Getting Things Done: The practicalities

life

Before I start, if you don't know what Getting Things Done is, you might like to read my previous entry.

I was planning to describe how I actually use the GTD system, but before I had before I had put fingers to keyboard, I saw this entry on Merlin Mann's 43 Folders blog, in which he invited readers to respond with their GTD methods. So, here's how I do it.

First, I needed some way to collect my ideas. My Treo 600 was my first thought, but my instinct was to go for a much more basic and rapid collection system: a small notebook and pen. Sure, it's disappointingly low tech for me, but the reasons you would normally use an electronic system (persistent storage, easy searching and so on) don't really apply in this case. The notes you collect in your inbox are intended to be very ephemeral. You just need to download everything as quickly as possible and keep it somewhere to sort out a few hours later. I still find it quicker and more convenient to scribble a quick note with a pen on paper (the Treo's thumb-board is good, but not that good), so I've taken to carrying a notebook and pen everywhere. The trick is to write the idea or task down the nanosecond that it pops into your brain, or there's a danger it will disappear for ever, or else lurk in the shadows and pester you quietly.

First thing every morning, I open my notebook and input any new items into my digital system. This is where the time required for the transcription process from analogue to digital is actually quite helpful; anything that would take longer to type than to actually do automatically gets done immediately. The digital system I use is a very clever template for Tinderbox produced by Ryan Holcomb. I did consider using Life Balance (which I also own), as it has a very similar philosophy to GTD, and there's a lively discussion about how to use GTD within Life Balance on the forums (thanks to Saltation for the link).

In the end though, I decided that the Tinderbox system would be more flexible, and would also enable me to store the various notes I make during the day in the same place, as well as archiving them in an accessible form later. Ryan's template is pretty well documented, so I won't go into the details — if you have Tinderbox, downloading the template and playing with it is the best way to get started. It does, however, make very good use of two of Tinderbox's most useful features: aliases and agents.

I don't know why more outlining applications don't use aliases or clones. Many kinds of hierarchical lists have items that really belong in more than one place in the hierarchy. Of course, you can copy and item and put the copy somewhere else, but if you alter the original, you also have to manually alter the copy. A good example would be in a GTD system where you might have an item in a specific project list, but you also want to place it in an '@Email' list.

This brings me on to agents. In Tinderbox, you can create a container called an agent, which automatically and dynamically collects together items which match the criteria you set and creates aliases to those items. If you modify the original, the alias gets automatically updated. The GTD template uses a lot of agents which collect together items with — say — the prototype 'Email', or with a due date of today. So your project items stay where they belong, but you also get a reminder of the item in your '@Email' list. Agents and containers can also carry out actions to modify an item. Overdue items get collected in an Overdue agent, and are coloured red to make them stand out. If I check the 'Completed' box, or drag an item to the Completed folder, the colour is set to yellow and the item is collected in a Completed items agent. I've also added another attribute of 'CompletionDate', which is set automatically to the time and date when the Completion box was checked. This is handy if you need to remind yourself (or someone else) when you did something.

I've modified a few aspects of the original GTD template:

  • I've simplified it to just one category of items and actions, rather than separating Professional and Personal. Everything you do is important, and it shouldn't make any difference whether you get financially remunerated for it or not. Besides, how do you decide whether buying a birthday card for your brother should take precedence over reading a research article? I just look down the list and decide what is appropriate for where I am and what time it is. If you have a stricter work environment, and more people looking over your shoulder, this separation might matter more. I'm lucky that nobody knows or cares that I have "Buy new jeans; two iron-on repair patches on one pair is too many" on my list. Seriously.
  • I don't use the priority setting. I'm hopeless at deciding what is more important, let alone ranking things numerically by priority. For me, it just adds another layer of decisions that I have to make. I just do the next thing that's appropriate to where I am, how much time I have and how I feel.
  • When I've finished an item, but have added some notes to it which might be useful for reference later, I mark it as Reference. My plan is to export completed items and Reference items to HTML, so that I can periodically prune the file to keep it lean and mean, but also maintain a searchable, accessible archive of what I've done. After all, what's the point of being super-organised if you don't get to gloat over the length of your completed items list?
  • I've set my windows up a little differently to the way that Ryan suggests. I have an outline view window on my Inbox folder so that I can quickly add things, a similar window showing the Completed items folder so that I can easily drag done items in there, an outline of all of the agents to get a quick view of what needs to be done next, and finally an overview 'Treemap' view of the entire file. This shows nested boxes of items, and lets you easily zoom in and out of different levels so that you can concentrate on different areas, or just get a quick idea of how much needs to be done in different categories. Of course, Exposé is very helpful to switch between these windows quickly.

I think that's about it. Like Merlin, I don't have an @Computer item, as that encompasses most of my life. My contexts are Agenda (meetings or things I need to ask someone face to face — rigid appointments go in iCal), Office, Library, Lab, Calls, Email, Errand, Evening and Weekend. I also have each self-contained project separated, with nested action items inside, including links to any reference files that go with the project.

I think that one way in which computer oriented geeks (or nerds, if you must) differ from 'suits' is that a lot more of the things we have to deal with are in a digital format. These days, hardly any paper passes over my desk, and even most of the academic articles I read are downloaded as PDFs. This is great in many ways, but it doesn't free you from storing and keeping track of things. Links to files can help (because the groupings of files you make while working on a project may not be the most logical groupings after the project is over), and frequent backups and strict filing habits are important. Email poses another challenge; David Allen talks in his book about the fact that email is best dealt with in its own environment, but that means that you have to monitor two (or 3 with your calendar) places to make sure that nothing falls through the net. Still, parallel processing is what we geeks excel at, right?

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