Will: Julie, thank you so much for being on the show.
Julia: Thank you for having me.
Will: Today we’re going to do something a little different. We’re not going to do our traditional long-form interview, but a show that I’ve been planning on doing for a while, meaning to do for a while, which is talking about getting things done. David Allen has the fantastic book, ‘Getting Things Done,’ which to his fans is just abbreviated to GTD. I read that book several years ago and I thought it was great. For me, it was little bit too complexified, and so I have sort of modified it for myself. I’m constantly fascinated by how other people get things done, so today’s episode is going to be kind of getting, at least for me, Will Bachman, is going to be getting some things done. I’m going to talk about how I get at least some things done, not everything that I want to, and I’m here with Julia Bunte-Mein who is on a one-day winternship with me. She is a wintern, which I guess is like-
Julia: Winter internship.
Will: Winter internship, right?
Julia: Winter break.
Will: Julia Bunte-Mein is a sophomore at Harvard College and is about 10 times more accomplished than I was at that point in my life. She’s worked and done internships in Brussels and in Spain and in Australia, right?
Julia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Will: Worked in Southeast Asia.
Will: All these places I hadn’t even visited in my life at that point. I’m going to talk a little bit about how I get things done and then Julia is going to talk about how she gets things done, and maybe react to some of my stuff. That’s the goal.
I often ask guests what their productivity kind of process is, and one of my goals for 2018 is to modify and improve mine, so I can get more things done. I could probably get five times more done in my life if I didn’t procrastinate so much and was more organized. This is what I do. I’m going to talk about three things that I do.
Getting Things Done I thought was great, and the main takeaway for me, from that book, which I recommend reading … It’s called ‘The Art of Stress-Free Productivity’ is the subtitle. Recommend it. The main takeaway from me was get all your action items in one place because you want to be able to clear your mind of your actions, so all that stuff floating around. “I have to do this and then I have to do that.” You want to clear your mind of all that so you can focus on your actual task that you’re doing. That was my one takeaway from that.
After trying a few different of these online to-do task tools, trying a Word document, what I’ve settled on is Evernote and I just have … I use Evernote for a lot of my notetaking but I have one note that is starred that are just my action items. All of my kind of longer-term action items are in that one sheet, in that one note in Evernote.
In here looking at it right now I have both my big goals for the month of January and for 2018. I have some things around a bunch of ideas for some podcast episodes. I have a call list of some phone calls that I need to make. I have things that I need to kind of finalize as we revamp a website. I have a bunch of expenses that I need to investigate because I just looked at all my expenses for last year and some of them I need to cancel some monthly service that they’re still charging me, and then a bunch of random action items like I need to go check and see if I can, when I have to pay my property taxes, check on getting … should I buy a new laptop? Get an extra insurance card, design some invites for an event that I’m working on. Just all these kind of random action items.
Then further down the list I have these kind of longer-term action items. Some of them are upcoming theater shows that I want to see sometime that have been announced that they’re opening in the spring of 2018, and I came across and I said, “Okay, I want to see that,” so I make a list of that. Even some longer term, so for my farm in Pennsylvania, what are some of my kind of wish list to-do items that I want to do there? Okay, I have emergency plan on here so there’s a bunch of stuff where my wife and I talked about getting an emergency plan in place and getting emergency cash and batteries and flashlight. We haven’t done that yet but at least I have it on the list.
What I’ve found is if I keep it on this list long enough and review this list periodically, like maybe every couple of months I’ll print the whole thing out and really look at it, that eventually the stuff gets done, or at least a lot of it gets done. It probably wouldn’t if I didn’t have it on the list. Some kind of long-term ideas would just have actually happened, somewhat surprising me that I actually managed to do them, and I think it’s probably partly because I had it on this list. That’s what I do for things that I’m not going to do today. That’s Evernote.
The next thing is I’ll talk about email. Email, there’s I think probably different schools of thought, and Julia, I know you’re like a totally different school of thought than me. For email, I know some people like Inbox 0. They get totally stressed out if they have unopened emails. I’m the opposite. I sort of like run over the counter, like the odometer. In Gmail I think I have 184,000 or maybe it’s 284,000, I’m not sure, unopened emails. I never delete emails. What I do is, as they’re coming in if I can’t respond to it right then, I star them or I flag them on my iPhone and then I can go back and on my laptop I can filter on the starred emails and respond to those that I have to respond to.
That’s what I do with email and then I don’t have to … I only started doing that about a year ago. Before that I would just kind of remember in my head, “Okay, I have these like seven different emails I have to respond to,” and it would be always stressing me out. Now I just know, “Okay, I’ve starred it. I can forget about it.” Later on today, tonight I get back to my computer, look at the starred emails, respond to those. That’s a fine tip.
Now, this next one, and listeners, you might say, “Will, you’re patronizing us and this is ridiculous that you’re even doing an episode and saying that this is a thing worth saying,” but I haven’t done this all my life. I’ve been doing it for about five or six years. My third piece is the most important, is my daily to-do list.
For me, it’s extremely specific and idiosyncratic. It must be on 8.5 x 11 graph paper, horizontal please with four to the inch. I take my piece of graph paper of the pad … Oh, it can’t just be a loose sheet of graph paper, it has to be the pad. On the pad there I write all my action items for that day with little boxes so I can check them off, and then sort of all the stuff that is both important as well as trivial goes on that page. The beauty of that is that I keep that out with me as I’m working throughout the day, and then if something comes up, I get some email or some action item, or it just occurs to me as I doing something else, it allows me instead of having to worry about remembering that thing or just going and doing it, I’ll just write that on the list. Rather than getting distracted and going off on a tangent, I’ll just add that to the piece of paper which, again, takes it off my brain and I will try to kind of prioritize.
I think some people are more disciplined than me, probably most people. What I do is I probably should say, “Okay, what are the most important tasks?” and I’m going to do that first. I kind of do that, but what I also, just personally what works for me is I find it’s like I finish one task and then I say, “What kind of do I right now have the energy for next?”
Sometimes during the day I’m more in the mood to do something like super-mechanical and mindless, and I just have to send off a bunch of these emails. Sometimes I say, “Okay, now I’m ready to carve out two hours and do this more creative deep task.” That’s kind of how I manage that. I’m working on shifting that approach a little bit to actually schedule time on my calendar to say I’m going to block out this four hours to actually write something or create something deep. I may be transitioning to more of that approach, but what I’ve been doing so far, it works. I get some things done; I don’t get everything done. Just a sheet of paper, write out all the tasks. You might say, “Will, that is like so ridiculous that you would even think that’s worth saying,” but it’s something I’ve been doing all my life and for me it was a breakthrough.
Okay. Julia, over to you. You’ve heard about my approaches. I would love to hear about what are your productivity tips and tricks and how do you manage to get all the stuff done that you get done.
Julia: Great. Thank you for that introduction. I especially love what you said about the action item list. I’m definitely going to start doing that myself.
I’ll summarize quickly, I guess four things that I’ve learned from different books I’ve read or friends’ recommendations. Journaling, goal-making, using a calendar, and lastly, morning. I’ll explain what those four things mean.
I am an avid journaler. I started very young. As soon as I could write I have a journal. It used to be something I would just write about, like ‘today I did this and yesterday I did this,’ thinking this would be fun to read later, but I found I never actually re-read my journals. Now my journaling is used for a much different purpose. I journal usually in the morning and at night, but not for very long. Usually just five or 10 minutes, which I think is something that is usually a barrier for people to start journaling because they think it will take a long time, or if they haven’t journaled in a long time they’ll end up writing for one hour, but just five or 10 minutes, you can squeeze that in.
Usually I’ll just free write just to get my mind cleared at the beginning of the day. What are my three priorities for the day? Before night, kind of reflecting on what went well, what could have gone better, what am I grateful for. That’s not so much how I get things done but it really helps me get in the mood to get things done. I’d say a little note on the journal, pick one you really like. It’s something that at least for me becomes very near and dear to my heart so it’s a pretty deliberate process for picking out the journals.
Will: This is, so you open up the morning and it sounds a little bit like the Julia Cameron Morning Pages.
Julia: Yes, similar to that.
Will: You’re not trying to like record everything you did yesterday or everything you’re planning on doing today, so sort of off the top of your head.
Julia: Exactly. Not trying to recap but more just say what emotions I’m feeling, what I’m in the mood to do today, something I really want to make my priority for the day, and then at night more reflecting on what happened.
I think it’s a personal preference whether you like lined or unlined.
Will: Or graph paper.
Julia: Or graph, yeah. I go back between the two. Sometimes I feel like combining into a drawing journal, so I’ll get unlined, or if I’m just, you know, up to you.
Will: What sort of benefits do you feel that you’ve received from this practice of journaling?
Julia: I think this type of journaling, just very free form, not writing for a specific purpose or audience, it’s kind of my form of meditation. It clears my head, gets me kind of looking at the bigger picture if I’m really … Sometimes I’ll journal in the middle of the day too. If I’m working on something and I really need to take a break but I don’t want to take break for too long to get out of the zone of my project or something, I’ll just take out my journal and say, “Okay, I’m getting pretty tired, but let’s fit in 30 more minutes and then check in again to see if I can keep going,” and I’ll write this down in my journal, like speaking to myself. It sounds kind of crazy but I’ll do it.
Will: Do you ever go back and re-read it, or is it really just about having written it is enough?
Julia: It’s funny. As I write I always think, “Oh yeah, I’m going to re-read this one day,” but surprisingly I never do. Maybe 10 or 20 years from now I’d like to look back on what I was thinking about in college.
Second is about goal-making. I forget where I learned this but somewhere I read that it’s good to make short- and long-term goals. Usually what I do is I’ll make a list of long-term goals that are pretty general, something to do with like be healthier, be happier, maintain relationships better, just very abstract goals. Then from there I’ll break it down into more specific and short-term things.
Let’s say trying to be healthier, maybe something specific like go for exercise in the morning five days a week, or something more tangible. Maintaining relationships, reach out to this person and this person.
Kind of really getting back to what you said about action items, what I like to do is break down all the things I have to do on the list by small, medium and large tasks based on approximately how much time it will take to get each one done. If I see, “Okay, I have 20 minutes. I’m not doing anything right now,” I’ll look at my small list and see okay I can do something that will only take 20 minutes, but if I have a whole afternoon free, I’ll look at my medium and large list and try to get something large done.
Third, I’m a big calendar user. I personally like just the-
Will: Can I just ask a couple of questions about the-
Julia: Yeah, sure.
Will: The action item list, you do this daily.
Will: Is this handwritten or on-
Julia: I have on my computer a long list of everything I have to do, but looking at it all at once sometimes will distract me from the top things I want to do right now, so if I pick three things I’m going to do in the next couple of hours, I’ll just have a notepad. I have a smaller notebook that’s separate from my journal that’s just for to-do lists and things, and I’ll just write those three things, so that I can just look at it and be reminded what I have to do, but not distracted by the million other things on my entire action item list.
Will: Okay, so a handwritten list.
Julia: Yeah, handwritten.
Will: But a smaller number of things, so you’ll put the three big tasks-
Julia: Exactly, or the three things I’m going to do next.
Will: Okay, got it.
Julia: Third is about the calendar. I just use the calendar on my laptop. I think it’s just like the Mac calendar, but you can use Google Calendar, whatever you want to do.
Two specific things I find really helpful in using the calendar is, one, getting large projects done that don’t necessarily have a deadline, or not necessarily large, just things that aren’t pressing.
Julia: Something like look at my budget or clear out my, re-do my LinkedIn, or things that aren’t pressing but I want to get them done anyways, like cleaning out my closet or something like that. I’ll pick a time. Maybe not today but sometime this week and I’ll put it in my calendar as an appointment, and so I know it’s happening and I’m not going to schedule anything else because I have my appointment to get this thing done finally. Things that don’t have a deadline, you can just push them off endlessly, but that’s my way of getting those kind of things done.
Another thing which is a very different category is actually planning downtime. Let’s say I really enjoy drawing, but sometimes during a week that I think is really busy I’ll say to myself, “Oh, I don’t have time to draw or read,” but I find if I am more careful with how I spend my time, I can put in an hour and a half in advance, so this is the time I’m going to use for myself, maybe to draw, maybe do whatever I feel like in the moment, but at least it’s there and that’s like my break already scheduled.
Will: That’s genius. Instead of just feeling like I could goof off at any minute, “Oh, I need a break right now,” you have it in the calendar. “No, at three o’clock today I have an hour where I can goof off and I can draw or I can do whatever I want.”
Julia: Exactly. Right. It sounds kind of like a paradox to have scheduled unscheduled time, but you could plan for doing nothing.
Will: Okay. All right.
Julia: Then one last thing I just remembered about the calendar. If there’s something that I have to remember but it’s for a really long time from now, like let’s say one year from now I have to cancel my subscription to this thing, or renew something, I’ll put in an event in my calendar and then set it a reminder saying remind me at the time of the event. Then I can totally forget about it until I need to remember it and then it will just alert me from there.
Will: Yeah, that’s good. Listeners can’t see this but you have a color-coding system for your calendar.
Julia: I do. My calendar is pretty much a rainbow. I have academics. I put in my classes in one color, extracurriculars when I have club meetings during the semester. I even have a color for exercise, social, other and deadlines, just so I’m able to … I’m a pretty visual person so that helps me keep things straight and makes it prettier.
Will: Well, not just prettier but I mean it gives you a vert nice, quick, visual indication of how you’re spending your time. I think it’s genius. I don’t do that but I’m thinking right now about adopting that, which for me or for consultants it might be color-coding actual client execution delivery time in one color, and you might say my client business development time is going to be another color, and sort of firm administration time, invoices and back office stuff is another color. You can visually see am I spending 10% of my time on client development? Am I just spending 80% of my time on administrative stuff?
Julia: Yeah, I never thought about it like that but you can really gauge where you’re spending your time over a week or even a month by looking at if you just unclick one of the colors, you can see how much disappears, yeah.
Julia: The last thing I want to talk about is just morning. This is really just like a personal thing I think, or not personal but doesn’t apply to everyone. I would consider myself a morning person, so one thing I try to live by is to get the hardest thing I have to do in a day done before lunch, or maybe before 11:00; it depends what time I get up. I find I’ll choose something from my action item list that’s on the large side and will take a couple of hours. Usually this is some sort of creative assignment or writing. If I have a paper due, I’ll work on that for a couple of hours in the morning, and then in the afternoon do the smaller things like emails, things that won’t take as long. I personally find my ability to focus is better in the morning, and then it also feels great. You’re at lunch and you’ve already finished the hardest thing you have to do in the day so you can kind of relax.
Will: That must feel awesome.
Julia: It does. I wanted to comment on the email. You’re right. We do have very different looking inboxes even though we both use Gmail. Actually, I also use the starring/flagging system in terms of the emails that I have read but haven’t responded to yet. I try to keep my inbox with a little zero next to the number of emails that I have to read, but the way I do that is by using a lot of filters. Gmail has these categories that you can use and making folders. If I find I’m getting emails that are kind of spam, I’ll immediately unsubscribe or create a filter that says any email directly from this address will skip the inbox and directly into a folder that maybe is called promotions or newsletters, updates, whatever it is, things that I don’t want to go directly to Spam but when I feel like reading newsletters or something I’ll go directly to that folder.
It ends up that the emails that go directly into my main inbox are just the ones that I have to read and it doesn’t end up being that many. I’ll see in my other folders, like a bunch of them coming up but I can pretty much ignore them until I feel like checking them and then it’s just my regular inbox that are maybe 20 emails per day max.
Will: You’re being much more mindful and controlling the input to your inbox.
Julia: Yeah, because I’ve found it would just take me, checking my email would be like a two-hour ordeal, going through these emails and half of them didn’t really apply to me. I have to say making the filters took a little bit of time, but definitely has paid off.
Will: Awesome. Julia, thank you so much for sharing your productivity tips, which are way more-
Julia: Pretty tedious, but …
Will: I think way more impressive than mine. I mean I’ve learned a ton. Thank you so much.
Julia: Thank you. This is fun.