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Getting Things Done… Resources Part 1

My hope in this post is to share a couple resources I’ve come across in the last year that have helped me hone how I approach getting the stuff done. It’s not great secret that, if you choose a profession in the arts where there’s no ladder to climb, you just need to keep making your art, that if you stop getting stuff done, you lose. And if you allow the detritus of everyday life to get in the way, getting stuff done is pretty tough.

Let me also preface this by saying that I don’t spend a lot of time in aisles in bookstores the peddle self help, self organising, or the like. I tend to think that most books down those aisles are peddling common sense at a pretty steep mark up.

But let me paint a picture for you as to why I DID turn to a couple of resources to help me out. I love my day job. It’s endlessly challenging, never old and always keeps me on my toes. I’ve also gotten a bit of a reputation for being able to make the complex simple and articulate with Vision and Purpose why it is we go to work to do what we do each day. That’s been very complimentary. In a meeting back in April last year however, a manager who was standing in for my regular manager, my regular manager who was coming back from a secondment and another colleague were all sitting around having a chat before I was meant to arrive for a catch up conversation. What they shared with me was that they’d all found themselves waiting on things from me. Email, report, whatever, they’d found that each of them had needed to chase me up about something or other in the recent past. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was THAT guy. The douchebag who makes it difficult for other people to get their work done. I was no long the Vision dude; I was the blockage guy. It wasn’t a good feeling.

That was on a Thursday.

That Friday, having not planned the week ideally, I was up most of Friday night, Saturday morning putting the finishing touches on my weekly comic strip for Waterstones. I love the strip, it’s always fun to do, but more often that not, I’m pulling an all nighter Fridays and going to work on 2-4 hours sleep Saturday. That Saturday however, I was to head up to London for one of Comica Festival‘s biannual one day comics fairs, Comiket. I was going to be holding down the fort with fellow authors from my publisher, Myriad Editions.

I finished the strip in the wee hours of saturday morning. I snatched two hours of sleep and then headed up on a train to london bleary eyed and foggy brained. The show was to be at the Central Saint Martin‘s campus. I arrived there — near Tottenham Court road. Easy, I thought. I went to Alan’s degree show up here a couple of years ago. This will be fun. Only, that when I arrived, I discovered that the campus had moved, a COUPLE of YEARS earlier!

I trundled up to the new campus near Kings Cross station and settled into a seat. Comic shows like this are all about one’s ability to engage with people whom you will have never met and who you will hopefully be able to interest in your work, if they’ve never heard of you before; or engage to such a degree that they actually want to purchase some of your stuff if they already have heard of you. Though I’m naturally a shy person, nearly a decade in retail and engaging with people you don’t know has taught me how to connect with people better than just sticking my face in my sketchbook and hoping people can see the beauty and worth in the depths of my soul.

Ladies and gentlemen, I didn’t sell a single book. I was so off my game, I wasn’t even sure what game I was playing. It was awful.

There I was no longer seen to be effective in my day job. And then, the thing for which I had the day job to pay the bills, my passion: well I was rather crap at that two. This started a bit of a crisis. And some panicked reading.

Getting Things Done

Well, I found that I wasn’t. Through a combination of poor time management, poor planning, and not being able to say no, I was struggling to get anything done in my life. There are some great tools that the day job provides and I was able to do a bit of a self inventory of behaviours that were getting in my way and looking at things I could do to sort it out. A bunch of resources kept leading me back to one book, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. It’s not the sexiest of books, but then getting things done generally isn’t. It’s like breathing, you just need to do it. So I downloaded it onto my iPad (I was still scornful enough that I didn’t want to contribute to any tree genocide for this reading).

It was good, simple common sense. The main tenet of the book is that people, if they are to be successful in anything — whether that be discovering the key to cold fusion, curing cancer or going grocery shopping — need to focus on next actions. Sounds simple right? But how many to do lists do you have that have items like “Sort out finances” or “organise my desk” on it. Allen’s maintains that those aren’t to do items, they are projects. Anything that requires more than one step for completion is a project.

A brilliant exercise to get at the heart of what he’s talking about is to imagine something that’s currently occupying your attention. A project, a goal, anything. Now do three things:

1) articulate what that thing is: plan the wedding, start work on next book, organise the closet.

2) imagine a desired end state of that project: wedding happily done and off on honeymoon, book in hands of smiling editor, closet clean and easy to find things in.

3) (Now here’s where it’s cool) ask yourself what the next physical thing is that you can do to move that project further along. It could be anything. Ask wife where she’d like to get married, write a list of book ideas, open closet door…

It sounds ridiculously simple but one of the biggest problems people have is that they usually stop at step 1, they might go on to step 2, but the vast majority of people don’t ever think about step three. And that’s what makes life frustrating.

If you’re a bit of a pop culture dork, you’ll be glad to know that it’s not just dudes in suits that use GTD (yes, it has been reduced down). Joss Whedon is a big advocate of Getting Things Done (although he does admit that “reading the book, he did not get THAT done.”).

It took me 8 years to get my graphic memoir done. I don’t want to take 8 years to get the next graphic novel done. I’m focused on getting as much out of the time I’ve got during my Arts Council funded sabbatical as possible. Getting Things Done is helping with that massively.

A couple of footnotes:

1) I didn’t actually dive straight into GTD because I saw it in a book at work to help me sort out my time management. It was actually when I was reading a tutorial about the exceptional word processing app called Scrivener. Antony Johnson is a prolific British comics writer and his swears by a modified version of GTD to help him with his writing (I’ve linked to a great article he has called “Getting Things Written”.)

2) Part of making GTD work is the system you have backing it up. In the 80s, it would have been a Filofax. In the 90s, your Palm Pilot. Now, there are lots of great apps out there. Omnifocus is a big one. But my personal weapon of choice is Things. Simple elegant interface, integration across multiple devices and platforms. But you need a tool where you can capture the things that your are working on and the stuff you need to do to Get those Things Done.

3) This whole focus also led me to the website of a bit of an internet guru named Merlin Mann and his 43 Folders Site. Someone who’s worked in and around technology for a while, he found that with the mushrooming of email in our lives, he could apply Allen’s GTD methodology to email. If you’ve got a few minutes, have a rummage round his site. There are some great things in there (including the hipster PDA if you’d rather not go digital). And if you have a half hour, have a look at this video of a talk he did for Google employees back in 2007. As a result of this and his inBox Zero campaign, I’ve been able to get my email inbox down to zero. My boss has since said that I am no longer THAT guy. What better compliment could one ask for.

In a future post, I’ll go into some more sexy theoretical stuff. But I started here because all the theory in the world isn’t worth a fart in a hurricane if you can’t get sh!t done!

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