Most Sundays, Money360 reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.
A reader wrote to me a while back happily extolling the virtues of . I get about ten book recommendations a day (about half of which seem to come straight from publishers), so naturally I was a bit ho-hum about the enthusiasm until I read one key phrase. “It’s basically like GTD for the non-work parts of your life.”
For those of you who aren’t quite into the GTD cult, GTD refers to Getting Things Done, a methodology developed by David Allen for organizing your work tasks mostly by minimizing the “gap time” – the time in the middle you would use to think about what to do next. I’ve been an avid user of GTD for a long time and without it I never would have been able to launch Money360.
Naturally, I was intrigued, so I checked out from the library. With two kids that I love spending time with and a burgeoning writing career to manage, insights on how to better manage the time I devote to household chores and other drudgery are quite welcome, indeed. Lo and behold, the subtitle right on the cover is How to Get Things Done at Home, Organize Your Life, and Feel Great About It.
Let’s dig in and see what can teach us.
A Deeper Look At
One aspect of that I liked right off the bat was the fact that although it was a lengthy 320 pages that are packed with information, the book itself actually boils down to a checklist of eighty very direct suggestions to follow. The suggestions themselves are each immediate – meaning you can pick them up and do them right away – but also lead to some significant change over time. To me, that is a big part of the value of a book like this: mixing immediacy with lasting change, and mixing bullet-point actions with meaty details. I hope to someday really hit on this kind of a mix in a book of my own.
With each of the sections below, Laura Stack (the author) focuses in on ten specific ideas, describing each of them over several pages. Although I found most of the ideas throughout the book insightful, I’m going to really focus in on two of these ideas per section.
Mastering the First Pillar – Plans
The opening portion of the book focuses in on defining goals and making plans for how to achieve those goals. I’m often amazed when I find that people simply don’t do this – they rarely define large-scale goals for themselves and even fewer actually invest the time to break these goals down into actionable steps.
Maintain a list of my life’s goals and dreams, and make plans for their accomplishments
This is something I sat down and did a while back, defining thirteen goals for my entire life and then defining steps I needed to take to reach each one of them. I even went so far as to discuss in detail my five short term (less than three years) goals. I’ll even share my whole list of thirteen goals with you all, right now.
1. Build up my fitness so that I can do at least rung 30 of the on a daily basis.
2. Eliminate all of our family’s debt besides our mortgage and build up a $50,000 investment portfolio in three years.
3. Read a significantly challenging book every week.
4. Write a journal of thoughts and memories for my son and for my daughter.
5. Make my writing a full time endeavor. (This one’s done! Hooray!)
6. Write and publish at least five books, one of them fiction.
7. Give each of my children at least one hour of undivided attention each day.
8. Buy a plot of land in the country with significant forestation on it and build a house for my wife and I to grow old in.
9. Go on family vacations to at least four continents before my children graduate high school.
10. Ensure that my children have the means to follow any path they choose when they leave home.
11. Go back to school and get my Master’s degree (at a minimum).
12. Tell my wife and my children that I love each one of them every day.
13. Run for a significant local political office.
If I can do these twelve things, I will have a very complete and content life in every sense I can concieve of. Can you write a similar list for your own life? What’s the first step for each one?
Plan for chaotic transition periods during the day.
Around here, there’s a chaotic period early in the morning when everyone’s getting up and ready for their day. My son is in the bathroom brushing his teeth and shouting about something, my daughter is drooling on the bedsheets while I pull her onesie on over her head, my wife’s stepping out of the shower, and I’m sitting there with my hair disheveled trying to remember everything that needs to be packed away in the diaper bag today.
Stack suggests simply making a checklist of all of the things to be done each morning. Our son needs to get up, brush his teeth, go to the bathroom, get a training pants inspection, pick out clothes, get those clothes on, get his shoes on, and (if he’s going to daycare) gather anything he needs for the day. Our daughter needs to get up, get dressed, get a diaper change, and if she’s going to daycare, get bottles prepared and food stowed away for the day. And that’s just the two kids!
Making a checklist of all of the tasks that need to be done – even if they’re individually no-brainers – makes it easier to just run through the things that need to be done and not waste time thinking about them. In other words, we just make a big list of all of these things and just start running through the list without thinking about them, wringing precious extra seconds and minutes from our morning rush. This really does work quite well, but I’ll admit that I felt silly looking at a checklist with stuff like “Change her diaper” and “Help him with his shoes.” The key was that I didn’t have to think about what to do next – I just glanced at the list and grabbed the next item in line.
Mastering the Second Pillar – Priorities
Even with all of the plans in the world, there are still tons of things to do during a day. How can one choose among them in a way that makes sense both in the short run and in the long run?
Spend enough time with the people that are dear to me.
This is something that most people let slip over time because they view these people as being constants. “I can put off giving Mom a long phone call – she’ll be there tomorrow, after all.” Or, even worse, the Cats in the Cradle scenario: “I’ll spend time with little Timmy later – right now, the big game’s on.” Then the time comes when Mom passes away or the child moves out and you’re left with regret – regret in terms of time not spent with that person that you love.
There really is no better time than right now to spend some time with someone important to you. Give your parents a call. Cancel some plans, take your kid to the park, and play catch with them. Call up an estranged friend of yours and patch things over. The more you put these things off, the more you’ll deeply regret the postponement later.
Make my health a number-one priority.
This is a challenge for me – and for the majority of Americans. 60% of Americans get no exercise at all and a significant portion of those remain get insufficient exercise.
My diet is in pretty good shape – I basically prepare all of my meals at home, my typical breakfast is oatmeal, and my typical lunch is a cold cut turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread. I drink about a gallon of water a day. My problem is really centered on exercise – I literally have to schedule it in each day and make myself do it.
It’s worth it, though. The more I exercise, the better I feel, both mentally and physically. I do a nice exercise session, follow it with a shower, and I feel alive and ready to tackle the mental challenges of the rest of my day.
Mastering the Third Pillar – Personality
This section is mostly about harnessing our individual quirks and turning them towards more productivity rather than less.
Refuse requests when appropriate.
Refusing requests is something that I genuinely need to work on. I often take on extra tasks and responsibilities that I don’t really need to, and it’s usually because I stick my neck out for them. Later on, I find I have far too much on my plate and I regret taking these things on.
The biggest problem is that I tend to seek out problems and want to solve them, even if solving the problem is more than I can chew. Stack’s solution is pretty simple: I just need to regularly remind myself that I can’t solve all of the problems all of the time. Instead, I need to just focus on solving a few of the problems, and solving them well.
Know and honor my energy levels throughout the day.
One of the biggest steps forward I’ve ever taken in terms of productivity is to realize that if I spend all day writing or working at a desk job, I go through a big lull from about 1:30 to 2:30 or so, and then after 4:00, I’m mush. I figured this out by spending a few weeks writing down my perceived energy and concentration level every fifteen minutes throughout the day.
So I changed my routine. Now, I eat lunch at about 11:30 and when I feel that 1:30 lull coming on, I go exercise. I run through my daily exercise routine and, if there’s no children around that I need to watch, I go for a walk. If there are children around, I load them in the stroller and walk. Either way, I spend about forty minutes getting my exercise and follow it up shortly with a shower (again, as soon as I’m free to do that). This leaves me feeling very energetic and mentally engaged and it thus eliminates that downturn at 4:00. On a day focused on writing, my day now ends when I plan for it to end, often when I need to start preparing dinner. Even better, I’m still mentally engaged and energetic when my family arrives home.
Pay attention to your natural energy cycle and respond to it appropriately. It lets you not only maximize your most productive moments, but lets you consider ways to maximize your least productive moments, too.
Mastering the Fourth Pillar – Pests
“Pest” is a general term that Stack uses to refer to the little things that interrupt your day, from emails to phone calls to people just stopping in.
Keep interruptions from wasting my time.
At my previous job, I was largely expected to have my email open at all times, checking the server for new messages every ten minutes, and responding to incoming requests as soon as possible. This was difficult, and often a distraction from getting larger tasks accomplished. Near the end of my tenure, I took to closing my email program for long periods, such as an hour and a half in length, then opening the program and answering all of the built-up emails. It enabled me to focus on some bigger tasks and I found it very refreshing.
Now that I’m effectively on my own, I check email twice a day, period. Between those sessions, I don’t even open up my email program. I also turn my telephone completely off when I want to focus on something, whether it’s writing or spending time with my family. In a nutshell, I don’t need the interruption in my life. If it’s truly urgent, they will call back.
Turn off the technology when with my loved ones.
Of course, that flows right into this point, which I wholeheartedly agree with. If you’re spending quality time with your family, don’t open up the laptop and please, for the love of God, turn that cell phone off. I’ve had dozens of family events over the last few years taken down by people hastily answering their cell phones, sending text messages, browsing on their laptop, or something to that effect.
If you’ve got something urgent going on, great, but don’t let that urgency interrupt quality time with your family. Either turn off the cell phone or turn off the quality time – if you try to juggle both, you’ll just undermine both.
Mastering the Fifth Pillar – Possessions
Here, Laura Stack tackles clutter and “pack ratting,” something that my wife has a strong tendency for. Most of my solutions to that battle involve getting rid of stuff when she’s not paying attention, but maybe Stack has some better solutions.
Set up an effective office space in my home.
In our home, there are three bedrooms on the upper level and one in the basement. We transformed one of the upper-level bedrooms into an office – it has a desk big enough to house a computer workstation and room to write and sort papers (for GTD), a big comfortable rocking chair to sit in to read (and occasionally rock children to sleep). In other words, it’s perfect.
But does it help with keeping the house organized. Undoubtedly. All materials related to my writing are in this room – and stay in this room. They don’t leave it unless I’m taking a book with me to read in the family room after the kids go to bed and my wife is doing some take-home work. Within that office, I’m pretty picky about organization, so my workstation space is nearly devoid of anything else. This keeps me on focus and more productive with my writing time – and keeps my professional stuff from trailing all over the house.
Keep my house up neat and tidy up daily.
Before my career switch, we would often do minimal housework during the week and really kick things into high gear on Saturday morning, cleaning the whole house vigorously for a good chunk of the day. Over time, though, I’ve found that by just spending fifteen minutes or so just before bed (when I’m nice and tired) getting some basic household cleaning done, it cuts even more than fifteen minutes out of our weekend chores.
The end result is that we can now fit most of our cleaning into Saturday naptime, leaving us most of the rest of the day to just relax and enjoy a weekend together – and that’s really what I want out of a weekend, not a rushed cleaning that leaves everyone feeling exhausted.
Mastering the Sixth Pillar – Paper
One major challenge I have is with paperwork building up. I currently have a massive pile of stuff that either (a) needs to be filed or (b) needs to be shredded. What kinds of tips does Stack have for these issues?
Create and maintain a filing system that allows me to find papers easily.
I have something of an electronic filing system for these documents that worked very well for a short period – that is, until my scanner decided to give up the ghost. In reality, the problem is in the “maintain” part of the filing system – I’m not maintaining it. Not because I don’t have a scanner, but because I don’t have the initiative to replace the scanner.
That’s about to change. Reading this book really called me on what I was doing to undermine my own plans and I’m going to fix the scanner situation today.
Follow a daily processing system for staying on top of the mail and paperwork.
Aside from the accumulation of stuff that needs to be filed, the basic GTD workflow works well for me. I just dump my mail each day into my pile of “stuff that needs to be dealt with urgently” pile, where all new things go, and then I go through each piece, either discarding it, dealing with it immediately, or putting it in a pile of stuff that’s less urgent.
This works quite well for keeping on top of the mail, as long as I don’t let documents that need to be stored in some fashion accumulate over time.
Mastering the Seventh Pillar – Post
“Post,” in Stack’s parlance, refers to the set of tasks you’re responsible for in the home. I’m responsible for the majority of non-child related tasks like grocery shopping and cooking meals and dishes, largely because my wife is incredibly good at handling upset children – when a child bumps their chin, they come running to her and she’s very good at attending to them and fixing the problem – a certain type of nurturing gene that I don’t express as strongly as she does. The advice in this chapter is pretty solid stuff, helpful for keeping me on the ball.
Hire out simple chores to helpers.
This is something that often meets with debate at our house, but it’s one I find a lot of merit in. Let’s say I’ve figured out in the past that I value my productive time at roughly $30 an hour. Thus, it makes complete sense to me to hire someone to complete menial tasks for rates lower than that. Take, for example, a local woman who cleans houses. She’ll basically houseclean at a rate of about $14 an hour. Now, if I can translate that hour into $30 worth of income, it makes sense to hire that individual to clean – it’s a $16 profit for that hour. A similar thought process applies to a lot of tasks: mowing the lawn, etc.
My wife’s counterargument is that it’s only acceptable if the cost of hiring a person is substantially less than half of the value you put on your time. For example, with the housecleaner, I could easily do the housecleaning myself and figure my time is worth $14 an hour doing it. On the other hand, if I spent that time writing, I’d bring home $16 an hour more, but out of that extra, I’d have to pay taxes and expenses, dragging the actual profit down to just a couple dollars an hour. Thus, it’s more profitable to do the housecleaning myself. It’s an interesting debate, but neither of us really question the idea that hiring someone for menial tasks is a great time saver, freeing us up for other things.
Have goods delivered to avoid unnecessary time at the store.
When I read this, I immediately thought of . We use Amazon Grocery for pretty much every dry good in our home, especially everything bulky – diaper boxes, paper towels, toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent, etc. We get all of this material delivered via Amazon. With free shipping, the prices wind up being roughly comparable to our local grocery store, but by ordering it online, the costs of driving to the store and driving home are minimized – instead, we’ve basically moved towards going to the grocery store only for produce and fresh foods.
This winds up being a tremendous timesaver. We can now do the majority of our grocery shopping while standing at the pantry, clicking on the items we need. I keep a page listing all of our most common items, and I just click on the links of those that we’re short on and add them to the cart – it’s much faster than trudging through a store. Even better, they just appear on the front step in a few days – no driving around to the store, driving home, and unloading. To me, it’s an incredible timesaver and one that doesn’t cost much at all, if anything.
Mastering the Eighth Pillar – Play
The last portion of the book focuses on setting aside time for yourself for pure enjoyment of life. It’s this pillar that I found weakest in my own life over the last few years and part of my career change choice leans on strengthening this pillar.
Go on a long vacation each year.
This summer, we’re planning an eight day vacation – yes, with two children in tow. The vacation involves a wide mix of things – camping in a national park, a few days in Chicago (and likely a baseball game), and several other child-oriented activities (including two stellar children’s museums). How will this go? I don’t know, but I’m genuinely looking forward to it.
Make time for a favorite hobby.
My favorite hobby is reading, so I’ve penciled in an hour a day for reading challenging books that make me think. As I’ve stated above, I intend to read one a week for the next three years. Better get crackin’.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
is loaded with concrete, specific, and applicable advice for organizing your personal life in order to maximize the free time you have available for the things you want to do. Sure, some of the advice is obvious, but much of it is creative and all of it pushes you in directions that make you carefully consider the personal choices you make.
If you’ve gone through books like Getting Things Done and are still having difficulty finding free time in your life, is a very worthwhile read. It’s easily the best book I’ve ever read on personal time managemet, as it recognizes that the one thing that I want more than anything else are blocks of uninterrupted time to spend with my family and on my own interests.
Be aware, is fairly long for a book of this type, measuring in at 322 pages of actual text, but the book still comes off as feeling dense – each page is loaded with ideas. After reading it and looking at my notes and ideas, then implementing some of them, I feel much the same way that I did after discovering Getting Things Done – I’ve kicked things up to a new level of productivity. That’s why I actually went ahead and purchased this book for my own bookshelf – it’s that good, and I can see myself returning to it as a reference.