On the way to being productive

Most of my students know that I am a fan and practitioner of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology. I use OminGroup's OmniFocus to keep my day organized. What most don't know is that even with a methodology and a tool to support it, there are still lots of things that must be tweaked to make it work for you.

One of the aspects of GTD that I like is the easy capture and organization of the things you need to do. The premise is that as long as you have things running around your head interrupting you, you will never be able to focus and be productive. Those annoying little messages that pop in your head saying "oh, you forgot to email your colleague about tomorrow's meeting" keep interrupting you and don't allow you to quietly get any work done. For those of you out there with a computer science background, it is what is known as thrashing. You can't get anything done because you remember other things that need to be done and as you capture those, you remember another thing, etc.

Yet, easy capture is hardly enough. Another source of distraction is the list of things to do itself. I have recently better understood a secret for how to manage my list of things to do a bit more effectively. Here is the logic behind it.

I always wondered why I was more productive on friday afternoon. I often get a million things done on Friday afternoon. All those little emails, phone calls, download this from here, install this on your computer, fill out this form, somehow always got done on Fridays. I even allowed a two hour block at the end of the week so that I could have this "get-it-done" bonanza to happen. Then I noticed that the same thing happened right before I go on a trip. And to an even larger scale, right before I go on a vacation.

Then it hit me. The reason why I get all of these things done in those cases is because I have nothing new going into my list on those days. I am not fretting over tomorrow morning's meetings on Friday afternoons. I am not worried about what I need to do for next week right before I go on vacations. It is the interruptions and the attention grabbing of what I am not doing what was slowing me down.

So, how do I reduce those interruptions? How do I eliminate the thrashing? Simple. Well, or so it seems now. Eliminate the distractions. Don't look at your to do list. Don't look at your calendar. Don't look at your inbox. But the only way you can get away with that is to do one of the things that David Allen says: you have to trust that you have a system that works, that is, all things that need to be done are captured safely someplace. You have to know there is no "leak" in your system. Only once you have done that, you can safely ignore all distractions because they are there waiting for you.

To accomplish that, here is what I do:

  1. Email: in my email, have turned off the "number" column. That is, I don't want to know that I have 30 emails in my inbox. They are all there. I am not going to lose them. But if I know that there are 30, I start worrying that I might need to answer them or that there is something important. Just let them be.
  2. Email: turn off the checking with server option to every hour. I don't need to be reminded every 5 minutes that "You've got mail." Once an hour is more than sufficient. My mail client (Apple's Mail.app) downloads new emails when you send emails out, so my messages come to me much more frequently than once an hour. But if I am busy working on something and I don't touch my email client, then it will not interrupt me.
  3. Desktop: turn off the showing of your files on your desktop. The desktop is a source of distraction. You drop files there on the way to saving them elsewhere. Or you download things that need to be worked on (forms, for example) and you put them there to "remind you" to work on them later. That is a bad practice. Hide those files. Use your desktop only for things that belong there, and not as yet another to do list. Write an entry on your to do system "Fill out form X (it's on the desktop)". Done.
  4. Calendar: don't look to far ahead because, once again, you will start worrying about what is coming down the road. If you are in the good habit of doing a regular review of your pending work, and if you have captured everything, then you calendar is really just a reminder of where you have to be and at what time. That's they way I use my calendar. I don't put any "to do" items there. I only put "where to be" items or in some cases, "what to do at a time" (e.g., record TV show at 8pm).
  5. GTD: the most benefit that I have obtained from my to do list is hiding it from myself. So, I regularly do a "review", as recommended by the GTD methodology. Those things that have either a hard and fast deadline (e.g., submit proposal to NSF by friday at 5pm), I give them the appropriate deadline. Those things that I want to do now because later might not be that effective (e.g., register my kids in a summer camp), I give them a deadline for two or three days out from the review date. And those things that I think I can do in the upcoming days because I know I have free time or because I know I will be visiting a particular office on some day (e.g., drop off papers at the graduate school), I give it a deadline. Then, I print out (yes print out) the context view of those activities that are overdue or due in the next two days.

Today I have a small AppleScript to export a particular view from OmniFocus, based on Curt Clifton's AppleScripts. This saves to my web server directory (~/Sites) a file with the "due actions". I then have a short PHP script that generates an agenda for me. This agenda includes a Google Calendar view of my day with the things that need to be done printed next to it. It is this page that I used to get things done. I don't go back to my longer list of things to do. Too much distraction potential there. With this paper copy, I can start crossing out things and consistently work towards doing things until the list is almost completely done or until it is time for another review.

One of the things that I used to worry the most was that my to do list was continuously expanding; it never got any shorter. I used to think that a good working day was defined by having a smaller to do list at the end of the day than I did a the beginning of the day. Yet, that only happened right before I went on vacations. The ideal solution is to go on vacations every week, maybe that will make me the most productive person on earth.

Posted on 04/14/2008



GTD Macintosh Productivity


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