Here are my five top tips for getting things done for people who have lots of things to get done and not enough time to do them. I am not a master of these five practices. I do manage to get a lot of things done but at the expense of other things (sleep, healthy diet, sanity etc) and so this list should not be taken as a conclusive strategy but more like an ongoing process of discovery.
I am very good at two of the things on this list. The other three are more difficult to consistently perfect as they require changing what we believe will make us effective.
1. Keeping lists
I’m old fashioned and so I love a pen and a notebook. I understand that there are ways to keep lists on electronic devices but you won’t convert me.
The point here however is lists, so whether they are written in ink or kept on a cloud is up to you. I start every (work) day by sitting down and writing out my to-do list for the day. I put everything on it – even the smaller insignificant tasks and my list includes work-related to-dos as well as personal. It serves as a tangible, visual reference of what my day should look like. I draw little blocks and tick them off (with great satisfaction) when they are done.
I don’t mind if I don’t get to everything – this is very important to note. A list should not be a burden. When I near the end of a work day, I draw little x’s in the blocks when I realise that they will not get completed. I then start my list for the following day, carry over these items and go home.
I also keep a ‘bigger picture’ list at all times. This is very important as it keeps me focussed on my vision for a current season. I refer to this list to ensure that my day-to-day tasks are moving this vision forward and I am not becoming distracted. I add to this list at any time when inspiration strikes and I feel that I have had a profound thought or idea.
– daily to-do lists help to define a strategy for executing the day’s tasks
– daily to-do lists should not be a burden and carrying things over to the next day is part of the process of getting things done
– bigger-picture lists ensure that daily to-do lists move a vision forward
2. Replying immediately to emails (text messages etc)
Obvious, but for some reason not always easy to do. I include this on the list because if you can commit to this one small thing, it really will promote efficiency in your day. Sometimes it is not possible to provide a complete response right away, in this case I send an acknowledgement and then add a new item to my day’s to-do list. This does two things which are helpful:
1. prevents follow up messages from the sender – and even worse, follow up phone calls
2. prevents the sender from feeling neglected and prevents me from feeling like I am neglecting someone
Replying to a message is really quick and easy to do and should always be done right away.
Earlier this week my husband and son were together engaged in the activity of tidying the garden after an afternoon of play. When asked how it was going, my husband proclaimed, “Caleb is practicing the skill of delegation and I am practicing the skill of self-control.”
Unless you are a natural-born leader with an assertive leadership style, delegation does tend to come more naturally to four-year-olds than to the rest of us. In the context of team, sharing tasks and responsibilities is key to effective performance. If you don’t work inside a team, delegation can take the shape of outsourcing. In both cases, the outcome we are looking for is maximising our time on the things that we are best at and willingly letting others perform in areas that they are best at.
I find that for me, the reasoning behind my resistance to delegate my tasks is either one of two things.
1. I think that I can do everything better
This is either due to pride or being too lazy to teach others things that are transferable skills and not based on my innate talents.
2. I feel bad asking other people to do things that I could do myself
This can actually be quite a selfish outlook. Oftentimes (especially in the context of team), allowing others to take over aspects of a job is actually empowering them.
If you are not a naturally assertive leader, you might need to coach yourself through this one, but by mastering the skill of delegation you will empower others and create space for yourself to spend more time on what you are most effective at.
4. Stop multitasking
In her book, Switch on Your Brain, Dr Caroline Leaf debunks the myth that multitasking equates to efficiency. Dr Leaf has worked in the area of cognitive neuroscience since 1985. Her extensive research on the human brain is due to her particular interest in unlocking its vast, untapped potential. Her discoveries are groundbreaking and this human brain can hardly comprehend the science behind neuroplasticity and the like, but I do recommend reading her book which makes every effort to present this research to the general populous in an uncomplicated way.
I have always been a multitasker. In the effort to ensure that I tick all of my boxes for the day, I keep multiple windows and programmes open on my laptop, I quickly respond to a message on my phone while I wait for a large file to load, I browse Facebook while holding a phone conversation.
What this is actually doing is training our brains to crave distraction.
The outcome of multitasking is not in fact multiplication of time but actually inability to focus (and complete) the task at hand. Just stop doing it. Start practicing the art of focus.
5. Allow the teabag to steep
This one is counter-intuitive. I find that I am compelled by an urgency to keep doing. My disciplined work ethic is commendable but it indicates that I believe actively moving tasks forward is more important than allowing space in my day for mindfulness.
Mindfulness (noun): a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
I am not suggesting breaking out the yoga in the middle of your work day (unless you want to). Mindfulness is a principle that should be incorporated into daily routine. The point here is that working to the point that we have no headspace to reflect will not necessarily lead to effectively achieving goals in the long run. We need to allow space to assess our feelings and how they relate to what we are facing in our day-to-day lives.
One day while I was making a cup of tea, I noticed myself squeezing the life out of the tea bag. I was so intent on returning to my work that I could not allow myself the moment to let the tea bag steep on its own. It shocked me that my mind had no room for anything else but to return to active execution of tasks. I made the decision there and then to always allow my teabag to steep on its own. To let it be a prompt to remind me to take a moment to pursue mindfulness. Otherwise, what is a tea break actually for?
For me personally, mindfulness often takes the form of connection with God, as I pursue not only what I am thinking and feeling but also what He is speaking to me. With a desire to pursue my life according to His purposes for me, I really am deeply convicted by the fact that I can become so consumed in doing, forgoing those quiet moments of reflection and connection.
We need to accept that a balance between actively doing and actively thinking is beneficial. Depending on our beliefs and natural inclinations, this can take different forms. The key principle however is to remain in touch with what we are feeling and how this relates to what else is going on in our lives.