If anybody needs to get things done, it’s mothers managing a home.
Mothers are the shapers of home atmosphere and home culture; keeping the mundane details under control allows us to direct our attention toward what matters.
Our minds are so full of all the details of many lives interconnected that we often grind to a halt, unsure how to move forward.
Learn the systems and the habits to get back on track and moving forward.
GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.
Why I Needed GTD
I first read Getting Things Done in 2005 or so – when I had only two small children – and implemented a few of its strategies. I returned to it again several years later, when my fourth baby was nearing his first birthday, because four children and a lack of sleep severely affected my brain power.
At the time, I had a vague notion that would help me get my brain onto paper more effectively. My goodness was I right! This book was instrumental in upping my game as a homemaker and climbing out of the hole my lethargy had dug.
Allen is all about “black-belt” list-making. As I read it, several times I thought, “Oh, yeah! This is where I got that idea.”
I slowly worked at implementing a more complete GTD® system, and every step yielded significant improvement in my peace of mind by banishing that awful, constant nagging sense of things unknown left undone and that sense upon entering any room or glancing any direction and seeing only things that you should do, but aren’t.
It’s a drowning sensation, and no matter how much you do it never feels like progress is made. Sure, sleep helps. Eating the right foods & finding the right vitamins to take helps. Grudgingly, I admit even exercise really does help. But another thing that helps is keeping a calendar and a set of lists that you can trust so that your mind may rest.
No matter what phase of life you are in, I hope you, also, will learn some new tricks and techniques to help you manage your home.
The Home is Not a Business
However, before I start, I wanted to banish any awkwardness about appropriating a business book for the stay-at-home, work-at-home, homeschooling, or otherwise engaged and involved mom and homemaker.
On the one hand, the last thing we want to do is make our homes into impersonal business offices, treating our children like employees or clients and striving for maximum efficiency. On the other hand, management is precisely our calling.
Getting Things Done is about managing your stuff and your actions, and once those are under control, your mind is left more free and clear to focus on the present moment with your family. So this series is not about shaping our homes and families to a business model, but about being in control of our tasks and stuff rather than letting it control us.
Instead of running around like chickens with heads cut off, we may be more free and calm to make the correct intuitive decision about how to handle whatever is before us in the moment.
Others before David Allen have noted that intentionality, management, and in-the-moment “presentness” is vital:
We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will doubtless feel the more strongly that the education of their children during the first six years of life is an undertaking hardly to be entrusted to any hands but their own. And they will take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours.— Charlotte Mason
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own” or “real” life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls ones’ ’‘real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination.–C.S. Lewis
Let us embrace our real life with our children as our true business, and arrange the details to allow ourselves to focus rightly.
A Common Sense System
What David Allen proposes in Getting Things Done is having a system in place to deal with one’s stuff so that one can achieve “stress-free productivity,” a sense of “relaxed control,” through “natural planning” processes.
He posits that most people know how to plan and they know what to do, they just don’t do it. So his book is a step-by-step coaching towards doing completely and well what most people only do in crises or in a scattered manner.
Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.David Allen, Getting Things Done
His system is simple and easy to summarize:
- Keep an up-to-date calendar
- Keep ideas & action steps in lists — not in your head
- Have a place to keep reference information so that you can find it when you need it.
There you have it. Now you can ignore the rest of this post if you already have those three things under control.
He proposes a system based on common sense principles, core methods that don’t change with the times or the technology. You can implement it as low-tech or high-tech as you want; you can implement it if you are a CEO, a pawn in an office, or – a mother at home.
Allen goes so far as to say that what he is about to lay out, when applied consistently, always works.
That is because it all comes down merely to systematically and consistently applying common sense.
Now, I found (and what even the author admits) that you don’t have to set up and implement a total system as he outlines. If you even only pick up a few tricks here and there, you will reap benefits.
You can implement the total system, cull a handful of tricks, or use his steps as a process to get things back under control again as needed.
Even when only portions of the model are inserted, tremendous benefit ensues.David Allen, Getting Things Done
The Goal of GTD: Clarity and Peace in the Midst of Interruptions
Mental focus and clarity is the aim of Getting Things Done.
The reason one should keep a calendar and lists in a trusted manner is that this eliminates mental distraction and overload so that the mind is freed to be present in the moment and make appropriate moment-to-moment decisions. After all, life happens moment-to-moment and not typically according to schedule.
If your system requires you to force your life into time boxes, you will increase your anxiety and tension, not diminish it. It might feel like control, but it isn’t at all.
Prioritized to-do lists simply don’t work after the first interruption.
And interruptions are the name of the game with young children.
Yes, that’s right, under this plan, there is no predetermined schedule you must create and implement. And that means it might even be doable.
I think we are all familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed by all that needs to be done and frustrated by how quickly everything needs to be done over again. We’re always wondering if what we’re doing is right or the best way or if there’s some magic sauce we’re missing that will smooth the path for our daily tasks and daily interactions.
The first thing we need to do when we’re fed up with the current state of things and are in the grip of wanting to get it all organized is to define what we even mean by organization.
We have to make sure we know what our goal is and what we mean by our words before we can work toward achieving it.
Organization does not mean
- you have matching containers with chalkboard labels on every shelf
- you have every drawer and closet labeled and orderly
- you are always on top of everything in your life
- you’re prepared
- you know where each item in your home belongs – even if it isn’t always in its home, it does have a home
- you know what your commitments and responsibilities are
When you’re organized, this is how you handle life. When you’re not organized, you feel the pressure and it makes us want to crawl under the covers and not even begin the day.
When we’re not organized, instead of being prepared, we aren’t sure what’s next, we don’t know what’s for dinner, we lose our keys.
Instead of knowing where each item belongs, we set things down absent-mindedly wherever and end up with random piles all over and we can’t find what we need when we need it (part of being prepared).
Instead of knowing our commitments and responsibilities, we just have a vague, nebulous sense of “ought” and guilt and obligation that we can’t nail down.
When we feel frustrated and defeated and as if we’re banging our heads against a wall, it’s usually at least partly because our reality doesn’t line up with our expectations.
What is Work, Anyway?
Until we are clear about what we are doing, we can’t effectively do it.
- Work is anything you have a commitment to make happen.
- Work is anything you want or need to be different than it currently is.
- A project is any desired result that requires more than one action step.
- A project is any outcome you’re committed to achieving that will take more than one action step to complete.
- A list is nothing more than a grouping of items with some similar characteristic.
Another term and paradigm clarification Allen offers is in regards to what it is that can actually be managed:
- You can’t do projects, you do tasks.
- You can’t manage time, information, or priorities; instead, you manage your actions.
One’s system, Allen asserts, must function on the level at which things actually happen and it must save more time and energy than is necessary to maintain it.
Types of Work
Allen breaks up any work we need to do into 3 categories:
- Predefined work (working off your task lists)
- Emergent work (dealing with emergencies & “doing the next thing”)
- Defining work (brainstorming, planning, writing, organizing)
Any of these are valid types that all need to be done at one point or another. The trick is to not let one type expand to exclude any of the others. You are not dealing with life effectively if you try to suppress immediate needs because it’s not on your List of Things To Do.
You are not managing effectively if, every day, emergencies preclude your accomplishing routine tasks on your list. You will also not have predefined work to do if you don’t do some of that defining groundwork; yet, I know the temptation to block out real work needing to be done in favor of arranging words on paper instead.
Bottom-Up Life Management
Until you have your current stuff under control, you understandably will have mental resistance to undertake more. Until the mundane and urgent is dealt with, the mental distraction is too great to focus on lofty goals.
So, unlike most others, Allen has you start from the bottom up as you think about your life.
- Action Items: thorough inventory of actions, projects, calendar events. You need a grounded sense of reality before you can take off.
- Current Projects: what is on your plate right now? You need to know what your availability is right now.
- Areas of Responsibility: what roles are you filling? You need to know what your jobs are in each area of life. Are you managing them all in proper proportion?
- Goals: 1-3 year progress goals. What would you like to accomplish in the short-term?
- Vision: 5-10 year goals. In what direction is your life moving?
- Life: purpose statement. Who are you and why are you here?
What I have always very much appreciated about being not only a Christian, but a Christian grounded in age-old creeds, is that the seemingly mysterious and daunting aspect #6 is, of them all, the easiest: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
This is one framework, anyway, which you can use to determine if your projects and responsibilities are balanced and moving the direction you intend. It can also help trigger projects or action items that might get glossed over, but that would greatly improve the fulfillment of one or another area of responsibility you have.
After getting the mundane, necessary stuff handled, Allen does recommend taking a broader look at your life to examine what roles you have, what goals you have, and whether or not you are working toward fulfilling your responsibilities. When you have achieved some mental clarity from setting up a manageable system, then you can more readily tackle such big-picture thinking. Knowing who you are, what your responsibilities and roles and duties are, and what needs to be done to move each forward gives you an edge in the intuitive moment-by-moment decisions of what to do. Knowing who you are and what you are about is key to making right decisions, so it is worth the time to occasionally sit down and work through your thoughts on that higher plane.
GTD Your Guilt Away
Now we begin to tackle the nitty-gritty.
The first step to mastering our workflow is to gather all the incompletes in our world into one place.
As soon as we attach a “should,” “need to,” or “ought to” to an item, it becomes an incomplete in our minds and a point of potential stress.
Seeing as this is true, it behooves us to be careful about attaching “ought” statements to ideas that might occur to us. We tend to do this all the time, without realizing the pressure and anxiety we are unnecessarily burdening ourselves with. How often do we think things like
- I really ought to organize my pantry.
- I ought to read more to the children.
- If I want to be a real homeschooler, I ought to do more fun projects and crafts.
- My house ought always to be clean.
Now, organized pantries, read-to children, crafts, and a clean home are all good things, but they might be the good things crowding out the current best things.
Start where you are, without adding more pressure or guilt.
If we can learn to recognize this tendency to say “should” and stop ourselves from doing so unless we really mean it, we can cut a lot of underlying tension. Instead, we can note the idea or task on a “consider” or “maybe someday” list and eliminate needless guilt and feelings of failure.
GTD Ninja Move #1: Write Down Everything
Time to begin the list making!
After all, most business productivity books full of justifications for being a compulsive list-maker. So, let’s get crackin’!
Start a list of everything that is on your mind, everything that is not as it should be.
This includes those things on which you’ve done everything you’re going to do except acknowledge that you’re finished with them.” The term we shall use for these incomplete items are “open loops.”David Allen, Getting Things Done
Make this list as complete as possible. Getting Things Done includes 4 pages of idea-triggers to help you get everything on your mind onto paper. If it pops into your head, write it down, no matter its importance. You’ll process it later. First, you simply collect.
Walk around your house, open every cupboard and drawer. Anytime “I should” or “I want to” or “I wonder” pops into your head, write it down. When you process, you can decide if you really should do anything or not. Right now you are simply gathering.
If you don’t get everything out of your head and onto paper (or a physical thing into a physical inbox), then “it’s like trying to play pinball on a machine that has big holes in the table, so the balls keep falling out: there’s little motivation to keep playing the game.” Your system is unreliable if there are still things you are managing outside the system; it isn’t whole and you won’t get as much payoff out of it, so the motivation to keep on top of it will decline.
Allen suggests using a piece of paper or index card for each separate item so that later processing of all these items will be simpler. I used a notebook and had at least 20 items on each page and 4-5 pages of notes when I spent a mere hour doing this. I added more gradually over the course of a couple weeks.
I would recommend dedicating one of those 15-cent spiral-bound notebooks you probably bought too many of in August and keep it at hand for the next couple weeks, spending 15-60 minute chunks brainstorming lists and open loops whenever you can carve out a chunk of time.
After all, dedicating an entire hour, much less an entire day, to open-loop collecting is fairly unrealistic for the mother of small children!
Brain Dump Instructions for Homemakers:
Declutter your head.
- Reduce stress by getting your thoughts onto paper
- Reduce frustration by assigning homes to stuff, tangible & intangible
- Reduce anxiety by knowing what you have on your plate
Sometimes Things Are To-Do Tasks, Too
Things can also be tasks weighing on our minds. Let’s collect them, physically or represented in a list:
- It’s the stacks of stuff tucked here and there that you intend to list on Craigslist.
- It’s the kitchen gadget that needs a new gasket.
- It’s the empty wall that you keep thinking you should find something to hang there.
- It’s the note on the back of a receipt at the bottom of your purse with a friend’s cell number.
- It’s the thought that you really should feed your family more vegetables.
These are the kinds of things that nag at you but that you haven’t decided either to deal with or to drop entirely from your list of open loops. But because there still could be something important in there, that “stuff” is controlling you and taking up more psychic energy than it deserves. Keep in mind, you can feel good about what you’re not doing only when you know what you’re not doing.
So gather everything that nags at you by jotting it down.
Here’s an abridged list of triggers to get you going: closets, chores, computer, online, purse, clothes, pantry, projects, commitments, friends, goals, communications, goals or needs of the children, supplies, finances, tools, upcoming events, landscaping, decorating, health, hobbies, housekeeping, errands.
Once you have all the things that require your attention gathered in one place, you’ll automatically be operating from a state of enhanced focus and control.
There are three key factors that determine the success of your collection function, both the initial mind dump and the ongoing habit of collection:
- Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head.
- You must have as few collection “buckets” as you can get by with.
- You must empty them regularly.
The GTD Habit: Write Things Down
In Getting Things Done, David Allen exhorts us to maintain these three rules about our collecting habit:
- Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head.
- You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by with.
- You must empty them regularly.
These collection tools should become part of your lifestyle. Keep them close by so no matter where you are you can collect a potentially valuable thought — think of them as being as indispensable as your toothbrush or your driver’s license or your glasses.
That seems like quite a commitment, but keeping something at hand to jot down notes is a frequent tip not only in organization-type books, but even in articles I’ve read about how to keep focus during devotional times. My personal ability to keep any information or reminders in my head has been practically nil the last few years.
Somehow, figure out the best ways for you to collect thoughts as they occur to you, something that can be a mostly-constant companion. You’ll probably keep several, depending on the context you are in.
A notepad in your purse or by your bed? Remember a pen!
A clipboard, binder, or notebook that goes with you and stays near at hand?
Your phone or an iPad?
A laptop or even a desktop near the kitchen? Choose one program for note-taking!
Hey, even the good-old trick of writing on your hand or arm to keep a note until you can get it into your system will work!
Anything will work — if you do — so pick what most appeals to you and that fits your lifestyle and circumstances and run with it. The key is to learn the essential habit of ubiquitous capture.
GTD Ninja Move #2: Have Containers for Everything
Now that you’ve at least begun to collect at least a majority of the open loops on your mind, you must first set up the proper containers and structures before you can begin to process and organize what you have captured.
Your inbox is where stuff or notes go before you can process them. Ideally, your inbox(es) are emptied at least once a day or every other day, but honestly, getting it done weekly is pretty good for me. This is a temporary holding spot, not a storage container. Your email inbox is one inbox; that is, it is not a storage spot.
File, archive, or delete emails in your inbox if you’re done with them; don’t let them collect. You also need one or two physical inboxes for stuff like church bulletins with dates or info you need, your notes, bills to pay, etc.
My inboxes include my email inbox, which I try to keep fewer than 10 emails in — only emails requiring action stay in the inbox; a magazine file in a “control central” cupboard in the kitchen to hold papers until they can be processed, and my purse is my on-the-go inbox to hold papers until they can be processed.
A launchpad is a magnified outbox. It is some sort of container or shelf near where you leave the house that you keep stuff that needs to leave the house: a bag of stuff to take to Goodwill, a bag of books to return to the library, a bag of hand-me-downs to give to a friend, your purse, etc.
Allen mentions having an “in front of the door” trick – putting in front of the door anything you need to take with you the next day. Setting up a launchpad is a more tidy and potentially baby-proofed version of his trick that still works well even if you don’t leave the house every day.
You also need some easy-to-grab place to store things you need to read. This is where you dump magazines, catalogs, your current book, printed out articles, and such.
Remember to keep it culled frequently. This isn’t your “I should read, but I probably won’t and don’t really want to” pile. This is your “I need to” or “I want to” read as soon as possible stack.
If anything in it becomes “someday maybe I’ll read it,” it needs to go elsewhere.
It is also helpful to keep paper and a pencil and maybe post-its in the stack, too, so you can take any notes you might want to while reading.
Your calendar is a container for time-specific obligations.
The calendar is not a place to keep to-do lists or notes. Calendar space should be guarded, honored space. The principle is that your calendar should show you the “hard lines” of your day, around which you can fit in items from your task list and handle things as they arise.
You can also use the calendar as an after-the-fact sort of journal tool: record your exercise time or your school hours or what you planted in your garden that day or anything else that encourages you to see recorded. But don’t put in “I should exercise” sorts of things on the calendar. After-the-fact recording is different than cluttering your calendar with wishful thinking.
Of the making of lists there is no end. Lists are the basic container for tasks and other small pieces of information.
This includes contacts lists, master grocery list, and to-do lists. There will be others, of course, but these are an important place to start. These are the ones that work hardest in keeping you organized.
So where will you make and keep lists? Lists of items needed, items to think about, thoughts about projects, notes about recipes or education, etc. etc. This isn’t the same as where you collect this information, but is where this information lives.
Where will your lists, thoughts, bits of information be kept so that they can be useful to you? Whether it’s paper or digital, it needs to be an intentional and consistently kept place.
Three Rules for Getting to Inbox Zero
Here were Allen’s best hints for accomplishing much during this initial processing, emphases mine:
If you’re not going to do it (fix it, assign it a home, complete the task or project, etc.) don’t keep it.
Remember, you want as few loose ends as possible. Honestly evaluate if you are really going to paint anytime soon, to decorate the living room anytime soon, use that coupon before it expires, mend the shirt, etc., etc.
Toss out as much as you can, and if you can’t bring yourself to toss it, then add it to you “maybe/someday” list. Instead of putting a big project that isn’t likely to happen soon on your “to-do” list, start a Pinterest board or a page or file of notes just to have a place to jot down ideas and inspiration, without the pressure to have to follow through anytime soon.
Rule 1: You don’t do a project, you do tasks related to a project.
I realized as I was working through my lists that one of my mental blocks was not recognizing that some of my tasks were actually projects.
For example, “reupholster dining room chairs” was on my task list, but of course that involved measuring the cushions, selecting and purchasing fabric, cutting the fabric, unscrewing all the seat cushions, and so forth.
Many of these tasks were contingent, too. I couldn’t go buy fabric until I had measured and calculated how much to buy. I couldn’t take apart the chairs until I had the fabric (and had cut it). Because I hadn’t clarified what steps were involved and what exactly I had to do first, I had unconscious resistance to the project.
As you go through your list, be aware of whether you have listed a task (a single to-do item) or a project (a group of related tasks to accomplish one goal).
Rule 2: Never put anything back into an inbox.
This is Allen’s version of “never handle anything twice.”
While that sounds good, it rarely works that way in reality. That motto is great for things like junk mail, which should never make it into your inbox in the first place. However, a bill that you will pay next week will of course be handled twice — three times if you count taking to the post office.
Instead, Allen’s tactic is that once you start processing, you are committed. You may not pick up a note or bulletin or invitation or whatever else finds its way to your inbox, glance over it, and give in to your mental block or habit of procrastination. You have to deal with it, so there’s no time like the present.
Remember, your inbox is not a storage container. It is not a home for anything. Its ideal state is empty.
Rule 3: Process one item at a time and don’t hop around.
As much as possible, focus and do not let yourself become distracted.
That does not mean do not attend to your children as you do this, but don’t let your brain flit from one topic to another and don’t go make yourself a cup of tea when you hit upon a note you don’t really want to deal with.
One thing that will help your mind and attention stay focused is to be writing throughout the process. If you aren’t writing down what you are thinking about, then it’s probably not relevant, not productive, and most likely not useful.
If it is more useful ideas and thoughts you are generating, then add them to your brain dump notebook.
If there is some idea or thought that you do need to ruminate on, now is not the time. So defer it: add it to your list of pending stuff. Then you know you will be reminded to think about it, but you can turn your focus now to the task at hand.
If you get stuck at a list item, ask yourself if you really, truly intend to move the project forward in the near future. If not, are you sure you want to keep the project at all? If you don’t, toss it. If you think you might someday and don’t want to forget or lose the idea or inspiration, then go ahead and add it to your “pending” pile, because there will be a category for that sort of thing.
And, if you’re anything like me, this whole collecting/processing business can take a month or two — and that’s with it being my priority side-project! Of course, that meant it got about 1-2, sometimes up to 4 hours per week, mostly in 15-30 minute chunks. Don’t sweat it. You aren’t a desk-working professional, so you have to make accommodations. Let the processing be the thing that accommodates your real life.
Getting it all onto paper and into lists that make sense and are useful really is worth the effort, but not if everything falls apart around you while you do so. Believe me, I’ve tried that tactic before.
GTD Basics: What is a List?
One thing I love about David Allen’s Getting Things Done is that he defines his terms clearly and precisely:
The list is just a way for you to keep track of the total inventory of active things to which you have made a commitment, and to have that inventory available for review.
When I refer to a “list,” keep in mind that I mean nothing more than a grouping of items with some similar characteristic.
Who would have thought that a definition of “list” would be necessary, yet it is helpful.
His definition banishes images we might conjure of beautiful, orderly, neat lists kept by an OCD perfectionist. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
“Really?” You might ask, “Being organized boils down to lists?” Allen anticipates skepticism:
Lots of people have been making lists for years but have never found the procedure to be particularly effective. There’s rampant skepticism about systems as simple as the one I’m recommending.
But most list-makers haven’t put the appropriate things on their lists, or have left them incomplete, which has kept the lists themselves from being very functional.
Now, these are some of the lists, or categories of lists, you will need:
- Next Actions (formerly known as To Do List)
- Waiting For
The Next Actions list contains whatever task is next on any and all of your active projects, which are also on your projects list. It is the master list with what must be done to move your projects forward.
The Projects list is like an index — a reference to what is going on in your life and mind.
The Waiting For list tracks tasks you have delegated.
The Someday/Maybe list contains thoughts and ideas and projects that are not current, but that you might want to consider in the future. It includes keeping ideas, thoughts, notes, and inspiration for future plans.
Checklists are reminders of the steps of procedures or routines that you want to make habitual, but as yet are not.
However you decide to keep your lists, and whatever lists you decide you need, remember that you want each to be functional at a glance.
It should be plain (at least to you) upon a quick look what the list contains and what it means. Tweak your implementation until you achieve that goal. If you have to stare at and interpret your list every time you refer to it, it will be as much a hindrance as a help.
GTD Ninja Habit #3: Task Management
Many productivity or time management strategies involve deciding what your priorities are and ranking your tasks according to your priority. However, in Getting Things Done David Allen challenges that advice:
You shouldn’t bother to create some external structuring of the priorities on your lists that you’ll then have to rearrange or rewrite as things change.
Attempting to impose such scaffolding has been a big source of frustration in many people’s organizing. You’ll be prioritizing more intuitively as you see the whole list, against quite a number of shifting variables.
I think this advice works well with a mother’s lifestyle. After all, when thinking about the big picture, we’d hardly ever put “Wash the dishes” as a high-priority task. Yet it does need to be done. Allen’s method lets you rank your priorities on the fly and do what is best in the moment you are in.
The goal is for you to be in control of your self. The lists keep the mundane tamed so you can look it all over with a calm and calculated eye and “do the next thing” that needs to be done.
Keep a Next-Actions List
A well-kept next-actions list prevents situations like beginning to wash the dishes, getting everything all set and wet and sudsy, then realizing out of the blue, “I have overdue library books!” “I needed to pay the bills today!” “I said I’d call ____ about ____!” and feeling like you have to do that more urgent or higher-priority thing right now before you forget again.
When you can calmly review all things you are responsible for doing, you can make a judgment call and feel confident in your choice.
Of course and unfortunately, simply having the lists doesn’t actually make you in control of yourself.
After you have those lists, you still actually have to do those things, and you still might not even want to. No system is a key to self-control and discipline. I know. I’ve tried. And so far all my systems have crashed and burned under my lack of self mastery. If the system controls you, you are its slave and you and everyone around you will suffer for it.
In refusing the be my systems’ slaves, I have also refused to be my own master. So my desires and my laziness become master instead.
How do you usually think about your different types of task? By context? By energy requirements? By some other categorization all your own? Use it!
The set of subcategories that work best will be the ones you already function in. The additional functionality that comes by writing that way of thinking down will be more than if you try to adopt someone else’s categorization.
So, what sorts of things do you do? What groupings make sense to you? Create those lists — just headings on paper (or on screen) for now.
No matter what your style, however, be sure that everything on your mind is written down instead.
Keep Project Lists
David Allen, as is his wont, has a precise definition for “project”:
- It is anything that requires more than one task to accomplish.
- It has a finish line and can be accomplished, finished, completed.
For projects, you need a master-list, an “index” of projects. Some projects might even need their own separate control system — a binder? a file folder?
You need some way to handle any paperwork associated with that project. Not all projects need this, so don’t be rigid. Only go as far as is useful. Most projects will only need their own list or sheet of notes and ideas, and one paper will suffice.
If you keep all your project notes in one place, then simply paging through them will probably be enough of an index so you can track what projects you have on your plate.
Only go on to the next level of complexity if it makes keeping tabs on things easier.
Some things we have to or want to do still don’t really fit into the “project” or “next action” categories.
Roles and responsibilities that are bigger than projects and that don’t really have hard-edged outcomes, deliverables, or end points also need a place in the system. Roles and responsibilities might generate projects and tasks, but the “goals” associated with them tend to be idealistic rather than concrete and achievable.
“Lose five pounds by New Years” is a project. “Maintain fitness and weight” is an ongoing, fuzzy goal. Its fuzziness doesn’t make it less important to work at, though, and often the fuzzy goals are the most important.
Much of the life of a homemaker is made of such responsibilities, ones that are not going to ever be complete and finished: laundry, dishes, cleaning, maintaining our health, disciplining & loving the kids, and so forth.
For commitments and goals that don’t fit Allen’s strict definition of projects, which are things that can be completed (like putting on an event or sewing a skirt), Allen recommends checklists that are frequently reviewed.
Allen wants you to start off with “a complete inventory of everything you hold important and are committed to in each main area of life:
- career [homeschooling? side projects?]
- health & energy
The idea is that for each, you list areas of responsibility or goals that you want to work toward (not projects, but purpose-oriented goals that guide but are never actually finished).
This list, with six main points and 3-6 subpoints under each, should be kept “in your personal system, as reminders to you, as needed, to keep the ship on course, on an even keel.”
Let’s commit to keeping this list realistic, however, and not a list of our ideal super-mom image. It’s a list that will evolve over time with different seasons of life.
It’d be a good idea to go over a draft of such a list with your husband and maybe also a good friend for a reality check. This list is to serve as a reminder and a guide of where you want to be headed in different areas of your life, of ways you can be proactive, purposeful, intentional, rather than reactive.
Keep Procedure Lists
Checklists are also the lists you keep to remind yourself either of steps to a procedure that is not yet habit or of areas of responsibility that you want to keep in front of your face. Allen reminds us to not add unnecessary complexity at this point:
The degree to which any of us needs to maintain checklists and external controls is directly related to our unfamiliarity with the area of responsibility. If you’ve been doing what you’re doing for a long time, and there’s no pressure on you to change in that area, you probably need minimal external personal organization to stay on cruise control.
If “you know when things must happen, and how to make them happen, and your system is fine,” then stick with it and don’t mess with what’s working.
However, if that is not the case, then checklists are a stabilizing backbone to help you get there. Make as list of the process or routine you wish were habitual, what you would like to be “cruise control,” and then work from that list until it is.
Morning routine lists, school routine lists, kitchen cleaning list, menu plans, can all be set up as procedure checklists to help us not have to rethink those processes every single day.
Keep a Someday/Maybe List
You need a place to keep your creative thinking, too. A someday/maybe list is where you can keep an idea without it becoming a pressure or stressor.
It’s a place to let ideas incubate or to hold ideas until their time comes. They don’t need to nag you, because you have acknowledged them and you have said, “Not now. But I will consider it again in the future.”
Maybe you want to keep a list of activities you’d like to consider when all your children can get their own shoes on, get into the car, and buckle themselves up without anything more than a “Go!” from you. Maybe you want to keep a list of people you want to have over, but can’t right now because of short-term circumstances. Maybe you want to keep a list of books you’d like to read or movies you’d like to see or places you’d like to go.
A someday/maybe list is a no-pressure place to keep them and let your imagination run free. There is no obligation that you ever will do anything on this list, but at one point you had the thought, captured it, and now you can wait and see if the time ever becomes right for that idea.
However, remember that the point is to write it down and let it go. It can be easy for the someday/maybe list (or Pinterest boards) to become a list of how we wish life looked, a list of grievances and discontents all lined out for constant review. Guard your heart and keep a list of future potentialities, not a list of current discontents.
Keep a Reminders List
Often there are “someday” tasks or ideas that are not “maybes,” but actually need to happen by a certain date. Instead of incubation, they need to pop back to attention at some future point. How can we arrange that?
There are two ways: the analog & the digital. Both, I am afraid, are only going to work if you use them.
- Analog: Use a system of folders to hold paper reminders of future tasks and event information. Here is an article on how one mom set this up.
- Digital: You can use Evernote for a tickler file system, or Remember the Milk. I use RTM, inputting a task or reminder with a date, knowing it will then pop up onto my list at the time I specified.
However, that means committing to using whichever set up you choose. It’s only going to work if you work it.
Keep an Agendas List
Another helpful type of list to keep is a set of agendas. Keep a running list of things to talk about with your friend next time you see her, items of business to bring up at the next ladies’ meeting, topics you want to discuss with your husband, etc.
If you’re not much of a conversationalist, you might even keep a list of topics of conversation to get you through a social function. Yes, I do happen to be that pathetic, thank-you-very-much.
GTD Basics: What Is Organization?
Now you’ve collected your projects, thoughts, ideas, random tasks, and anything else plaguing your mind, set up your containers and your lists, processed that collected stuff, and are now left with a list of stuff to be distributed into your containers and lists. That is the organizing process.
One thing to keep in mind as you go about organizing is that this really isn’t a process that can happen all at once, even if we did have the time. As you use your system, you’re going to see ways to improve it, so tweak it as you go and don’t get bogged down in setting it up “perfectly” from the outset.
As you decide where your stuff is going to go, remember that your goal is to keep what you need to know and do “current and conscious.”
As long as you know where to find what you need when you need it, quickly and without stress, you are organized.
The key to making this all work isn’t a perfect organization set-up — let that stay in flux somewhat as you work with it and get used to it — the key is review, which we will cover soon.
Organize Tasks & Projects
So, you have lists of projects and you have sorted out how you are going to keep your task lists. Now the trick is getting project-related tasks onto your to-do list, or “next actions” list. It is not efficient or trust-building to have a to-do list tucked away with every project. You want to have one or two places with your next actions, preferably split up by context or energy requirement (even if that only means columns or rows drawn on one sheet of paper).
So, go through each of your projects, and identify and write down the following information:
- What will count as “finished” for this project? What is the outcome I am working toward. This goes somewhere prominent on your project’s page.
- What things need to happen to get to “done”?Start a brainstorming list of necessary tasks on the project’s page. Add to it as you think of more things, whenever you do think of more things.
- What is the very next thing to do to move this project forward? It might be one or two or three, but what concrete, specific task has to happen next before any other progress can be made? This is the next action for this project. This needs to go on your next actions list, which is your daily work-off-of list. Depending on how you split up your next actions based on contexts or energies, put the task in the appropriate category.
Develop the routine of going over your projects and moving next-action tasks onto your daily radar, and you will dramatically reduce stress and mental drain.
Organize Reference Materials
Your reference materials are your personal libraries (books, magazines, catalogs, flyers, CDs, DVDs, recipes) and archives (past calendars, used lists, school records); information that is useful to you but doesn’t involve or generate tasks.
How you set these things up, how much you keep, what you keep, where you keep it, is all a personal logistical issue that you’ll have to figure out for yourself and your own context.
Simply ensure that as you’re setting up your filing system for reference materials — shelves, filing cabinet or box, binders, magazine holders, whatever — you only file reference material and not actionable items. Anything that requires action needs to be in with your projects or next actions list or trigger system.
However you set up your reference materials, your goal is to make it an under-two-minute task to file incoming stuff.
That means that when something comes in that belongs with your reference material, you just put it away, you don’t put “file stuff” as an action item on your to-do list. The goal is to not let a nebulous stack of papers, magazines, or whatever accrue.
Organize Your Expectations
You are not done with organizing when your system is set up. Not only do you then have to do what you have to do, but systems simply don’t stay set up, they don’t run on their own, and they don’t work if they can’t adapt.
“The purpose of this whole method of workflow management,” Getting Things Done reminds us, “is not to let your brain become lax, but rather to enable it to move toward more elegant and productive activity.”
In passing Allen uses house cleaning as a metaphor for the system, and I shall elaborate upon that theme, since it is one we can relate to.
The point of housekeeping is not to have a spotless, sparkling house all the time. Having a clean and orderly house is not about never having dishes and always sweeping once the tiniest crumb hits the floor. The point is to keep it functional, healthy, and attractive, in keeping it in a state of readiness for fulfilling its purpose. So it is with most of our work and with this system. The point is not to maintain a squeaky-clean organization system, but to keep it useful and effective.
GTD Ninja Move #4: Review
Well, up until now we were really dealing with preliminaries.
Sure, a major mind-dump and organizational purging reduces bloat and fog, but it is review that keeps those things from reappearing. Try as I might, I cannot escape the reality that having a plan is not good enough. I have to work the plan.
Sorry, it’s painful, but true. In the GTD set-up, the review process is a huge component to the “work the plan” admonition. What is the point in having a list, after all, if you never look at it?
Actually, I used to think it was worth something. Having the list meant that I spent some time brainstorming and clarifying, so even if I didn’t use my list after it was made, my mind was in better order. Also, used to be, if I sat down and wrote out a grocery list, I could manage a grocery shopping trip without consulting the list and generally only miss one thing, if any.
Those days are now gone.
Now if I end up at the grocery store without my list, I can only come up with half the items, if that. My brain is gone. Hence, I need things written down and I need to consult what I have written.
Turns out David Allen was right:
“Having [action items] ‘organized’ isn’t sufficient to get them off your mind — you’ve also got to review them appropriately.”
Consistently having the appropriate level of review at appropriate times is the key to maintaining the trust in your lists that will keep them effective and you focused: It’s one thing to write down that you need milk; it’s another to be at the store and remember it.
So the review process is not a bunch of time spent keeping this third thing constantly juggled; review fulfills the system’s purpose: keeping your head clear and your intuition trustworthy.
Long-term, big-picture thinking is not really David Allen’s gig in Getting Things Done. He’s all about the mundane, daily, nitty-gritty.
However, he mentions that having a a high-level, big-picture planning session once or twice a year is very valuable in making sure all the mundane business is taking you where you want to go. If you want help focussing on visions and goals and such, I’d recommend starting with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, or A Mother’s Rule of Life: How to Bring Order to Your Home and Peace to Your Soul.
The homemaker & homeschooler’s life does lend itself to a twice-yearly vision-clarification. We have the New Year, cleaned out from all the Christmas extras, when we tend to think about personal goals like decluttering, weight loss, and such.
Then we have the end of the summer, when our thoughts turn toward curriculum plans & purchases. We can save a tremendous amount of money if we know what our educational goals are and how we can achieve them before we buy books and materials.
You can even mark “on hold” next to some list items as you review. It’s ok to acknowledge that some good goals and even roles need to be on hold and saved for the future. Writing that down and making that acknowledgement can go a long way towards peace of mind and destressing life.
A weekly review is 30-120 minutes set aside to review and update your plans. It is the linchpin piece that keeps your plans and systems actually working for you.
Having 2 dedicated hours to yourself every week is likely not feasible. In that case, I think it’s also possible to accomplish this in one quick run-through or two separate sessions.
Gathering loose papers, processing the inbox, culling your reading pile, these can be done in quick spurts weekly as part of your housekeeping routine.
What really requires focus and as much of a “time out” as you can manage is evaluating your calendar and lists and bringing them up to date and refreshing your mind with what’s been accomplished and what’s on the docket.
If you are pressed for time, then even 30-45 minutes could accomplish this, I think, especially if they are caffeinated minutes.
I bet we can all find 30-45 minutes somewhere once a week without interactions or other demands — the difficulty is in choosing to use it this way instead of zoning out on random internet searches. So, maybe Allen’s quote for us should instead read: “The most senior and savvy of them, however, know the value of sacrificing the seemingly [refreshing & relaxing] for the truly [refreshing & relaxing], and they create their islands of time for some version of this process.”
The key is finding the time, and carving out that time regularly, to perform this clarifying and ordering ritual.
Fundamental to your system being useful to you is the morning review.
Begin the day by looking at your calendar. You need to know what must happen today before you can figure out what should, could, or might happen today. Your calendar will tell you what time you will have available. Going out for a doctor’s appointment anyway? Can you get any other errands out of the way while you’re out? Is it your only day at home all week? What will you be preparing for dinner tonight ?
Your calendar shows you what the landscape of your day looks like so you can get an idea for what maneuvering you might need to do to get the essentials in; look at it or your written routines or schedule to try to find pockets of discretionary time you might miss if you just fly by the seat of your pants.
After you see the lines of your day on your calendar, give your next actions lists a glance. Remind yourself what you have going, check if you have deadlines coming up, and see if there’s one or two things you want to commit to getting done today.
If you have routine checklists or a daily schedule, perusing it for a minute in the morning might help keep them forefront in your mind so that you follow through throughout the day. If you homeschool, you might also want to see what you have lined up as school plans for the day, too, to help yourself mentally prepare.
Keep your calendar and next actions lists highly visible throughout your day, so when you find yourself with a pocket of time, a quick glance will be all you need to latch on to something you can do to move things forward.
How much time should one spend looking at their lists? Allen answers:
As much time as needed to feel comfortable about what you’re doing. In actuality, it an accumulation of two seconds here, three seconds there.
Assuming that you’ve completely collected, processed, and organized your stuff, you’ll most likely take only a few brief moments here and there to access your system for day-to-day reminders.
Looking at your lists doesn’t actually mean you must do something from it, it just means “you’ll evaluate them against the flow of other work coming at you to ensure that you make the best choices about what to deal with. You need to feel confident that you’re not missing anything critical.”
Your personal system and behaviors need to be established in such a way that you can see all the action options you need to see, when you need to see them. This is really just common sense, but few people actually have their processes and their organization honed to the point where they are as functional as they could be.
When you have access to a phone and any discretionary time, you out to at least glance at the list of all the phone calls you need to make, and then either direct yourself to the best one to handle or give yourself permission to feel OK about not bothering with any of them.
GTD Basics: Self-Management
So, if you have everything written down, everything in its own place, and review habits settled, then how does all this help you in doing the next thing moment by moment as life happens?
The process and system clarifies your mind and your intuition. This is not a system that demands that you only abide by what tasks are on your to-do list. The task list is not the master in this scheme.
This is a system that acknowledges life cannot be so contained and bottled up.
This is a system that goes along with one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes:
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own,” or “real” life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s “real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.
Getting Things Done puts it this way:
“In fact, much of our life and work just shows up in the moment, and it usually becomes the priority when it does.”
Heh. Stinky diapers, broken glass, or a disobedient child, anyone?
“It’s indeed true for most professionals,” — and all mothers — “that the nature of their job requires them to be instantly available to handle new work as it appears in many forms.”
We all understand that fact, but what often bogs us down is thinking that having a system or a schedule will prevent us from being free to handle such situations.
The answer is keeping up with the review habits so that you know you are making the right action choices in the moment, as things come up.
Often it is easier to just do what is in front of you, using those things as an excuse to not do things that will require confrontation (even of your own piles). The goal, however, is to be able to “trust our judgment calls about the dance of what to do, what to stop doing, and what to do instead.”
What you want is to decide what to do — rapidly — and be confident about that decision.
Discipline. Dance. Choosing. Doing. Thinking. These are our key words now and they will move us toward responsibility, right action, and true freedom.
So our goal here is to become “elegant at dispatching what’s coming in and organized enough to take advantage of the ‘weird time’ windows that show up, [so] you can switch between one task and the other rapidly.” To be most effective in our decisions and actions, especially as we who have an abundance of roles, tasks, and demands on our attention,“you must learn to dance among many tasks to keep a healthy balance of your workflow.”
All decluttering and all organizing and all managing is always a process, and it often feels crazy. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting it wrong.
GTD Ninja Move #5: Project Planning
So if you’ve set up ubiquitous capture, an effective task list, and a current calendar, then you have all you need to run projects smoothly and effectively.
Define your purpose & principles. Ask, “Why?” and determine your standards.
Asking this basic question will help define success, motivate, and clarify your focus.
Let’s take planning your history curriculum for the year as an example. If you begin with your purpose (“familiarity with American history,” say) and determine your standards (living books, timeline work, etc.), then you have just filtered out at least half of what materials you might find online. Decide your goal and then don’t let material marketing drive you off course.
Decide if crafty hands-on history projects are your thing. If they are, find a curriculum that includes it and forgo the books-only approaches. If they aren’t, you can skip most teacher-guide materials and just go through a book catalog. Either way, you make the decision and don’t feel guilty about what you are ignoring.
Envision the desired outcome.
Picture in your mind what success looks like.
First, project yourself into the future when this project is underway or complete; second, envision what “wild success” at that point would look and feel like; third, capture the details, the features, that you see.
You want to make your hoped-for outcome as solid as possible. No more amorphous, “Well, it’d be nice if……but I’d be happy if…..but what will probably happen is…..so….we’ll just see how it all goes.”
Let’s take a project as simple as cleaning the kitchen. When you say, “Clean the kitchen,” what do you mean? Do you know what you mean? Without a clear goal, you could — depending on your personality type — either quit partway through thinking, “Well, that’s good enough for now.” or you could continue puttering around finding cleaning jobs to work on from now ’til Kingdom come.
Before you start, decide what “Done!” looks like.
Brainstorming. Capture all your ideas on paper, going for quantity over quality.
When you get an idea, you want to grab it so that you will not have to ‘have the idea’ again. The more ideas you capture, the more free your mind becomes to associate and generate more ideas.
Organize. Filter and sort the ideas brainstorming generated, and set out a plan.
This is the normal “planning” function, but it is rendered more useful and effective by being defined by the first two steps and expanded by the brainstorming.
Determine next actions.
What needs to happen now to make the outcome happen?
This is where much informal planning goes awry. A plan without specific action items lined up is scarcely a plan at all. There are several different types of next actions that might be called for, including setting up a meeting (or discussion time with your husband), gathering information, or ordinary to-do tasks.
If you have current projects that are languishing on your lists right now, give yourself 10 minutes to work through these 5 steps with each one.
Use GTD to Eliminate Stress
Anxiety, David Allen claims, is caused by lack of control, organization, preparation, or action. The last three are things that are within our control. Trying to control circumstances leads to anxiety because we cannot control them.
Anything that causes us to overreact or under-react can and often does control us, when what we need is to exercise self-control. The path to freedom, liberty, power, is in self-discipline, self-governance, self-control.
The good news – though, of course, David Allen doesn’t develop this – is that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. Therefore, it is ours for the asking, for the taking. Of course that doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it possible.
We must remember that it is our actions that we control, not time, not circumstances, not others. If we try to control what we cannot, we will be frustrated and stressed. If we control what is ours to control – our own selves – we gain peace, confidence, and growing capabilities.
Right now you have the ability to focus on successful results, brainstorm, organize your thinking, and get moving on your next steps. […But you need to practice diligently until] your new operational style is elegantly embedded.
So, this whole organization thing is really a discipline thing. It is a set of habits that we must work to train ourselves in so that it becomes easier and easier to Do the Next Thing, to Do the Right Thing.
GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of the David Allen Company.
Dump all those swirling thoughts out of your head.
Yes, simply writing it all down will help to
- Reduce stress by getting your thoughts onto paper
- Reduce frustration by assigning homes to stuff, tangible & intangible
- Reduce anxiety by knowing what you have on your plate