Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on tech, creative ideas, digital citizenship, and life as an experiment.


Organizing Electronic Documents GTD-Style?

Over at Lifehack.Community user anithri asks "How do I organize a large and growing collection of Electronic documents?":
I have a collection of 200+ PDF's, Word docs, text files...It's easy to find one if I know the name of what I'm looking for already, but opening a large number of them looking for what I'm currently interested in is getting very old very quickly.

What I'd ideally like is an application that allows me to "tag" my files ala del.icio.us or flickr.com and then allow me to pull up lists of all files with a particular tag.
This is a big problem that's near and dear to my heart, and one that hasn't been adequately addressed yet. It's a huge topic (the British Computer Society recently called "Memories for life" one of the Grand Challenges in Computing), but I wanted to briefly: a) observe that current techniques are missing the point (relationships), and 2) ask if a GTD-style A-Z reference system apply to the digital realm.

Current Filing Techniques Aren't Relational

The two suggestions given in response to the Lifehack article ("use Spotlight as the tagging system", and "look into Google Desktop") are based on an IR-style index-and-search approach, also discussed in The Death of Folders? and The File Manager Is Dead. Long Live the Lifeblog. However, I think these approaches are missing one of the fundamental concepts about our information: It is connected. Among other things, documents relate to:
  • people (e.g., about them (incl. photos), received from them, or sent to them),
  • events (e.g., prepared for, or received during), or
  • projects (e.g., supporting information or output artifact)
In fact, it's hard for me to think of any document that simply exists by itself; i.e., context provides much greater meaning for documents. The recent move towards tagging tries to leverage connections in an ad hoc manner - by providing support for arbitrary keywords, a form of linking in which connections are expressed via sharing the same keyword(s). However, this impoverished form of linking has limitations, including not supporting attributes on the links themselves. More on this later, but you might want to leave you with some related links.
A simple alpha filing system for electronic documents?

The other idea this question stimulated is applying David Allen's GTD filing system to the digital realm. I'm currently testing this for email, and it has worked pretty well so far. Briefly, in addition to @action and @waiting-for, I have a top-level email directory for each letter of the alphabet, each of which contains email archive files (mbox files on my unix machine) for each project (e.g., n/nsf-site-visit-2005, p/personal-information-web). Finally, each of those latter files contains the relevant messages. Here's the conceptual map (vertical dimension is 'containment', with the outer-most container at the top):

filing cabinetemail system
A-Z dividera-z top-level directory
file foldermbox email file
piece of paperemail message

This works OK - Filing is pretty fast, for the same reasons as with the analog GTD version: Quick to dream up a name, only a few places I might have put it, etc. However, due to the email client I use (pine), textual search is pretty difficult. (Side note: When will someone write a simple lucene Java app to index mbox files? JavaMail has been around forever!) What I'd like to know is how well an analogous system would apply to documents. Maybe I'll give it a try, at least for new ones. However, compared to most people my electronic document needs are pretty basic - I seem to rely mostly on email, printed documents, Manila folders, and letter size paper. (Yes, it's about as low tech as possible.)

As always, comments are welcome.

Dealing with Meeting Notes - GTD to the Rescue!

One area of my life that David Allen's system has really clarified is how to handle meeting notes. For example, today I had three significant meetings - a programmer/design meeting with two others, an impromptu meeting with my boss (thank goodness I was ready with my Waiting For and Agenda - we completed a bunch of items), and an Extreme Programming (XP) planning meeting with five others that I led. In all three cases I came away with notes that I'd taken during the meetings, marked up with my own little lexicon of "attention icons" (i.e., my way of marking action items, important notes, etc. - for example, an encircled upper case "A" for "action", as earlofmar11 describes).

Before implementing GTD these kinds of notes were a major, persistent frustration for me: I didn't know what to do with them, how to get action items from them, whether to keep them, and (if so) where to save them, and for how long. So they'd end up getting added to the pile. Now it's straightforward: At the end of each meeting I just them in my portable "Inbox" folder, which I dump that evening into my main Inbox at home. Then, when I'm processing the Inbox I handle the notes like all other "Stuff":
  • What is it? Meeting notes.
  • Is it actionable? Yes.
  • What's the next action?"Harvest" the notes for items needing my attention.
  • Two minutes or less to do? It depends on how extensive/complex the notes are. If it looks like there are only a few items, I'll go ahead and process each one into the appropriate bucket (usually a Next Action or Calendar/Tickler). Otherwise I'll add an @Anywhere Next Action that says "process xx meeting notes", and I'll stick the notes themselves in my Action Support folder (which I carry with me).
There are a few issues with this. Sometimes meetings notes are extensive enough that I cringe a bit when I pick them up. But we're creative and courageous, so I dig in. Also, if I'm not carefully checking my Next Actions every day, the notes will languish (which, as Bellaisa points out is not a good idea due to their short "half life"). But addressing that is part of my continuing goal to hone my GTD skills. Finally, some next actions might not be clear, and take a bit of thinking. For example, there might be an action I need to take after something else happens. Again, this is standard GTD processing, and well worth it - dealing with it one time as it "emerges on my radar" is much better than thinking about it repeatedly each time I see it.

Are there any meeting notes learnings you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them.

A Problem in GTD Blog Land?

I read two interesting posts today regarding the large number of GTD-related blogs, and both asked whether there are too many low quality ones written by amateurs (What I'd like to see from GTD sites and Let's Talk About The GTD Hype). First, I'll say that I think it's healthy for a community to question itself - the introspection can lead to growth, and, for me, lead me to think about what I'm doing ("What's the successful outcome?"). For me (a productivity coach-in-training) writing helps me:
  • more deeply understand my new field,
  • get feedback from other coaches/thinkers, and
  • offer a body of work for current and prospective clients.
I believe one of the most powerful aspects of blogs is just what some of the commenters disliked - almost anyone (well, anyone with time, a computer, and a net hookup, which eliminates a good portion of the U.S.) can say her piece. Be they CAT blogs, BOSS blogs, or VIRAL blogs, they all give a voice to the author, which can help one liberate and develop. In my case, I write because I've found myself irresistibly drawn to this field, and I've been swept up with the idea of exploring coaching. Writing helps me answer these questions:
  1. Do I enjoy it?
  2. Am I good at it?
  3. Does it help others?, and
  4. Is there a market for it?
(in that order). The bottom line is this: Allen's methodology has helped me tremendously; it has captured my imagination, has exposed me to something that's pulling me along (instead of being pushed by me), and I'm fully enjoying the process. Does my blog add to the "noise" level? Sure! Is it authoritative? I'm trying (I have my esteemed peers). But basically I'm having fun and I'm learning a lot about myself. What more could a blogger ask for?

Reading Books The GTD Way

I had a little stump-the-coach moment working one of my practice clients on the phone last night, and I'd like to hear others' thoughts in it. She was describing her office to me (no digital camera) and she mentioned her stack of books-in-progress. She was right on when she suggested they should probably go in their own location that doesn't contribute to clutter, but is readily available, but she wanted to know how to "trigger" reading them. Hmmm. That one got me thinking about my own book reading system, and whether it adheres to David Allen's discipline (AKA GTD). The answer: No.

As I mentioned earlier, I love using a portable Read/Review folder for non-book writings, but I realized that my current approach to books does not involve Next Actions. Instead, I was relying on two things: a) my habit of looking for a book to read when I needed one, and b) using the books themselves as triggers. Thinking about this made me realize that I'm not satisfied with the progress I've been making, partly because reading them is work. (I'm talking about reading for education, in which I take notes, think about what I read, and will want to change my behavior as a result - install a new habit, adopt a new technique, or create new Next Actions.) I've read a few interesting GTD-based solutions for blogs and news, but I've noticed fewer specific to books.

The solution? A straightforward application of Allen's principles, esp. breaking it down, and asking "What's the next action?" - My next action should be something like "read pages M-N of book X" (where the number of pages is small enough to make the action reasonably concrete), and, because the project ("read book Y") presumably involves two or more steps, I should also add an entry to my "Projects" list. Happily, I found similar advice on the GTD forums (Using GTD to manage reading books):
1. Write down every book you're currently in the middle of reading -- not every book you own or plan to read; just the ones that currently have your attention.

2. Decide which one would be best to finish first.

3. Make the page you're currently reading in that book your next action (e.g. "Read GTD pg. 118"), not arbitrary quotas like "Read Chapter 12."
I'd use a greater page range, but the advice is sound, and the technique, the author says, "cuts through the haze like magic".

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this...

Applying 'Boss' Blogging to a Research Lab

I work in a research lab of about a dozen people, and our mission (from my simple perspective) is to do great research, which boils down to a) doing good work, and b) writing about it and getting it published. We continue to experiment with different ways to do this well, having tried (among others):
  • setting up small 'working groups' that meet weekly,
  • writing frequent internal 'tech memos',
  • encouraging teaming up on authoring papers,
  • and presenting work in weekly lab meetings (including short 'chalk talks', paper reviews, and research status reports)
We're still looking for new ideas, and after reading Seth Godin's excellent eBook Who's There?, I've realized we've missed a possibly great one: 'Boss' blogging for research. I recommend you read the entire work, but here we're interested in BOSS BLOGS (as opposed to CAT BLOGS and VIRAL BLOGS). From page 14:
BOSS BLOGS are blogs used to communicate to a defined circle of people. A boss blog is a fantastic communications tool. I used one when I produced the fourthgrade musical. It made it easy for me to keep the parents who cared about our project up to date... and it gave them an easy-to-follow archive of what had already happened. If you don’t have a boss blog for most of your projects and activities, I think you should think about giving it a try.
It's that last line that lit the bulb: Why not have each student write his or her own boss blog in which she regularly journals about her research directions, status, challenges, successes, and failures? Such a blog (they can be internal so that only other lab members could read them) might accomplish the following:
  • encourage regular writing of short pieces, which would migrate into publishable work,
  • utilize peer pressure to motivate writing and thinking,
  • provide measurable production statistics, at a finer granularity than number of papers published, and early enough to indicate the need for help,
  • provide a central place for advisors to check for progress (in addition to, or in support of, weekly meetings),
  • provide a public forum for seeing the researcher's current thinking, and
  • provide a archived of research directions, questions, and progress

What are some of the issues with this? The first I can think of is concern that too much writing would be required. However, the whole point is to write, so as long as the blog is focused on the boss's main work (research), I don't see it as a problem.

A second concern is redundancy between research notebooks (often paper-based lab notebooks) and blogs. I think these perform different tasks: I see paper notebooks being used for capture (meeting notes) and brainstorming (ideas), and the blog used for condensed thinking, status, and research-related opinions (e.g., issues and ideas re: infrastructure, tools, etc.)

A third concern is redundancy with our current wiki. (We've used an internal wiki for a few years now, one of many excellent ideas from my fellow programmer.) However, the wiki functions as more of a group information repository (knowledge base), whereas the blog would be personalized and focused on the researcher.

Related Work
From a quick perusal there seems to be a growing collection of great thinking about this topic, though I'd like to differentiate between a single blog by a researcher for outside consumption, vs. a group of blogs written by members of a research lab. Of course there's a lot of overlap. Here are a few highlights that I've found (others welcome):

Research Blogging?, by Sven-S. Porst: He brings up these issues: Limited readership (too specific and technical), writing takes time, thoughts not coherent enough to write about. Advantages: documentation (historical), communication (but indirect), contact outside lab.

Notes for my talk about blog research and research blogs, by Lilia Efimova: She has lots of thoughts, many about the social implications, but there are also research-specific ideas, esp. here and here. She lists the following blog uses:
  • for making notes about things I read
  • for saving pointers to the delayed reading. When I have time I add notes and remove the post from to read category
  • for capturing ideas and thoughts
  • for (occasional) reading news from others
  • as my representation in internet. At least I had something to refer to David Gurteen expressing my interest in knowledge-logs
Finally, here she says her blog provides a conversation for growing ideas, and a way to make some free space in memory.

Personal knowledge publishing and its uses in research, by Sébastien Paquet: He calls this "personal knowledge publishing":
Personal knowledge publishing quite simply consists in an activity where a knowledge worker or researcher makes his observations, ideas, insights, interrogations, and reactions to others' writing publicly in the form of a weblog.
He lists the following uses of personal knowledge publishing for research:
  • Helping in selecting material
  • Visible web of interpersonal trust
  • Managing personal knowledge
  • Obtaining speedy feedback on ideas
  • Facilitating connections between researchers
  • Clustering content relating to emerging fields
  • Fostering diversity
  • Opening up windows in the Ivory Tower(s)
Importantly, he differentiates this from k-logging (aka klogging):
I wish to make a distinction between personal knowledge publishing and knowledge logging or K-logging. K-logging is actually the more general term of the two. It encompasses personal knowledge publishing, which consists of publishing on the Web for everyone to see, as well as "inward" K-logging, where knowledge sharing is restricted to an organization, and typically supported by an intranet. The distinction has to do with the scope of distribution, but not with the tool itself.

I'd love to hear how other research groups have utilized blogs for moving their research ahead.