MTL

There are countless articles and guides on helping you get things done. Probably even more books. Talks, sermons, infomercials. Here’s another one.

Over the years I’ve tried several techniques to get things done. A few years back TODOs and GTDs were a huge deal that everyone talked about. I didn’t get into them because of that, but because I needed to get things done and damn, there are tons of distractions, and I’m prone to paying attention to them.

For a while I used various apps to help me here. I even used my own little Basecamp setup, but eventually I think I picked up and used Things.app for the longest. All of these are great tools but none of them really stuck. They are great tools but what I needed was a framework or process.

An internet friend of mine happened to post on Facebook a recommendation of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, right around the time I hadn’t been feeling my most productive lately, so I gave it a spin. It resonated with me. It was less of a “do these 5 things so-and-so does and you’ll be productive!”, and more of a “understand what leads to productivity and train yourself to focus on your life”.

The book is broken into sections:

  • Decision management / urgent
  • Extraordinary vs. ordinary
  • Scheduling
  • Attention management

The book goes into wonderful detail and good examples on the importance of each of these things. The chapter on Scheduling has the most relevance to this post, as it outlines a Master Task List, which I’ve adopted for my latest get things done approach. It’s really just a simple list:

When something comes up that you might need to do, it goes either on the floor or on the list,
– Kogon, Kory; Merrill, Adam; Rinne, Leena (2014-12-30). The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity (Kindle Location 1145). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The message is simple, but I found it profound. If it needs to be done, write it down. Otherwise just drop it. Your first reaction may be “well, everything needs to be done, so I’m no better off now”. But this partners well with something established in the first chapter re: decision management, which is also profoundly simple:

Is it important?
– Kogon, Kory; Merrill, Adam; Rinne, Leena (2014-12-30). The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity (Kindle Location 666). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“Well, everything is important, right?” No. Changing my way of thinking has helped me here. How important is this? Or a better question, what are the consequences if this does not get done? Take a moment to be calm and think clearly, and ask yourself that question. Does this really matter? If the consequences are pretty trivial, then it doesn’t belong on the list. “Pay my mortgage” is pretty consequential. Making my kids beds is not. I should still do the latter, but it’s not worth cluttering my list of things I need to get done.

My Trello System

So, I’ve developed a system using Trello (a wonderful, free service you should checkout anyway), which helps keep me in-line and productive. It’s not perfect, it’s still a work in progress, but so far it’s been helpful. I have the following lanes in a Trello board, and a Trello card typically progresses from left to right:

  • MTL: This is where I add things that I need to get done. These represent things that have consequences if they are not done.
  • This week: These are things things I plan to accomplish this week. This is determined Monday mornings but can shift throughout the week.
  • Doing: Thing(s) I’m doing right now. This lane should only have 1-3 cards in it at most, otherwise you aren’t focusing on any one of them.
  • Done: Things I’ve accomplished this week. It’s nice to see this lane fill up. Every Monday I archive all the cards in this list.

This Week is a best-guess effort to plan out what you want to do this week. It requires a calendar and booking time of your week to make sure you can accomplish the big rocks of your to-dos. You will always have things like emails, phone calls, laundry… these things are like gravel. If you spend all your time on sorting the gravel, you’ll never get to the big rocks. At the beginning of the week (Monday), I move 2-3 items in this lane from my MTL, per area of my life I’m tracking (work things, husband things, father things, personal goals things). Putting more than 2 or 3 things in at a time is probably you kidding yourself, but it’s better to need more things in this lane mid-week than to feel overwhelmed by them and get few of them done. The trick is to schedule the big rocks and let the gravel fill in the open spaces. You must focus on getting the big rocks done; you need to schedule time for them and honor that. This is the area I struggle with the most; I’m in the middle of something urgent, and a time block comes up that I’m supposed to work on something else I’ve scheduled, and so of course I bump it because whatever I’m working on is on fire. Scheduling is hard :/

Doing represents what I’m doing at this moment. It sounds silly sometimes but I find it helpful to put myself in that mental state of “this is what I’m working on”. Maybe it’s better to think of it this way; I’m not working on those other things. This Trello lane should not have more than 2 things in it at any time. Sometimes I have to shuffle things in and out of here as priorities change and random things pop up. That’s OK, life can be unpredictable. The key here is to focus on these 1 to 2 things in this lane, until they are done, or for whatever reason(s) you need to change priorities. If that happens, you need to move the card out of the lane.

Done is self explanatory, you’ve done a thing! Hopefully many things!

You can tell that Monday planning plays a key roll here. Every Monday morning I set aside 10-30 minutes for weekly planning. I review my MTL list and decide if all the cards in there still represent things that I need to do, and have consequences if I don’t. Priorities and needs change, so sometimes I get to remove a card because it isn’t important anymore, or has been accomplished by some other means. Occasionally you find a card that’s been in there for a few weeks; at that point I delete the card. If it’s been on my list for weeks and I haven’t made serious effort to do it, then it can’t really be important. This self-reflection is important, otherwise you just end up with a giant, somewhat meaningless list of things, many of which you aren’t doing.

I review my Done list and compare it with what remains in my This Week list. Which has more cards (taking into consideration not every card has the same weight)? Did I over/under schedule last week? Or did I honestly just not accomplish what I could have? These are important questions to ask as you look to planning this coming week.

After some review and honest reflection, I archive all the cards in Done and move all the cards from This Week into MTL, and the Monday process restarts. This is not a perfect process by any means, but for me it’s good enough. So, what are you doing? Does what you’re doing really matter?

@ctshryock

About

My name is Clint Shryock. I develop things in Go and Ruby. I live in central Missouri, where the weather is beautiful 4 months of the year.
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