Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Simply GTD: Do You Really Need Contexts?

Photo by: Nathan Borror

Guess what my answer is to the title question. Guess, I dare you.

You got it:


Is it a sin in the GTD community to speak ill of contexts? Maybe. Will I ask for forgiveness? No. Below are my reasons.

First, a caveat: if you are a businesswoman or man that on any given day is at a desk, your computer without internet, your computer with internet, a plane, running errands, on the phone, or in Denver, Colorado looking for that one restaurant you liked the last time you were in Denver, Colorado; if you actually have 14 people you need to call right now; if you really have 107 projects on your plate that all have their associated next actions; if you have a bunch of pressing agenda items you need to bring up immediately upon seeing each of 7 different people, then, read no further, this post and basically anything else I will ever write on this blog is and will be of no use to you. Go get things done. And add "Buy Maalox" to @errands.

Now for grad students and the like that are still reading. Here are my reasons:

Reason #1: You're not even close to the person described in the caveat. If you're a student that's not simultaneously running 3 businesses, and raising 2 kids, and constantly on the road, forget it. Let's go context by context through some classics. I promise I will admit when there are potentially useful contexts:

  • @computer: When are you not at your computer nowadays? Or how many times have you been in a context where you're really pressed to get things done but don't have your computer, and really can't stand looking through all those tasks that involve a computer? I seriously can think of zero situations like this. If you can, and I'm not being facetious, let me know. But I think it's safe to say that when grad students (or anyone reading this blog) are working they have a computer next to them or are in a very clear context where it's obvious what they need to do (e.g. lab doing a measurement, library doing homework, etc.)
  • @computer-internet/nointernet: Are you really on a plane this much? Please. Anywhere other than a plane and you have internet. If you don't, and you need it, you may want to switch schools/jobs.
  • @phone: Don't even start. I haven't met one student that needs this list.
  • @agenda-Dr. Phil: Compared to the three above, this has slightly more use, but I still don't think it's necessary nor practical. I used to keep this list in my "central" location for all my lists for my when I saw my adviser next and I never used it. Chances are, there are fewer than 2 or 3 people in your life whose time is so valuable that you need to make a list like this for when you're with them. But more importantly, important things to bring up with people, like research collaborators in a meeting can be made impromptu in preparation for a meeting, stored as general questions in a lab notebook, or listed in a questions slide at the end of a summery-of-current-progress PowerPoint. I found research related questions for my adviser were most conveniently written into the PowerPoint slides I was showing him, or my lab notebook for that project, but not in some list management software or device. Next to my grocery list and personal next actions.
  • @home: This is a potentially useful context, but I think it's a disguised way of just separating your lists into work and personal. If you do that already you have no use for this context.
  • @email: This is useful under one and only one circumstance: if you've become so disciplined as to check your email only a few scheduled times a day, then by all means make a list of the email you need to make when it's scheduled email time. But if you have Gmail open all the time and you're still writing @email in front of tasks, an alarm should be going off inside.
  • @errands: This is by far the most useful context, but, let's be honest, this list has nothing to do with GTD or David Allen, it's a shopping list for crying out loud! It's been around for so long, everyone uses it, and if it makes you feel more productive to put an @ in front, so be it. I'll admit it, I still call this list @errands out of habit.
Do I advocate keeping all next actions on a single list? No. I think it makes total intuitive sense to list things by project. But if you have only a few tasks anyways, by all means, put them on a single list. I probably could but don't choose to because I think in terms of projects and sit down to work on one project at a time. And if I recall correctly, David Allen even mentions in the book that if you have 20-30 next actions total, you can feel free to keep them on one list.

So what do we have left? A list of important tasks for each project, perhaps separated into work and personal, and a shopping list.

End of list of reasons.

I want to close by saying that I'm not just trying to start a fight. I have sincerely found that these contexts are simply unrealistically complicated for grad students, and to tell you frankly, for most people whose main jobs and main sources of stress involve work done in an office or any other single setting.

GTD's most important principle is keeping your mind clear. If I forget to tell Nate that he still owes me 5 bucks the next time I see him, I don't stress and it doesn't stay on my mind. If I forget to buy butter when I'm at the grocery store, I don't stress and it doesn't stay on my mind. But the large project that involves simply sitting down, closing Gmail and Facebook, and getting it done, will stress me out and will stay on my mind if I spend the day ticking off all kinds of less important tasks on my list. That task should be on your list, and as I've said before, I advocate it being only one of very few other items on your list for a given day. Forget labeling tasks by context and focus on getting that big monster task done and you're on your way to real stress-free productivity.

Related posts:
Does your system work when you have the flu?
Priorities and Getting Things Done

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Getting Up Early: Week 4 - One Month Reflections

First of all, let me comment (make excuses) for this week's performance:

1. I went to a rockin' NBA game in the middle of the week which kept me up late that night so that threw off the next day by a lot.

2. I didn't have as many days to average out that day because I lost Monday to the President's Day holiday.

So this week should be an anamoly, an outlier, if you will.

That said, let me note that before I even started this experiment, I used to average getting to my desk at around 9:30am. If that. I don't have an exact number because what crazy bastard keeps track of when he gets to work every day? But that's a well educated guess. So all in all, I've made some modest progress.

Also keep in mind that over the past month there have been many days when I've gotten to work right around 8:00am. But, like I said last week, an equal number of days getting into work past 9am serve to quickly push the average up. Finally, I should mention that on average I workout before getting to work 2 weekdays per week. It's hard for me to get to work by 8am on those days because I have to wake up ridiculously early, but I'm getting there.

So those are my excuses.

Here are my reflections for this month of my getting up early experiment.

1. It isn't easy. Getting your weekly average down significantly that is.

2. I definitely sleep a solid 8 hour average per night, which means to wake up earlier I have to go to bed earlier.

3. In light of reflection #2, my eventual, kind-of-secret goal of waking up at 7am is not realistic.

4. Getting an early start on work when few people are there is awesome.

Overall, this experience has validated my reason for doing this experiment: Work in the morning is more effective and feels like less suffering than work in the afternoon/evening. The second reason is the key reason I started the experiment. I realized that working for hours before lunch felt like no big deal; working in the morning doesn't feel hard for me. Whereas, working into the evening gives me a psychological feeling of suffering.

I will average getting to work by 8am. Oh I'm determined. Oh you just watch.

Getting Up Early: My Experiment

Getting Up Early: Week 1
Getting Up Early: Week 2 - A Pathetic Performance
Getting Up Early: Week 3 - I am a Tortoise

Sunday, February 17, 2008

5 Ways to Avoid the Powerpoint Timesuck

Photo by: ToastyKen

Note: In light of the popularity and timing of Merlin Mann's recently posted MacWorld video, I should note that
these tips were written with a technical presentation in mind, where data, figures, text and in general significant information on each slide is often necessary. In that vain, I'm also not sure how presentations are done in the humanities or even in many social sciences, so this may or may not apply to folks in those fields.

PowerPoint can be one of the greatest timesucks in a grad student's life. And by grad student, I really mean anyone who uses PowerPoint. The most dangerous part, however, is that often we have no idea the crimes it is committing in taking our precious time and energy from us. Its guise of productivity is its greatest weapon. We add our slides, pick layouts, tweak them, add titles, tweak them, add figures, tweak, text, tweak, tweak, revise, tweak, tweak, tweak. Hours go by like this. Hours. Isn't PowerPoint just supposed to be a tool to help us convey our ideas?

My questions to you my friends is this: Who is the tool, you, or PowerPoint? Join me in reclaiming our time lost to PowerPoint.

  • Layout all slides first. Work from the outside in. In my experience, the single greatest timesuck is revision. Of course, only in a perfect world can you get things right the first time, but we want to avoid common situations like making the first slide, adding the figures, the text, the title, realizing space is scarce and moving things around just right, resizing all the figures to actually make them fit, spending a good 30 minutes on this one slide before deciding, "You know what, the third figure really belongs on its own slide, where I have more space and can add the fourth figure that would complement it just perfectly." I've found that thinking big picture and working into the details is the best method. I almost always outline first on a scratch piece of paper, deciding what the main points I want to get across are, basing those main points on key figures, and parsing those figures into slides. Only then do I start making slides. This has worked wonders.
  • Use the simplest layout possible. Now it's time to make the slides. As I mentioned, each side should be based on 1 or 2 figures. Chuck the constraining ready-made layouts as they just cause frustration and you browsing through other layouts. Start with a blank slide or the title-only layout, pick a place for your figure(s) and text, put those two things in their place and move on.
  • Avoid clicking "new slide" whenever possible. After you've made a couple of slides, you should not have to create many, if any, layouts. Unless you're in graphic design, presenting to graphic designers, the goal is to keep folks' attention on your work, not distracted by how flashy your presentation is. So simply copy and paste the previously created slide that has the best layout for the slide you are about to create, delete the content, and replace it with new stuff. Now we're flying along.
  • Finalize all images and figures before putting them into PowerPoint. Oh no! You made almost the whole presentation and realized that a bunch figures had this-one-thing mislabeled. Or the units are wrong. Or the line color really doesn't show up well. That's a killer because now you have to go back into your image editing or graphing software, tweak tweak tweak, recreate the figure, and replace it in PowerPoint. There's not much I can say on this point other than be careful. And most importantly, once you figure out the details for a few figures, stick with what works! Again, let your content and work do the razzling and dazzling.
  • Make non-essential presentations as simple as possible. Lastly, we come to a subtle killer within the already subtle time-killer known as PowerPoint. Many times, we have to make little mini-presentations to summarize the status of a project to colleagues. If it's not being shown to strangers, it's not that essential. That's my philosophy. You should go for sheer speed and content in these presentations. This is a time to discuss. If you are showing it to your professor or group, focus on figures only. Text should just be a reminder for things you want to bring up to them. They know the basics, and you can explain many detials to them very fast. Think about how colleagues discussed work before PowerPoint. They probably just printed figures and talked. Don't worry about pretty-ing up these presentations, just get them done so you can get feedback and getting back to things that are more worth your time.
Lastly, I should mention that these are time-saving tips for PowerPoint, general advice on quality of your presentations should still apply: Use large font sizes, keep text to a minimum, etc.

What time-saving PowerPoint tricks do you use?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Getting Up Early: Week 3 - I am a Tortoise

The tortoise won the race my friends, the tortoise won the race. I can take comfort in the fact that on any given week I am not drastically changing my schedule, which according to gurus and experts everywhere means my habit change is more likely to last...right?

I did cross the 8:30am mark, which is exciting.

What makes it hard to bring the weekly average down quickly is merely a day or two of slipping up. Here's what I mean: Say on Monday and Tuesday you get in at around 8:00am. Great, you're on schedule. Then, Tuesday night you have to stay at school wrapping up some experiment a bit later than you intended which pushes back your sleep time a tad (say 1 hour) and consequently you arrive to school on Wednesday at 8:30am. That's not so bad, you only need to show up on Thursday at 7:30am to keep your 8:00am average. You try to do that, can't quite pull it off, but put in a respectable 7:50am attempt. Your average getting into work time for Monday to Thursday is sitting at 8:05 am, right on the money. But, on Thursday your friends invite you over to dinner, tomorrow's a Friday, you have some wine, you're chatting, and before you know it you're only getting to bed at 1:00am. You get up at 8:30am the next day and aren't at school until 9:30am. Due to this one night, your average, which was sitting right around 8:00am all week long is now 8:22, right below the 8:30am mark.

That's why it ain't easy.

Nonetheless, improvement was made in a week where I went to bed at a later time, which means my morning routine is more efficient, that's good. Here are the full numbers:

To Bed: 10:40 pm
Out of Bed: 6:35 am
Hours of Sleep: 7.92 hrs.
At work: 8:26 am
Tired: 4.2 /10 (10 = very tired, 1 = very not)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Why You Should Never Stop Excercising

Photo: istockphoto

Here's a great scientific article on how stopping an excercise routine pushes you back from your fitness goals a lot farther than you may have thought: Irregular Exercise Pattern May Add Pounds Here's the big-money quote:

He found that runners who decreased their distance from five to zero miles per week gained four times as much weight as those who decreased their distance from 25 to 20 miles per week. He also found that people who started running after an exercise layoff didn’t lose weight until their mileage exceeded 20 miles per week in men, and 10 miles per week in women.

Who wants to run 20 miles a week to get back on track? Not me.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Getting Up Early: Week 2 - A Pathetic Performance

Is it possible that I managed to go to sleep almost a half hour earlier (10:19 pm average) and only get to work 4 minutes earlier on average? Who goes to sleep at 10 o'clock, sleeps 8 hours to the minute, and doesn't get to work until 8:30am? That's absurd.

I do workout in the morning (twice again this week) but regardless, I should make up for any late showings to my desk on the three non-workout days. Eight hours past 10 pm is 6 am, which begs the question, why is it taking me 2 hours to get to my desk when I live 25 minutes by foot and bus from my lab?

My goal is still to get to work, on average, at 8am every day. Not that hard, I know. In fact, my secret goal is to get to work by 7am eventually, but baby steps first. The chart shows my averages for going to sleep and getting to my desk for this week and Week 1. A list of all averages is below. Next week I'll push that red line down far, I garauntee it!

To Bed: 10:19 pm
Out of Bed: 6:23 am
Hours of Sleep: 7.99 hrs.
At work: 8:33 am
Tired: 3.8/10 (10 = very tired, 1 = very not)

Getting Up Early: My Experiment
Getting Up Early: Week 1

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Get Quick News: NPR's 5-minute News Summary Podcasts

I've heard students and professionals alike lament about how much time they waste on the internet reading news. Grad students are incredibly susceptible to this since we're so often just sitting in front of a computer with no risk of a boss walking behind us, doing work that is just begging us to stop and browse websites, like the news. In addition you increasingly hear bloggers and other modern productivity folks talk about how they've stopped reading the news completely as it's a "waste of time."

Wow. News is a waste of time? I beg to differ. If that's your cup of tea, so be it. But I think realizing we live in an increasingly global, interdependent world and keeping up on current events is by no means a waste of time. In fact, some would go as far as to say it's irresponsible to be oblivious to current events. I'm not going to pass judgement, but I will suggest a nice middle ground.

If you're either find yourself,

  1. not keeping up on news because you're too busy but you'd like to,
  2. spending a lot of time clicking through news and other websites as an escape from doing work,
then try out a short news podcast. My personal favorites are NPR's quick news summary websites that are all approximately 5 minute long and are put out at various times throughout the day. I like to listen to it in the morning on the way to school. It's short, to the point, and keeps you current. I've also found that they help quell the desire to quickly browse the news when I'm stuck doing something I find hard or unenjoyable but I really should get done so that it gets off my mind and stops causing stress. Why browse? I already got yesterday's summary this morning and will get today's summary tomorrow morning. Up on current events, less escape browsing: two birds, one stone.

Any other podcast suggestions? Suggest them!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Todoist with a Notecard for the Day

Photo by: pshutterbug

As I mentioned in a long review, I've been using Todoist since August. I'll have you know that Todoist and I are still doing quite well. So well in fact that I recently started forking over $3/month for the premium membership. I'll share my thoughts on that another day.

Today, however, I want to share my experiences of halfway getting my hipster on. What? Well, basically, on top of keeping my entire list of projects, their associated next actions, and some notes on them on Todoist, I've started carrying around a 3x5 notecard for the day in my pocket with a list of the 1-3 most important tasks for the day, along with other little notes for myself (calendar items, small tasks that come up throughout the day, etc.).

Why carry a notecard for the day?

Despite being a GTD fan, I've been a firm believer in priorities for a long time. I think the priority differences between tasks should be the number one factor in deciding where to spend your time. That said, I found that having Todoist up, with all of my tasks, including a lot of low priority smaller tasks was unnecessary and frankly distracting. As I've said before, high priority tasks are often long and difficult, and when you're grinding through the trenches of these tasks, you're extremely vulnerable to distractions that take you out of the trench, which, if you finished digging, would help you tremendously in the longterm. These tasks are the research papers, the final papers, the essential background reading, the revising of a long proposal, etc. They are tasks that, if you got them and only them done today, you would go to sleep content. Conversely, they are tasks that if you leave them hanging while getting 15 other tasks done, you will still go to sleep agitated.

How many tasks should go on the notecard?

I think one, ideally, and no more than three. But it's up to you. Leo on zenhabits says he uses three. Alan Lakein in his old and famous book advocates a similar number for your A tasks. You can put more on there if you want, just don't feel disappointed when you aren't crossing them all off most of the time. Obviously if you finish one you can look back on your master list for another. In the end it really depends on the kind of work you do and how long your most important tasks usually take. I'm a graduate student in the sciences, so my most important tasks are long: many hours of experiments looking for certain data; many hours of reviewing papers and comparing to my results on a specific subject; many hours of data processing, thinking and (hopefully) concluding. So for me, dedicating an entire day to one of these tasks is useful, I usually end the day having made significant progress. Also, these thinking intensive, or equipment intensive tasks are often done much more efficiently in fewer sittings as train of thought and setup of equipment are vital, which makes stopping and re-starting really time intensive. Some days when I have shorter tasks that are the most important I use more than one.

What about all the annoying small tasks?

I do them somewhere in the afternoon energy slump. They are usually written on the bottom of my notecard, or on my "today/overdue" screen of Todoist. I try to do all of these for a given day at once. This idea of batch processing small tasks is one of the oldest tricks of the trade and if I linked to everyone that has advocated it, this post would get too long.

Why not use a full hipster PDA or moleskine?

Because I frankly don't want to carry around all that crap in my pocket. I don't carry my bag around to talks, or meetings, or class, so carrying a clipped stack of notecards or moleskine with every last thing I need to do just seems like too much. Not to mention the whole point of the notecard of the day is to focus solely on the task(s) for the day and not all the other stuff. Secondly, Todoist rocks: It's digital; it doesn't get heavy; you can add entire emails to it with the click of a button (okay, maybe a few); I could go on, but there are many things about it that I don't think I can replace with other tools.

Only the notecard?!

Lastly, I should mention that of course the notecard of the day can be used as a complement to any long list of tasks in any format, not just Todoist. Also, it can be used by itself. If you aren't a fan of long lists of all projects and associated next actions, or if you're just starting out in this productivity/organization thing, just keeping one notecard in your pocket every day and transferring remaining tasks to the next day's card is a great start.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Getting Up Early: Week 1

Photo by: scui3asteveo

So here are the results of my early rising experiments for Week 1. I want to emphasize that it's my first week, so I'm still learning! My goal is to get into work by 8:00am, including days when I go to the gym in the morning (supposed to be 2 out of the 5 workdays). To review my categories are:

1) To bed and to rise times and total hours slept.
2) Time at work.
3) 0-10 scale of how tired I was with 0 being as energetic as ever and 10 being asleep most of the day.
4) General thoughts and satisfaction with the day.

At the bottom I've listed average values for categories 1 - 3.

Here is a link to my introduction post for this experiment.


1) Asleep: 11:00 pm
Out of Bed: 6:30 am
Hours of Sleep: 7.5 hrs
2) At work: 8:25 am
3) Tired: 2/10
4) Progress not bad, 8:25 am is a lot better than 9:25 am.


1) Asleep: 10:30 pm
Out of Bed: 6:00 am
Hours of Sleep: 7:30 hrs
2) At work: 8:40 am (gym)
3) Tired: 8/10
4) So tired. Last hour of sleep was off an on. Got to the gym late, so then into work late.


1) Asleep: 10:30 pm
Out of Bed: 6:50 am
Hours of Sleep: 8:20 hrs
2) At work: 8:15 am
3) Tired: 1/10
4) Excellent, made up for yesterday.


1) Asleep: 11:00 pm
Out of Bed: 7:00 am
Hours of Sleep: 8:00 hrs
2) At work: 8:45 am
3) Tired: 2/10
4) What a waste, I should be able to get into work an hour after waking up, but I didn't get in until almost 9am.


1) Asleep: 11:00 pm
Out of Bed: 7:15 am
Hours of sleep: 8:15 hrs.
2) At work: 9:00am
3) 4/10
4) Didn't sleep well. Stayed in bed too long. Didn't get into the gym. I'm unraveling at the end of the week!


1) Asleep: 10:48 pm

2) Out of Bed: 6:43 am

3) Hours of Sleep: 7.9

4) At Work 8:37 am

5) Tired: 3.4/10


I said I wanted to go to bed between 10 and 10:30 pm every day to get into work by 8:00 am. Clearly comparing the averages of asleep time to at work time shows if I go to bed on average at 10:15 pm, I should be able to get to work at about 8:00 am. I seem to average a solid 8 hours of sleep, as expected, and overall my tiredness is below 5, which means I have energy and focus, so that's good.

The fact that even after declaring I'm doing this experiment and keeping a log, I couldn't get in before 8:30 am on average is pretty pathetic, especially when considering I missed one gym day (which I have to make up for this weekend). 8:30 am is by no means early.

This needs to change drastically next week. The main goal for next week is to get into work by 8:00am on average. I understand that this is going to require getting into work before 8:00am on some days, but that can't be impossible.

Anyone have any early rising tips and tricks? Share your thoughts!