Achieve Supercharged CEO Productivity
Ever feel like everything is just too much? Too much information, too much to do, and too little time to do it?
Your side projects haven't moved, and you have a to-do list of other things that just keeps growing. In fact, you can barely remember what you had for breakfast, let alone all those millions of day-to-day tasks you have on your plate.
Do you wonder how some CEOs and heads of corporations appear to be everywhere and seem so ultra-productive?
Well, guess what? I'll let you in on a little secret. You can be that person too.
It will take some time and persistence, but I'm going to give you the tools and tricks to make sure you keep on top of everything and I mean everything — so you never let yourself get stressed or feel guilty about letting things slide again.
Too Much on Your Plate
You've probably heard of the system of Getting Things Done. Maybe you've dismissed it as an unworkable myth of ultra-productivity. Maybe someone mentioned it in passing and you forgot about it. Whatever the reason, I'm going to try and convince you that, even if this philosophy isn't for you, there are things you can take from it that will improve your life and productivity immeasurably.
So what is Getting Things Done (GTD)? It was coined by David Allan as a philosophy for essentially closing “open loops.” If you think of the human brain and memory as RAM, we only have so much of it. There are thoughts inside your “RAM” that are just waiting to surface at a later date, and often not at a date of your choosing.
Wouldn't it be incredible if you could free your mind from thinking about all those other things, to be in the moment with a task you're focusing on, and reach a point of zen or “flow” more frequently?
“Open loops” are thoughts occupying your mind, tasks you need to complete or even projects you know you need to be working on right now. They should be captured in a system you trust so your brain knows they are handled. For example, in organised post-it notes on a board or project lists or diaries. In essence, the GTD philosophy isn’t so much about what the system is, it’s more about whether the system is foolproof and captures everything you need to know right now.
This concept is important, and it's important for the philosophy because your brain must trust a system you put in place to ensure you don't lose anything. If the trust isn't there, the action or project remains an “open loop”, constantly nagging you because it remains un-actioned or un-dealt with.
Now, if you place an “open loop” in your trusted system with an associated next action, then you will be able to forget about it until you're next reminded. For example, let’s say you need to return some library books. The action would be, “Visit library to return books” with a context of “Errands” (we'll revisit this concept later).
Getting Started – The Big Clear Out
Now, the first step in the process is a lengthy one, and it takes some amount of discipline to carry it through, but if you're truly committed to making this work, it's an absolute must.
Central to the philosophy of GTD is an initial place to deposit the “stuff” that you need to get done. This is your Inbox.
Stuff that goes into your Inbox is essentially anything that needs processing or considering. If you needed to clean out a cupboard you've been dumping things in that's jammed so tight with “stuff” the door is ready to burst, you would place a quick note in your Inbox that reads, “Sort through bursting cupboard.” Maybe if it's a big enough task with multiple actions, you make it into a project, then put smaller actions for all the things in it. For now, though, you can make it a single action to remind yourself of what needs doing.
In the Big Clear Out, you need to spend a day or possibly an entire weekend sorting through all the things in your workspaces, both in the office and at home, until there's nothing weighing your mind down and your “open loops” are clear.
Some people, especially CEOs, have so much stuff to throw out they hire a skip for the weekend!
Although the process of collecting “stuff” in your Inbox can take 24-48 hours, you will eventually end up with a great pile of “stuff” ready to be processed. The feeling once you've done it can be absolutely liberating.
This is the essence of GTD, but in reality your system will probably be electronic and not a physical Inbox. I use the Omnifocus app on my Mac and iPhone, so I can track the “stuff,” making a note of things quickly and throwing them in the Inbox for later processing.
One rule that can help you knock off things quickly that are nagging you is to always deal with five-minute tasks in the here and now. If it takes less than five minutes, do it.
The argument for this, is that in reality we can complete all our five-minute tasks in a short period of time. We won’t always have five-minute tasks to complete so prioritisation isn’t so important. If you do happen to have many five-minute tasks that require completion, ask yourself, why do you have so many? Do you have to do them at all?
If it takes longer than five-minutes, then you need another mechanism and workflow for dealing with them.
The Four D’s
The strategy for processing your Inbox using four decisions is called the Four D’s:
- DO – work out how long an action will take. If it will take five minutes, then do it now.
- DECIDE – assign your action to a Project, give it a Context, and mark down how much Energy you think it will take and how much Time you think you need to complete it. This is the biggest step, so we'll cover this later.
- DUMP – if you don't want to do anything with an action, don't want it around, or don't need to file it for reference, bin it. Be thankful it's gone from your life or maybe recycle it if it's something you feel someone else might want to use (this will, of course, take another action).
- DELEGATE – if you can't do anything with an action and it's not your action to take — but it still requires completion — delegate it to someone else. These things will need to be tracked, so I suggest you have some form of “Waiting For” list where you place every action for which you have something delegated. Also it’s really handy to record the date on which you initially received the action so you know just how long it’s been on your plate and when you need to chase it.
What Is a Project?
The answer may seem obvious at first, but actually it isn't. A project should be anything that requires multiple actions to complete, but our ideal project should also have an end goal. What I mean by that is it should be a SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Boxed.
Let's take a look at a brief example to demonstrate. You might set yourself a goal of “improving traffic to your blog.” That's not really specific enough, though.
Instead, a much better goal would be to say, “I want to increase the traffic to my site to 200 sessions per day by the end of 2015.” Given that the current number of sessions you have to your blog per day is 50 (and it's nearly the end of the year is only a few months away), this seems like a realistic, specific, and time-boxed goal you can definitely aim for.
In order to achieve this goal, you need to have a next action. So, how might you progress towards this goal? In order to bring traffic to your website, you need to write content; one of your actions, therefore, should be to write blog posts at a regular interval, since you need blog posts to boost SEO rankings and attract users.
Even before that, you need to have an action to brainstorm for ideas centered around content. In this case, I'd have two actions, one that's scheduled to occur every week to write a blog post, and another that's scheduled every two weeks to brainstorm new blog post ideas. This will keep the content machine topped up and your blog brimming with fresh, regular content.
Contexts – The Key to Efficiency
One of the things we are terrible at as humans is being efficient with our own time. How often do we find that we've navigated to a random Daily Mail article (it's a trashy UK online celeb gossip news tabloid that I'm convinced every news site eventually leads to!) wondering how the hell we got there (probably via some random video of a cat or dog dressed in a funny Star Wars-themed costume).
Internet 1 – Focus 0
In GTD, we use this concept of a “context” with every action we create. A good example of a context would be a mobile context. If we wanted to group together all actions where we need to call someone, then we can set the context for all those actions to be mobile.
Next time we have a few minutes, and all we have on us is a mobile phone, we can just ring a bunch of people and cross those actions quickly off the list.
Having a context also makes it significantly easier to choose which task we need to tackle next. We primarily use the context, then we look at how much time we have, followed by how energetic we're feeling. This way, we can turn our brain off when deciding what to tackle next.
One of the top reasons why many intelligent people don't succeed is because they suffer from decision paralysis. They have the option of doing so many different things, but they can't choose what to do and often over-analyze why they can't do something, either because of a fear of failure or endless what if questions. Giving your brain no choice in that decision-making process actually increases productivity dramatically.
A Clear Mind Is a Creative Mind
Having purged your mind of “open loops,” you will find that you can unlock greater creative potential in the brain. Your mind no longer has to be filled with remembering “stuff” and can shift to being creative and thinking about the big picture instead. Whether that be through new ideas or ideas around the projects you need to complete (or start).
For this reason, it's very important that you buy yourself some form of Notebook or electronic app for brainstorming and jotting down quick ideas. However, I find that there's no real substitute for pen and paper when you want to jot down as many ideas as possible. There's nothing quite like a blank canvas to get the brain juices flowing.
You may also want to take audio notes on the odd occasion. Evernote is the perfect companion. It allows you to write down written, audio, and visual notes in an organized cloud-based format that's accessible wherever you need it on mobile, tablet, or PC. It is essential that you have a mechanism for jotting down your thoughts at every point in your day; otherwise, you risk slipping back into a state where your mind remembers “stuff” and your RAM is no longer free.
Always Align with Your Goals
For over 10 years, Mike Flint was Warren Buffett's personal airplane pilot. One day, Warren Buffett and Mr. Flint were discussing what their priorities were in life.Buffett asked Flint to list his top 25 career goals, then circle five of those goals as top priorities.
He told Mr. Flint to mark the five goals List A and the rest List B. Most importantly, he advised him to avoid everything in List B at all costs.
This is powerful advice, because it's just as important to know what you're not doing, as well as what you are doing. Often we spend too much of our time working on the things that don't matter in life, to the detriment of those that do. Focus on the goals that matter.
Entropy – Everything Tends Towards Chaos
In nature, as in life, everything tends to move from order to disorder. A tidy desk, a tidy home, will always tend towards untidiness and disorder. The only way you can keep a house tidy is to regularly clean it. This is also the case for your projects and actions.
You must regularly perform a sweep of your open tasks and open loops, so that you're always making sure you have next actions for projects and that your current projects are the projects you should be working on at that given moment. Regularly sweeping your tasks and performing an overview like this is known as The Weekly Review.
The Weekly Review requires you to:
- Work out whether you have any “open loops” you haven't thought about;
- Examine if you have all the next actions you need to continue on with your project;
- Ensure that all existing actions are actions you should be working on, or if other actions might be better suited;
- Clear out your Inbox by marking all existing actions with a project, context, time, and energy.
Review from the Sky
Having a ground-level view is fine and important, but as we mentioned before, you need to have your most important goals aligned so you can direct your actions on the ground. Similar to a general, unless you know what your objectives are from a higher plane, you can never possibly make sure they're all working in the same direction.
To make better use of your time, you could try choosing several goals that are similar to one another, which will mean that working on one helps with working on the others at the same time.
For example, I recently posted an article publically announcing my own goals, some of which included increasing both social media followers and visitors to my blog. By pursuing both of these goals, I can maximize the benefit of those actions.<
When looking at where you're heading in life, you need to have several high-level views to understand what you should be doing right now. These should be classified as:
- 50,000 ft – Purpose: Who am I? Who do I want to be and what do I stand for? This will help focus you away from goals that don't align with your being and morals.
- 40,000 ft – Vision: Where do you want to be in the next 5 years?
- 30,000 ft – Goals: What are my goals over the next 3-5 years that will accomplish my vision?
- 20,000 ft – Areas of Focus: What are my areas of responsibility? What am I expected to do in my job? What is my role in the home?
- 10,000 ft – Projects: What projects do I need to be doing in order to achieve my goals? Do they align with my areas of focus and my purpose in life?
- 0 ft (Runway) – Actions: What actions do we need to be working on right now?
Take action: Right now, stop and think about each perspective. Have you ever even stopped, put pen to paper, and thought about it? When you're done, I hope you have a greater sense of purpose and know what you need to be doing right now to make those dreams happen.
In the words of Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can build it.”
On top of all the day-to-day actions, you'll also have aspirations and actions that you can't or don't want to do anything with right now. Maybe they're things you’re thinking you might want to do in the future. They might be places you want to take the kids or skills you want to pick up, like learning to play a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language.tever these actions are, you need a place for them. That's why you need a Someday/Maybe list. I have lists for things like books I want to read or films I want to watch that I really don't have time for now, but I know I may have time for in the future.
Just make sure it doesn't become a dumping ground, and it's instead a place for things you genuinely may be interested in doing. Otherwise, put them in, tick them off, and forget about them.
Utilizing Your Calendar
David Allan mentions a file called a Tickler File. This is a very old technique but is basically a bunch of easily accessible folders with numbers 1-31 on them to represent each day of the month. As you progress through each day, you move the contents of the folder nearest you to the back and empty the contents. Each file should be filled with the things you need to get done on that day.
In a modern age, this method is superseded by calendars. Our calendar should be full of actions that absolutely MUST be completed on that day and/or time.
Personally, I use Omnifocus' excellent iCal integration with Fantastical 2 so that actions show up in my calendar when they absolutely need doing.
Don't be tempted to put every action in there to try and force urgency or act as a reminder system because that's not what the calendar is for.
To distinguish actions I should be working on now from those that have a specific date or time, I flag them in Omnifocus as important. That way I can quickly see which actions are a priority.
Go Forth and Multiply
I really think that the techniques I've taught you in this article are very worthwhile to implement. They've certainly changed my life for the better and I hope they change yours too.
Thanks for reading—now go forth, spread the GTD word, and multiply!