Thursday, April 29, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #13: Just Get Things Done

Ironically, when I need GTD the most, it's the easiest to fall off the wagon.

David Allen says one of the best things about GTD is that it's easy to get back on the wagon - which is good, because it's also easy to fall off, and even as the originator of this particular wagon, he falls off and gets back on all the time.  I learned this in a great intro-level video of a talk David gave at google.  Here's the video of David Allen at Google.

So, I fell off and got back on, a few times, in recent days.  As I have noticed, I learn the most when I iterate through problems, and this 30 day project has forced me to remain continuous in my resolve to find a way when I am in the gap between iterations of 'on'.  So, I tried something new.  I was working on some content for a client that does Iceland Excursions and I thought that maybe I could do the right thing at a client level and continue to refine my process without the mass of my entire workload to deal with.  It seems to be working.

Here's a tiny version of what it my 'working' screen looks like:

Key observations:
- More projects, fewer actions.  When I scan, I realized that my mind attempts to comprehend the top level items, so 5 items is as distracting as 5 projects - even though 5 projects might mean 25 actions.  Hmmmm.

- Most things actually ARE projects, so this is natural when you do it.

- Sorting by Tag puts all the 'super projects,' or in my case, clients, together.

- Because I can sort subtasks, I can reorder things as I see fit

- I have projects that never end, like doing web promotion for things like Iceland Excursions where tasks flow through, but the project never ends.  Truly, this is like exercise and eating, where I could have discreet projects that DO end, but I like this method.  It allows me to tick things off and feel advancement, add things to the end of the list and keep an eye on overall workload.

- I can put PROJECT-LEVEL waiting, someday/maybe, and reference items in this system.  In the tiny graphic above, I have a project at the top with several waiting items and reference items.  They are neatly sequestered where I need them, not taking up me-level overhead.

I think it's starting to come together.  If you just found this post, please visit the whole series; 30 days of Getting things done and

Saturday, April 24, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #12: Breaking the system

Try as I might, I haven't been able to overcome a problem, I haven't fundamentally stayed in the styem; rather, I've relied on a notepad file that I can open with a few keystrokes and the superfast entry of a few lines of text.

When I have something new, I simply insert it where it goes in the priority list.  There are some clear positives to this method, namely speed and... okay, there's one positive.  Speed.  Tools whose only virtue is speed are pandering to laziness, however, which brings me to the downside.

The downside is that the notepad only contains the things I put in it right at the moment, and when I did a minor desktop icon cleanup the other day, this happened:

I know it's small.  I didn't want to show my desktop icons, but here's the gist of what you see.  I had a desktop with lots of icons.  I drug them around into groups before moving them to where they go, and the group in the lower left shows 5 notepad files - notepad files of the same kind that I'm talking about as my 'emergency' files.  This means that not only do I have a 'current' notepad file which isn't one of these, but there are 5 other files, containing what one could only assume were the most important activities I could be working on at the time - relegated to the status of ignored desktop crap.

Want to know the scary thing?  I actually put it as a line item in my current notepad to review those old notepad files to make sure there's nothing forgotten.  It would be a safe bet to assume there ARE forgotten items that will elicit a loud "D'oh!" from me when I read them.

So - I'm NOT getting the GTD benefits when I do this.

Not that we've looked at the ugly sympton, what's the root cause?

I was using a system proffered by a Toodledo power user in the forum, with folders indicating the GTD elements of inbox, action, waiting, etc. and Stars indicating next actions, applied only to actions.  The original scenario I sought to emulate used custom searches for next actions.  I did this but found that there were too many next actions for me to comprehend consciously, the very problem which GTD seems to avoid,  and occasionally there were clients, etc. for which I had NO next actions for certain time periods.

I added tags and made lots of custom searches but this meant I had to look at all the searches.

Hmmm.. both scenarios still had me using notepad and receiving no benefits.  So, I culled the next actions back from the things I could to next to the things I WOULD do next.  This reduced the number, but at this time, remember I had custom searches for many areas.  When I ditched the custom searches (AFTER having culled the next actions), I found a manageable list.  WHOOOOOOOO!!!!!

So, if I had followed instructions, ostensibly, I would have saved time.  This isn't the case however - it was a matter of needing to try it in earnest to really understand the shortcomings personally to be able to make the plan work.  I had to feel the pain of the personal evolution.  This is indeed something that Toodledo tell you, essentially in the deceptively simple advice to 'try it out and experiment'.  But maybe I'm thick and just had to experience it myself.

So now, the next key was using tags as the sort priority and getting intimate with the collapse function.  This, miraculously, gives me a project list.  Who knew?  Probably lots of people.  But again, I had to do it to really 'get it' and I've found this to be a common thread running through the GTD story of many successful users.

(again) must avoid temptation to stay in system
Project list is attainable when sorting by tags and collapsing.
Collapsing is a great way to keep everything visible but not overwhelming
I'm aware that with all this I haven't actually talked about doing work, and I'm still concerned that this process, though definitely progressing in effectiveness, will be something that I effectively move from the development phase of into the doing phase.  I get secretly worried that I'll work out the perfect system and still just not feel like working, but I really don't think this will be the case.  I enjoy working, I just don't enjoy the fear of forgetting something or being overwhelmed in minutiae.

30 days with GTD and Toodledo

This is what its all base on, BTW, David Allen's Getting Things Done.  I listen to the audio instead of turning pages - it's a great way to make useful time of my commute, and unlike novels, I enjoy listening to these kinds of books more than once - making the purchase worthwhile for me.  Borrow a copy if you can and talk to that person for tips!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #11: Inbox Zero tip

We're getting somewhere now.  I've had a few days of overwhelming workload - things that didn't get done over the past few weeks are screaming for attention and getting it.  Yikes!  I am whittling down my out of system work; meaning, more and more of my task management is actually happening in process.

Inbox Zero tip:
As I am reading my email, I want to erase or file the contents of many of these. Following the general GTD idea that every email is either an action, project, something I wait for, reference or trash... I have two new tricks.

5 minute rule enforcement.  

This concept isn't invented by me, but perhaps my hyper literal approach is.  I am using an online timer called Apimac, an awesome Mac Timer App. So, there is no accidentally stretching 5 minutes into a hour.  I have the timer running with a 5:00 countdown in giant numbers and running on top.  I glance at it periodically and it helps me keep the pace.  As I was clearing my inbox, I was tempted to spend more time on things, but killed them when the timer had a few seconds left.

The key here is that 5 minutes becomes a (wasted) hour when we aren't rationally, explicitly making the choice to spend that hour on that task. When it stretches a minute at a time we aren't seeing the hour, just the tantalizing promise of some fun or knowledge that would justify the jaunt.  Usually doesn't happen.  The timer has power.

Forced accountability.

Before I archive an email that I plan to act on ( I use gmail, so archiving isn't deleting ), I put the item into Toodledo first.  I literally draft the response to the person who sent me the note but don't send it, then I put it in Toodledo, then I send it.

Bill, thanks for the content for your atomic horseradish site.  I can't process it right now but wanted to let you know I have received it and I'll have the new site up in a week or so.

I put the item into Toodledo, using a convention of 'subject line' and (date) for capturing the email subject and date.

I go back and hit send; then archive the email.

This way... the inbox in clear, the task is accounted for, and I couldn't get screwed up if I'm interrupted!

GTD with Toodledo 30 day project

Sunday, April 18, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #10: for Business and/or Personal life?

Yesterday I spend a good deal of time tuning up my GTD and Toodledo systems, with some fairly significant discoveries, primarily:

- Keep my Next Actions realistic - cull it down
- Realize that this 'objective' system has gray areas and accept it
- I can leave "finish to start" triggers for myself inside a task to emulate project management

It's not the system, it's me
As I'm going along, I'm realizing that the learnings that have the most value are usually about my perspective on things and not about the GTD system or Toodledo's functionality.  Both of these are powerful and flexible.  What a newsflash - it's ME that must adapt.  (Just like every area of life.)

What's a project?
Today's lesson so far has been regarding where the boundaries of a task-management system really are.  I think most people consider project management for work only.  And 'work' projects can tend to be larger than home projects... or are they?  Depends.

If you're comparing the construction of a building to a home project like remodeling a room, yeah it's bigger in an absolute sense.  But, bigger in an absolute sense has no bearing on what actually matters to a person - the room remodel might be much more significant to how you feel on a moment to moment basis.

Getting GTD.  No, I mean getting it
.The point of this is that the criteria for what constitutes a project might be pretty darn small.  Yes, this is not a new element to GTD, GTD acknowledges this and promotes the idea fully.   However, getting into GTD requires (at least for me) the quantum jump of understanding of these minor 'A-Ha' moments into major 'Oh, Wow....' moments only through personal experience.  Academically I understood it right away, but I didn't really get it until much later.  Then I got it.  You'll know.

Business or Personal
Here on Sunday morning, my day started with my 3 year old crawling on me at 6:15 telling me about a bug he found and asking for pancakes and a story.  I wasn't really ready for the day yet but my day was jolted into being without my involvement.

The point is that GTD is all about staying in a defined process and this was no defined process.  Even though I could wake up and ostensibly work through whatever Sunday's priorities were, it didn't happen that way.  Between me, my 3 and my 5 year old, there were many different agendas for the morning, including when to eat, when to dress etc.  There was schedule-free, complete randomness for a few hours.  Frankly, it spun me out.

Why?  I have a lot on my plate, and it's sometimes hard to just be.  I hadn't planned this time out and it was hard for me to go from structured, production time (or at least time that intends to be structured and productive) to time that's profoundly random and unstructured.  I got into a tailspin and changed my mind about 10 times regarding the actions of the day.

By the time mid-morning rolled around, I had to get on to some firm obligations and I was not in the right frame of mind to work productively.  I decided to take some time to chill and relax before working. So, where's the GTD connection?  The first part of my day, the few hours I spend with my boys while their mom sleeps in, didn't even have so much as a backdrop of clear intention associated with it.  Not even a decision to accept the randomness or commit to leisure time!  My GTD system, with projects, actions, next actions, someday maybe items and all the related structure gives me a consistent context that my mind can sync to and get rolling.  I'm thinking this is one of the major unarticulated functions of GTD - a context to sync to that becomes familiar, easy and automatic.

Even though I've had as many weekends as weekdays in my life and they make up the lion's share of my uncommitted time, they receive MUCH less forethought.  This is bass-ackwards.  Railing against the knee-jerk reaction to keep my free time unstructured is actually quite smart; it is, in fact, the time that I should have the most structure on because that's the most fun part, the part that I really want to enjoy.

Apply the same GTD principles to my free time as my work time.

By way of example, some of the options for Sunday were to work in the garage (cleaning), do yard work (weeding, planting), play at the park, or go for a bike ride.  With a committee of 3, there was anything but consensus and we waffled.  I waffled.  I'm the grown up so it's my job.  Waffling extolls a high price of the waffler and the waffled.  Suckola energy drain.

I'll have a plan for next weekend.

GTD with Toodledo 30 day project

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #9 (postscript): GTD Cheating

After I posted the last bit, I was about to close up the computer for the day and spend the rest of the time with my family.  As I'm getting ready to unplug the trusty MacBook, I started dragging the open, unsaved instances of notepad from the 2nd monitor... these are various to-dos that I didn't put into TD.


I did this GTD cheating on purpose with full knowledge and guilt of my GTD sin.  However, I told myself that this self-awareness made it ok; it would curtail itself in due time as the related habits are strengthening. I believe this too...

GTD with Toodledo 30 day project

April - GTD and Toodledo #8: Culling Next Actions & Gray areas

I had a massive distraction to look at another organization tool.  I temptation to which I temporarily succumbed.  After a quick review, I found that the seductive surface simplicity was a promise of simplicity but that doesn't appear to fit my needs.  My to do's aren't so very simple to organize.

The real GTD with Toodledo work today was culling my next actions.

Even though there are many things that I can do, say for my client that sells vertical blinds (shout out), there is really only 1 of those that I'm going to actually do next.  Sounds simple, but as any online-tool-embracing-productivity-geek would tell you, it ain't simple.  "Next Action" sounds like a simple principle, but does it mean:

Something that I actually can do next if I choose to, i.e., there are no predecessors or other tasks that must be completed first, no barriers at all?  This is, to my understanding, the proper GTD definition.


Among say 5 pre-emininent projects for a client, and 10 more behind that, there is only ONE next action that I actually will do next.

The difference is the difference between a task I can do next and a task I will do next.  (Alternatively, it could be a task I should do next vs. will, but I'll ignore that complexity and assume I do what I should.)

The difference in play is that one list is much (much) bigger than the other.  The former list is indigestibly long, and the latter is very digestible.  Result?  Culling from the former to the latter produced a huge increase in the peace of mind associated with the classic GTD clean sweep.

New Problem:
So the obvious downside is that culling the Next Actions, identified by stars, effectively loses some of the intelligence associated with the tast data.  Now, when I finish a task for a client, I need to figure out another one.  This either prompts the need for another review or promotes working on the wrong thing somehow.  Like many things in GTD, despite the formulaic, process oriented approach, there are still many subjective gray shades to adapt to, and this is one that I'm now brought to.  So, I did two things:

- Leave a few starred actions, or at least break from the rule of one that I implied earlier
- In some cases I left a trigger in one task to another, like a soft-link successor.  In project management parlance, this is like establishing a finish to start relationship, but without a hard link of any kind.  We'll see how this goes.

GTD with Toodledo 30 day project

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #7: Progress

I might be at a tipping point for using TD with GTD today.  I created a few rules for myself.

My new Waiting Rule:
If I am waiting on something, I must enter the amount of time which I'm willing to wait.  Meaning, if I ask someone a question that I need an answer on, I must define when I'm going to follow up if I don't get an answer so that the item doesn't get lost (also known as dropping the ball).  I don't want to drop the ball.

I realized that if I am waiting without a deadline, then I'm not really waiting, I'm wishing/dreaming/hoping and that's the realm of someday/maybe.

Other practices I picked up:
* Relying on the next time I touch a task to turn it into the next task in a sequence vs. making everything a project.  Partially this is because creating a project and its tasks takes me going to several screens and tying it all together.  To adhere strictly to GTD, this would be the action, but I'm going to say that:

'Review draft text >> Publish/return' will naturally lead me to publish the text or return it to the author instead of making it a two part project. 

* Since I'm using searches to define Next Actions at the client (same as large project) level, I don't have a solid way to track items that are DUE.  I don't want to use an external calendar (2 systems...), so I enabled reminders and tested them.  They work well and I can even set when the reminder comes so I'll get them in a time and place where I can act on them.  Nifty.  We'll see how it pans out.

GTD with Toodledo 30 day project

April - GTD and Toodledo #3: Official start of the 30 day challenge

So I'm going to do this - commit to using Toodledo for my task management - and I have a big initial problem.  I have a bunch of current and semi-current tasks already in Toodledo that I have to contend with, none of the things I was planning to do TODAY are in there and I want to change the WAY I use it to a new simpler, Getting Things Done method.

Hmmm.  These are the same challenges I always have and the very reasons that prompted doing a 30 day challenge in the first place, so I gotta deal with it.

GTD and Toodledo 30 Day Project

April - GTD and Toodledo #6: Dammit's and other frustrations

The last week has included a lot of thinking about Toodledo and GTD, but not so much adherence to the plan.  I think this helped.  The awareness of the goal made me able to discern what was breaking:

- Things were added to my queue superfast; faster than I could open TD and add them properly
- I had so many things starred as next actions that the list was not something I could digest at a glance - when this happened, the tool lost its greatest asset, the ability to reduce mental overhead.  If I really had to read this list over and over - where's the advantage?

Then, as I worked away from the list, I was actually completing things without ticking them off, creating deadwood in the list.

Also, despite the idealistic idea that I could put tasks of any category together, I lost the 'project list' effect from GTD - the ability to quickly get a reminder at the project level.  I was literally forgetting entire projects for weeks because of mental overhead overload.  The Proximo plan for GTD had no differentiation between categories of work - by client/type of work/etc.

So, while I have many different projects, and in some cases I'm committed to work for Client A on Monday (regardless of other projects), I wasn't able to see the Client A subset.


Learning #1:
I need to be able to separate work by clients.  (YMMV, your 'client' might be something else)

> Given the TD framework, I decided to use tags to separate work by clients/sites/etc.

I need a way to also look across clients at type of work (meaning - if I'm a contractor, I need to see all the work at the smith house and all the painting work.)

> I'll create separate searches...

So to put this into effect, I started tagging actions and projects with "client-type of work" tags, where some are just "client" and some are just "type of work".  As I'm doing this, I'm thinking these should not be hyphenated, just separate tags and it would be cooler (by far) if I had multiple tag fields (or, for that matter, multiple folder fields - as these are essentially exclusive tags) so I could sort this way instead of just use searches.

This led me to:


Learning #2:
I was being too liberal with stars.  Using stars at 'next action' items (and as a subset of Actions, identified by a folder) I had too many to comprehend.

While I was still fixing up the tags, I also realized:


Learning #3:
The minute I break out of the system, it's broke and I'll have to do catch up administration to get back in.

This means that breaking the flow or the planned GTD/TD workflow, how ever you set it up, should only be done on purpose in the most extreme cases.  Like if the President of the United States calls and asks for you to help out with something.  If that happens, I'll shove everything off my desk but a clean piece of paper and a pen.  Short of that - I'd better stay in the system.

>So, I'm on maybe my 10th lifetime restart of GTD, but obviously I have faith in the potential or I wouldn't come back to it.  That, or I'm a fool.  I'm not a fool.

Stay tuned.

GTD and Toodledo 30 Day Project

Thursday, April 8, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #5: Initial challenges

So far, the summary of this project is that I've put all my current stuff in, worked off the list briefly and then worked on fires and interruptions.  At the time, it all seemed like very rational decisions to focus on the items at hand, but really, I acknowledged that each time was a tiny little cop out.  I did know better and did it anyway - this isn't so much learning a new tool as it is changing personal habits.

Also noticed:
Some things popped up that weren't caught in the big sweep, or initial capture.  These hit me like grenades of unhandled obligation and caused mini-panic.

So, after skipping 6 days of proper entries, I'm going to hit the reset button again, the only difference between this time and many times before is that I'm logging it now.  This makes it harder to ignore the realities and forces 20-20 hindsight.  That hindsight is currently aware that there was no real, hard outside barrier to making this change, and all the reasons for doing it remain, standing patiently.

Round two...

GTD and Toodledo 30 day project

Friday, April 2, 2010

April - GTD and Toodledo #4: Setting up the GTD system of a fellow TD user

I'm going to model my system after Toodledo User Proximo.  Here's his thread on how:
Getting things done with Toodledo.

My steps:
Since I have existing folders, I simply added all the new folders with a period in front.  When I migrate my stuff over, I'll delete the old ones.  This is a big deal to just delete the old stuff - I'm a little nervous.

Following the guide from above, I:
1. Printed guide
2. Added folders
3. Added contexts (with periods)

Immediately I see tasks that are overdue and I panic a little bit.  (This is the anxiety David Allen talks about in  Getting Things Done when you don't have your system in place.  It's true.)

This is tedious.
I started by just going through tasks and updating everything and the mountain was too high psychologically so I did context first, using search and multi edit.

Now I'm going through a folder at a time and in proper GTD style, I'm applying a modified 2 minute rule, more like the 2 second rule, and deleting old tasks when they're clearly old.

As I move things to Someday/Maybe, I sense relief because I know these are being pushed off my mind but not forgotten...

Wow.  This is tedious & difficult but I am getting it done and it 'feels' like it's going to work.

Ok - They're all in and I am now using a custom search to show only Next Actions.  even this wasn't enough for me to truly narrow things down, so I populated length of time for each task and sorted by easiest!  Trying that now.

This worked. I have spend a few hours working very effectively.  For me, a few hours without interruption is great, and I got things done that had been lingering a while.  The structure is awesome.

GTD and Toodledo 30 day project