Secrets To Getting Things Done

imageDo you ever notice how much cleaning you can get done in the few minutes before company arrives? Or how quickly you can write a report on the day it’s due? I’m always amazed at how many loose ends I can tie on the day before a vacation. Ever wonder why we can accomplish more on some days than on others? Is it because we have to make an extra effort to avoid distractions? Or perhaps it’s the extra energy we get from the adrenaline rush of being ‘under the gun’ – and the fear of the consequences if we don’t get it done.

It could be any or all of these factors. But one of the main obstacles to getting things done is perspective. If you have a wide perspective – that is, you look at all the things you have to do in the short time you have to do them – it’s easy to conclude that you don’t have enough time right now, or tomorrow, or next week. So why even bother starting? I find this especially true for my predominantly right brained clients – they are wired to see the ‘big picture’ rather than the details.

One solution is to differentiate between projects and tasks. Cleaning an entire house is a project. Wiping the counters is a task. The first feels overwhelming and time-consuming; the second feels manageable because it can be done quickly. If we can get into the habit of breaking down our projects into tasks, we would get so much more done.

One way of doing this is to list all of your projects and, below each project, list each task required to complete the project. If you are not a list-maker, mind maps are a great alternative: Put the name of every project in a large circle, and draw a line to smaller circles where you put the individual tasks required.

When you have a few minutes to devote to a task, just do it and cross it off. It will take less time than you think and you will not only receive immediate gratification, you’ll also complete more projects efficiently – and with less guilt.

Another solution is to focus on the process rather than the outcome. I often hear clients berating themselves because they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do. For example, they set aside a weekend to declutter the garage, and although they spent the entire weekend working on it, they didn’t finish the job. They feel defeated and give up on their organizing goals. The problem here is not only the unrealistic expectations that set us up for failure before we even begin. It’s that we are focusing only on the result rather than putting value on the effort. So instead of feeling good that we put in so many hours working towards our goal and recognizing that we are so much closer to achieving it, we berate ourselves and end up feeling bad. And the next time we think about decluttering, we remember how bad we felt before – so we don’t bother. After all, why would we want to feel bad? By the way, this resistance is usually a sub-conscious behaviour, so you may not even realize why you are avoiding certain projects. On the other hand, if you can build in small rewards each time you work on a task (the reward is not based on the result but on the effort), you’ll procrastinate less. You may feel that doing the work is its own reward, but the little kid inside of you will want a real reward – and will remember that reward the next time the task needs to be done. So indulge your inner child and you’ll notice you’re making less excuses and getting more work done. And that’s something to celebrate!

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This post has 17 comments

  • Elisa S. Lay says:

    I am not sure about this suggestion. Making a list of task sounds more tedious than directly doing the job. One of the ways I do in order to get the job done is to think that today is the only day that I have.

    • Hi Elisa,
      Thank you for your feedback. You’re absolutely right, list making is not for everyone. As you say, it’s only a suggestion. You need to find what works best for you. For many of us, writing down the projects, and the tasks required to complete them, releases the pressure of having to remember everything (or the worry that we might forget). Most projects can’t be done in a day and the tasks need to be spread out across several days or weeks. Personally, I’d rather ‘ink it’ than take the mental energy to ‘think it’. Anyone else care to contibute to this conversation?

      • Sharon Carder says:

        I agree with you. Lists don’t work for everyone, but for me they are a great help. I find peace in making the list and joy in the sense of accomplishment laid out in black and white. The items still to be done will be waiting for me, and not forgotten.

        Thank you for all the helpful information you provide in your newsletters!

        • Sarah says:

          Hi, I am not a list person – although I have resigned myself to the fact that I need them. They help keep me, a creative person with far too many ideas than to know what to do with (a sign of intelligence I am told!!! lol!), focused and free from feeling overwhelmed. Maybe other people are not “list” people because they actually don’t need them…
          Even though I not a natural list maker who gets great satisfaction out of crossing things off of it, this much is true for me: “Thoughts disentangle themselves passing over the lips and through pencil tips”. Lists help in that respect, but I look forward to trying out a mindmap over a list.

  • Evelyn Lew says:

    Another very helpful article, Hellen. (If you don’t mind, the word “its” is a ‘possessive’
    whereas “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”, but plse ignore this if you do mind, as I’m not trying to offend.)

    • Peter G says:

      Evelyn, I am not certain what it is that you are referring to; “its” is used once and “it’s” is used four times in the article, and they are all, in my opinion, used correctly and in the sense that you have stated.

      • Evelyn Lew says:

        Hi Peter –

        The “its” I was referring to was in the 2nd last sentence of the last paragraph :
        “You may feel that doing the work is its own reward, but the little kid . . . ”
        but I can see that the “it’s” that I saw there is now “its”. Certainly I can see that “it’s” has been used correctly everywhere else in this article, as you’ve pointed out. So was the “it’s” I’m referring to corrected to “its”? Only Hellen can say, but I’m pretty sure I saw what I’m saying. Aside from this article, I’m amazed at how many times I see “it’s” used as a possessive pronoun in people’s writings. Thanks for your comment.

  • T says:

    Love your articles.

    List making definitely works for me. Just getting it out of my mental to do list onto a paper to do list helps alot.

    My best tip for starting something is to break down a task into the smallest possible unit.

    For example, when my kids have homework that they are slow to start, I just get them to put their book on the desk. The next step would be to have them get a pen. And soon enough, the momentum helps get the homework started.

    Works for me too when I have to wash the floors. 🙂

  • Arlene says:

    Hi Hellen,
    This is so timely for me!
    I was informed that my landlord is taking over my apartment and now I am scrambling to purge and pack up what I can take (which is not a lot). I have been kicking myself for not purging in the past.
    I see that I need to make a list of the projects, give them a priority, and then list each task that I need to do to accomplish this. At first I thought doing that would eat up too much time, but the last week I just circled around and got a lot of little things done, but I can’t see much progress.
    For me, I think taking the time to make a list will end up being the most productive way to use my time. I have a deadline with no wiggle room, so it must get done!
    It’s rough because most of my family heirlooms will have to be thrown out, but I can only take so much with me. (yeah, I’m sentimental).

  • Lynn from Fullerton says:

    Thank you for solving something I have often puzzled over. Why I can clean sometimes, and sometimes get lost in the maze of clutter. Thank you for showing a way out.

  • Amy says:

    I agree with you Helen. My husband and I made a list of our decluttering goals. We wrote which room we work on first, then which areas in that room we would work on, how long it should take us, what area would we work on next. Some rooms took 3 weekends, some only took only one. We would allow ourselves one weekend a month for fun.

    By defining our goals, and making a list, the tasks became easier to manage. Now that we have decluttered, our lives run very smoothly. When I go shopping, I know exactly what we have at home, and that has saved us a lot of money.

    Decluttering and getting organized is a lot of work, but it is so worth it. Thank you Helen, for giving us our lives back!!

    • Amy, that’s amazing – congratulations to you and your husband for all you’ve achieved! And thank you for sharing your inspiring story. It sounds like your perspective has shifted drastically as well – and I’m so happy for you.

  • Deneen says:

    Hello, Hellen!
    Thank you so much for all you do & the information that you share! I have been following you for years … really miss your show “Neat” & your insightful, stylish, comprehensive solutions.

    Starting new life as an empty nester after moving to a smaller home in another state is exciting & challenging … while grieving it’s overwhelming. Your post reminded me of a wonderfully efficient system (similar to Amy’s) I used to prepare my house for sale six years ago. I’m about to use it again NOW to make my new location a home. Here’s the system I used:

    1. Walk through the entire house with the keen, critical eye of a potential buyer starting from the front door
    2. Walk back through with a notebook in hand to create a master to-do list. Step into each room writing what needs to addressed devoting a few pages to each room/area of our home including the exterior & landscaping. 3. Review the room lists noting where contractors, delegation & supplies are needed
    4. Work through the house by room.
    We used this book constantly throughout the process brainstorming & adding notes. I call it brain-dumping because this system helped us empty all thoughts, ideas, questions into this book so we weren’t carrying all that around in our heads. This was an efficient & less stressful process because of that book. Our house sold well in the midst of the recession. It seems so obvious and elementary because I’ve always done this in business … but, writing your home down and out of the mind is profound & personal. Charting a course is easier with directions & rest stops. Getting there is … dark chocolate! I’m off to do this in my new home on this new leg of my journey. Best of blessings on your journeys.

  • Laurie says:

    Better to ink it than think it. So true sometimes there are a lot of to-dos in my head and I feel stressed. When I write them down I feel much better and focused. Also your tip for breaking projects into smaller tasks makes so much sense. A lot of projects have been on the list for a while. Now I will break them up and get them done! Thanks Hellen!!

  • Sarah says:

    Thanks Hellen! I am going to try the mind map idea for my task lists! I am a big picture person and to do lists seem so tedious and overwhelming, but I know I need them otherwise I get overwhelmed with that “big project” just like you mention in your post. A mind map will allow me to work on the task while still seeing the big picture. Thank you!
    Also, focusing on the process rather than the outcome is something I am working on in general: I have been calling it “trusting the process”. Whenever I want to give up because I am not seeing results I remind myself to trust the process — or focus on the process rather than the outcome as you refer to it. It’s a mindset that I have been working on recently, and find it so timely you mention it in your blog post. Thanks again as always.

  • Cynthia says:

    Sorry on a timeline – one of my favourite quotes is Parkinson’s law “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” – so true. Deadline or drop dead dates work for me.