The Basic Rule of Getting Things Done

If you are the CEO of a fast-growing startup, you have a lot on your plate.

About a year ago, I built a simple semi-automated system we call GSD (Getting Shit Done). It allows our CEO to delegate tasks and not worry about their timely completion. The system was so successful that we want to roll it out to the rest of the company this year.

It uses the simple principle described below.

There is a rule for getting things done that is so obvious that people often completely miss it.

To get anything done it is necessary and enough to:

  1. Identify the next step.
  2. Not postpone it forever.

Unless the goal moves faster than you do, meeting these two conditions will get you where you need to be. Without knowing the next step and taking it, you will get nowhere.

If this is so simple, why do people fail miserably at getting things done? As often happens with human failures, the problem is in our brains wiring. Our 100-billion-neurons most complex device in the known universe has many flaws. It is optimized for survival in the hostile environment, not for accomplishing abstract goals. The solution is to build systems that work around those flaws.

Here is a short list of things that prevents us from getting things done.

The Fear of Monsters

We are afraid of the unknown, a simple heuristic for survival. Unfortunately, our brain uses this mechanism to fuel procrastination. Unless the path to your goal is clear and straightforward, your brain is like “wait, this is scary, let’s not do anything”. This happens deep inside your animal brains, and all you feel is that another, more straightforward task (like watching a YouTube video) looks much more appealing.

This fear prevents you from even thinking about the next step. Fight it.

The Curse of Backlog

A backlog is merely a list of work that needs to be done at some point in the future. It is very easy to put work in backlog — you don’t have to do anything right now. Most backlogs I encountered looked more like a cemetery. Work goes there but rarely comes back, and when it comes back, it tries to eat your brains.

Don’t put anything in backlog unless you know when and how you will get it out. Everything in the backlog must have the next step with a deadline attached. Unless you purposefully use backlog as a dump for work you won’t do, which is sometimes a good idea.

Starting vs. Finishing

Starting things is more fun than finishing. They are new and exciting. They seem more urgent. Saying “yes” is much easier than saying “no”. We naturally start more things than we can finish.

Remember that “do nothing” is a valid next step for a task. An easier to digest variation is “do nothing for now”. Don’t be afraid to push back. Better finish one thing than starting five.

Working Memory Limit

We can keep very few things in our working memory. The most frequently used number is 7 ± 2. In any case, it is very low. If you have more than 10 goals in your life, big or small, you will have to keep them outside of your head.

You need a system to record the next actions and their due dates. And you should look at it often.

No Implementation Intention

Unless you have a specific trigger, chances of never acting on your intention are very high. Implementation Intention adds “when” to “I want to do X”. It is surprisingly powerful and scientifically proven.

Develop a habit to make your intentions time-bound. It will improve your life in many ways.

Broken Feedback Loop

If nobody checks on what you do, it must be not that important. Even the most reliable people will start forgetting to complete things if they can get away with it.

If you want people (or yourself) to be reliable and accountable, make sure tasks are never forgotten, no matter how small they are.

Putting It All Together

Our GSD system is extremely simple but effective. It works like this:

  1. Requester adds a task assigned to someone.
  2. The assignee needs to tell what the next action is and when it will be done.
  3. When the time comes, the system asks the same question: what is the next action and when it will be done. The answer is delivered to the requester.
  4. Repeat until the task is complete or no longer relevant [enough to keep working on it].

While simple, it addresses the problems described above:

  • The Fear of Monsters. The system forces you to decide on the next step. No procrastination allowed.
  • The Curse of Backlog. There is no backlog. You either work on the task and make progress or explicitly drop it.
  • Starting vs. Finishing. If someone has too much on his or her plate, it becomes clear very fast. It triggers the re-evaluation of priorities and dropping some tasks.
  • Working Memory Limit. The system can store an infinite number of tasks. No need to rely on the human memory.
  • No Implementation Intention. Every next step has a due date. You cannot say “I will do X”, you have to say “I will do X by day Y”.
  • Broken Feedback Loop. The requestor gets updates when something happens with their task as well as when nothing happens. No way to avoid the feedback.

Because of the minimal overhead, the system is effectively used for even very small tasks. Adding and updating tasks is as simple as sending an email.

It gets things done.

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Building software and data systems that enable business operations; VP of Business Engineering @DataRobot

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Daniil Bratchenko

Daniil Bratchenko

Building software and data systems that enable business operations; VP of Business Engineering @DataRobot

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