by F.

If you’ve ever worked in a company, you know how little gets done in any one week… or month… or year. At Microsoft when I worked there, this mindset seemed to go like this. “Well, it’s summer. No one does anything in summer.” Then fall would come around. “Oh, it’s back to school time. No one’s doing anything.” Then winter would come. “I can’t get anything done over the holidays—I’m slammed with family commitments!” Around January, it seemed to me, was the only time folks did anything, largely out of sheer boredom. “The weather is shit. Might as well work.” Then spring came. “I’ve got spring fever! I’m going to work from Starbucks!” And then, of course, came summer again.

Microsoft published a study of personal productivity in 2005, and the results were pretty grim:

Respondents to this survey of 38,000 people in 200 countries said that, although they worked 45 hours a week on average, 17 hours were “unproductive”. Similarly, they spent 5.6 hours in meetings, but 69 per cent said they felt those meetings were not productive. The most common “productivity pitfalls” identified by the survey included ineffective meetings, unclear objectives, unclear priorities and procrastination…. Only 34 per cent of respondents said they were using “proven scheduling tools and techniques” to help them accomplish tasks.

No wonder, then, that GTD has caught the imagination of so many folks. I’ve dabbled with it and am a true believer, though I’m not a typical knowledge worker (I don’t have enough external pressure). If you haven’t discovered GTD, do so, and check out 43Folders, which is excellent. As a preview, here are some highlights:

One to-do list is not enough. Your calendar is the place for time-critical matters. Everything else should go into to-do lists. Actions that are not related to projects should be grouped into contexts such as “at home”, “at computer”, “telephone calls” and so on. This ensures that, whenever you have a spare moment in any particular context, you can get to work on the “next action”. David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” also recommends a “waiting for” list, where commitments made to you by others are recorded.

Learn to leverage your software. Most staff learn the nuances of corporate systems on the job and even where training programmes exist they often ignore features of software that can make a huge difference to productivity. For example, opening e-mails manually rather than letting your system announce their arrival will improve concentration.

Introduce new staff to your personal techniques. “When someone joins your team, take them to lunch on day one and explain the little procedures you follow to help keep friction to a minimum,” says Mr Mann, of 43folders.com. “How do you use e-mail? How late can you be reached outside office hours? When is it OK and not OK to come over to your desk with a problem? Asking for uniformity in the way staff use subject lines in e-mails can be hugely helpful, but it’s something they may not learn for 10 years on the job unless you tell them.”

Roll out good techniques by example. If you make one person more productive, their colleagues will want to improve. “The issue is not who is using what system, but who is keeping their commitments,” Mr Allen says.

Create a “tickler file” for reminders. Take 43 folders and label them one to 31 and the months of the year. Now, whenever you find something in your in-tray that requires your attention in the near future slip it into the folder that corresponds to the relevant date. Checking today’s folder gives you a physical reminder of what needs doing.