I’m lining up guest posts during my travels over the next two weeks. This post is written by Timo Kiander. Timo is a blogger, author and speaker who helps work-at-home professionals get stuff done fast so that they have time for living. He believes that great results are achieved by overcoming procrastination, improving focus and creating successful productivity habits. If you want to implement the core lessons of this post quicker, you can grab a special checklist created by Timo right away!
I have noticed that the more clutter (either digital or physical) I have around, the more my mind wanders. As a result, I find that I’m unable to focus properly on my tasks.
Without a proper system for handling all the clutter and important input sources, there is a risk that you could miss your next world-changing idea, the crucial meeting that you were supposed to attend to, or you just make your everyday work harder than it is supposed to be.
Building a system for managing the input sources
In order to tackle the information and idea overload, I encourage you to reach 5 Zeros every day.
When you reach these zeros, you know that you are on top of your commitments, no idea or task gets forgotten, and no important e-mail is left unanswered.
A brief rundown of these five zeros is as follows:
- Task List 0: Creating an effective list of your tasks that you actually accomplish every day (or at least make progress on)
- Inbox 0: Processing your e-mails and making the inbox empty
- Tab 0: Processing all open tabs to zero
- Input 0: Processing all your notes so that every idea, thought or task is handled and scheduled properly
- Work desk 0: Cleaning your desk after you have stopped working
Now that you know what those 5 Zeroes are, let’s go through the system and how to process them on a daily basis.
Task List 0
There was a time in my life when I wasn’t organized or productive at all. My days didn’t have any proper plans and it was no wonder that I didn’t get anything meaningful done.
All this changed when I became interested in learning about personal productivity. One of the first time management lessons that I implemented in my life was having a task list.
Although a task list can give you a solid plan to follow for each day, with improper implementation, this can turn into yet another source of stress and confusion. Rather, your end goal should always be Task List 0 (in other words, all the tasks crossed off your list or at least progress made on them) and with proper planning you can achieve this.
When I plan the tasks for the day, I follow these eight guidelines:
1. I don’t overstuff it.
One of the biggest mistakes I have made concerning the task list is having too many items on it. To change this, it all comes down to figuring out how much time you actually have for your tasks and then making a realistic plan according to that.
In my case, I try to have at least three important “big rocks” on my list (aka the most important tasks) and some “gravel” (the less important ones) too. This way I make progress on various levels every day.
2. I make it closed.
One of the things I learned when reading Mark Forster’s marvellous book some years ago was to have a closed task list. What this means is that you create a task list as usual, but you after the last task you draw a line, marking the list as closed.
After the list is closed, you can’t add any new tasks to it in the middle of your day. Rather, you can only add new tasks for the next day’s list. The benefit of this is that the number of tasks actually decreases on your list as the day goes by.
Now, it’s naturally easier to draw a line under the last task if you are using a paper-based list. If you are planning your day using a task list application, you can just decide that no new tasks are allowed after your planning session is over.
3. I break the icebergs.
Another mistake that I have done with my task list is adding tasks to it which are too big in nature. For instance, publishing a blog post itself is a task for sure, but on its own it’s just too big to fit your list (if you are blogger, you know that publishing a post requires many steps until you can say the task is done). Unfortunately, if you don’t pay attention to the size of the task, you’ll most likely run into nasty surprises.
Picture an iceberg that floats on the water. However, what you see above sea level is just a small part of it. The rest (and most likely a big portion of this icy giant) is under the water, invisible.
It is the same with tasks on your list that are too big. You don’t realise how big they really are until you “hit them” (in other words, start working on them). That’s why it’s necessary to break the big tasks into smaller ones, so that you avoid getting overwhelmed and any nasty surprises.
4. I get the momentum going.
Eating the frog (aka the task that you’ll most likely procrastinate on) as first thing is a good strategy to follow, but what if you added a small tweak to it? So rather than starting work on your frog immediately, get the momentum going by doing some smaller stuff off your list first.
Doing this gives you a feeling of accomplishment as you have already finished some tasks. It also gives you more energy to tackle that “frog task” of yours.
5. I’m specific.
Don’t spend time on wondering what you meant when your task list says: “Meet Brian”. I don’t know about you but the next obvious questions that pop into my mind are: What Brian? Where do we meet? When do I have to show up?
Rather, keep your task names specific, so that you know right away what to do, like this:
“Meet Brian over at Starbucks on October 20th at 11:30 AM about the book launch”
As you can see, it’s much more specific and you know immediately what you are supposed to do.
6. I include any important reference information.
Regarding the previous tip, make sure to have all the necessary task-related information available for you.
For instance, have Brian’s phone number or the address of the coffee shop available just in case you need them. All the tasks lists I have used support adding notes to your task. Definitely use this feature to your advantage.
7. I batch work.
Take a look at your task list and figure out if you can do similar things at once. Processing e-mails is one option, and so is making calls or running errands. With a quick look at your list, you can easily spot these kinds of tasks.
8. I use themes.
One of the ways I categorise my list is to have themed days and weeks for my work. For instance, I focus on project work from Monday until Thursday, while on Friday I might run errands, and on Sunday I go through some training material.
With themed days, you can focus on just certain types of tasks and make progress easier on them.
Reaching an empty e-mail inbox is probably the most well-known zero of the list. The main idea is to keep your inbox clean and all the messages processed, so that no digital clutter accumulates in your inbox.
Too often people complain that their inboxes are bloated and too difficult to handle. Not only are all the important messages there, but the inbox contains less-important messages as well, like newsletter items, jokes from colleagues or your friend asking you to go to lunch with him.
Yes, I was one of those people, but at some point the situation became too difficult to handle and I wanted to become more organized in this particular aspect. That’s why I decided to reach inbox 0, knowing that every message I was dealing with was going to be processed somehow.
- Checking e-mail three times per day (you can decide those times at least don’t start your day with your inbox)
- Process all the messages at once (with one touch if possible)
In addition, I take these additional steps:
- I have activated the Send and Archive button in Gmail (puts the processed messages into archive).
- When I open the inbox, I scan the headlines and unsubscribe from the e-mail lists that don’t interest me anymore (you can also use a tool to make this easier).
- If the e-mail was sent by a service, log-in immediately to the service and change its settings so that no new notifications come in.
- I archive/delete the messages with headlines that aren’t of any interest to me.
- Once I have a “real” message that contains an assignment, I put a note about it to my task list. Also, I add the URL of the e-mail message as reference in the description field (if your task list software supports this), in order to access the e-mail later. After this, I archive the message.
- If I encounter a message that I can’t reply to right away, I put a note to my task list, add a link to the message in the notes field and define a time when I’m going to reply to the message.
With the previous steps, I can maintain inbox zero every day. Steps 4 and 5 ensure that I’m able to process the messages properly and that the necessary follow-up steps are planned accordingly.
With the advent of tabbed browsing some years ago, it wasn’t necessary to keep that many browser windows open anymore and there was a much smaller risk of crashing your browser (especially on the Windows machine).
Although the tabs improved the browsing user experience considerably, they exposed another issue: All of a sudden, and if you weren’t careful enough, your browser would have dozens and dozens of open tabs, making the browser slow to start and operate yet again.
I was having this problem until I decided to create a similar kind of approach to tabs as there was for processing e-mail. And that’s how Tab 0 was born.
In essence, the idea is to process all the open tabs to zero (on a daily basis) so that your browser can become manageable again.
Reaching Tab 0 is a simple and straightforward process when you follow these guidelines:
1. Ask why.
Why is this tab open? If you can’t find any reason for doing so, close it right away
2. Understand the purpose.
Ask yourself the following:
- Is your tab open because you are doing research?
- Is it because you want to read the post later on?
- Is it because it contains a tutorial you are going to implement soon?
- Is it because you want to access on online training resource late on?
In any of these cases, create a task based on the purpose of an open tab and schedule it! This way you are not keeping all the tabs open all the time, only when you are truly need them with your work.
For instance, if I’m working on a project, I make sure I put the URL of the open tab to the task notes, so that I can access the page later, as seen in the image below
As you can see, the link to the document in progress is neatly listed as a reference, not as an open tab. Once all the tabs are processed, you can start your day with only one tab when your browser starts.
Next thing to do is to deal with all the input sources including things like:
- Your mobile phone
- Your paper-based notes on your desk
- Your “distraction list”
- All the regular mail that you haven’t processed yet
- Meeting notes
The basic idea is to go through all the input sources and process them at once every day. When you do this on a regular basis, all the ideas gets stored and all the assignments get scheduled.
One particular (and handy) way to enhance your working focus is to have something I’d like to call a “distraction list”.
It’s nothing more than just a piece of paper on my desk, where I jot down every idea, task and thought that crosses my mind when I’m working.
At the end of the day I process this document and make sure that the items get either done right away (if they take just couple of minutes) or they are scheduled accordingly.
Indeed, my distraction list looks messy. Then again, this list helps me to focus better.
Work desk 0
So what is a work desk zero anyway? Well, it’s nothing more than the habit of keeping your physical work desk clean and uncluttered.
Naturally you may have all your papers and other stuff on your desk when you work, but there is nothing better than returning back to work with a clean and organised desk.
Once again, this is just a matter of processing the workspace at the end of the day and making sure that:
- All the unnecessary papers are thrown into the trash, shredded or recycled
- All the research material is put where it belongs
- All the office supplies are put back in place
- The desk looks neat when you stop working for the day
Doing this small clean-up should take just couple of minutes maximum, so don’t skip this step!