David Seah’s Fast Book Outliner

I’ve been a David Seah disciple for years now. Specifically, I adore his Printable CEO forms. Here’s a part of the evidence:

On Twitter:

In short, they’re tremendously useful. That’s why I was elated to see that he’s released a new form: the Fast Book Outliner. Dave created the form to keep track of notes to be used for review or his own education (reading an instructional book, for example):

“For me, the biggest pain-in-the-butt about the note-taking process is marking the passages so I can find them again. Highlighting is only good if you use a lot of bookmarks, and you still need to re-transcribe. It’s also difficult to see the STRUCTURE of your notes unless you re-transcribe, and if you’re writing a book review you need to do that at some point. If you’re trying to learn difficult material, you want to access both the structure of your notes AND revisit the original pages for re-reading.

So far, the best part about this approach is the feeling that I can now read books rather superficially at any given time, opening it up in the middle or just skipping around, and if something catches my eye I can add to the existing book outline instead of starting from scratch. My own “Cliff Notes” creator! :) If I am reading with more focus, I am also rewarded by being able to quickly annotate WHERE a particularly-interesting line of prose can be found again.”

That’s fantastic, but I’ll be using them to outline a book I’m writing. The Fast Book Outliner satisfies both my paper fetish and my efficiency-draining tendency to write out ideas in longhand [1. I blame the nuns.]. The form is new, as Dave admits, and I suspect he’ll be tweaking it soon.

I’ll put it to a full, real-world test over the next few weeks. As I work on my next book, I’ll use the Fast Book Outliner to the fullest extent possible, and let you know how it goes along the way. Expect scribbled updates. I’m optimistic.

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.