Getting Other Things Done

As some of you might know, starting last semester (and continuing on this semester) I've been rethinking my personal "system," the way I organize all of the "data" (writ large) in my life. This includes things like RSS reading, email, academic articles in PDF format, notetaking, my to-do lists and other project planning related data, appointments/schedule, and so forth. In this effort I've paid a lot of attention to what Merlin Mann and the community at 43 Folders as well as the LifeHack.org Blog. In part this is because Merlin is a Mac geek and since I am too, this works pretty well, but generally I agree with Merlin's aesthetic and approach to these kinds of things.

One of the things that is huge on 43f, and in much of the "geek" productivity community has been GTD or getting things done, a "methodology" developed by David Allen. While there are many aspects of GTD that I find really interesting and fairly common sense, and I have enjoyed the technological interpretations that Merlin and others have helped develop, I'm putting forth something of a criticism of the hegemony of this system, because I think other ways of thinking about personal and group productivity are in order. Particularly as it relates to some audiences (like academics) where the system is not particularly suited.

Among the threads that I've followed more carefully at the 43Folders forms, has been one on GTD implementation for University Students. One common theme in this thread is the difficulty of using this kind of system for university students. GTD was, as best I can tell, developed for applied fields (ie. business and consulting), for people whose daily routine incorporates a variety of different situations and tasks/projects, but to be clear, people for whom most of their work happens in an office situation of one sort or another. (If people have a different interpretation then feel free to offer it).

GTD uses basic organization efficiency principals to encourage its partakers to: complete short tasks firsts (ie. tasks that would take anywhere from less than 2 minutes to 5 minutes), to split large projects/taks into smaller actions that take anywhere from about 5 minutes to about 20 minutes. Once tasks are broken up and organized each "action" is then reogranized so that "to-do" lists are generated for different contexts. Contexts in tern cover all of the material and situational requirements for a given task. A fairly typical context list might include contexts like "errands" and "phone" and "internet" and "home-office" and "work," so that you can always take advantage of your situation and know immediately what needs to be done.

In fairness Merlin has from time to time remarked that there are only so many contexts when 80% of your tasks require you to be in front of your computer with your hands on your keyboard, and I think this is a problem that's particularly true for academics, but ignoring this for a moment, I would also emphasize that I think there's a point (like GTD for computer people) where the system can only be stretched so far before it starts to break down. When organizational systems of any kind break down, the results are never pretty: we either become engaged in an endless cycle where we're thinking about maintaining the system on the same level as we're thinking about what's in the system--over-thinking--or, complete breakdown which creates massive disorganization as information begins to fall through the system. Neither of these outcomes are, to my mind, acceptable.

Given that, and the fact that I think this entry has gone on too long already, and I'm not yet out of things to say, I think I'm going to turn this into a little mini-series in the academia section of TealArt. It'll show up, as usual, on the home page as well. The series will include topics that I find particularly relevant to students and other people working in the academy; although I suspect that writers and creative folk will probably find this useful as well.

Keep in touch, and feel free to comment here or by email to tycho.at.tealart.dot.com.

Cheers, tycho

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