Rethinking GTD: The Digit(al)s

Sorry about missing last week's essay: I basically missed last weekend in total, and it threw my entire week into a really interesting place. And by interesting we mean, crazy like no other. Suprisingly, or perhaps not, I was able to keep abreast of everything, and the only thing that continues to languish, is something that I'm "strategically avoiding." Anyway, for this segment, I wanted to talk about the ways that I use the computer, breifly. I've always been a big fan of keeping digital data organized long before easy solutions to do so were commonly available. While there are some software tools that I think make this easier, a lot of what I do is just trying to find a systematic way to organize one's data that lets you stay "in touch" with what you have, and find what you need when you need it. I'm also very much aware of GTD's "one system" maxim, and I think this generally is the best way to run one's digital experience. If you're new to the series, links to the previous articles follow. I'd also love to hear from you if you have any suggestions or ideas for me.

Part One: Getting Other Things Done

Part Two: Rethinking GTD: My System

Part Three: Rethinking GTD: Production Times and "the Zone"

At the moment, I live and die (digitally) by two programs VooDooPad, and Yojimbo. As I've said before, VooDooPad is a supper app, that basically lets you create a simple desktop wiki out of mac RTF files, and Yojimbo is a very solid/basic clippings file/database. There is some overlap in functionality between these programs, and I suppose in theory you could, if your brain was up to it, use one or the other to do the job of the other. This of course brings up the question of one-systemness, which we'll have to get to later. Let me first tell you how I make this work. Also, for the record these, are MacOSX applications, there are alternatives (some of which look rather nifty) for Windows and other platforms, but I know much less about them.)

I have a Voodoopad document that I live in, and have lived in for--omitting a 4 month period--the last two or so years. VoodooPad is a relational Wiki, the documents are bundles of "pages" which are by default RTF pages. I also have some pages that are PDF print outs, and there's system wide Print-PDF-to-VoodooPad. But the organization is completely up to you. I use Voodoopad as the basis for all the content that I generate myself on the computer: class notes, reading notes, drafts of papers, and so forth. The latest version of VoodooPad, supports multi-window, and multi-tab browsing/editing, which are features that I think make working/living in an application useful. I also like that, because of this functionality and the organization as a Wiki, I only have one VooDoopad document to keep track of. Having said that, if you had very distinct projects (or very similar projects, depending) you could isolate portions of your VoodooPad into separate documents. The downside to this is, of course, that all the organization has to be self imposed, which isn't that hard to do (and is aided by the fact that VoodooPad has great search functionality and is accessible by spotlight.)

Yojimbo, is my latest addition to the stable of every-day applications. It's basically a database that can keep track of all the little bits of data that float around your computer, but rather than having an esoteric text file system, Yojimbo lets you dump any kind of file in through a host of different pipes and then lets you categorize all these files in a a handy database, using a system of folders and tagging. I use this program mostly to keep track of the heinous amount of PDF files that I download and consume regularly. If, VoodooPad is my notebook, then Yojimbo is the file cabinet.

For those of us that deal with and in words, these are the two main functions of the computer. The two programs that you use are largely irrelevant, and like I said, you could probably get away with using--particularly Yojimbo--as both your notebook and filing cabinet. VoodooPad would work as well but, you would have to do a lot of work to impose structure on the "filing cabinet" in VoodooPad. In any case, no matter what kind of software you use, its important to apply a personal convention to how you name and organize things.

Thankfully, with the advent of Spotlight (and PC equivalent) search services and tools you need not have a single alphabetical (or whatever system) file for your data, but good file names are still important. It's important to be consistent, so that you can look at a file and tell what is in it without opening; the fewer conventions you have the easier this becomes. When it comes to files, shorter is always better than longer, and always start generally and become more specific. This makes file names, page names, document titles (and so forth) easier to scan, and it also makes it easy to use filtering and sorting techniques to group similar files together automatically.

For instance I have a unique CamelCase identifier for all of my classes and projects that begins all of the page/file names: all documents related to my historiography class this semester are tagged HistoryTheory. Following the tag, I list (in order) the assignment type, number, and a pithy description of the reading that it relates to. This is the general system in use throughout the entire document. I use the same tagging system in Yojimbo to keep the projects sorted (in addition to a few topic-related tags.) Similarly, for articles I use, "AuthorLastName - ArticleTitle.pdf". For another example of a system before Yojimbo, when I just had files and folders, I used the same naming convention and had specific folders for each project (class) that I was working on when I found/downladed the file. The intention was to group file with the moment I downloaded it, in hopes of being able to retrace my steps based on this association, and it actually works pretty well.

So in summary, we have "notebook" functions, and "file cabinet" functions: simple and consistent naming schemes are important, good search functions are really important, and when in doubt (and it's possible) let your software create your framework, not the other way around.

I haven't decided what's up for next time, but on my list I have "project level planning and reviews," and that sounds pretty good for now. But perhaps we'll all be surprised.

Cheers, tycho(ish)

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