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


Some David Allen "twos" - two reasons we procrastinate, and two kinds of problems

Here is a pair of related thoughts that I picked up from David Allen's Getting Things Done. Paraphrasing him:
  • There are only two reasons for procrastination: The task is either a) overwhelming (too big), or b) not motivating (unpleasant).

  • There are only two problems in life: a) You know what your want, and you don't know how to get it, and/or b) you don't know what you want.
As you might have guessed, Allen's solution (typically clear and powerful) is to apply his two big focusing questions, respectively:
  1. What's the next action?
  2. What's the desired outcome?
(They're usually shown in the reverse order.) More specifically, for the first case (procrastination), he advises us to either break it down even further (Lakein calls this his "Swiss Cheese" method - poke some holes in it, AKA "instant tasks"), or focus on the positive outcome (you're doing it for a reason - harness that motivation to work around the avoidance). For the latter, Lakein has additional advice: either 1) deal with the unpleasantness directly (fear), 2) recognize the greater unpleasantness that results from delay (risks), or 3) create enthusiasm that counterbalances the unpleasantness (stress the benefits).

The second case ("life problems"), which Allen credits "Steven Snyder" for (here?) is really a generalization of his approach - we haven't clarified the task sufficiently to "intelligently dumb down" your mind, or we haven't focused sufficiently on the positive outcome.

What looking at this finally connected for me was what Allen says at the end of his book (and which is one of the quotes on his complimentary RoadMap notepad): There are only two solutions:
  • Make it up.
  • Make it happen.
(You can find a little more about it in his article Making It Up and Making It Happen.) I find that these are simple, deep, and really apply to me personally - I'm exploring this area (GTD, personal productivity, time management etc.) without a map (no training or certification programs from davidco, for example), so I'm truly making it up. And to make it happen, I'm doing everything I can - writing, reading, thinking, talking, and meeting others. Fun!

For reference, here are some other ideas for addressing procrastination and todo anxieties:And finally, for fun, here are all the quotes from the RoadMap seminar notepad:
  • If it's on your mind, it's probably not getting done
  • Make it up! Make it happen!
  • Psychic Ram has limited space and it's a terrible office
  • Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax
However, as popular as Allen's work is, I doubt you'll be seeing these in the movie theater before your next show. It might get people thinking, though...

My GTD tally: 70 NAs, 30 PROJs, & 15 AORs

A quickie: I attended David Allen's GTD | RoadMap seminar on Friday in Boston (it was great), and I again heard his various average "counts" for professionals - Next Actions, Projects, etc. So I thought I'd add mine up - I'd be curious how these compare with yours: Right now I have ~70 Next Actions (including Waiting Fors and Agenda items), ~30 projects, and ~15 areas of responsibility. According to Allen (depending on when you talk to him) most people have 150-170 Next Actions, 30-100 projects, and 10-15 categories of areas of responsibility. (So I'm an overly responsible person with a lower-than-average amount of work to do? Doesn't feel that way!)

I didn't include the higher level horizons (Goals, Vision, and Purpose) because I haven't worked them out clearly enough, and (to be honest) they seem like the weakest and least thought out portion of Allen's book. (Yes, I'm a little resistant, you might notice.) As a result, I came out of the seminar realizing that getting clarity in those areas is one of the next challenges I'd like to work on.

Hipster BC - My GTD business card, with a surprise on the back

Here's a quick snap of the front and back of the business cards I had made up for David Allen's GTD | RoadMap seminar that I attended on Friday in Boston (more on the seminar in another post):

GTD Business Card, Front and Back

The card's front (left hand side) has basic contact info; it's hard to see in the photo, but at the bottom it reads (in gray):
collect - process - organize - review - do
On the back (right hand side) is Doug Johnston's incomparable GTD Quick Reference Card, which includes "a flow chart, a weekly review list, and a list of 'Stuff' (TM, patent pending)".

Rather than going for something traditional, I wanted to make a card that would a) draw some attention (Doug's images does so nicely - always good for a "cool!"), b) educate a bit about the Allen's work, and c) give me some visual GTD talking points. The diagram is small, but I'm using it both for a visual symbol (icon) as well as concepts for me to go over with interested folks. I've found that even if someone can't read the words, I know them, and can present the flow while talking and pointing to the boxes. Of course I always give appropriate credit to Allen and Johnston (thanks, guys).

Getting the most from David Allen's RoadMap seminar?

This Friday I'll be attending David Allen's GTD | The RoadMap seminar in Boston (if you'll be there, please ), and I'm trying to prepare so as to get the most out of it. Following are some tips from two sources that I thought were smart; I'd love to hear any additional ideas from you.

First, here are some tips from Jason Womack:
  • Do your research - In Learn more, faster, he recommends thorough research before the event.
  • Arrive Early - Meet the staff!
  • Move around the room at each break - He suggests asking people if it's OK to switch seats. One gets a different experience from each location.
  • Don't feel the need to write too much - This seminar goes fast, and others have blogged about it in some detail.
  • Stay open - Some people tune out when they hear something that sounds like it doesn't apply to them. If that situation occurs: a) ask yourself why you don't want it to apply, and b) search for a way for it to apply. Connect the parable/story to something you've experienced, or might experience. Stay an active and engaged listener.
  • Bring 150 business cards, and try not to go home with any.
There was also some great advice from Getting the Most Out of Attending Conferences:
  • Choose carefully - talk to someone who has previously attended.
  • Combine travel with other events/possibilities in area.
  • Decide successful outcome - reflect on goals and objectives.
  • Be an active listener - listen for nuggets of information that you can use. Look for easy-to-implement high-impact ideas.
  • Bring questions/problems for Q/A, and introduce yourself when asking.
  • Make contact with the presenter after the session is over.
  • Socialize - Never eat alone. Collect and pass out business cards, but be discriminating, jot a reminder note on the back, and follow up afterwards.
  • Follow up - call locals on attendees list you didn't meet.
  • Share within your organization - let others know what you learned (basic overview, plus learnings).

Did these miss any of your favorites?

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.