In the realm of time management and productivity, I draw inspiration from several outside sources. In terms of developing a consistent system, I have adapted some of my recommendations from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, an organization book geared toward business professionals that can be (mostly) translated to any and all areas of life. Although it is definitely written from the perspective of a highly privileged, upper-class, able-bodied, educated, heterosexual, white American male, this book is an anomaly among mainstream organizing approaches in that many of its tools can be used by people with ADD and other executive function disorders.
A keystone of David’s system – and my own, which incorporates tactics from other sources as well as my own special brain – is what he calls a Next Actions list and what I have dubbed a Next Steps list. This is not the same as a to-do list, which for most people includes everything from two-minute actions like “Call for a hair appointment” to gargantuan undertakings like “Achieve world peace.” A Next Steps list provides an easy reference for specific, actionable tasks – those which you can do, which will move you forward. David’s explanation of this concept provided me a lightbulb moment as far as what wasn’t working in my attempts at time management – especially why it seemed that I could rarely accomplish much of what was on my to-do list. In this aspect, people with and without AD/HD have a common problem: differentiating between “projects” and “actions.”
For example, one cannot, in one fell swoop, “Find a better job.” If that’s on your to-do list, chances are it’s been there for a while and frustrates you every time you see it. You cannot “do” that item because it is a multistep process. It is therefore pointless to put it on your list of actionable items. In this example, “Find a better job” is a project, not an action. In order to execute a project, you first have to break it down to its Fundamental First Step. The process of doing so is often, itself, the Fundamental First Step — breaking things down is an action. Its key question is “What has to happen first?” and it looks something like this:
Big Picture: Find a Better Job
What has to happen first?
- Interview for Jobs
- Update my resume
- Search for Available Jobs
What has to happen before any of these can be done?
→ Determine what kind of new job I want
- A. Stay in current field
- B. Do something else
From here, my next action will vary, depending on whether I choose A or B:
- (If A) Update my resume
- (If B) Brainstorm what “something else” entails (which breaks down into several other steps, but we will stop here for the purposes of this illustration)
And so forth. For me, drawing this out mind-mapping style is more effective than typing it out; I encourage you to experiment and find your own method. Please note:The point of this exercise is not to outline, in minute detail, every step in the process of reaching your goal (though it does provide a convenient overview of the stages you’ll go through). The point is to find the Next Step you need to take to move toward your goal.
So, key terms:
- Project or Goal: Any task that has more than one step (i.e., “Find a better job”)
- Action or Step: Any single-step, “do-able” task; always begins with a verb (i.e., “Call Bob for a reference,” “Review my resume”)
- Fundamental First Step: The action you must take toward a goal/project before any further actions can be taken. (i.e., in order to “Find a better job,” you must first determine what kind of job you want; once you’ve determined that, you can do things like update your resume, browse Craigslist for available positions, etc.).
- Next Step or Next Action: Literally, the immediate, next step toward your goal; what must be done before anything else can occur.
**The most important thing to understand about Next Steps – and everything we will talk about from here on out – is that they are self-perpetuating; in taking one, the step that comes after it will be revealed.**
For example, when you call Bob for a reference, he may tell you that he heard of an opening at this great new web organization, or say something that brings to mind a key point for your resume. Even if nothing more than the intended reference comes out of the phone call, you have already broken down your goal enough to easily extract a Next Action from your brainstorming; this becomes more intuitive as time goes on (and, as we translate this concept into a system, you’ll have a master list to refer to when you feel “stuck”).
This means that almost as soon as you reframe your approach to the traditional “to-do” list, all the hours you used to spend painstakingly outlining your step-by-step plan of action will be completely unnecessary – a thought both scary and liberating. Scary because you have to give up the (erroneous) idea that you can know and control exactly what will happen on the way to your goal; liberating because you will quickly find that you have a lot more time to devote to doing your goals rather than planning them.
Disclaimer: This does not mean that you will not be thinking ahead or that you will be acting with reckless abandon – quite the opposite, in fact. Planning and reviewing are key parts of the process of time management and goal-accomplishment – but ones that will take up very little of your time once your system is in place.
What is the Next Step you can take toward your current goal?
(Next post: An overview of the system.)