Being productive is more important then being busy.  I have learned to use Getting Things Done with OneNote to increase my productivity and provide me with more time to spend on the important things in life.  Let me show you how I did it so you can be more productive and get more done in less time too.

I will not be going into how OneNote works but how I use OneNote to incorporate the Getting Things Done process.  I have modified this approach by incorporating several other ideas with it.  My method uses the Warren Buffets 5/25 rule, the Pomodoro Technique, ideas from Tony Robbins, and I apply my minimalist philosophy as well.

OneNote is a great tool for this for several reasons.  It is cross platform (EverNote is just web based), powerful, supports many advanced features, works seamlessly with MS Office, and it’s free.  I can go on about all the reasons to use OneNote over other apps but I recommend you try it for 60 days and judge for yourself.  You can download the desktop version from the MS Website HERE.

What is Getting Things Done?

Getting Things Done with OneNote

Getting Things Done (GTD for short) is a process invented by David Allen in 2001 when he published his first book on the topic.

The GTD method rests on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items.

This allows anyone to focus attention on taking action on tasks.  Most importantly, it also removes the distraction from the other tasks.  When you can apply complete focus on a single task, you can complete those tasks quicker and better.

Here is a quick video explaining the Getting Things Done process.  Knowing the process is key to moving forward with applying it in your digital OneNote notebook.

To Review the Main Points of GTD:

  1. Capture Everything in One Location
  2. Clarify Your Ideas
  3. Organize Your Tasks
  4. Reflect on Your Work
  5. Engage and Complete the Tasks

Lets quickly review each one in more detail and how OneNote can help.

Getting Things Done and OneNote!

Capture Everything in One Place

Capture everything that has your attention or needs to be done by writing it down.  This can be your tasks, ideas, projects, and more.  Write it in a list, whether that’s a in paper notebook or a notebook app like OneNote.

The key is to get everything out of your brain into your “inbox,” as GTD calls your core list.  Paper notes can be scanned simply with your phone and a free app.  I sometimes like to use a whiteboard and then take a picture.

I create a separate OneNote notebook called Task Schedule.  In there I created several sections:

Task Schedule Notebook

  • Inbox:  In this section I have a group of Inbox pages (Critical, Important, General, Delegated, Someday, Archive).  The Inbox Section is the first stop for all things.  Anything task will be recorded in Tasks General and any scanned file will go inside the Inbox section.  All Tasks are recorded in a 3 column table [Priority, Group, Task].  Priority and Group are adjusted during the reflect phase of GTD.
  • Schedule:  This is a section with several pages for each week in the year.  I am not currently using this since I am not scheduling an exact time to do the task.  If I were, I would simply move a task item to a page that is formatted like a page from a weekly planner and my critical and important tasks would get scheduled during that time.  In place of the Schedule page I am using the Task Critical List.  Anything I put on my Critical list needs to get done ASAP, normally in hours or a day.
  • Shopping Section:  Anything I need to remember to buy will go on this list.
  • Archive Section: This is where I keep old tasks or information for a very short amount of time once it’s completed.  After a few weeks or so, the information will be deleted or moved to reference to be filled permanently.
  • Reference Section:  Anything that I am just capturing for reference (no action) and will get filed during the reflection phase.  Since I also practice a minimalist philosophy, I am very selective about what information I decide to keep.

 

I sometimes use the OneNote Task Tag to mark a task that needs to be completed but I am currently not using tags for organizing my information.  MS has reduced the functionality of tags in their most recent version of OneNote and I am waiting to see if they plan to have them in future OneNote releases.

Clarify Your Ideas

Clarify your ideas. Decide if each task or idea in your inbox is actionable and important—and if so, what’s next step that needs to be taken to complete them. If they’re not actionable, discard the ideas that aren’t important and file the rest for future reference.

I follow the 5 minute rule here and decided any task that will take less than 5 minutes will get completed right then and not scheduled for another time.  Allen recommends 2 minutes.

The most critical part of this is to determine the next actionable task and record it.  If you do not record the next step, it cannot be a task and will remain in the list forever and that will not get this item to a completed status.

My work method is to break my larger tasks or goals into smaller tasks, than schedule each one on my Critical Task list separately.  I will cover this more in the organization section.

Organize Your Tasks

Organize your tasks into lists. Pull similar tasks together to complete at once or group project tasks into a workflow so you do each step in order.

This is the part where most people spend too much time on.  They over analyze each item and never get past this step.  I have fallen victim to this but there are ways to overcome it.

Setup a time limit for this section.  For me, my organization phase must be completed before 0600.  I usually get things organized before 0500 and then spend the next hour actually accomplishing stuff but I set my deadline for 0600.  The goal here is to spend my most productive time actually doing stuff and not planning.  I can plan at the end of the day when I’m tired.

The key to my organization is the use of tables but you can just as well use the task tag.  Most people prefer using tags.

In my system, I create a 3 column table, and each row has a individual task item in it.  I add notes as I move through each task and document completely.  It is important to estimate the amount of time each task will take so I can fit it into my schedule correctly.

I use groups in my tables to group tasks or minor goals into my major goals for the year.  In order to accomplish my goals for the year, I focus the majority of my time on the tasks and minor goals for the major tasks.  Under minor goals, I create sub tasks or action items to be scheduled in my daily critical task list.

The key is to divide large goals into smaller and smaller tasks and then just do them.  Simple!

Critical Tasks – Top 5

Here is an example of my critical task list.

Order

Group

Task

2BlogWrite First Draft about GTD and OneNote
-Review Outline
-Write First Draft
-3 hours

3

Chores

Mow Lawn

-30 Minutes

4

Career

Blog

Take lesson 2 in VMware class on NSX
-60 minutes

From this list, I can easily copy one task from one list and move it to another.  As tasks get promoted from General to Important, to Critical, I can easily move a task from between notebooks, sections, and pages.

When I organize my tasks, I basically move them from one list to another.  The critical list is the list I am currently working on and will only have 5 tasks on it.  I will work that list until 4 of the 5 tasks are done before I move another set of tasks to the critical list.  This is a slightly modified version of the Warren Buffet 5/25 rule.

For the rest of the tasks, each page name correctly represents the importance of the items there.  If something is time sensitive, I would put a due date in the priority column instead of a number.  The group column represents the larger goal or category it falls in.  This is to keep me focused on my most important goals and not procrastinate my important tasks.

Warren Buffet’s 5/25 Rule

I have incorporated Warren Buffet’s 5/25 rule in my task scheduling.  First thing I do every year is write down a large list of specific goals I want to accomplish for that year.  I then take that list and order from most important to least.  I then link all my tasks (under Group column) to each goal and ONLY work on my top 5 goals.  The rest I actively avoid.

This is a new thing I have recently decided to incorporate into my GTD process and so far it is looking very promising.  I have always spread myself way too thin with my responsibilities and this will focus me on the goals I most value.  The hardest thing for me is just selecting 5 goals.

I did alter Warren’s system just a little.  In his process, you cannot select a new list of 5 major goals until every one of your previous 5 goals are completed.  In my system, I cannot select new goals until at least 4 of my existing major goals are completed.

Reflect on Your Work

Review your projects to ensure the tasks are still relevant, and make sure you didn’t forget anything.

Remember the purpose of GTD is to complete tasks and goals.  If a goal has 5 tasks but you only ever move 4 tasks to the critical list, then you never complete your goal.

Since completing your goals is a critical part to building your dreams, you need to reflect on the work you are doing to make sure it is taking you in the direction you want in relation to your goals.

This has the possibly of chewing up a lot of time on your schedule and I could argue its worth it.  It is, but its not necessary to spend a lot of time here.  You need to make a decision and take action (action is the next step).

If you make the wrong decision, OneNote has the ability to erase and you can make a new action.

Don’t worry about making mistakes, you should only be concerned about not taking action.

Engage and Complete

Engage and actually do the tasks.  This one is both the simplest and hardest things on the list for most people.  Distractions are everywhere and pull your focus away from your critical tasks and you need to deal with this.

Here is how I deal with distractions:

  • The way I do it is I schedule work and distractions into my schedule.
  • I read email just a few times a day during my breaks.
  • Work in a decluttered environment.  This is one of the biggest reasons I love being a minimalist.
  • Check emails, answer the phone, IM, and other things only during your scheduled time.
  • Reduce your time spent in meetings.  Just because you were invited doesn’t mean that meeting is the best use of your time.
  • I use the Pomodoro Technique (25/5) approach for working.  I focus on my tasks for 25 minutes uninterrupted, then I take a break for 5 (repeat until the task is done or I am out of time).
  • Train your brain to focus.  When I am waiting for my computer to catch up, I tend to lose focus and want to move to another quick tasks.  I will no longer do this and now I think about my next action while I wait.
  • Wearing earbuds or headphones is a great way to silence the workplace and allow you to focus more.  It also gives coworkers the message you are not open to casual small talk.  I like to listen to classical or meditation sounds.
  • Before starting a task, I select a time I want to be finished and I do my best to complete my task before that time.  It is like a game.
  • I sometimes either work on my super easy or hardest task first, depending on the schedule of the day and the tasks I have to do.  If I have a larger block of time, I would knock out the harder task but time between meetings call for simpler tasks.
  • Most importantly, no multitasking.  Stay focused on one thing and ONLY one thing.

When I complete a task, I like to gauge how close I was to my original estimate.  Sorry to say I am often way off.  I always estimate the work will take less time than it actually takes.  I am working on why my estimates are usually off and will likely create a task to get better at estimating my time.

Conclusion

Getting Things Done with OneNote has been the key for my ability to organize and be more productive.  It provides the organization and the scheduling so you can clear your mind and focus on the tasks at hand.  It is my favorite computer app.

GTD and OneNote will not do your work for you and its not a tool designed for that purpose.  It’s simply a powerful digital notebook that can clear your mind and organize your life.  This allows you to focus on the important things.

Remember this article is the last step to getting organized and increasing your productivity. The first 2 articles should be completed before moving on to this step and I have linked both below.

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