Living ZTD Month 4: Do


(Photo courtesy of Luca Mascaro)

For all the praises it earned, David Allen’s GTD has also been criticized for not really being about “Getting Things Done” but more on “Building a System in Preparation to Getting Things Done”. In other words, it spends more on the system around doing rather than on the doing itself. Of course, if you don’t actually do what you’ve spent hours planning to do, then you haven’t really accomplished anything.

In theory, much of the habits and processes before and after the “Do” part are necessary to remove obstacles to the “doing”, so that when it comes times to actually get stuff done, you get into the zone as smoothly and quickly as possible. In practice, the act of doing is just as riddled with obstacles and pitfalls as any of the other habits.

TL;DR version at the end.

Focus on one task at a time

It’s amusing how the productivity pendulum swings. A decade or two ago, the ability to multi-task was seen as the holy grail of productivity. These days, gurus cite scientific research to argue how multi-tasking is not only detrimental to productivity but even to mental health. Even our impressive computers technically don’t multi-task. They use a technique called time slicing, which incurs performance penalties for switching between contexts, just like our less impressive brains.

While some people do seem to have a knack for multi-tasking, and in some cases all humans do as well, majority of us mere mortals need to focus on one thing at a time or else we either go bonkers or lose track of our task. Or both. So the ZTD recommendation is to pick a task to do, preferably from Big Rocks or MITs first, and stick to doing that task until either you complete it or until the timer rings.

This is where fans of the Pomodoro Technique get all giddy. At its simplest, it just means deciding on a fixed amount of time, the default being 25 minutes, and doing one task and one task only during that time without interruption. And when the time’s up, you stop completely and take a short break, usually 5 minutes. After four such periods, you take an even longer break, usually 30 minutes. The prescribed times don’t always work for everyone. In fact, having fixed times might not work for all sorts of tasks, especially those that involve being “in the zone”. That’s why ZTD suggests either setting a fixed time or a fixed goal. What’s important is that you commit to one task and one task alone and to do it for a certain period without interruption. And then you stop.

Taking breaks

Imagine reading a book or even just a paragraph that doesn’t have any punctuation in it, not even a comma. Better yet, try watching some of the game reviews from The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation series. You will most likely feel out of breath, perhaps confused even. That’s the same effect you get when you do things for hours on end or jump from one task to another without so much as a breather. Your brain might still raring to go (somewhat doubtful), but your body is calling it quits. It’s good to listen to your body from time to time.

Taking a break is just as important as doing the task itself. It allows you to step back and assess a situation, properly park a task or project, switch contexts with minimal penalties, or just give your brain and body time to recover and repair. Never forget to breathe.

Managing distractions

Almost all productivity methods and advice, including ZTD, recommend shutting yourself off from the outside world, or at least from the Internet, during those 25 minutes of sheer productivity. That has never really been useful for me. That is an ideal situation that very few people enjoy. There are also some types of jobs where not getting interrupted every few minutes is a sign of a catastrophe.

For me, managing interruptions that inevitably happen is just as important, or even more important, than avoiding them. Some of these methods do have techniques for handling distraction, but they present them more as an exception and emergency technique. I consider them to be the rule.

The idea for dealing with distractions is rather simple and ties in with Habit 1 (Collection). Just note (or dump into your inbox) anything that interrupts you (that isn’t a person). Reminders, notes, ideas, etc. Then you immediately get back to your task. The point is to have a visible reminder of the interruption for you to handle later when you have the time. This is probably the one place where I’ll concede paper works best. Unless you already have a quick input system on your computer or mobile device.

The one exception is when the interruption is so important or urgent that you really have to make the context switch. In this case it is your current task that you have to log into your notes. This is to remind you where you left off when you come back to it after you’ve dealt with whatever it was that invaded your precious time.

Celebrating victories

This part is less about doing and more about after it gets done. There is rightly more emphasis placed on the actual act of doing, but that doesn’t mean “done” is less important. There is a rising trend these days to have a “Done List” in addition to a “To Do List”. Some todo apps, like Todoist, have an archive or history for you to view what has already been marked off from your lists. Paper todo lists have archiving built in.

The Done List serves a couple purposes. It keeps a history of the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are. It can serve as a motivation to remind yourself that you haven’t really been unproductive. It can also serve as data you can use to study your habits. And it also serves as a remind to reward yourself for a job well done.

So in summary, “Doing” involves:

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