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Thursday
Jun012006

A GTD WorkFlow tool: The five stages on a business card cube

(In which the author serves up a light-hearted summer offering for his tactile-depraved fellow person.)

GTD Business Card Cube

As a practitioner of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology for personal productivity [1], I've found it useful to regularly remind myself of work transitions during the day in order to stay focused. I wrote about a number of them in Transitions: A secret ingredient to Getting Things Done?, including Leaving the house, Leaving the driveway, etc. Since then I've been giving some thought to being aware of which workflow stage I'm in, since each one requires different tools and thinking. From chapter two, Allen says:

THE CORE PROCESS I teach for mastering the art of relaxed and controlled knowledge work is a five-stage method for managing workflow. ... We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do.

To help keep the stages in mind during the day, I've been playing with an idea I got after building some of Ned Batchelder's business card cubes [2]. The breakthrough? (Prepare yourself.) I labelled each side with a stage, and turn the cube according to which one I'm doing. If I find I'm wandering (e.g., doing some email processing because the dinger distracted me), I use the cube to remind me of what I was doing.

(In case the idea isn't blindingly clear, you can see a freakishly well-composed picture on Flicker.) Like any paradigm-shattering idea, it may take a while to sink in. So don't worry if you feel confused for a few days.

Lest you think that's all there is to it, there's a deeper question:

What goes on the mysterious sixth side?

So far I've heard a few quite polarized opinions, which seem to fall into two camps: a) keep it blank, or b) put something on it. The blank contingent considers the lack of label significant, possibly representing "I'm done," "I'm getting nothing done" (and aware of/happy with it), or maybe "it's time for a break."

The second camp (the "depth via expression, rather than interpretation" crowd) has suggestions ranging from writing "Smile" on the blank side to placing cute stickers (preferably kittens) on it.


FAQ

  • Q: Your text is vague - what are the steps to do this? A: 1) Make the cube. 2) Put labels on it. 3) Enjoy!
  • Q: Can I color my cube? How? A: Beware - like any GTD-related tool, customization is a real rabbit hole. Avoid endless tweaking! That said, you can use a marker, or work with beautiful cards.
  • Q: But how do I *use* the thing? A: There are two approaches: "Push" and "pull." In the "push," you push the cube around until you realize you're not doing anything. Then you stop. This differs from the "pull" method, in which you pull the cube towards you, reading the facing side. Alternatively, you can use it like a The Magic 8-Ball by tossing it in the air (warning: don't hit anyone), reading the side that's up (variation: down), and doing that stage.
  • Q: Can I use the GTD business cube without knowing GTD? A: Yes, though it's recommended you read the book to get the full benefit. However, you may get benefit from simply constructing the cube - many do.
  • Q: What else can I use the cube for? A: The cube is the ultimate in flexibility. Singly they make great gift boxes [2] (not for live pets, though); make more than one for endless hours of stacking fun.
  • Q: How much does it cost? Can I pay you directly? A: The cost depends on a number of factors, including how much you have. Contact me for special group pricing. NB: I'm still waiting to hear from David Allen re: licensing.



References

  • [1] You might enjoy Matt Vance's Notes from Getting Things Done to get an overview of the book.
  • [2] My nearly six year old daughter loves to help make them, then use them for gift boxes - just lift the lid, and put in your favorite morsel. Shaking and smelling are encouraged prior to opening.

Reader Comments (13)

Great idea, Matt!

I remember pitching this idea to the DAC product team at the Santa Monica RoadMap seminar, earlier this year. At the time, I proposed using tent cards (because that was the visual cue in front of me) but I like your cube idea much better.

I like the idea of a tangible context setting tool.

Nice work!

June 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterEric Mack

Thanks a bunch, Eric. Tent cards are cool...

June 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

While I like of cards/cube idea as a visual cue, I'd like to see if I get it. In particular, I'm not sure I really understand the difference between Process and Organise.

Say I set the cube to DO and I start work on something. Ten minutes in I remember an idea that had struck me while I was cycling to work & didn't stop to record. So set the cube to COLLECT, scribble the note on a piece of paper, toss it in the in-basket, set cube back to DO. So far so good.

After another 20mins work, set the cube to BREAK and get a cup of coffee. Come back and realise that it really is time to tackle the in-tray. Set the cube to PROCESS and pick up the first thing. Ponder for half a second to realise that this is really a whole new project. So set the cube to ORGANISE, and add an entry to my Projects List (in my implementation this is some pages in my organiser). I could also at this stage, make myself a new Project Page (in my current implementation this is a 5.5 x 8.5 page in folder with the headings 'Why', 'Vision', 'Phases/Steps/Notes'), and I could even create a task in my @Office list (a page in my organiser) to Google blah-blah.

Then I set the cube to PROCESS and pick up the next thing. Perhaps this is a less than 2 min task, so I set the cube to DO and do it.

Again I set the cube to PROCESS and pick up the next thing. Perhaps this is something that needs to be done one day, so I set the cube to ORGANISE, file the paper in its appropriate place, and make an entry in the appropriate task list, probably @Office.

I continue in this fashion until the in-box is empty. After another BREAK, it's time to decide what to do next, so turn the cube to read REVIEW and start scanning the lists - both the @Office list, and the @Errands list to decide where the most urgent and/or important (or some other criteria) task needs to happen. Once I've decided, set the cube to DO and get into it.

Ectera, ectera.

So it seems that usually the cube will read DO, with the occasional COLLECT or REVIEW. And that when processing the in-tray, it will mostly oscillate between PROCESS and ORGANISE, with the odd DO.

Taking this one step further, we can share statistics on our cube readings, and write blog articles on typical percentages for different sorts of jobs. And someone can create a web tool to display the virtual cube and record the stats.

In the meantime, I'll just get back to DOing something. Thanks for the post.

Anita in Oz

June 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnita in Oz

Hi Anita. (I just got back from vacation, so sorry for the delay in responding.) Thanks for your question. I think the cube would be used at not so fine a granularity as you suggest. For example, when I'm processing my in basket, I'd put the cube on "process" and leave it there as I handle each item. I wouldn't worry about making the cube match each small action (e.g., 2-minute rule, etc.)

So it seems that usually the cube will read DO, with the occasional COLLECT or REVIEW. Yes. Allen says to allocate about an hour a day to collecting/processing, and 1-2 hours a week to your weekly review. So your summary seems right to me.

And that when processing the in-tray, it will mostly oscillate between PROCESS and ORGANISE, with the odd DO. As I said above, I'd just leave it on "process."

Taking this one step further, we can share statistics on our cube readings, and write blog articles on typical percentages for different sorts of jobs. Interesting idea. I like the thought of using the stats to figure out how you're spending your individual time. Peter Drucker and many others suggest keeping a time log ( lots of hits [ here | http://www.google.com/search?q=drucker+time+log ] ).

June 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Here's a variation on a [ Rubik's cube! | http://www.flickr.com/photos/peeker/162979871/in/pool-95115580@N00 ]

June 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks for your comments Matt - I did think that every switch was a bit too much...

I agree that keeping an occasional time log a la Drucker is a very revealing exercise.

Re the 1-2 hours for a review that Allen suggests - I have NEVER completed a review in anything like that. Maybe because I do them aprox monthly I have such a back log...but let's look at the numbers (I know this has nothing to do with your initial cube post, but what the hell).

From p.185 (of my edition of GTD), with my rough time estimates.

*collect loose papers - 2 mins
*process your notes - 10 mins ( at least!)
*previous calendar data - 5 mins
*upcoming calendar - 5 mins ( or more if travel is involved)
*empty head - 2 mins
*review projects/ larger outcome- 50 projects @ average of 5 mins each is 250 minutes
*review next action lists - 5 x 3 mins each = 15 mins
Review "waiting for" - I have an email version, a list version & a hard copy file, say 15 mins (includes time to shoot off some quick emails to chase things ups)

This is a far as I've ever got. Reviewing someday/maybe, "pending", support materials sounds great in theory but typically I do these haphazardly at other times.

Total: 304 minutes = 5 hours.

The only way I can see of trimming this back, is to move the bulk of the project reviews to another session (which I often do).

Maybe sharing stats on how people share spend their review time would be another interesting angle to pursue.

Cheers.

June 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnita in Oz

Wow, Anita. Thanks for sharing the detail - that's really interesting. The following item really stands out:

*review projects/ larger outcome- 50 projects @ average of 5 mins each is 250 minutes - The time spent on each seems longer than I think GTD dictates. Recall Allen's comments re: weekly reviews:

Very simply, the Weekly Review is whatever you need to do to get your head empty again. It's going through the five phases ... until you can honestly say "I absolutely know right now everything I'm not doing but could be doing if I decided to.

In your case, I'd wonder what you're doing for each project. I tend to just quickly go over each to ensure they all have at least one corresponding next action somewhere. I also evaluate whether the project is done, and if it should be moved to the Someday/Maybe list.

You may also enjoy the following thread from the davidco forums (which have *lots* of good info on GTD): [ Weekly Review frustrations and procrastination... | http://davidco.com/forum/showthread.php?t=4718 ].

I do like the idea of folks sharing their time spent on the review - this is just the kind of thing that comes up on the forums - how about posting yours there?

Hope this helps!

June 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Anita, I forgot to say: Nice work! Adopting GTD is a "practice," and it sounds like you're really into it. Keep it up!!

June 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,

Great idea and fun little project. I especially like that it gives me something to do with biz cards that have been "captured" into my address book.

It reminds me of the Jump To Conclusion rug from Office Space - but in a good way.

Love the blog,

James

www.jamesledoux.com/blog

July 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJames Ledoux

Great idea and fun little project. I especially like that it gives me something to do with biz cards that have been "captured" into my address book. - Thanks very much, James. I love your idea for reusing!

It reminds me of the Jump To Conclusion rug from Office Space - but in a good way. - I saw the first series, which I found hilarious and dark, but I don't recall the the Jump To Conclusion bit - was it in a later season? Note: I watched the BBC version...

Love the blog - Thank you for commenting, and for reading. Note: I enjoyed your "grass roof" post.

July 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,

I think you are confusing the BBC and US series "The Office" with "Office Space". Office Space is the Mike Judge movie set in a ficticious but very familiar technology firm going through a downsizing. Must see for folks who work in traditonal offices. One of the characters "invents" the Jump To Conclusion rug. (Very minor bit)

My favorite scene is where the 3 main charactes kidnap the tempermental fax machine. What follows is a funny Goodfellows style execution where they take out their anger on the hapless machine.

James

July 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJames Ledoux

Thanks for clarifying, James. I haven't seen Judge's movie in a while. Sounds like I better "do my research!"

July 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I just wanted to point out a nice related thread over on the davidco forums: [ Default How to divide stages? | http://www.davidco.com/forum/showthread.php?p=38921 ]

Here's my response:

Hi, Eugene. You bring up an excellent point:

Originally Posted by Borisoff
In his blog, Matt suggests a WorkFlow tool: The five stages on a business card cube. ... It means when I collect stuff, I don't process stuff. When I process I don't organize etc.

I suspect David Allen breaks Processing and Organizing into separate steps to emphasize the thinking process that goes on regarding "Stuff" (Processing), and to talk about the corresponding tools involved (Organizing). However, when presenting the ideas I tend to introduce them as a set - usually via a diagram similar to that in the book. While it makes a lot of sense to separate the stages in time and in tools, I believe those two stages in particular don't make much sense being done separately.

Hmm. Looks like I'll have *two* blank sides after this...

July 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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