Friday, May 04, 2007

A GTD Update (Check This Done!)

As I mentioned a few posts back, I have been looking for some ways to improve how I keep track of all my tasks to do. One of the “tools” I ran across is GTD, short for “Getting Things Done”. That is the title of a book by David Allen on his methodology for, well, getting things done. The sub-title of the book is The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and I can certainly understand that as Allen spends some time explaining his theory on how the brain functions and how the typical methods folks have for keeping track of their tasks introduce even more stress into our lives. So one of the goals of his method is to reduce stress. I've only been using the system for a couple weeks now, but I would definitely say it achieves that goal. At this point I would highly recommend the GTD system. Since I'm doing that, I figured I would share a few thoughts and provide an update from a newbies perspective on how it is going with the implementation.

My first impression is that it is a somewhat complicated system. But that complication comes with a benefit – it actually seems to work. That is the same impression someone else I am helping tackle the same issue has gotten from my brief descriptions. As I work through it though, it is getting quite easy. I think part of the reason is because it all makes sense and there is a nice logic to everything. Being a process type of person, I find it very attractive to observe how it all works.

Anyway, one thing I'm struggling with is the concept of “contexts”. Allen calls for all of your “Next Actions” to be put into a context. The examples he gives are things like – stuff that has to be done on the Internet, stuff to be done at home, stuff to be done at the office, stuff to be done on the phone, etc. That may be fine for the typical person with a job at an office they go to. However, for me, my office is in my home (unless I'm traveling to a client's location, in which case my office is where I am). So that in itself creates some crossover. Then there is the problem of computers as I have my desktop that I prefer to work on and my laptop that I have to work on sometimes. Some of my work requires one PC, some another (and still other work requires that I use a PC at a client's site and another requires access to files at a client's site). Some requires access to the Internet, other work does not. And even with my laptop, I usually only fire up my mail client (Thunderbird on a USB stick) when I'm at a client's location for an entire day. Otherwise, it is too hard to get the USB stick, the encryption software running on the laptop, and Windows XP to play nice together. Even something like this article is hard to put into a context as the initial draft is being done in OpenOffice.org on my desktop and I'll then paste it into the blog (which requires Internet access). But I could have just as easily done it on my laptop. Or I could have skipped drafting it in OOo and just done it all directly in the blog.

At this point I've settled on a typical set of “contexts” - phone, errands, office, home, and split the computer stuff up into “@computer” which is anything on a PC that does not require Internet access, and “@Internet” which obviously does.

The next issue to touch on involves some of the implementation "hardware". I decided to use the DIY Planner templates to generate my own portfolio for keeping track of everything. Now, I suppose I pride myself on being a tech guru (at least relatively speaking), so going back to a paper based system initially felt like a step back. Allen spends some time in his book talking about some of the esoteric value of paper-based systems and I have to agree. The physical act of writing is a positive thing. The local Office Depot was running pretty low on planner stuff and I didn't really like any thing they had. So, I found a little three-ring binder sized for 5.5x8.5 sheets. With the free templates, I think my planner has all of $5.00 invested in it. The only pain is the paper requires some funky cutting to get it to fit (drive by my hole puncher which didn't really want to punch holes in the right place).

Thinking Rock v2.0 main pageI did want to try to implement some technology though. After some searching (which had set me on this path in the first place), I ran across a program called Thinking Rock. It is specifically based on the GTD method. One of the really great things about it is that it is multi-platform, so a version was available that could run on my Linux desktop and on the Windows laptop. The data file itself is a simple XML file and can be easily copied from machine to machine (or kept on a USB stick). Keeping track of things on the PC has some advantages over the paper based system. The main one being that I can easily switch an item from one context to another, move it from something I'm supposed to do to something I'm waiting on someone else to do, etc. And, I can keep a history of completed tasks, assign due dates, etc.

The actions list of Thinking Rock

With the software, I can also do things like sort or view tasks in certain ways. That has turned out to be one of the bigger challenges these first couple weeks. In Thinking Rock, in addition to the contexts, you can assign a topic to each thought or action. I initially setup topics like – business, personal, home, kids. Some general stuff. However, I have since revised that. One of the problems I was having was in being able to quickly see what tasks I had to do for a certain client. So I expanded the topics so each client is their own topic now. Thus, I can easily sort my tasks and limit the view to just those for client A that need to be done on the Internet as an example. Related to Thinking Rock, I'll also mention that I am currently using the Version 2.0 gamma. Yeah, it shouldn't be used in production, but I'm good that way.

The one piece I feel like I am still missing is integration of my Palm into the whole system. Thus far I have not figured out a good way. There are several pieces of software available like Bonsai, ShadowPlan, DateBk6, or Agendus that have been recommended. I simply have not had the time to really work with them on figuring out how to integrate these. I think part of the problem is that the Thinking Rock software works so well, that I don't feel like putting any effort into replicating what I have in there in some other application just to get it on the Palm. Maybe I need to explore some of the Thinking Rock export functions.So, after two weeks I have to say that I am really liking GTD. It does have a learning curve, especially compared to some of the other systems I have been exposed to or tried. I guess I'm learning pretty fast though as I've already started explaining it to a client and they say(people in general, not the client) that is one of the best ways to learn something and to know you've learned it – when you can teach it to someone else.

As I bring this entry to a close, I'll prepare to go and mark this task off my list. That would be @Internet and Personal. I suppose I'll also toss the mind map(a whole 'nother tool I recommend for helping with thinking chores!) I created to help with writing this. If you are wondering, my list currently seems to hover around 75 tasks at any given time. Seems like as soon as I get one thing complete, here comes something else!

P.S. - I suppose it will be two items to mark off as preparing this entry required me to get a WordPress plugin loaded to insert a thumbnail image in a post. Still can't add a nice caption and box yet like the Serendipity CMS can do.

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