Patterns of GTD #2 - Breaking Things Up

Today we'll look at the advantages of breaking things up into smaller parcels and working on similar tasks can help you be more productive.

Breaking things up

Many of the actions we undertake, processes we follow, and things we create (reports, slides, articles) can be broken down into smaller chunks.

This is a critical guiding principle of GTD. You capture items almost all the time, except when during your daily review or weekly review where you sit down and clarify all the things you have captured. During this time you do not capture. The process is segmented into clearly defines pockets of time.

This idea is particularly applicable for big writing projects. My writing, has been hugely simplified by first rushing towards a first draft. I don't edit, I don't find links, or add images. My goal is to take an Atom pane from empty all the way to a fully written post, in the case of a blog post.

Writing and editing are two very different activities. Looking for images and and links make you jump between windows and have you in research mode. Writing is all about pressing buttons to make words appear. If I think of an article to link to or and image to add, I make a comment in the blog post like this:


Then, I add a task to my OmniFocus project for the blog post to look for images for the post. I try to keep transitions between mental contexts to a minimum because this is an opportunity for distraction. Because all it takes is for me to open a tab, see my homepage or some bookmark and three hours later the post is still not done and I am knee deep in internet crap.

What's the benefit?

The mindset is to break down a large project into separate chunks and then firewall the different kinds of thinking. The "New ideas" is done separately to "Refine Ideas", which is also done separately from "Research Ideas". Breaking up and segmenting has advantages before your start a project, while you're doing and after you've completed a chunk.

By breaking down a mammoth task and making sure to have a clear road ahead, a terrifying task like "Write PhD Thesis" becomes an easily achievable next step: "Look for a paper on the ATLAS experiment". Segmenting helps you get going.

By segmenting the different kinds of thinking you let your brain settle into the task. As it turns out there is a cost to switching between different activities. The research suggests that switching between tasks, even if you're familiar with them, can incur a cost on the time it takes for you to complete them. So reducing the number of times you switch tasks benefits your ability to complete tasks.

Finally, as it turns out our brains are kinda stupid. They get a kick from finishing the smallest of things. By separating a big job into a bunch of smaller discrete units and completing them, you get a sense of accomplishment which pushes you to continue. It's easier to continue if you can see the progress you're making. If you constantly switched from writing to editing to searching for diagrams you'd end up spending a lot of time on not completing much of anything.

The take-home

The idea of breaking things down and working on them as discrete units is another important GTD pattern. It underlies the entire five-steps through which you go while engaging with your responsibilities and things that have your attention. Breaking your work down has a lot of benefits in areas outside GTD. It can help you start more quickly with bigger projects, make you more productive, and push you through mammoth projects.

So for today I want you to find any pending project that you are working on and break it down. Are you writing a long article? Do you need to clean the attic? Sit down with a piece of paper and write down all the things that you might need to do to complete that project. Don't stop writing until you have 30 things related with this project. Done? Now group items together by themes: prep-work, research, content creation, content refinement. Order that list from the first thing you need to do, to the last. The order will be mushy in the middle and things will change along the way. That's OK. How do you feel? Is this job a little easier to start now? Good! Get going!

Next time we will look at the advantages of defining your goals and plan before you start doing, and how this will stop you from wasting time.

Thank you very much for reading. I hope this has helped. Please leave a comment and let me know how you got on with your project. Until next time, happy living.