Sun Feb 28 2021
I first heard about this book from a random computing blog that was centered on the idea of workflow management. The book sat on the shelf for about a year until I actually read it. I decided to pick it up since it definitely sounded like it had a great deal of information on how to break down big projects into manageable chunks. Just like the phrase “How do you eat an Elephant? One bite at a time.”, this book provides all of the mechanisms to plan and execute any size of project or keep track of a large amount of small projects without losing any information.
The process of stress-free productivity is driven home at every opportunity. In order to be productive, the book teaches the reader first how to corral every bit of information into some sort of tangible form for later sorting. This crucial step is meant to get everything in your head or strewn about your life accounted for. After this has been done, all of this “stuff” is sorted, evaluated, turned into “todos” and separated into buckets.
Sorting the todos into buckets is where the real strength of the system takes shape. Each bucket holds different forms of todos. Todos that can be done in two minutes or less are all grouped together. Anything taking longer is sorted into another bucket for later action after all the two-minutes todos are done. Seemingly random or irrelevant tasks aren’t thrown away or ignored but placed into a bucket to revisit at another time. There is still a bucket for things that are indeed irrelevant and that’s the literal trash bucket. Most importantly, at this time anything you had in your head that could be delegated or larger commitments are all identified so they don’t constantly gnaw at your mind and produce anxiety.
This biggest takeaway I got from the book was the idea of the next action, which is described as any todo that should only be done after another todo. Thinking of things in terms of next actions is an extremely useful tool. This helps to achieve more by breaking tasks down into several smaller parts with clearly defined outcomes. If a todo ends up with several “next actions” it’s actually useful to think of it as a project.
“Changing the car oil” isn’t just one todo and most likely several smaller things. If the car needs to be taken somewhere, there could be a couple todos right there: 1) schedule an appointment or find a time to go, 2) take the car in, 3) wait at the mechanic or get a ride home, 4) pay and drive home. Of course, if you’re doing it yourself, there might be few more tasks, You would need to buy the oil, make sure you have the tools, know that you can actually get under your car to change the oil, you’ll need to dispose of the oil, and many more things you wouldn’t necessarily think of when the task of changing the car oil comes to mind. Thinking of todos in this way helps to identify if the project is worth taking on at this point, and if you have enough available bandwidth to do it.
The great thing about next actions is you don’t need to keep everything in mind at all times, just the next action. This is a great way from getting overwhelmed of things to do.
To help add meaning to the buckets, next action lists and so on the book proposed framing anything you’re doing or what you want to do in terms of flying a plane to some destination at 50,000 feet, a high-level abstraction and a way to ignore any significant details of todos. Thinking about todos in this way helps put them into perspective of any long-term goal you want to accomplish throughout your life. This isn’t to say the book wants the reader to have a purpose for every todo, just more of a way to manage any urgency and set expectations.
This type of plan is a way to think to think of the different levels of work in terms of altitude. The author proposes 6 levels with each at 10,000 ft increments. Starting at the highest altitude, you consider why you exist and where you are going in life. As the book perfectly explains it, all of your goals, visions, objectives, projects, and actions at the lower levels are putting you on course to whatever destination you’re headed. Conversely, at the lowest level are you current actions such as phone calls you need to make, emails to respond to, errands to run, or things to communicate to your spouse or boss. At this level, it’s almost impossible to see where you’re going and trying to think big picture here is just going to create loads of anxiety.
The two extremes of this plan are very helpful, but I really benefited from exploring and implementing the other levels. The 10,000 foot level is you executing any current short-term actions you’re dealing with at the moment, which comprise all of the phone calls and emails etc you’re dealing with on the runway. 20,000 feet is your area of responsibility and describe why you’re doing actions at the levels below; paying your gym membership in order to stay healthy, paying your credit card bill to manage your finances, or answering support emails to keep your customers happy and maintain your business reputation. 30,000 & 40,000 ft are the 1-2 and 3-5 year plans respectively and are the typical “where do you see yourself in X years” commonly found in a questionnaire you get at work or school. These two levels are always hard for me to wrap my head around since it really just feels like an estimation but it’s good at least to have a rough picture of something you can later say was totally wrong.
At the beginning of the book when sorting all the stuff in your head, you’re told if something is not immediately actionable you can “Do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it”. Right away this sounded like a great concept to help people relax and come to a compromise with all the stuff in their head they feel the need to do.
The book does a great job on teaching the reader that some things aren’t worth doing since they either take too much time, or require doing too many other things not relevant to the 50,000 foot plan. Being able to come to an agreement with yourself that a thing is not worth doing is very powerful.
After reading the book, I rarely throw things away now, and instead either scan them and save them to a portable hard drive if it’s a paper. Webpages I visit that seem interesting but I don’t have the time to read at this moment, I’ll bookmark and file away into a specific bucket relevant to what the subject relates to or how I can assign it to my own 50,000 ft plan. It feels good to know that the info isn’t really lost, just stashed away somewhere later when the time comes that I’ll need it.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who feels they never accomplish anything or can’t seem to get organized. Much of the material in the book is worded towards professionals, however this can be adopted by anybody looking to improve their organizational skills and manage their individual performance.
Throughout the book, some of the concepts already seemed familiar to me. I had realized that in order to calm my mind, I needed to get as many things out of my head as possible in order to remember everything. This was one of the ideas that led me to develop Genda.
Written by Steven Wright who lives and works in Sacramento building useful things.