This is a guest post from Philip Brewer of Wise Bread, a personal finance and frugality blog. Philip is one of my favorite personal finance writers. Today, however, he’s sharing about productivity.

I spent many years working for various companies that, like most businesses, were more or less dysfunctional.  They were places where priorities constantly shifted, where every day brought a new emergency, and where managers and peers might show up at any time with something urgent that needed my attention. 

When I became a full-time writer, I discovered that I needed different ways to manage my time than the ones that had worked when I was an employee.  Interestingly, the different ways that seem to work best for me aren’t new at all — they’re the old classic tools of time management. 

Getting things done
The hot concept in time-management these past few years has been Getting Things Done.  It’s a significant departure from the old ways of time management, where you made to-do lists for each day and then blocked out time on your schedule to do each of the things you wanted to get done.

Instead of to-do lists and blocks of time, Getting Things Done emphasizes the practice of capturing all the things that you need to get done, and then turning those items into “next actions” that are steps toward getting the thing done.  It also describes some simple behaviors for reviewing your lists, to make sure that nothing important falls through the cracks.  It’s a powerful tool that enables you to spend almost all your time making progress on your most important tasks.

My experience this past year, though, is that Getting Things Done doesn’t solve the problems that I face now that I’m working almost entirely for myself. 

Working for the man
Getting Things Done is perfectly designed to solve the problem of the guy working for a dysfunctional company.  When every day brings shifts in priority and new emergencies, it’s critical to have a fluid list of actions that need to be taken — and it’s pointless to block out two hours on a Wednesday afternoon to work on a big project if manager A is going to assign a more-urgent task, managers B and C are going to ask for status updates, and peer D is going to ask you to spend that time reviewing and commenting on some completely unrelated thing that has to be finished today.

In a situation like that, it’s very easy to end up spending all your time doing things without every getting anything done.  And, if you somehow thwart the system (perhaps by coming in early or working late) so that you can finishing something, it will turn out to be the wrong thing — because priorities will have shifted or plans will have changed. 

As a way to handle that circumstance, GTD is wonderful.  Any moment when you have a chance to do some work, you check your list of next actions and do the most important one that you can squeeze into the time available.  As long as you keep your lists up-to-date with the constantly changing plans and priorities, you can have considerable confidence that you’re always making progress on the things you need to do.  And, if you keep doing that, you will manage to get things done.

Working for me
The thing is, my circumstance is different.  My problem isn’t that goals and plans and designs and priorities are constantly changing out from under me.  My problem is that I’ve got more things I want to do than I can possibly get done, and that many of those things require large blocks of time to make much headway.  In that situation, I tend to alternate between dithering around with multiple tasks, and then throwing my hands up at my lack of progress and deciding to read a good book instead. 

Similarly, I alternate between getting in the running, bicycling, and lifting that I need to be adequately fit and healthy, and then cutting those activities so that I can focus on the many tasks that I want to get done.  I also spend a lot of time reading interesting stuff on the web.

The old-fashioned way
It turns out that I can solve this cluster of problems with the old-fashioned time management technique of blocking out chunks of time to do things.

  • It solves the dithering problem (as long as I don’t block out the morning into a dozen 15-minute chunks of time — which looks so silly on a schedule that I automatically tend not to do it).
  • It solves the problem with getting my exercise in (as long as I routinely put the exercise on the schedule).
  • And it solves the problem of excess web-surfing (as long as I block out enough time for the necessary web surfing, and then keep to my schedule).

I’ve discovered that, for my current circumstance, the key to getting things done is doing things.

Get Rich Slowly reviewed Getting Things Done in November 2006. Like Philip, I’ve found the system unworkable for my lifestyle. I think I’m trying to make things too complicated. I think I need to take his advice and do things.

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