A GTD Retrospective

After reading how David Seah is managing with his implementation of GTD, I thought I'd take a look at my own system to see how things are going. If you haven't heard of GTD (Getting Things Done), I wrote a review of GTD some months ago on my other website. I also recommend checking out Merlin Mann's "43 Folders" and the Official David Allen website too.

I started using GTD in my final semester of university, and I'm quite sure it's the reason I managed to stay (relatively) sane in those final few months. As much as I hate to admit it, I was incredibly unorganised in my first few years, so any kind of system would have made a big difference. I'd heard a few developers talking about GTD on some game development forums, so thought I'd give it a whirl. Whilst I didn't achieve a "mind like water", I did manage to reign in all my tasks into one place. Considering the position I was in before ("mind like whirlpool"), I was quite pleased.

The bits that work

The Two Minute Rule

Like Dave, I find the two minute rule to be incredibly useful. I would often look at even the smallest of tasks and decide “I'll do it tomorrow”. Not a good habit. There's only so many times you can put a task off until it becomes urgent, and getting into the “I'll do it tomorrow” habit is a sure-fire way of getting yourself into trouble.

Taking up the two minute rule helped me to break this habit, and made me far more productive. Anyone who suffers from procrastination will know that once you're started, nearly all resistance vanishes. Thrashing through a list of two minute tasks often left me with more energy to pursue the bigger tasks.

The Someday/Maybe List

This was another simple change that I've employed. I have a lot of ideas, and I usually think of new ones when I'm supposed to be doing something else. It surprised me that I'd never thought of keeping track of all these ideas in a single place. The "Someday/Maybe" list is a place for me to make a note of all these fantastical ideas, and writing them down means I won't be distracted by them whilst I'm working.

Having an "In" Tray

University generated a lot of actionable items, such as coursework, research subjects and a small forest's worth of lecture notes. Before I had an in-tray, they used to just sit in my bag and wait for something to happen. As you can probably imagine, this was note the most effective system in the world.

Contextual “To-Do” Lists

My time was generally split between four places – university, home, walking through town and sitting on the bus. Dividing tasks into contexts instead of subjects eliminated a lot of mental sorting when in different locations. For example, if I needed to buy something, I would put it on the "@Town" list, which I'd check when in a position to do some shopping.

I also had an "@Bus" list, as the journey lasted around an hour, so it was a good place to revise my notes from the day and plough through a list of small tasks.

The bits that don't work so well

Projects

I like the idea of the "next action", but I like to plan further ahead than a single action. Writing software can be a very daunting task, and there's often a whole heap of things that need to get done. Next actions are often very small, and it doesn't seem like the best way of managing a large scale project.

Perhaps keeping track of all this is beyond the scope of my current GTD system, but I know other developers have used it to perhaps some tweaking is in order.

Keeping It All in One Place

I regularly switch between the computer and my desk, so finding a way of storing these tasks and projects has become quite a challenge. I'm still a fan of using paper, but it's much easier to modify tasks that are being managed on the computer. Sometimes I find myself writing the same thing on paper and on the computer, which is very frustrating.

No Scheduling

Whilst to-do lists do the work of deciding what needs doing, they don't help with when it needs doing. The calendar can remind you of deadlines, but there seems to be a gap between the action and the deadline. In a way, this is connected to my problem with GTD's management of projects and my own tendency to plan things out quite thoroughly.

How do I fix these things?

Over the next few weeks I want to modify my entire system to iron out these problems. My current plan is to keep a project plan at the front of each project's folder, and to schedule my day into hourly "blocks" where I can work through the project's list of tasks. Project milestones will get added to the calendar, and I'll trial a completely paper-based system.

Has anyone else encountered these problems with their own systems (either GTD or something different)? If so, how did you remedy them?


30 Days of Positive Affirmations - Repost

Back in November of 2005, I decided to try using positive affirmations for a 30 day trial. I wrote a series of articles for it on my other blog, and rather than repost the whole series here I'll link to the originals.

The whole experiment was an interesting experience, and I recommend trying out affirmations to see if they work for you.


Keeping a progress log, part II

Note: This was originally posted on the Sodaware Blog on November 17th, 2005.

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In the last thrilling instalment, I briefly covered my progress log, a book which I use to keep track of how close I am to achieving my major goals, as well as my overall level of productivity. In this entry I'll be describing:

  1. Creating my 90 day goals
  2. Tracking my progress
  3. The "b-Alert" system

Creating my 90 day goals

As mentioned in my last entry, I have a total of 21 goals to achieve in 90 days, divided equally into seven categories. I got this idea from "The Power of Focus", and I've found it helpful for making sure I have balance in my goals. I use the following categories:

  • Financial – This covers how much money I want to earn and how much I want to save.
  • Business – This concentrates on what I want to achieve with my business, and where I want it to be once the 90 days are up. If you don't run your own business, this area would cover work instead, and may include goals for promotions, raises or important tasks you want to achieve.
  • Fun – Sometimes it's easy to forget the fun side of life, so I use this section to note any fun things I want to do, as well as how many days I want to take off work.
  • Health – This makes sure I'm thinking about my exercise and diet plans.
  • Relationships – This includes family and friends, as well as work relationships. It's important to nurture your most important relationships, and to make time for the people in your life that matter.
  • Contribution – I like to do my bit for others. My contribution goals tend to focus on my work with the Scout Association, as well as helping people on software development forums and producing material for when the rest of this website goes live.
  • Personal – The last section contains any goals that don't quite fit anywhere else.

I use mind-mapping to create goals for each area, and then decide on the time span for each goal. I may wish to achieve some in less than 90 days, and others may be longer term goals. It's important to note that I usually have more than 21 goals at this point, so I pick the three most important goals from each category, and these become my 90 day goals. I keep a note of the other goals, and these will usually become integrated into my weekly goal setting session.

Tracking my progress

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I use a modified version of "The Printable CEO" for my daily tracking, and although it doesn't look as good as the original, it gets the job done. I keep the list of activities that are worth points on a seperate piece of card, which also acts as a bookmark. The list itself is modified from the original, and it now reflects my interests and line of work.

Even though I've only been using this part of my system for a few weeks, I've already spotted a few patterns. It's a great way to identify which areas need improving, and also which days are least productive. So far Monday is my worst day, and Thursday my best. Curious.

The "b-Alert" system

I read about the "b-*A*lert" system in the book “The Power of Focus”, and I really liked it. It's not particulary complex, and it only takes a few seconds to update it at the end of the day. The idea is to make sure you have balance in your daily activities (much like creating balance in your goals). "b-*A*lert" stands for:

  • Blueprint - This might consist of a few "to-do" items, or it might be something more complex. Either way, it's good to have an idea of what you want to achieve during the day.
  • Action - Action is the most important activity, hence the bold letter. Not action = no results.
  • Learning - A daily dose of learning helps you increase your own knowledge, and stimulates your mind. You don't need to devote hours of study in the library, and what you learn doesn't have to be profound. Don't limit yourself to a single source either. Books, journals, and magazinesare all good sources, but what about blogs, podcasts, audio tapes and even interviews?
  • Exercise - It only takes thirty minutes a day. I always exercise for 20 minutes every morning, and although some days I really don't want to, it's made such an improvement to how I feel that I really wouldn't want to give it up. As with learning, vary your sources of exercise. It doesn't have to be a fourty minute session in the gym thrashing your biceps, it can be a nice walk or a bicycle ride.
  • Relaxing - If you've worked hard, you deserve time to relax. Spend time with your loved ones, admire nature or have a nap! The break will do you good, and leave you feeling recharged and ready to face whatever challenges life decides to throw at you. Remember - you deserve the break, so don't feel guilty for not working. If you work for yourself, this can sometimes be hard to do but it's important that you don't let yourself get burnt out.
  • Thinking - A little reflection can go a long way. This is what I use the "What went right/wrong" sections in my progress book for.

My book has a grid for tracking this, and once I've worked on a particular section I circle the letter. At the end of the week it's quite easy to see which areas aren't getting the attention they need. You don't need to work through the letters in order, you simply use them as a guide for planning your day.


Keeping a progress log

Note: This was originally posted on the Sodaware Blog on November 14th, 2005.

Keeping a Progress Log

I've been keeping a progress log since the end of August, and although it's still far from perfect, it's been a great help on my self improvement odyssey. Recently I've modified it slightly to use a version of "The Printable CEO", and although I've not been using it for very long, I do feel like it's made an improvement.

Even though I use computers most of the time, I prefer to keep my log on paper as it means I can review it when I'm not in my office. I also think it gives it some character, although that's entirely down to personal preference. I also do everything by hand - no printing here. Perhaps "The Drawable CEO" would be a good name for it.

The basics

Using both sides of a single page for each week, I keep track of the following:

  • Weekly goals
  • My points monitor
  • My "b-Alert" tracker
  • What went right
  • What went wrong

I added a transparent pocket to the inside of the book, which I keep my 90 day goals in. I have 21 goals, divided into seven sections. In part two I'll explain these sections in more detail.

image-0008.jpg Each page starts with the date, and then the top three goals I wish to achieve for the week. I put checkboxes in front of each goal so I can tick them off when they're complete. The original system had me setting three goals for each day, but I felt this crowded the page a little too much and also distracted me if I had goals from the previous day that I hadn't completed.

Underneath this is my points tracker, and then underneath that is my "b-Alert" tracker. I took the b-Alert system from "The Power of Focus" (reviewed here). I also use the goal setting tips from the same book to make sure I'm covering the important aspects of my life. This will be covered in more detail in part two.

image-0009.jpg The back of the page is divided into two sections. The top two-thirds is "What went right", where I note anything important that was achieved. Reading over this gives me a boost, and helps remind me of what I've achieved during the week.

The remaining third is "What went wrong", which allows some analysis of where the week could have been improved. I deliberately kept it to a third to prevent myself from being overly critical, and also to focus myself on the major issues.

Where possible I use bullet points, as it makes it easier to scan for a quick overview. It's useful to look over this during my weekly review, as it helps me find areas for improvement.

In part two, I'll cover the trackers in detail, and also explain how I ensure I have balance in my goals.


Productivity Toolbox - The Mind Dump

What is it?

The "mind dump" is a way of getting a lot of information out of your head and into your organisational system. It's a simple process that doesn't take particularly long, although it may take longer if you haven't done it for a while. It's a great way of clearing your mind, and it allows you to get a good view of your projects, commitments and tasks.

When do you use it?

A good time to perform a mind dump is at the end of every week, just before your weekly review. Another good time to use it is when you're feeling overwhelmed with work, or when your brain is swimming with ideas and you can't concentrate.

How do you do it?

Make sure you have at least twenty minutes of uninterrupted time, sit down and relax. Take a sheet of paper and write down a task you want to do. This can be something simple like making a phone call, to something larger like setting up a blog or starting a business. Absolutely anything goes, so write as much as you can. I generally write down at least a hundred items if I haven't done it for a while, but you may find you only write down fifty. The important thing is to get as much out of your head as possible.

You can either write every item on a separate sheet of paper, or write them all on to the same sheet. I prefer to write it all on one long list, but you may find separate sheets are easier to process.

How do you process the list?

This all depends on your organisational system, but a rough GTD method is as follows:

Go through each item on the list. If it's something that will require more than one task to complete, it's a project so it gets added to a "projects" list. If it's a single action that will take less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately. If not, add it to the appropriate "to-do" list.

If it's something you want to do, but don't know when (such as taking a holiday), write it on your "Someday/maybe" list. As soon as you process each item, cross it off the list or dispose of the sheet it was written on.

What are the benefits?

The main benefit of this technique is that it gives you a clear mind and helps you concentrate. Once you've processed the list, you know everything you were thinking of will be taken care of, and your mind can rest at ease.