The 5 Pillars of Getting Things Done

This article is inspired by Charles Duhigg’s excellent book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, which I highly recommend. It has been a game changer for my productivity, and will most likely be for yours as well, if you apply his great advice backed up by tons of studies and interviews.

One of the great things about procrastination is that you are never alone. It is a lot easier to find people who don’t work on their goals than people who do. That’s because the people who are busy working on their projects are not at the bar. They’re somewhere at home, at the office, in a café, on a plane, working on their laptop or taking notes in their journal. They’re harder to find.

But it’s never black or white. Procrastinators have bursts of motivation once in a while. Productive people will sometimes procrastinate too. Everybody knows what procrastination feels like.

You’ve set yourself up for work. You’re alone at your place, at your desk, ready to get to work. You have everything you need, a fresh cup of coffee, all you have to do is get to work. Then, it’s just not going. You can’t get to it. You end up doing one of 2 things.

  • Completely unrelated and unproductive tasks, like checking out Facebook, Youtube, reading random articles…
  • Semi work-related tasks that are still not the work you said you were going to do. Responding to unimportant emails, doing unnecessary research, cleaning your hard drive…

When you’re at your desk, with your equipment ready, you’re so close to getting it right and starting to work. Hitting a wall happens. In this article, we will cover 5 key points to try to overcome that last obstacle.

#1 Motivation

Motivation is triggered by making choices that show you are in control, and that you are moving towards meaningful goals. Changing the way you look at your tasks by turning a chore into a choice will change the way you get things done.

A lot of people don’t know how to force themselves to start something hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it. Other factors come into play of course, and some people who do things right might still fail in the end. But that’s another story. At the level of this article, what matters is to get your motivation going.

Make yourself feel in charge by asking yourself why you are doing this. Explain to yourself why the choice you’re making to work on weekends is not only an affirmation of your values and your goals, but also a much more certain path to success than watching TV.

Finally, acknowledge that once you’ve taken the first short-term step, it is so much easier to keep going. You spending this Saturday on your laptop is a short-term commitment part of a bigger purpose. And starting to type the first sentence, to draw the first character, to sketch the first idea, will most likely get you going for the next few hours.

#2 Goal Setting

Motivation is part of the answer to getting to work. But towards what goal? If you’re trying to get to work on something, you probably already know what your bigger purpose is. Helping others, gaining financial independence, traveling around the world, fighting climate change…

However, if you don’t define specific actionable steps to get there, you risk blinding yourself with easy-to-reach targets that don’t actually get you closer to your goal.

Here are ways to avoid taking the wrong direction:

Track your progress

Your tasks should be as quantifiable as possible.

  • If you’re a blogger, track the number of articles you post.
  • If you’re an artist, track the amount of self-promotion you’re doing.
  • If you’re writing a book, track the number of pages you write…

You get the point. Quantify and set targets based on numbers as much as possible. It will not only regenerate your momentum, but also make sure you’re on track.

Track your time

Tracking your progress goes hand in hand with tracking your time. When you’re working on a project you’re motivated about, time flies, and you might lose sight of where you are on your timeline. Set goals for yourself as if you were working for a company, and give yourself as little wiggle room as possible to postpone. Your company is you, and running the show requires self-discipline.

Be realistic

Don’t have too easy-to-reach targets that won’t get you anywhere, but don’t have targets you won’t reach in time either. Learn to know yourself and what you can achieve, and plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself too hard, but hard enough to be better than your average you.

#3 Focus

Distractions will always come your way, no matter what. Keeping your focus throughout your plan is important. The best way to do that is to build mental models. That is, tell yourself a story about what you expect to see when you get to work.

  • What will happen first?
  • What distractions are likely to occur?
  • How will you handle those distractions?
  • How will you know you’ve succeeded?
  • What is necessary for success?
  • What will happen after that task?

You can even push the projection further and be more precise, specifically about your environment. The more precise, the more focused you will be when your plan encounters the real life.

  • What will be on your desk?
  • Who will be around you when you work?
  • What will the weather be like?
  • Should you make coffee for yourself?

#4 Decision making

As we said before, distractions will always come your way, and with distractions come decisions. What to say yes to, what to push away?

You will be much more apt to make a smart decision when the unexpected happens if you envision the different outcomes of that decision.

For instance, you might get invited for a drink after work, while you were planning to work on your project at home.

  • In one outcome, you say no and you get home to work.
  • In a second outcome, you say yes and the night drags on. You get home tired and got nothing done.
  • In a third potential outcome, you say yes, but only for an hour, and you get home in time to still finish some work.

The number of outcomes is infinite, so you need to narrow it down to the most likely ones. If you know yourself and anticipate that you will end up spending 3 hours at the bar, then you already know the answer to your fiend’s suggestion.

For tougher decisions than a drink at the bar, the same principle applies, only a bit more complex. You might have to do some research to envision the possible scenarios, the most likely outcomes, and consequently the best decision.

#5 Learning from data

If you want to get better at what you do, you have to learn from external sources. And how do you memorise and apply what you learn? By playing with the data.

Painters study other artists’ paintings, or read about their favourite artists. Writer read other people’s books, musicians play songs from their favourites bands. Tons of studies have shown that people who repeat, copy, write the things they learned, remember a lot more and for a lot longer than people who passively learn about something.

Good artists copy, great artists steal— Pablo Picasso Click To Tweet

When you encounter new information, force yourself to do something with it. It can be simple, like re-writing what you read. Or more complex, like drawing graphs and curves from data you studied. You can also explain what you learned to other people, or how what you learned can be applied to one of your ideas.

Whatever it is, make sure you play with the data you learn.

Productivity is about making choices most people will ignore. Either because they don’t have the courage to do so, or because they’re not conscious about those choices. Productivity starts with thinking differently and realising that things don’t happen to you, but you make things happen.

Of course, the journey towards your goal is not a straight line going up. How you handle the lows, the missteps and the occasional failures will also determine whether or not you become successful in the long run. It’s all about managing expectations, working for the highs and bracing for the lows.

Finally, productivity is not just about work. It’s not about one area of your life, it’s about many areas that need to be managed and synced together. That is how you will create a successful chain reaction towards your goals.

With this in mind, you can achieve great things for yourself and your loved ones. Enjoy.

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