Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

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


The artifacts of getting organized, and their misleading prosaic nature

In the article Tools versus Process, Geekle talks about "the myth that tools [themselves] can make you more productive." I agree - to truly change and become more productive, adopters of any new organization system (including the one that I practice, from David Allen's book Getting Things Done) must change their thinking and habits, rather than simply buying something. As Allen says of his system in particular, it's simple (i.e., it's understandable and uses skills everyone has), but not easy (i.e., requires instituting the aforementioned changes).

I think this concept is behind a pattern I've noticed when introducing people to Allen's work. If I start the conversation by talking about the artifacts of getting organized (paper, to-do lists, folders, etc.) oftentimes their immediate reaction will be something like "lists - oh yea, I use lists" and then they're gone. End of story. (I see similar reactions when talking about filing systems.) I think one problem is that the tools of the discipline are composed of prosaic and common everyday business items, but the value is in how you use them. For example, when I started adopting GTD I experienced this distinction keenly with respect to how I used my calendar. Previously I'd been mixing date-independent action items with "hard landscape" appointments that had to happen on certain days, but once I had the conceptual framework (OK, "idea") of separating them, the use of the artifact became crystal clear. And this clarity allowed me to use the tool in a far more effective manner.

I believe this problem (focusing on tool, not process) is exacerbated when talking with the kinds of confident and intelligent people I work with, who sometimes assume they "got it" (or enough of it) after a brief introduction to dive in. (And to be honest, I think the geek culture many of us inhabit has a bigger focus on the "nouns" - be they electronic or paper - than on the "verbs" - process.) In other words, simply thinking solely about the artifacts can cause underestimation of the system's power, which in turn distracts potential users who might benefit from it. Such a focus also waters down the methodology's ability to be heard in a culture with a thousand other getting organized books and systems. (Searching Amazon for "organizing" gets almost 3,000 hits.)

However, as Don Norman writes, I think it's natural for us to be excited by attractive and functional things, and, for those of us who strive to improve ourselves, seeing tools like those mentioned above holds a promise for helping us deal with our stuff. (I admit - I now love to browse the office supply section of our awesome local general store - stickers, note cards, pens - yum!) But the challenge is to help people realize it's not the tool, but the process (as Geekle said) that provides the real power for lasting change. As Marian Bateman says in What is Organized?:
The real issue is not how your home or office looks, but how we all think about our workflow... This is the paradigm shift that is so radical, it is not about our outer environment, it is about our inner environment. The new conversation is about how we learn the methodology about the art of work. It is an educational process that takes time and energy to learn, just like learning any language.

Two little joys and sorrows using my filing system

I had a couple of surprising ups and downs today while retrieving from my filing system. (I use the simple alphabetical scheme described in David Allen's book Getting Things Done.) First, a housemate needed to connect her G4 Mac to our wireless router. I located the folder in my first try, under the heading (wait for it...) "Wireless" in about 10 seconds. Thankfully, my notes included the Mac-specific detail of using a dollar sign before the WEP password - hard-earned knowledge that made getting set up a snap. Sweet!

Sadly, my second try to find a file was the extreme opposite: I needed some warranty information for our exercise bike (the awesome Vision Fitness E3100), but I couldn't find it anywhere. I spent at least fifteen minutes looking through all the categories I expected it would be under - "Receipts - Equipment", "Receipts - Bikes", "Manuals - Equipment", "Manuals - Electronics", "Exercise", "Bike", etc. Nothing! I then checked my secondary storage (three cardboard banker's boxes in my closet) with no luck. It really bugged me, and I was ready to give up when I remembered a "catch all" drawer in our pantry that I vaguely recalled had some papers. Sure enough; the drawer was a nice little hidey hole that I had missed in my initial collection process. The lesson: Check all of your nooks and crannies.

I finished up by using the information to add an action to my @calls list (including the phone number, of course), and I added "file bottom pantry drawer papers" to my @home list.

When the boss is Getting Things Done ... you'd better too!

Today I met with my (very smart) boss, the person who introduced me to David Allen's book Getting Things Done (AKA GTD). Because I have a lot of autonomy, we tend to meet only once a week or two, which means our time together tends to produce lots of action items. (See my entry Dealing with Meeting Notes - GTD to the Rescue! for more on processing these.) Two things struck me during today's meeting - First, I got to witness and enjoy the "dance" that happens between individuals practicing GTD. For example, we both came prepared with agendas for each other, which made the meeting smooth, efficient, and gave us time to enjoy ourselves while we worked. The second thought came to me when he started going through his "Waiting For" list for me: When a supervisor practices GTD, I suspect it becomes rapidly clear when an employee is not being productive. For example, if I didn't have an action for each of his delegated items, it would be obvious, as well as embarrassing. I can see why it would make sense to train a supervisor first, since that could drive others to adopt (i.e., a "top down" approach). Of course I can also see it going "bottom up," esp. if such grass roots adoption is easier for the organization. Finally, I imagine that when a team as a whole adopts a productivity system like Allen's, the results could be huge. (Marian Bateman talks about this in The Impact of Workflow Coaching for a Team .) I'd love to hear from anyone who's done such a group implementation.

(Warning - entering GTD geek mode: As an aside, I've noticed that I sometimes have items for the same person on both my "Waiting For" list and that person's Agenda. As a programmer, redundancy bothers me, and I haven't found a good way to work around it, save for training myself to check both places during a meeting. Has anyone else has had this come up?)

Paper planner guest article up on diyplanner.com

For interested readers, Doug Johnston has just posted a new article of mine at www.diyplanner.com called Four Planner Hacks for Paper-Based Productivity. It details a few small tricks that I've discovered for users of paper planners.

Limited posting for the next week or so

I'll be travelling to the Midwest visiting family (central Illinois, Chicago, and the Indianapolis area) for the next week or two, so the posts will be somewhat spotty.