Rethinking GTD: My System

Hey folks!

I'm back with the next installment of my GTD series. I had underestimated my schedule (it being a new semester), and the time I had blocked off to write the GTD essay, was lost to reading about Filipino post/coloinal history. It was great. Doing things, rather than meta-ing about doing things, (which is a theme we'll pick up later in the series).

I also really loved the comments that people posted in response to the last entry. TealArt hasn't been a very comment-y blog for too long. We can and should change this, though.

I said last time, that I'd spend this time talking about my situation and how I work. This essay, will explain how I work, and why I've chosen to work this way.

While I'm a huge computer dork, and most of my work is on the computer, I do tend to carry 2 notebooks with me at any given point. The first is a little black notebook (these days, it's a Moleskine, but it's frequently just a stenopad or something) that I use to make lists, write reminders in, plan projects, make short notes, and sometimes even sketch outlines for projects. Generally we could call this first, and more important notebook the "meta" notebook. The second non-comptuer notebook, is a content notebook--at the moment it's a mid-sized sketch book--that I use usually for a bigger writing or reading project, and sometimes class notes. Generally, this is just a general use 3-subject notebook, that contains notes for two separate projects, and then an odds-and ends section for class notes, reading notes for articles, and more specific project planning. This semester, it's a bit weird, but it's working out.

We'll spend more time thinking about what goes on paper and what goes on the computer later, but I want to spend a moment contemplating my little black book. Particularly, its organization and the kinds of lists I make.

GTD recommends organizing tasks by context (location/resources) and by project. In addition to the problem that with a few exceptions, I always have everything I need to do to just about everything on my list, and that my projects are HUGE, I find some tension with the assumption that s that at the very base-level, all of the things we do are rote tasks. What I've heard David Allen refer to as "Widgets". Thus in his method, encourages folk to do the organizational thinking up front, so that one could theoretically be virtually comatose while the "doing" happens.

The truth is that most of my projects aren't just cranking widgets. So ignoring the fact that I nearly always have everything that I need to do all of my tasks, most of my constraints are both time based, and pretty soft. GTD expects that contexts are to have hard distinctions, while I don't really have contexts, most of my tasks are time sensitive. So here's what I do.

In the meta-notebook, I make a list for every day, the night before, that reflects my schedule for the upcoming day, the current status of my projects, and any loose ends from the previous day, and any appointments I may have. Rather than have a weekly review, that might take an hour, like GTD suggests, I do about 10 minutes of review every day, literally right before I take my glasses off to go to bed. This has the particular benefit of letting me get everything off my chest and out of my head and lets me get to sleep without rehearsing a list of things to do.

So you make a to-do list, that's your system? L-a-m-e!

I heard that, I think the key part of this list making is where the items come from. Some things are of course, generated on the fly (remember to get a signature, or print something for class), others reflect oddities in my schedule (there's a talk at 4, or a meeting at 3), some are personal chores (check mail, shower, clean desk), but many, or most, reflect progress in ongoing projects and class work and draw on other lists in the book. Oh, and by the way, each daily list, is written on its own sheet of paper on the right side of the book.

Right side? Why on Earth

So I can use the left hand side for something else. Sometimes the left hand side is used for input that will contribute to tomorrow's list. Sometimes the left side is used for project planning. Sometimes it is overflow. Sometimes it's a general location or "inbox," loosely in the GTD framework. I've also been known to make little lists of things I want to look up on wikipedia or Google. While I think of this as another level of project planning, I'm also prone to making "master lists" of things that need to get done in a given week, sort of a "this week for sam..." preview, to track due dates and what not.

I think most of these uses are pretty self evident, but I'll spend a moment on the project planning. Sometimes, I have a project that takes more than a day or two to complete, or that seems particularly complex or daunting. So I take a right side page, and list all of the component parts of this project. As in GTD, the key to a good project, is something that is manageable. "Write book" is a lousy project to start out, whereas "gather materials to begin research for book" is better. Generally my projects are the kinds of things that I think I can finish in a couple of weeks. I also keep a record of my schedule using iCal but Google Calendar (and so forth) would also work very well, for these purposes.

The keys to making this work for me is it's flexibility. I make new lists most days, but some lists take two days to get through, and sometimes I need to reogranize the list over lunch. This recognizes the give and take of analyical/creative energy levels, interest, or relevance: sometimes, things that seemed really crucial when I wrote them down, end up becoming irrelevant or just don't need to be done. An important part of the flexibility is knowing that it's ok if I don't check everything off of the list every day--and most days, despite my ambitions, I don't get everything checked off.

So before I cut this monster off, the highlights for me are: flexibility, regular reviews, rabid centralized list-making, and sensible project planning. Your milage will probably vary. But that's the point: don't copy, spend a week or two thinking about how and when you work, and see how/if you can work something out that allows you to prevent things from slipping through the cracks, clear tasks off of your sieve mind, and organize your meta data in a way that is always accessible and can work with you.

I've mentioned a lot of things briefly here that I'll explore in more depth later in the series. Next time, I'll cover some digital issues, I'm thinking: keeping the computer experience organized, the paper-digital discussion, and mobile/digital concerns.

Cheers, tycho(ish)

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