Category Archives: Getting Things Done

Two Ways to Think about Self-Improvement

Photo by Kevin Miller

Photo by Kevin Miller

A few months ago I realized I don’t like setting goals. However, I admire people who work this way. “I’m preparing for a triathlon next summer.” For some people, a triathlon next summer is the best way to run on the treadmill today.

If you like to set goals, you are outcome-focused. The outcomes are explicit; the actions are implicit.

The alternative (and my preference) is to focus directly on daily, weekly, and monthly actions and habits. “Read a good book every day.” “Visit the gym three times per week.”

If you like to focus on habits and routines, you are action-focused. The actions are explicit; the outcomes are implicit.

But without a goal, how do you know your gym time will make you ready for a triathlon? I don’t know. But that approach doesn’t work for me. Incidentally, I don’t signup for triathlons. (But it sounds like a fun mindset if you have it.)

Outcome focus is top-down. This is Stephen Covey’s approach in Seven Habits where he describes “beginning with the end in mind”.

Once you have that sense of mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity. You have the vision and the values which direct your life. You have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured. (pp. 108-109)

Action focus is bottom-up. This is David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done:

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down…. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective. (pp. 19-20)

By the way, does the action focus cause more discouragement? What if I want to read a good book everyday, but I didn’t read yesterday? I prefer to think of goals, of any type, as prospective not retrospective. Goals drive your future behavior. They’re not a stick to beat yourself with.

Both approaches lead to what you are becoming. “I want to be an avid reader.” “I want to be a patient person.” No matter what approach you take, it seems important to focus on what you are becoming.

Thanks to Kevin Miller, James Miller, and Brian Henderson for conversations that led to this post.

Attention and Distraction

I was asked to speak in church a few months ago and spoke on the topic of attention and distraction. Here’s the outline of my talk, delivered Aug 28, 2011 in Boulder, CO. By the way, I consider this a very positive topic — the opportunity to direct our attention and feel more peace and flow — not a negative topic about simply avoiding the “perils” of distraction.

Define attention: “your treasure”

You have a limited amount of time. You have even less attention because attention is the subset of your time during which you’re awake, alert, and have energy. Therefore, attention is more valuable than time. How you spend your attention constitutes what is important to you.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (3 Ne 13:21)

  • Where does your attention go?
  • Which people get your attention?
  • Which projects and causes and acts of service get your attention?

(The week after I presented this talk, Jason Fried wrote a great post on this concept: “Your Attention Please”.)

Technology can be a source of distraction

NYT Article: “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking to You”

  • Story of people at dinner at tech conference.
  • Putting away your phone was like holding your breath.
  • Once one person caved to distraction, all caved.
  • “Mutually assured distraction”

WSJ Article: “When Twittering Gets in the Way of Real Life”

  • “Sometimes, it’s like you’re here and you’re not here,” Joe said to me. “Your mind and soul are in cyberspace, and all we’re left with is the husk.”
  • “Sometimes, I mindlessly find myself logging on to Facebook and staring at photos I have posted of my children when I just as easily could be staring at the real thing. I’m not proud to admit that.”
  • “It’s incumbent upon me to find a way to consume less — and, more importantly, let it consume less of me.”

What we consume consumes us.

David A. Bednar: “Things As They Really Are”

“Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, ear buds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.”

We’re here on earth to have a mortal experience with a body, with presence, with real people.

Distraction is the enemy of attention

  • “I am persuaded that two of the greatest sins of our busy and hectic generation are distraction and preoccupation.” (David A. Bednar)
  • “We need to frustrate…distraction by identifying what is critically important in our lives. We must give the cream of our effort to accomplish those things. Where there is limited time or resources, this pattern may require that some good activities be…set aside.” (Richard G. Scott)
  • “Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?” (David A. Bednar)
  • “Each of us should be careful that the current flood of information does not occupy our time so completely that we cannot focus on and hear and heed the still, small voice that is available to guide each of us with our own challenges today.” (Dallin H. Oaks)

When we allow some moments of our life to be quiet, peaceful moments, God can speak to our hearts through the Holy Spirit. My prayers are best when I take more time to listen in between what I say. I sometimes feel prompted to pray for something I hadn’t previously considered. We might pray for A, B, C. God may actually want to give us B, C, D, E, F, G, H. If we don’t listen, we may miss those extra things He wants to give.

Dallin H. Oaks: Focus and Priorities

We have thousands of times more available information than Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Yet which of us would think ourselves a thousand times more educated or more serviceable to our fellowmen than they? The sublime quality of what these two men gave to us–including the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address–was not attributable to their great resources of information, for their libraries were comparatively small by our standards. Theirs was the wise and inspired use of a limited amount of information.

The truck story, ibid.:

Two men formed a partnership. They built a small shed beside a busy road. They obtained a truck and drove it to a farmer’s field, where they purchased a truckload of melons for a dollar a melon. They drove the loaded truck to their shed by the road, where they sold their melons for a dollar a melon. They drove back to the farmer’s field and bought another truckload of melons for a dollar a melon. Transporting them to the roadside, they again sold them for a dollar a melon. As they drove back toward the farmer’s field to get another load, one partner said to the other, “We’re not making much money on this business, are we?” “No, we’re not,” his partner replied. “Do you think we need a bigger truck?”

We don’t need a bigger truckload of information, either. Like the two partners in my story, our biggest need is a clearer focus on how we should value and use what we already have.

Because of modern technology, the contents of huge libraries and other data resources are at the fingertips of many of us. Some choose to spend countless hours in unfocused surfing the Internet, watching trivial television, or scanning other avalanches of information. But to what purpose? Those who engage in such activities are like the two partners in my story, hurrying to and fro, hauling more and more but failing to grasp the essential truth that we cannot make a profit from our efforts until we understand the true value of what is already within our grasp.

iPhone tip: Use a Silent Ringtone to Screen Calls in Your Sleep

Have you ever wished your iPhone would ring only when certain people call? Here’s how to do it:

  1. Download the “Silence” ringtone here: silence.m4r
  2. Copy this file into the Ringtones section of your iTunes. (Click to enlarge.)

  3. Sync your iPhone with iTunes to load the ringtone.
  4. On your iPhone, change your ringtone to “Silence” (under Settings -> Sounds -> Ringtone). You’ll no longer hear your phone calls.

  5. For each person whose calls you still want to hear, change his or her Custom Ringtone to something audible: Click the name in your contact list, choose Ringtone, then choose something besides Default

    3_iphone_important_caller 4_iphone_audible_ringtone

Now you can screen calls in your sleep. Because Sunday afternoons are for napping.

UPDATE (Apr 14, 2011): I haven’t used it, but appears to be an interesting service for identifying phone numbers belonging to telemarketers and blocking them.

3 Uses for iPhone Screenshots

For all the iPhone users out there: You probably know you can take a snapshot of whatever you see on your screen:

  1. Briefly press the top and front buttons at the same time.
  2. The screen will flash white and you’ll hear a “snapshot” sound.
  3. A picture of your screen is now in your iPhone “Photos”.

I’ve found it extremely helpful to make screenshots, and I do it all the time. Here are a few reasons:

Remember an Interesting Part of a Podcast

If I’m driving and hear something I like in a podcast, I make a quick screenshot of the playback screen. When I get back to my computer, I can return to that spot in the podcast and take notes.


Save a Point on a Map

Sometimes I want to “bookmark” a location on the map before looking up something else. A screenshot is a fast way to do this.


Save a Website Address Without Interrupting Your Reading

Sometimes when I’m reading in Google Reader, I want to save the location of an article to read later. (I don’t want to leave Google Reader immediately because it has to entirely reload when I return.)

If you hold your finger on a link for a few seconds, a menu will popup with the address of the link. Sometimes I simply save a screenshot of the link, then hit Cancel and go back to my reading. Later I read the items I saved in my screenshots.


Screenshots can help you practice “ubiquitous capture” — capturing all notes, thoughts, and ideas, as they come to you, so you don’t have to keep them in your head.

Too Much Information (TMI)

There’s danger in consuming too much information. I’m sure you know what happens when you eat too much food. Like food, information needs digestion. It’s only useful to the degree you can distill it into actions, habits, and wisdom.

Dallin H. Oaks gave a good talk on focus and priorities:

We have thousands of times more available information than Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Yet which of us would think ourselves a thousand times more educated or more serviceable to our fellowmen than they? The sublime quality of what these two men gave to us—including the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address—was not attributable to their great resources of information, for their libraries were comparatively small by our standards. Theirs was the wise and inspired use of a limited amount of information.

I know where to get my information binge if I want it. (Thank you, RSS.) I’m sure you do too. The challenge is to consume less of it and use it more wisely.

I wonder what Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln would do in our shoes.