Floating on top of it all is the ubiquitous capture tool

This post is a follow-up to my recent decision to accept my messy nature. You should read that post first, because it’s really good.

I’ve always been a stacker, but it didn’t become especially problematic until I started working for myself. Those heart-freezing moments of realization — “Oh, shit I was supposed to…” — were becoming more common, and always at inopportune times. Remembering to tell the cable company that I’ve been issued a new debit card is useless at 60 m.p.h. on Route 3.

Thankfully, I found David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or “GTD”) and it changed my life. When you’ve got a trusted system [1. Monumentally important. Keep reading.] in place, your brain stops pestering you. Today I (try to) sort tasks by context and get stuff done (more or less).

A crucial aspect of  GTD is the ubiquitous capture tool (UCT). It’s used to “capture” any thought, task, etc. for later processing — which is a fancy way of saying “write shit down.” It’s simple, low tech and effective.

Provided that you use the UCT. Or can find it. Or remember to look at it. Or don’t lose it. Here’s how I keep the damn thing where I need it when I need it. First, some history.


Picking a UCT is a lot of fun and a huge pain. It’s completely up to you, the GTD practitioner, and that’s how I got into trouble.

Initially, I went out and bought a snazzy Palm Tungsten E2. With a calendar, contacts app, notepad and software synchronization, I figured it would be the ultimate. A month later, I realized I was using it to store lists. A $200 PDA to hold lists. I sold it and created a Hipster PDA, or hPDA, which is a fancy way of saying “Clip  3×5 index cards together.”

It was tidy, cheap, disposable, recyclable and simple. Occam’s Razor in my pocket. When paired with a Fisher Space Pen, my hPDA was as awesome as a dozen index cards could be.

But I lost them constantly. The problem was that I could take it apart. I’d remove a given project’s card, or the “@reference” card, put it down it’d be gone. I needed non-removalbe pages.

Mole Skinned

I succumbed to the lure of the legendary notebook of Hemingway and Picasso. I’d pull that puppy from my pocket, slide back the elastic strap and scan the room for anyone else in “the know.” Fellow notebook aficionados would nod approvingly at the guy writing important things in the same notebook once used by famous alcoholics and a psychotic, self-injurious painter.

I adopted an elaborate system of tags, numbering, incantations and logic puzzles to “hack” my Moleskine for GTD. When the voice inside my head told me, “This is kind of annoying,” I rebuked it. “Oh hush,” I’d say, “and help me remember why all of the odd pages are written in green ink.”

What the hell was I thinking? I can’t remember to buy milk unless I’ve safety-pinned a note to my shirt like a pre-schooler. How was I to adopt such an elaborate system?

More so, this “system” was nothing more that productivity-killing, mindless work fidgets. The only context I omitted was @notgettingshitdone. And I spent a lot of time there.

Field Notes

Next, I bought a 3-pack of Field Notes brand notebooks, which I like. Where the Moleskine gives off a certain air, the Field Notes notebook is a blue-collar tool ready for duty. It says, “Let’s work,” not “Sketch that sunset.” Plus, it’s thinner and less bulky in the pocket.

Still, I kept losing them. And then buying more. And then finding the originals. Or I’d start one, lose it, then start a new one, and then find the original. Now, I’ve got this embarrassing testament to my tendency to lose notebooks.

My notebooks. Plus a keyboard. And some Disney pins. And a Patriots hat.

Finally I decided to find a home for my notebook. I got a small wooden box and put in on our “telephone table,” which is the table that holds our phone. [2. Smart.] With it came a new rule: the notebook and pen are only allowed to be in one of two places. First, my pocket. Second, the box. If the notebook ever — and I mean ever — leaves my hand, it must go into one of those two places. Must. I forgot for the first few days, and then employed my wife to nag the shit out of me about it. Now I’ve got it. In fact, the sight of the notebook in my hand has become the prompt, or Sd, to put it in its place. I’m much more relaxed about knowing that I’ll capture what needs capturing.

Here’s the entire point of this post. Your choice of UCT doesn’t matter. At all. Trust does. If a granite tablet and a chisel works for you, use it. Fancy notebook, iPhone, whatever. Just ensure that you know beyond a doubt that it will be available if and when you need it, 100% of the time. [3. 99.9% won’t cut it.] Floating on top of my mess is a ubiquitous capture tool. Thanks to some hard core behavior modification, I always know where it is.

One of the tennants of GTD is “Capture-Process-Organize-Do.” The other is “To each his (or her) own.” David’s bare-bones system is flexible enough to accomdate any work style or process. This is what works for me. Here’s hoping you found it useful.

OmniFocus and the Printable CEO

After Shawn Blanc shared my rig, I received several questions about how I use OmniFocus and David Seah’s Printable CEO forms together. To answer those questions, I’ve written this post.

Before I begin

Please note: I present this as a description of how I work. I’m not suggesting that you should adopt my methods, or that my system is superior to any other. I’ve been using the routine I’ll describe here for a long time. It works beautifully and has allowed me to stop “fiddling” with productivity. With that said, here’s how I work.

GTD modified

My daily routine is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I say “based on” because I don’t follow his instructions strictly. I do break projects into observable tasks, which I sort by context. I also conduct a weekly review, which I believe is crucial.

However, I stray when determining what to do. David suggests that you notice your available resources, time and context when picking a task to complete. I identify the 3 tasks that I must complete within 24 hours. These are the day’s most important tasks (MITs), and are pulled from OmniFocus.

I also identify 3 or 4 “batch tasks.” These could be completed before the end of the day, but the world won’t end if they aren’t. I took the MIT/batch task idea from Leo Babauta’s book “The Power Of Less.” Check it out if you haven’t.

Once I’ve identified my MITs and batch tasks, I grab an Emergent Task Planner (ETP) and get to work.

Setting up an ETP

The goal of the ETP (as I use it) is threefold: To monitor how much time I spend on certain tasks, to act as an inbox and to provide scratch/support information.

The ETP provides room for nine major tasks. I put my MITs in the first three and batch tasks underneath. Next to each is a series of “bubbles.” Each one represents 15 minutes. The idea is to fill them in and see how long it took to complete each task. Before I begin, I draw a little hash mark to represent my best guess (for example, if I think a task will take one hour, I’ll put a hash above the fourth bubble).

On the far right are more bubbles, text fields and boxes. There’s a box next to every fourth bubble, marking the hours. There are 14 boxes in total. I write “7:00 AM” in the first one and continue down to 8:00 PM. The fields next to the bubbles are labeled with the active task and the bubbles are filled in as time passes.

This way I can measure a task’s duration and watch as a scheduled appointment (“Take daughter to cheerleading practice” or “Call Janie re: class”) approaches. The bottom half of the form is meant for additional, minor tasks, but that’s not how I use it. At the top of that area I write “Inbox.” Halfway down, I write “Support.” The inbox should be self-explanatory. As new “stuff” arrives (by my definition, “stuff” is anything that isn’t where it should be), it’s written down for later processing.

Support is where I store information related to tasks-in-progress. For example:

  • Research
  • Image dimensions
  • An app’s system requirements

I like having a work area like this for jotting down bits of data for quick reference, working out problems, etc. At the end of the day, several things happen.

  • I can see how many tasks I completed
  • I can see how long each task took to complete, compared to my estimate
  • A total number of hours worked is tallied
  • Anything in the inbox is processed and added to OmniFocus as is appropriate

I know what you’re thinking

Why use a piece of paper when you’ve purchased powerful, expensive software?

I need both. Some information, like images, can’t be stored on paper. Also, OmniFocus is where I keep all aspects of a given project together, like files, research, email correspondence and so on. There’s no denying that OmniFocus is tremendously powerful. The over-the-air sync alone is a huge selling point. Check it out if you haven’t.

Then there’s this: I just like writing on paper. It’s efficient and fun. I love David’s beautiful, useful forms. Using both lets me work with a sense of relaxed control that is unattainable otherwise.

Mail rules [updated]

Google’s announcement of the new Priority Inbox feature has got people talking about the procedures they use to filter, sort and otherwise act upon their incoming email. I get several hundred email messages per day across several accounts, gigs and points of reference.

I don’t use a single rule. I have one inbox. I treat them all the same way.

When an email message arrives, I ask myself the following:

  1. What is it? Meaning, is it actionable, reference material or junk?
  2. If it’s actionable, I then consider: Can it be completed in 2 minutes or less? If so, I do it RIGHT THEN. If no, it’s either A.) assigned to an open project, a new project or a single-action task as is appropriate; B.) assigned to a context like “@computer”;  C.) delegated to the appropriate person. If delegated, I make a note of the task, person and date of delegation on a @waiting list for later follow-up. In all cases, it’s processed appropriately to Omnifocus and then deleted. [2. Every email message is deleted after it’s been processed. Your email client is not a filing cabinet. I’ve stood patiently by people’s desks while they scroll through hundreds of messages to find a single bit of information far too often. If it was appropriately stored and tagged in a reference system, life would be much easier.]
  3. If it’s not actionable, it’s either reference material (stored in Simplenote and then deleted), junk (deleted) or a date-specific item that either will happen in the future (added to calendar and then deleted) or could happen in the future (added to Someday/Maybe list and then deleted).

This process is basically David Allen’s GTD methodology applied to email, and takes about an hour per day. Plus, it’s super simple. No rules. No color coding. No custom inboxes. No scripting. Just observe, decide and act. That’s it.


Update: Brief follow-up and clarification.