Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on ... who knows. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have thoughts, questions, or want to get involved. Cheers! -- matt

Tuesday
Sep202005

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...
Sunday
Sep182005

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

Issues
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.
Saturday
Sep172005

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...
Tuesday
Sep132005

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.


Buzz

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.


TKD

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.)


DIY/hPDA

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,
dj
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.
Sunday
Sep112005

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.