Getting Things Done for the Holidays

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of energy getting things done. I mean this in a couple of ways. First, and most plainly, Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Second, there was actual business to attend to and prints to sell. Third, as part of my usual melange of procrastination and creative furnace stoking, I’ve completely rearranged the furniture in my apartment to grant me a small and efficient living space coupled to a large, mostly empty and spare workroom.  I wanted to write about all of this, but then I wrote far too much about the GTD process, and got really intimidated by the prospect of trying to tie all of these things onto one bloated, sagging barge of a post. This is a rare case of resistance coming in line with good sense. Truth is, its the Getting Things Done process thats been most interesting, and after this much of it, you’ll probably want a break. So here we are:

To put the first thing first, Getting Things Done. Its written quite clearly for last-century executives. I am a plainly 21st century, internet-dwelling creative. Still, the central tenets are useful and important. I’d recommend the book to most of the working world. If you have tasks that last longer than 2 minutes, and projects that overlap, get your hands on a copy of Getting Things Done. The first part of the book is about the why and the implications of getting things out of your head and into a reliable system that you will use with unfailing consistency.  If you’re like me, you probably won’t care about suggestions on how to manage paper files within arms reach of your desk, because the daily information deluge is now 95% electronic. Still, having a repository for those digital reference materials, ticklers, and items of personal curiosity is important. Being confident that your inbox will actually get addressed in your routine, and that your file system is capturing things you need later on would put anyone into a far stronger position for active engagement in their work. It was actually listening to David Allen on a podcast and in a TED presentation that I became interested in Getting Things Done. He mentioned the idea of making available your “Psychic Bandwidth.” Its a fancy and flashy phrase, but it spoke to me, because as an artist, I know exactly what that is. Psychic bandwidth is the difference between having a great rehearsal because you are totally, unfailingly present, and trying to get out of your head. In so many pursuits, its never been said better than “there is no try, there is only do or do not.” Getting Things Done is about freeing your mind (not necessarily your time) from all of the things which are not doing your work. For this tiny piece of perspective alone, it is worth the read and a really serious attempt at getting all the open loops of your life into a reliable system of filing, and lists of next actions. 

That all said, I spent the better part of two days and one extra evening collecting all of the projects in my head that were not written down. Even for someone like me, an avid task and project-management app watcher, there was a tall stack of things that needed better organization and a unification of priorities. I took the magazine file boxes that were holding all of my important papers (credit card disclosures, car title, car service history, insurance policy documents, etc.) and put them into a genuine file system. I read through all of the tasks, recurring and single which I had stored in Things. Then I sat down with a stack of index cards and (careful to avoid the rabbit holes) wrote down all of the remaining open loops that I had in my mind, the tasks and projects that had no physical repository… an entire package of index cards later I was able to establish a usefully complete list of open projects, and an appropriate list of next actions. 

Part of the reason for my copious number of open loops was that in the never ending quest for the perfect tool, I turned up lots of applications. Worse yet, lots of them I really like. So, it became difficult to decide where to capture something, and therefore even more difficult to find it when it was needed. I had a journal in Day One, most of my drafting was taking place in iA Writer, unless it needed a basic page layout in which case I was usually drafting directly in Pages, I had notes spread across iOS Notes and Evernote, I was using Things for my projects and recurring to do items, but often using iOS Reminders for basic lists like groceries. Altogether a TON of capture, but only a little search-ability. This left me only moderately effective even when I remembered to stay action oriented in putting tasks down in Things. Finally I didn’t have enough confidence that I would for CERTAIN be able to find the thing I wanted later, so I was getting numb to some of these lists and having to dream up new reminders for really important stuff. 

I’ve had an Evernote account, probably for the 5 years they’ve been around, and frankly I never took it seriously. The problem with any every file system is that until you hit a critical mass for the amount of stuff inside it, it doesn’t work. Organizational systems seem floppy, unnecessary, wishy-washy, meaningless work to feel officious until there’s enough stuff in them that you would be hopeless to find anything without a system in place. This is the real beauty of Evernote, even if you made no notebooks, no tags, you might not even need a good titling convention, even if you put literally no work into organization, you would still probably be able to find what you need. So, naturally I decided to make a ton of notebooks, notebook stacks, and a completely revamped list of tags. I even sprang for a very helpful book, Evernote Essentials by Brett Kelly to help me get a really comprehensive restart. Now I’m completely moved into Evernote for project lists, journaling, personal reference (with Evernote’s Web Clipper browser extension and email upload features, capturing reference material is spectacular) documents like my business registration and expense receipts, contracts, everything can go into Evernote, I’m even drafting this post in Evernote on my mac. That leaves Things, which is for the time being still the best task and project management app out there (if you don’t need team management), to collect all my next actions and even future next-actions using scheduling and multi-step projects features. I have also reworked my Things tags list as well to be more functional (more on this in a minute). Lots of Evernote power users write about doing these kinds of things with Evernote reminders and check-box items, but so far I’m not ready to jump in that deep. 

Having done my capture I needed to ingest and make decisions on next actions. This is one of the timeless (and still revolutionary) parts of GTD. The act of processing the inbox is of central importance. Decisions can never be tasks, sometimes research or questions are required for a final decision on what to do next, but I was often guilty of putting “Decide on,” “Decide how” in my tasks. This is tantamount to placing those items back in my inbox and its a great way to end up with open loops. It doesn’t matter how the information comes to you or how you’re going to store it, this idea of handling an inbox item one time before deciding not just whether or not something needs action, but what action should come next, is the real power of GTD. This makes it possible to gauge when you take out a list, what actions you might actually take in the moment. Now, David Allen suggests lists organized by context, like “at the office,” “at home,” “running errands,” “at the phone,” “at the computer,” etc. Well, today many of these contexts are meaningless, with smartphones and cloud services like Evernote, IMAP email, Office 365 and others, a lot of actions can be taken from anywhere at any time. So we can simplify, and that brings me to my Things tags. Tags are great for context, but beyond the context of in-person meetings and perhaps out on errands, if you don’t do your work on highly specialized machinery context has almost nothing to do with where you are in the physical world. But the really great news is that today ALL of your lists can be in your pocket, and easily temporarily reorganized with tags based upon what you think might be doable at the moment. So all of my tasks now get three tags: estimated duration, difficulty (or required energy level), and high-med-low priority. So if I am at the laundromat with half an hour to kill but I’m tired, I can now view all of the tasks that will take me less than 30 minutes and don’t require a lot of energy. More than likely I will be able to accomplish at least one from my smart phone. Likewise, if I’m bouncing off the walls confined and waiting on the dryer, I can choose something appropriate to that mood as well. 

Another part of this experiment was The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. Its not something that I ever felt was going to be really useful, the title is classic get-rich-quick click-bait. As a matter of fact, there is a short section of the book that explains that the title was chosen specifically, and scientifically for its click-baiting potential. Still, Ferris makes a lot of audacious claims and calls out a lot of examples that might open up one’s thinking about how they would really like to live and work. What he tries to offer are strategies to remove as many working hours as possible from earning a useful income. For people who want to travel and experiment and Live first, work second, this stuff is great. I would like to have the latitude to get immersed and lost in the real, important work of my art, but as it stands I have to spend a lot of my time doing someone else’s work in order to survive. This is a fine temporary action, but it is not a good long term strategy, because it means I can only stay half invested in each thing. Those of us working “survival jobs” tend not to advance very far in them, because we do not take complete ownership of them. This is one of the most interesting ideas from The 4 Hour Workweek, that even if you hate your job, you might be best served by putting all of your attention into it for a time. This way you can establish your own systems and efficiencies and become an irreplaceable asset to your organization, then ask not to have to be there, and work remotely for fewer hours than you’ve needed before. Now thats a position from which to launch something new! However, there are some ideas he discusses which are a bit more relatable to GTD. The primary strategies Ferris uses to get more uninterrupted time are outsourcing, auto-responders, and gatekeepers. Outsourcing is obvious, other people attend to things that you don’t absolutely have to do, The auto-responders and gatekeepers are there really just to set expectations for people trying to get in touch with you to deter them from badgering you too much. The idea is that if you can get all of the things people need from you to stack up in your inbox, then you are more in control of prioritization. This is also a great way to get hugely overwhelmed and very far behind. But if its dovetailed into a rock solid GTD system, then you’re in business. There’s a lot to say about The 4 Hour Workweek, but for now I’m going to leave it here.

I’ll probably be following this post up with more about how the 4 hour workweek and GTD fit together. Plus another post about the benefits of giving your brain some breathing room in your physical space. Thanks for reading, go make stuff happen and live a life, useful.