Episodes

Jessica Ivins on Getting Things Done

"My goal was to be able to juggle all the things I need to juggle and do all the things I need to do without burning out and without working long hours."

My guest today is Jessica Ivins. Jessica is a user experience designer. She’s also faculty member at Center Centre, the UX design school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she prepares students to be industry-ready UX designers. She wears many hats in this role, and in this episode we talk about how she keeps track of it all.

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Show notes

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Jorge: Jessica, welcome to the show.

Jessica: Hi Jorge, welcome. Thank you for having me.

Jorge: So tell me about yourself. What do you do?

Jessica: So I am a faculty member at Center Centre. And Center Centre is the UX design school here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And we provide a full-time program that’s two years long that prepares our students to be industry-ready UX designers, where when they graduate they can join a team and get ready to work from day one. And my role here is a faculty member is, I do everything from manage the students and manage projects to coach the students and basically support them throughout their two-year learning journey.

Jorge: Center Centre is still a relatively new program, right?

Jessica: Yes.

Jorge: Probably means that you have a lot on your plate.

Jessica: Yes. We’re a very small team, so we wear a lot of hats and we’ve graduated one class of students so far, which is really exciting and we are gearing up for the next class to start sometime this year.

Jorge: What role does information playing all this?

Jessica: Oh jeez, so I juggle a lot of information and a lot of to-dos on a daily basis. As I mentioned before, we’re a small team. So we wear a lot of hats. So I do everything from emptying the dishwasher, to writing curriculum, to reporting anything any issue with the facilities that needs to be repaired… Lots and lots of work with the students, obviously: working with them one-on-one working with them in the group setting. So it’s really a lot of juggling and a lot of time management and priority management.

Jorge: Well, you must have a lot of things going on simultaneously and I’m wondering how you keep track of it all.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So it’s been a long journey for me because my goal was to be able to juggle all the things I need to juggle and do all the things I need to do without burning out and without working long hours. So one of my goals in 2018 was to get better at managing my to-do’s. And I set that as a professional goal. At Center Centre every year we set professional goals with students and with staff too. So my boss and I set professional goals for me and I met my goal in 2018, which is really awesome. I got really good at managing my to-do’s. And the two big things that I was able to figure out in order to manage everything on my list was number one, identifying my priorities — whether it’s my priorities for the day or my priorities for the week — and number two, using really short manageable to-do lists instead of really long lists. And those two things have really helped me be more productive, really helped me maintain low stress levels and get the work done that I need to get done.

Jorge: I know different folks have different ways of doing that — managing priorities and keeping their to-do lists — and I’m wondering if you could share with us how you’re doing it.

Jessica: Sure. So like I said, it’s been a long journey. One of the things I appreciate about myself is that I’m very detail-oriented by nature. So I have the type of brain that kind of holds onto details and that can be a really good thing. But what I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t really rely on your brain to remember all the things you need to do. Even if you’re a detail-oriented person by nature like me. When I was first learning to get better at managing my to-dos, one of the first resources I consulted was Getting Things Done by David Allen, which you might be familiar with. It’s a pretty well-known book and it’s a great system for managing all the things on your plate. It’s a fantastic system. It’s a very rigid system, but the beauty of the system is that you don’t have to follow it to the T. David Allen, the gentleman who invented it even says a lot of people read his book and they pull out elements of the system that really work for them and it does bring them big benefits. Some of the big things that I took away from that book that I started applying were getting things out of my head and onto paper or in some sort of trusted system rather than trying to remember everything that I had to do, which was huge because he talks in the book about how even if your detail oriented your brain is not good at storing all the things that you need to do. It’s a lot of cognitive load, and you’re just putting a task on your mind that your mind isn’t good at. So you’re constantly preoccupied with what you need to do next and make sure you don’t forget this, whereas if you write it down and put it in some sort of trusted system — whether that’s a paper system or a system like Basecamp — it’s a much better use of your time because you’re basically putting everything into a system that you can refer to, and freeing up your mind space in order to focus on things like reading, writing, work — whatever you need to do. So that was a huge thing that I got from him. And a few other techniques that I picked up from Getting Things Done were doing a weekly review. So every week you take stock of what you need to do, the to-dos that you wrote down and put in your system, and make sure they’re organized and ready for the next week. So those tasks and those techniques were really helpful for me. They really helped me get a long way, but they didn’t get me to where I needed to be. And hence in 2018, even though I was using the Getting Things Done method. I still was really struggling to get everything done and work a sane amount of hours each week. And that’s when I did some more research after I set my goal in 2018, and that’s when I learned to use shorter to-do lists and to really get good at identifying my priorities so that I was working on things that were a priority and not working on things that were low priority and things that can wait.

Jorge: I read David Allen’s book a while back. Pretty much in the same spirit that you’re evoking here, this idea of, “Oh my gosh, I need to get better at this stuff!” And I was drawn to this one. And I remember a phrase in that book, he said that you want to have “mind like water,” where he meant still water. And there is the philosophy of getting things out of your head and writing them down, and then there is the practice of doing that with tools. And I’m wondering what tools you’re using to capture your to-do lists.

Jessica: Sure. So I use a mix of tools. I use paper a lot, believe it or not. I still take all my notes in a notebook as I find that at the end of the day I’m better able to focus on what I’m hearing. And it’s just easier to retain information if I take handwritten notes. So a lot of times if I have an action item, or a to-do, I will write it down in my notebook and I’ll put a little star next to it. Or sometimes just depending on the nature of where I’m at and whether or not I have my notebook right next to me, I will put it into a Google Doc on my laptop. And between those two things, I can basically refer to either one of those to see what it is I need to do and what it is I need to capture in my actual formal lists. And my formal lists, if you will, are more in Basecamp. So I have a weekly to-do list in Basecamp, and then I have other lists where I capture things that probably need to get done at some point, but they don’t need to get done this week. So I have various other lists and projects and stuff that I post things in. So that’s how I keep track of things. And the weekly review that I mentioned earlier is really critical because that weekly review allows me to stop each week and make sure that I’m looking through my paper notebook and the Google Doc on my computer and capturing any to-dos I need to capture and put into my weekly list or my other lists.

Jorge: One of the things that David Allen talks about in the Getting Things Done book Is this idea of inboxes, right? And we have email inboxes, we have physical inboxes. Basically, the world is sending us things that that it needs us to pay attention to, right?

Jessica: Yeah.

Jorge: How do those figure in your workstream?

Jessica: Yeah, so email is still something I’m figuring out how to wrangle. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. One of the techniques that I use is I only check email a few times a day. So I dedicate time for checking email, whether it’s 10 minutes or 30 minutes, throughout the day I dedicate various chunks of time to it. And sometimes I even set a timer and I say okay email is just something I do. It’s something I do several times a day. And for this amount of time, I’m going to focus on email. So I respond to all the emails I need to respond to sometimes I see an email and I say okay, there’s something I need to take care of so I might make a little note in my notebook, and then when the timer goes off or when I have to get up and go to a meeting that I close email and I go back to it later in the day and I find that that’s really crucial for focus, because I turned off on my email notifications because if I had them on they be going off all day and distracting me from the work I’m trying to-do whether I’m working on curriculum or in a meeting and I just found that all the notifications were just… It’s just not worth having them on because they’re more of a distraction than they are a help. So that’s been really critical for me. Now, I also work in a culture that… Some cultures put a lot of pressure on you where you need to have your email open all the time and you need to be responding to emails within five or ten minutes. And thankfully that’s not our culture. We don’t use email that way. So that’s been a huge asset for me, and turning off all those notifications has just really allowed me to have deep focus on my work.

Jorge: I recently found a blog post that Marc Andreessen wrote about 10 years ago, where he talks about his personal productivity philosophy and one of the pieces of advice he gives is precisely what you’ve described, which is do your email or inbox processing a couple of times a day, and just set set it aside as a thing you do. And email as an asynchronous communication medium, email doesn’t carry the same sort of immediate expectations that something like text messaging does, for example. Given that you work at an educational institution, I’m assuming that you have different volumes of inputs to your inboxes throughout the year. Like I can imagine that there’s a period for example, when students are applying or it’s the start of the semester or whatever. Do your processes vary at all throughout the year as you deal with changing patterns in your work?

Jessica: Yes, that’s a great question. So when students are enrolled, I have way more on my plate than when they’re not enrolled. Obviously. I have plenty of things to work on when they’re not here because we’re a small business, but when they’re enrolled one of the things I find myself doing a lot as reviewing evidence for student work. So students are constantly submitting evidence for me to review whether it’s evidence of a usability test that they conducted or evidence of a meeting that they ran, and I need to review that evidence and basically grade them and get back to them in a timely manner with their with their assessments. So, again my goal for 2018 and my goal in general is to be able to get my work done during business hours and not have to work long hours and not have to stress out about when I’m going to get things done. So one of the techniques that I found for getting through reviewing all the student. It was time boxing myself and it’s a technique that my boss Lesley Jensen Inman helped me apply. It’s basically a technique where you say, okay, I need to review student evidence, and I only have 20 minutes. I wish I had 45 minutes or an hour to do this. But all I have right now is 20 minutes. So I’m going to set a timer for 20 minutes and I’m going to intensely focus on getting as much done that I can in 20 minutes and it’s amazing how timeboxing yourself and setting a timer… Once that you know that timer is running, you really focus on that task and it helps you get work done faster. And not only does it help you get work done faster, but it helps you gauge after a while if you do this over and over again how much time it actually takes you to do the work because your timing yourself. And then you can more accurately plan your day later on once you get a sense of, okay, I have all this student evidence to review, I’ve been timing myself for two weeks, I think I’m pretty sure I can get this all this done in an hour. So I just need to find three 20 minute chunks today to get this done. And I found that that’s been really really helpful for me. It just really puts into perspective how I’m using my time and how quickly I can get things done. And by timeboxing, I just want to say you’re not rushing yourself, like you’re not cutting corners and you’re not sacrificing everything to beat the clock, right? It’s just a way of helping you be very present and very focused on what you’re doing and helping you be aware of how much time you’re spending so that you can use your time more effectively in the future.

Jorge: That’s a really important insight. And it’s one of those things where It sounds commonsensical but it’s but it’s rare enough that it actually has a name. Kind of like Murphy’s Law is a thing, right?

Jessica: Yeah.

Jorge: This one is called Parkinson’s Law.

Jessica: Mmm, right.

Jorge: The idea that work expands to fill the time available.

Jessica: Exactly, exactly.

Jorge: The thing for me when I timebox — and I guess this is a skill —- but when I timebox things, its a forcing factor that kind of forces me to focus on the things that really matter about the thing, discard the details. So it’s a very important insight.

Jessica: Yeah, I agree. When you know that timer’s running, you’re really going to focus on the things you need to do and you’re going to make sure that you’re minimizing distraction. It’s just a fantastic tool and it helps you really build the habit of focus and using your time effectively. I mean it saved me from work having to work a lot of late nights and weekends. It’s a fantastic technique.

Jorge: One of the things that I always have that I always find challenging in managing my own personal commitments Is whenever I have to deal with other people. And you’ve described a few tools that you use. You talked about your paper notebook, you talked about a Google Doc and Basecamp and my sense from hearing you describe that ecosystem is that you are kind of managing your own tasks there. I’m wondering about other people. For example, Basecamp is a tool meant for project management where you are somehow sharing with others. Are you keeping track of your own tasks there? Are there team-level tasks? How do you keep track of commitments that others have made to you as opposed to you have made to others?

Jessica: Yeah, so another good question. So we use Basecamp for both. I use Basecamp to track my own to-dos and I also use Basecamp to assign to-dos to my colleagues and even my students. And what one of the things I try to do is, I try to use the tools around me in a way that work for my colleagues. So not everybody has the detail-oriented mind that I do, or not everybody works the same way I do. And because we’re small and I’ve been working here for almost 5 years, I have a sense of what works well for my co-workers. So for example, my coworker Thomas, I will assign him a to-do in Basecamp and he’ll get an email notification, but I’ll also send him a notice on Slack. And I’ll say, “Hey Thomas, I signed you this to-do on Basecamp, please review it by this date and see the to-do for details.” And that Slack message really helps him because he… I guess some people are really good at wrangling their inbox, other people really struggle with it. And I think that’s really typical. You know, I’m a detail-oriented person, no everybody is. So I’ve talked with him and he said, “Yeah, you know, if you put it in Basecamp, great. But please also send me a Slack message because that’ll help me keep on top of it.” So we do use our tools for team communication and team task assignment. But we also try to meet people where they’re at as much as we can. So I try not to force my method on other people. Again, just because I’m detail-oriented and I’m really good at wrangling my email inbox doesn’t mean that everybody else is. So I try to adjust my methods to meet people where they’re at, and therefore it just makes everybody on the team more effective.

Jorge: You said that one of the big changes that you made in 2018 was that you started dealing with shorter, more manageable to-do lists. To me that implies that there’s stuff that you’re kind of cutting out, right? So you’re not you’re not taking everything on. Are you keeping track of those in any way? I know that David Allen talks about this someday/ maybe list as a place where you place these things that are not urgent or immediate. Are you implementing anything like that?

Jessica: Yeah. I do have a someday/ maybe list. I have a couple of them., actually. They’re kind of sorted into themes. I love the someday/maybe less because it’s a list where you can track the things that you’re probably going to do some day, but you may not get to and that’s okay. I just I think it’s so psychologically freeing that it’s called a someday/maybe list. And I even I use a similar system for my personal life and I have a lot of someday/ maybe lists and my personal life. Like, you know things that I’d like to do but I may not get to and that’s okay. So the someday/maybe list is a tool I use. I also decided at some point that… Through my research I started reading about how long to-do lists are really demoralizing and I remember reading it in Jason Fried’s book Re-work — if your audience doesn’t read that it’s a popular business book that’s been around for about 10 years — and he had a small section in the book where he talks about long do long to-do list being really demoralizing and he said, “When’s the last time you crossed everything off of a really long to-do list?” He said, “Stop using really long lists because they’re not helpful.” That was a lightbulb moment for me because I realized that while the long list has everything captured that you need to do, it is kind of demoralizing because when are you ever going to.check off everything on a list of 25 items? You know, maybe eventually, but you’re not going to feel very productive or very accomplished in the meantime. So what I do is either the night before or the morning of my work day, I sit down and identify one to five priorities that I need to get done for that day. And I mentioned earlier that I use a Google Doc. So I list those one to five things in my Google Doc and as I go throughout the day and I complete those things I move those Items from the to-do list of the Google Doc to the completed list of the Google Doc. So it’s almost like crossing things off. Instead of crossing things off, I’m moving it from the to-do section to the done section. And by the end of the day most of the time I get through all of my to-dos is sometimes I only get to like four out of five, but at least four out of five is better than four out of 30, you know, so if you have a really long list and you’ve gotten done five things, but there are still 25 things on the list. It’s just it’s not very… You just don’t feel really good. You could say that it’s like a psychological trick, but if it’s a psychological trick that makes me feel accomplished and makes me feel good about my work day, I’m happy to use it.

Jorge: Yeah, I can totally relate to that psychological trick. The system that I use to track my own to-dos is a tool called OmniFocus, which is designed from the ground up to-do GTD, to-do the Getting Things Done methodology. And one of the things that I like about that… First of all, I’ll have to say for the benefit of folks who don’t know, it’s a pretty complex tool that requires a bit of onboarding and it helps if you’ve read David Allen’s book before getting into it. But one of the reasons I like it is that it allows me to filter down my to-dos in the way that you’re describing so that I can focus my list. And by focus, I mean narrow it down to four or five items based on different criteria. So, for example, I can tag my to-dos by context. So some to-dos I can’t do when I’m not in front of a computer.

Jessica: Okay.

Jorge: So why look at things that I can’t do at the moment? So this allows me to filter those down. And it’s exactly the sort of hack that you’re talking about, which is it’s kind of overwhelming to look at a list of 25 things. But if I can whittle it down to five or six, then it becomes much more doable.

Jessica: Yeah. Yeah, what I love about that is that you are finding a combination of tools and techniques that work for you, and a lot of the principles that we’re talking about — that you and I use — overlap, right? Which I think is really awesome. And that’s something that we encouraged our students to do. So when we had students we put a lot of time and energy into soft skills and interpersonal skills and not just the hard technical skills of design. So we focused a lot with them on, for example, how to run a meeting, how to send an email that gets a response, when to have a meeting, when not to have a meeting, how to work through a professional conflict — all sorts of things including how to manage your time and how to identify your priorities. So our philosophy is that we didn’t push our system on our students. We didn’t say, “Okay, in order to manage your time, students, you have to do what I, Jessica, do. And here’s what I do, and start doing this.” Because it’s just not very effective for lots of reasons, but we wanted them to get very good at managing their time. Because managing your time and your priorities is… I see it as a life skill. It’s something that you can use outside of work for your personal items. It’s something that will certainly benefit you at work. So we would take a lot of time. We had a lot of reflections here at Center Centre, which is like a time where we pause and reflect on the work that we do. And we would take a good chunk of reflection time to sit back and talk about what are some tools and techniques that you’ve been using lately to manage your time? And there was an exercise I used to love running with the students where I’d set a timer and I’d give them three minutes to draw, illustrate in some way the technique they’re using, and they could draw whatever they wanted. They could sketch whatever they wanted. They could even just write it down on a whiteboard if they wanted to. So they’d all get in front of a whiteboard and sketch a time-management or priority-management technique that they’ve been using. And then they’d go around and talk about the techniques that they’ve been using, how well they’re working or maybe how well they’re not working yet. And then we’d open it up for discussion and we’d say, “Okay, so based on what other people have shared, what are some ideas that you have for maybe new techniques that you could try. Or maybe people are sharing ideas that you’re already using that you find to be really effective.” And that opened up a lot of great discussions. We talked about all sorts of things like timeboxing, like I talked about earlier. Calendar management: how to use your calendar effectively, how to block off time on your calendar. Even techniques like the Pomodoro Technique which one of my students really enjoyed using. Now, that’s a technique that I found just doesn’t work well for me. Some people love it. If you’re not familiar with it, the Pomodoro Technique means that you work intensely for 20 minutes and you focus on whatever you’re doing for 20 minutes and then you take a five-minute break and then you work intensely for 20 minutes again, and then you take a five-minute break and that’s how you get through your day. One of my students love that technique and it helped him get a lot done. Again, it doesn’t work very well for me. But that’s what I love about our program is that we encourage our students to find their own methods, just like you were telling me about your method, how it’s not the same method that I use and it may not work for me, but it’s very similar and you’ve basically found what works for you. So we encourage that among our students as well.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s great. It’s teaching the first principles and then allowing the students to discover their own way to applying them, right?

Jessica: Exactly, exactly. And you know, we encourage them to experiment with all different types of methods and tools. And you know, some people really loved timeboxing some people got really really stressed out by it and were like, “I can’t handle this! I gotta try something else.” And that’s okay. You know, it’s just all about finding what works for you. It’s basically like there are lots of ways to get to your destination. It’s just, do you want to take the scenic route or do you want to take the highway? It’s just it’s really up to you.

Jorge: On that subject of your students, I wanted to ask what are you working on now? I’d like our audience to know so that they can follow up with you.

Jessica: Sure. So right now we are in between cohorts and we are accepting applications for our next cohort. So if your listeners are interested, you are all welcome to get in touch with me or check us out. You can visit us at centercentre.com. You can also find me… You can just Google me, Jessica Ivins. I publish a lot of user experience related articles on Medium. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about how to design your UX career. That’s been on my mind and obviously, it’s a lot of what I do with students is preparing them for their career. So if you’d like to keep up with me, please feel free to check out my Medium articles. You can also follow me on Twitter. I’m very active on Twitter and every week I review UX resources, whether it’s a book I’m reading or some articles and reading, and I take the best of what I find and I craft quotes and takeaways from those resources and I share them on Twitter. So I do have a decent following on Twitter of folks who… I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, great feedback, from folks that they find what I share to be very valuable and educational for them. So I’m a big nerd about UX, I’m always sharing the things that I find useful and sharing content and creating my own content that I find useful. So, please feel free to follow me whatever way you’d like.

Jorge: Fantastic Jessica. I’m going to make sure to include all of those things in our show notes. Thank you so much for your time. This has been really great.

Jessica: Thank you Jorge for having me, I’m really glad I was able to be a guest.