The 10 Commandments of Getting Stuff Done!
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
Welcome to September! We have a whole month to “get stuff done” before the chaggim are upon us. To make the most of this month (or any other time frame for that matter) we need to manage ourselves effectively.
Self-management requires we use our pre-frontal cortex – the part of our brain that houses our executive functions. Executive functions are the brain circuits that basically help us get things done. Like a business executive who manages a company, these brain functions help us to effectively manage what we are doing.
ADHD expert, Dr Thomas Brown, uses the metaphor of your brain as a symphony orchestra. The prefrontal cortex is the conductor. The conductor signals for each instrument to come in and then fade out. He organizes, integrates, controls the pace and intensity of the music. Each individual musician may be talented, but if there is no conductor to organize and integrate the orchestra to play their parts at the correct times, the music will not be very good.
There are a few well-known models of the executive functions. Each divide the functions differently. I’ve divided them into 10 parts, hence our 10 commandments.
In truth, if we want to continue to be effective in getting all our stuff done, there are two more executive functions that I didn’t include in my model (mostly because “The 12 Commandments” doesn’t sound as catchy! ). They are organization and flexibility.
If we describe executive functions as the brain circuits for “getting stuff done”, here’s the process we go through when we attempt to get something done:
...what we have to do – In this day and age with its bombardment of information and distractions, rule #1 is do not rely on your head to remember what you have to do, it is a very unreliable hard drive. Instead, have a master to-do list. This could be an app on your phone, program on your laptop, a paper planner or even a notebook. You are not alone if you feel like you prefer good old-fashioned paper and pen. Many people struggle with the complexities of digital systems.
Another way we can ensure we remember recurring things is to turn them into a habit. When you do something enough times, it becomes automatic and then you don’t even need to remember anymore. To develop a habit, try tying the task to something you already do routinely - like unloading the dishwasher while you wait for the morning kettle to boil or taking medication when you brush teeth.
Prioritizing is a process of deciding what is more important than other things in your life. To figure this out, you need to pause and take stock. If you’re saying yes to x, what are you saying no to? This is one of my favorite sayings. We can’t keep adding and adding to our commitments without making room by saying no to something else. Our time and resources are not infinite. Whenever we say yes to something, it requires us to say no to something else. This is prioritizing. Saying no is hard. As one of my clients put it, “My default is to say yes and figure it out later”.
Once we have our priorities straight, it’s not quite action time yet. How often do we jump into action at the beginning of our day, without the proper prioritizing and planning? The trick is to separate planning time from action time. Create a habitual planning time – end of the weekend/beginning of the week/ beginning of every morning/ the night before for the next day.
Once we’ve remembered everything we need to do, chosen our priorities and planned them in, we need to start. This is the executive function of task initiation - basically the opposite of procrastination. We can all identify with the urge to put off tasks we like least, and we all do it. Read this blog post if you want to discover how to attack your own personal procrastination tendencies.
So now we have finally started our task. We need to stay focused on it and not be pulled away by distractions. If you want to get tips on how to stay focused through a task – read this blog post.
6. Manage our Time
It’s not enough to just stay focused on our task at hand. We need to work within a specific time frame if we want to accomplish more than one task. If you struggle to estimate your time correctly, you can try to externalize time with alarms, visible clocks or watches - The Time Timer app shows the passing of time in visual way, easier to conceptualize than the random changing of numbers on a digital clock. An analog watch can be helpful too.
7. Manage our Emotions
OK, we’ve started, we’re focused and we are sticking to our time limits. Next we may need to prevent the emotions of stress, frustration, anger, overwhelm or other emotions from getting in the way of completing a task. There are a number of ways to manage stress and difficult emotions. One of the newest trends in this area is mindfulness, specifically an 8-week evidence based program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The program offers secular mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain.
Research suggests that daily meditation may alter the brain’s neural pathways, making you more resilient to stress. Certain mindfulness practices allow you to stop and explore your emotions, rather than repressing them – because nothing makes you focus more on a negative emotion than trying not to think about it. What happens when I tell you, whatever you do, do not think of a blue feather? How’s that working for you right now?
8. Think before you Act
OK, so we’re on time and we are not letting distractions or our emotions get in the way. The next part of managing yourself involves thinking before you act, resisting the urge to say or do something. It allows us the time to evaluate a situation and how our behavior might impact it. If you can identify with any of these sayings “Leap before you look!” or “Ready, fire, aim!”, you may have a weakness with the executive function of response inhibition. It’s what’s commonly known as impulsivity. You could try build wait time when you feel an impulsive urge to do something like check Facebook. Allow yourself 5-10 minutes to weigh up the pros and cons of letting this impulse pull you off task.
9. Follow Through until the End
In the short term, we spoke about how to stay focused in the face of distractions and emotions. Goal persistence (follow-through) is more of a long-term thing. How do we manage to follow through to completion, when completion may take months or even years? You could try the idea of correspondence training – research has been done to prove that you are much more likely to do something if you commit out loud to someone else. So things like group coaching, mastermind groups, support groups for specific goals can help you.
10. Think of the Big-Picture
This is the ability to stand back and gain perspective. To observe how we function, to self-monitor and self-evaluate. This means we reflect on our thoughts and evaluate our behavior, so that we are aware of our shortcomings and we can figure out what we need to do differently to be more successful. When things don’t go according to plan, think feedback, not failure. What went well? What went less well? What did you learn? What will you do next time? Look for patterns of behavior. These are the kind of ideas we explore in coaching – gaining perspective, learning how you work and making a plan for getting what you want, because a goal is a dream that comes with a plan.
So there you have it – my 10 commandments of productivity. Now get out there and start getting stuff done! 11.