Getting Things Done

The recent posts of Merlin Mann have re-kindled a long-time interest I have in the area of personal productivity. According to Peter Drucker, one of the defining aspects of our generation is the fact that, as a society of information workers, many of us are responsible for defining both what we do, and how we get it done. Complicating matters, many of us work in environments (i.e. in front of internet-connected desktop computers) that provide us with a continual barrage of inputs (email, chats, browsing, RSS feeds, phone calls, etc.). Defining what we should do, how it should be done, and then getting (the right) things done are some of the biggest challenges we face.

In this article, I hope to describe the system I’ve put in place for myself. I’m quite satisfied with it, although it remains under continual review. The system is based on a guiding philosophy and supported with an implemented process.

Philosophy

I agree with Steven Covey’s view that all the things we do can be mapped on four quadrants in two dimensions, with a vertical axis of Importance, and a horizontal axis of Urgency. Most of us seem to spend too much time in the “Urgent/Not-Important” quadrant and far too little time in the “Important/Not-Urgent” area. Urgent/Not-Important activities might include responding to a request to chat with somebody, or attending to emails, while Important/Not-Urgent activities might include exercise or review of a company’s quality system.

So, when working, I try to focus on avoiding losing too much time in Urgent/Not-Important things, and to spend more time with the Important/Not-Urgent ones.

Process

I follow a process that is based on [[[David Allen’s, Getting Things Done]]] (GTD). In a nutshell, the idea is to:

  1. Write down everything that enters your life or mind that may require some action, or later reference. Getting things out of one’s head reduces anxiety, and the possibility of things being forgotten.
  2. Process this list regularly, filing reference information where it can be easily located, and creating action items or projects for things you have to do.
  3. Maintain a list of action items and projects (todos), and let those guide your work.
  4. Review ongoing projects and todos regularly with the objective of possibly adjusting priorities (i.e. keeping on track with our philosophy)

My driving principle in the definition of the process itself, is that it should be as simple as possible, so we don’t fall into the trap of spending a disproportionate amount of time managing the process, planning and organizing, and as a result, actually accomplish very little.

My process is implemented primarily with desktop computer tools, for the Mac OS X platform:

  1. I use Hog Bay Notebook as my information entry point and repository. (It’s where I’m writing this article.) HBNB is basically an outliner, with exceptional search capabilities, and has user interface features that supports efficient data entry (e.g. pasting things from the Dock menu, an OS X Service menu item, contextual “Move to…” and “Copy to…” commands on entries, etc.)

  2. I use Life Balance, as a todo list and project management system. Life Balance allows tasks to be decomposed into sub-tasks (steps), and allows for any given task the assignment of “importance”, possibly scheduling information (i.e. a due date) and an associated “place”. At any moment, LB will show a list of todos based on an advanced algorithm that takes into account due date, importance and place (context). More details about LB are discussed later in this article, but let me emphasize that while Life Balance has a learning curve, it is truly one of the most powerful and valuable applications I’ve ever come across. As LB also syncs with a version running on the Palm, I also use it as my portable “Inbox” when away from the desk.

  3. I use Apple Mail, as email is a primary source of inputs these days.

  4. ImOnTime. This is a background program that does one thing—reminders. I can’t imagine a better implementation of the perfect reminder program. It’s very easy to create new reminders, there are reminder “templates”, useful snooze features, etc.

Here’s how I have each of these setup:

Hog Bay Notebook. I have defined the following outline nodes in HBNB (all mapped to quick-access “Bookmarks”):

  • Inbox. This is where I record everything notable that happens. If, for example, I see a reference to a new book I’d like to read, I create an entry here. If I get a phone call, I’ll jot down a summary here. Etc.

  • Projects. This is where I store reference information (clippings, notes, etc.) about projects I’m currently working on.

  • Someday/maybe. This is where I record ideas for things I hope to do at some point in the future, but for which I don’t want to create any actions now.

  • Goals. This is where I document goals I have related to my professional context, and related to various time spans.

    • Areas of responsibility
    • 1 to 2 years
    • 3 to 5 years
    • Life
  • Resources. Any information I may wish to refer to at some point in the future goes here. I may copy and paste in a nice website article about some technology I’m interested it, or I may document how I solved a problem with my computer, or the contents of a phone conversation. HBNB makes it very easy to later locate the information through its search facilities.

Life Balance I have defined the following “Places” in Life Balance:

  • Work (+)
  • Work (-)
  • Personal (+)
  • Personal (-)
  • @Waiting For…
  • @+
The (+) places are more important contexts, and the (-) places are less important (recall the philosophy of important and non-important things.) The @+ place aggregates all the important places together. In the LB todo listing, if I switch to the “Work (+)” place, I am shown all the todos related to work, that I consider important. The order of the listing will be arranged according to the “importance” slider setting I’ve specified for each tasks. If I switch to the Personal (+) place, my todo lists updates to show only personal-context items, that I consider “more important”. I have defined the following top-level todo outline in Life Balance:
  • Inbox. Same concept as my inbox in HBNB.

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    • More Important. Things I’m working on, or need to do, that I consider more important, are found here, and assigned the place “Work (+)”.
    • Less Important. Things I’m working on, or need to do, that I consider less important, are found here, and assigned the place “Work (-)”.
    • Routine. Things I regularly need to do, are found here (e.g. create a monthly off-site data files backup.). They may be assigned to either “Work (+)” or “Work (-)” place.

  • Personal

    • GTD Process. I have defined “routine” (recurring) todos here (and assigned to the Personal (+) place), that guide my daily and weekly GTD process, e.g.:
      • Daily
        • GTD-D: Clean out Email Inbox.
        • GTD-D: Review Email Waiting For…
        • GTD-D: Clean out Hog Bay Inbox..
        • GTD-D: Clean out Life Balance Inbox…
        • GTD-D: Review Life Balance Waiting for…
        • GTD-D: Check iCal calendar.
        • GTD-D: Review Life Balance todo list, and get to work.
      • Weekly
        • Review HBNB Projects
        • Review HBNB Someday/maybe

    • More Important
    • Less Important
    • Routine

Email

In my email program, I have (in addition to others) the following folders:

  • @Inbox. It’s important to keep an empty in-box in one’s email program. Any incoming email during the day that I can’t address immediately, gets filed here for processing, at latest, one day later.
  • @Waiting for… For any emails I send to people requesting something, I copy myself, and file the copy here as a reminder that I’m waiting on somebody for something.

How does this all work?

Following is a (simplified) example of a typical day:

First thing in the morning, I sit down at the computer, switch into Life Balance, and switch to the “Personal (+)” place. I’m shown my daily list of GTD related “todos”. The first one is “Clean out Email Inbox”, I check this off as done (it will appear again tomorrow), and I switch into my Email program.

I switch into my @Inbox folder, and process every mail here. Each mail may generate a response, may generate a todo or a project in Life Balance, or may get filed. When I’m done, there are no messages left in this box.

Life Balance tells me I now need to process my “@Waiting For…” email box. I run through the messages pertaining to things I’m waiting on, and will maybe send a reminder if a particular thing is getting urgent.

Life Balance tells me I now need to process my Hog Bay Inbox. This will usually contain, on average, 10 new items created since the previous day. Each item is processed, such that this “basket” is empty when I finish. Items in the Inbox generally get filed into “Resources”, or result in the creation of projects or todos in Life Balance. Say one item is, “Customer X requested an offer to do Y.” I’ll process this entry by switching into Life Balance, and creating a new todo in my “Work (+)” place. I’ll then break down this entry into small steps, each defined as a sub-task. (The parent task I’ll refer to in the future as a “Project”, since it’s a todo with sub-tasks.)

Life Balance now tells me to review my iCal calender. I switch to iCal and have a look at the day and the week, in case I may have some appointments.

Life Balance tells me I’m done with my daily GTD processing, and it’s time to get to work. I switch to the “Work (+)” place, and have a look at my todo list. For any todo (project) that has sub-tasks (or any sub-task that has sub-tasks), LB will allow me to specify “complete sub-tasks in order”. This implements the “Next Action” concept from GTD, such that I’m only shown the very next thing that needs to be done. So, I review my todo list of things I’ve noted as important (i.e. things assigned to the Work (+) place), possibly modify priorities for a task here and there by adjusting the “importance” slider for a given task, and then I start to work.

The whole morning GTD processing takes about 45 minutes on average. Then I get to work on my todos.

Say I get a phone call, I’ll switch into Hog Bay (via a hot-key I’ve assigned with MaxMenus), into my “Inbox” (by clicking on its sidebar “bookmark”), and create a new entry titled, “Phone call with Carol.” I’ll document the phone call there, and maybe create some immediate actions if necessary. If I don’t want to think about it right now, I’ll leave it, because I know that it’ll get processed tomorrow morning.

Say I decide to read some RSS news feeds, and come across an interesting URL. I’ll use Hog Bay’s Dock icon to paste the URL into the Hog Bay inbox, without leaving my browser. Tomorrow, when reviewing my Inbox, that entry will get filed under “Resources” for future reference.

Say I get a phone call from Carol, asking me to call her back at 3:00. I’ll create a quick reminder in ImOnTime, to popup a reminder 10 minutes before 3:00.

At noon, an ImOnTime reminder pops up reminding me to check email. I switch into my email program, and process every new incoming email. Most go into the @Inbox, for processing in tomorrow morning’s GTD activities. (Note, I’ve disabled Mail’s notification, and use ImOnTime to schedule the checking of mail only twice per day.)

And that’s how the day basically goes.

Conclusion

Well, that in a nutshell is how I work. This process has been under refinement for a number of years, and works quite well for me. The one thing it doesn’t address, which is a problem I’m still trying to solve, is planning according to estimated load. Assume I have 10 ongoing “Projects”, and that Project 1 requires 40 hours to complete, and must be completed by next week. I wish that some aspect of my process could inform me that I should only work on that activity, because if I work on anything else, I won’t meet my deadline. (That’s simplified, of course. The value of a planning mechanism comes when you’re trying to juggle several projects with different load estimates and deadlines.)

I hope to write more later. Let me know if you found this useful.

12 thoughts on “Getting Things Done”

  1. As someone who appreciates systems, I think it’s always useful to hear how other people do things.

    It’s increasingly difficult to live a life in which “doing things” isn’t synonymous with “sitting in front of the computer.” As much as I enjoy sitting in front of the computer getting things done, I lament this shift in our society. As such, I don’t think such a computer-centric system would work as well for me. At some point, as you’ve said, you spend more time managing/updating/repairing/maintaining the system than you do thinking outside the system. I’m not saying this is the case with you, but that this threshold differs from person to person.

    One issue I have with such systems is that they often assume all things are equal. For example, “Getting things out of one’s head reduces anxiety, and the possibility of things being forgotten” is simply not the case with everyone. For many people I know, I think the anxiety of having their life tucked away on a hard drive which can crash would be much worse than having a few details slip through the cracks (I should say at this point that these people to whom I’m referring tend to be Wintel users).

    I won’t deny that computer applications are heavily involved in helping me keep track of things. One thing I don’t do, however, is have applications prioritize things for me or keep track of how I prioritize things. The kind of work I do at a given point tends to vary widely on external circumstances that aren’t controllable by a computer (or, for that matter, by myself). As such, priorities shift drastically from task to task, and I’ve found it’s quite easy for a program which keeps track of priorities to get out-of-balance, so to speak. #4 on that GTD list you provide would be something I’d have to do after each task.

    Thankfully, I’ve maintained the mental facilities to keep track of “the big picture” and use the computer and index cards (I almost always have a small stack of unruled 3×5 cards with me) to remind me of the details. That way I can scan the cards or the list and decide what’s best to do at the moment. There’s a part of me that pretends that this way of doing things keeps a bit of humanity in my system, and that I’m not merely checking in with my machine to get the latest marching orders.

    Anyway, interesting post, Matt. [though it definitely has that “and my shirts are arranged by hue and my socks by date” feel to it :)]

  2. After a long search I had finally settled on the same combination of software [with the exception of iMOnTime, which Iíve downloaded and am happy with so far].

    The frustrating think I had with Hog Bay Notebook was that when I selected something on a web page for later reference using Services it would not select the link as well [something software like NoteTaker did], but, as usual thanks to the web, Iíve found a simple AppleScript that does just that and I not longer even need Services.

    It’s short so I thought I might include it here:

    tell application “Safari”

    set theURL to URL of document 1
    
    set theTitle to name of document 1
    
    set theSelection to do JavaScript "getSelection()" in document 1
    
    set thebody to theURL & return & return & theSelection
    

    end tell

    tell application “Hog Bay Notebook”

    tell document 1
    
        set ent to make new entry at end of entries
    
        set name of ent to theTitle
    
        set note of ent to thebody
    
    end tell
    

    end tell

    Load it in your Library/Scripts/ folder and it will appear in your AppleScript menu.

    I like your simple approach to breaking down projects. For a long while I got trapped in having a too-detailed setup. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Here’s to a time-efficient future 😉

  3. David Allen says in his productivity tips book that looking for a system that requires no oversight— that tells you what to do, and when, is illusory. You’re best off just writing things down and reviewing them, and making snap judgments as to how to use your time. As long as you get it out of your head and do reviews, you’re probably good to go. The only system intelligent enough today to tell you exactly how to use your time and what to do right now is a good secretary.

    Although I do think a system that tells you about regular, or broader tasks, is important. I thought about Life Balance but though its idea is good, its implementation is sloppy and ugly and I couldn’t bring myself to pay for it. I wish that iCal were just a little better at keeping track of repeating tasks, projects, etc.

  4. Thanks for sharing your system with us. Also for making me aware of Hog Bay, Max Menus and iMOnTime.

    I have tried Life Balance in the past in connection with GTD but found it difficult to learn whilst still getting the hang of GTD. I have for the last year run with GTD in Plain Vanilla format using Palm Desktop and a Tungsten E. Although, I ‘ve tried tweaking the system regularly as I’ve always found something unsatisfactory with the diffrerent setups.

    Your post seems to fill in a few of the gaps that I was missing and I feel that I am close to my Nirvana! For example, the way you begin your day provides a discipline I was perhaps missing. I also like the integration of the products.

    I have run the last week with a setup identical to yourself except I initially tried to overcomplicated my outline and not being that experienced with LB, got myself in a bit of a tangle. I generally need to input data quickly as quite often I am on the move so the simpler the system the easier I find it to work with.

    If you don’t mind I have some questions?

    1. Do you use any contexts in addition to the places you have already detailed? The normal GTD ones i.e. @Call, @Computer etc? I generally have 60 or so projects on the go with at least 200 tasks and find these easier to work with when working with the palm. For example, if I have a spare 10 mins before an appointment, I can quickly identify all possible phone calls I could fill the time with.

    2. Do you place projects and their children as sub-tasks of More Important, less Important etc. as well as just single tasks or do you keep all Projects listed only in HBNB?

    3. If you include the parent projects in your outline, I presume you mirror them in HBNB?

    4. For Tasks by date, repeat tasks etc. Do you enter them in LB Calendar so they transfer to iCal or straight in to iCal?

    5. David Allen teaches that any vital task that must be completed on a specific date or time is entered as a specific event in the calendar (hard landscape) and that this should be tackled before any task on a to-do list. Do you follow this or just put them in “More Important”?

    6. I presume you keep tasks that you are waiting for a response on in the outline but change their “place” to @waiting for?

    7. I presume you set times for your places i.e. open all day, 6.30pm-11.30pm etc.

    Sorry there are so many questions.

    Thanks also to Allan for posting the script for HBNB.

  5. I have grown with Palm Desktop for a whole now ( not least because of my Palm handheld), and all my alerts, todos and memos reside there.

    What it lacks is an outliner – what it has in spades is an excellent calendar.

    It also has a poor search facility.

    I love HBN for its outlining and search, and what it lacks is a calendar.

    🙂

    I am exploring LB for its combinations but as it stands I have my information in 3 places now! PD, HBN, LB and this, of course, cannot go on.

    John’s quote of David allen is the most sobering – of course I want software that will tell me what to do next – it’s like religion.

    🙂

    At the same time, my duty of care regarding all the promises I’ve made both to myself and others, requires that I make the best possible efforts to come through. And OTOH, I can add toDos till I totter under the sheer weight of and stress of keeping them all in the air.

    I think I need a holiday

    😉

    peter

  6. Speaking of getting things done… It may very well be time to install blog comment moderation to avoid comments like the 30 or so above me. It’s not that I don’t want to gamble or exchange currency, it’s just that I wanted to read what people had to say about the article…

    Seriously, great work and good luck cleaning up after the spammers.

  7. I’ve found that the GTD system ties in well with PDA type decives. Much as you (Narayan) suggest, I don’t like the idea of all the relevant details of my life tying me to a computer – I (try to) do a lot that’s away from the computer, and need my reminders and lists with me all the time – not only that, but I also need to be able to add things as the idea or memory comes to me.

    Personally, I use a Palm Tungsten T3. It’s small enough to be in a pocket without too much in the way of an unsightly bulge, it syncs with my Windows box (at work) via the cradle, and my max (at home) over bluetooth. The best feature (which wasn’t really a selling point when I bought it) is the voice memo function – I can record something on the go, and voice memos are then another “inbox” that I need to transcribe when I get time. The important thing is that adding them doesn’t slow me down when I’m on the go.

    A good system doesn’t prevent you being away from the computer – if you do it right, it helps you be away from the computer more, and with a clear conscience that you’re not forgetting anything.

  8. My software of choice is:

    Outlook: for mail, tasks, meetings, reminders

    OneNote: my ongoing projects, goals, every day memos

    spurl.net: online bookmark organizer and recommends interesting urls (brought me here)

    RssReader: keeping track of interesting feeds in the minimum amount of time

  9. Matt:

    I want to thank you for this excellent tutorial on GTD, the Hog Bay Notebook and Life Balance. As an educator, I’m interested in information systems and work flow for both intellectual and practical reasons. The system you’ve described here is a wonderful example of how to balance flexibility, efficiency, and depth. It has wonderful potential not only for daily routines but also for managing large projects (such as the book I’m currently writing). I encourage you to keep us informed about your production system as your processes and experiences evolve. I would also be interested to hear whether and how you use any other pieces of specialized software such as NovaMind for mind mapping or EndNote for bibliography/information management.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?