Friday, March 10, 2006

Getting Things Done

Almost a year ago, I read David Allen's book Getting Things Done (GTD), and decided to apply a couple principles. I already tried to review incoming email once only, but that just wasn't quite working consistently for me, and I regularly had from 40 to 80 emails sitting in my Inbox, unfiled, because I hadn't dealt with them or decided whether or how to deal with them. At 100 emails I would usually feel overwhelmed and go back to some earlier emails and just decide, finally, not to do anything with them, and clear back out down to 40 or so.

I had also tried keeping track of tasks in a separate list from my Inbox but that also hadn't worked for me. One problem was that the list grew too big, easily to 60 items or so within a couple weeks of starting it. I needed to break it down somewhat. Breaking it down by project seemed obvious but then I had several lists and no way to see what was most important. And still there were tasks that I just didn't tackle.

The biggest value trick I got from GTD, above all the other good advice, was to organize my task list by context, rather than by project. My contexts have been:
  • At the computer (offline)
  • Online
  • At home
  • At work
  • Agendas
  • Errands
  • Phone calls
  • Waiting
  • Later/maybe
  • Done
The 'agendas' list made me look particularly organized because as soon as I had a chance to talk to somebody like my manager or somebody else I work with a lot, I could look really smart and prepared even if I hadn't actually prepared for that specific meeting. I made meetings more productive and didn't forget to cover issues that I'd previously noted I needed to cover. Naturally, the "at home" and "at work" categories kept me from sifting through tasks at an inappropriate moment, so at any moment there seems to be less pressure, less possible things to do, easier to focus. All good stuff.

But there's even more to the system than that, and I believe it's hooked into another classic piece of advice, also covered in GTD: that of identifying the next action.

It's actually very hard to identify the next action in many projects. Back when one of my projects was to get my eyes fixed up, I futzed around for maybe a year before actually setting up an eye doctor. Aside from indecision and being busy, part of the reason was because I hadn't correctly identified the first step -- without thinking too hard about it, I had only the fuzzy idea that I needed to setup an appointment with an eye surgeon. But before I could actually do that step I needed the phone number of an eye surgeon. Before that, I needed to know which eye surgeon. Before that, I needed to get some kind of recommendation. And before that, I needed to know who to ask for a recommendation. Finally, I asked a cataract eye surgeon for a recommendation, and the rest followed more easily (for the record, it was Dr. Volpicelli at Peninsula Laser Eye Medical Group).

So how does organizing tasks by context help? Because in order to decide whether the next task is one I can do at work, at home or on the phone, I need to have a concrete idea what the next task is. It makes me break down each project earlier.

Following this discipline, together with weekly reviews to see which tasks are stale and which projects don't have tasks currently in the active list, may have made me up to 20% more productive at times. It's hard to say. I don't always follow the discipline but I'm getting better.

The tool I use for the lists of tasks is called iOrganize. It's not optimized for this task, but it's sufficient. It's good at taking quick notes, giving them titles, and moving them from one category to another. I wish it could assign reminders to tasks, or optional due dates, but that's OK, it's not actually required for the way I work. I put a ** in front of the title of important tasks, trying to have from two to five tasks with "**" at any time. This allows me to search for important tasks very quickly and sort them to the top of each context list. There's a priority field too, but that doesn't allow me to search, and it didn't exist in the previous version of iOrganize so I'm already used to having "**".

I know there's many ways people follow GTD, there are blogs and near-cults out there and I'm certain there are more specialized tools, maybe I'll use one of them someday. This is just what works for me.

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