It is always interesting and fun to swap personal productivity systems tips and techniques with others. How do other professionals organize themselves, their information and workflow? How do they keep their tasks and “to do’s” up to date? Do they combine home with work projects?  All great questions that we have all pondered at one time or another.

Today I got to share some of my tools, and a central piece of this is my GTD-inspired notebook that corrals all my work and home processes. For years I have been a devotee of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) and have implemented a number of these techniques over time, and adapted them for my own purposes. The result is not 100% GTD, but warmly inspired by it (See this blog’s other tags for GTD to read more about how I use this interesting system). On today’s call, I offered to share my Tasks Notebook table of contents, and instead of writing an email I thought I would blog this –  Linda, this is for you!

Getting Started: Hardware

I use an A5 notebook that has removable pages so that when pages get full I can simply replace them.

I have plastified tabs that separate major sections (see first photo). These are labelled as follows:

  1. Next Actions – the immediate next action on a project or task, organized by context
  2. Waiting – Things I am waiting for
  3. Projects – Activities that have more than one task (these can be work or home)
  4. Agendas – Pages for people that I talk to or work with regularly
  5. Someday/Maybe – Things that I don’t want to do now, but don’t want to forget
  6. Checklists – Lists that I have made once but will use again 
Within each of the tabs there are a number of individual pages, These are described in more detail, tab by tab, below…  
Next Actions Tab: Organized by Context
  • Email Work – Time Sensitive: These are emails that need to be sent quickly, their deadlines also show up on my calendar.
  • Email Work: These are emails that need to be sent, but have more flexibility in terms of time, but are not in the Someday/Maybe category – yet…
  • Computer Work – Time Sensitive: These are things that need to be done on my computer (writing, reading online documents, checking websites, signing up for things online, etc. in a time sensitive manner)
  • Computer Work: Again less time sensitive but still needs my computer, including things I need to do online
  • Office: Things that I can do in my office that don’t involve my computer. This can be reading hard copy, scanning a file, finding a business card, practicing my next toastmasters speech, etc.
  • Write Blogs: I have a separate page for this to record my blog ideas, they were clogging up my Computer Work page, so I made a separate page for them. 
  • Email Home – Time Sensitive: Any email I need to write quickly that is home-related – like send an email to an internal listserve to find a pet sitter for my dog for vacation, etc.
  • Email Home: Not time sensitive but again not on the Someday/Maybe list – for example, thank Grandparents for present (this should be on my son’s To Do list, but somehow is on mine).
  • Computer Home – Time Sensitive: Fill in that accident form, rent a car for holiday, etc. Things that need to be done on the computer asap.
  • Computer Home: These are online and computer-assisted tasks that are not as time sensitive – such as find the baseball schedule for spring, sign up for half-marathon in October, etc.
  • (Note that when I am travelling I might start a page called Computer Plane/Train – which includes things that I need to do on my computer that I don’t need to be online to do)
  • Home – Indoors: Things I need to do in my house (change light bulbs, make a list of household repairs, find the cabin key, organize the loft, etc.)
  • Home – Outdoors: Things I need to do outside the house – like trim branches, put up the hammock, etc. These may be seasonal in which case I might write them on a paper and put them in my tickler file for that month. (My tickler file is a major life-hack for me, couldn’t live without it! Google it, there’s lots of ways to set it up.)
  • Calls: Phone calls I need to make WITH the telephone numbers (no good just saying ‘call the orthodontist’ – then you should put it on your “Computer” list as you need to find the number before you call.)
  • Errands: These are things I need to go out to do – buy slippers, turn in something to the lost and found, buy a baseball glove, etc. I organize these by place which can be shop (department store, grocery store, garden store) or the town where I need to go to get them. 

Waiting Tab: Things I’m Waiting For

This tab only has two pages:

  • Waiting for Work – Things I am waiting for comments on, things I asked people to do, things people promised to send me, things I lent that I am waiting to get back, payments for invoices sent, contracts promised, etc. 
  • Waiting for Home – Things I ordered online, money my sons owe me, phone numbers I asked for, dates for weddings, school photos delivery, etc. 
Projects Tab: Current Projects
This tab has a master list of projects first, with little boxes that I can tick when they are finished, and then a list beside it of pending – these are projects that are potential but not yet settled. Once they are settled they go into the master list. I keep this by year, so I am working on my 2015 list now. Once a year passes, I take the list and put it at the back of this tab, so that I can keep in mind the projects that have been completed.
After the master projects list, I have one page for each project, organized alphabetically. They have the next actions listed and create some redundancy with the Next Actions Tab, but give me an overview of the project and its steps and activities.  
Once a project is done, I take out the page and toss it (unless it is useful to keep the steps, then I keep it in the Project file. These are for any physical artifacts – meeting notes taken by hand, printouts, brochures, etc – that I need for my project. They are all kept in pink paper folders (all the same colour and style for added neat factor) and have a label (label maker essential – same reason) and kept in alphabetical order on the side of my desk so when I get a call or go to a meeting, I can grab it easily.
Agendas Tab: For People I Deal With Regularly
This tab has a page for each of the people that I deal with on a regular basis, husband, kids, colleagues, etc. The page has their name at the top, and then anything that I need to talk to them about I write there (from “can you help me find my lost file” – husband being software engineer  – to “you owe me 32 francs” – son (the former might also be on Email Home – Time Sensitive and the latter would also be on Waiting – Home.) I don’t think redundancy is a problem, whatever it takes to get it done. With the Agendas lists, when you are sitting down in front of someone, you can just work through it quickly and get answers efficiently. 
Someday/Maybe Tab: For Things I Might Want to Do Someday
This set of lists was very liberating. So many things sat on my To Do lists for ages, I just kept copying them and not doing them for one reason or another. This set of lists – which are Someday/Maybe Work and Someday/Maybe Home include all those things that I don’t want or need to do now but that I don’t want to forget. There might be a reason why the time is not quite right, so I write them here and I review this regularly and occasionally they move up to the Next Actions Lists because the time is right. Or else they stay there (forever). Sometimes I have wildly ambitious ideas – Write a book, Listen to the Reith lectures, Do a PhD, Buy a trampoline, Take all the photos off my SD cards, Get a dog (well this latter I finally did), etc.  
Checklists Tab: Never Make These Lists Twice
This final tab is a useful one. If there are things you do over and over again, why not make a Checklist and keep it for the next time? For work I have a mobile working checklist – all the things I need to take when I am travelling with work, a venue checklist when I am looking at a workshop venue, a Webinar Facilitator’s Checklist that helps me prepare for online webinars, and for home a ski checklist – I don’t go often but I always take along the same things, etc. Make these generic and reusable and findable, keep them on the web and/or keep them under this tab. 
At the end of my Notebook I keep some blank pages, so that when I have some time and am doing my review (going through all the tabs and updating, checking off, moving things around etc.) I can rewrite my lists if they are full or mainly completed and pop these pages into the appropriate places. 
You need to review this system regularly (David Allen calls it a “weekly review” but I think I do it with less regularity.) When things are super busy, I set my pomodoro and do it almost daily, and when things are less busy I might do it on my next flight or train trip. Either way it is a pleasure to do. 
And even more fun is talking about and sharing those tips and techniques with others who are also productivity geeks – and you know who you are!


Believe it or not, one of my most productive work days this week was here.

At the risk of no one taking me seriously again, I wanted to write briefly about mobile working… from a water park.

Sometimes your kids have a day off, beg you to take them to Aqua Park because it is practically empty (they have a teacher’s in-service day and other schools/classes do not), but your husband is travelling and you still have work obligations.

Does this, or something like this, ever happen to you?

Well, I have actually (after an obligatory 1 hour of water slides to begin with) done several very productive hours of work. How? I carried my mobile office with me, including the following:

Aquapark mobile office 1

1) One Smart phone with internet;

2) One set of headphones with microphone for making discreet calls (I’m sure the lady sunbathing next to me never even noticed);

3) A Bluetooth keyboard that folds up into a small square. (This is amazing technology and allows for long, serious emails to be written on your phone instead of a computer or iPad – I wrote this entire blog post comfortably on my phone using this nearly fully-size keyboard.)

4) My GTD A4 mesh pouch, filled with Action and Project files, highlighter, pen, post-its etc.

5) The GTD files themselves – these are labeled folders with: In, Read/Review, Action Support, Waiting For, Filing, Expenses, and Trash (and a couple of blank ones). I needed this as I hurriedly emptied my in-box into another GTD A4 mesh pouch to organize on site;

6) My paper calendar (because I build in redundancy with both a paper and e-calendar, or just call me old fashioned);

7) My own GTD folder (below) with my lists (Next Action, Waiting For, Projects, Agendas, Someday/Maybe) to help me optimize my time – no wasting time trying to figure out what to do next;

GTD folder

This all packs into a small tote bag, that I then should have put into a plastic bag (being a water park and all) but so far so good.

It’s good to have this mobile system thought through and ready to go, especially when plans change and you find yourself working away from your office in some unusual place (e.g. café waiting for judo lesson to finish, car park at rainy football game, restaurant because hammering in house, airplane…I could go on).

I guess this means I can really work anywhere, anytime (Health Warning: Not that working everywhere, all the time is good! I promised and will enjoy going back to the water slides and wave pool again before we go, with a much freer and clearer conscience!)

Aquapark 2

Today I left my phone at home again and only discovered this 20 min before my flight was boarding for a 3-day work trip to Stockholm. Thankfully I had my iPad and computer, both with Skype; not the same as a telephone but would do in a pinch. However, that doesn’t take away the fact that it will be extremely inconvenient at the conference I am going to, where I will be coordinating and working with a number of colleagues scattered around the venue on a joint workshop. I will feel completely foolish telling them that I forgot my phone – people will look at me incredulously.

Ok, so I’m not happy about this, well actually I am extremely annoyed with myself for walking out without my phone. This is not the first time in recent months that this has happened (at least only the second). So what can I do about this worrying trend (at least two data points into a trend)?

Recently I have joined the ranks of mobile workers everywhere. I took an interesting 18 month, 50% job with a global organization whose HQ is in London. On top of my other travel, weekly or biweekly trips to London now seeing me passing, two feet and two wheels, up to four times a week through Geneva airport.

In spite of the fact that I have lived over half my life without one, I feel amazingly lost and rather lonely without my phone. I’m sure I am the only person over 5 years old on this plane without one. Thankfully, by virtue of my age, I’m wearing a watch and don’t rely on my phone for that ( see Sir Ken Robinson’s interesting TEDtalk – Bring on the Learning Revolution –  about generational shifts in learning and watch wearing). A watch is another essential (for me) in a workshop setting.

Inspired by both Atul Gawande (Better and Checklist Manifesto – how checklists save lives) and David Allen (of GTD fame -checklists are blackbelt moves), I decided to make a Mobile Worker’s Checklist.

Just a word about checklists here, you might be saying, “What? That’s all, that’s the answer? I make lists all the time.”  But do you reuse them? That’s the difference. You need to make a master list, update it until its perfect, and use it every time. Now that kind of  list takes a lot of things off your mind, and avoids foolish mistakes which you are bound to make as a mobile worker. Repetition and familiarity make you very cavalier with travel, but one really can’t afford that. We might not be doctors or pilots, who also rely on checklists, but a mobile facilitator or trainer or co-worker without a phone can cause serious team communication problems too. So here’s my checklist:

Mobile Worker’s Checklist

1. Communication (this has to come first)

  • Phone with charger (USB and wall)
  • Plug adapter (international)
  • USB hub
  • Power bar (to plug in multiple devices when there is only one awkward socket behind the hotel bed)
  • iPad if one day trip with Bluetooth keyboard and charger
  • Laptop if multiple day trip with power and USB key with docs, your whole music repertoire and movies to watch when you’re shattered

2. Travel

  • Keys (home and destination office)
  • Tickets with boarding passes printed
  • Passport
  • Airline cards and insurance card (international)
  • Oyster card (local travel pass)
  • Train pass (home country)
  • Currency and bank cards
  • Loyalty cards for destination Office city (from coffee to hotel)
  • Envelope to keep receipts labeled with trip date

3. If conducting a workshop

4. Clothes and toiletries

  • As needed
  • List of what has been left in destination office (eg sports clothes, toiletries, sweater) so you don’t pack it again (and you will forget if you don’t make this sub-list and keep taking the same stuff back)
  • Vitamins (because you are getting up at 4am and going to bed after midnight)

  5. Documents

  • GTD file (still on paper)
  • Agenda (can’t let go of paper mirror of electronic)
  • Business cards (for both organizations)

An additional benefit of making such a checklist is seeing how many heavy things could be replaced with soft versions on a USB or external hard drive, or even better on the ‘ cloud’. For example, Dropbox can do away with the external hard drive (although you can’t use Dropbox on the flight). Also, I leave my heavy laptop at home and only take my iPad and wireless Mac keyboard when I know I will be in meetings all day and will only need email. The iPad is great for filing on flights and syncs all that work once connected to the internet again.

With a new organization comes a new email account, folders, password etc. (I already had two-personal and company). Three separate gmail accounts is clunky to manage.  Not to mention the fact that people often use whatever email address pops up in their automatic address function, so the messages are often in the wrong accounts in terms of their folders. Add this to online/offline mobile working (planes, trains and automobiles) and you need a new email management system.

So I migrated my email (which was previously kept in outlook on my hard disk) to imap where I can see all three accounts and their folders in one view, and they are kept on the cloud. (I say “I” migrated it, but it was actually tech support from software-writing husband downstairs in office cave.)

For a mobile worker this system is good because your work, files, etc. need to both sync and be available from multiple machines: laptop, iPad, phone (if you remember it) and random dumb terminal.  You don’t want to have to do anything twice, and you want to be able to access all your aliases, being able to send from all accounts and use different electronic signatures.

With this checklist I won’t forget my phone, and everything else I forget will have a place to go – on the checklist…it might take me a few iterations, but hopefully then will be foolproof.

(This is my checklist, what’s on yours?)

(With apologies, or perhaps thanks to “If You Give a Moose a Muffin“)

This is a cautionary tale about why you need to take extra steps to stay productive and focused in a home office.

If you give a Gillian an invoice to write, she’ll write the invoice and then she’ll want to complete the project properly so she’ll sit down with her GTD manila file and notebook and separate out things that need to be kept and tossed;

Then she’ll remember while she’s taking apart the notebook, that she wanted to write a blog post about how the notebook was put together so that she could remember how she did it for next time.

So she’ll sit down and write the blog post. After the blog post she will want to tell people about it so she will go to Tiny URL and shrink the url so that she can Tweet about it.

Once she has tinied the URL, she’ll log on to Twitter and send out a Tweet telling people about the blog post, and then she’ll want to glance at the recent Tweets, and check any messages or @mentions (because we all do don’t we). She doesn’t do this too often to avoid too much distraction.

When she looks at the @mentions she’ll notice that another facilitator, LynnWalsh, has recently highlighted  some tempting articles on her site, The Facilitation Daily, which is a cool site.

While scanning the interesting articles and marveling at Lynn’s site, she’ll notice the live Twitter stream, and one particular Tweet pops up from @Nicatnight saying he had discovered the joys of Moleskine hacking (?). She’ll notice that he uses a #GTD hashtag for his post, which she also used.

When she sees the #GTD hashtag, she will curiously google “Moleskine hacking” and get a 43Folders wiki article about how to hack a moleskine notebook in many helpful GTD-complementary ways. Seeing that was written by Merlin Mann of Zero-Inbox fame (which she has written alot about on this blog), she will decide to go to the 43 folders website to see what’s going on.

While reading through the 43Folders website (“Time, Attention and Creative Work”), she’ll notice that her pomodoro for preparing the invoice, and follow-up GTD filing, went off 2 hours ago.

And when she notices that, she will want to go back to her invoices and filing…
(I am literally afraid to post this on Twitter)

Confronting Your Reading Pile

I have been writing about my spring office cleaning exercise, and that has included much frustration about what to do with an enormous stack of great articles in a “Reading” pile. Do you have one of those?

I pawed through it; it is really excellent stuff, titles from David Stroh’s “Leveraging Change: The Power of Systems Thinking in Action” to  “5 Insightful TED Talks on Social Media” from the Mashable blog– all great information that I want, but I just don’t want it right now (and especially don’t want it taking up prime real estate in my tiny office).

Information is a Flow

Of course when I do need it, realistically, the last thing I will do is paw through that stack to find the most appropriate articles. Even putting them in topical files (like in the old days) seems like dooming them to the dark corners of my filing cabinet – and so many of them would have multiple filing locations, so I would have to go through many files anyways. Enough to put me off of that.

There is a limit, and a kind of perverse unintended consequence in this type of system in that the larger the pile grows the more good information that is there, true, but the more time it would take to go through it and therefore lessening the likelihood that I will spend the time to “query” the pile for information. Plus, let’s be super realistic, in the face of that I would probably just Google anyways. Information is now a flow and not a stock.

The Search Revolution

However, Google has its limits too. Some work has been done to filter out good stuff, say, from the 8.7 million results that you get when you put “informal learning” into Google. We are now using our Friends as filters, whether real friends or the mavens  in the topics we care about. To use this new Search system cleverly we just need to  know who knows what and who is doing what. So I follow the leaders, and they throw up good tidbits of information that are useful and interesting, but again too much and often not what I need at the moment when I find it.

So I do need some type of personal knowledge management system that I can query, that is between “I’m Feeling Lucky” of Google, and my former OCD response of printing and carefully “filing” by placing on top of the stack of reading under the table in my office.

Personal Knowledge Management System – Building for Scale

Please do not do the math (as in how long would it have taken me to just read that stack), I just spent some hours (still in the single digits) putting every single still-interesting article in my stack into Evernote (as in “Remember Everything”).

I will admit that this whole process of converting paper to online links took me longer than needed as I first linked the sources through my Delicious account (thinking it would be great to share this good work with others – still a good attitude I think). Only to be informed by my husband, a tech news devotee and generally up on all this stuff, that the talk on the street is that Yahoo (owner) will soon close Delicious. So, I went to Evernote. After I got the hang of it, it was pretty easy to just open the Delicious links in new tabs and copy the content of the article with the URL into Evernote, adding a tag called “Articles”. Although it took time, the system now is built to scale  -as in, it can get as big as needed and is still as useful as it would be if it was a small resource – unlike that pile of papers, which can only get as big as the table top, or the ceiling if I wanted to live like that. It’s useful because it is searchable by content, not just tags (like Delicious) or titles (like in a paper file I would skim).

Filtered Resources On Demand

It is also more useful as the content of the articles will be stored locally in Evernote on my devices (laptop, iPad) as well as on the cloud, so I can read them on the plane (yes, I could also read paper, but I would have to carry that around, and still have to do something with it afterwards to be able to refer to it later – choke up my GTD files, or back to fire hazard under table).

Now I can recycle those papers, and still query them electronically by any word I want through my Evernote interface. And I can add more as interesting things come in from the people who know. This is just one part of a greater Personal Knowledge Management system, as there are lots of other go-to places for knowledge. However, I am feeling good now about managing those articles and other resources that really stand out. And I rest easier knowing that this was an initial set up investment of time, and that upkeep will be faster.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of an enormous pile of reading hitting the recycling bin!

As many of my friends and acquaintances know I am a big fan of Getting Things Done (see the blog’s GTD tag on this, and also the tag on Productivity). One of the GTD tenets is the “Weekly Review” and there are some great resources for this – from the GTD Times article The GTD Weekly Review to videos of David Allen on YouTube talking you through it in 2 minutes.

I was always rather apprehensive about starting the Weekly Review because it seemed like a potentially never ending task and completely absorbing. What has helped considerably, psychologically getting over that barrier to starting, is using one of two incredibly simple and rather obvious things – one, an Online Alarm Clock that you can set for 30 minutes (or however long you want to invest) and which goes off sounding like a bullfrog impersonating a police siren.

The other is using the Pomodoro Technique (a simple technique that involves a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato and 25 minutes chunks of your life). This helps you cut up the task into bitesize pieces, gives you a break in between and helps you plan exactly how much time you want to devote. You will get over the loud ticking (or find a cozy home for it under a chair in a far corner of the room).

Now I set my online clock, or wind up my tomato and get reviewing.

At the recent GTD Summit I attended, David Spark interviewed a number of people asking them about the bad habits that GTD (Getting Things Done) helped them kick. The video is just over 5 minutes, and linked here: GTD Summit – What Were Your Bad Habits?

I was happy to be one of the interviewees, and to have kicked that particular habit of the Life List. And I’m still talking about it. I spent this morning exchanging with my friend Alan AtKisson about GTD and applications for the sustainability community, and this afternoon showing my home system, which I am pretty proud of now, to one of my neighbours, who was complaining about losing things. There is just no end to the bad habits one can break…

If you look up “Heatseeker” in Wikipedia, you get redirected immediately to “Missile Guidance”, and a long explanation of how these kinds of missiles work to find their targets. However, the top link of this entry is another redirection to Billboard weekly album chart’s Top Heatseekers which refers to a selected list of new and emerging artists who have never been on the top 100 albums list. In fact, once an album hits the top 100 chart, they are off the Top Heatseekers list. The label of heatseeker is strictly reserved for great new stuff.

I was interested at David Allen’s GTD Summit a few weeks ago to hear the label of “Heatseeker” used over and over again. It was used to refer to speakers and participants, like Guy Kawasaki or Taco Oosterkamp, who are out there looking for the newest technologies, gadgets and productivity enhancements (usually these people are in the technology space, but this is probably not a necessity.) One of the participants beside me in a panel session was using the newest Kindle, and delighted in showing me how it worked, what he liked about it and what he was looking forward to in the next version. Everyone had their iPhone and were talking about new applications for it and wishes. David Allen was given a Mac after Guy Kawasaki hassled him about not having one, clearly for the Heatseekers a Mac with all the bells and whistles is essential.

One thing I noticed about this meeting that I have not noticed before, was that everyone seemingly was using Twitter. In fact, it was the first time I had seen a plenary session where, in addition to the two central screens, there were two lateral screens that were scrolling the Twitter Tweets as people posted them. It turned out that there were dozens of people in the room who, throughout the speeches and discussion, were micro-blogging their 140 character Tweets, including questions (that other Twitter users were answering), quotes, additional information and connections to what other speakers had said (especially when they contradicted each other). Nothing got past the people Twittering. And the interesting thing was that people outside the room were following people inside the room, so not only were we benefitting from the Tweets, but who knows how many people not attending the conference were following those Twittering inside the meeting rooms. Apparently David Allen has over 75,000 people “following him”, which he said was either the cause of celebration or great paranoia.

I had heard of Twitter a few years ago just after it started. We had a demonstration during our New Learning Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt in 2007, where at the time the primary new and interesting Heatseeker thing was using Second Life for learning. I started my own Twitter account in the meantime but had not discovered its potential yet for learning. In addition to using it to host multiple conversations during what otherwise would be a monologue of a plenary session, they had some other applications for Twitter. For example, the Heatseekers said that it definitely could be useful for learning how to waste time (that was their first response.) However, they also said that it gave people up-to-the-minute news flashes (remember the people who tweeted about their plane crashing before any other media was on the spot.)

And of course trend spotters and Heatseekers use it to find the heat, so no wonder they like it. There are definitely different levels of Heatseekers, we have a few in our institution, although I don’t know of anyone yet who is Twittering as a part of their work (or even for recreational purposes for that matter). We haven’t had a meeting yet that mentioned real-time bullet-point reporting via Twitter. Our team has introduced reporting via a cartoonist, graphic facilitation and blogging. Maybe Tweeting is next. When you only have 140 characters to make your point, you need to make sure you are on target – maybe that missile guidance system analogy works after all…

The last panel I went to at the GTD Summit in San Francisco was called “Best Practices to Good Habits: Can I Make GTD Stick?” The panelists were GTD coaches and very experienced practitioners. As can be expected the discussion produced some gold nuggets in the form of tips to making GTD a habit.

A panel the previous day featured a cognitive theory expert, Frank Sopper, who explained that the two numbers you need to know for large scale behaviour change are: 2 years and 15 minutes. It takes 2 years apparently from initiation to competency (that you can see and measure), for any new thing you want to learn – whether it’s learning a new language, the trumpet, or getting really fit. 15 minutes was the other important number in behaviour change: Once you pick the thing you want to master, spending 15 minutes a day can be transformative – not one hour a week, or a month-long intensive per year. Only 15 minutes a day is needed, because it’s the repetition of doing something 700+ times (e.g. daily), rather than 104 times (weekly) that makes the behaviour stick. The repetition of the desired behaviour deepens those neural grooves.

The panelists gave us lot of tips and tricks, many in the black-belt category (for nuanced users of GTD.) So what was some of the gold the panelists had for us?

  • Making your Project and Context lists work: Look over your project lists and make sure there is a verb in each entry. These verbs could be: complete, finalise, ensure, maximise, etc. If you don’t see a verb then you will have to think about what “done” looks like every time you look at your list. As a result it will take you more time to do your review. Your Context or Next Actions (e.g. @Calls, @Computer, etc.) lists should also have verbs. You want to have done all the thinking before you review to make these more useful lists. The time savings adds up – one panelists even advocated getting a Mac because the start up time is much faster!
  • Use your Projects list for scoping: For each project, write three sentences – 1) Why you are doing this; 2) A set of 3 principles (I can do anything I want as long as I…); and 3) What does wild success look like?
  • Dump anything that creates drag on the system: Be ruthless and get rid of anything that takes time, or creates drag. For example, if you don’t like some of your equipment, change it to something you do like (e.g. get rid of psychic drag) – like the file folders, or filing cabinet, or your notebook or pen (one panelist got rid of all his different pens and replaced them with one kind of pen so he would never have to hesitate when picking a pen). Cull you lists too from time to time to take off things that you don’t want to do, and put them on your Someday/Maybe List. Having stop to choose between x and y, or between things you aren’t ready to do can create drag, so eliminate the choices if you can, save time there, and have a system that engages you, rather than repels you.
  • Managing your in-box: Some people find their in-box distracting during the day (when they are not processing, but doing), if so you can put it behind you, or use a closed box with a lid as an in-box, from which you can take one piece of paper at a time to process when you get back to that stage.
  • Review your folders from time to time: If you are keeping an A-Z filing system, you can put a tick on the folder you use, each time you pull it. That way you can see over time which folders you are using frequently and which are not being used. Check the un-useful ones and see if they are mis-labelled, or maybe could be eliminated. Also notice where you look for something, if you always look one place, and then repeatedly locate the file on your second or third try – then its not in the right place so re-label it.
  • Use multiple A-Z systems if needed: If you have more than half drawer of folders on the same subject you might want to make a separate A-Z system on that topic. For example, if you have a large ongoing project, or if you are an avid gardener and have many folders on that topic, that project might need its own sub-system.
  • If your Lists are too long: If you have too many items on your lists (e.g. more than 60-100 Next Actions), see if there are multiple lists that can be made. Maybe your contexts are too broad (e.g. if you just have a Tasks list, consider the different place the Tasks can happen and create lists for @Indoor, @Outdoors/Garden, @Spouse etc. You can also consider having multiple Someday/Maybe lists if you have big projects. Instead of putting everything under one, create Someday/Maybe lists for (e.g.) household renovations, project ideas for work, fundraising, etc. You can even add timing to your Someday/Maybe lists, such as weekly, quarterly, yearly, depending on how often you want to be reviewing them. All these things can shorten your lists if you are feeling uncomfortable with the length.
  • Do your Weekly Review: This was considered one of the most important things to making GTD stick. Some people schedule it, others do it when they need it (like brushing your teeth, when they feel scuzzy, you brush them.) And perhaps, as in David’s new book, the process will no longer be called the Weekly Review, but instead Time to Reflect. As overall this is the time to ask yourself what does this action mean to me, in order to prioritize, defer or get rid of it.

It was useful to hear these GTD experts and their tips and advice. It helps you sift through the detail, the gravel and the sand, and find that gold.

I spoke on two panels yesterday where I gave presentations on using GTD in our workplace, and what we are learning about that integration process. One was on the challenges and opportunities for the NGO sector of using GTD. The other was on using informal learning approaches (rather than formal training approaches) to help people learn how to use the GTD methodology for productivity enhancement.

What surprised me about the discussions that followed the panelists contributions (and I was joined, for example, in the second panel by a brain specialist, a Canadian mayor, and a software entrepreneur) was that they had a strong focus on what people do at home.

The integration of work and life practices was what people wanted to explore. How these top performers, executives, innovators and entrepreneurs are using GTD across their work and home lives as a way to be the most effecient, and to make time for the creativity that is putting them at the top of their games.

I wasn’t exactly prepared for that, nor for the final question of my testimonial interview that I gave, filmed at the end of the day, which was, “Has GTD made you a better mother?” But when I thought about it, I could come up with some good reasons why bringing together work systems with home systems might make for overall more effeciencies and more time with a clear mind to spend with my family. At the moment I have two distinct GTD systems, but one of my next actions is going to be to explore how to merge them into one and see if it gives me the same productivity boost, and the aikido “mind like water”, that it seems to be giving these other “blackbelts in the game of life”.

The Getting Things Done Summit: Changing the Way the World Works, is being held this week in San Francisco. I am here to speak on two panels – one on “Good Things Getting Done: GTD Serving Service” and the second on “GTD and Education”. Both are today and I have just put the finishing touches on my contributions, which I will post tomorrow.

The formal opening is in about an hour, however, I have already started to learn things – informal learning as you know can happen anywhere. In this case it was at the opening reception last night.

I went into the reception rather early and immediately had a string of amazing conversations with the other people attending. Mostly from the private sector, they represent a group of people who are productivity experts, motivational speakers, leadership coaches, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Is this just the Bay Area of California? Is it David Allen’s peer group? Above all it is an eye-opening collection of people, and a very unique environment in which to think and learn. (After that reception, I immediately went back to my room and rewrote my interventions.)

I was engaged in conversations by people who get other people going. One man runs a gym outside of LA which has a specialised workout that would normally take 90 min, but has so many effeciencies built in that it can be done in 20 min, for busy executives. He is using GTD to increase the productivity of his offer to service the demand of his clientele around time saving. He was incredibly convincing, it didn’t sound at all like snake oil to me.

I met a leadership coach with whom I swapped anecdotes about using haikus in training to help with reflective practice and synthesizing ideas. She also told me to look into using sutras for a similar reflection activity, and to help people work out their arguments for or against taking some action.

Then I met someone who works for the Hunger Project, who was inspired in the 1980’s by Dana Meadows and John Richardson who were on the Board at that time. After many years in business left it all to join the Hunger Project team. He has worked in India helping to train women entering municipal leadership positions – the 1m women entering local government resulting from the legislation passed in 1993 to include them.

Each person spoke with passion and warmth, clearly articulating their motivations and goals, they networked and knew how to have a good conversation and move on. Many had written books, many were also speaking, now I am getting nervous… must go and read my notes….

In his Zero-In box video, Merlin Mann likens knowledge work to working in a diner. You take orders and you make sandwiches. However, what can happen for many reasons – like many meetings and not enough time to process the results, or not having a good overview of your inventory of obligations – is that you take too many orders and you don’t have time to make sandwiches. Or you keep taking orders and you don’t make time to make sandwiches.

What that results in is a lot of hungry people, and potentially irate customers, who are sitting there waiting for their sandwiches to get back to what they need to be doing.

Yesterday afternoon, Lizzie and I, after a week of intense meetings, are feeling like we are continually taking orders and not having the time to make the sandwiches. We are taking time to make the ingredients at least, the tuna salad and roast beef is there and ready to go. We have done the design work for our upcoming retreats, we have brainstormed the questions for our World Cafe next week. But the final steps are not yet done. We have not had a moment, or more truthfully, made the time to sit down, and finish making our sandwiches and get them back to our patient customers.

That is what I am doing here here at my desk at 6am on a Friday, getting ready to make some sandwiches. This blog post is like turning around that Open for Business sign. Hopefully there will be no new customers at this hour of the day…

(If you get so organized that you have some surfing time today: 43 Folders is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.)

I have spent hours in the last few weeks trawling through handwritten notes in my In-box diligently taking out the ideas, potential next actions, and possible “to dos” in there. Apparently I am my most prolific at ideas generation when I am sitting in meetings or presentations (shouldn’t I be listening?) Then I end up with pages of notes, filled with little boxes of ideas that are eagerly expecting to be cared for and considered.

David Allen in his GTD system has designed a clever way to manage them, in a Someday/Maybe list, or Incubate list, which provides a placeholder and a way to scan these random thoughts regularly (e.g. in the weekly review process) for a quick decision on whether there are any ideas there whose time has come. However, I now have a very long list of these, and am still not sure how to take care of them.

I wonder if I should instead try to get comfortable with notion of information (and ideas potentially) being a flow rather than a stock. This has been a theme at the annual Educa Online conferences and a vibrant discussion within the web 2.0 knowledge management set. Maybe instead of fastidiously trying to capture and keep all these ideas, I should just have them and let them go out there into the world, or better find them a good home. (Lizzie suggests I publish my Someday/Maybe List on the blog, maybe I will in 2009, what better home could there be?)

I received a wonderful present in the post today – a whole set of Getting Things Done (GTD) products -a fond memory of David Allen’s visit to our organization earlier this year. I am a bit of an organization and productivity freak – so this was like a kid getting candy in the mail. Of course there was only one of everything, should I keep it all for myself?

I had been using the GTD system at home for about a year when I changed over my office, set up my folders, swapped my bound notebooks for tear-off note pads, and so on. That process worked, combined with Merlin Mann’s Zero-In box (make sure to watch the video), and then even my email started to make me happy. No longer do 600+ half-read emails wait for me on Monday mornings. Of course, I fall out of step from time to time (especially when I travel), but for the most part I can keep my email in-box at zero, and manage all the little pieces of paper and notes that magically turn up. I do my weekly monitoring (a la GTD), I don’t lose anything (I might of course choose to ignore it), and I am finally in control of all the stuff that comes in and out of my office every day.

It is a little frightening knowing exactly what you need to do, you get very calm. Too calm. People think you don’t have enough to do because you are not running around looking harried and overwhelmed. On Step 1 (logical stuff containment system) and Step 2 (taming email dragon) of my plan to boost productivity and achieve a zen-like relationship with the workplace – mission accomplished. Ah, but like any good learning process, this is not the end of the story, even if it is where the books and videos end.

Once you get your act together, Step 3 is to find tolerance, for others and yourself. Now other people’s email and information overload becomes very obvious. You can almost immediately tell who has a system and who doesn’t. However, because your situation is now so different it is very hard to remember what it was like to literally swim (or drown) in email and paper. Of course, when you do have a system, procrastination becomes deliberate and transparent, and you can tell what you don’t want to do or can’t really get your head around (so figuratively, your management underpants are showing.) In Step 3, to further lower stress levels, you are desparately seeking tolerance – nobody’s perfect.

Finally (at least finally for now), Step 4 is to spread the word. As evangelical as that might sound, this is indeed the next logical step. At one point in the acid rain problem of the 1980s, Sweden decided that it would have more impact in Sweden with its anti-pollution investments if it would simply send the money and technology to Poland. When my “Waiting for” folder has more items than my “Action” folder, then I need to step out of my bubble and change tactics. I can send reminders, I can call, I can chase, but that just adds back in work to a process that, if I was the Master of my Universe, would have been done.

I can get my things done, but ultimately most of my things depend on other people getting their things done. So, on to Steps 3 and 4 and those unwritten chapters. Aaaah, life in a system.

My hopeful answer to this is “well, maybe.” I get my evidence from a recent experiment that I conducted quite by accident.

Two month ago I took the Meyers-Briggs test and felt the results were accurate (self-validated). The instrument I thought had captured fairly my preferences on the four dichotomies. One of my preferences at that time was “P” – Perceiving rather than Judging. Perceivers are spontaneous, go with the flow, they make lists and lose them, they complete tasks at the last minute or late rather than well in advance.

Well, in today’s world with no speed limits on the information highway, this particular species is likely to get run over. So I have been working on this. One month ago we invited David Allen to come and address our staff on Getting Things Done, an approach which (check previous GTD tags) provides a system to help you keep alive in the organizational jungle. Many of us after his seminar have adoped this appoach and it appears to be working.

Now back to my experiment, yesterday I went to an MBTI training course and for that I had to take the instrument again, just a few months after my first test. I was amazed at the change. Everything was the same, except that my preference on the “outerworld orientation” dichotomy moved from Perceiving to Judging – with unfamiliar words like planned, structured, decisive, scheduled, makes lists and uses them, as descriptors.

I can only imagine that this difference in such a short period of time could be influenced by the GTD experience, which is still very fresh. Hopefully this change will last. I wouldn’t want to lose any of my spontaneity, and at the same time a little more structured follow-up and information management would not go amiss. Maybe just half of the spots could change? Would I then become a GMO? (GTD-Modified Organism?)

When do you have a burning desire at 9pm on a Sunday to go into your office and sort through your mountan of paperwork for 3 hours? When you feel like you are, for the first time, actually Getting Thing Done.

After a visit and full day seminar from David Allen last week, creator of this popular approach to personal productivity, our office has been hit by the intense need to Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do. When I started my organizing streak last night, I didn’t have to create my own categories of lists, I simply copied my colleague’s, who had spent all day Thursday and Friday setting up her own system. We had 54 staff members attend the seminar – I heard that there was a run on folders, and that people were scouring the basement for old in-trays and bits of filing cabinets the rest of the week.

Now I have my own mind sweep nearly complete; that is, getting all of those undone things that David refers to as work on a set of next action lists, from performance assessments to paying my cafeteria tab. And when I can get over the intense sense of urgency of doing all of those things that I had actually forgotten, I hope that my weekly review will free up some physic ram so that I can get on with some of the creative things on my Someday/Maybe list.

Sound like a new language? It might be for some, but it’s not a foreign one and not hard to learn. It’s based on practices you do regularly, but puts them together in a more effecient, and systemic way. And it seems to really appeal to people. One of my colleagues said that in the first 30 minutes of his seminar she had decided to adopt the GTD approach, because it was simply better than the one she was currently using. Another colleague worried about the extra time investment asked David at the end of his seminar, “Doesn’t using GTD take a lot of discipline?” David responded with “Yes, absolutely, but anything takes discipline before it becomes a habit. Brushing your teeth and taking a shower regularly took enormous discipline (or disciplining) when you were a kid. Until it became a habit. Now it feels bad not doing it. You need to get to that stage with this practice as well. “

Feeling on top of things is the peak of work/life balance. I can just about see the top of my paper mountain. It’s bright and beautiful up there. When I get there I am going to shout from the top of it, “It works! Labelmaker anyone!?”

Every time I watch Merlin Mann’s Google video on Inbox Zero, I get a little more out of it and gradually the idea of a Zero Inbox is capturing people’s imagination in our institution. We have now run two 60 minute staff sessions where we projected the video, had some stories from current users, and then had a Q&A discussion to explore some of people’s ideas and concerns around this notion.

Our last week’s session produced a nice, concise list of principles for emailing. It seemed different than the usual list of DON’Ts, as it was linked to specific strategies for helping people more efficiently process their email. Most lists aim to do that, and with the rationale right up front it seems to make even more sense. It also serves to remind people of their responsibility to help the receivers on the other end (or at least think about them when they shoot out their mail). Linked to this, we are getting ready for David Allen’s visit to our institution in April for a day seminar with our staff on “Getting Things Done“. I think that all of these discussions about pesonal productivity also help us see more clearly how, by getting our own stuff done most efficiently, we can actually help other people get their stuff done too (a.k.a. Teamwork).

Below is our list:

9 Principles for Email Good Practice

To facilitate SEARCH and ARCHIVING:

  • Put an accurate title in the “SUBJECT” line (and please don’t leave it blank)
  • If possible, use one email for one topic, action or decision needed


  • Use the “TO” field for those persons from whom you need a response, use the “CC” field for people’s information only (no response needed)
  • Put any deadlines at the top of the email in bold (consider putting them in the “SUBJECT” line)
  • If you can identify the next action and prominently include it in the email, it will reduce processing time for the recipient.
  • If it is really URGENT, and the turnaround is very short, then call the recipient if possible to see if they received it (don’t assume that they have read their email in a short time period)

To minimize VOLUME:

  • CC only those people who really need copies of the correspondence
  • Ask for responses or acknowledgements if needed, otherwise do not expect/do not send “thanks” responses to signal receipt
  • Do not automatically REPLY TO ALL

The hardest part of this exercise was writing the email to staff signalling this discussion (an email code of conduct had been formally requested by the senior management team). It had to be completely congruent. I ended up sending it to one person for their direct response, and ccing everyone else to give them the option to comment or DELETE.

Most institutions have these rules or guidelines, developed a couple of years ago when email started to become the way you run your life. I hear that we do too somewhere. And I guess it never hurts to repeat this exercise. Perhaps renewing the discussion will get more people interested in analysing, and where necessary changing, their email practice – with the goal of helping themselves and others spend a little less time fiddling with email and creating a little more time to do other interesting stuff.

Many years ago I was a part of a distributed project team designing a workshop that combined teambuilding, with systems thinking and sustainable development. It was lead by Dennis Meadows, one of my mentors, and at one early point in our process where we were taking on individual roles and responsibilties, he asked us to distinguish between “wish to do” and “will do”. At that time, I am not sure I fully appreciated his request. It really does have to do with teamwork and the systems in which we work.

Committing yourself to do something already demonstrates good intent and some level of trust on your part, however, actually delivering on your commitment starts to build it within the team. Social contracts, the promises we make to others every day, when they are honoured (as the norm) help to build trust around us and creates an environment which supports achievement, where we might be able to take some risk and try new and innovative things. The inverse is also true, non-delivery on commitments starts to chip it away. One way to build trust is to be clear about the difference between what you want to do/intend to do/hope you have time to do and what you will do. And then to absolutely do it.

This question of trust building is not just about being nice. It is also about getting things done. When I trust you to do something, I am taking risk to build my productivity and outputs on the inputs of others. The quality of my work and effectively my reputation, then becomes more collectively based on the contributions of many other people. In order to do this I need to trust that others will honour their commitments to me, so that I can do a good job. The alternative to this is that I base my outputs solely on my own work (or that of an immediate team that I control with financial or other strong incentives like performance assessments) . What more might I accomplish if I opened myself to the diverse inputs and talents of a much larger “team”?

The theory in teambuilding is that a high performing team (trust comes in here) can accomplish things that it is difficult or impossible for an individual to do alone. In systems, one goal is to find the interrelationships that already exist and leverage those in order to help achieve a much larger collective goal. And to get people to work beyond their immediate functional units (sometimes called “silos”) takes trust. One place to start building trust is making good on social contracts so people can count on you. It is also about knowing when to say “I can’t do this right now”; which of course is another essential team skill (for some an even harder one).

In the past, doing email has never been a source of energy and delight for our team. Now it is. We use to spend hours a day sifting through hundreds of messages looking for actionable items, or scrolling down a long, complicated taxonomy of folders trying to accurately file something. Going away on a holiday or even a short work trip brought the dread of a whole day spent trying to get back on top of our email. Not anymore… Our team of four has now had a zero in-box for a month!

A zero in-box doesn’t mean that you have no email at all to do, but it means that you have made a decision about every single item that has come into your in-box and moved it to its next action (Action Needed, Reply, Follow-up, Explore, Archive). We delete more, we are more careful what we send, and a few of us have adopted the promise and added it to our electronic signature. I find now that I am able to keep to five sentence responses now most of the time (I would be happy to graduate to sometime this year.)

Now we talk about email to anyone who will listen with the energy and enthusiasm of people who have mastered a new technique which we feel has increased our productivity, as well as boosted our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This feeling of success at the end of each day, I believe, is what keeps me on top of this new system. And the fact that I was able to learn a new way of working that has replaced an entrenched behaviour that I have had for over 10 years. I have noticed that I am getting more things done now, I certainly feel more organized and less a slave to my computer.

We plan to hold a short workshop in house in the next months to share with people what we are learning about zero-in box. How we have adapted it to our own needs, and where we still see some room for improvement and innovation (like how do you get yourself to go back to the “Explore” folder!) Productivity is satisfying and of course there are many different ways to improve this in the workplace – the Onion had another suggestion about how to do this yesterday…

This was the goal set forth by David Allen at his seminar in London last Friday, addressing the 120 knowledge workers in the room (from IT companies, banks, company HR departments, and so on – mostly men, by the way) – how can you get all your tasks and projects out of your head and into a trusted system, and walk around with nothing in your head. He described this state as “Mind like water” (and showed us some martial arts moves to demonstrate his point) where you are able to make a perfectly appropriate response to and engagement with what is present.

Several things surprised me about the day long seminar on Getting Things Done (or GTD as the adherents call it). First was how incredibly popular it is among the private sector, especially in IT companies. I knew that David Allen was a consultant to many silicon valley enterprises, but I had no idea that Belgian companies would have GTD support staff, and software engineers worldwide were developing GTD compliant add-ons to various office packages. There are bloggers devoted to making GTD work, even Microsoft Office 2007 has functions that were designed to work with GTD organizing systems. Who would have known?

The second, related thing that surprised me was how completely absorbed the audience was. This was a full day, 8 hour seminar with a packed ballroom, and David Allen spoke for the whole time. There was very limited interactivity (he said at one point, “I don’t do interactive stuff, this seminar is basically me talking to you.” (only slightly paraphrased)) And the audience was rapt, the questions were incredibly detailed, “what is the average time to spend on your weekly review?” And this predominantly male, corporate British audience didn’t even flinch when he stated that appropriately managing your commitments frees up attention for higher-level thinking and creativity and opens up psychic space.

The final thing that surprised me is how excited I got about this approach. I have already used it for about a year, and I learned many new ways to make it more efficient. Many of the tips and tools are very familiar, but the way to put them together, from the “runway” or day-today tasks to those which sit at the visionary “50,000 feet” level, this method aims to take in it all, organize it, and engage with it when the time is right – not all the time- so that most of the time you can walk around with absolutely nothing on your mind – open and ready for that next great idea.

I can’t believe it, but I have ZERO messages in my in-box right now. Not only do I have zero messages in my personal email account, but I also have zero in my work email. On Sunday I had hundreds and hundreds in each. Now I have zero -what’s the secret? Watch this fascinating google video and see…

This is a video of a 58 minute presentation (including Q&A) called In-box Zero by productivity guru Merlin Mann that he gave at the Google HQ in July. I watched it, I tried it, and I now feel completely different about email. It no longer rules (me). Mann’s advice is based on David Allen’s method and book called, “Getting Things Done” (or GTD for short). It seems that Allen’s method has been heartily embraced by IT companies where knowledge workers, who are supposed to be creating new and innovative things, are apt to get swamped by endless everyday email and tasks. His method is about getting your to-do list out of your head, or your email in-box, and into a system that works to organize and manage it for higher productivity.

I have now read the book (bought the label maker), watched the video, implemented the systems now both at home and at work for both email and paper-based tasks. I am surprised to say that it works (you need to keep your maintenance up), and it is refreshing not to see those piles of paper on the desk, or hundreds of emails. I’m sure there are still plenty of tips that passed me by the first time. By sheer luck, I have a free pass to a David Allen full-day seminar in London tomorrow and will get to hear more about the method right from Allen himself. I will blog my learning when I get back.

What am I going to do with all that spare time if I ever do get completely organized?