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By Tamara McLendon —

People often judge productivity systems in a binary sort of way. It’s great, or it’s a waste of time. “Oh, that system didn’t work for me. Once I stopped doing it, my life got out of control again.”

Well, you’re not wrong. You have to actually follow the plan in order for the plan to work. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the plan isn’t the right one for you. Depending on how your brain works, or your job, or your team dynamic, you can find a system that works well for you for the long term.

But what does “works well” actually mean? Does it mean 100 percent perfection? Does it mean that as soon as you stray off the path even just a little bit, you’ve failed?

No, of course not. It means that it’s a plan you can stick to most of the time, and that when you lose your mojo, you can get it back again.

We all have those weeks. In our team, we’re often managing simultaneous on-boarding and upgrade projects, but throw in a hurricane-related outage and our engineers start looking a little glassy-eyed.

Once it’s all dealt with and they are able to think straight again, it would be so easy for them to give in to the chaos as their new normal. But that doesn’t do them, their team, or their clients any favors.

The better approach is to step back, take a deep breath, and reboot, just like you do with your PC when it starts acting weird.

Here’s the reboot routine I use, and that I recommend my colleagues use when they’re feeling overwhelmed or finally coming up for air after a rough week. You’ll need to turn off the world for an hour, but the time always pays off in increased control when you turn it back on again. So let your boss and teammates know that you’re going dark for an hour, or come in early/stay late to get some quiet time.

Get “in” to empty

You have to start somewhere to put some order to the chaos. Until you know what you’re looking at, you can’t really start to think about what’s important. In GTD terms, they call it “getting ‘in’ to empty.” You handle any inbox or free-range paper, you clear out your email inbox and your voicemail, and you create some space around you.

This doesn’t mean you actually do whatever tasks are unearthed, unless they’re shorter than 2 minutes in duration. But you do wrap your brain around what needs doing. Capture the actions you need to take, and file any resource material in the place you’d naturally look for it when it comes time to do it.

If you do this every morning, not just when things get crazy, it’ll prevent things from getting crazy in the first place.

Ok, so now you have a clean desk, and you’ve triaged your inboxes. But you’re still staring at a pile of to-dos, some with hard deadlines, and no time to do them all.

Renegotiate your commitments

The next step is to look at your deadlines and commitments you’ve made to yourself and others, and renegotiate as needed. They might be glaring at your accusingly from your calendar or your Next Actions list, or maybe they’re just haunting you from the back of your mind.

If a realistic assessment tells you that you can’t get it all done in the timeframe you’ve committed to, you have to own up to it and set some new expectations. They should be based in an evaluation of each item’s importance and urgency, and in your true priorities. Think about your areas of focus for work and home, maybe review your job description or consult your manager, and talk to your partner and kids about what’s really important to them.

Maybe during your chaotic week, you breezily agreed to three major deliverables by next weekend and you promised your teenager you’d take her to opening night of the new Marvel movie, but you’d forgotten that you’re out of town at a conference on Thursday and Friday. There’s no way you’re going to get it all done. What is most important? What is truly urgent?

In the cold light of day, you realize that you’ll only be able to get the one most important deliverable done by Thursday. If you scale down the second one, you can deliver it on Friday. But, frankly, you’re going to have to decline the third. And that movie with your kid? An explanation, an apology, and a discussion of acceptable alternatives is needed.

The most important part of this step is to communicate these decisions. It’s OK to renegotiate ahead of time. What is not OK is to stay silent and just hope they don’t notice when you miss the deadline. That’s a breach of your commitment. And you want to be someone who is trusted to follow through, in all the areas of your life.

Getting to work

You’ve cleared some space and you’ve set new expectations. Now you can turn the world back on again, and actually do the work. But you’re not going to open your email and just react to what’s arrived in the last 10 minutes, or jump on your colleague’s request just because they’re standing in your doorway. You can capture those tasks as Next Actions, but then you’re going to thoughtfully review your list and make your own choice about where to start.

The GTD approach says that you should choose your next action based on four criteria.

  1. You know you have two hours before your lunch meeting. Or just 10 minutes before the end of the work day. What can you make real progress on during that time?
  2. What condition is your brain in? If you’re fresh and feeling creative, or if you’re brain-dead and exhausted, pick a Next Action that you can be successful with. There’s little point in starting a strategic planning session if your brain is only capable of doing some filing and calling it a day.
  3. Where are you, and what tools do you have at your disposal? Assuming it’s not the sort of task that’s so important and urgent that you better get yourself to the right Context right now, you’ll choose from only those tasks that are actually available to you in that moment. Am I working at the office where I have everything I could ever need, or am I balancing a laptop on my knees at the auto shop, where the wifi is spotty at best?
  4. Urgency and importance. How timely and high-stakes are the Next Actions on your list? If you can’t tell definitively which task is most important, then they’re about equal, so don’t agonize over it. Just pick the oldest one.

Keep it going

You’ve picked your Next Action, and you’re getting to work. Great! But there’s another critical step in digging out from the chaos, to help you prevent it next time. When you’re done working on that first task, update its Next Action description. Either you’re done and can mark it complete, or there will be a next step. In that case, you’ll relabel it with the very next, physical action you need to take to move it forward.

Don’t leave it as it was when you started – that description probably isn’t accurate anymore. The task isn’t “Read about B2B marketing best practices.” You’ve done that, so the task is now, “Write a B2B marketing plan outline based on the best practices you just read about.”

By doing these two things — keeping your Next Actions up to date and making a daily routine of getting “in” to empty — you can stay on top of your system most of the time. And when things do go off the rails, and they will, you don’t throw up your hands in defeat. No need for dramatics. Just take a minute, reboot, and then get back to work.

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