Welcome to the Experiment-Driven Life blog!

This is the place to learn about the Think, Try, Learn approach to life, get news about Edison (the TTL experimenter's journal), and read thoughts and news about personal science, self-experimentation, and the quantified self. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have thoughts, questions, or want to get involved. Cheers! -- matt


Getting Things Done stages - Saints, Prophets, and Evangelists?

No, I don't consider myself any of those. But here's the story: I've been exploring coaching others in David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (AKA GTD), and I would like to characterize the stages (or phases) of adoption of ideas like this. I strongly suspect there's a standard psychological framework for this, and I hope that someone can point me to it. I'm interested because I'm clearly in something like an evangelist stage, and I'm curious about whether others have gone through similar phases. Here's a first pass at some of the stages I've experienced:
  1. exposure (my boss told me about the book, and was excited about it)
  2. resistance (got the book, but let it sit for a few months)
  3. learning (read the book, started asking around about it)
  4. excitement (loved the methodology and ideas)
  5. commitment to adopt (implemented it)
  6. personal benefit (multiple improvements)
  7. deeper exploration (trying different systems)
  8. desire to share (increasing GTD focus of this blog)
  9. evangelist (convinced it's the One True ____ - god, system, etc.)
  10. generalization (considering GTD influences, other systems)
  11. comfort (wizened practitioner?)
The closest framework I've found is from religion:
...the steps of the process [...] may follow the pattern shown below.

Step One - Self Questioning Phase
Step Two - Self Doubt Phase
Step Three - Acceptance of the Solution Phase
Step Four - Acceptance of Obligatory Lifestyle Phase
Step Five - Financial Commitment Phase
Step Six - Personal Commitment Phase
Step Seven - Wholehearted Commitment (Holiness) Phase
I particularly like this bit:
... If the believer is able to continue to live according to this inner prompting as one's primary source of meaning and personal direction, he or she may become a saint, a prophet, and evangelist - a person wholly consumed by his or her religion.
Scary! Wired recently asked if GTD is a cult. If so, what does that make us self-appointed advocates? I wouldn't apply any of the above labels to myself in the literal sense (e.g., evangelism: "Militant zeal for a cause"). However, I have been surprised that, for a book on stress-free productivity, I've found it provides a framework for understanding the world, and has helped me explore, develop, and have a heck of a lot of fun.

I'd love hear your thoughts...

What a day - Buzz, TKD, DIY/hPDA, & GTD

This was a remarkable day for me, primarily because I was surprised by a number of "seeds" (which I've been slowly planting) that sprouted up a bit. I wanted to mention a few of them, then tip my hat to David Allen's ideas on project planning, esp. the power of envisioning wild success.


I read two great summaries of David Allen's new RoadMap seminar, both of which mentioned a "paper clip" exercise. From buzznovation: GTD...the Road Map...San Jose:
At the end of the day, David had us do a dazzling exercise with thread and a paper clip...you have got to see it.
(Buzz Bruggeman has a ton of great quotes, too many to list here. If you're interested, please check them out. Then read the book, get the CDs, and/or attend the seminar.) I then had the privilege of talking with him about the exercise (an apparently dramatic demonstration of the power of thoughts influencing reality), and a range of other topics, including:
  • NASA's challenge of incorporating change (I worked there for five years, not too far away from his company's location),
  • his very cool ActiveWords program, which Allen apparently loves (more on ActiveWords in a later post),
  • Tablet PCs (I have a Toshiba Portege 3500 that Microsoft generously granted me for research into Personal Information Management),
  • GTD (of course!),
  • some of his upcoming products and ideas, and
  • a few of the interesting conferences that he's presenting at or attending.
Our conversation reinforced an observation I made earlier: the depth and quality of Allen's supporters out there is very impressive. I think this speaks both for David Allen himself and the system (movement?) he's created. Great stuff.


In the "GTD turned my life around" category, I've started Tae Kwon Do (a Korean martial art) after a twenty year hiatus, and I took my yellow belt test last Friday. Today the Sa Bum Nim (teacher) handed out our belts. I was a first degree black belt in the 80s, but "reset" to white belt this time around, but I was really pleased when she put the (low ranking) yellow belt on me. (More in a later entry on being a beginner again, especially with TKD and GTD.)


Last week I had the honor of early access to Douglas Johnston's new D*I*Y Planner site. As I wrote about earlier, the D*I*Y Planner Hipster (including the PDA Edition) is very cool, and was my first analog list manager tool. Johnston was very kind (he called me a blogger with depth and breadth - which made my day). However, today I received this thoughtful email from him:
Did you see your quote used in the Boston Globe, my friend?

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2005/09/11/to_the_planner_born/ [link]

all my best,
This was very satisfying.

Wrap Up

What ties all of this together for me is Allen's project planning step of visualizing wild success. His ideas on visualization were new to me (I have an engineering and science background), and I've been enjoying the challenge of adopting them for my new projects (both professional and personal), especially my exploration into coaching GTD. To that end I've been creating mind maps and writing news stories and journal articles set in the future, all of which are extremely flattering (surprised?) about my very wild success. Today gave me a taste of the power of this idea. Thanks go to Buzz Bruggeman, Douglas Johnston, and David Allen.

When you hear that little voice, listen!

Have you ever had the following happen? You're doing something (a chore, writing, whatever) and your mind says "Hey, you really ought to ____." In my case the ____ has been:
  • wear safety goggles (while using a crowbar to break break up a wooden pallet)
  • check out that wet wood around the shower stall (while showering)
  • get my bike's freewheel fixed (while riding it)
  • go to bed (when I'm feeling really tired)
  • ...
In all of these cases my mind was doing the right thing - identifying situations that needed my attention. In the first one I listened, but in the other two I delayed. Now, had I been following David Allen's principles, I would have written these down and placed them in my Inbox (the collection step of his process), then put them in the appropriate Next Action categories to be done as soon as possible. However, I didn't do this, and as a result they both got worse and created additional stress. For the shower issue, I let it go too long, which resulted in some wood rot and insect infestation (plus anger, shame, etc.) In the bike case, my delay created the added time pressure of needing to get it fixed soon, since the bike was up for auction. If I had only acted sooner, things would have been better.

My artist friend, who was a fine woodworker in a previous life, said his boss at a NYC shop used to talk about this:
You got that Steven James quote right. He would use that phrase with an action. For example he would take an open gallon of paint and move it away from the edge of a table and into the center and look at you and say "If you think something's going to happen, it probably will."
I'd be curious to know if others have had this happen, and how they addressed the problem. In my case, I'm trying to use these experiences as lessons to help re-invigorate my GTD discipline, esp. the collection phase.

Fare thee well Hipster PDA - I barely knew ye

I've put me clothes in order
For our packet leaves tomorrow

Yes, our packet leaves tomorrow
And it fills me heart with sorrow

For I love to gaze upon you
And to spend me money on you

O you are me only treasure
And I love ye still full measure
(from Shallow Brown)

Well, after giving the Hipster Parietal Disgorgement Aid (hPDA) a solid two months of trial and tinkering, I've converted over to a paper planner. In this post I'll talk about why I changed (with pictures!), what planner I chose, how I've organized it, and how it's worked so far. (Apparently I'm not the only one who uses a paper planner for GTD, but of course there's always a variety.)

Why I changed

This first picture shows what I've been (until now) carrying around - my hPDA (at the top with the chili sticker), my two-page-per-week calendar (at the right with the red cover), and my little address book (bottom center, to the right of the scale indication artifact):

hPDA-based system

As you can imagine, I had to switch frequently between the three (esp. the first two), during my day, and I was getting tired of it. After looking around and doing a fairly detailed search (including some I hadn't heard of) I decided I liked the integrated (but still analog) solution a ring binder can provide. Additionally, I'm considering coaching GTD, and I wanted something that was simpler and looked a bit more polished.

What I chose

After looking on-line and locally I agonized a bit about what to buy, including the page size (I chose 3 3/4" x 6 3/4" pages), ring size (I chose 1" rings), and binder (zip, slip, snap, or open - sounds like a breakfast cereal ad). I finally decided on the Day-Timer Avalon, a basic but fairly compact starter set with undated pages. The following two pictures show it closed and open:

paper planner-based system

paper planner-based system

How I've organized it

I'm essentially using David Allen's instructions on how to set up a paper planner. The following picture shows the main sections:

paper planner contents

The top three are the main ones that I integrated from my previous system (GTD, calendar, and contacts, from left to right). The bottom three are "support" that I've found handy (checkbook holder, GTD diagrams for coaching, and misc. collection/carrying pockets, from left to right). (The contents are a mixture of products from Day-Timer and Day Runner.) The GTD tabs are straight from my hPDA: Inbox, Food Diary, Errand, Calls, Home, Waiting For & Agenda, Computer, Check Register, Projects, and Blank.

How it's worked so far

So far I'm very happy with the switch. Finding the right section, and retrieving/adding information is much faster, and I like the compact/clean feel of the whole package. For the future, I'm evaluating the vertical calendar (my previous was horizontal), and considering adding top tabs for the three main sections (the included "Today" marker/ruler works great for the calendar section).

I'd be curious to hear from others that have moved in either direction: hPDA->paper planner, and vice versa. Take care!

Applying GTD to aging gracefully - Improved memory!

Something I had noticed in the last year or so was a decrease in my memory's functioning, something that scared the bejesus out of me. The kinds of issues I noticed were smaller things like trouble remembering a name, recalling when I did an activity, etc. Apparently this is typical (in Silver Threads: Aging, Memory it's called "tip-of-the-tongue" memory loss), and it bothered the hell out of me. Both that article and Memory in the aging brain point out that there are significant reversible environmental and psychological factors that can impact memory, and that's where David Allen's Getting Things Done comes into play.

The gist is this: Since I started practicing GTD, I've seen a (perceived) significant improvement in this area. Specifically, I no longer worry about my memory, which, interestingly, in itself seems to help. From the Silver Threads article above:
"Research has identified three areas of importance," Warren said. These are:
  • [...]
  • Memory self-efficacy - an individual's sense of mastery and his or her beliefs about memory; and
  • Memory-related affect - how states of mind such as anxiety, fatigue or depression affect memory.
This research has found "that a person's confidence does affect performance," Warren reported. Negative beliefs about memory - "old timer's disease" - and emotional states do impact how a person's memory functions, she added.

And this leads to Allen's contribution: by collecting everything into a trusted system that's reviewed regularly, we can offload from our minds the activities that are better done by our artifacts (lists). This in turn frees up the mind to do what it's best at - make and retrieve associations, find patterns, be creative, etc. Additionally, this increased mental efficiency leads to increased confidence and trust, and decreased stress, which in turn creates a positive feedback loop.

At this point people unfamiliar with Allen's work might ask if this isn't just writing things down on lists. However, Allen's approach differs from other systems' uses of lists in some fundamental ways. Briefly:
  • Items on lists should be achievable concrete actions, not vague and general ones.
  • If there are many items, they should be grouped according to physical context (e.g., At Home, Errand, etc.)
  • The weekly review catches items that aren't getting done.
  • For items that represent progress in a multi-step project, the project should be listed in a separate master index.

There's one other aspect of memory that's under our control that GTD can (tangentially) help with: continued mental stimulation. From Lifestyle May Be Key to Slowing Brain's Aging:
Among the most tantalizing evidence are studies that have given rise to the use-it-or-lose-it theory. Several large projects have found that people who are more educated, have more intellectually challenging jobs and engage in more mentally stimulating activities, such as attending lectures and plays, reading, playing chess and other hobbies, are much less likely to develop Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The connection? Simply that I can apply GTD to create and manage my Increase Mental Stimulation project! Because the system is airtight and self-correcting, I'm guaranteed to make progress.

Finally, I want to leave you with this quote from Marc's blog:
As you can see, I never find myself in a situation where I have to rely on memory to capture and store an idea or action. This is the essence of the Collection phase of GTD.