Actionable actions

I’ve recently performed an audit of my next actions list and found that several entries weren’t actionable. For example, “interview questions” and “FaceTime poll” are poor action steps.

Why? No verbs. In fact, “interview questions” and “FaceTime poll” are both projects 1, not actions. Neither describes the observable action that must be performed. Here are some better alternatives:

  • Write answers to interview questions
  • Think of FaceTime poll options
  • Neglect children while writing blog post

There’s a slight but important difference between writing down what must be done and writing down what to do. In my experience, one is a noun (interview questions) and the other is a verb (write).

  1. A project defined as anything that takes more than 1 action before it can be marked as “done.”

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.

Ubiquitous capture tool

Brett Kelly:

“Why, then, do I keep a pen and paper on me at all times and, when seated, open in front of me, ready for input? Because that’s how I have ideas.”

I completely agree. In fact, let me tell you about about my childhood.

There is a small, shoebox-shaped house in Scranton, Pennsylvania with faded vinyl siding and an under-performing rose bush in the front yard. Twenty years ago, it was occupied by my typical American family: middle class, happy enough, God-fearing and terribly disorganized.

Consider the kitchen. Open the cabinet to the right of the refrigerator, just above the pink laminate counter top, and you would have found my mother’s recipes. Unlike your mom’s collection, Carol’s never saw the inside of a cookbook. Instead, they hung from the back of the door with yellowing strips of tape.

A Hellman’s mayonnaise label with a potato salad recipe dangled next to my grandmother’s hand-written instructions for stuffed squid. There were pages ripped from Family Circle magazine, supermarket hand-outs, 3×5 index cards, torn business envelopes with their postmarked stamps intact … anything flat enough to write on and light enough to stick to a pine cupboard door  was called into service.

Most bore stains acquired in the line of duty. A sheet of yellow legal paper held a recipe for lemon squares as well as greasy butter stains and a smudge of hardened baking flour about the size and shape of a postage stamp. “David, hand me that sheet of paper,” my mother would say, thrusting her egg-y fingers at me. Another Christmas, another batch of lemon squares and another crop of stains. Buy the time I was in high school, the recipe was nearly illegible.

While the “fly strip method” of recipe storage keeps everything accessible, it’s a poor filing system. Linguine with anchovy paste rubbed up against blueberry cheesecake, which is something that should never happen, not even in print.

Like most messes, my mother’s organizational style had the tendency to spread, like an invading army, or syphilis. The inside of my dad’s garage looked like a yard sale had vomited, and the state of the basement was something I won’t even mention.

What all this means is that I’ve got chaos in my blood. It didn’t become problematic until I started working for myself. Those painful moments of realization — “Oh, I really need to …” — were becoming more common, and always at the least opportune 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 in place, your brain stops pestering you. When you’ve got your pending tasks sorted by context, you relax. What’s more, you get stuff done (I think that’s where he got the name).

One of the crucial aspects of a GTD system is the ubiquitous capture tool. Basically, Dave wants you to “capture” any thought, task, or “open loop” as he calls them for later processing — which is a fancy way of saying “write shit down.” It’s simple, low tech and very effective.


It’s also the part of GTD that’s the most fun and the biggest pain. At least for a geek like me. One of the Seven Great Truths of Geekhood is that we’re always willing to try a new system if we think it’s better than what we’re currently using. Dave leaves his readers’ choice of ubiquitous capture tool completely up to them, and that’s where 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, as described by the great Merlin Mann (by the way, Merlin has the best hair on the Internet. He knows it, too).

The hPDA, for the uninitiated, is a bunch of 3×5 index cards held together with an office clip. That’s it. I brought mine to the next level with some color coding and the D*I*Y Planner templates. My hPDA was tidy, cheap, disposable, recyclable and simple. Occam’s Razor in  my pocket. With a tiny, write-anywhereFisher Bullet Space Pen, my hPDA (which I nicknamed “Shirely,” just to give it a little more personality) was as awesome as a dozen index cards could be.

Mole Skinned

Then it happened. I was tempted by the legendary notebook of Hemingway and Picasso. My head swelled with my action lists whenever I produced my slick notebook and slid back the elastic binding strap, all the while scanning the room for anyone else in “the know.” Fellow notebook aficionados would nod approvingly at the guy writing important things in the same notebook used by one of the world’s most 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 every third page is written in green ink.”

The other hassle was that I couldn’t easily discard spent pages. When an index card ran out of white space, I tossed it. No clutter, no mess. The Moleskine didn’t allow for that.

Field Notes

Next, I bought a 3-pack of Field Notes brand notebooks. For me, these trump the Moleskines. While the Moleskine gives off a certain air, the Field Notes notebook is a utilitarian tool ready for duty. It says, “Let’s work,” not “Sketch a sunset.” Plus, it’s thinner and less bulky in the pocket.

Still, I was still subject to the same cumbersome system of analog tagging and linking. Ultimately, I’ve gone back to my original system — a dozen index cards in my pocket.

One of the great 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.

Thanks to Brett for prompting this post.