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.


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.”

Pomodoro and Omnifocus

Anyone who knows me realizes that I have a significant problem with concentrating on anything. As in medically significant. Yet, I must do things. Every day.

It’s a real hassle.

I’ve found that the Pomodoro Technique, as gimmicky as it is, works for me. In a nutshell, it prompts you to work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. After four work/break sessions, that final break is upped to 15 minutes. Then you start over.

It works because I can concentrate for 25 minutes easily, and enjoy the regular permission to goof off. It’s effective for me and that’s what counts.

There are many Pomodoro apps out there 1, including the beautiful Pomodoro for iPad. Here’s what’s even better. MACOSX Tumbelog has posted an Applescript that will, with a little help from Dropbox, move actions from OmniFocus into the iPad app. In fact, it will pull tasks from OmniFocus, Things, TaskPaper or really any text file.

I love it: schedule next actions in your favorite repository, move them to Pomodoro for iPad and then get to work. The fact that the app is beautiful is icing on the highly productive cake.

  1. Honestly, all you need is a kitchen timer

More on Mac OS X’s Downloads folder

Earlier today I explained why I dislike Mac OS X’s Downloads folder. Several of you wrote to propose solutions. Here are two of the good ones.

Damien at KABIJET recommended the Safari extension Glims which lets you store downloaded files to folders named with the download date. That’s nice, but it means that files are still stored out of sight.

Meanwhile, Connor shared a great suggestion:

“Although you can’t sort [by date downloaded] in the Finder, if you have the Downloads folder as a stack in your Dock, you can sort it by ‘Date Added,’ rather than Date Modified or Date Created.  I’ve got it set up this way, and the newly-downloaded items appear first.”

Very nice, and that’s what I’m going to try. This way I’ll see the downloads folder and be able to search easily when processing. As a bonus, my desktop remains uncluttered.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to reach out to me. Who says I don’t allow comments?

I dislike the Downloads folder

Mac OS X features a Downloads folder in the user’s home directory, which is where Safari deposits downloads by default. I quite dislike it, and change the download destination to the Desktop right away. Here’s why.

Files downloaded to the Downloads folder are often forgotten. Not only does this consume storage space quickly, but those files are stored out of sight. It’s easy to forget about files acquired during the hustle and bustle of work. Worse is forgetting the task associated with that file, should you fail to capture that aspect on paper, in an app, etc.

Searching the folder is another headache. You can’t, unfortunately, sort by date of download. On Windows you can, as the “last modified” file date as displayed by Explorer represents the date that the file was downloaded. A simple sort will help you find that PDF you downloaded last Tuesday, for example. On the Mac, “Last Modified” could mean the last time a change was made to a given file.

It’s my practice to tell Safari to place all downloades on the Desktop (Safari > Preferences > Save downloaded files to). That way I’m forced to look at each file daily, decide what is, determine what action needs to be taken (including throw it away) and take it.

Public library as a communication hub

Yesterday I published an article about how independent workers like myself can get a day’s work done (for free) at the library. It’s a great place to work, and I think libraries would benefit from advertising this fact to freelancers and independents.

In fact, the notion got me thinking about how the public library could benefit the whole community, not just workers without an office, if we start thinking of it as a communication hub.

I attended undergraduate school from 1989 – 1994. Back then, the campus library at Marywood University was called the “Media Center.” The school insisted that everyone from faculty to students call it the Media Center, and not “library.” I thought it was silly.

Today, I know they were ahead of their time.

I entered college almost 20 years ago. I first used a computer for actual productive work in the Media Center. I had a professor who required all communication with this students to be done via email; a novelty in 1991. In fact, the Media Center computers could explore books at other local universities and even place reservations. Remember, this was 18 years ago. I was blown away that experience.

The IS department on the 3rd floor became my home-away-from-home, and by the time I graduated I was prolific with computers and the young Internet. I had great conversations with interesting people and free access to cool technology. All thanks to the Media Center.

The emphasis was on communication. Both one-way (books, newspapers, etc.) and two-way (people, in person and online). Ideas were exchanged enthusiastically. I loved going to the Media Center, as it was on the forefront of technology.

My experience with public libraries has been different.

The Public Library

When I was young, my mother would walk with me to the library regularly. I loved selecting a book to take home, having my own card and so on. I also understood that the library was a serious place, where children had to be quiet and polite. We were to select a book and then walk home.

In jr. high we learned to use a card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System. Again, use of the library was “…a privilege” and not the place for fooling around. In other words, the sense of excitement I experienced at The Media Center was not there.

A Communication Hub

Today, our public libraries can create that excitement among their patrons (especially young people). My local library is taking (tentative) steps in that direction. They’ve hosted educational programs on Flickr, MySpace and Blogger. They’ve got a teen blog and a nice (if not small) room for teens with two brand-new iMacs.  They host teen movie and game nights.

That’s great, but we can think even bigger. The Media Center was a communication hub for the university. In the same way, a public library can become a communication hub for its community.

Video conferences with professionals in Hong Kong could be as commonplace as checking out a copy of The Old Man And The Sea. Community calendars that anyone can subscribe to with their home computers. Live blogging local literary events, book signings or special happenings at the local museum.

When a person wonders, “What’s going on today,” the automatic answer should be “check the library.” Today, people search a newspaper website, tourist magazines, community calendars, etc. The library should be the de-factor answer. Everything from live streaming of town meetings to the inventory of Jean’s weekend garage sale should be available at the library. Just off the top of my head.

Steve Jobs once called the Mac a “digital hub” which brings together a person’s photos, music, stories, etc. I see the library as doing the same for the people it serves — a community’s “Communication Hub.”

Ditch Starbucks and work at the library

Update: An interesting counterpoint here.

James Shelley wrote up his love of the public library:

“I love my local public library. I have full access to all the content here. None of this ‘Limited Preview’ stuff or accessible-for-members-only notices…The highly educated, the people who will eat supper at a soup kitchen, the recent immigrant — and everyone else, all of us — are here. And everyone seems to feel at home.”

I share his enthusiasm and consider the library a fantastic place to get work done. With that in mind, here’s a reprint of an article I wrote a few years ago on another blog: Forget Starbucks and work at the library.

Many web workers and freelancers like to get out of the house once in a while and set up shop at Starbucks, Borders or the local coffee shop. I did this, too, until I realized that there’s a much better – and cheaper – option just down the road. My library. Here’s why I love it so.

No distractions

Starbucks is erupting with distractions. The first is the music. I like to listen to music when I work, but it’s got to be instrumental. If a song has lyrics, I’ll pay attention to them. Don’t get me wrong, the music at these places is great, but not while I’m concentrating. On the other hand, the library is as quiet as…well, a library.

There’s also several conversations within earshot, other people clacking away on their keyboards…one time a woman asked me to troubleshoot her connectivity issues. Sorry, lady, but I’m trying to work here.


The library is free. Places like Starbucks and Borders charge for Wi-Fi access, not to mention the drinks and food. I don’t know about you, but I can’t sit in a coffee shop without ordering something. And then something else. And something else. If you’re doing life-sustaining work as you sit there, you’re eating and drinking some of your own profits.

Room to spread out

The coffee houses in my neighborhood have these tiny, round tables that seem barely larger than my MacBook Pro. Forget trying to add a mouse, a drink and some papers. The library offers huge, flat tables that beg, “Come, dump out all your stuff!”

Phone calls

I know what you’re going to say. “But I can make phone calls in the coffee shop. Not the library.” It’s true that cell phones are not allowed in most libraries. I’ve got to stand in the entrance way to use mine. However, it has been my experience that the coffee shop is so noisy, I end up going outside to take a call. So there’s really no difference.

I know that it’s the hip thing to be seen writing in public, but the library is the best place to do it. Give it a try.

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.