When I joined Google, I felt under huge pressure. It took me about 6 months of interviewing, following-up, waiting, following-up again and then moving to the UK to start my dream job. It was my first job out of uni and I was so excited that I had to pinch myself a few times. Ok, maybe a lot of times.
At the same time, I was also worried that I won’t be able to live up to the expectations, to deliver and to show my competence. I wasn’t even sure I was competent, to begin with. I suppose this was the impostor syndrome that I hadn’t even heard of at that time.
On my first trip, two weeks into the job, I bought a book at the airport. I was traveling with my new manager that I was keen to impress. It was David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, which, in retrospect, I am not sure what kind of impression it left on my manager. After all, I was hired to get stuff done from Day1…
Fast forward 5 years, I was still at Google and teaching my ‘productivity system’ in small groups. I was also running the OKR process in the Global Strategy & Ops team. If you aren’t familiar with OKRs (side note to all entrepreneurs: you definitely need this), making it all happen is what I would call the Cartier of project management. The outcome defines what the entire organization will be working on for the next year including the shiniest initiatives that everyone wants on their CV. It also defines headcounts and budgets, and all performance (individual and collective) will be evaluated against this. As you might have guessed, there is just one key rule: Don’t f*ck up.
If you think anyone can do this by ToDo lists in pretty planners, joining the 5am club, journaling in the morning or having the latest and coolest project management app, I have some news for you: absolutely not.
The thing is, we all love a good productivity hack or a shortcut that can be THE answer. In reality, I have never seen any of this to work. Getting things done is the result of a thought-through combination of tools and principles.
Here are the key pillars of my system at a high level:
1. ToDo matrix
This is an online Google sheet where I dump everything that needs to get done. Big, small, important, less important, immediate or ‘someday’. The core principle behind this is that your brain isn’t designed to keep track of everything you need to or want to do. The only exception is anything that needs to happen on a specific day, which is what I use the calendar for.
I use Google calendar for scheduling meetings, calls, appointments, and even my workouts. Anything and everything that has to happen at a certain time or on a certain day goes into my calendar. I do *not* time block tasks or activities that I would like to get done during the day though. I don’t know about you, but most people underestimate how long a task takes (note: that’s why I just try to get it right directionally in my ToDo matrix), over-schedule their calendar and dread the day even before it begins. I don’t want to do this to myself and I believe that no one should either.
I have always had a zero inbox and that is simply because I don’t ‘do’ emails, but instead, I ‘process’ emails. Anything that comes in as a task, I move it to my ToDo matrix or calendar depending on what it is. For anything else, I use a color-coded star system. This system helps me to process emails and requests that come with them, instead of getting sucked into responding (unless it is truly urgent) and starting to work on whatever the request is.
How about planners or journals? I am glad you asked. I personally think that planners have a place, but if you try to manage all your tasks and ToDos by daily lists in your planner, well, chances are you have a lot more stress and chaos in your life than what you need. Planners play an important role in the 1st level of the #MakeItHappen pyramid ‘Priorities’: when used correctly, your planner keeps you focused and on track with key priorities. I have got to write a blog post about this, don’t I? :)
Once you create a system that works for you and you can stick with it, it all becomes second nature and you suddenly find yourself on autopilot. The system becomes no effort and it frees you up from running around inefficiently and without accomplishing anything that you set out to do.
Once I read David Allen’s book, I took the key principles and applied them to the digital world and to the fast-paced tech reality of Google. It took me about 3 weeks to create and get used to the first version of my productivity system. Which is quite alright knowing that we need 21 days for any habit to form and stick, and 90 days for it to become part of our lifestyle.
I cannot tell you how much time and unnecessary stress this system has saved me over the years. Getting the things done that matter the most doesn’t require fancy apps or lots of hacks and shortcuts. The answer is in fact rather simple. I have taught it to many people informally and as I could see the impact it has made on their work life and sanity, I have decided to write a book about it. Stay tuned for #MakeItHappen in 2021!