Daniel Catalaa

How I get things done

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on July 31st, 2009)
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Effective people have built in systems and strategies to get things done, and the advice below will in fact help you to do more. Keep in mind however, that this article does not address what you should be doing to experience your best life possible (i.e. purpose in life, top values, priorities), just 'how' to get things done.
Soften the target

During military campains one of the things the artillery does before an attack is to carpet bomb the opponent's fortifications to create cracks in the wall, burn up fuel deposits, bring down communication towers, and make landmines go off. Does this defeat the enemy? Nope. But the target has been "softened".

So when you are going to take on a large project pick away at it as much as you can before taking it on full steam. Make lists of the things you will need, assemble all the tools in one spot, let the people that will help you know that the project has started, focus on small sub-tasks, work from the edges inwards and complete your project.

Linking tasks to rewards

Link an unpleasant experience with a pleasant one. For example, make a deal with yourself that "after I place 4 sales calls I will play my guitar for 20 minutes", or "I am going to clean half the garage, then watch my favorite TV show, and then come back downstairs and clean the rest".

There is no link between the sales calls and playing the guitar, you have created the connection in your mind. This allows the motivation of the 2nd event to draw forward the completion of the 1st task. But you must be equally commited to honoring the work activity as the recreation time. You must reward yourself as promised so that the next time you make an internal deal you will re-elicit the same level of motivation.

Bi-task

When you multitask you run into diminishing returns, i.e. you are doing more but the quality, enjoyment, and awareness of what you do plummets as the number of simulateous tasks increases. So you end up making mistakes, having to repeat tasks, or, if successful, you have only a hazy recollection of what you did. At the other end of the spectrum, monotasking is also inefficient because we have the capacity to accomplish more with our time.

I have found that bi-tasking, doing 2 things at the same time, yields some of the best results because it increases productivity while preserving quality. Try applying this resource management technique to different areas of your life. For example:

  • Walk with a friend: you will exercise and catch up at the same time.
  • Find a job you like: earn a living while fulfilling intellectual and spiritual needs.
  • Read while you wait: stuck waiting in line? Read something that will enrich you as you approach the counter.
  • Date someone you admire: develop intimacy with someone and learn from them.
  • Invest your money: make a profit and help others run their companies and start their businesses.

...and so it goes

Batch processing

Life is an ongoing process and though it may slow down, it does not take breaks. Many biological activities are always on: breathing, muscle contraction, circulation, digestion, metabolism, and brain activity. One of the reasons that we can accomplish meaningful goals is that the body batch-processes. Organs such as our intestines and bladders, fat-reserves, bones, and brain, allow us to accumulate waste products, calories, calcium, and thoughts so that we can get rid of them or use them all at once. Even our own bodies recognize the value of organizing certain activities in batches, so I will talk about this strategy a bit further.

When approaching recurring tasks you have two options. The first is to process individually each item the moment they occur. This is what we do when we answer our telephones or feed a parking meter. The other option is to process multiple items all together as a batch at more spaced out intervals. This occurs for instance when do laundry or shop for the week. The advantage of taking care of individual tasks as soon as they come up is that they do not accumulate. The disadvantage is that time and energy is lost by constant interruptions (starting, stopping, and resuming multiple times). Batch processing, instead, economizes time and energy, but it requires for the task to be a low urgency one. So you cannot water a plant just once a month, but when you water it, you might as well water all of your plants. For batch-processing you will need a storage area or device for the accumulating items, and that you have available time slots that are long enough to process the entire batches.

Examples of batch processing are when we wash dishes only once the dishwasher if full or when we do laundry every 2 weeks, instead of each time something gets dirty. When you batch process, you delay taking care of an individual item until enough similar items in need of service have accumulated. Hence we need to operate with large capacity devices such as double loader washers, large pots and pans, vehicles that can haul weight, and other specialized tools.

Techonology

One of the main strategies that has allowed more time available for meaningful higher-order pursuits is to delegate any and all programmable, repetitive , or boring taks to machines. Technology is my friend. From laptops, dishwashers, to automated composters, I am surrounded by an army of machines ready to do my bidding. There is an initial cost in time when using a new machine or technology and this comes from set up, training, programming, and experimentation. This initial investment of time however, pays itself off very quickly, and then productivity ramps up again. Machines only ask of us to be used the way they were designed, for occasional maintenance, and they do not take it personally when they are replaced by the next model (at least, that's the way it seems).

To Do and To Be lists

One of the most useful habits that I have adopted is to write out to do lists. I have a long-term to do list on the computer for projects that will take 6 months to 1 years. I also have another list where I write in every thing that I will do during the next 24 hour period. I know exactly where I will be and what I will be doing throughout the whole day. Rarely do things take place exactly as specified on the list, but it is a great guide. The short-term 24 hour list has small tactical tasks that support the strategic items on the long-term list. For example the short term task of paying bills on time and improving a credit score supports the long-term goal of purchasing real estate.

Ergonomics

They way things are built encourages them to be used in a certain way. When we see a handle we are inclined to grab it, if we see a button we will want to push it. At meetings, the layout of the furniture can encourage cross-talk among participants, for example when the chairs are laid out in a semi-circle and memebers of the audience face each other instead of facing forward. Efficiency is a ratio of two components: Resources and Results. When we say that a process is "efficient", what we are saying is that it took little or few resources (time, energy, supplies) to obtain a certain result (getting the garage cleaned, graduating from college, or sending a satellite into space).