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).