Clearing your mind to get things done

I've been working from home for roughly four years, recently as part of a distributed team at Convivio. Working from home gives a lot of flexibility and autonomy. No one else can immediately disrupt your focus as they could in a shared office. You're responsible for your own focus, and your environment. That's a big responsibility.

At times I find myself easily distracted. Not just by social media and the like. There's a lot of “busy work” to grab my attention around the house. Washing the dishes, hanging up clothes to dry, or general tidying up. It's easy to feel productive, when you're actually using these menial tasks to procrastinate or to distract yourself from some deeper anxiety.

Anxieties can also pop into your head when you're trying to recharge, like taking a walk or before going to bed. It's hard to settle down if your mind is swimming with all the things you need to do, it can feel overwhelming.

Getting Things Done™ with mindfulness

The aim of Getting Things Done is peace of mind and focus. Part of this is moving your to-do list out of your mind and into an external system, so you're mind can focus on what you choose to do at that moment in time.

I'll be honest, I've tried and failed to read the whole of David Allen's Getting Things Done book several times. It's littered with corporate speak, the book feels like it's aimed at the time-is-money C-level executives who'd pay thousands to attend a GTD™ retreat.

Luckily, there are now many accessible blog posts, podcasts, videos, and tools that tackle the GTD philosophy. Merlin Mann was my gateway into Getting Things Done, and it's approach to mindfulness.

These are the principles I've pulled from Getting Things Done to be more mindful, with more focus, in and out of work.

Don't use your mind for your to-do list

Mindfulness is about having a mind that's focused on the present, what you're doing, where you are, and how you do it. It's really hard to focus if you're also storing your future tasks in your mind. This can be anything; replying to that email, doing the washing up, picking up food for dinner.

Any time you identify a tiny bit of anxiety sitting in your mind, over something you need to do in the future, get it out. Externalise it. Once you externalise it, you can give yourself permission to forget about it and put it out of your mind.

In GTD terms, this is called a bucket, it's a dumping ground for things that need to be done, not sorted, filtered, or prioritised. The key to step one is getting these things out of your head and somewhere else. It's important that this step is quick and low-effort, so you can do it every time something pops into your head no matter where you are.

Create a system you can trust

You can only truly give yourself permission to forget something and focus on the present if you trust the system you're putting it into. Anything that goes in will actually get done, not forgotten about.

It's important to regularly go through your bucket and sort, filter, and prioritise the list into something that's usable. I do this at least weekly.

Remove things you no longer want or need to do

Priorities and needs change over time, you might notice there's an item on your to-do list that you keep shunting to next week. Sometimes this is a sign that you don't actually want to do it. It's best to be honest and remove tasks from your list that you will likely never do. Then you remove the guilt of seeing it there!

Break them down into discrete, achievable tasks.

You may also find that you keep postponing tasks that feel too big or too overwhelming to take on.

If you find yourself struggling to start work on a task, say for example “Write blog post on productivity”, the best thing to do it to break it down into the first step to take to make progress towards that final goal of publishing that blog post.

It could be: “Research productivity blog post”, or “Plan sections of productivity blog post”. Something that is well scoped, and achievable in one sitting is much easier to start.

Schedule them for a particular day

Rather than having one long to-do list that you pluck from, Kanban-style, I prefer to spread them out over the next few days, or kick them to next week if you feel like you're taking too much on.

This is why I like using digital apps for this kind of thing, as you can easily shift tasks to other days.

If it takes less than two minutes, do it now

When I've set time aside for processing my bucket a good rule is: if it takes less than two minutes to do, do it now. The extra work involves in prioritising, sorting, and arranging it isn't worth it for a task that small.

Use this system for everything in your life

The more you use a system like this, the more useful it is. The knowledge that everything you need to do, in work and outside work, is captured and will get done at some point, is incredibly liberating. It takes time to find the right tools and workflow that suit you. I use Todoist because it's available on everything, and allows me to easily move tasks to the next day or week, and into project groups.