My wife asked me to outline my productivity software suite strategy. Like most Getting Things Done (GTD) nerds, I’m only too happy to accommodate that request, so this post outlines my trusted system, as it stands right now. This is a point-in-time snapshot, but systems are organic and should evolve over time. So I expect this post to be out of date in a few months. Nevertheless, here goes…
First, some background. I work in health information technology in a client-facing role; my clients are some of the most innovative and tech savvy hospitals in the country. Seriously, I work closely with 9 of the 300 HIMSS Stage 7 hospitals in the country (over two health systems) and advise the support staff for several dozen more as the “go-to guy” for charge scrubbing and revenue issues. Point being: I work about 40 hours a week only because those 40 hours need to be packed full of 60 hours-worth of work. At home I leisurely download data using ASDFree scripts,writing R Data Visualizations and blogposts. I also walk the dog, cook (as my mother-in-law taught me: cooking combines knives, fire, and impressing women: what’s not to love?), and find time to disassociate (in a healthy way)/waste time. Never mind the “Why?” of INTP insecurities; what matters for this post is the fact that I need to fulfill my need to learn/grow/challenge myself/explore/play while simultaneously making enough money to support my habits of incessant learning (Lynda, Coursera, EdX), mortgage, beer, food, etc. As David Allen (founder and CEO of GTD) puts it, “the better you get, the better you better get.”
Second, as an HIT professional, there’s a level of technophilia that’s built into the job that quickly gets translated into GTD tools. GTD doesn’t need high-tech solutions, but they do make it easier. Just like good brushes don’t make a great artist, you need to have the workflows down to be successful with GTD. Still, good brushes make good painting technique easier, and so does a robust trusted system make keeping up with GTD workflows easier. That said, technophilia comes with the unfortunate tendency to always seek out new tools, sometimes to the point of inadvertently creating fractured and siloed productivity systems with too many really cool
List of Software Needs
As much as possible, I make my software cloud-based and hardware agnostic. I have a Mac as my main workstation at home and a Windows at work, and I want productivity solution that works when I’m writing a blogpost (on my Mac like right now) or when I’m at work on my company-issued Lenovo Thinkpad. I also like software that’s lightweight with a minimalist design and prefer software with a rich set keyboard shortcuts so I don’t need to use the mouse very much.
I think that there are 5 main parts to any productivity system:
- To-Do list
- Project List
- Filed Information
- Trash Bin
Productivity systems necessarily start with the inbox, and the inbox is important, but you have little-to-no control over that: your employer will assign the email system, your spouse will ask you to do stuff, and your friends and family will text you… or send you a facebook message or instagram guilt trip… it’s not that hard to get a message in a bottle to people these days. What does make the difference is how you receive those messages: do you instantly drop what you were doing in order to respond or do you store away a reminder to reply later so you can finish what you were doing? How do you deal with old reminders?
List of Software Solutions (for me)
I’m going to attack this in the order I listed it originally: Inbox, To-do, Projects, Reference, Oblivion. Obviously, this is about my productivity system; I encourage readers to adapt their system to their unique personality, tendencies, etc.. GTD is software agnostic, so you can and should try out different tools–both high-tech and low-tech–until you find a set that works for you.
My inboxes are pretty straightforward: emails, voicemails, text messages, conversations, and my own whims. Text messages I tend to deal with right away (2 minute rule), but other than that I try to add everything to Todoist using my phone (for whims and things I want to follow up on after conversations) or using the email-to-project feature of Todoist. When I get into work in the morning, I usually have ~40-80 emails waiting for me, which I can usually clean up in 10 minutes or so by skimming them to see if they’re actionable or worth reading in full, sending those that are to Todoist and archiving or deleting those that aren’t with Outlook Quick Actions (with keyboard shortcuts). For home, I use Spark email (mac only, unfortunately), which nicely pre-categorizes a lot of emails for me with their “smart inbox,” so I can also plow through emails pretty quickly and get them into Todoist or archived.
I’ve written about Todoist elsewhere on this blog, but I’m going to do it again. Todoist is a subscription service, cloud-based to-do list. The main reason I went with Todoist over previous tools like Outlook or OmniFocus is the cloud-based, multi-platform ubiquity. Also it just has a very clean view that I appreciate. I have a saved email contact in both Outlook (work) and Gmail (home) for my Todoist inbox, so I can easily send new tasks there. After getting things into Todoist inbox (i.e. classified them as actionable), I need to clarify the next actions.
I have things organized into 5 “horizons of focus”: Life/Home, Side Projects (i.e. volunteering that takes significant amounts of time, like data analysis for Special Olympics), Personal Projects (like this blog), Education, and Work. Within most of these Horizons, I have projects with the odd task being added to the horizon directly. Within the Work horizon, specifically, I have things color-coded out. Black is a relatively large project with a definitive end date; Grey is an ongoing series of small projects, including the “Single Actions and Small Projects” Project, which is the main dumping ground for most work things. Things like patches my customers are waiting for or topics for my 1:1 with my boss go to their own projects. Many people would use labels for these, but I prefer a separate project since that’s easier to keep them off other views without having to use as many custom filters. As I clarify the next action, I rename the task, add notes as needed, and assign it to one of the projects. As I’ll describe later, (almost) all of these projects are currently in progress, so it’s a short enough list that I know what’s in there.
In theory, I have a Time-Logging project that I can email things to throughout the day to help me out when I’m logging my time later… but in practice that’s a tough habit to build and an easy habit to fall out of.
Admittedly, I need to push back tasks from due today to due tomorrow pretty regularly, but I am still able to get through most of my daily list most days. Most importantly, I’m able to identify my “frogs” and split them into smaller tasks that are more manageable and keep on top of what my priorities really are.
As you can see from my Todoist screenshots, I’ve got a lot of projects going on. But those are just the things I’m actually working on. I have a whole smattering of Someday/Maybe projects that I’d like to work on in the future. I’ve also got a bunch of random ideas I’m not really sure what to do with and goals for the year that I want to check in on and I’m working towards, but don’t make sense to put on my Todoist. For those sorts of things, I use Trello. Where Todoist is really good at listing things that need to get done so they don’t get lost, Trello is really good at letting you jump between multiple ideas at once while maintaining focus on the larger picture.
My main 5 personal boards are as follows:
Grocery List and Weekend boards are ones I share with my wife for the quotidian tasks of planning our week (esp weekends) and our meal plan. 2017 Goals is just like it sounds: My goals for 2017, which I check in on roughly once a month. Someday/Maybe Projects is a dumping ground of all sorts of things, including my to-read book lists, classes I want to take, and misc ideas I want to explore (though most of those go to Evernote now). Current Learning is an easier way than Todoist to track me milking my University-funded subscription to Lynda and other MOOCs. I know the golden rule for GTD is to have a single trusted system, but this table view just looks so much nicer than a simple to-do list:
Plus, as I’ve said before, Trello is great for tracking lots of disparate things that are somewhat related like in a command center, and that’s exactly what my current learning “project” is.
I also have a couple work-specific Trello boards, but those are far less interesting since most of my work stuff makes more sense to keep in Todoist and Outlook.
I can’t use Evernote for work due to company policy (can’t have PHI get sent to the cloud accidentally), so I use Outlook as my virtual filing cabinet, plus my company has a very robust system of internal wikis, so I don’t actually have that much of a need to file things away. On the personal life side of things, ideas, things I need to remember, reference material like my car’s VIN number, etc. all that goes to Evernote.
I have 5 main notebooks: Inbasket, a Notebook group of project support notebooks,
Ideas, Processed, and a Digital Library. The Project support notebooks include notes, ideas, and articles related to whatever it is that I’m researching or working on at the time. Ideas are quick thoughts I have that I want to come back to later to explore further. Digital Library is a bunch of Books-turned-PDFs that got scanned using 1DollarScan. Finally, Processed is the actual filing cabinet, and that filing cabinet gets organized with tags. I’ve got tags and tag groups for Reference materials, specific people, document types and other metadata and searching key terms I want to use to find things in the processed notebook.
Recurring Checklists and Habit
I have some recurring tasks in Todoist, which is great, but I’ve also got certain checklists I need to reference again and again, like sporadic categories to review and (potentially) include in a budget for the next month. For these, I use the iOS app Checklist Again. It’s fine; nothing particularly remarkable. I’ve got checklists for packing lists for business trips, budgeting categories, and a weekly review checklist. For tracking habits, I use another iOS app, Habit List. It’s great, as long as I get in the habit of using it every day. Ironic, right?
The key to keeping all of these tools workable is to maintain them, and that means putting things in their place, especially if that place is the trash. When I decide to abandon a project on my Someday/Maybe list, I need to fully delete it; it can’t just stay out there cluttering things. I also can’t have multiple lists for the same thing that get out of sync (I know there’s a someday maybe list in Todoist, but I promise that’s actually different… it has book I’m working on, very slowly). If I find a better tool and have proven it’s a better tool to do something, that means completely deprecating the old, inferior tool. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your tools clean and remove things that aren’t applicable anymore. This is, in my experience, why the GTD weekly review is so important: it gives you a chance to fully transfer and purge old information, tasks, and ideas to their proper place now–whether that’s filed away in Evernote, relegated to my Someday/Maybe Trello Board, made actionable in Todoist, or just deleted.
A Day in the Life…
My day to day workflow goes something like this. First thing in the morning when I get to work is make coffee in my french press and then I clean my inbox, specifically my email inbox. There are lots of smart people who say that this is the wrong way to start, and they’re probably right. I wish I could just leave it, but generally just knowing that my inbox has 50+ unread messages with GoK inside them is stressful enough that it’s worth doing that while drinking my coffee and letting the caffeine do its thing rather than jumping straight into projects.
Having cleared out my inbox, I check my calendar to make sure I’m not running late for a meeting, address any fires that have popped up (rare), and then jump over to Todoist to look at my day. I have different filters to pull in just work-related actions for me to do in the next few days. Generally speaking, I use my weekly review on Monday afternoons to spread tasks I want to complete that week out throughout the week, so when I come in on Thursday (or any other day) there are at least a few actions I’ve scheduled to take that day. I grab one of that list that looks appealing and work on it. I use tags to help identify how long I expect a task to take, so I can grab tasks that I expect to fill the time I have, whether that’s 15 minutes before my next call or 2 hours of time that I can spend on a larger project.
While I’m working on a specific task, I (try to) refuse to check email. Often, I’ll put email in offline mode so I can’t receive new emails. This allows me to focus for the 45 minutes it usually takes me to work through whatever troubleshooting problem it is that I’m working on (this is the majority of my job). After finishing a given task, I review my inboxes again (Outlook/Email and sometimes Todoist inbox) to clean those up and get actionable items parsed and given dates. Then I choose a new task and keep going.
I’m making this sound very regimented, and I will readily admit that this is only the ideal case. Many days are spent immediately responding to emails, getting interrupted by calls, etc. I’m not always so diligent as to immediately parse all relevant actionable information out of my todoist inbox and into a real project. Sometimes I stare at my to-do list for that day and just think “f*** this, I don’t want to do any of this.” On those days, I look for small victories one at a time, or I really do just abandon it and work on a large internal project, like development or something else, ignoring other things I could be doing; and I do mean ignoring, as in I probably should be doing other things, but I’m consciously choosing to do something less important but more fun.
That last sentence brings up an important–perhaps the most important–question for a successful GTD strategy: prioritization. There are two schools of thought around this that are polar opposites, but I try to follow both of them, depending on the situation.
The first school of thought is “Eat that Frog.” Meaning do the thing that’s important but you don’t want to do, and do it first in the day. Rather than delaying it and expending mental energy dreading doing that task, just knock it out early and everything else will be easier.
The second school of thought is that of Nassim Taleb and Josh Whedon and is the opposite of eating the frog: Do the most fun thing first. Specifically, Taleb only writes when he feels like it, and even then only writes about what he feels like writing about at that time (this may explain why many of his books seem disjointed and tend to repeat themselves over short sections). It’s not a bad strategy, especially when you have large projects you’re excited to do, but need periods of uninterrupted deep work to complete.
I tend to shift back and forth between prioritization methods–frog or fun tasks first–depending on my overall energy levels and motivation that day. The more willpower I have to exert, the more I’ll use it on frogs. If motivation to do anything is in short supply that day (e.g. because I’m not feeling well or slept poorly), then it’s more important that I get something done, even if it’s not the most important or most urgent thing on my list.
Of course, scheduling also plays a role. On meeting-heavy days, only the tasks that can be done between meetings (i.e. other emails that need to get sent) get done.
Todoist is my to-do list for actionable next steps. Trello is my master project list, future project list, home for collaborative lists, and occasionally my workspace organizer. Evernote is my place for storing ideas, predictions, thoughts, articles, and reference material. When something actionable comes into my life–be it through email, a conversation, or any other means–it first goes to the Todoist Inbox. I periodically (once or twice a day) process my Todoist Inbox to clarify the goal and the next actions for the stuff there. Depending on what it is, I might just finish it and complete it out of the inbox, or send it to the appropriate project in Todoist. If it’s something that isn’t really actionable right now, it will probably go to one of the more long term projects or Trello for storage. If something comes in and it isn’t actionable but is useful and needs to be saved, it’s probably going to go to Evernote or my Processed folder in Outlook. For actions in Todoist, I will pick one to work on based on either the urgency-importance paradigm or just based on what’s fun, depending on my schedule that day and overall energy/motivation levels.
Trello tends to overlap a bit with both Todoist and Evernote, but as much as possible, I want to keep all of these tools separate and never be double-tracking the same project in two places. If something isn’t currently actionable, I try to keep it out of Todoist (exceptions: recurring actions, which have a project, and waiting-for items, which have a special tag) and put it in one of the Trello boards for future projects. Evernote and Trello both have a project-support role, though a very different one: Evernote is where work gets done/documented and Trello is where I outline a project and put the actions in a wider context than Todoist allows.
So that’s that. If you were to ask me this same question, “what’s your GTD system?” in 6 months, I imagine it will resemble this, but it will almost certainly have evolved or changed in some way. And that’s okay.