How often have you found yourself chasing after 14 different tasks that keep scurrying down 25 rabbit holes? Every day, most likely. (It's a lot like that "whack-a-mole" game we used to play as kids. The adult version is not fun.)
When it comes to productivity and creating to-do lists, the biggest mistake that even smart people make is focusing too much on their goals and not giving themselves the freedom to take a step back to recalibrate their focus.
And those who do attempt to do this often get distracted and allow their thoughts to scatter: Why is this so complicated? Did I hire the right consultant? Wait, should I let my kids take karate lessons? What do I do about the two new big tasks I just got from my boss? Am I missing anything else on my to-do list? Oh, my printer is out of ink! How do we deal with mom's hospital bills?
Let's be honest: It's happened more times than you'd like to admit.
So how can you maintain your focus? Or know what the "right" thing to do is versus something that isn't worth your time? It's tricky business, but there are steps you can take to become more productive.
I call it the "GTD" (Getting Things Done) method, and it has helped more than two million people discover the power of clearing their minds, sharpening their focus and accomplishing more with ease and elegance.
Here's how it works:
Grab a sheet of paper and a favorite pen and take a few minutes to write down all the things that consume your attention.
This means any "coulds," "shoulds," "need-tos," "might-want-tos" and "ought-tos" that weigh on your mind — but that you haven't yet documented. Maybe they're emails, piles of paper, files, notes from meetings, stickies and reminders lying around waiting to be handled, as soon as you "can get around to it."
You do not need to address any of them right now; simply gather and put them in a trusted place. There are many ways you can capture these items (e.g., physical paper trays that are labeled, a smartphone app for taking notes, emails to yourself, voice reminders).
Whatever tools you choose, make them part of your daily work life and lifestyle.
Now, it's time to process each item. Pick up the first item and ask yourself: Is it actionable?
This step is all about engagement. It can be tiring and require a lot of cognitive effort, which is why we often avoid it and stay in busy mode instead. But if you don't clarify the things you've captured, there's no hope for stress-free productivity — and your items will simply sit there.
This is where you'll store and organize all the things you will want to do at some point, but not at the moment. You might do this by assigning each item to one of the following:
You might even want to make a list of things you're waiting for, or create files for project plans and reference materials.
When you take time to reflect and get caught up, you stay on top of the things you want and need to do something about.
Make this reflecting time part of your weekly schedule by looking over your lists frequently to determine what to do next. Ask yourself questions like:
This involves taking the appropriate actions to complete your work with confidence. Choosing what to do in the moment — and trusting that your choice is the right one — makes up the final step of the GTD methodology.
As you identify the things you need to do, take a moment to evaluate the limiting criteria in that exact moment:
David Allen is an international best-selling author who is widely recognized as the world's leading expert on personal and organizational productivity. His flagship book, "Getting Things Done," has solved over a million copies. His latest book, "The Getting Things Done Workbook: 10 Moves to Stress-Free Productivity" (a Penguin Books Original) is out now.
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!