8 Steps To Start Getting Your Crap Together

As I’ve said before, starting with overarching methodologies like GTD can be overwhelming. For those of us who have failed to take a robust system for accomplishing our work, I’ve found a fairly straightforward process for achieving iterative self-improvement. It won’t be for everyone, but here are eight steps that should help those who are struggling to get started:

  1. Identify your pain points – If you don’t know where you suck, it’s likely you’ll improve all that much. Listing where you’re falling short and continually maintaining this list over time can go a long way towards slowly, but surely attacking these shortcomings.
  2. Start with something – A common struggle with systems like GTD comes from jumping into the deep end without ever learning how to swim. Straightforward as these methodologies are, it can be too much to take on at once. Stop trying to start looking at this as a global issue. Pick something a bit more manageable by finding your biggest pain point (in my case this was email) and attacking it.
  3. Learn from others – How do you “attack it”? Great question, the best answer I’ve found is by learning from others. With email, Merlin Mann led the way. With task management, it was David Sparks. Both of them offered much of the framework I use for writing. While they’re my “big two” the tactics I’ve picked up from really smart people like Brett Terpstra, Gabe Weatherhead, Mike Vardy, Eddie Smith, Sven Fetchner, Brett Kelly, Patrick Rhone, Aaron Mahnke, Dave Caolo, Yuvi Zalkow and more have helped more than I’ll ever be able to express or properly thank them for.
  4. Begin To Experiment – There’s no shortage of people who will try to help you do your work better. Even a mess like myself is allowed to have a blog and offer up advice. You’ll have to go down a few rabbit holes and likely take a few wrong turns, but once you’ve tried a few things and find the people or techniques that best suit your personalty, a better way forward will begin to make itself clear.
  5. Iterate, iterate, iterate – Even once someone shows you a logical way forward, you’re still going to want and need to make it your own. While you’ll inevitably need to stop fiddling with your tools and tactics to get your work done, take the time early on to get to know them inside and out. Home in on what works for you and never be afraid to stray from “what’s supposed to work”. If it’s working for you, that’s all you need.
  6. Remove the unnecessary – Along with the good, you’ll find the bad and the unnecessary. It’s easy to go too far and wind up using too many tools. Excess often acts as a lead weight, but it’s not easy to decide how much is enough. It’s a balance that each and every one of us will need to figure out. You want to find the least amount of structure needed to help you accomplish your goals. And with every additional bit of excess, those goals can get harder and harder to reach.
  7. Move to the next thing – The only thing more important than finding success is having the courage to build upon it. Once you’re feeling comfortable with your progress on a particular pain point, scratch it off your list and move on to the next challenge. Don’t let yourself get hung up on one area for too long. It’s far too easy to obsess over getting something perfect than it is to benefit from being better at it.
  8. Blend and refine – While the steps above aim to tackle one challenge at a time, the end goal should always be to build a cohesive system. Find the starting point that best suits you, but as you move from challenge to challenge, be sure to keep your current tactics in mind. Don’t try to figure out every application or tactic at once (if you’d prefer this approach, attempt to find a robust existing methodology like GTD, Action Method or Zen to Done), but never forget that the end game is to identify the array of tools and tactics that work in concert to help you do your best work.

Finding your own way takes longer than applying a fully formed and proven method, but for those of us who have failed at taking on these types of robust systems, it can be the best way forward. This slow iterative approach helps you to find your own way and forces you to deal with many of the issues that go unaddressed when looking to someone else to identify your shortcomings. Taking the time to identify and methodically approach your challenges, while occasionally being inefficient, can be the best possible way to create a methodology that is truly your own.

How have you gone about finding the system that helps you do your best work? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t even need to think about stuff like this (if so, we hate you…)?

Note: this post includes affiliate links, cause I’m shameless and stuff…

5 Responses to 8 Steps To Start Getting Your Crap Together

    • Here are a few reasons I can think of:

      Having unrealistic expectations for it. It’s not perfect (no system is), it will fail and you and you will often need to abandon it when things really kick into high gear. Preparing to jump back in is essential. I spoke about that here: http://bettermess.com/the-truth-about-productivity-systems/ I also think people try to follow it to the letter of the law rather than forking it and finding ways to make it their own.

      Trying to take it all on at once can also be daunting.

      To be clear, I didn’t fall off the GTD wagon (not sure if you thought I did), rather I used this process to build up muscles that better help me implement it. I ran screaming from GTD at first, it was too much for too disorganized a brain :) Getting there slowly has made it far stickier and far more personal. And when it fails me (or more likely I fail it), it’s been easier to get back into the swing.

        • I have a theory :) The more you invest in work flow system – either by authorship (Covey, Allen) or time/financial/psychological expenditure – the greater the degree of commitment to said system (regardless if it’s working for you or not). Which is why I find Mark Forster to be the most interesting of the bunch. He reinvents his system based on feedback, wisdom (read: ageing) and innovation. He doesn’t make silly promises like “Mind Like Water” and is humble enough to know that a list – regardless of tool – will never replace “First Care” – http://www.43folders.com/2010/02/05/first-care

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