GTD for the Easily Distracted

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 Dave Caolo of and the Home Work Podcast on 70Decibels. Dave is easily the most sensible “productivity writer” that I read. His advice and insights are always logical, practical and best of all helpful.

I’ve seen many guides, articles and posts full of great advice on getting things done. I’ve even written a few myself. While the recommendations are usually great, they’re often lost on me. Writers make an assumption about the reader that’s not true of me. That is, once you’ve got your time and your tools, the rest falls in to place.

For me, sitting down to work is ridiculously hard.

To say that I’m easily distracted is like saying the sun is kind of warm. Maintaining focus on what I consider mundane tasks (I’ll bet my definition is much broader than yours) is a Herculean effort. Fortunately, I’ve learned several strategies for getting things done when getting things done is the last thing I want to do.

Formalize breaks

I can work for about 25 minutes at a go. After that, my mind wanders. I used to fight that tendency, but now I’ve made it a part of work day. There’s a Mac app I love called Break Time. It’s a simple timer that lives in my Mac’s menu bar. Break Time lets me work for 25 minutes, then initiates a five-minute break. During that time, it greys out all other apps so I couldn’t use them if I wanted to. It forces me to get up and go do something. I love it. If you’re not a Mac user, consider Focus Booster, which runs in any modern browser.

Designate a home for everything

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Organized people are just too lazy to search for things.” That’s funny, but the hunt is a major hassle when it’s a daily occurrence. To combat this, I’ve gotten very strict about what goes everywhere. Notebooks in the top drawer of the white cabinet. Keys in the Trout Town, USA mug (Roscoe, New York if you’re wondering). I know this makes me sound like a charter member of the Tidiness Gestapo, but it’s necessary and has significantly boosted my productivity.

Break tasks down into small steps

Many years ago, I worked as a special needs teacher. I had no idea how that experience would affect my own personal productivity. We taught complex skills to our students by breaking them down into many easily-performed tasks. For example, a student learning to ride a bike might begin by simply straddling the seat. That’s it. The next day, he straddles the seat and places on foot on a pedal and he’s done. Eventually, after much time and many small tasks chained together, he can perform the complex task of riding a bike.

Today, I do the same thing with myself. When I started working on this post, the first step was “brainstorm post.” That was all I had to do for the day. Next came, “write outline” and then “review outline.” While “write article” is a daunting task, 15 minutes of brainstorming is not.

Here’s a related tip. Action steps start with a verb. Brainstorm article. Write outline. Call Jane. Charge phone. Invoice Amy. In each example, it’s very clear what needs to be done. “New Hampshire road trip” is a project. “Buy map of New Hampshire” is an action step.

Create a work-only workspace

The father of modern behaviorism, B. F. Skinner, recognized the power of cues on behavior. You might have noticed that you don’t feel like working out until you put on your workout clothes. The same thing can happen with your work environment. Many of us have a home office, even if we have a day job at an office somewhere. Do work in that spot and that spot only. Soon enough the sights, sounds and smells of that room will be cues to start working.

Don’t finish the whole bag after eating one chip

If you’ve ever tried to diet, you might have had the experience of eating a single potato chip, saying “screw it” and then finishing the bag. That’s occurred during my work day several times. “Oh, forget it. I’m not going to get this done today.” Forgive missteps. Oops, you spent 15 minutes watching cat videos. It’s OK. Close the tab and get back to work.

Clearly define what must be done

I can’t adequately stress how important this is. I can really buckle down if I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. Ask for a detailed list or explanation. Follow up with an email or a phone call. Get used to saying things like, “Just to reiterate, I’m supposed to…” Back when I worked for a school, I’d end every meeting I attended with, “OK, my next action steps are…” Honestly, you can’t have too much detail. Get it all and write it down. Then confirm.

Find a reminder system that you trust

This can be anything you like, as long as you trust it. I use Apple’s Reminders app on my iPhone. My iPhone never leaves my side, so I know I’ll have it when the alert sounds. Also, it’s location-based reminders are the greatest thing to happen in the history of things happening. Now I can have a reminder fire off when I leave a location or when I arrive. I used the daylights out of this feature.

Get a move on

Finally, get up and move. It satisfies the urge to fiddle around and is plain good for you. Sitting for hours at a time can have detrimental effects after many years. When your break timer sounds, go putter around. Get a drink, say hi to a co-worker, pet the dog, shoot hoops.

There’s my list. I’m not a professional and about as far from a productivity guru as you’ll ever meet. These simple tasks have helped me get more done, even when I’d rather be doing anything else. Hopefully they’ll help you a bit, too.

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