Digitizing my brain: How I manage my energy, my creativity, and my time

It’s almost New Years! And even though I say I won’t make a big deal out of New Years and its promise to make me into a brighter, shinier version of myself, I always do. Because let’s be honest, planning for the future is the most fun in the world.

One of the areas I re-visited this year was my approach to collecting tasks, ideas, projects, and all the other stuff that floats around in my brain and needs dealing with on a daily basis. The biggest change I made was moving from a paper system to a digital one (I use the Getting Things Done method, which gets onerous when you’re dealing with lists and lists of mostly crossed out tasks). Adam mentioned loving OmniFocus, so I checked it out and agreed — it’s really great.

Several people have asked how I manage to work at &yet, homeschool my 3 kids, and work on other projects (I’ll be sharing a new one very soon that I’ve been working on with a friend for the past year). This is a big part of it. The tool doesn’t really matter, as long as you enjoy using it and it’s simple to maintain.

Getting Things Done: The 7 basic steps

If you’re not familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (GTD for short), it’s an approach to managing all the tasks and projects that come up in your life. It’s rigorous to get started and requires 10 to 15 minutes of daily maintenance, but the relief and freedom from feeling like you should be doing other things is worth it. (And, as the title suggests, you also get a lot of things done, without the mental and emotional angst that often comes with creative projects.)

Even if you know the ins-and-outs of GTD, it’s worth it to start fresh as you begin a new year or migrate to a new tool. For the system to work, you have to trust that it contains every task or project you want or need to do. Starting from the beginning every once in a while is a great way to make sure that’s happening.

To get started:

  • Choose an inbox

I’ve chosen OmniFocus, but as I mentioned, I have also successfully used a physical notebook (using the Bullet Journal approach) and the Things app.

  • Inside your inbox, make a list of every task or project that you’ve committed to or that you need or want to do

This could be anything, from planning a vacation to conducting a product launch to taking out the trash. Doesn’t matter if it’s business or personal, important or unimportant, urgent or not. Just be sure to get it all out. Even after you do this, you’ll probably still spend the next day or two adding new tasks that you forgot about.

  • From that list, make a list of projects

A project is anything that has more than one task associated with it. (“Clean the kitchen” would be a project, since it involves lots of different tasks.)

In OmniFocus, you can simply drag any item from your inbox into the Projects section to turn it into a project. This makes it really easy to see what’s left.

  • Assign every remaining item in your inbox to a project until your inbox is empty

Some tasks may not have a “project”, but I put them in a project anyway (like “Maintenance”) to get them out of my inbox.

  • For each project, write down the very next step(s) that need to be done to make progress on that project

Next steps are literally the very next specific step you need to take. So if you need to call the vet, but you don’t have the vet’s phone number, your next step would be “Google vet’s phone number”. If you need to decide on a book title, your next step might be “Make a list of possible book titles”.

Ideally, every next step for each project would be this specific and actionable. This takes care of one of the biggest sources of procrastination, because there is no ambiguity in what you need to do.

By the way, you don’t need to add all the steps for every project. (For complex projects, you may not even know what all of them are yet.) Start with the very next step or two; you can add more steps when you need to.

  • Get into the habit of adding new tasks and projects to your inbox throughout the day

Don’t be perfect with this — just put a note in your inbox every time you commit to something or have an idea to do something. You’ll take care of it when you process your inbox that day.

  • Decide on a time for processing your inbox daily

Processing your inbox involves simply repeating these steps every day (though it will be much faster because nearly everything is already in your inbox; it takes me 10-15 minutes). This is the last thing I do before I quit work for the day, which not only gives me a nice stopping point, but also gives me a smooth start to the next day.

Using GTD to manage energy instead of time

Getting Things Done isn’t a time management system; you can use it with any approach. I used to use it with my 90-minute workday when I was self-employed. 

The approach I use now is a hodge-podge of many things I’ve learned, including concepts in Jim Loehr’s book The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. One of Loehr’s premises is that after 90 minutes of focused work, we need to take a break for rest and renewal before starting a focused task again. There are two ways I use GTD to help me with this.

Giving my next steps energy-related contexts

One basic step I didn’t mention is applying contexts to each of your next steps. (A context is a tag or label you can use to group tasks together.) David Allen recommended a “home” context for any steps that needed to be done at home. “Office” for any that needed to be done at work. “Phone” for any phone calls. “Computer” for computer-based work. “Errand” for anything you needed to do while you were out. Etc.

I used to use contexts in this way and found them a waste of time. We work differently now. We have our phones and laptops with us nearly all the time. For many of us, our lives are not cleanly split between personal time and work time. 

Because I haven’t been giving my next steps a context, I always had trouble choosing what to do in any given moment, and GTD became overwhelming to keep up with (there were so many tasks that I never did, simply because there were too many to choose from). That’s why contexts are so useful. They allow you to narrow down your tasks to whatever is appropriate for the context you find yourself in.

Then I discovered this video by Sven Fechner at OmniFocus, which elegantly fixed that problem for me. Instead of using contexts based on place, I started using them based on how much energy they took. Now I have three main contexts. “Short dashes” are tasks that don’t require much time or energy. “Full focus” are tasks I can do when I’m ready to sit down and focus on a task. And “Rest and Renewal” is for when I’ve just spent a chunk of time in “Full focus” mode, and I need to re-energize.

I also have a few other contexts that are not energy-related, such as “Out and about” for things I can do while I’m running around town. “Waiting” for when I need something else to happen before I can do something. And “Someday/Maybe” for tasks and projects that sound like a good idea, but I haven’t committed to.

(Note: if you decide to add contexts to your workflow, you’ll need to add that to your maintenance list each day. Having the “waiting” context makes this easier for me. Instead of needing to go through every action in every project every day, I just process my inbox and then look at all of the things in the “waiting” context to see if there are tasks that I am no longer waiting on and can apply a new context to. Once a week, I go through every single project and next step, but there’s no reason to do that on a daily basis.)

Filling up my “Rest and Renewal” context

This is a simple step, but it has been so effective for me in managing my energy. I simply make a list of tasks that make me feel re-energized. A few of my favorite things currently on this list:

I try to be as specific as possible, making them just as actionable as my regular tasks (otherwise, there are some things on here that my eyes will skip over because they’re too vague — like “make garland to hang in the living room”).

Using GTD as a learner and writer

I love to learn new things and am constantly reading books and listening to talks. I’m also a writer, which means that new insights end up as writing material. But I often get to a point where I don’t want to read anything or watch anything, because I’ve learned so much that I haven’t implemented. What is the point of learning something new if it’s just going to fall right out of my brain in the next couple of days? 

Long, long ago in a galaxy not so unlike this one, Behance used to make a tool called Action Method. It is now defunct, but I’ve carried the main concept with me ever since — capture everything with a bias toward action. If you hear a great concept in a talk, capture it. If you read a great quote, capture it. If one of your teammates asks you to do something, capture it. If someone says they’re going to do something, ask them if they captured it (I’ll admit, I haven’t quite gotten to the level of mastery where I bug people about this yet. But I am not above it.)

Evernote is excellent for capturing information, but there is no bias toward action. You can capture and organize things all day long, but you’ll need to take an extra step if you want to put anything on your to-do list. Which is fine, except most of the time you’ll skip that step and the new insight you gleaned will pass you by just like all the rest. There are two ways I use GTD to fix this problem.

Creating an “Idea Garden” project

Any time I have an idea or read a quote I like or read about a concept that resonates with me or hear something interesting or inspiring, I put it in my inbox, just like I do tasks and projects. Most of the time, I’ll also jot down a note about what it meant for me personally. Those notes are often even more valuable than the ideas themselves, because they help me remember what I was thinking about at the time, and why it seemed relevant.

Later when I’m processing my inbox, I’ll either turn that idea into a task (often with a “Someday/Maybe” context if I haven’t decided to do it yet) and/or put it in my “Idea Garden”.

Not only does this give me a quick and comprehensive place to turn to when I’m trying to remember insights that I had, it also helps me assimilate new knowledge, because I’ve written down the information in my own words.

Creating a “Reminders” context

I believe one of the most important projects of our lifetimes is to become the best version of ourselves. If we were all committed to a lifetime of becoming the best version of us, I imagine most of the societal problems we face would disappear. It’s also completely in our power.

To remind me of the things I need to do (or stop doing) to become that person, I’ve added a “Reminders” context. Reminders can be grand insights or simple habits that will help me live a life that’s truer and more meaningful to who I really am. Most of the reminders on my list now simply have to do with managing my day better (since I just got finished reading Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind). Here are a few of them:

  • Write before breakfast

  • Go off-grid for full focus tasks

  • I may not get the hang of this right away. I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.

  • Ask for help when I get stuck. Don’t try to figure it out on my own.

  • Rest after 90 minutes of working on a full focus task

  • Don’t check email/social media in-between tasks. Put on superhero cape instead and notice one valuable thing in that experience.

  • Take an actual lunch break, and walk the dog while I’m at it

  • Don’t sabotage myself. Don’t be afraid of being a person who knows what she’s doing.

Each of these reminders has a story and purpose behind it, which I remember simply by glancing at these words. I also have my notes for another reminder about why I’m doing it. For example, on the “Don’t sabotage myself” reminder, I’ve written this quote from Seth Godin:

“These people sabotage themselves because the alternative is to put themselves into the world as someone who knows what they are doing…which means tomorrow you also have to know what you are doing, and you have just signed up for a lifetime of knowing what you are doing.

…This is what you hide from — the noise in your head that says you are not good enough, that says it is not perfect, that says it could have been better.”

The 3 most important things to remember

My systems are always growing and changing with time, but here are three things I’ve learned over the years that make Getting Things Done work for me:

  1. Capture everything. If you don’t, you won’t trust the system, and your brain will continue to waste its brilliance remembering all those large and small tasks that are running around in your subconscious. You also won’t experience the profound relief and freedom of feeling like everything is taken care of, or will be.

  2. Give every step a useful context. If you don’t, you will waste too much time and energy choosing between tasks to make it worth it. You also won’t get the benefit of separating your mental and emotional angst from your projects by being able to look at each step as a stand-alone task.

  3. Spend 10-15 minutes a day processing your inbox. If you don’t, your system will become outdated, and you’ll stop using it and will avoid starting again.

The great thing about GTD is it can be used with any approach to your day — whether you schedule time for everything on a calendar or use the don’t break the chain method or Pomodoro or a sticky note or a daily planner for prioritizing. Because it’s got such a cult following, there are tons of articles and hacks on how to customize it for your own use, but I’d recommend just getting started and making up your own tweaks as you go.

(If you’d like to chime in, please say hi on Twitter! I don’t have comments open because it’s yet another thing I have to check, but I love talking to folks there. :)