GTD Six Weeks Later

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I've mentioned a couple of times my plan to implement the time management techniques David Allen describes in his book, Getting Things Done, which I first learned about through Scott Powell's blog, Powell History Recommends. I got started on that in the beginning of July. So, how goes it? I would have to say pretty well, to the extent that I have implemented the techniques.

The Benefits so Far

Allen's initial "mind sweep", the phase in which he recommends going through your entire life, hunting for "open loops" (things that need to get done, of whatever complexity or time requirement), he recommends doing during a span of two or more uninterrupted days. As I have learned the hard way -- because I simply have not had two consecutive free days in Houston to do this -- he makes this recommendation for some very good reasons.

The idea is to go through whatever files you have, noting each action item on its own sheet of paper, and placing it in an "In Box". You will then walk through your home and work place, looking for things that need to get done and likewise recording them. Both of these things will doubtless trigger memories of still other things (on top of anything you might have spontaneously recalled), as well as suggest new projects. You record these, too. You find a piece of mail you forgot about? To the In Box. You get the idea.

I'd summarize the above process as briefly looking at your entire life as an In Box. You then process the whole bloody thing, handling everything you can that can be accomplished quickly, throwing out things that really don't matter, filing reference material, recording things with definite dates or deadlines in a calendar, and placing the other items on various lists to be reviewed weekly in the case of projects and at longer intervals in the case of things that might be nice to do.

Part of the point of doing it all at once is to gain the mental satisfaction of "clearing the decks" as Allen puts it -- of seeing what having a high level of control over your whole life feels like so you start out strong and remain motivated to stay on top of the game. A corollary to this is, plainly, that you have the system in place.

In my case, I did the home phase just before setting off to Telluride, my "writing phase" at Telluride since that's all on the computer anyway, and my work phase on a very long Friday evening after my return. This took care of everything except for email, which I'll get to momentarily.

I have always been good about keeping my eye on the big picture, but very absent-minded with a tendency to get annoyed easily with small things or things I do not really feel like doing because they seemed like they'd take me away from my work. If I am aware I need to get something done, I get it done, and if I have lead time, I almost always come up with some clever way to incorporate it into what I want to do anyway, and so often, to barely notice it. This system allows me to use this cleverness to my advantage on a consistent basis!

This area of my life -- the little and annoying things -- has been the place with the most noticeable improvement so far. For example, I bought a labeler and got a rebate coupon with it. Pre-GTD, I probably would have laid all that rebate junk in my overflowing In Box at home, and either sent it off the very next day -- or forgotten about it until months later when I had to look for something else entirely. ("All that hassle over twenty dollars I probably won't get anyway?") Instead, I got around to it the next week and received ten dollars of the rebate last week, not to mention avoiding its contribution to clutter at home and the eventual annoyance at myself with finding it when it was too late to send off.

After having gotten by, somehow, for almost forty years without having ever learned what a "tickler file" is, I now use one religiously. If I hear about an interesting lecture I may or may not be able to attend in the next month, I don't simply make a mental note, forget about it, and then, if I'm lucky, schlep away to see it when I notice my colleagues leaving for it. Now, I file the flyer or announcement printout (and any directions) in the tickler file folder for some time a few days before the event. By that time, I can make an informed decision about whether to toss the announcement or to add the lecture to my calendar.

Today, a friend made a couple of interesting movie recommendations over email. To my "to do" list went a note to reserve the movies on Netflix and -- rather than forgetting about them over the course of a busy day and not seeing them any time soon, they'll be in the mail and heading my way tomorrow.

My wife, who is away and needs me to conduct some of her business while she is gone, has noticed a huge improvement on my part. She asks me once to do something and it gets done. Strangely enough, I have noticed fewer peck marks on my forehead in the mornings lately, too. (Hen-pecking can and does occur long-distance!) Yes, this system has even improved marital bliss in the Van Horn household!

In short, "small" things have a far higher probability of getting done now, and "big" things I'm not wild about get done with a lot less hassle.

If there is a drawback, it is this: The habit of writing things down when you think of them makes you prone to forget them even more easily if you don't actually write them down for some reason! But that just means that discipline is a very important aspect of this system.

The Last "Blobs of Undoability"

As I mentioned earlier, email remains the biggest final frontier, along with a couple of filing decisions I need to make. The email first.

I maintain several email accounts as myself and as "Gus Van Horn". My ultimate goal is to consolidate to one master and one backup account for each. It may sound strange, but the "Gus Van Horn" accounts are more important since I conduct so little of my day-to-day real work through email. My plan is clear: Consolidate the least important "real me" accounts, make sure things run smoothly, and then complete the consolidation. Afterwards, I can consolidate the writing-related accounts, of which there are fewer, and which are already well-organized.

The main holdup has been the account which is in the worst shape, and the blame lies squarely with Microsoft. My employer uses Outlook and does not permit automatic forwarding of email. My (very bureaucratic) employer also sends somewhere between five and fifteen "news" type emails a day. Also, as I am almost never logged on to Windows, I have to use Outlook's woefully inadequate web interface to manage that account. In other words, I have hundreds of emails to sort and would be forced by the lousy interface to click each individual message I want to delete.

My deus ex machina should arrive within a week to save my wrists and my sanity as I finally end this annoying hold-up: After I install some new hardware, I will run Windows (for a different purpose altogether) on my work PC over VMWare, enabling me to "dump" Outlook onto that PC. In one fell swoop, my Outlook Inbox will be empty and I will have my old email in a form that I can ship off to a real computer that has tools that don't get in the way of managing simple email files. (The interface of my free myway email account isn't that hot, and it runs circles around Outlook's web interface. Is "check all" too much to ask for?)

My financial files at home were well-organized before GTD and I have not changed them. This system mostly works for me, so I'll revisit whether to change it after a few months of using the GTD filing system for other things.

One thing that I know the GTD method cannot file is scientific papers. I have never been happy with the way I have filed these and would love to hear from any academics out there who think they have a satisfactory way of tracking references. Since I'm beginning a new project anyway, I've started experimenting with Connotea. It seems promising, but I need to develop more familiarity with it before I will be sure.

My "Low-Tech" Implementation of GTD

I may have mentioned that I have wanted to hold off on making any major expenditures on hardware or software until I have used this system for a time and determined whether I really need, say, a PDA, or some kind of organizing software and, if so, what kinds. I also realized that there's no escaping paper anyway.

So I carry around a small cloth file folder with "In", "Out", "Today", "File", "Review", and "Shred" sections. A small legal pad, a printout of my week's calendar -- which I maintain with the nifty when utility -- and a printout of my project lists resides in "Today". Each week, I go through the legal pad, the calendar, and the lists, and change them accordingly as I tie up any loose ends I might have missed. This has worked surprisingly well for me so far.

Save for the email, I guess I'd be a "green belt" by now.

-- CAV


Mark Wickens said...

For your scientific papers, you may want to consider DEVONthink. I don't have experience using it for that purpose, but this seems to be its main focus.

Gus Van Horn said...

Although I use Linux rather than Mac (or Windows), I appreciate your taking the time to stop by here to make that recommendation, Mark.

Others who stop by here and use Macs should give this one a close look.

Anonymous said...

I was hooked when he introduced his next action concept, a very neat way to quit fooln' around on projects and get er done. It makes most things fairly painless. Also, the idea that if you aren't workin' on it then it's a someday/maybe is very clarifying. One thing I sort of resisted was the use of file folders. I kept thinking, "Oh, this is a two step project, I'll just use a page in my notebook." Now, I use a file folder for everything that takes more than two minutes.

Be sure to read Diana's blog on opiates. Amazing.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes. "Next action" is quite helpful.

You accidentally remind me of something else: I need to finish the book, then re-read it. The problem with not having it fully implemented for so long is that I have now forgotten some aspects of the system before even getting all the way through setting it up!

Rational Jenn said...

Congratulations on your progress to date! I enjoyed reading your update very much. I also need to do some re-reading to make sure I've got the finer points, but so far, like you, I'm feeling much more productive and organized.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jenn!

What's really amazing to me is that I feel like I have gotten quite a bit from adopting just parts of this program, and yet I'm nowhere near where I want to be.

I have been trying a tough balancing act for nearly three years now: a demanding occupation and a writing hobby. I'd been getting a little frustrated with the amount of "little" things I was letting slip through the cracks. That seems to have stopped cold, much to my relief. Now, my mind isn't pestered by them and can be better focused on what I want to be using it for....

While working to internalize the new practices I have learned so far, I need to set some medium and long-term goals for both work and writing. Being able to negotiate this tightrope more gracefully is the real prize for me.

In any event, I am glad you enjoyed the update.