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How to Get Things Done When You Have Trouble Getting Things Done

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Some people seem to be natural doers. When there’s something that needs doing – a table to be cleared, or a flowerbed to be weeded — they get uncomfortable and start doing it.

Natural doers are mysterious creatures to me, but I have met and observed many of them. Doing seems to be their most natural response to existence. Even if the task is in some way objectionable, its not-doneness is apparently more objectionable. So they start the doing process and this appears to give them some relief. The gravity in the doer’s inner world seems to draw them in the direction of action.

Of course, everyone understands the rewards of getting things, by whatever means, to a state of doneness — even those of us who live in an inner world with reverse gravity. Doing is vital. It’s the only way to express ourselves, maintain our households, and create things that improve people’s lives.

So for those of us who have always struggled to get a reasonable volume of stuff done, whether it’s because of ADHD, depression, or natural temperament, the prospect of becoming a productive person is extremely appealing. A sustainable productivity method is our holy grail. It would unlock vast tracts of life that have always seemed off-limits to us.

The Gold Standard

In my own quest for the grail, there probably isn’t a book I’ve read more times than David Allen’s landmark book Getting Things Done. It presents a watertight system for gathering all of your obligations into a giant funnel, and cranking them through a coordinated workflow system so that pure success gushes out the bottom.

I love the system, and I’ve spent much of my adult life fantasizing about having it in place. And several times, I have — for about 48 hours. Then at some point I forget to check a few of the interconnected lists and folders, and soon my watertight system has become another pile of papers with important things written on them that I will get to someday.

Artist’s rendering of me implementing the GTD system

This pattern seemed to happen with every productivity book I tried, even the very best ones like Deep Work, Atomic Habits, and The Pomodoro Technique. I would read and reread these books with great enthusiasm, and learn a lot from them, but never seemed able to implement their systems as an ongoing thing. There are just too many moving parts you have to get right at the same time.

That might be entirely my fault, as a productivity non-natural, but knowing that doesn’t solve anything. I also don’t think I’m that unusual in my chronic inability to convert the written wisdom of David Allen or Cal Newport into a sustainable, self-directed way of working. Something is missing from the “how to be productive” discussion.

How the Other Half Works

In my old age I think I’ve figured out what it is that’s missing, and why. Perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve also worked out my own way of getting things done. Not at superstar level, but consistently enough to always be gaining ground.  

I believe there are two reasons some of us don’t do well with the popular workflow approaches. The first is basic selection bias. Mass market books are always gargantuan projects, each of which depends entirely on the timely output of one self-starting person. It also takes some productivity-related clout to even get the book deal, so productivity books tend to be written by natural doers. These authors certainly have useful things to say on the subject, but they’re unlikely be attuned to the specific struggles of the people in most desperate need of effective productivity advice. That’s why so many of the books focus on organizing and scheduling the work – they assume you have no problem with the doing part.

I got a big clue to the other reason after buying Francesco Cirillo’s The Pomodoro Technique. A reader had already told me the central idea: work in timed, 25 minute sprints, tolerating no diversions or interruptions. These periods are long enough that you get something significant done, but too short to rationalize wasting even one minute of them. Try to do a lot of them in a day.

A good day’s work

When I bought the book, I found that many moving parts had been added to this elegant concept, including multiple tracking sheets, a notation system, and other pieces I wasn’t sure I could leave out. These structures seemed so superfluous that it occurred to me that they had not been included to strengthen the core concept, but to make a simple concept into a full-length book.

This inference might not be correct – only Mr Cirillo can tell you that – but the experience awakened me to a truism about how-to books: they always contain too much advice to implement. The typical how-to book is 200-something pages, and I think the sole reason for that is that publishers don’t know how to sell them if they’re any smaller. The Pomodoro Technique is relatively lean, at about 150, and it’s that much better for it.

The Bandwidth Problem

I believe the standard how-to book contains too much new stuff for a human brain to take on board once, or at least it does for my brain. Implementing a single habit – flossing before bed, for example – is something most people can do if they’re really focusing on it, but even that is hard. Converting your workday into the full-bore Pomodoro system, or (God help you) the GTD system, represents a dozen or more habits that all have to come online more or less at the same time.

What all this means is that how-to resources of the best size and scope – the size that would help the most people, especially those who need the most help – don’t seem to exist.

I always wished they’d offer us thirty good pages – the pivotal concept that made them write the book, the steps needed for even a hard case like me to get it up and running, and nothing else. For that I would pay double, and probably buy the sequel too.

It turns out that, given simpler tools, we non-naturals can get things done. We have to do it a different way though. Instead of aspiring to become a ringmaster and expert plate-spinner and like David Allen, we can become a sort of expert one-trick pony, learning one reliable way to get one thing done, and getting very good at it.

That’s what finally worked for me, I’m happy to report to my fellow non-naturals. I do short working sprints, with a running timer in plain view, bookending each session with a few quick preparatory steps in order to keep the quality up. I count how many I do, and try to get better each time.

It’s made a tremendous difference to my output, and now it’s just a matter of getting better at that one sequence. There’s very little to remember, and only one gauge to keep my eye on. It’s enough.

Try it my way

After disclosing my ADHD diagnosis, I received a flood of emails from people with similar executive function issues. Having figured out, in the meantime, my own simple way of getting work done, I decided to create the sort of resource I always wanted someone else to make.

For now it’s a brief ebook, but depending on the early feedback I may polish it into a one-day course or whatever format seems most helpful to people.

I named it How to Do Things. It’s a guide meant for the productivity non-naturals among us, specifically:

  • People who know they use their work time poorly
  • People struggling to work from home
  • People with ADHD or other executive function issues
  • People who haven’t had much success with popular productivity books like Getting Things Done, Deep Work, or The Pomodoro Technique

How to Do Things owes a lot to the above books, which are excellent in their own right. HTDT uses short working sprints, similar to the pomodoro technique, but with a pleasant visual metaphor rather than a fleet of worksheets and processes.  

The guide was designed around specific goals for the reader:

  1. Dramatically increase your productivity
  2. Create this dramatic increase in a week or less
  3. Provide the know-how in a resource you can read in one sitting and implement today

What’s a dramatic increase? Something in the range of getting 50% to 200% more done in a day, depending on how much difficulty you’re having.

I’m offering How to Do Things for a short time to get a good group of people using it and to garner some feedback. Then I will close it, and revise the guide for a full release later this year.

UPDATE 6/29/2021: The initial run of How to Do Things was a huge success, and the book is not currently for sale. It is being revised and will be released in its final form this September. If you are subscribed to Raptitude, you will be notified.

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Photos by Christina @ wocintechchat and Yulia Khlebnikova. Graphs by David Cain.

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{ 87 Comments }

Alice June 4, 2021 at 10:21 am

Have you ever read The Bullet Journal Method? That’s been the book that I’ve found most helpful, if you look at the basics rather than all the twee pinterests of artistic journal spreads. I wondered if your guide is similar or entirely different.

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David Cain June 4, 2021 at 10:24 am

I have yes, and I like it a lot, although I am off the wagon at the moment. The creator himself has ADHD and used the method to help him organize his obligations.

It is really excellent for that — keeping your to-do’s organized — but it didn’t really help me actually begin and complete the work once I had it organized, which was what has always been the tough part for me.

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Alice June 4, 2021 at 11:34 am

OK, thanks. Bought your book, read it, sent in a question. :-) I like it and I think that it can be incorporated with Bullet Journal concepts.

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NICOLAS A LEWIS June 7, 2021 at 11:06 pm

I too tried the Bullet Journal.

It took me two weeks to go from “I have this cool new technique I’m trying, look at all the cool templates I created” to “I’m overwhelmed by having not touched it because it doesn’t feel actionable and MY GOD ALL THOSE BLANK PAGES.”

Maybe someday in the future.

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David Cain June 8, 2021 at 10:16 am

This was kind of my experience. I think I could still make it work by making a very simplified version, but I learned that if I have to flip pages to keep track of a thing, I probably won’t. I want everything on one wall or bulletin board.

Sharon Hanna June 4, 2021 at 10:40 am

This is great. But wait – isn’t Pomodoro a kind of Italian tomato sauce?? ;-)
The photo of the tomatoes on the plate made me laugh. My thing about “getting things done” – most of which are gardening projects – involve wanting to do it with someone. If that happens, I can get tons done. Alone – not so much. The only thing I seem to be able to do alone very well is cook. Thanks David for lightening up my day.

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David Cain June 4, 2021 at 11:06 am

It is named after the tomato! Francesco Cirillo had a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato that he used, so he called his working sprints “pomodoros.”

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Steve Maxwell&&Rahne Rhodes June 5, 2021 at 4:04 pm

LOL Pomodoro a how-to book that makes you think about food; tomato paste=oD I selected [read aloud] from the elipsis menu in my Microsoft Edge browser and listened to the whole thing. i’d buy your book if i was in control of my finances; it’s complicated. i have mental health issues myself and i used to be a member of MindFreedom.com or .org or something. i enjoy reading your emails, David. You’re quite an interesting intellectual.

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Chris June 4, 2021 at 12:13 pm

I go through tons of ups and downs with my productivity – and it usually coincides with everything else. All good (eating well, working well, gym, sleep) or everything lethargic (opposite). I’ve also done most of the methods you mention!

I went through a listen of an academic psychologist’s review of tons of research about procrastination, and it’s fantastic. He’s done now – doesn’t think he needs to add anything – but the podcast was made over a 10 year period and has so many great insights!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/iprocrastinate-podcast/id129144284

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David Cain June 4, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Oh wow, that sounds great. Any particular episode I should start with?

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Nina Charest June 4, 2021 at 2:46 pm

I’ve listened to that podcast too! Heads up: the audio quality at the beginning is pretty iffy.

I like that it’s truly a podcast about procrastination, not time management! There’s a reason you can’t just give a procrastinator a productivity app and call it a day. It’s psychological, not logistical.

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Chris June 4, 2021 at 2:53 pm

I think that he starts to hit his stride in 2012ish? https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/autonomy-and-procrastination/id129144284?i=1000095802911

Some of the things he preaches are “just get started” and envisioning how you will do the work – like on your way to work you can plan out how the day is going to start in your head and do that set first so you don’t feel like you’ve lost control of the day just as it begins.

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Ashley Kung June 5, 2021 at 7:08 am

Thank you for sharing this!

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Jamey MacIsaac July 12, 2021 at 7:40 am

Hey Chris! I just wanted to thank you for linking that podcast. I’m working my way through it now and it is a treasure trove of fundamental insights. Thank you so much.

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Louise June 4, 2021 at 1:05 pm

Looking forward to this! I’ve been a huge fan of GTD despite not implementing all of it. Ditto Pomodoro. The ideal for me has been to pick the parts that work for me and create my own “system”. Next Actions from GTD have helped me immensely, as has the Natural Planning Process when I need a bigger picture. Your RNL reminds me of the Next Action approach. I like it!

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David Cain June 4, 2021 at 1:13 pm

That’s basically what I did, but it sure took a while to find the right parts.

GTD’s ideas are still burned into my mind, and they do help. One form of “next actions” I use is I put a sticky note on the papers or supplies associated with the task with the next thing to do written on it.

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Steve June 4, 2021 at 2:20 pm

I’ve been a reader for years and steered many friends to your blog. You are exactly right with your point that so many resources for fighting procrastination are created by self-starters who don’t understand the fundamental challenges. Some days it’s so easy for me to knock off the little and big chores of work and life; other days it’s so hard. And then there’s the silly thing that hangs over your head for weeks or months nagging at you and then you finally take the 15 minutes it takes to do it and you feel wonderful and ask yourself why you didn’t spend that 15 minutes at the very start rather than let it hang over your head. And then you repeat that pattern endlessly. It’s a mystery to me and I’m living through it, so of course it’s not going to make sense to a go-getter productivity guru with an entrepreneurial spirit and a book contract. You are an inspiration: a great writer who seems to have some of the same struggles I do and yet has created resources that are helping thousands of people. You frame key concepts so effectively, like about having intentions not time, and whether you are moving towards what you want or away from what you don’t. That’s all a long way of saying I’ve bought the book and am thrilled to read it and work to put it into practice.

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David Cain June 4, 2021 at 7:39 pm

I have a vivid memory of going to a GTD discussion forum in 2010 or so, when I was having trouble getting it going. I don’t remember what I posted, but the gist was that I was having trouble with the “doing” part — as in, how do you get yourself to do the stuff on the list. And virtually all the answers I got were some form of “GTD is not a motivation system! To do something you just do it.” I really felt like I was a different kind of person. There are so many of us in that camp though. We’re just not very visible.

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Bobbie June 6, 2021 at 10:02 am

(maybe we’re not visible because we are a little ashamed of how hard it is for us to get stuff done.)

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:48 am

Definitely. How I feel about myself completely changed when I disclosed my ADHD and my trouble getting stuff done. We really are measured by our productivity in many ways, and when we don’t get a lot done we feel small and unimportant.

Jamey MacIsaac June 8, 2021 at 4:20 pm

We’re not very visible because we’re all going to get started working on that visibility problem Any. Day. Now.

Jillian June 4, 2021 at 5:39 pm

Yes! You are right on the money about productivity books being written by productive people. I bought Atomic Habits last year during a COVID lockdown and wrote a long list of habits I’d like to develop, thinking I’d tackle them 2-3 at a time and add more as I mastered the current ones. I was wildly successful with the first 3 for a while, but a year later I am still only reliably doing one of them, and never progressed to adding others.
If you’ve found a solution of sorts I can’t wait to hear (and hopefully implement) it!

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David Cain June 4, 2021 at 7:41 pm

Atomic habits is great but I had kind of the same experience. There were too many good ideas in it! I tried to just take part of it and work with that but I ended up at square one again, and starting again at chapter one doesn’t seem to make sense. I would like a little booklet for each idea, and just pick one I like and do that for a while.

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Anon June 4, 2021 at 6:14 pm

Hi David, I’m adding this comment as a sort of ‘pre-registration’ of my intent to report how its affected me in the next week or 2. The short write up in this article was very intriguing so I’ll definitely aim to give feedback soon, regardless if my experience is good or bad.

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Catherine Boycott June 5, 2021 at 6:32 am

Hi David,
I would really like to test out your HTDH book, but I have not tried out any of the other Habit Systems you list above so don’t know if they would work for me. I have only just discovered Atomic Habits (and listened to the beginning of the audiobook only). I do find I get distracted easily though, always wanting to check what the newest work email I receive is & I struggle with being productive (I talk/worry a lot without action). Would you therefore say that your book is for me? If yes, I will sign up for the test trial version of it. Will the final version of the book be available in a physical hard copy? Will those that do the test trial get a hard copy of the book once you have finished it? Thank you so much David! (Apologies for such a long post)!

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David Cain June 5, 2021 at 10:51 am

HTDT focuses on doing without distraction, so if that’s your bottleneck too then you would probably get a lot out of it. The other books tend to focus on organizing your obligations so that you can work on them efficiently, but they don’t have much to say about how to get to work and stay working.

All versions of the book will be electronic, so there will be no hard copy. For the revised version I will probably also include e-reader formats with the PDF.

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Ashley Kung June 5, 2021 at 8:05 am

To your whole post I say, “Same.” GTD for me was more like GTO – getting things organized, but it never actually led to getting things done.

I will try out your system and see how it goes. Thank you!

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David Cain June 5, 2021 at 10:53 am

Yes exactly — GTD is about GTO. I would spend two weeks getting everything into the system, but then the “hard edges” would collapse in two days.

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b. krepps June 5, 2021 at 9:46 am

The intent is there, but “distraction” seems to rule my world! And that is the demise of all my good intentions. I suppose I will forever be a “one-trick pony” or some other form of it!!

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David Cain June 5, 2021 at 10:55 am

I know the feeling. Working in short sprints really does train away a lot of the distraction habits. We don’t have a choice about whether something catches our attention, but we can train ourselves to reflexively go back to the task, because we know it won’t be that long till the timer goes.

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Bobbie June 7, 2021 at 8:54 am

Nice. And a lot like meditation, where when we find ourselves distracted, we just go back to the breath.

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Fraser Hadden June 5, 2021 at 10:01 am

Why is VAT charged if the book is downloaded from the UK?

Books, paper or electronic, are not liable to VAT in the UK.

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David Cain June 5, 2021 at 11:00 am

Unfortunately I have absolutely no input or control over the charging of VAT. It is charged and remitted by Gumroad.

I will inquire about the status of VAT on ebooks for UK based customers. Is this a change that came with the UK leaving the EU, or has it always been that way?

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Fraser Hadden June 5, 2021 at 12:30 pm

Paper books have always been zero-rated. E-books from April 2020.

It was a pandemic-stimulated concession to make home entertainments less expensive. Link below:
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/vat-scrapped-on-e-publications

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:49 am

Thanks Fraser, I will ask them about this

David Cain June 7, 2021 at 12:18 pm

So they said they are currently sorting out all of the many legal issues around the UK’s exit from the EU and concessions such as you mention here, and until it is settled they will charging as usual. However, you can have the VAT refunded, and they left a help page for that: https://customers.gumroad.com/article/200-i-need-a-vat-refund

Fraser Hadden June 7, 2021 at 4:04 pm

The website only currently works for businesses, but I have bought anyway.

Here’s to productivity! I am in the top 0.0001% of procrastinators and, at 65, need not to be.

Rodrigo June 5, 2021 at 10:22 am

Hi David,

As a fellow ADHD, every line of your text makes absolute sense.
Sadly I live in Brazil and the dollar versus brazilian reais here is an absolute imbalanced match. Do you have any plans to publish your guide at Amazon, for example, so I can buy it cheaper?

Just so you know: $ 19 = R$ 95 BRL.

{ Reply }

David Cain June 5, 2021 at 11:07 am

Hi Rodrigo. The exchange rate issue is always going to be a thing unfortunately. There’s no way to make the prices proportional to living expenses in every country at once. My expenses are tied to where I live, so the prices are based on that and where the bulk of the customers are (the US), but that means it will cost too much in other places. If I were to charge 19 BRL (or even 19 CAD) for the book I could not produce it. I will figure out a way to make at least copies available in places where the exchange rate makes it too expensive.

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Jean June 5, 2021 at 12:33 pm

Just finished reading the e-book and will try to implement your plan. I recently retired and of course I figured I would have “all this time now” to do all the things I’ve been putting off for years, things like losing weight, deep cleaning and decluttering my condo, digitizing and organizing my parents’ old photos, digitizing all the estate paperwork, etc. Then I end up reading, or on social media, or doing “easier” chores so that I don’t have to face the other tasks.

I have looked at all sorts of productivity books and Youtube videos on the subject, and yes, the techniques are all great, but it’s the “doing” that trips me up. I end up googling, “How to get the motivation to be productive” and I start to wonder what’s wrong with me, as most of the time, when I do have a rare productive day, I feel great and many tasks honestly aren’t as difficult as I had imagined them in my head.

Thanks for putting this together. I did my “morning routine” tasks for my first block (even though it’s the afternoon!). My next block is meditation, and then I’m going to do 25″ of strength training. I’m feeling motivated!

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:22 am

Hey that’s great Jean. I’m glad to hear it’s working for you. I think there are so many of us who get stuck in the same place, and when we look for advice, we find the advice of people who have a different problem.

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Chris Spark June 5, 2021 at 2:25 pm

Hi David,

You make some great points.

When you bring up the length of these “How to” books, you point to a deep issue with our culture in general. We are swamped. There’s too much information in a single book, much less out in the wilderness of the internet (and the universe). People think to be taken seriously, they need to stuff books with words. Otherwise we won’t be paid attention to.

The spirit of what you’re saying, it seems to me, is getting back to basics. In a word, focus. Just as we think we need to write big books and initiate atomic bombs of new habits, we also tend to think we need to focus for inordinate amounts of time. But as you’re discovering, short spurts are just fine. Often less is more. Workers, for example, have been shown to be more productive when workweeks are reduced.

There is a THIN book called Get it Done in 10 Minutes a Day. The idea is that when we ask ourselves to do something for just 10 minutes, there’s really no excuses. We have to give ourselves complete permission to stop after 10 minutes. What often happens though, is you want to keep going!

This leads me to “permission.” That, I’ve found, is the true foundation. The most back to basics you can get. When I truly give myself permission to do absolutely nothing–to simply enjoy myself and savor that enjoyment from moment to moment, when I don’t hitch my sense of worthiness to activities and productivity–THAT’S when the best things happen. That’s when I’m actually most productive. Not because I’m pushing myself with motivation, but because I am being pushed by inspiration.

Inspiration can only find us when we’re not putting up walls of self-judgment.

Blessings.
Chris

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:28 am

I remember imagining, in the early days of the internet, that having all the information we need would eliminate most of our problems, because we could just look up the solutions. And in many ways we can, but that has shifted the bottleneck to a different problem, which is much harder to solve: how to parse the information and make us of it. It’s even harder with too much information, because we’ve got more in our heads that we feel needs attending to. I think you’re right that it’s time to go back to basics, in the sense of remembering our first principles, and taking just the information we need, and can apply successfully. I want to make more resources like this one, using the same philosophy.

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Anon June 5, 2021 at 4:33 pm

I’m the ‘anon’ poster from above, and I’m coming back to give my day 1 experience with the book.

I read it yesterday evening and really it’s everything David says it is. There are also a few key things included in the method that make me think this will stick longterm. I’ve just had my most productive day in a while, and it’s now late evening and I’m actually still motivated to be productive. I feel like I have time affluence and can finally relax, and really do whatever I want without guilt.

David includes a number of troubleshooting techniques for the method, although I haven’t had to use any of them yet.

Excited what the week ahead will look like from here.
Update again soon

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:33 am

That’s the best praise I could hope for: it is what it’s supposed to be and does what it says.

I know what you mean by the phrase “time affluence.” We always convince ourselves that time is the bottleneck, but it’s really a matter of converting our time to productivity more efficiently, and we can do that better if we take small definite pieces, and make something concrete out of it. A day has a lot of time in it — enough time for FIFTY Blocks, technically. Once we know how to make better use of it, time no longer feels so scarce.

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Brenda June 5, 2021 at 5:17 pm

My sister suggested this to me today. I have a lot of housecleaning I’ve been letting he past year and I need to get it done because of impending houseguests next month.

My before-buying questions are:

1.) Your sprints sound really stressful. Timers ALWAYS stress me out. Has anyone who hates timers successfully used a method like this?

2.) You mention people who have trouble doing things due to depression earlier in this blog post. That is mainly my situation. Which is to say something like “the reward of the state of done-ness is just not rewarding enough. It’s something I know I SHOULD want, but something I nonetheless can’t actually want and get excited about because I have trouble getting interested in anything that isn’t actively soothing my depression in some way.” Do you think I would have any success with your method, or does it not really address when even just wanting the end goal is a problem?

Thanksi in advance for your time and advice!

{ Reply }

David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:44 am

I have that same aversion to timers or feeling rushed The timer is supposed to induce a touch of urgency, but not panic. It quickly becomes a positive, pleasant kind of energy. You get on a roll and it feels great. You will also be amazed at how much you get done in a short time when you push everything else out but the task. Real stress comes from not getting enough done!

As for depression, ADHD, or other psychiatric conditions, I make it clear from the start that this method cannot cure those conditions. But it can allow you to be as productive as possible in spite of them. Each person is different of course, so I can’t say that the guide will be everything you need. I have motivation issues too — just *wanting* to do the thing has always been the main problem for me. Working this way has created a kind of short-term incentive structure that seems to be enough most of the time. Achieving even a single short sprint is a very empowering feeling, and it’s only ever a handful of minutes of effort from completion.

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Brian June 6, 2021 at 1:04 pm

Is it the startling insistent sound of your timer? I use Chimes or Ripples (iPhone) that make me smile when I hear them.

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Nina June 7, 2021 at 9:47 am

If it helps, the timer is not too bad in this case, since all it’s doing is telling you how much time is left. It’s giving you the same information as a clock (“time is passing”) but in a different way. It’s NOT saying “quick, finish this thing in five seconds or else you FAIL” or “hurry, you need to beat your best time” or anything stressful like that.

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Jim June 5, 2021 at 8:29 pm

I purchased and read the book, and have tried out David’s methods.

To be honest, I only purchased the book as a way of supporting the site. But I did actually end up finding the methodology helpful.

David has a way of presenting or re-phrasing well-known or obvious concepts in ways that make them just slightly easier to implement.

If you are eating Ramon noodles every meal and down to your last $19, I wouldn’t recommend it. :-) But if $19 (or whatever the price ends up being) isn’t a big deal, or is just what you would typically spend on coffee in a week, then I would strongly recommend it.

Thanks.

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 10:45 am

Thanks Jim. I’m glad you’re getting something out of it. Yeah I wouldn’t go without food to purchase an ebook. But if you can get an additional hour of work done a week (and that’s an extremely modest goal) it will pay for itself quick.

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Brian June 6, 2021 at 10:57 am

Yeah, I bought it, now I have to read it. How many Pomodoros will that be? I schedule tasks into my phone in Pomodoro segments, no more than two consecutive on 1 thing. After the first 25 minutes, up & about, grab a tea, whatever, then back for another 25 min and break again. Even if that task isn’t complete I move on to a new one as my productivity will lag if I persist with the first one. I schedule another slot later to finish that task.
I’m sure I’ll refine my technique after reading your book, David, and no doubt have more comments. First comment: nice cover design!

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Anna June 6, 2021 at 11:35 am

I m so disapointed, i can t seem to buy it. I must havé got there too late. Havé You closed it already? I would write more but my ipad is french ans keeps translating everything. Im going to see il i can gent it on Amazon or somewhere. YOur book is so important. Thankyou for writing it! Xxxx

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 11:38 am

Hi Anna. You’re not too late. You can get it here:

http://gum.co/howtodothings

What sort of trouble are you running into in buying it?

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Anna June 6, 2021 at 12:28 pm

I click on thé button that says get it ( je veux on french) thé it is just on thé same page.

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Anna Bardon June 6, 2021 at 12:35 pm

i’m on my portable computer now so i can get to the right page but it won’t put in my card number. I will keep trying.

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ANNA June 6, 2021 at 12:50 pm

Panic over! managed to get it. so happy i am able to give back to you for all the help and advice i have from reading your thoughtful articles that seem to be always exactly the subjects i am thinking and struggling with in my life in the middle of the french countryside surrounded by cows and fields. :-)

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David Cain June 6, 2021 at 1:01 pm

Oh good! I hope you get a lot out of it :)

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NJ June 7, 2021 at 12:01 pm

The irony of it all: I was cruising through my To Do List today. Knocking things out…somehow I was triggered, stopped working, jumped on the internet. Now I’m completely distracted and off schedule. But I came across this post and I will be getting the guide. Big picture I’m excited to read what you have to say, as for today wish me well in getting back on track, lol.

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David Cain June 7, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Great, I hope it helps make your day a lot more solid. One truism we procrastinators have to deal with is that there is a rare occasion when it is more productive to have been distracted by a particular thing :)

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Theresa June 7, 2021 at 2:23 pm

Hi David, I LOVE the guide and started implementing today. The mental picture of building Blocks is surprisingly helpful. That must be one of the reasons why jobs like carpentry are so satisfying. At the end of the day, there’s a tangible result of your work – as opposed to “treading water” in an office job. ;-) May I ask how many Blocks it takes you to write an article for your blog? I want to start blogging, but the task feels overwhelming and I don’t know how I would divide it into blocks. Thanks! Greetings from Germany!

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David Cain June 8, 2021 at 10:21 am

Glad to hear it’s working for you. The wooden Blocks imagary goes a long way for me too.

The number of Blocks for my posts varies wildly, but blog posts have always taken me a lot of time. Usually I do 2-3 to get the idea clear, 2-3 to get a draft half done, 2-3 to finish the draft, and then a session of 2-5 to get it to a publishable state. That’s kind of ideal. But often I throw out a post after investing some time. And sometimes the last session is just a marathon, in which I’m no longer doing Blocks, because there’s no way I’m not finishing it.

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Bobbie June 7, 2021 at 5:33 pm

Well. I’ve been at it for 2 days and I have to say this is really working for me, so far. The steps are simple enough for me to not let myself off the hook, and whereas I probably could/would have blown off 25 min in the past as not enough time to do much of anything, you’ve proven to me that is absolutely not the case. YAY!

This strategy works great for me when I am studying or doing some type of what I’d call “deeper work”. But I am playing with / trying to use it in the case of unrelated, small tasks that don’t really “go together”, and looking for suggestions on that. Example – If I have 2 phone calls I don’t really want to make, someone asked me to write them a testimonial, and I’ve got some prep work in the kitchen… And maybe all of that could make up a 25 min block… What shall I do with that mishmosh of stuff? I think my problem is, with these things being unrelated, it’s easier for me to go off the rails and get distracted by some other thing! And plus these tasks will be done in different physical spaces, so more risk of distraction. Or maybe I should organize by location… or??? Probably I will try each and see what works best, but open to suggestions!

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David Cain June 8, 2021 at 10:25 am

With batches of tasks, it helps to have them lined up very clearly before the timer starts — what you’re beginning with and what comes next. You may need to practice the transition between tasks. After enjoying that little moment of doneness, you should already know what you’re doing next. It makes sense to batch tasks that go well together and don’t require you to move much (i.e. desk tasks, kitchen tasks, etc.) When the timer is running, only intentional work is allowed, so those transitions need to be clear. Use a Right Now List if you tend to lose focus between tasks.

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Jamey MacIsaac June 8, 2021 at 4:30 pm

I’ve been at it for two days too! 48-hour-solidarity-fist-bump! About 40% of my job is tiny unrelated tasks. What I’ve been doing at work is picking one task, maybe two, even though I know they won’t fill a block, and the third task in that block is “Pick the next task for this block.” Otherwise I spend all my time procrastinating by carefully dividing miscellaneous tasks into 25 minute increments.

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Jamey MacIsaac June 8, 2021 at 4:25 pm

The way I’ve tried to describe the experience to people in my life is: the problem is I have no follow-through. And that’s the worst problem to have. Because how do you fix it? Make a plan? And then what?

I say it humourously and it never fails to get a laugh. But the humour hides that fact I feel trapped inside my own life just sort of watching while it does things (sometimes good things, sometimes bad things) without any real ability to DO anything about any of it.

You remember on Star Trek when something was wrong with the computer and Picard would say “Run a self-diagnostic”? And when I was a kid, I used to think, “What if the part of the computer that runs the diagnostic is the part that’s broken?” And that’s how I feel. The part of my brain that can solve this problem IS the part of my brain that HAS the problem.

It’s like telling someone you’re paralyzed and they say “You should walk more. That’ll fix it.”

Sigh. I have a lot of metaphors. I make up in metaphors what I lack in follow-through.

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David Cain June 10, 2021 at 9:58 am

This… sounds very familiar to me. Have you ruled out ADHD? If not I would definitely look into it because this is exactly what I have felt much of my life.

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Jamey A MacIsaac June 11, 2021 at 11:43 am

Funny you should ask, it your post about your diagnosis that caused me to re-think and re-frame some things. Specifically, the way that years of specific, concerted effort masked typical symptoms you might otherwise have exhibited. Maybe, I thought to myself, I’m not just lazy. Maybe my lifelong inability to have an impact on my own life is something actually wrong. So, since reading that post, I’ve chased down an adult ADHD expert near where I live and I have an appointment for a full assessment in July.

So thank you for that. It’s made a big difference already.

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Calen June 8, 2021 at 6:46 pm

David,

This is similar to some of the stuff that I learned over we r the last couple years for managing my own work problems. Here are a few insightful resources that I think might help you as you develop this further.

1. The book ‘Mini Habits’ by Stephen Guise. It’s the one that first introduced me to the idea that habit size is toxic to habit duration. The concept generalized far beyond habits; it works for projects to. In a nutshell, it argues that the best way to build a habit is a low bar, high cap approach.

2. Sjmklar to the above, the book “Tiny Habits,” by B.J. Fogg. It has a more scholarly approach but a similar message. Fogg is a researcher at Stanford although its telling that Guise’s book feels more accessible and useful.

3. I once read a paper on how people process trauma in therapy. Basically, they vaccilate back and forth; engaging with it helps them process it but it hurts, and the hurt eventually hits a point where it swamps their ability to meaningfully engage any more. So they back off until it subsides. Then they engage again. Sounded so much like my procrastination pattern that I never forgot it. I’m happy to track it down if you’re interested.

One last note worth exploring: most complex projects have an internal organization that is not immediately obvious at first. If you start to understand it though, you can tease it apart into separate processes and tackle them one at a time, turning a complex and ADHD-aggravating task into something much more palatable to the brain.

If you’re like me this is a godsend. Much of the aggravation of a complex task is that it is unpredictable and chaotic in what it demands of you. Try to write a college essay and you have to switch between the demands of figuring out the broad essay structure, finding and synthesizing the information that goes into it, writing the prose, editing the prose, and managing the formatting all at once. If you let all of these processes run simultaneously they shift, overlap, and interact in chaotic patterns that make the work process painful. If you tease them apart and do them in an appropriate sequence then the pain of the complex task is greatly reduced and it becomes pleasant.

Basically for a person with ADHD, writing an essay from beginning to end without teasing apart these processes is the worst form of multitasking and I’m pretty sure it’s what produces the agitation that makes people stop.

The above principle is helping me write my dissertation for my PhD – which, incidentally, is on procrastination (in essay writing).

Best wishes,

C

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David Cain June 10, 2021 at 10:01 am

Wow, you’ve really hit on some of the specifics of my issues here (and presumably those of many others). The way you describe the mental difficulty of complex tasks is right on.

I would love to learn more about this perspective. Where should I start?

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Alicia June 10, 2021 at 1:13 pm

Your post made me think of another author who describes the same issue with cleaning, that most cleaning/decluttering books are written by naturally organized people. (She’s Dana K White, and I love her books!)

The most helpful book for me has been The Introvert Advantage. It may have been renamed at some point, but my takeaway was that because information travels a longer route in an introvert brain vs an extrovert one, it gets overloaded more easily. Instead of writing down, Fix clogged sink, you break it down into, find plumber’s phone number. Then call plumber. And so on, spread across whatever amount of time your brain can handle.

Thanks for your writing!

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m2bees June 11, 2021 at 6:41 pm

Yes! If I break something down into tiny enough steps I can *do* things. Getting the project steps on a list is step one. Finding the phone number is step two. Finding the calendar is step 3. Making the call is step 4. Then maybe I can set up the appointment. Otherwise, the project sits on the list for weeks.

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David Cain June 13, 2021 at 12:32 pm

Thanks Alicia, I will look into these.

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Kristy June 11, 2021 at 10:41 pm

Your system is something similar to what i developed to deal with what i have now been diagnosed as, ADHD (at 36, partly because of your post and partly because i was noticing my daughter exhibiting similar behaviors to me, and with a strong hereditary link i thought the best approach to help her is to confirm in me first rather than trouble her if it was all in my imagination).

My system looks like a timer with a what am i doing right now list (WAIDRN), i write the minute details down to the ridiculous to get me started on whatever it is then i have a section that says urges where i list all the distractions and urges that come up – i often only have to list a couple for my brain to get the point that is is not going to get to run away and my work gets done.

That is my work gets done when i remember this process, or when i finally convince myself i can do this process and start.

So I like the book and got a lot out of it, but, i am wondering how much being medicated helps with execution of it. As i am now looking at what treatment i will purse.

Looking forward to your insight.

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David Cain June 13, 2021 at 12:36 pm

Ah I will try your distractions/urges list idea. I’ve heard people suggest something similar for ADHD but I didn’t quite see how it would help until I read your comment.

What I’ve found with medication is that it mostly helps me get over the initial inhibitions about starting things. It just doesn’t seem so complicated to the mind. But I have had productive days without it.

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Mark Kandborg June 12, 2021 at 2:37 pm

Hi, David. Just bought the guide, and I’m liking it already! One issue I feel I need to bring to your attention, though: typos — I’m on page 8 and I’ve already come across 3 of them. Maybe if I didn’t have OCD and I wasn’t a writer myself, I could breeze past them… but each one stops me short and takes me out. There’s not a book I’ve read that doesn’t have 1 or 2, a reality which continues to puzzle me, but a 38 page guide instantly feels carelessly rendered with this error rate. Hopefully an e-book is easy to correct. I write this with love and respect!

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David Cain June 13, 2021 at 12:38 pm

Thanks Mark. Typos will be fixed in the revised version. I went over it very carefully, but after reading the same thing ten times I become blind to some of my own typos. I will get an independent proofreader for the final version.

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Karen June 13, 2021 at 1:31 am

Oops, disregard my previous comment. This was not the appropriate place to post that. I resent it in the Contact tab.

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Jud June 14, 2021 at 12:42 pm

I am so appreciative of this post because you put into words my experience with productivity systems. Learning, creating and implementing the system itself (with all the necessary habit change) becomes a major stressor on life’s To-Do list. But then soon enough it’s just forgotten. I want to share my relationship with procrastination and productivity in case it resonates with anyone else and to get it out in the open. (Mostly this about life’s bigger ‘meta-tasks’ like career moves, financial choices, education, health and diet improvements, emotional growth, etc that often are not very time-bound, specific, measurable or preictable – each one is less like a routine grocery list and more like the project of building a house without blueprints or a level).
Here we go: Weeks and months of procrastination on life’s big tasks go by; the weight of all the not-done-ness adds up, creating existential anxiety; I finally find half a day to devote to creating a plan to address all the not-done-ness; I set out with optimism to craft a genius plan – usually the plan starts with a brainstormed list; this to-do list grows and grows; I begin to craft an implementation plan, but it always turns out that crafting a plan to address all of this not-done-ness is actually a huge mental undertaking (sorting everything into sub-lists, small actionable steps, follow thru plans, calendars and deadlines, time blocks, etc); I soon run out of steam as the mounting anxiety turns into emotional and mental fatigue; and then POOF my time is up… the time and emotional energy I set aside to Get Things Done has been totally used up just getting my thoughts organized and forging an action system; back to the distractions of the small chores and addictions of daily life and hardly another look at the fancy notebook full of not-done-ness and half-baked plans; the unfinished implementation plan itself becomes another item at the top of the not-done list, acting as a kind of roadblock to getting anything else downstream done; I’m tired and give up on doing anything but the basics of work, household chores and unstructured impulse fulfillment; weeks and months go by; start over.
Even just remembering to pay daily attention to a productivity system is a habit that must be learned, and good habits do not normally come easily. So then you have to set up a reminder system to reinforce the habit of using a productivity system – yet another item on the to-do list. Post-it notes everywhere! Reminders going off on the phone for things you don’t even remember what they are!
The thing I think I am starting to learn from this horrendous cycle is the important skill of differentiating between the stressors (i.e. the not-done list and all the systems) and the stress response itself. Perhaps better to address the perpetual stress response that seems to live underneath all the procrastination, anxiety, resistance, fatigue, dysfunctional self-soothing, etc and pray to Jesus that that opens up doors of energy, clear-mindedness, and general ok-ness to get things accomplished in an emotionally non-self-abusive way.

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David Cain June 22, 2021 at 10:58 am

Every word of this post resonates with me Jud. I know this exact struggle. I can’t say I’ve solved it, but I’ve got a few tools now and it doesn’t seem hopeless. Just “getting organized” is something I’ve never been organized enough to do. There have been times when I’ve ignored everything for two weeks just to get everything in a single list so I know where I’m at, only to realize I can’t possibly do this stuff before an equally huge list accumulates in the background. I hope the ideas above (and in the guide if you get it) can untangle some of it. The bright side is that even just getting a little more breathing space can make a massive difference.

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Shawn June 23, 2021 at 11:27 am

I am so sad I missed out on the offering to the guide. Faithful reader and you’ve really helped me so much with meditation and acceptance. Thank you so much – looking forward to the day you release this guide!

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Armin June 27, 2021 at 8:49 am

Now, that seems to be just up my ally.
But linking to this page from every other post – while the guide is not on sale – is just a tad bit cruel. I hope you know this David ;-)
Effective marketing, but still.
I even search for ..uhmm.. _other_ sources for the PDF.
Anyhow, finally subscribed so I don’t miss the proper launch of the guide.

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David Cain June 29, 2021 at 10:33 am

Hi Armin. Sorry about that — I didn’t realize I still had the links up. Fixing that now.

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ONelson June 27, 2021 at 6:32 pm

I’m really looking forward to the next release of this, too. I wish there was a way to subscribe to something that would give me the email in boldface, italisized, etc – I don’t want this to float by with so many other emails

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David Cain June 29, 2021 at 10:34 am

When I do the rerelease I will send a separate email to all subscribers making it clear from the headline that the book is for sale again. Plan is early September.

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Jamey MacIsaac July 12, 2021 at 7:34 am

Hey David! I’ve been using “How to Do Things’ for a couple of weeks now (I bought it on day one) and I have a couple of thoughts. I remember there was a survey at one point but I can’t find it now. Do you have a link to it? Or is there some other way to (non-obnoxiously) share my thoughts?

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David July 12, 2021 at 1:42 pm

Hi Jamey. There is a link in the book itself on the last page. You can also email me thoughts or ideas through the contact form.

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