Phew, what a day! What a lot of days! Things are pretty mad at the moment and have me racing from one fire to the next whilst juggling the other less serious blazes. Things are probably more or less the same for you (unless you work in aerospace ;-)). We need to get things done all the time and seemingly all at once. Priorities rest on ever-shifting sands, cups of coffee are gulped without enjoyment, nerves are frayed.
Having lots to do at work is both a blessing and a curse: of course we want to be gainfully employed, but there is a point beyond which the sheer number of tasks that we are responsible for becomes overwhelming. As a result, efficiency sinks to its knees, even if we physically manage to stay on our feet.
This fact has been recognised by many and has become the basis of whole careers on advising people how to do manage tasks. I've been on Time Management courses, as I described over at Engineer Blogs last year, I've tried hiding myself in empty cupboard-sized meeting rooms without my phones and I've tried all sorts of tools like the Tasks list in Outlook to try and find a way out of the mess, mostly to no avail.
Help is at so many hands that it's no help at all: there's such an uncontrollable thicket of to-do apps, self-timer apps, of notation apps and (e-) books to be bought that these have become an industry in themselves. All in the name of getting things done.
Late last year I caved and bought the book with those words capitalised by Dave Allen: Getting Things Done. I read it, too - and came away rather impressed. It's certainly a book of two halves (it feels a little like a 'buy one, get one free' deal, where you don't necessarily want or need the free item), but the first half, where the concepts and mechanisms of Getting Things Done are explained is well worth the entry price. Mr. Allen has an incredible font of quotes that are splashed liberally throughout the book, too.
This isn't a book review, though. It's a process review, about Getting Things Done, or, as it's now known in the trade, GTD.
In essence, the GTD methodology is about freeing up your mind, removing all the vague projects and to-do's lodged quaking anxiously in your brain and onto physical or digital lists. The discipline of creating lists, of categorising, of sifting and sorting into whatever systems best suit you is geared towards relieving the mental pressures of non-started or incomplete tasks and towards focussing your attention on the next thing to do.
Next steps are a key element of Getting Things Done and recognising this goes a long way towards success. When I have to update a drawing, that is not a task itself, it's a project. The next steps for me go along the lines of: Creating a new part number or release level in the system. Printing out the current drawing. Sketching up all the changes required: whilst I'm doing that I'll realise that I need to pull a Change Request number, so I'll need to go onto that system and generate a form and a number. That number goes onto the new print, which, once sketched up, goes to our CAD designer for modification. I wait. I get the print back for review. I make corrections, or I don't - I send the drawing back if I do need updates, wait again (doing something else in the meantime), then switch focus back to the print once it's finalised. Then I need to upload it and "publish" it... And so on.
Each one of those steps are all "small" things, but there are so many of them that constitute this mini-project called "update drawing xyz" that they easily clog up my mental passages (for want of a better turn of phrase). Listing the tasks out on paper or in some kind of digital software means that I don't have to hold them in my mental buffer. Equally, I won't have to worry about remembering where I am whenever a distraction occurs - a colleague walks in whilst I'm sketching and requires assistance (often setting off the next mini project of Things To Do), or quite simply when I'm waiting for that drawing to come back from CAD: I can quickly find the next open task and use that,
I've worked according to this methodology, applying the same logic to pretty much everything I do: ideas for new developments, testing that I need to do and subsequent reporting that I need to complete.
The general methodology works very well. It took some time to sift through my projects and my emails, but surprisingly quickly, I found a decent system of project taxonomy and began to see more and more white space in my inbox.
Tool-wise, I ended up using the browser-based software Asana, mainly because I wouldn't need to install anything on my locked and stitched-up work laptop. Outlook is too stuffed to work for me. It has all the functionality - emails, notes, to-do's, ability to drag and drop emails into Calendar and into Tasks - but somehow I need to escape the Outlook environment and keep things as focussed as possible - Asana provides this "cleaner" environment for me.
Up until mid January, I had a good set of lists and tasks, as well as an email in-box hovering around the zero level (each email is either archived or generates a set of tasks in my list setup). It was only when I embarked on a series of business trips - to Shanghai, to Kassel - and became sucked into a series of "urgents" that things started to subside back to the old ways of inbox infinity and anxieties everywhere I looked inside my head.
The focus of GTD is very much on mastering the low-level tasks. Dave Allen addresses this regularly in the book - he acknowledges that life-goal-setting (his "50,000 ft+ view") is a way of finding orientation and goals in life; but if you're mentally overloaded with pending things to do, you don't have the headspace to creatively think about the bigger picture.
Get your everyday tasks under control, unload your mind of that burden, and the bigger picture has more room to grow of its own.
Honestly speaking, I'm a bit like a dieter here: bouncing from inbox-zero and being on top of things to feeling overwhelmed. I'm back at the overwhelmed phase, which is why I feel that now is an interesting time to write about all of this: not from the perspective of a smug succeeder, but from that of the struggling disciple, trying to turn things around again.
I am starting to get back on top of my tasks and lists again. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed, to have a brain buzzing with alerts and anxieties; and I know how it feels, however briefly, to be in control.
So - here's to engineering more efficiently, fluently and... more cannily