Friday, December 7, 2007

Does your system work when you have the flu?

GTD Simplicity is so vital to the whole process working.

I was listening to a podcast on davidco and David said two things that struck me about GTD systems:

(1) "these systems needs to work when you have the flu and don't feel like it."

Ain't that the truth. I've finally stuck with a single list manager for months now: Todoist. And I see no signs of it slowing down. The number one source of agreement between me and Todoist is simplicity. I hear and read of so many people looking for a piece of software that will do all the thinking for them. Forget it. If you find it, you've also found that you apparently have no more to add to the world than a computer. In my opinion, the number one attempt at overdoing GTD is in trying to find a way to handle "task dependencies." Which leads me to quote number...

(2) "you don't wanna put call fred if fred's dead i'll call know that's overplanning... for the most part you just need to know what the kickstart is...that would be really overkill and overplanning to sit down to try to lay out a bunch of stuff that you know is going to be pretty natural and flow as you start moving on action items..."

Yes. Forget dependencies. GTD is absolutely not meant for you to stop thinking about what you have to do. It's geared towards knowledge workers for crying out loud. Perhaps the most important task for any knowledge worker is to be able to use discrimination in deciding what the next step is for moving forward on their projects. This discrimination should be what makes you irreplaceable by technology. Risking being harsh and self-righteous I think attempting task dependencies is one of the most classic novice GTD mistakes out there.

Fine, so if you really want to remember that somewhere down the line you need to do task x but it's not the immediate next action, list it somewhere in a place associated with the project and make sure your weekly review takes care of catching it when it becomes next or close to next. A good place would be a project brainstorm or project steps list distinct from your overall next actions list. If that place has to be your actions list itself, so be it. Just don't worry about dependencies, things change too fast and too much for that to be useful. In Todoist, for example, if I'm mind dumping a bunch of steps for a project I list those as items in that project's list, but my absolute next actions (or MITs if you wanna get your zen on) are ones on which I put a due date for today or overdue so that they show up on my home page. I then work off the homepage until those tasks are done or rendered unnecessary, then I go pick new absolute next actions. This step of thinking after finishing a task (unless it's trivial) is essential to keeping your project management organic enough to allow for creativity, good problem solving, and changing circumstances.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Make a Weekly Review List : Gmail it to yourself

When I first started implementing GTD and recently as an experiment, I tried to do the weekly review impromptu, off the cuff if you will. This is generally not a good idea. You should make a weekly review list because it's so goshdarn easy to make. I find the best place to put it is in an email to yourself. Often email is at the heart of folks' weekly reviews and inbox clearings, so it's a great place to put the list. Just search for "Weekly review" and get rolling.

Here is mine. Yeah, I have some odd non-traditionals on there, but if I gotta remind myself to do them somehow. What does yours look like?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Dealing with an imperfect GTD system

A perfect GTD system only exists on paper. Of course everyone's system is imperfect. We should be able to deal with that. I like to measure imperfection as how much stuff is still on your mind. That's what drew me in and keeps me going strong with GTD: keeping my mind clear. In the end, this is simply what eliminating stress is isn't? Getting rid of the constant nagging, worrying thoughts that make life miserable. They suck, and I want them gone.

So a question I've been asking myself is what happens when a project or two, or a task or two starts to consistently bother you? (Mind you this can happen even with a perfect system. GTD does nothing for emotional reactions towards certain tasks or projects. In fact, what system would make a project like "Defend thesis" get off your mind as the defense deadline approaches?)

Being anxious about your defense is normal and even healthy stress, but sometimes tasks or projects that I don't need to be thinking of all the time bother me. Usually this is because of some hole in my implementation of the system: I didn't do enough front end planning, the next actions are too big to handle, or something of that sort.

I've found the best way to deal with this is simply to do one small task related to that project as soon as possible. It's a huge stress relief. The more you procrastinate on something the more intimidating it seems, so breaking that chain and just doing something, anything, does wonders for making the project and the other next actions seem a lot more digestible.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

5 Ways to make use of between-class time

I've heard students (grad and undergrad) say the following more often than I expect: I just have this awkward 30 minute break between classes, which is not really enough time to get anything done.

I beg your pardon?

Here are five ideas for making use of between-class time:

  1. Read. Always bring backup reading. People are late, classes start late, classes end early, you're waiting for office hours, etc. Chances are, if you're a student of any kind there is something that you need to read that hasn't been read. If it's a big book you don't want to lug around, photocopy a few pages, the trees will forgive you. This can be useful for breaks from 5 minutes up to 45 minutes.
  2. Brainstorm. On a piece of paper or your computer, brainstorm solutions or strategies for one problem that is on your plate write now. Often, the tasks that sit on our lists the longest are there not because of any incompetency on our part or our system's but simply because they are hard, and thus are psychologically avoided. Take advantage of this short time to just list as many ideas regarding strategies to overcoming a problem as possible. If your brainstorm produces next actions, all the better, but they don't have to. I find that the definitive end to the brainstorming session makes dealing with ugly projects a lot easier.
  3. Start on one homework assignment. For science-y types that have problem sets. Start on one 1 problem. Start is the key. If you get stuck, start on another. Don't worry about finishing. For humanities or social scientists with papers due, start on an outline. I've found that even if I haven't finished doing the background research, guessing what the outline could look like really helps form ideas.
  4. Nap. College students have no problem sleeping through classes. But try sleeping in between classes. This is a 2 in 1 productivity secret because it 1) Refreshes you for the rest of the day and 2) Lets you stay awake during class so you don't have to spend extra time re-learning concepts that were explained in class in the first place. Class is not a convenient place to sleep anyways, the library is much quieter. In addition, sleeping during class surely doesn't give you bonus points with the prof that you might need to cash in later.
  5. Do your Weekly Review. Obviously if you're not GTDing, you should start, and if you're GTDing but not weekly reviewing you should start (see here and here). The key to the weekly review is doing it at the same time consistently, every week, which makes a class schedule the perfect structure for fitting in a 30 minute to 1 hour weekly review; just write it into the hard landscape of your calendar every week like another class. Money.

Monday, September 24, 2007

New Template

I didn't like the old design and thought it was a bit hard to read so I changed it. Hope this is better!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I'm starting to Jott and I kind of like it.

...and by kind of, I mean a lot. I'm a declared fan of GTD simplicity, so I normally don't try and overpolish the GTD system, but I ran into this Lifehacker post about capture, which mentioned Jott as a possible capture tool. A while back I bought a tiny pen that I keep in my wallet (yes, it fits in my wallet!) to capture thoughts on the go, so at first I was hesitant, but Jott was just too cool. There is literally nothing easier than dialing a speed dial number saying "myself" and then "Waste time and be a hypocrite by posting on blogger instead of getting things done."

I found the transcription rate pretty good if you speak clearly. Also if you need to say a complicated or unusual word, you can spell it out, which is surprisingly not that much of a hassle. The Lifehacker post also mentioned "a lot of email solicitations" after signing in. Now, either my Gmail spam filter is just that good, or they've stopped, or the writer got something mixed up because I've received zero so far.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Todoist Slickrun Integration

So I saw the Launchy Todoist plugin, that lets you quickly add an item to your Todoist lists with just a few keystrokes, and it made me jealous because I don't use Launchy, I use SlickRun. I wanted the same Todoist capture method for SlickRun. Capturing distracting thoughts while you're doing a task quickly and efficiently is essential to the GTD process. I couldn't find anything on the web so I tried doing it myself. I'm generally pretty incompetent when it comes to this level of geekyness but somehow I stumbled upon a solution.

First I just scrolled through the Todoist API page and found the add items url and created a magicword with Filename: Firefox and and Parameters: that url. With, of course, a $W$ for the content of the item, and a particular project id I wanted the task to go in. This worked, but it opened up a Firefox window every time and that defeats the whole purpose of instant, undistracting, capture.

I then did some searching through the Bayden message board and found a discussion where someone asked how to make Twitter posts through SlickRun and Eric posted a solution. It involved creating a vbscript and having SlickRun open that script and pass whatever you want to say to the script which then does the website updating. So I should say now that I have no Windows scripting experience and in general am not much of a programmer, but I figured adding an item to Todoist should be basically the same. So I took his script and modified things until it worked.

I can now type "td this is so cool" into SlickRun and the item "this is so cool" will appear in a given project in my Todoist account. That is cool.

Some Comments

  • I'm sure someone could modify this to allow you to type in the project as well, but I don't have the patience or know-how to do this. Some project names are too long and too hard to get exactly right for that to be quick and convenient(e.g. "Finalize ticket and hotel for Denver"). But if you want to, feel free to post that modification.
    • I have a project in Todoist called "New" and make all instantly captured items go there (I was doing this with Launchy, which I downloaded just for this capture, for a few hours until this SlickRun diddly worked). I then just put those items wherever they need to go the next time I've actually opened Todoist. Works well.
    • For some reason I couldn't add the context label to my item descriptions in Launchy; it would give me a syntax error message. I think this is because that @ sign is used to denote time for that plugin. In this slickrun method you can label items with @context at the end of the description and it works as a context.
Finally, here is the script:

Set objHTTP = CreateObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP") "POST", "" & WScript.Arguments.item(0) & "&project_id=projectidhere&priority=4&token=yourtokenhere", False
Set objHTTP = Nothing
What's a token? Your token is basically the golden key into your account and can be found in Preferences -> Account.

How do I know the project id number? To get a list of the project id's for your projects, enter this url into your browser:

For those of you like me, who have no idea how this scripting business works, don't be intimidated, just copy the above text and paste it into notepad and save the notepad file as scriptname.vbs, and put it in whatever directory you want.

Then create your magicword in SlickRun with:
Filename or Url: the above script's filename.
Parameters: $W$

I believe that's it. Let me know if I missed anything, this doesn't work, or there is a better method out there that I didn't run into. Happy GTDing!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Todoist Review

Edit(2/5/08): Check out my latest post on using a notecard for the day along with Todoist!

So I renogiated my commitment to this thereaputic blog and called it quits after a short while to get other things done. This happend around April, but then you'll notice I posted once more in May to write a quick review of Dan Kennedy's No B.S. Time Management because I liked it. Once more, but this time after a many month break, I'm posting in order to review Todoist, the online GTD app. I wanted to be able to add my two cents in the off chance that someone was searching for reviews of Todoist or online GTD apps and searched far enough to actually find this.


I've been using Todoist for a few weeks now, maybe a month -- time flies when you're having fun you know. Before that I used Gmail to manage my next action lists and before that, Outlook. I switched from Outlook to Gmail because I loved Gmail and wanted to switch to that for email completely and didn't want Outlook running just for lists. In Gmail I used labels for context and project lists and emailed myself to put items into that list. I thought it was super wonderful since I could label one email with multiple contexts and projects. That worked fine for a while, but visually and operationally it wasn't as clean as I wanted. Visually, when I clicked on a label and saw all the emails (items/actions) in it, it wasn't clear what was done, what was next, and what could wait even though I tried with the read/unread and starred/unstarred options:

The operational weaknesses in using Gmail to manage my lists were the ultimate reasons I was tempted enough to try something else. Specifically, it was a pain in the ass to create a new project. When you have a label that represents a project or context, whenever you want to create an item in that label (context/project) you have to: email yourself; label the email in the inbox; then clear the email from the inbox. Yes, it's not hard like getting to the moon is hard, but it's not as quick and easy as creating a next action should be. So in order to avoid that, every time I created a label, I also created a filter which included keywords I would type in the body that would make that email automatically skip the in inbox and be labeled. That solved one problem but created another. Creating next actions was fast, but creating projects was slow: I had to create a label and create a filter for that label, both of which required multiple screens, mousing, typing, etc. It literally took over a minute each time. It sounds like I'm complaining, but that much resistance was enough for me to avoid creating projects for smaller open loops, whic was preventing my from properly using GTD. As David Allen says, any item with more than 2 next actions is a project. With this system of mine, it became every item with more than 15 next actions or something equally absurd. The net result is that I had many small projects in my mind that were unorganized and had little next actions strewn through context lists and were frankly eating away at my mind and distracting me. This had to be fixed.

Focus on doing, not on the system

I tried to be productive and a good boy and say that Gmail was sufficient and I wasn't going to switch again. I wanted to focus on doing my tasks, not tweaking systems. This is a very good philosophy, but I realized that with Gmail, I was forced to focus on the system. So I started to casually browse. I realized that online list management was fine for me because I had a job (grad student) that had me always near a wired computer. So I searched, and stumbled upon Todoist.


Visual Clarity

Todoist is not a GTD app in the sense that it's not centered around GTD. I like this because I find that other GTD-centric apps are way to elaborate and overstructured. David's system becomes this huge rigid pipeline that every brain fart you may have is forced to pass through. What context does this belong to? Should I do it or delegate it? Defer it? Is this a next action, or merely an action? So you have to click through tabs and stars and pages and bubbles just to create one small action. Ugghh! Please. What an over complication. Todoist is clean. It's a got a list of projects on the side and your list of items in the middle. To see items from a particular project, click on that project and they appear. All of them. Click the box next to an item and it turns grey and gets striked-out. There are no ads, no ugly colors, no obtrusive logos, just your list of items. For me, this allows for productivity.

Creating and reordering items

Creating items requires hitting the "a" key. That's right, from the keyboard. Todoist is pretty good at providing keyboard shortcuts. I say pretty good because it could be better but it also better than a lot of other programs. The caveat in using "a" to create an item is that you have to be in the project list you want to create the item under. But I find that often when I want to create items is when I'm checking off items in a current project list anyway. So for example if I'm managing a certain project and its actions, I could go through the following procedure in lightening speed: check-off, check-off, modify, hit enter, hit "a", type item, hit enter. And two items have been checked off, one modified, and one added. Literally under 30 seconds. Modifying can be done by just clicking anywhere in the item's text.

Reordering is super easy too. To reorder the items list hit "r" and drag them to whatever order you want. To reorder the projects list, hit "shift+r" and drag them. I find this important. Just because I created a certain item today it doesn't mean that should go at the top, or the bottom, or the middle, or in alphabetical order. I want to order them whichever way I please. Easily. I found the lack of this feature annoying in both Outlook and Gmail.


You can create hierarchies or subprojects faster than you can blink. Simply typing Ctrl+left arrow lets you indent a certain item over one tab so you can have one subproject name and a whole bunch of little actions associated with it that are tabbed over. This works for your list of items and for your list of projects as you notice in my screenshot above. Extremely handy little feature.


Typing an asterisk at the start of any line makes that line not have a checkbox, it's simply a little line of text. This is perfect for jotting down little notes, adding urls, etc. to a task or at the top for that project.


I'll be honest, contexts are not that important to me. Being a grad student, I find that most of next actions belong to a small group of contexts, and those contexts are often physically close to each other and accessible every day. Projects, on the other hand are vital since I'm always balancing a lot and on a given day have to make significant progress on any given project due to outside pressures (my advisor). In that regard, "cranking" through a given context list and getting something done in that context for a variety of projects is not a luxury I have. But, if I want to, I can in Todoist. Contexts are created as little unobtrusive but functional Gmail-style labels. And the best part is, when I'm creating an item, I don't have to take some elaborate number of steps to create the contexts either, I just append my item text with @home. That's it, the @ sign in the text creates contexts. Beautiful. If I do feel like seeing all of my @computer contexts, for example, at one time, I just type in @computer in the search box and there they are.

Gmail Integration

There is a great firefox plugin that, once installed, puts a little "Add to Todoist" link at the bottom of every Gmail conversation, which makes turning mail into action items a one click endeavor.

Premium Perks

As with basically all online GTD apps, there is a premium subscription ($3/month) that you can purchase and it comes with perks like reminders, sms reminders, etc. I haven't found it necessary so I haven't bothered. Putting a date on a task and having it show up on that date as all the tickling I need since I use Todoist every day.


I wish they had more keyboard shortcuts. Some things still require mousing and that seems unnecessary. Also, I wish the search bar let you search for terms, not just by date. I suppose I don't really need this since I don't have a million next actions, but sometimes it could be useful. I wish editing a project were bit easier. Why can't I double click and edit.

Overall Todoist is a very solid, highly recommended, online GTD app.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Dan Kennedy - No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs - Review

First things first, by the end of this post you should know why I haven't posted in so long.
Second things second, yes, I know no one cares when I post and no one reads this blog anyways.

The following is my (very brief) review of the book No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs by Dan Kennedy: I like it.

Key aspects that stood out about this book:

  • Finally a time management book that doesn't try to sell you a sensational too good to be true story.
  • He emphasizes two key things: 1. No interruptions 2. Discipline.
  • When he doesn't know something he admits it. For example, when talking about working from home he admits that some say this puts work on your mind more and he admits that maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, he doesn't know.
  • He walks the walk.

  1. Interruptions - Dan Kennedy is absolutely militant about his time. He is also old skool. No cell phone, no email. Yup. Landline? He answers that "live" only an hour or two a week. He works at his home office, by himself, no interruptions. So how in the world does he get in touch with anyone ever? Fax. Yup. He loves the fax and has everything faxed to him. He is a self-employed marketing expert/writer/business consultant/speaker etc. His "clients" get in touch with him almost exclusively through fax. So the question begs to be asked WHY ONLY FAX?! Let me step aside and let him answer that:
    "With each easier, faster means of communicating, the quantity of dumb, junk communication has multiplied. Because sending an email is so easy and doesn't even require the labor of walking over to the fax machine, people send emails any time they have a brain fart...Again, you may or may not want or need to mirror me. But if you're like many people, and you jump up every time the fax machine beeps, you can't possible be productive....If you're checking your email constantly, compulsively, or worse, if you're responding to messages as they arrive -- you're headed for an early grave...For somebody in an office, I think a good system is to take the hour after lunch to look at the morning's faxes, emails, and phone calls, deal ONLY with those that are genuinely urgent, and set the others aside."
    No B.S.
    What I like most is the fact that it applies maybe 10 fold to those of us (myself included, or I like to think not anymore) that have elaborate GTD systems to deal with incoming anything and we are so enamored with our fancy system that we do jump anytime anything beeps because we want to use the system. Get away from that, get very far away from that. Some people say, oh, that only happens at the beginning pretty soon you don't even realize you're using it. Nope. Not in my experience, and not from what I've read on the countless productivity blogs in Web 2.0 land. Feeling productive is fun. Being productive is hard. That's the simple truth and Dan Kennedy urges us to discipline ourselves to let the latter statement be true in our lives. I applaud this.

  2. Discipline - Chapter 5 is devoted to discipline and titled "The Magic Power that Makes You Unstoppable". Here he tells the story of a super-disciplined jockey and his own story of discipline. When's the last time you read a time management piece that told you straight up BE DISCIPLINED. It's not the comforting too-good-to-be-true candy we want to hear. But it's reality. If we could read GTD once and actually have our productivity come "stress-free" there wouldn't be a world of people online blogging their heads off about this stuff, finding new tools, every few months saying they "finally got the right one" (again, myself included). Dan Kennedy has one assistant, in an office in another state, that takes his faxes, mail, phone, and any other input he receives, sorts through it, and gives him only the most urgent pieces of communication. He reads through this stack only when he wants, not when it arrives. We may not all have secretaries or assistants, but we should let our productivity systems be our secretaries and filter useless crap away from us, not the other way around (deal with useless inputs because we've created a system to deal with them). We should have the discipline to start the day off not checking email, and starting off on our most important and most critical tasks and projects, not the ones on our GTD next actions list that are the quickest, most fun, and easiest to check off.
I love it. The advice is real. GTD simplicity once again. So that's why I haven't posted in a while. The post was on my next-actions list, it just wasn't high priority.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

GTD "Today folder or list"

I found an interesting un-GTD GTD recommendation on an IT management website (via the great ultimate gtd index). The article is titled "Getting Things Done in 60 seconds" and the author teaches a few (60 seconds worth) of GTD fundamentals and if you like them you have to promise to buy the book and delve into it; seems like a nice way to intro into GTD for those that may be more timid.

Most of the tips are pretty nice and pretty classic, but the last one caught my attention especially because it's rather un-GTD and it's related to a topic that I've been alluding to in recent posts. He mentions setting up a "Today" folder with next actions that you want to get done today:

7. Create a "today" folder or list.

This part deviates totally from GTD, but works great for me. I have a short list of things I have to complete every day (daily tasks like "review week in calendar" and "clean desk"). I add to that list the most urgent and/or important items as I'm going through my inbox and task-category folders, I grab items I really want to complete today, and add them to my list. Then I go through that list slavishly -- doing exactly what it tells me to do, in the order it tells me. You can also do this with task-files in a folder or in an Outlook Task folder labeled "Today."

Sounds sinful doesn't it. This is similar to how I put some Alan Lakein into my next actions list by adding some A1, A2 color coding capabilities. This idea works for me and I like it because it embraces the fact that there are priorities.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Are all open loops really created equal?

I'm going to put my question-GTD hat on again.

One premise of GTD is that as far as your mind goes, all open loops are created equal. That is, no matter the time, place, or importance, your mind will focus on an open loop as though it is important, and this is the time and place. Evidently, your mind can't distinguish between loops that it should think about and those that it shouldn't.

Now, is that really true? My experience and vigilant mental observation over the past month has led me to believe that it's not. Big, nasty tasks take up way more mental and emotional energy than little ones. Evidence:

  • I simply do not stay up at night wondering whether I will remember to get the butter at the grocery store.
  • I do not keep thinking about when I'm gonna get the oil changed in my car when I should be paying attention to the conversation I'm having with my friend.
  • I do not lose focus on large, important tasks because I'm thinking about posting the birthday card on time to my cousin.
I do however, have trouble sleeping if the enormous monster of a task is looming over my head because I didn't get to it because I was too busy tweaking my system, finishing little errand tasks, and doing whatever else I do to procrastinate. This is not to say that you shouldn't keep your capture system pervasive. Little tasks do come up, and yes, they come up at inappropriate times. So a quick, easy, well-reviewed capture system is necessary so that when you've finally gotten to the big nasty task and "get-butter" gets in the way, you can quickly capture it and get back to work within a 10-30 seconds. And that's precisely the point of the capture system, to not give them more than the 30 seconds they're worth. But should you spend time tweaking your processing system for these little tasks? Browsing the internet for hours on the best way to combine lightweight moleskins with tiny pens to capture any last morsel of thought that may come through your head? No. Simply no. Don't waste your time. You know what the important tasks are and your list is overcrowded as it is. Get to doing!

As I previously discussed in Priorities and Getting Things Done, big, large priority tasks are what you should focus on because those are the tasks that get you ahead in your field and get you closer to your higher altitude goals. Here, I want to reassure you that you aren't going against all that is holy in GTD and letting your mind get clogged up with open loops because you're letting some of the little tasks slip in place of the big ones. In my experience, the little tasks barely take up as much space in your head as the big ones do, so why give them more than the 30 seconds they're worth?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Grad School and Fitness - Finding the Time to Stay Healthy

Ah grad school. A time for us to transform from immature undergrads to knowledgeable adults. Unfortunately many of us are undergoing another transformation as well. Yes, I'm talking about our bodies. The hours, days, weeks, and years of sitting in chairs and staring at screens, papers, dials and knobs can take a toll when not combined with a proactive plan to keep your body healthy, and should the mood strike you perhaps even transform its shape back or maybe for the first time forward to that which you've always desired. It is possible and it does not require immense amounts of time. Grad school and fitness are compatible.

My first year of grad school was my fitness hayday. That's the year that all I read and learned was finally put up to disciplined practice. I am a skinny boy, so my fitness goals were to gain weight (of course in the form of lean muscle) and I managed to gain over 20 pounds in that first year and consider it a huge success.

Then came my second year, which is where I am now. I got a new adviser (newbie) which came with a massive swing in workload, I studied for and took a preliminary examination, and I was also just plain overconfident as a result of my first year of success, and this has made this year, so far, a fitness failure. My appetite continued from the first year of massive eating and exercise, but the exercise part did not, and so in addition to the wonderful muscle mass I gained came a nice layer of bodyfat. Undesirable.

And so I begin my second phase of grad school fitness success keeping the following principles in mind:

  • I am bold about my goals and am not merely looking to "maintain" anything, but rather to build and shape my body to a condition that I desire. If I miss those stars, I'll at least end up at the top of the mountain.
  • I insist on staying absolutely optimistic in regards to my fitness goals (hence the reference to "grad school fitness success" above). I don't have the time and energy for self-deprecation and negativity.
  • I insist on ensuring that this is a priority and not wasting my time by working out and eating inconsistently. In my experience and the experience of every other single person I've heard from or read about that has achieved their fitness goals, consistency is the single deciding factor between success and failure.
  • I insist on staying educated about health and fitness. I have learned that more than 50% of the game is nutrition and continue to read about nutrition and healthy eating habits.
I'm more than aware that the radical "swing" in workload from my first year requires an appropriate response from my end in order to ensure that I abide by point 3 above. I'm also aware that point 3 is easily the single biggest excuse for the average person who would like to workout more and would like to be healthier but who is not doing either. The worst psychological thing you can do to yourself in regards to fitness is have the mental weight of "being on a fitness plan" but "not finding the time" to do it and breaking consistency and realizing after months or even years that you've spent countless hours in the gym or elsewhere and have little to show for it. You have to be consistent. There's no other choice. I love the analogy of working out to riding a bike uphill. If you keep pedaling, although at times it can be tiring and take a while, you will reach your goal. But if you stop pedaling you don't just stay where you are, you start rolling back down, undoing your earlier effort. Talk about a time-waster!

My Workout Schedule

So, I have the following workout schedule for this semester. I split my workouts into 4 regions: legs, chest, back, arms. Had I been trying to lose weight, my workout would be different, specifically, cardio would be added either as extra days or added on to certain other days. Try the Forums for more discussion. My schedule is: Sunday (1 hour): Legs, Wednesday 6:30-7:30am: Chest, Friday 6:30-7:30am: Back, Saturday (1 hour): Arms. I have never tried the early morning workout schedule in fear that I would never go , but I simply think I have no other choice right now. The weeks simply get too busy. There are too many fires to put out and too many "things that come up." Quite frankly it's disgusting that I can't find the time in the afternoons or evenings to go to the gym, but that is how it has been. Instead of trying to fight with the work monster, I'm going to go behind its back and get my workout in before it rears its ugly head on Wednesdays and Fridays. Also, this has the added benefit of going when the gym is less crowded which means it's more efficient! You'll notice above that this totals only 4 hours of gym time a week. Combined with "gym prep" (i.e. showering, changing, getting there, etc.) it totals somewhere between 6 to 8 hours (working out in the morning helps with this as well since I'm not taking an extra shower or doing too much extra changing/prep as I would be with afternoon or evening workouts). I simply will not stand for not having the time in my week to workout. Even Niel Fiore mentioned that the producing grad students in the study he conducted at UC Berkeley were ones that consistently exercised. I am confident my new schedule will work and will post periodically on how it is going.

Also, soon, I will post on the nutrition aspect of fitness (the most important!). Certainly the workout time is wasted if you eat sporadically or especially do the classic grad student bit of buying 2 to 3 meals a day outside, or worse yet, eating only 2 to 3 meals a day, or even less! Preparing your own meals is essential and feeding your body more than 3 times a day is also essential (regardless of if you want to gain or lose weight). We will discuss how you can fit that in to your busy schedule as well.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Priorities and Getting Things Done

The overemphasis in the GTD world of priorities being last place in the four-fold criteria for doing is, in my opinion, not going to help you get important things done. Merlin over on 43folders wrote a bit about why priorities are last place, and as sacrilegious as this may sound in the GTD world, I gotta say I don't agree with the idea that priorities are really that unimportant. Furthermore I think it's dangerous to your productivity to keep putting priorities at the bottom of your list of criteria.

First some background for those that may be unaware of the "Four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment", they are, in order, as follows (p. 192 of GTD):

1. Context
2. Time Available
3. Energy available
4. Priority

The crux of my argument is simply this: Your next actions, like it or not, are on a continuum of importance, making those at the top of the continuum much more important than others at the bottom. If you are constantly in the wrong context, constantly "don't have time", and constantly "don't have energy" (usually a guise for "just don't feel like it") to do next actions related the Lakein "A1" type projects, you may need to organizationally rethink your life at a higher level.

What do I mean by "higher level?" I mean higher than the runway. Yes, I'm using a DA'ism to emphasize the need for priorities. In fact, I would say that whole runway to 50,000 feet concept is precisely about priorities. Now, David of course advocates starting at the runway, which makes sense because you need to first feel like you have some control in day to day activities to clear your head for the higher altitudes. But for most of us, especially geeks, our runways are already well organized. In fact, we often have an elaborate collection, processing, and tracking system, as much as we can automated, gadgets for every step possible, and keyboard shortcuts to accompany all of it.

And that is where the danger lies. In the web GTD community (the only GTD community with which I am familiar) there is so much emphasis on "the cup", the system, the shortcuts, the runway, that when it comes time to doing, it's easy to think that quickly taking care of online bills, re-organizing your shopping list, typing up that blog post you've been meaning to write, or google-mapping the nearest oil change place and checking off any of these actions means your really getting things done. Sure, if you do any medium or low priority task you got something done. You certainly checked off an item from your list and that made you feel good. But the uncomfortable question of "is making sure I don't miss any item on my grocery list every time I got to the store really on my 20,000 ft and above list?" To each his own: If your larger life goals are to be the quickest email-processor, bill-payer, and errand-completer that your friends and family have ever known, then by all means make sure those tasks are completed with the utmost efficiency. But if those are not your main priorities, maybe you can let them slide in place of that large, nasty, 2 or more hour long, thinking-intensive, emotionally heavy, self-worth questioning task that does, whether you like it or not, have more priority than 90% of tasks on your next actions list.

But what about the four-criteria? I think you should have the discipline to make the four criteria work for you rather than being controlled by them. When there are important, high priority, next actions that are key steps in achieving your 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 ft and above goals, you simply cannot let the four criteria get in the way. You need to use the four criteria as a checklist of things that need to be in place in order to complete your high priority items. What do I mean?

  • I mean get in the right context. If you are constantly talking to colleagues and coworkers and checking off those agenda items, constantly driving around and checking off errands, constantly on the phone and checking off those items, but never at your desk to tackle the big action, you simply have to rework your allocation of time. I firmly believe there is no secret to this besides discipline: stop talking to other people, stop driving around making sure you pick up the nails from the hardware store and the butter at the grocery store in one trip, turn off the phone, and get to your desk.
  • I mean find the time. No matter how many books you read and how many time-management catch phrases you can spout off, you still have 24 hours in every day like the rest of us. We are all busy and all wish we had more. We don't. The people that are really getting things done are the ones that are allocating these hours to those tasks that they feel are most important and will get them to their goals faster. For grad students, these tasks should be obvious.
  • I mean find the energy. It's easy to get to work and check off 15 medium to low priority next actions throughout the morning and afternoon only to find yourself alone with the large monster task that you really should have been doing all along at 4pm when you have no energy and maybe not enough time left. Then what happens? Well you clearly don't have the energy: "I need to be 7.0 or higher for this and I've really crept down to about 6.9 right now, so I'll have to pass." So you end up doing more low priority tasks. Know when you have the energy to tackle the high priority items and do everything possible to make sure that time is free. If you never feel like you have enough energy for the high priority items, there are larger issues you need to tackle, perhaps obligations you need to let go.
So what about the contexts? Why don't I just make purely Lakein-esque lists organized solely by priority? Don't be silly. Contexts have their place. When you are driving, it's useful to know where you have oustanding errands. When you are in phone call mode, it's useful to know all the calls you need to make. But for grad students in particular and anyone else whose most typical workday involves going to the same place (a desk) that has a bunch of contexts nearby (@phone @computer @lab @agenda-a-bunch-of-people) priorities have to come into the picture in order to make solid advancements on your most important goals.

Below is a screenshot of my outlook task list, organized by context, but with a "Laiken" field where I can mark a1 and have those tasks highlighted red (thanks to GTDWannabe for the privacy blurring idea).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Papers Toolbar

Earlier I typed up a quick rant disguised as a blog post about why you should stop delaying getting EndNote until you have to type your thesis. I did mention, however, that at times it can be convenient to put some, all, or a select few papers in a folder and browse that folder for papers you want.

I do this by implementing the My Papers toolbar. What the hell is that? It's simply a cute way of getting extremely quick access to papers that you want to find "this one thing real fast" in. It's for times when you know what you're looking for, you know who wrote the paper, and you don't want to open up EndNote, find the citation, and click on the "link to pdf". Well, if your papers' location on your harddrive is buried in some folder 8 levels in from My Documents, you might as well open up EndNote evertime right? It's basically the same amount of time and work. But, if your papers are one click away on the taskbar itself, then it's a whole new ballgame. Fortunately Windows XP can do just that for you (I haven't sold my second child for Vista yet, and have no burning desire to do so soon).

You can create a "toolbar" from any folder by dragging that folder to the edge of your desktop. Really. Just find a folder (doesn't have to be on the desktop to begin with) and drag it to the left or right, release, and there's your toolbar. I used that for a while (not for papers but for a Toolbar folder that has shortcuts to places I like to get to often and fast), but it kept getting in the way; it either takes up real estate or gets very annoying if you use the autohide because my mouse seems to reach all ends of the screen often. But I noticed later that if you drag that toolbar from the side to the taskbar, it plops down as a folder with a little double arrow that you can click to see the contents. This is where my Toolbar folder sits now. After a few weeks of a having a My Papers folder in my Toolbar folder, I found myself going to it more than anything else and thought I should give it its own seat on my taskbar, and we've been in love ever since.

When you have more than a screen full of papers, there are nice little scroll arrows it provides, and although I suspected with a lot of papers it would start to slow down, it hasn't. So the possibilities are endless: if you have all or nearly all of your papers in one folder like I do, you can use that; if you are working on a particular paper, you can put all the papers on that subject there; if you just have a few quick reference papers you always want to look up, you can create a folder of those and plop it down there. Personally I like the all-papers route myself, but whatever, its' a free country (unless you're reading this from a not-free country). Regardless, here's to the My Papers toolbar!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Gmail Illegal Attachment Fix

Recently I've had some problems receiving .exe and .zip (with an .exe file zipped in it) files as attachments with Gmail. It pissed me off for a while because I figure what's the point of the 2 gig goodness when you can't receive space-hogging programs from your friends? Fortunately for me has posted a fix. Now, I admit I haven't tried it yet, but it makes sense and sounds simple enough. Any one with comments on this or other Gmail problems/fixes fel free to let me know.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Use EndNote!

A senior grad student asked me the other day about "acquiring" a copy of EndNote. I was shocked. This guy was within a year of graduating and he was just now asking about EndNote! Unbelievable. When it comes to managing citations, bibliographies, and papers on your hard drive EndNote gets the job done. For some reason (read: money) grad students still hesitate or wait for the big paper or thesis when they can't put it off any longer to consider getting EndNote. Get EndNote now! The student version is totally affordable and your school may even have a discount. Here are four key reasons to get EndNote (or a similar citation/literature organizing software):

  1. If you ever have to write a paper with more than 10 citations, it will be a royal pain in the ass to keep changing them without it.
  2. If you plan on writing a thesis, it will most certainly have more than 10 citations so you're going to need it then anyways, so get it now.
  3. If you have more than 30 papers on your hard drive and need to find a specific paper, EndNote is an absolute beauty. You can search through papers by any criteria (or so it feels) and the search is faster than Gmail searching through your mail. Plus in the recent versions you can "link to pdf" and/or "link to url" so when you find the paper in EndNote, you've found the paper period.
  4. You don't have to manually type in all the paper information. Essentially all large literature databases have a "send to Endnote" option, so you just click on that button when you get to the article and it puts into Endnote for you. It even politely asks you which library you want it in.

I have only now started putting all of my papers into EndNote and implementing point 3 instead of just scrolling by author in my huge folder of papers and not finding what I'm looking for because the paper was in another folder. Although, I must mention, keeping certain papers (or shortcuts to them) in a certain folder for quick browsing can be convenient, but I'll write about that later. So get EndNote, it makes life a lot easier.

GTD Simplicity Reminder Tweak!

I couldn't do it. I couldn't stay away from Outlook for that long. I liked the Evernote idea, I really did, but I had to let it move back to second place in terms of listing the very next physical actions I have to take on each project. A few things weren't right in the Evernote scheme I mentioned:

  • The next actions list seems to need to be just that and nothing else, a clean list of actions, without notes and ideas and scratches there to clutter it up. I had trouble getting into the groove because I kept getting distracted by the overall picture, if that makes any sense, and felt I was spending too much time planning and too little time doing.
  • Using SlickRun to be able to quickly jot down a next action even when Outlook is closed whenever one pops into my head or I'm done with an action is priceless. That again limits time you have to spend fiddling with the system.
  • Having the next actions list two clicks or an alt+tab and ctrl+4 away was priceless. With Evernote I found myself scrolling and finding and reading other things I scrolled far too often.
BUT, I didn't scrap the Evernote idea completely. There was a key plus to to that idea:
  • Getting a sequential list of actions (past, present, and future), not arranged by context, for a specific project gives a great overview for that project. Little notes next to actions can be convenient too.
So the Evernote lists are still there, but they are just there when I get stuck on what the next action should be. When that happens I can open up the x-project "action overview" note and there is a (hopefully) crystal clear picture of where the project has gone action by action and (again, hoepfully) arising from that scan comes the idea of where the project should go.

Lastly, such a list is great for when your boss asks "What'd you do on project x this week?" or "Where are we on that?".
"Funny you should ask. Why don't you grab a Snickers, this may take a while..."

Friday, March 9, 2007

A GTD Simplicity Reminder

A couple weeks back I started to get caught in the trap of focusing on the system instead of focusing on getting things done. In reality, except for David Allen and a select few other people whose job it is to talk about the system and present tweaks for the system, most people are not recognized or rewarded based on how clever or pretty their GTD systems are, but rather on how much they get done. I remembered Merlin's great little podcast titled It's Just a Cup over on 43 folders. He also has perhaps an even more amusing one titled The Perfect Apostrophe with a similar theme. Their memories made me snap out of it...

I decided to simplify the system and focusing on doing and it has been absolutely splendid. I've stopped forcing myself to use my $99 Palm Z22 (but for those that are away from their computers often when they need to look at task list, I still think it's a great affordable item). I've stopped tweaking and customizing my GTD view in Outlook Tasks. I've stopped browsing through Evernote note templates. I've even cut down my productivity blog browsing (sick, I know). I'm also focusing on the more important tasks more, which is a bit contradictory to what David emphasizes in the Do chapter of Getting Things Done, but I'll write about that later. I'm now keeping current work/school related projects and tasks in a single note in Evernote and working off of that solely (again, just for work related tasks, but those are the ones that are messy and need to be viewed as projects and tracked extra carefully; that is, I'll forgive myself if I come back from the grocery store without the dijon). A nice benefit is that I can see all notes I make about the task instantly in a nice big picture. It's been working beautifully and only serves to deepen my simplicity conviction! The Evernote screen shot is below. Projects are blue so i can scan easily, tasks are listed chronologically down the page. The very next task is in bold. Completed tasks get unbolded. That's it. It's awesome. Focus on the doing, forget about the system, chances are what you have works. I bet, then, that your mind will be clearer!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

How to Pick a Group -- Part 3

I almost forgot:

  • Ask the advisor, grad students in the group, and grad students not in the group what the group's financial situation is.
I don't know how I missed this after my story about being promised money that didn't exist in Part 1, but anyhoo, this can't be stressed enough. It should be complimented with:

  • Apply for any and all fellowships you qualify for, even if you don't think you stand a chance.
Grad school can drain a lot out of you even when your finances are taken care of. You can imagine what it does when you're working your arse off and aren't being paid what you were promised or are being forced to teach semester after semester. You want to talk about productivity -- start by not teaching too many classes.

Making sure the group is financially sound is also a key aspect of doing good (and fast) research. Believe it or not, science is, in fact, impeded or straight blocked by a lack of funds. This may sound like an obvious statement, and in some respects it is, but in some groups it means very very basic equipment can't be purchased for months since they are living grant to grant. This happened in my last group and it isn't pretty. Take care of the cash. Get stuff done.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How to Pick a Group - Part 2

In Part 1 of How to Pick a Group I described my first graduate adviser. In this part, I'll describe my second and current graduate adviser and research group.

Newbie is an apt name for him because he is not only my new adviser, he's a brand new professor. Some graduate students cringe when I even mention this and say that's my first mistake: joining a brand new, not tenured adviser. Regardless, let me continue. Newbie is hardcore. He was a stellar 70 hours a week graduate student and he's still a 70 hours a week professor. He's hands on. He comes into the lab or our offices whenever he's bored of what he's doing or stuck on writing grants, or whatever, and walks around and asks us what we're doing and talks about whatever is on his mind. When I first talked to him about joining his group, I tried to ask all the right questions (btw, the question to ask grad students in Part 1 are not necessarily questions you would ask professors). Specifically, I asked him what his management style was (I was looking for hands on but, of course, not overbearing), I asked him if he would mandate certain work hours (I had heard he worked crazy hours when he was a student), I told him my issues with the first adviser (diplomatically of course). He said he would be hands on, but would treat all students with respect - "not like slaves", he would not expect us to work certain hours - "people work on their own schedule" but that he would evaluate our performance on a task or output basis, and he told me that he would be very different from my previous adviser. "Excellent!" I thought.

So how has it been? Well this one is not cut-and-dry, it's been somewhere between excellent and terrible. Or rather, I should say, it oscillates between the two. The excellent part is that he is, indeed, hands on. He is more enthusiastic about my research project than even I am at times. That's awesome. He is incredibly accessible and helpful. There are only a couple other students in our group, so we really get to take advantage of this attention which won't last forever. The terrible part is that he can be overbearing and overly demanding. Specifically, the "people work on their own schedule" mantra slowly morphed, over the course of a few months, to "If you don't get all your tasks done by the end of the week, you have to work as many hours a week as I do. Last week I worked 70 hours. Keep that in mind." What are these tasks? They are research tasks he assigns us at the start of each week. That idea is awesome. It's like your adviser is helping you do a GTD weekly review. Now in practice, the tasks are rarely, if ever, a set that you can get done in a week. In your own GTD system, that's fine, that's why you have a next actions list, you just do them as soon as you can. With the above rule, however, it means you are expected to work 70 hours that week. 70 hours when you're being that kid and telling your friends how much you've worked is one thing. 70 hours when your adviser demands it is another thing. And 70 hours when your adviser specifically told you he wouldn't demand hours is out of control.

So what did we do? We went and talked to him (being able to help shape group culture falls in the awesome category by the way). We cited our complaints specifically and within 5 to 10 minutes into the conversation, he eliminated the rule. Now we get the GTD task list, without the crap attached to it. He simply tells us to stop slacking if we start slacking on our tasks. So how much do we actually work now? Probably between 50 to 60 hours a week. But it feels one hell of a lot better because when you have interesting results and you feel energetic, putting in 65-70 hours that week doesn't feel like much, because the next week when it's time to go on a ski trip for the weekend, you can cut it back to 50.

He can still at times be overbearing and do things that make you shake your head like schedule meetings with you that start at 9pm. And still when he comes into the lab on the weekends, he asks if your other labmates are here yet. That's annoying. But he compromised on the main rules, the guidance and help with the research is awesome, and I'm willing to put up with the crap to get the good stuff. Here is my tips summary for newbie (some of these are for when you've already joined, but are important nonetheless.):

  • Ask your prospective adviser direct questions about management style so that you have some leverage if you need to complain later.
  • Don't be afraid to tell your adviser you're burning out.
  • Keep in mind that if other people say that this guy/gal is hardcore, even if they don't seem so in a 5 minute conversation, they probably are.
  • Tell the adviser what you want from the group.
  • Ask the grad students about the adviser's management style and compare to the adviser's description. Pay close attention to the differences and try your best to deduce whether the adviser seems in touch with the group or not. Try to find one that is.
  • Once in the group, communicate communicate communicate early on. This will set the precedent and let both sides know how the other is feeling and what the other wants.
Sound like advice for a marriage? Yeah, that's not a coincidence.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to Pick a Group - Part 1

It's that time of year: visiting weekend, website surfing, the sweet smell of springtime flowers, and a huge decision waiting to be made. This is a post for those entering grad school that have the ever-important decision on their plates of picking a graduate adviser.

Let me start by relaying my experience with graduate advisers (I've had 2) and in the process explaining why I'm even bothering to write about this. My two advisers shall be referred to from here on as oldie and newbie.

Oldie was my my adviser for my first year of grad school. He was an older man. He was an older professor. He was established. He had a big group. He was extremely charismatic. His research was on a subject I was absolutely enthralled about. But the most important characteristic of oldie was that he was a negligent. That's right, he was a negligent adviser. He promised to fund me for the entirety of my first year and said directly to me that the long term funding prospects were great. He promised this funding right up to the second semester's start and lo and behold it never arrived. I had to teach. Oldie also didn't guide his grad students at all. He had no motivation. He was old and established. He fell asleep during group seminars. He didn't respond to emails until about the 12th time you emailed him. He was negligent. The research I was so enthralled about started looking worse and worse. He was charismatic, and it turned out he knew how to hype his work like it was goin outta style. New ideas were getting hard to come by and I slowly figured out that the group was being carried by an older graduate student who was just about to graduate. Oldie ended up leaving my school at the end of my second semester leaving about 10 group members high and dry. And so began my experience with newbie.

But we shall save newbie for another day and summarize lessons I feel I learned from my experience with oldie:

  • Don't pick a school based on wanting to work for one group only.
  • Choose group culture and advising style over research specifics.
  • If you can't choose between hands on and hands off, go with hands on.
  • Ask grad students not in the group of interest if they would join that group. Listen to them.
  • Ask grad students very direct questions like: "Are you happy here?" "What are the three worst qualities about your adviser/group?" "If you had the choice, what other group would you join?"
In Part 2, I'll discuss newbie and summarize lessons from my (ongoing) experience with him. Then in subsequent parts I'll expand on things I think should be stressed. In the meantime I want to emphasize the importance of visiting weekend and stress the last two bullets above. You only have a couple of days to be there, talk to them, and feel what it's like. Take advantage of it!

Also, all of these points are my opinions based on some hard knock experience. Your experiences may be different. Or they may not. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tips and Tricks Text File

We've all had the experience of going back to an old, complicated project only to remember that you forgot all the little tips, tricks, and shortcuts you learned when working on it the first time. It sucks because you have to relearn it with that icky feeling of knowing that you've done it before but for the life of you can't remember how you got around these roadblocks. Concrete examples range from getting that graphing program to make your plots just right, formatting a paper for that one journal, a super useful keyboard shortcut, etc.

Those are the tips and tricks you wish you remembered. Sometimes for me, I also wish I could have a refresher course on the background of the project and the details that were sorted out at towards the end of it. This is especially useful when a paper comes back with requested revisions and you've been totally preoccupied with other projects that you haven't thought about the specifics in a while.

I've found that a beautifully simple solution is to put one text file in the main folder of that project titled tips and tricks. In it, while working on the project, you can jot down anything and everything you know you will want to know later, but won't remember: "Don't just press ctrl+c to copy the graph to right size, go to Edit -> Copy Graph -> Fix size -> Minimize white space to have it come out perfectly in Word."

I'm a big fan of GTD simplicity and this one embodies that spirit. It's one text file, with an obvious name, put in the same place (main folder) for every project and it stores all your goodies. It's not tucked away in the caves of old Outlook tasks, buried in a huge pile of Outlook notes, or buried in the endless ream of Evernote (although I'll concede that Evernote is something that can work if you're super good at picking the right keywords or are efficient at sorting through categories), or worse yet, buried in the endless caves of your mind. It's not fancy and for me, that's precisely why it works so well. I mean, it's in the project's main folder! Even if you're not looking for it, you can't help but read it when you open that folder, which can often lead you to so beautifully realize that there was, indeed, something in there you're glad you now remember.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Don't be THAT Kid

All of us are busy. Everyone knows the famous grad student tag-line of being "overworked and underpaid". We all would like to spend more time exercising, playing with friends, with loved ones, cooking for ourselves, eating better, and of course, we would all like more sleep. What does this mean? Well, the next time you get the urge to tell others about "how busy" you are, and how you "haven't slept in years" and how you "never do anything but work" resist it at all costs. It's annoying. You're only hurting your chances of actually having friends if/when things clear up for you. Of course, this applies -- as most things I say -- to not just grad students but everyone. Your co-workers are busy, your clients are busy, your phone guy is busy, the bank teller is busy, your subordinates are busy, we're all busy. So there is no need, I repeat, no need to tell us how busy you are.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Extended 2-Minute Rule

It’s 6:02pm and I’m getting ready to pack up my stuff and make it to the ever-punctual public transit bus that arrives at 6:08pm outside of my building. I wiggle the mouse to see past my screen saver and, unfortunately, I see my outlook inbox. In it is an email from my advisor asking me to do a task that I estimate will take me between 15 to 20 minutes. Well, it’s my advisor, so the email text includes the phrase “…and send to me ASAP.” An email sent at 6pm from my advisor that asks for something to be done ASAP doesn’t mean, “send this to me by tomorrow.” It means it better be in his inbox in a few hours. I’m hungry, and at this point, I have a choice: I can flag this email and put it into my system, or I can do it now, miss the 6:00 bus, and take the 6:30.

What did I do? I chose the latter. I realized that this task had mental and emotional weight associated with it: it was from my advisor, he asked me to do it ASAP, I knew the more I waited the more he’d get agitated, and most importantly, I knew that putting this task into my system would not get it out of my head because of those reasons. So I effectively extended the 2-minute rule to the 30-minute rule. I had 30 minutes before the next bus, and a task that I knew I would worry about even if I put it in my system would be done if it took less than 30 minutes.

The point of the 2-minute rule is to not track tasks that don’t take that long to do anyways. David Allen says he picked 2 minutes because at that point it begins to take more work to track it through the system than to do it immediately. But if a task that will take longer than 2 minutes to complete won’t get out of your head even if you file it, do it as soon as you can, and you’ve effectively reduced the mental energy you spend on it by…a lot. That’s the point of GTD anyways; to get that shiznit off your mind. This rule is not only useful for grad students with demanding advisors, but workers with demanding bosses, and people with demanding lives. Any time you are not actively interrupting focused work on another task, extending the 2-minute rule on mentally or emotionally heavy tasks is worth it. How do you know if a task qualifies for an extension? If you get any shred of the “I’d rather chew glass than deal with this” feeling, it qualifies. Do it now, don’t waste your life thinking about it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Digital Camera Wonders

Academic productivity has a nice post about using your digital camera as a photocopier. This can work in certain situations where actually taking parts of a book/magazine to a photocopier is inconvenient, or when you don't want to fork over the buck or two for a bunch of pages, or (and I sympathize with this one) when you don't want to go through the hassle of dealing with your school's ridiculously inconvenient copy card system: "Oh no no, you can't add money to your card on this machine, you can only buy a new card, which costs an additional dollar for the card itself. The machine you're looking for is in the main library." "You've got to be kidding me."

However, many grad students have easy access to the copy machine in their department or lab area, in that case, making copies of things is super easy. But, this article reminded me of another great use of a digital camera taught to me by none other than my adviser, which is to take pictures of lab setups. Your own lab setup, perhaps, but also other people's lab setups, like when you visit a colleague's lab that has a similar setup for doing blah blah blah and you want to replicate some components, it's a pain in the hoo-ha to keep forgetting and asking and visiting and forgetting again. The quick fix is to just take a picture or two or three. I've also found this useful when moving from apartment to apartment and having to take apart and reassemble tricky desks or other furniture (of course if you're a compulsive manual keeper this is unnecessary, but for the rest of us...) -- one or two pictures makes it a heck of a lot easier.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

My Views on Productivity

Let me start of by declaring this outright: my goal in personal productivity is not to minimize the amount of time I spend “goofing-off” it’s to maximize the amount of time I spend in the focused, imaginative, stress-free “flow state”. I spent some time walking the first path and it just made me tired, bitter, and sick. But, now, changing the way I view productivity has made life absolutely splendid.

The Now Habit

In the introduction to Niel Fiore’s book The Now Habit, he mentions the various professional achievements he was able to attain while working no more than 20 “quality” hours a week. A full time practice coaching clients and organizations and writing articles for various journals in twenty hours a week? For the vast majority of knowledge workers, it sounds impossible, but special attention should be placed on his italicized use of the word quality. He then dedicates entire chapter on entering the flow state when you’re working on your projects, essentially defining “quality hours”.

And of course, any grad student that has read that book can’t forget Fiore’s study on procrastinating PhD students versus producing PhD students. The first group took anywhere from 3-19 years to complete their dissertation (I want to meet the 19-year one and shake their hand, maybe give them a hug). The producers on the other hand took less than 3 years. The characteristic differences between the two groups were:

  • Producers “were dedicated and committed to their leisure time.”
  • Producers “had to swim, run, or dance almost every day.”
  • Producers “had to be with friends for dinner several nights a week.”
  • Producers “didn’t see their work as depriving them of anything… working intensely and playing intensely went hand in hand.”
  • Producers “were living now – not waiting to begin living when their work was completed.”
Dr. Fiore emphasizes the importance of these extracurricular activities because they take your mind off of your work. Then, when you’re working, you’re more relaxed, you’re not burned out, and you're more easily able to enter the flow state.

Being a Rockstar

My view of increasing productivity is not about finding a way to do “useful” work all the time, it’s not about cutting all “useless” or “unproductive” tasks from your schedule, it’s about maximizing concentration and focus when you are working. Why? Well for one, it makes work stress-free. But more importantly the outputs of knowledge-work, academic work, and creative work are not linearly related to the time put in. As knowledge-workers, it’s not the loads and loads of work you output that count, it’s the few genius ideas that arrive unexpectedly but make a grand entrance when they get there that make you feel like an absolute rockstar. In my experience, and from my reading of others’ experiences, the best ideas, the genius ideas, the artistic ideas, don’t happen from just cranking widgets for long hours, they happen when your mind is clear. This is how I read Getting Things Done and The Now Habit, and this is the productivity that I strive for.


Gotta make sure I'm searcheable. This is a link to my Technorati profile to activate my account.

Technorati Profile

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Welcome to Grad Hacker

This is it, I'm kicking off the project I've been sitting on for a while: A lifehacking blog for grad students, undergraduate students, high school, pre-school, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, CEOs, and everyone else. But primarily for the first category. Why am I adding yet another blog to the loads of other lifehacking/productivity sites out there? Why not?! The glory of the internet is that anyone and everyone can give their 2 cents on whatever topic they choose, and since we're not limited to channels, stations, front pages, and covers, people can read whatever they want (yeah, the internet has marketing too, but you get the idea). Also, I noticed with all the lifehacking and GTDing out in the blogosphere, I haven't found much specifically tailored to students (due credit given below).

The Name

Grad Hacker is my tribute to lifehackers and the lifehacking world in general. Let me give my shoutouts in the order in which they entered my life: 1. Getting Things Done - David Allen. As a quick type of "GTD" in Google or Google Blog Search will show you, this book has changed many people's work and personal lives, or at least how they handle it. I'm no exception. 2. 43folders - Merlin Mann. This was the site that got me hooked to the internet GTD world. I'm sure I'll be linking to it and praising many of Merlin's articles in the future. Mac based. 3. davidseah - David Seah. This guy creates some of the coolest looking productivity hacks I've seen. David also posts really honest, refreshing blurbs about his personal battles with procrastination and getting things done. Great site. 4. GTDWannabe. This is perhaps the least known of all the sites that I visit regularly. A fellow grad student (what what)! I should mention she's computer savvy, but that may be an understatement. Many of the computer productivity tricks I know came from her blog. Windows based. 5. This is the most recent find of mine and oh what a find (yeah, I don't know how I missed it either). The name of my blog, if nothing else, is a tribute to this site. A mammoth of a productivity site, I check this religiously. In my opinion, lifehacker's specialty is again in tech, but it's got stories ranging all the way to car repair. Windows and Mac friendly.

The Mission

So as I've 'wasted' time on the internet looking through the lifehacking literature, I've over and over again said to myself "oh, this is a perfect tip for a grad student". So, I started to keep a list of blog post ideas to see whether I had enough to start a blog on hacking your way through grad school. Inevitably the list got long, so this is why I'm doing it. Also, to be upfront, grad school is hard. I don't just mean intellectually or academically hard, presumably if you're in grad school you should enjoy that aspect, but it's hard on your life. Grad school sometimes has a way of draining every last ounce of fun and enjoyment from you: Many things have the possibility of sucking. Your advisor can suck, your group members can suck, your department can suck, your social life can suck, your health can suck. So grad hacks can extend to all these domains, beyond technology, where a lot of lifehacking sites focus. I'll try and blog about all these things. Lastly, I should mention that grad school and life can also be a kickin' good time. Hacks can not only make the bad times less bad, but the good times more fun. I'll blog about this too.