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  1. Managing time vs managing attention: harnessing the power of Getting Things Done

    November 17, 2015 by Alison Hill

    by Alison Hill

    Have you ever woken at three in the morning remembering that you didn’t make that phone call you promised you would? Or had a great idea for the account you’re working on while on the bus to work, which you then promptly forget?

    Our minds are simply not all that good at remembering stuff. They chatter away about irrelevancies at inconvenient times, and can’t keep track of all the things we have to remember. Making a to-do list is a huge help, and a great start, but it’s not a full solution. That’s why I was intrigued to discover a system for organising everything we have to do called Getting Things Done, or GTD®.

    GTD® was ‘invented’ by David Allen, who wrote a book called Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity way back in 2002. Although it’s been called ‘one of the most influential business books of its era’, I had never come across it until I saw the new, 2015 edition. I’m not a big reader of corporate how-to books (it always seems they take 300 pages to say what could have been said in 3000 words) so I’ll confess to not having read Getting Things Done. But I have spent some quite productive time reading the many websites and offshoots of the GTD® system. You can find out all about it at and at thousands of other sites. There are apps, podcasts, videos out there that will guide you to the nitty gritty.

    Here are four ways in which GTD® is different – and worth your time.

    1. It’s a system for managing your attention rather than your time

    You start by capturing, on paper or electronically, whatever has your attention. This gives me hope that I will get my head around what I really want to achieve rather than just getting through a list of tasks I have to do.

    1. It doesn’t separate work tasks from rest-of-life tasks

    If you’re thinking, ‘I have that big meeting to prepare for and also I need to buy cat food, plus I think my bank account is overdrawn and I want to write a book’, all that is stuff that must be recorded. You don’t need a separate shopping list, project list and bucket list, you can work with it all in one system.

    1. It aims to quieten your brain and free your attention for things you really want to focus on

    When you write down everything you have to do – the big things and small things; professional and personal – you no longer have to remember. This frees your mind to concentrate fully on what you are doing in the moment, leading to a big reduction in stress and increased focus on doing your best work.

    1. You can adapt it to suit your personal circumstances

    Don’t like electronic diaries or lists? You can use paper. Find the whole GTD® system a bit overwhelming? Use the parts that work for you. If you work across multiple devices you can use one of the many apps that will sync all your notes and lists. You can start simply and add parts of the technique as you get better at using it.

    So how does Getting Things Done work?

    At its simplest level, GTD® has five steps:

    1. Capture. You collect everything that has your attention in one place. At work, this might be all your routine tasks, your special projects, priority requests and long-term professional development goals. Use an in-tray, app, notepad or voice recorder.
    2. Clarify. Analyse everything you’ve captured. Actionable items go in one place and non-actionable items are trashed, parked or filed for reference. Then you do any task that will take less than two minutes – dealing with it later wastes time. If it will take longer than two minutes, delegate it if you can, or add it to your to-do list.
    3. Organise. Put each thing where it belongs on a list, according to a system that suits you. You may have sub-lists for emails, reports, discussions and learning on your work list, for example.
    4. Reflect. Check back on your lists regularly to do what you need to do next. Review and update your lists to keep your mind clear – weekly is good.
    5. Engage. Do the things on your list with confidence that you are making the best use of your time.

    This is really just touching the surface and you should definitely investigate further if you think it could help you be more organised and do more of what you enjoy. I, for one, will never use some of the techniques, such as the 43-folders system, involving 31 numbered folders for each day of the month and 12 for the months of the year. But I will be using and adapting the system to free up some mind space and find some quiet.

    Our next post will be about productivity apps and helpers, including some that work with the GTD® system.

    We’d love to know if you already use the GTD® system or any of its offshoots. Let us know in the comments below.


  2. How to use No to boost your chances of success

    November 10, 2015 by Alison Hill

    By Alison Hill

    You are in your one-on-one meeting with your boss, and she asks you to take on a project. You hear yourself say, ‘Sure, I can do that’. And then the voice in your head says, ‘I’m already overloaded. How will I fit in one more thing? Maybe if I work back all week. Oh no, I have to do that other thing too. Why did I say yes?’

    Sounds familiar? It seems we all have an inbuilt desire to please, and that means we often say yes when we really should be saying no. The project is just not a good use of our time right now. How do we say no to those up the hierarchy without sabotaging our prospects? We want to shine, to be noticed, to get that promotion. Can we learn to say no in a way that makes us look better than saying yes?

    Do the groundwork

    Work to your goals. It’s no good saying yes to everything that comes along until your plate is full, and then regretting that you genuinely have no capacity to do that one thing that will really help you to shine. You should have a good understanding of your personal, team and organisational goals. If what you are being asked to do is not in accordance with those goals, you need to say no.

    Say something like, ‘That sounds really good, but it’s not in line with my priorities right now’.

    Use the power of no to gain respect

    Think about when you have offered somebody an opportunity and they turned it down. The chances are that if the refusal was polite and unambiguous, you respected the fact that the person was busy, and didn’t say yes and then fail to deliver. It’s a far better situation for both parties. The person asking for your time is not left frustrated when you delay or do a sub-standard job, and you free up your time to focus on the tasks that are aligned with your goals.

    Say something like, ‘Although usually I would jump at the chance, right now I have too much on my plate to do it justice. But another time I would welcome the opportunity to do it.’

    Keep your options open

    If you really are saying no because you don’t have the time, say so. Goals change over time, and perhaps you will be able to work with that person or take on a similar project at another time, so don’t close the door. If a project is irresistible, ask your manager to go through all your tasks with you and see if some could be delegated to another person or put on hold while you work on the high-priority project. Your ability to plan and prioritise will be appreciated, and you may be surprised at how flexible you both can be.

    Say something like, ‘I would really value the opportunity to work on the project. Do you think I could make a list of the tasks I have to do in the next [week/month/quarter] and go through them with you? I’m hoping you can help me to reprioritise so that I can fit this in
    as I really want to do it.’

    Stop and think

    Last, but perhaps most important: stop and think before you answer. It’s okay to say, ‘Can I get back to you on that?’ Give a deadline;  be it in 15 minutes or by the end of the week. You gain respect by giving your considered answer rather than saying yes and then backtracking. It shows that you have thought about not wasting the other person’s time too. Your answer can be ‘not now’ rather than no. But remember to get back to them by the deadline, demonstrating that you value their time and that you are able to manage your own.

    Say something like, ‘That really appeals to me. Can I check my schedule and get back to you
    by the end of the day?’

    Do you have an example of when saying no worked out really well for you? Let us know in the comments below.

  3. Time Management 101: Recognise and eliminate your time wasters

    November 3, 2015 by Alison Hill

    By Alison Hill

    It seems we have never felt as swamped by our responsibilities, at work and at home, as we do now. There’s even a new noun for it: ‘overwhelm’.  We’re constantly being asked to do more, be more and have more. Twenty-first century technology contributes to the feeling that we are expected to be ‘always on’. But how much of this busyness really works for us?

    In November we are focusing on time management and productivity skills. The first step to controlling our time rather than being controlled by it is recognising our time wasters and working out a strategy to overcome them.

    Most of us are aware that we waste time on social media, are caught by the person who chatters too much in the office kitchen, attend multitudes of meetings with no clear purpose, and spend time on tasks that seem urgent or important at the time, but ultimately don’t make much impact.

    Here are some time wasters that may be familiar, and some ideas for managing them.

    1. Being controlled by technology. We could most likely legitimately spend the entire working day responding to emails, instant messaging and texts. Set aside a fixed time when you read and respond to emails – and stick to it. Let colleagues and clients know to contact you by phone if a matter is really urgent. Reciprocate by not copying in anybody who does not absolutely have to receive your emails. And keep them short. If what you have to say runs for more than a couple of paragraphs, edit it down to the essentials and create an attachment that contains the detail.
    2. Failing to prioritise tasks. Many of us spend huge amounts of time on tasks that don’t get us, our team our or company where we are focused on going. Create a to-do list, and rank the tasks with reference to company, team and individual goals. Then work systematically on the tasks with the highest impact. This can be tricky, so it’s worth checking in with your team leader that you are on the same page about goals and how best to align your efforts with them.
    3. Focusing on being busy, rather than being productive. This is related to failing to prioritise. We can answer every single email, attend loads of meetings and take copious notes, and format all our documents beautifully, but if our efforts are not focused on productive tasks they are not good use of our time. Concentrating on high-impact tasks and leaving the rest for a quieter period makes for good time-management. The upcoming holiday season, which in most organisations sees the pace slow down, is a good time for updating the filing system or rearranging the work space.
    4. Not delegating where possible. Many of us – especially those with a perfectionist streak – hang on to tasks that could be done by somebody else. This is particularly difficult for new managers. Empowering team members and trusting them to do the job is in the best interests of all of you. Be clear about what the task is and when it should be accomplished by. It may not be perfect the first time, but by empowering team members you are freeing up time for tasks only you can do.

    Over the next couple of weeks, try these strategies.
    Keep a note of the time you save and let us know
    how much more productive you are able to be.

  4. Team meetings that run perfectly: follow the 5 Ps

    August 11, 2015 by Alison Hill

    By Alison Hill

    You probably spend a lot of your work day in meetings.  According to software company Atlassian, on average we attend a staggering 62 meetings a month, for a total of 31 hours. And we find half of them are a waste of time.

    Whether time in team meetings is time well spent or time wasted depends on the five Ps: purpose, planning, preparation, participation and P.S.



    A meeting needs to be the best way to use the hour or so it takes. Make sure the purpose is clear before the meeting begins, and start by stating what you hope to achieve in the time allotted. Be specific by saying something like, ‘We have an hour to decide between x and y, hear a report back from Z, and to revise the tasks allocations for the week.  By the end of the meeting we should have our decision and a list of seven tasks.’


    Send out an agenda if you are responsible for running the meeting, or ask for one if you’re not. Be clear about what the outcomes should be, invite those who need to be part of the decision-making, and leave out those who don’t. Arrange the agenda items so that the most important items, or those that involve the entire team, are dealt with first.

    Allocate a time to each item and move o when the time is up. This way you will cover everything and avoid the team leaving feeling cynical and sour about wasted time. Have a designated note taker who will pay attention and record decisions


    Read the agenda before the meeting. Think about the issues and consider what you will contribute. Do your research before the meeting if items on the agenda are a mystery to you. Having to explain to one team member what the rest already know is a time waster, and a poor reflection on you.

    Make sure you have any reports, facts, statistics or examples with you, as well as any items to be handed to team members. Take along extra copies of the agenda. If you use a whiteboard or projector, make sure they are set up before you start.


    Make the hour count. Concentrate and participate. Leave your laptop and devices outside the room (unless you ABSOLUTELY must be contactable, in which case switch to silent and leave the room to answer calls). Don’t ramble, and don’t introduce a topic that isn’t on the agenda. If it’s really, really important, mention it and set up another time to discuss it.

    If others are not participating, ask them for their opinion. Most importantly, don’t do other work, or daydream, or start side conversations. That merely demonstrates disrespect for others in your team.


    Following up after a meeting is perhaps the most important step. It’s a good idea to have the note taker record actions and decisions and who is responsible for them, and distribute them to all the meeting participants straight after the meeting, or at least by the next morning. Put a deadline against as many actions as possible, and then get them done. That way your team meetings will become surprisingly productive.

    Do you have tips to share about making time in team meetings productive? Let us know.

    Find out about Challenge Consulting’s tailor-made team building workshops here.

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