« A few thoughts on vacations & GTD, used time management books, a few productivity tips, and heroes - both super *and* real | Main | Great time management ideas from the world of improv wisdom »

Some thoughts on the book "The Instant Productivity Toolkit"

I just finished The Instant Productivity Toolkit by Len Merson, and I found it a short, stimulating read that excelled at the scribble test. Following are some thoughts I hope you find interesting, esp. as Merson's book relates to David Allen's Getting Things Done (AKA GTD) methodology.

Overall: Like Allen's work, the author describes a complete system for managing your work and life, and takes you from an initial implementation (collect everything together, then process each item into the system) through the details, sharing the principles along the way. The book has philosophical roots that are similar to GTD, including the importance of keeping everything out of your head, and of staying on top of the overwhelming flow that bombards us daily. However, there are some significant differences between the two approaches, some of which I could appreciate, and others that I actively disliked. In spite of that, I found the book to be valuable to my work (I've ordered a copy), and I'm grateful to Len Merson for his contribution.

The turtle: The biggest difference I found was the way of handling your tasks. Merson has you create a single stack (the turtle) of all your active tasks, prioritized with most important on top. (Actually, as I understand it the second most important is on top; the top priority item is on your desk in front of you.) You work in strict top-to-bottom order, but you do "invert the turtle" first thing every morning to reprioritize. However, GTD practitioners will wonder about this strategy. As Allen points out, there are many factors that influence our focus - and therefore our priorities - so GTD takes a stand at the opposite end of the prioritization spectrum: Instead of ordering everything, order nothing, and use the moment to decide what to do next, based on context, time, energy, and priority. (Marc talks a little about it in Getting Things Done - The Four Criteria Model.) That said, I can definitely see the potential this idea has for making progress.

Virtual in-tray: He has you allocate a spot on your desk as a "virtual in-tray," which is the only paper collection point in your system. It's not even a tray, just an approved space for you and others to use for incoming paper. In this sense, it's like a standard in-basket, but the twist is that you're supposed to empty it immediately when anything arrives. If you leave the desk, it will fill up, so the first thing you do when returning is to empty it. He admits this is counter intuitive, but claims it's worth it to have an empty inbox all the time. I much prefer Allen's idea of a small number collection points (including email) that are working for you behind the scenes, but which don't distract you until you decide to be in processing/organizing mode (maybe using a WorkFlow tool). For me, having to interrupt and shift my attention every time something comes in would be very disruptive.

Workspace layout: Merson spends a good bit of time having you manage your desk because doing so "creates an atmosphere of efficiency." There are a few that stand out - consider the following diagram (in patented ASCII-Vision(TM)):

| |
| .-----------------------------. |
| | | |
| virtual | | |
| in-tray | | |
| ........ | | phone |
| | | | | |
| | | | | |
| |
<--------------- clear 180o ------------------+----------->|
| |
,---. | computer |
/ \ | |
( chair ) | |
\ / | |
`---' '------------'

Some points to note:
  • He has you create a Clear "180" in front of you - the place where you work with the project/task of the moment, which should have zero distractions. I like this idea, but it has some ramifications:
  • Your computer is not directly in front of you in your primary work area; it's to the side on a computer return. As a programmer my first reaction is that I couldn't live with this arrangement, but it got me thinking. I'd like to hear from anyone who has tried this.
  • The only organization tool on your desk is the virtual in-tray (later he adds an out-tray, but I don't believe it's supposed to be in your 180). This makes me wonder about my workspace layout (photo here). Specifically, I have the following right in front of me: my stacking trays, my computer monitor, and my bookshelf. Maybe it's time to move some things around...
  • He treats the desktop as a tool, like any other. Here's how he puts it:
    The primary purpose of your desktop is to work on one and only one project at a time.
  • The virtual in-tray is right in your 180, a contradiction to maintaining focus, but apparently necessary if you're to continuously monitor it to keep it empty (see discussion above).

Filing: He recommends a more elaborate filing system that that of GTD, including separating articles, clippings, etc. into a "library" (which he has you file in the drawer's front), and organizing files by Client, Project, or Task. I prefer the simplicity of the A-Z scheme described by Allen, and I even mix project materials and general reference in one drawer (all labeled of course), which works great. But filing is a matter of individual preference, and I never ask clients to change something that works. But A-Z is a wonderful starting point.

Call logs: Merson recommends tracking voice mails and calls using a dedicated notebook, as opposed to GTD's @Calls context. (GTD doesn't have explicit tracking of calls made, just ones you need to make.) Managing a separate book seems overly complicated to me, but I wonder if it's necessary for certain kinds of jobs. However, I don't spend much time on the phone, so maybe having a central log makes sense. I'd welcome any comments about this.

Reading: He has you maintain a reading terminal, which is a prioritized stack of reading you want to do. It's like Allen's Read/Review folder, which I like because it's portable, enabling slipping in reading while waiting. (As Ronni Eisenberg says in Organize Your Office! Simple Routines for Managing Your Workspace, "Keep small projects handy for idle moments, " a great time management principle.) Merson also suggests using rip-and-read, another classic, and something Gretchen mentions in Tips...for handling mail.. (The idea is simply to quickly scan magazines, pull out relevant articles, and toss the rest. Don't keep the whole magazine around - it's heavy and a distraction.) Interestingly, he has you stack in reading priority, while I've been doing it FIFO. Put another way, he has you think when you file, and I've been thinking when I retrieve. I'd love to hear your strategies.

Capture tool hacks: He had two capture tricks I liked. First, he keeps a grease pencil in shower. When a thought comes, he writes it down on the wall or glass, the transcribes it after getting out. (Jason Womack talks about a related idea in Productive...in your own way, where he writes desired outcomes or his current focus with a dry erase pen on the mirror above his desk.)

The second neat idea is to keep a note pad and a lighted pen (e.g., the Power-Glo Light Pen) near your bedside for nighttime capture. I love this because one of the GTD benefits for me was improved sleep, a key to which is 100% capture. However, when I'm trying to sleep but thoughts are spinning, I currently need to get up, go to my desk, turn on a light, and do a quick mind sweep. Much better to do it right in bed!

Turtle "touch downs": Here's something I'd certainly never thought of, the idea of completing all active tasks up to that moment. Apparently it only happens once or so in a career, and he offers a reward if you have one, but it's hard to get my head around the idea. I guess the GTD equivalent would be completing all of your projects and next actions, but that would mean that at some point stopping adding new ones. In that case I suspect the real next action would be something like "call funeral home to schedule internment." On second thought, that might be a good one to delegate.

Reader Comments (15)

I do mostly computer work, but of course have to deal with papers, reading articles etc, and I have my computer on a return. It works just fine. The only problem is when I need to look at a paper document and the computer at the same time (i.e. alternate between them). Then, because of the laptop on the stand, I can just put the paper on top of the laptop keyboard. Might need to do something else if you had a different set-up.

Picture of the setup [ here | http://flickr.com/photos/brocktice/4747667/ ]

July 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

Hey Matt,

Merson's book would have made a lot of sense in say 1970 - pre-pc, internet, cell phone - and pre the way people online live and work today.

Today, the readers of your great blog, and more and more people *live online*. Their work is there. So are their friends, their information, their hobbies.

The biggest weakness of an otherwise great productivity methodology (GTD) is that is barely touches the online world.

I think - both for what you are doing and in general - the online GTD community needs to focus on GTD Online.

BTW - thanks for the great summary/review - it saved me from adding YACPB (Yet Another Clueless Productivity Book) to my shelves of the same. :)

July 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBob Walsh

Hey, Brock. Thanks for letting me know how you have your computer set up, and for the picture. Nice!

July 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Bob. Thanks for your valuable perspective on the book's historical context, and its lack of online "roots."

I was surprised by your comment about GTD's online integration challenges. What I've been thinking is GTD, with its implementation flexibility (paper, digital, etc), works great in the online word, as long as the program supports calendar, email, and task features. I'd like to hear more about it - perhaps a ToDoOrElse post?

Thanks also for reading, and for the compliment! I'm glad it saved you some time.

July 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I would absolutely agree with the usefulness of "clean space" on your (real) desktop. I don't think it matters much whether it's in your front 180 or off to one side - but keeping clean space is vital.

I'm not a programmer, but I do spend a lot of time online doing research, emails or developing presentations. But when it comes to collecting my thoughts or brainstorming I absolutely rely on clean space in front of me to sketch on, or collect and organise post-it's or 3x5's. It's not just a physical need - it's psychological too. If I have no space I feel constrained and cramped - and this is reflected in my thinking.

I know many people who like to do their thinking "in their heads" and then get it straight down into their computer. But I find that "thinking on paper" first really improves the quality of what I'm doing. I'm not alone either - Harvard researchers Howard & Barton published on the topic back in 1988 (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0688077587/102-2105867-9836151?v=glance&n=283155)



July 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIan

I looked at the book a little bit a while ago, but put it aside in favor of some others. Here are my reactions to some of your specific points.

Turtle: No can-do. The weekly review keeps me on top of the next actions that need to be done. From there, I rely mostly on the 4 criteria model to determine my priorities.

Virtual in-tray: Another no can-do. I agree with you, Matt. Furthermore, instant processing is, to me, dangerous. It would tempt me to go into firefighting mode, rather than sweeping out the box at regular intervals and incorporating new stuff into my regular workflow.

Computer Return: This works for me. It might be in part because I write left-handed, so having a large work surface to my left while I'm on the computer to my right is actually beneficial.

Clear 180: This is nice, but not essential for me. I have a desktop writing cushion (one of those clear plastic mats) that also serves to delineate the scope of my focus. If it's not on that mat, it's not something I'm focusing on. This lets me keep a small stack of materials that I'll need for other projects througout the day on the left side of my desk without being tempted to peck away at them. I do, however, make certain to clear my desk of project materials at the end of the day so I can start fresh the next day.

Filing: I agree with you on this one too, Matt. I used to have a psychotically complex system for filing, but I moved to a consolidated A-Z system and I'm much happier for it. My old system involved separate categories for different areas of focus (e.g., facilities, administration, personnel, social service programs, IT), but I would often have materials that would fit into more than one category. This increased the number of possible locations for those materials and made it both frustrating to file (where should it go?) and frustrating to retrieve (where did I put that?). A-to-Z reduces the complexity and frustration. Then there was the index-based secret code naming convention (I'm not going to get into that)....

Call Logs: I love call logs. In my previous job, I used a looseleaf notebook with monthly dividers and custom-made forms (usually just one sheet per day) to log incoming and outgoing calls with messages and outcomes. It was nice because it created an interaction "history" and I was able to work the forms into weekly reviews to make sure nothing got missed there. I have a lower volume of calls coming in and going out these days, but I still use the system because I've found that it works for me.

Reading: I don't really have a strategy (which is probably why I'm hopelessly behind). I tend to default to FIFO.

Capture hacks: I love the grease pen idea. It's just a matter of convincing the wife that it's okay to write on the shower walls. Maybe I should just get one of those SCUBA writing tablets. The pad on the nightstand is also good. I like using 3x5 index cards so I can integrate them into other parts of my system.

July 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDon

Hi Ian. Thanks for your comments re: keeping clean space. I agree, and it seems like one of those natural laws: things need space to grow - plants, ideas, relationships, etc.

Thanks also for the link to "Thinking on Paper" - it's now on my [ wish list | http://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/wishlist/ref=yourlists_pop_1/002-4940021-9201636 ].

Finally, good luck with your new GTD blog - it looks great!

July 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Wow, Don - Thanks very much for the great comments. I like your use of a desktop writing pad to create a zone of focus, and I appreciated your story re: complex filing schemes. Thanks also for the call log information.

July 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt,

Count on it! :)

There is a huge hole in GTD tools out there right now: turning what you find on the web today into actionable information. You will be hearing a lot more on this particular topic as more and more people overload on "actionless" information.

July 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBob Walsh

Sounds great, Bob. Looking forward to it!

July 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I didn't pay much attention to this post, but I read the tip to use lighting pen and paper at night.

Folks, I cannot help myself, but why not to use voice recorder? I bought one a year ago and it is a great tool for capuring all my ideas and daydreams 24/7. Heck, you don't even have to buy one, you have one right in your mobile phone! So just put your phone into airplane mode and keep it at your nightstand. It has some drawbacks (it's hard to draw with your voice and it takes some time to go through the recordings), but it works well for me.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRadek Pilich

Hi Radek. Thanks for stopping by. I found using the recorder for day-to-day capture to limited, as compared to paper. The #1 thing for me was having to transcribe. Just too slow and cumbersome. Night capture is another: Speaking means waking someone else up. The main point, though, is that you're doing it. Use what works for you.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I have gone througth the entire Chaos Over program with Len Merson which inclued a classroom traing session and four one on one training sessions. At first I found the program very helpful. Cleared my desk and organized my office.

But as the program progressed I found myself spending more time managing my turtle and email than doing work. I receive 50 to 100 emails aday. I found myself spending vast amounts of my time filing the email, creating turtle sheets for those emails, printing them out and fliing in my turtle. I ending up using huge quantite of blue paper, the blue paper for your turtle sheets is a requiement of Mr Merson.

I am still using Mr Merson concepts but have adatped them to work in then 21st century office environment.

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks very much, Anonymous. I didn't know about his program (http://www.chaosover.com/index.shtml - blog here, BTW: http://chaosover.blogspot.com/), and I was interested to read about your processes as you got into it. I agree about overhead: There's a balance (different for each of us) between structure and results. Creating sheets for each thing struck me as unscalable too.

I'd love to know how you adapted the ideas. I'm always learning!

September 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
[from http://frankbuck.org/ ]

I had read a very short review of the book which gave it a great deal of praise, so I wanted to know more of the specifics. I quick Google search led me here. Thanks for the specifics on the principles of this system.

Here is my reaction to some of the those principles:
1. Computer on the return--Yes! I have been doing this 15 years. Swivel 90 degrees and I'm working on the computer. Swivel back and I am working with paper. I have a dual monitor arrangement and don't want the hardware taking up desk space. I do not even allow the phone to be on the desk. It is also on the return.
2. Clear 180--Another "Yes" depending upon how clear "clear" is. I have several pictures and well-chosen decorative items. I also have a physical inbox (now). (I retired from school administration and am a full-time consultant working from home. The amount of paper in my life is pretty small now. When I was a principal, my inbox (incoming never touched items) was beside my secretary and a stack of papers placed in the order I wanted to handle them was in a shallow drawer in my desk (similar to the turtle pile). Now, I have a decorative letter tray with cover that houses the papers I am going to work with in order.
3. Turtle pile--No to do list--When I read the system did away with a to-do list, I wondered how that one was going to work. So, everything is written down on a separate piece of paper? I guarantee I can order my work, have a better overview of what's coming up for the day, and find anything with the way I use Outlook to house to to-dos. I think the turtle pile would be an improvement for the person who has no system, but can't see it working for someone who handles multiple projects.
4. Reading--These go in a file in my tickler system. Whatever I am currently reading is in the inbox.
5. Call log--I am a very digital person, but I could not live without my paper journal. I use it to take note during phone calls, meetings, and to brainstorm. It's the simplest method of documentation I have found. at the end of the day, I decide what I need to do about anything I have written, and put that into Outlook. I have an easy system for getting back to notes that I have taken even years before when I need to find that documentation.
October 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.