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


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.


My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM

I was excited to to read this article (found via the unparalleled 43 Folders) describing one user's experiment with using a single (eventually large) text file to organize his stuff. For me the reason it's an interesting read is that I've been using a plain text file for my professional log/diary/journal/notes since Thu Sep 28 10:57:09 EDT 2000. In this post I'd like to talk about how I use the file, in hopes that it will give me some motivation and ideas.

FYI, my current file (see description next) has ~14,000 lines (~0.5MB), and my previous non-wiki file had ~55,000 lines (~1.5MB).


I've been using a single file for my professional ProgrammersNotebook since at least 1997. Initially it was a MS Word file (back in my Windows days), but when I moved to Linux I switched over to a simple ASCII file, which I edit in Emacs. The reason I used word was for its outliner - I organized the file by making each day a level 1 entry, and I listed them in reverse chronological order so that I could start at the top when adding the latest entry. The outliner let me structure the file a bit by breaking multi-line activities into separate entities. (Hey - sounds like the GTD principle of making something a project if it requires more than one next action. I'm in trouble - everything has GTD overtones these days...)

I organized the first ASCII file using Emacs' Outline Mode, but organized just like the Word file - reverse chronological, with structure via nesting. Incremental search allowed me to find (but sometimes painfully) items I needed, such as shell script notes, code snippets, and what I had been spending my time on. The problem was that it didn't allow linking and tagging, one of the primary ways I use in structuring information.

So on 2004-07-19 I moved to a second format (still ASCII edited via Emacs), which I described in my post on Photo Blogs, Wikis, and Memories for Life. Briefly, the file has simple entries separated by '----' and a time-stamp at the end. For example:

talked w/PersonOne re: Google-style undergraduate programming
contest. not clear what the topic should be. also talked about future
fun projects. one possibility: ProxIncrVisualization
(2005-08-19 12:37:48)
continued moving information over to planner. ugh- the undated pages
are a pain! wrote PersonTwo re: help, or maybe ordering a dated
set. PaperPlanners
(2005-08-19 08:32:37)
MUS: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=SourceWatch
(2005-08-19 08:29:25)

The big improvement is linking and tagging via WikiCase (AKA CamelCase or WikiWords). This helps me navigate and find needed information. Of course it opens up another issue, that of consistent tagging. But we'll save that for later. The only other formatting I use in the file is a) I define an entry by placing a WikiWord on the first line by itself, and b) I have some shortcuts for words. The shortcuts are special two- or three-letter words that end with a colon (':') and start a line. My current ones include IN (inbox), MUS (Might Be Useful), IDEA, COOL, and OFF (vacation leave). Finally, URLs are treated specially - I don't mark them up, I just paste them verbatim.

Together these merge (in a very low cost way) some of the good ideas from Wikis, Blogs, and PIM tools, with the simplicity of a text file. (There's a nice discussion of them here.)

Emacs customization

Well, not much really. All I have are keystrokes that create a new time-stamped entry and grab a URL's title. In addition I use the usual Emacs features like 'occur', interactive highlighting, and especially hippie-expand. I'd like to do more, but I just haven't had time.

Isn't this just a cheap RDBMS?

At first glance, yes, it's a just a text-based list of free-form records, which could be stored in a Relational Database System. (Actually, I helped build a new kind of database (Proximity) that directly supports representing semi-structured information like this, but that's another story.) My main reasons for not using a database are:
  • Easy to set up.
  • Customizable editors already available (easy to view, merge, format, search, edit, etc.)
  • Easy to backup.
  • Easy to write simple external tools to analyze, view, etc.
  • Supports schema changes.

Analysis and future

All I'll say here is that I use the file in a few basic ways. (See The Design and Long-Term Use of a Personal Electronic Notebook: A Reflective Analysis - AKA A Personal Electronic Notebook, by Thomas Erickson - for a great analysis of a personal journal tool the author built then used.) Mostly I use it to capture ideas, notes, URLs, and work activity like tasks, coding, and email. I've made myself enter every single URL that I come across that I think might even remotely be useful, because many times I've had to spend a LONG TIME trying to find something I've seen before. (Related: Stuff I've Seen and Keeping Found Things Found.)

To do nicer navigation and browsing I wrote a simple Java program (I used Jetty) to load the file's entries into RAM, show them chronologically, allow search, and turn WikiWords and URLs into links. I've used it a bit, but haven't been motivated to do more.

I think there's a great idea for a Journal Construction Kit that supports the emergence of customized specialization (see Jot for a commercial effort in this area). Here's a question: Is a general tool to support this kind of activity possible? Maybe it would be similar to Jetbrain's Meta Programming System, but for information. Related: Chandler, and these two articles by Martin Fowler.

I'd love to hear from others who have created customized journal tools that support these features. I'm not excited by Emacs programming, I'm just trying to get work done. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Top 10 things people are Getting, in addition to 'Things Done'

With tongue firmly in cheek, and with apologies to The Onion, Timothy McSweeney, and David Allen, I present the top 10 things people are currently 'getting', courtesy of Google Suggest:
  1. pregnant
  2. a passport
  3. married
  4. away with murder
  5. things done
  6. organized
  7. away with murder (still!)
  8. fit
  9. published
  10. out of debt
I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions...