yet acts in complete disregard for that very ideal. If a leader acts in such a fashion, this makes an open market for distractions in all forms.