The Secret to Getting Things Done Three Principles for Accomplishing What’s Most Important

There are usually only two reasons we fail to move forward: (1) because we don’t know what to do, or (2) because we are unable to do what we know we should. Often, it is the latter.

Recently my brother-in-law sent me a video of Steve Jobs recorded in 1997. It started a chain reaction in my thinking on the secret to getting things done. In short, routinely accomplishing what’s most important requires us to develop the skill to say no.

In this article, I will take you through my journey of learning how to say no, and give you a few principles that will hopefully aid you in accomplishing what you may have intended to do for quite some time.

getting it done

Allow me to share with you a few skills I have developed to combat the interruptions to important tasks. I will start by describing the important tasks according to the quadrant model by Stephen Covey.

My goal is to spend more time in Quadrant II activities (as described by Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People book). Quadrant II tasks are the important, but not urgent—those tasks that are not demanding to be done right away, but if you accomplish them, it will add to your success and progress. For example, creating a workflow process for your team, crafting a five-year vision plan for your organization, or thinking about a way to organize and keep the thousands of photos you and your spouse take each year. I intentionally set aside time to tackle these Quadrant II activities in what I call my thinking time.

I keep a thinking list that I give my attention to during this time. It’s a list of “unsolvable problems” in my life. However, I encounter the same challenges with blocking thinking time as every other leader encounters when they set out to work on important, but not urgent tasks: interruptions.Here is what I learned to do:

1—Say no.

Saying no is the primary point Steve Jobs makes in the video above. Jobs is specifically referring to garnering focus as an organization to produce one product, rather than diverting energies in order to create many products. I apply his principle when I sit down to have my thinking time. You can apply it, for whatever important tasks you need to get done.

During that focused time, I keep a running list of all the things I said no to. Any time I say no to something, I congratulate myself because saying no is what it takes to get important things done. When I sit down to have my thinking time, I open that list to keep next to me. Below is the list of what I said no to one day last week during one of my thinking time sessions.

  1. My mom asked me if I wanted to go have breakfast. Imagine how hard this was. I rarely see my mom. She is the sweetest, kindest person I know. She is 79 years old. You get the picture. (Don’t worry, I saw her two days later, but I kindly told her that I was busy that morning.)
  2. Exercise. I had to say no to myself when I thought… “Oh wow, I should exercise.” Yes, I had to turn down a priority task, like exercise. When I sit down to do my Quadrant II tasks, immediately things come to mind that make me feel guilty if I don’t do them (like breakfast with mom or exercise). Of course I am not suggesting you don’t exercise or do other life important activities. I am saying, stick to your plan. You must do the converse if you had planned to go to the gym and got another distraction tempting you not to.
  3. Wish my 17-year old nephew happy birthday. Here is what happened…my thought was, “Okay, this is only going to take a minute or less.” I love my nephew. I was going to ask him where he wanted to go to dinner, and I was excited about that. His birthday was the next day, and I wanted to block time for him on my calendar. Instead, I said no even to this one minute task, and I wrote it down on this list.
  4. Plan the evening with my wife and a few guests that evening. 
  5. Send an email to pick up tickets for a baseball game that we had already paid for at a charity auction so we wouldn’t lose them.

Every time I said no, I was winning. I actually said no to nine interruptions that day (I did not include the full list). I also kept a list of things I could not say no to. I had to say yes to two things:

  1. I had to let the dogs out.
  2. I had to respond to one text from our marketing director.

Try this exercise. You may want to do it during the time you sit down to do what’s important. It will increase awareness for you and help you to say no to distractions.

2—Something has to suffer. 

The second principle is related to saying no, but not quite the same. It is acknowledging that something else will suffer. We have to be okay with that. Something real will be diminished in one area of your life. That’s the price of progress in another.

In the course of the day above, two very important things suffered: my relationship with my mom and the health of my body. Right?

Well, in one sense, they suffered in a minor way, but I ask myself, did these two very important areas really and truly suffer? Maybe that day, but not long term. I am still disciplined with my exercise three days a week. I still love and see my mom often. However, in the moment that day, it really like I was committing an unforgivable sin.

I had to come to terms with the fact that I cannot do everything and be everything to everyone if I am to be effective in my life.  When I block time intentionally on my calendar and things come to my mind to distract me, yes, in that moment, they will have to “suffer.” But later, I will allot the needed time to take care of them.

3—Sit somewhere with the least distractions. 

As a doctor, if I do my thinking time at the clinic office, forget about it. I will be interrupted with important requests every few minutes. Therefore, I currently choose to spend this time at my desk at home because I don’t get too many distractions there. At some point, if the distractions increase for me at home, I will move my location.

So, my leader friend, start by defining what is important for you to get accomplished, then set your mind to getting it done. You can do it.

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

For Further Reading:

How to Create a Culture of Accountability
Blocking Time to Think

1Comment
  • Basil Haddad
    Posted at 11:34h, 08 January Reply

    Love it – someone I know once said that ‘if you ‘take care of the important things in your life, life, will take care of you’. That sounds like Quadrant II stuff!

    Your article is a good reminder that you can say no to people and tasks in the moment but still tend to them in the long run.

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