Your brain happily remembers seven things at any given time. Modern life requires you to juggle about 700 things every day. To get out of emergency mode, you need to put a system in place. This is my own attempt at not forgetting stuff.
A system is more reliable than your willpower
It’s easy to remember deadlines (once they are upon you), recurring meetings or big projects. It’s the small stuff that falls through the crack and creates stress. Some simply try harder. Some wing it and hope no one realizes when things go wrong. Or you can create a system that does not depend on your brain.
There are hundreds of productivity systems to choose from. The one I’ll share with you is just one idea. Remember, the best system is the one that you use consistently. My system is loosely based on GTD, adapted to my own quirks and needs. You can copy it. Or, even better, you can use it as a starting point and adapt/expand as necessary.
The goal is simple: your system should significantly reduce the effort required to remember what needs to be done at any given moment. Instead of trying to decide what to do, your system can help you direct your energy where it is most impactful.
Circle Training a.k.a. Serial Multitasking
You are juggling more than one responsibility. And since multi-tasking is a myth, that means you need to let go of your projects – intermittently. Just like a juggler doesn’t clutch all balls close to their chest, you can’t be working on everything at once. Or, for the CrossFit aficionados in the crowd: you don’t do all the exercises at once, but you circle through them, one at a time.
Have a look at your tasks and projects. Decide on a check-in/update frequency for each responsibility use reminders. When working on any task, give it your everything. Then move to the next one.
The frequency (if recurring) or the time until the next check-in will necessarily vary from project to project – and that’s fine. As long as you always define the next step, nothing can fall through the cracks. This also means you can stop worrying about remembering and instead, focus on what you need to do. Just like the juggler always focuses on the ball at hand.
Recurring tasks, experiments, and unexpected to do’s
Some of your responsibilities are part of your official job description and do not vary much over time: regular performance reviews for your team, checking weekend signups, onboarding rotations. You can add recurring reminders to your calendar/to-do list to account for these recurring events.
- Monthly team member feedback (first Thursday of each month)
- 1:1 prep for [team member]: every week the day before the 1:1
- Send expense report for previous month: every 10th
- Plan Performance Reviews: every 4 months, starting Feb 15th.
Some projects are experiments where you’ll discover the path as you walk it. This means that you’ll add checkpoints as the experiment progresses: follow up on bug reports, customer feedback for product
- Check if a specific bug has been resolved (7 days from today)
- Follow up on a call-for-ideas on the intranet so the conversation does not taper out
Some tasks just pop up and still require a follow-up. Sometimes this just means checking if there’s any movement, sometimes it means pinging others to make sure it does not fall through the cracks:
- Check [GH link] for progress on a specific project I am not directly working on: 7 days from today.
- Read this [article]: tomorrow.
As long as you know the next step and when it is due, you can plan accordingly. It also means you can close all those tabs on your computer and reduce the distraction factor of your online work place. If you only take one thing away from this post, it is this: trying to remember is one of the biggest mental energy wasters. Create a reminder system that allows you to forget about remembering and focus on getting stuff done instead.
Priorities and preemptive preparedness
Your agenda can tell you when something is should be ready. Your to do list reminds you when to get ready (ahead of the date). This is an important detail: The delivery date/deadline for a task does not equal the moment you should start working on that task. Plan for the preparation when adding anything to your agenda or setting a reminder.
The first step is adding tasks to your list. The second step is to actually do those in time.
Combating overwhelm with realistic expectations
Time is limited, and energy even more so. Making decisions requires a lot of brain power. I don’t want to waste it deciding on what to work yet, so I prepare my days the night before. Before closing my computer for the night, I open my agenda and my to do list and plan the next day – deciding which of those to-do items are going to get done and when.
Any unexpected extra time (e.g. a 1:1 is canceled or ends up shorter than expected) usually goes towards “joker tasks”: checking Basecamp threads, doing quick 3-min tasks (e.g. checking if someone responded on something) etc.
You can do this inside your agenda, in a paper agenda, or even on a random sheet of paper. I use a nice notebook, so I can check off the tasks/appointments as I work through the day (or mark them to be moved to the next day). This also allows me to add separate entries for things that popped up unplanned for (usually triggered by a slack ping).
It’s time to retire your “mental note” system and use your brain power where it makes a difference.