You Need A System To Get To Done

In another life I was an infantry officer in a secondary staff position in the 7th Cavalry in Iraq. Which means I got really good at making Power Point slides and Excel spreadsheets. There was a dark day when my boss and I figured out how to conditionally format multiple worksheet tabs and we high fived each other.

War is hell.

I still learned a few things besides how to format a slide deck on that deployment. One of them? That three words of instruction can mean days worth of work.

Let me explain.

3 Words, 48 hours of work

We were a mechanized infantry task force, which means we had a lot of different kinds of ammunition that went with our tanks and armored personnel carriers. The US Army in its infinite logistical wisdom saw fit to rewrite what ammunition our Bradleys (the armored personnel carriers) were supposed to be carrying around. This happened every few years.

Unfortunately, we were working off an old ammunition list, and were carrying around the wrong kinds of ammunition. Or the right kind, but in the wrong quantities. Which is only a big deal when you’re trying to go home.

Because before you can leave a place like Iraq, you have to account for all the bullets you have lying around. And for a Bradley, some of those are some pretty big bullets. And if you have the wrong number, well, there’s an investigation. Which could mean someone’s staying in Kuwait longer than the others.

One of my bosses figured out this might be a problem, and walked into the office where I was probably updating another spreadsheet.

Or Tetris.

Staff officers get really good at pointless things.

Let me be clear

“Smock! Ammo! Un-rude-word-that-starts-with-the-6th-letter-of-the-alphabet!”

That’s all he said.

Then he walked out again.

What followed was several 16 hour days of me…unAHEMing the ammo. Which resulted in the greatest spreadsheet of all time. And the high fives all around.

Which brings me back to how we get from busy to done.

I don’t care how you do it, I just care about helping you get there.

Because I don’t have the Golden Ticket to helping you be more productive. I’ve got some tactics, techniques, and procedures, sure. But do I have the answer to this?

I do not.

Which was what my boss taught me that day.

He didn’t care what my process was, he just cared about the result.

Now, what I do care about? Is that you have a process. That you have a system for dealing with the things that are keeping you busy and not letting you get to done.

You need a system

I’m a systems and processes guy. Because once you get a system right, success will always follow. And they don’t have to be complex to work.

Even though this explanation is pretty complicated

All systems have (a) inputs, outputs and feedback mechanisms, (b) maintain an internal steady-state (called homeostasis) despite a changing external environment, (c) display properties that are different than the whole (called emergent properties) but are not possessed by any of the individual elements, and (d) have boundaries that are usually defined by the system observer.

Do you have a place you always put your car keys so you don’t forget them?

That’s a system.

Do you get ready every morning using the same set of steps?

That’s a system.

Do you have a set of steps you do every morning when you get to the office?

That’s a system.

Personal systems usually develop into habits. And that’s a good thing, if it’s a good habit. If it’s not, well, then we need to rethink that system. Which we’ll get into in a later post.

A system that gets from busy to done

When it comes to task processing systems, I’m a huge fan of Getting Things Done by David Allen. I discovered that a few years ago, and since then I’ve logged a lot of hours trying to figure out how my own task processing works. No matter what process you use, your system needs to help you answer these questions.

What do I need to do?

You need a way to capture your “to dos.” That can be pen and paper, like I talked about yesterday, or some other electronic tool, like an app or spreadsheet. But you need a place to get it all down.

What should I do next?

Every task can be broken down into “next steps.” And your to do list always has those things that need to be done next. Most of the time that’s decided by things like deadlines and others’ expectation. But whatever system you use, it should help you figure out what needs your attention right now.

What can I delegate?

However you organize that to do list, you should be able to find something someone else can do for you. Some things you have to do yourself, but a lot of things we do on our own may need to be pushed onto someone else’s plate. That can be a subordinate, a peer, a family member, or a virtual assistant. And what’s left? The important stuff.

What can I delete?

The quickest way to get something off your to do list? Delete it. Because we’ve all got things we think we should be doing, that might not fit in with what we really want to be doing with our lives. Whatever system you use, make it easy to erase things from your to do list.

What should I do now?

Once you’ve made decisions about your to do list, what’s the thing you need to be working on right now? What’s the thing you need to focus on to meet a deadline or move your work forward? In my example that priority was set for me by my boss’ terribly concise instruction. Sometimes we don’t get directions that are that clear. So your system needs to be able to help you see clearly what to work on first.

What did I get done?

This one’s something we’ll go into quite a bit in the future, but a “done” list is just as important as a “to do” list, since if you have no idea what you did, you feel like you did nothing. Keeping a running “done” list helps that feeling.

Where does this thing go?

Once you’re done with a task, you might still have things that need to be archived. You need to have a way to file things away and make it possible for you to find them later. That can be a set of folders in a cabinet, or a list of files on your computer.

Just get to done

When it comes from getting to busy to done, we will always talk about goals. Because if you don’t know where you’re going, it makes it a lot harder to figure out how you’re going to get there.

Without a system in place for processing requests like I got in Iraq, we end up doing a lot of busy and lot less done. If I’d had a better system in place, I probably could have gotten that job done earlier.

And a good system always answers these questions:

  • What do I need to do?
  • What should I do next?
  • What can I delegate?
  • What can I delete?
  • What did I get done?
  • Where does thing go?

Once you can answer those questions, your to do list? Becomes a done list. And that’s what we’re here for: getting you from busy to done.

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