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You want me to get a file cabinet? Really?
December 20, 2010 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Interested in finding a personal organization system like Getting Things Done, only NOT geared towards middle managers from the late-1990s.

I'm a software developer with a lot of important goals, especially in my personal life. These range from the project-oriented (write some of those web apps I've been talking about for years) to personal-growth-oriented (start working out more, start taking drum lessons, keep a blog regularly) to life-goal-oriented (start a family, travel around the world, make and maintain lasting friendships).

I got about halfway through Getting Things Done. In general, I like David Allen's philosophy, and feel like it has the potential to help me end my out-of-control procrastination. However, whenever he gets into specifics, I start to feel like the book really isn't aimed towards me.

For one, it seems strongly geared towards managers, officeworkers, and businesspeople; all of whom deal with a different set of problems than me. I'm a software engineer. My workday consists of fixing bugs, writing features, checking email, and avoiding meetings. My work involves basically no paperwork, no managing, no delegation, and relatively little collaboration. I really don't relate to any of the examples in the book.

Second, I feel like GTD doesn't take the current state of technology into account. Practically none of my life is "on paper." Every bit of information that's important to me exists in digital form. Nearly all of my communication happens over email, text, or IM, and any sort of "knowledge" chore (paying bills, scheduling meetings, buying things) happens over some kind of website. Thus, Allen's obsession with little bits of paper and ways of organizing them means absolutely nothing to me. Only occasionally does he talk about digital technology, and when he does, it's in passing. He even mentions PDAs occasionally -- which is kinda hilarious, like anyone carries around a Palm anymore.

As I said, I generally like his philosophy. I like the idea of organizing everything in my life -- from immediate work goals to long term personal projects -- into an all-encompassing holistic system. I know his system has worked for a lot of people, which is inspiring. I've even tried reading GTD and substituting in terms I'm familiar with for his archetypal briefcase-toting protagonist; it just seems like I'd be better off with something that was written expressly for people like me.

Do you know of any books like GTD that could help me? Any websites or blogs that couldbe instructive? Any modern organization tools -- iphone apps, websites, that kind of thing -- you'd recommend? Any personal "tricks" that have helped you get from Point A (out-of-control procrastination) to Point B (Allen's proposed Zen-like state of worry-free productivity)?

I'd appreciate any and all advice you have to offer.
posted by Afroblanco to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Inbox Zero might be a good place to start.

Though you want a less analog approach, this article about his Hipster PDA and the "correct" way to work it is really about the core of his philosophy: Write it down, and then do something about it.
posted by gc at 2:01 PM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

You don't need paper to use a GTD system. Create a todo.txt and keep it in a Dropbox account. Voila. Or whatever is similar that works for you.

The idea is to externalize your task list, so it's not literally in your head. It doesn't have to be on paper.

But if there's just one takeaway from a GTD system, it's the "Do It, Delegate It, Defer It" part of the equation. As a software engineer, you may never delegate anything. That's fine, but the notion that if something can be done in two minutes, it's done, right there and then, and everything else is a "project" with a list of "next actions" is gold.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

Time Management for System Administrators might be more to your liking. It shares a lot of ideas with GTD, but has recommendations aimed more at techies than middle managers.

As for tools, I like ToodleDo and Got To Do for my (android) phone. There's a native ToodleDo app for iDevices, too.
posted by hades at 2:18 PM on December 20, 2010

I just want to say that I totally agree. I despair of finding a personal productivity system that is for *personal* productivity, not for managers. Let's write a book about this!
posted by alternateuniverse at 2:50 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use Things and my understanding is that it is based on GTD. I like its iTunes like interface, and the ability to organize things by project or due date or to just make a Today list. There is both a Mac program and an app.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:53 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Did you happen to catch Marilu Henner on 60 Mintues? She has been identified as having “superior autobiographical memory” (they remember every single event in their life). These people may also all have OCD. But they don't seem to be overwhelmed by the clutter in their brains because they have some way of organizing it that comes naturally. They also enjoy categorizing. I recommend reading her blog and seeing if we mortals can learn anything from these people.

As for me, it has helped me a lot to have 4 separate stations for my paper to-do lists. I think it is a mistake to have a list that mixes personal and work tasks. Here are my four separate lists:

Health list kept on bulletin board that I can see from my work desk (Dr. appointments, diet plans, grooming, work out schedule etc. for humans and pets)
Home list kept on a small desk in the kitchen by a phone (plumber appointments, repair list, calls to insurance, personal money and legal tasks go here)
Social list kept in a computer file (anything to do with people that I don't get paid for. travel plans and keeping in touch with friends and family goes here.)
Actual work list - things I will be paid for - is kept on 3x5 cards right in front of me at my work desk

If something is not work I get paid for or somehow does not take care of my house or my health it goes in Social. But Social carries as much weight as the other stations because I realize being social is important for my health.

We work at home but we sleep in a small guest house that does not have a phone or computer and no work or to-do lists are allowed in the guest house.

I use Evernote to keep track of all my notes. That has been a life saver. It is my second brain. It saves while you type and can be accessed online from anywhere.
posted by cda at 3:15 PM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

I scoffed at the file cabinet bit too, but man are they handy. Just saying. Also, seconding Merlin Mann and 43folders stuff on GTD.
posted by SansPoint at 3:17 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Evernote. Evernote. Evernote. Cross-platform & mobile app that syncs your notes - text, webclips or whole page scrapes, audio, or picture (with text transcription) - with cloud storage and full searchability. One of the still-relevant things in GTD is 'ubiquitous capture'; you might have a great idea, or see a cool artwork, or find a great price, or see a well designed webpage anywhere at any time, so you need to be able to capture that stuff and put it somewhere that's not in your head; you also need to be able to find it later. DO THIS with Evernote.

If you are a software engineer, you probably still have projects to manage; and you definitely have a finite amount of time and attention to give. Try poking around on Merlin Mann's 43 folders website. He was a GTD guy back in the day, but he gravitates more to developers and creative types. For those folks, and for engineers, it's a lot less about how to have a system for managing your paperwork than it is about finding the best uses of your time and attention. Mastering who and what gets the benefit of your knowledge and practical skill is how you make better work product with less 'work'.
posted by bartleby at 3:22 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you are spending to much time obsessing on his example implementation and not enough on the concepts. Sure, he recommends file cabinets, a wall calendar, and a notebook. Me, I have a "file cabinet" folder on my computer, a calendar on my iphone, and use OmniFocus to keep track of tasks. When I was a secretary ALL records became physical, I had an accordian file with clear envelopes for current/future tasks and many file cabinets full of records and notes.

How you implement the core ideas can vary wildly. The specific implementation in the book is inexpensive (so long as you don't buy his over-priced office gadgets at his website) and simple to implement for anyone. Stop looking for the best solution and just start doing the system. What "best" is for you and your usage of an organization system will change over time.

A specific recommendation on GTD with an emphasis on how a technical types might implement it is
Getting Started with GRD at 43 Folders
posted by fief at 3:30 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

TeuxDeux (and corresponding iphone app) does it for me. I went through several iterations of a working solution to David Allen's ideas. This is where I am now.

Previously I was using Todoist but slow bug fixes eventually got me to quit. It's still a good product though. See my earlier review here.
posted by special-k at 3:48 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I should add that Todoist has an iphone app (so you can ignore the bit I wrote about using paper).
posted by special-k at 3:50 PM on December 20, 2010

I can recommend limoncelli's time management for system admins also. It is aimed at sysadmins rather than middle managers, so some of it won't be relevant to you - such as setting up a trouble ticket system, or rearranging your office to avoid interruptions - but there's quite a lot in there about handling email, and handing task management. It's a useful book.

I am a sysadmin, and I use a hybrid approach from Time Management and GTD.
The key part of it is do, delegate, delete or record.

If it's a quickie, I'll do it right away. If it's something I can chuck my subordinates way, I dump it in the job ticket system for them.

If it's useless (a lot of email falls in this category) it gets deleted. If I'm not sure, it gets dumped in an archive folder, for future reference in a he-said-she-said way. Hey, mail server space is cheap enough.

If it doesn't fall in any of the above, it gets recorded in my task list. *All* tasks get a due date, even if that due date is three weeks away.

I use android, not an iphone, but the same apps are available for both. I tend to manage my tasks/projects on my desktop pcs, and use my phone for reference/updates when mobile.

I use Remember the Milk for day-to-day task management - I have a list for Next Actions, Projects and Someday/Maybe and use tags to manage contexts, i.e. work, home, shopping, boss (for issues at the next meeting) etc. Many jobs end up on more than one tag, so something I need to do urgently, but can be be at home, or at lunchtime, gets a work and home tag. If it's a task in progress that my boss cares about, it goes in boss and work.

I also have smart lists that pull the next few days scheduled tasks for a given tag (so NA/work, NA/home, NA/boss etc) and use these as web calendars in outlook, and desktop widgets on android so I can see at a glance what is coming up in the next few days. Smart lists are basically search terms run on your task lists; so 'tasks in next action, tagged with work, and due in the next 3 days' is a smart list.

RTM is free, but limited to one sync a day on iphone - premium gets you auto-sync. The website is completely free, and the android app needs a premium for sync, though there's a free trial.

I give large projects their own tag, break down the project into sub tasks (which go into the projects folder), and the top task on the list gets moved to next action so automatically shows up on my immediate action smartlists. When it's completed, I promote the next on that project to next action. I also check my projects regularly, usually first thing in the morning, and any that don't have a Next Action assigned get one promoted/created and scheduled. I also have a smart list that pulls out any tasks that's not in a list, not tagged, has no due date, or is overdue, and that gets checked every morning, along with my email. I deal with 'tickler' tasks (i.e. upcoming jobs) by just sticking them in next action+context tag and a suitable future date - it'll come into view on the relevent smart list a few days out.

Really big projects get their own smart list for easier checking/planning, and if they're the project-of-the-moment, they get a widget on my phone desktop.

On any given work day, I'll tackle the highest priority tasks on Next Action/Work, plus a few quickies that come in via email. I get a lot of the latter, so I also have a quickies tag, with its own smart list, so I can tackle them if I only have a few minutes gap, but they're not urgent.
I check my list for the day first thing, along with my email, so I can make sure I've got a mental map of what I'm trying to do that day. Usually half of it is stuff rolled over from yesterday, and minor overnight problems via email from someone senior, so those get tackled first. If it's a job that never seems to get done, I evaluate whether it's too vague, actually needs doing, or can actually be delegated. Assuming it's still around, then I either do it, or dump it into the someday/maybe folder - which gets checked at the beginning of the month to see what, if anything, is worth bumping up to my real task list.

I try to aim to keep each next action down to around a 30-45 minute part of the project. Bigger and it needs splitting down further in case I miss something; smaller and I just end up over-recording simple steps.

If a task is completed, I check I don't need any follow up actions (like telling the person the job is done, or marking it for discussion with my boss) then I mark it complete on RTM. If it was part of a project, I pull up the project tag, and select the next job from projects to mark as next action, and give it a date. Quite often, I'll start that one immediately, or sometimes I'll bump it to the next day.

At the end of the day, I check through all my tasks that didn't get done. Are they really urgent; in which case they go top priority on next day. If not, if they were just 'I'd like to be tackling this task, and I hoped to do it today, but I've got a bunch more urgent stuff' I'll bump it further back, quite often by a week or two if it's low priority.

I also have a smart list that lists all tasks completed today. I check that, it's a small glow that makes me notice I've actually done some shit today, even if it didn't feel like it.

I have a larger 'overview' key issues list that's an excel spreadsheet that my boss prefers, stored in dropbox. I use this as reference when scheduling larger projects, and fit smaller tasks in around that in RTM, so I reflect my Boss' current priorities, and it gets major updates twice a month or so (usually just before a meeting with the boss). One of these days, I'm going to switch to keeping it in evernote.

I use evernote heavily on my desktops, primarily for the brower clipping ability for keeping reference work notes, and tag notes in evernote along similar lines as RTM for specific projects. I also have a 'general reference' notebook in evernote for useful methods and procedures not tied to a particular project, and just use evernote's excellent search either via desktop or phone when I need to do something I haven't done for a while - there's a good chance I've already written down my method in evernote, and if I haven't, I make a task in RTM to do so.

I used to use (replacement for 3banana) for short notetaking in meetings - I then process these afterwards into next action items on RTM, and a summary copy of the meeting on evernote. As evernote has just got offline sync for entire notebooks for the android version (iphone has had it for a while), I've now switched to notekeeping directly into evernote on android in meetings, and move it to my meeting archives after I've pulled out any relevant tasks into RTM.

I also use dropbox for syncing files between desktop and phone to save my digging out a sync cable.

The big advantage of this system in the event of losing/damaging/screwing up a firmware update on my phone, it's still all online, I can edit the stuff easily, and I don't need to manually sync my tasks/notes via desktop pc at all. And it's all free, if you don't mind the sync limitations!
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:54 PM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

Some specific thoughts on how I implemented GTD.

Physical Archive:: I have a single drawer file cabinet. It started being packed full; and the dread of having to get a second drawer was one of the things that prompted me to create a digital archive. Things that can't be digitized (my copy of contracts with signatures, tax forms and such) get filed. I also have a file for future events (like theater shows or flights); each event gets a clear folder and anything associated goes in it.

A file cabinet is important, because EVERYONE has at least a few papers that need filing. The file cabinet could be as simple as a large accordion file.

Digital Archive: I converted most regular bills to electronic only and I snag the PDFs from each monthly. To convert incoming paper to digital, I started with a flatbed scanner. As it was cumbersome and slow, I usually put off scanning things. I got a Fujitsu SnapScan and now scan things casually. That which can't be sheet feed through the scanner gets photographed or scanned on a flatbed scanner. All digital files are run through Abbyy FineReader to produce searchable PDFs.

A flatbed scanner or a camera can work to get the occasional document into the computer, but it is cumbersome. Running the files through OCR software is nice, but not required. Good sheet feed scanners (Fujitsu SnapScan and Epson Workforce) are awesome and make scanning trivial.

Calendar; I use BusyCal on OSX and the iPhone calendar, both syncing to MobileMe to share calendars with my wife. A good interface at the computer is required to perform bulk work like entering the next year's holiday schedule from your company. My Palm enabled me to have one uber calendar with everything (going back 10 years) in it. It seems modern portable devices fair less well with this type of set-up. I now plan to make a new calendar each year and just sync the last two-three years to the portable device.

All calendars interfaces have limitations (well, all except Datebk5 for PalmOS which may have been the best calendar interface ever to grace this earth). You deal with this by creating patterns that you follow (i.e. all anniversary appointments are of the form "Anniv: Foo & Bar"). Calendars are primarily for things that MUST be done on a certain day. Do not confuse what must be done and what you would like to do on a certain day.

Inboxes: I have two primary inboxes; OmniFocus on my iPhone and the top drawer of my file cabinet. My email inbox, my iPhone's notes, and a physical folder in my briefcase are temporary inboxes that I aim to empty every day.

Having inboxes that you use consistently is a requirement to organization. Teach those that orbit around/near you to use your inboxes.
posted by fief at 4:15 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

2nding teuxdeux. it's just enough. i could never get down with using googlecalender or icalendar or similar. they're all just a little too complex, and the logging in/requirement to be on a network was an added issue. teuxdeux is just right.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:22 PM on December 20, 2010

Afroblanco: "For one, it seems strongly geared towards managers, officeworkers, and businesspeople; all of whom deal with a different set of problems than me. I'm a software engineer. My workday consists of fixing bugs, writing features, checking email, and avoiding meetings. My work involves basically no paperwork, no managing, no delegation, and relatively little collaboration. I really don't relate to any of the examples in the book. "

My past job was a junior sysadmin, and my current job is a java programmers. I'll be the nth person to recommend Limoncelli's Time Management. At times the culture dropping is a bit condescending, but it's generally okay. Since you're also asking for blogs and websites, tomontime has a collection of videos on the main topics.

As far as technology goes, every nerd is different. Do yourself a favor, and set out an hour to watch Danny O'Brien's Life Hacks on the behaviors of people many would identify as expert programmers, and the common themes among their different approaches. In a nutshell: they find a simple, safe, easy to back up system and use it for everything. Often it's a text file (and grep), but if Spolsky uses a lot of excel.

Here's my personal approach: I use CalDAV to separate work and personal calendars and clients to merge them on my end for planning's sake. The major advantage is that's its a fairly open standard, and my data isn't owned by my employer. It helps that my employer uses Zimbra, which makes this possible, so make sure to adapt to your local environment; Outlook is quite fine at this, and pretty well supported by devices. Both Outlook and CalDAV support tasks. I've gone a bit overboard with tasks, laying out the various things I want to do. I have calendars (task groups, really) for car maintenance, video games I own but haven't beaten, website maintenance, work, programs I want to write, etc. The more important stuff of it has a deadline, especially if it's far in the future, where I'm usually recording the todo item so I don't forget ages later, like renewing driver's license or car insurance etc.

Software developers have a routine that you've outlined, and there are IDEs that integrate it. I've been using Mylyn, which tunes Eclipse to infer what files and code is relevant to the bug or ticket you're working on. It integrates with Jira, Bugzilla and others (but not our dumb inhouse built tracker). More professional IDEs are getting bug tracker features and plugins, so take a look around.

I know lots of techies advocate an empty inbox, but I honestly don't see the point. Disk is cheap, search is useful, and filters are easy to write. Google's even gotten smart and applied Bayesian filters via the priority inbox, which makes this even simpler.
posted by pwnguin at 7:45 PM on December 20, 2010

I forgot to mention calendars! I use my calendar (primarily on android) for items that must be done at a specific time and place - almost invariably meetings and appointments for work, with 'due in 20 minutes' reminders. I put the time on the calendar for when I need to leave, not when the meeting actually is, so I don't have to do that thinking under time pressure. This now means I'm very rarely late for meetings (sometimes it just can't be helped). It also gets checked as part of my morning 'before I start doing stuff' routine.

I have two google calendars, one for work and one for home, both linked to my phone with different colours. I also have calendar entries for birthdays, dr appointments etc on my home calendar. Seeing that I need to leave early for the dentist on the same calendar I use for work helps me avoid scheduling anything for late in the day.

Individual tasks rarely meet this criterion, but when they do they get assigned a specific time as well as date, and thus show up in my phone calendar and outlook calendar via the smart list iCal calendar, same standard as google calendars uses. Android can't handle ical calendars directly alas, but you can pull them from RTM to google calendar, and then google to android. The iphone can add ical calendars directly, I believe, as does outlook.

So I basically have 4 calendars - home, work, timed-home-tasks and timed-work-tasks in different colours overlay viewed on phone, google calendar and outlook together. You could just as easily use any ical supporting app on the desktop, most email clients can.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:49 AM on December 21, 2010

I'm a GTD devotee, and I'm not a middle manager from the 1990s. Allen's examples don't fit my life either. GTD simply gets you into the habit of capturing all your todos (or "next actions," in GTD verbiage) outside of your own head, tagging each one with an appropriate context, and arranging them into projects. Things with a definite due date get reminders on a calendar of some sort. Things that don't have specific due dates (which is most of them) get captured in your "trusted system." This can all be 100% electronic, if you prefer. I use the iPhone version of OmniFocus for the task management part of it and Google Calendar for the "hard landscape" of things with due dates.

Don't give up on it because of all the corny management-book-ish examples. It really is a philosophy and a framework, rather than a specific set of techniques. The way you implement it really is up to you. It's basically project management lite. Your life doesn't have to resemble Allen's in order to apply these ideas to it.
posted by wheat at 4:24 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just read a few online summaries about GTD, and skip the book. The book is spoonfeeding for people who have MBAs and aren't used to learning anything that wasn't presented as a motivational seminar.

One example might be that the Wikipedia article used to summarize the whole thing, until that was stripped. It's a really easy system that deserves a pamphlet, and not a book.

This might be that pamphlet.
posted by talldean at 10:16 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

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