All posts tagged gtd

A Better Mess and Unclutterer

I was lucky enough to have a guest post published at A Better Mess today. I wrote about GTD for the easily distracted:

 “To say that I’m easily distracted is like saying the sun is kind of warm. Maintaining focus on what I consider mundane tasks (I’ll bet my definition is much broader than yours) is a Herculean effort. Fortunately, I’ve learned several strategies for getting things done when getting things done is the last thing I want to do.”

Also, my latest Unclutterer.com post is up, listing software gift ideas to keep you organized and productive.

A big smelly mess of commitments and responsibilities

David Sparks:

“My life is a big smelly mess of commitments and responsibilities that, if not beat down with my GTD club frequently and with great malice, would rise up and smother any remotely creative project out of my life.”

Hear, hear. David (Sparks) was responding to David ‘s (Lee) post expressing frustration with GTD. I’m with Mr. Sparks. Everything I need to do, from edit a chapter to schedule an oil change goes into the same GTD bucket. As long as I sort by context, I’m good.

Three by five

Above is the most important thing on my desk. A pile of 3×5 index cards from Staples.

I’ve paid tons of dough for tremendous productivity apps. I know how to get them to do the thing and import the whozit and color the doohickey red when the thingamabob meets my Fidget Criteria.

It’s really awesome and satisfies my need to fill every idle moment with some sort of work spasm. But that’s not what I want to do.

I want to write on paper with a pen.

On my desk is this stack of 3×5 index cards. I’ve also got several pencils in a plastic cup festooned with construction paper, buttons, feathers and an irresponsible amount of Elmer’s glue around the words, “I’m as lucky as can be, for the world’s best dad belongs to me.”

That kid cried a lot when I took it from her on the bus.

When “stuff” comes in, I grab a card, write down the briefest synopsis, toss it into a plastic inbox and resume what I was doing. Everything goes onto an index card, like requests from my wife, thoughts that pop into my head, ideas to try out and so on. At the end of the day, I take one card at a time out of the box, decide what its message is 1, act accordingly and then throw it away.

The interruption is minor and the processing is simple (one card and, subsequently, one thought at a time), orderly and effective. From there, I can place actions into the fancy software 2, but it starts with an index card. Give it a try.

  1. Actionable, reference material or trash.
  2. But while we’re being honest, they usually end up on one of David Seah’s Printable CEO forms, which I cannot and will not work without. That’s a future post.

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 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.

hPDA

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 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 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.

  1. Monumentally important. Keep reading.
  2. Smart.
  3. 99.9% won’t cut it.

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.”

The Someday/Maybe list is a guilt factory (and how to change that)

One of the features of GTD is the Someday/Maybe List. According to David Allen (I’m paraphrasing), you ought to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag you. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”

My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, poised to emphasize my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not.

It’s my personal waiting room.

I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way Tokyo noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them.

The Culling

When I saw Merlin at Macworld Expo 1, he suggested taking a good, hard look at the items on that list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch it. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes.

While understandable, culling the unlikely has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Tokyo” is a huge project. Fortunately, there’s hope in breaking it down.

Baby Steps

Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.

Years ago I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.

ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement 2 to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.

In GTD, “visit Tokyo” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good and breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food.” In doing so, two things happen.

First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project in the first place. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggests. An increase in interest suggests motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.

The Research List

What’s really happening here is research. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”

Now get moving and do something!

  1. Here’s a picture of me fawning like a pubescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert. Restraint and decorum are my super powers. Photo by Docrock.
  2. Pet peeve: Negative reinforcement is NOT punishment. For a full explanation of the difference, look here.

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. 1
  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.

  1. 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.

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.

hPDA

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.

TeuxDeux

Super simple. Super useful. Super beautiful. For desktop and iOS. I love it.