About To-Do Lists, Choices and Big Things

Actually Getting Big Things Done is a series of guests posts on how to make things happen from those who know how to… well… actually get big things done. Today’s post comes from Sven Fechner from Simplicity Bliss. When I first started getting my crap together and gravitated towards OmniFocus it seemed like all roads led to Sven’s site. I’ve picked up more small tricks and sage advice on OmniFocus and GTD than I could ever possibly account for from Sven. In addition to his site, Sven’s also a manager for Cisco System Services and is in the process of writing a book on OmniFocus that will likely arrive around the same time as OmniFocus 2.0 in 2013.

Big goals are primarily big for the person trying to achieve them. For others they may actually look tiny, but for her, who tries to achieve them, they a monstrously big. At first sight unachievable and unattainable.

We trip over the supposedly easiest things turning them into the most difficult ones: Stop smoking, start exercising, spend more time with the kids, write that novel, hike through the Andes, get the promotion. Look at your list of goals. You are more likely to finish a meaningless presentation at work than get around to train for the triathlon you wanted to do before you turn 40.

What Getting Big Things Done Really Is About

The difficult part about getting big things done is rarely the bigness of the thing, it is really about making the required choices. It is also about whom we allow to make these choices in our life. Our boss? Our colleague, spouse or friend? Or ourselves?

It is also not about skills. You can acquire nearly every skill in this world if you work hard enough on yourself. Only in arts the thing called ‘talent’ influences how good you are. But the ‘technical’ skills required to paint, compose or play music, carve stones into statues, perform a dance or a play or even write a novel can be acquired. And sports are no different. It is whether you choose to do it and if you accept the consequences that come with your choice.

The consequences of making a choice is that the we cannot choose everything. It is a decision to do the one thing and not the other. In our world of plenty, multi-tasking and 18-hour-days the concept of choice got lost somewhere and as a direct result of this we are frustrated and disillusioned as we do not get (big) things done.

It looks like always the others are the ones that get big things done, we do not. But the others make a lot of choices, every day: They say ‘no’ to other things to say ‘yes’ that one big one. We do not.

Getting big things done is also not about tools. Life never really is about tools. A better tool does not automatically yield a better result.

  • The best DSLR does not make you a better photographer. Your experience, skills and “eye for compositions” do that. Some of the best images I have seen have been taken with the cheapest and crappiest cameras.
  • A better text editor does not finish your book earlier or makes it any better. In fact you can write and finish your book with the text editor that shipped with your operating system without a problem. You do not think that all great writers have in common that they all use Scrivener or Byword, do you?
  • It’s also not that 27″ display that makes you a better designer and not the $5,000 carbon cycle that makes you a better or faster rider.
  • Reading more books or blog posts like this talking about how to achieve BHAGs does not actually make you achieve them more, faster, better or at all.

Finally it is not the most expensive, featured-rich and best tweaked task management application that magically turns you into a better executer. I would even argue that for the things that really matter to you in life — such as your most important goals — you do not even need any task management application. Actually productivity methodologies and task management application are important if you have to make choices in life. Most of us still need to make them on a regular basis. If you have made a choice for a big thing already likely you do not need any tool support of magnitude anymore.

You believe you need to colour tasks, tag them and assign priorities to them? with all respect, you missed the point. Priorities do not get big things done, choices do. Priorities are something entirely different and like it or not, you do not even have control over them. Like Merlin Mann wrote in his epic 2009 post “Mud Rooms, Red Letters, and Real Priorities“: You don’t make or set priorities, you can only observe them.

Helping Yourself To Make The Choices Required

Now that we have established that big things get done because of the choices we make, let’s get back to how to make these choices, bust some myths around productivity methodologies and establish a new perspective on your endless todo list.

First you need to realize that the choices required to get big things done do not really happen on a level where your todo list tool operates. They are made on a higher level and in your head and heart. David Allen classifies these choices as the 30,000ft Horizon of Focus where you define your mid-term (2–3 years) goals that correspond with your vision of life, which is the 40,000ft Horizon of Focus per GTD.

Once these choices are made what matters most is that your protect them on your operational level, in projects and todos. And that is why you need to create a completely new relationship to your inbox and todo list.

Life has become too rich of options, influences, information streams and too fast paced to retain the concept of completing every task on our list, follow every thought and idea you have or answer every request you get. Most of us have and still are collecting all “stuff” in our inboxes (which is the right thing to do), but what no longer works is that we turn all of them into projects and tasks that we aim and plan to complete. And since you let so much into your system it is also no longer feasible to complete all the tasks on your list for the day, the month or at all.

What really needs to be done is to make choices again and again, every day. What made it to your inbox must not make it to your todo list. What once made it to your todo list must not stay there or must not be completed. Make these micro decisions in accordance with the macro choices. Delete, cancel and drop stuff that does not comply with the choice you made for the big thing(s) that you want to pursue. Do not let that time consuming and meaningless request on your todo list from the start. Review your daily tasks and the corresponding projects critically every day, do a more diligent and more reflective review once a week and kick the stuff out that does not support your big thing.

None of this is really new, but the diligence and intensity with which you need to do it (maybe) is. If you use OmniFocus then having the right perspectives setup helps immensely with making regular choices.

Remember that getting big things done is exclusively about the choices you make.

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