Getting Things Done – My Approach

There are so many ways people have implemented David Allen’s Getting Things Done I avoided blogging about mine for ages. Then I realized, after three years of using it, that it’s pretty effective. It’s also pretty simple and that’s part of the appeal. Last but not least, it’s paper and pen based, which makes it portable and immune to the peculiarities of IT departments.

The system is simple and has the following elements:

  1. A list of all projects started. A project is, as written in GTD, anything that takes more than one step. I keep a handwritten list, each project in a numbered list.
  2. A stack of active projects, in a folder marked Projects. One sheet of paper for each project. Number in the upper right hand corner, title in the upper left hand corner. The sheet is a simple log of next actions, and sometimes a few additional thoughts. The lowest item is always what needs to be done next in simple, visible terms.
  3. A next action list. This also holds everything else that I need to do that is not a project. Date in the upper right hand corner, and a list of items. Sometimes I fold the sheet in half, and use the four pages for contexts (i.e. Home, Work, etc.) often I don’t. This list may get folded up and carried in a pocket, or it might sit in the Projects folder. This sheet also serves as a sort of inbox – a good place to jot new things to be processed. Because any new next action list involves copying items from the old one, the new items will be processed.
  4. Another folder labeled ‘Inactive’. This is where old next action lists, and full or finished, project sheets go. This can probably stay in the desk.
  5. Another folder is labeled ‘Someday/Maybe’
  6. A stack of blank paper for making new projects, or new project sheets for older ones.

The workflow is also pretty simple:

  1. Add projects to the project list.
  2. For each project, write a project sheet. At the top it sometimes helps to write a clear statement of the expected outcome. Write the next thing you need to do for that project.
  3. Add that next action to the next action list.
  4. When you’re done, start working on the next action list and all the other stuff life brings to our doors.
  5. At least once a week, or when the next action list has accumulated a fair number of check marks, review the project sheets.
  6. For each sheet update the status – what’s happened or been accomplished. Change the next action if necessary. If nothing was done, simply go to the next project.
  7. Record each next action on the next action list as you look at each project.
  8. If nothing has been done on a project in a long time, I ask myself if if this is really an active project or not. Many ideas get turned into projects, that then turn out to be either not as useful as thought or they simple become irrelevant. If it happens that a month or so goes by with no action I will usually make an entry that says something like “Hibernating until I have more ideas.” Sometimes a project will go directly to Someday/Maybe.

I’ve tried a variety of software on my desktop computer, my laptop, my iPhone, and web based. All had some neat features and some of those feature could have been addicting but for one thing. While I would rather do this stuff in software, in every one of these systems I found myself updating them after the fact instead of using them in the process of planning work. They were good record keeping systems, but they didn’t add anything to the process except work. This pretty much destroys the value of the Getting Things Done system, which is derived from the planning that comes out of the project review process.
I also tried a number of different combinations of paper, but in the end simple blank sheets and file folders work the best.

Will Citizen’s United lead to public campaign finance?

One of the side-show issues on the union-busting efforts here in Wisconsin is the effect of Koch Industries’ money on local politics, and how Citizen’s United ties into the a greater effort defund the democratic party and allow republicans to get the upper hand.

The theory is that allowing corporations unlimited investment in political campaigns, while handicapping unions (the main contributors on the democratic side) will leave the republican party and corporations standing on top and ruling the nation. It’s a scary picture, and I’m not a fan of Citizen’s United, but I’m not sure it’s the slam dunk people think it is.

The first thing is the assumption that all corporations are on the same side. They’re not. Here are some issues where there is big money on both sides:

Infrastructure investment. On one side you have half the population, construction companies, equipment manufacturers, folks who want increased efficiency and don’t like collapsing bridges. On the other side you have “No spending ever!” republicans, folks who are sick of government waste and want lower taxes, and those who don’t use much infrastructure.

E15 – that is, raising the limit on ethanol blending to 15% (or higher) from 10%. One one side you have consumers, car makers, oil companies and on the other you have corn growers, some equipment manufacturers, ethanol distillers, and people who want to reduce dependency on foreign oil.

Internet sales tax. On one side you have Amazon, Buy.com, Ebay and other large etailers, along with “all taxes are all bad” republicans, and consumers who like the 5-8% discount on their internet purchases. On the other side you have the rest of the republicans, democrats, the rest of the retail industry, and consumers who want their state budgets fed a little more cash.

So you can see that the decision where to send corporate money might be complex, and we haven’t even touched on local issues. Some companies already donate to both parties, but even so, I expect that competition will increase political contributions. The reason for this is that as the more active corporate contributors (like Koch Industries) increase their investment they will pull in corporations that didn’t get involved earlier because threat wasn’t great enough before.

Competition between corporations will lead to increased investment. Heck, just the specter of being able to buy politicians legally will lead to greater investment across the board, and so far some of our new republican governors are showing this to be simpler than one might have thought.

Increased investment will lead to media saturation – there’s only so many eyeballs – and media will become less effective. How many complaints about political ads do you hear? And it’s going to get worse.

Increased saturation will lead to increased prices, as supply remains fixed but demand climbs. Regular advertisers will want to advertise too, and I expect media to take advantage.

This will be (and already is being) exascerbated by poorly mandated legislation spilling over into smaller races, recall efforts, referendums, and other mid-term activities. We’re getting ads here on the recall efforts, on both sides. Political advertising will become more of a 24/7 thing that will make it even less effective.

Increased prices along with lower effectiveness means lower a lower return on investment. Now, we can’t always count on corporations to do the right thing, but we can count on them to manage ROI and dump initiatives when their numbers get bad enough.

This is all very expensive for corporations, and the main purpose of most corporations isn’t lobbying. The decision to invest in politics likely starts at the top, and leaders don’t like to be embarassed or “jump the shark”, as they say. As the ROI decreases, and leaders are burned by these bad investments and shareholders start grumbling I believe there will be backlash.

How will that backlash come? Well, they’re not going to want to give up any advantage, but they’re going to want everyone to spend less. They might decide to manage it themselves, but I’m betting they’ll be going to congress and asking them to make a law. We’ll see ads about how political spending is draining America and keeping us from competing in the global market, and we need to fix this now.

Mojo Monitor Mishap, or the Peril Of Poor Partner Picking

I’ve started reading the book “Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back if You Lose It” (Marshall Goldsmith) (affiliate link) and I love the book so far. It’s a little similar to another good book, “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” (Tal Ben-Shahar) (another affiliate link) in that it operates on the principle that you will improve what you focus your attention on. For those looking for a magic bullet it might be a disappointment, but for those looking for simple techniques to help themselves it’s a great resource.

Anyway, one of the things to do is to monitor your mojo, basically a combination of happiness and meaning, by rating yourself after major events and at various times throughout the day. Sound like a great problem for an iPhone app to solve? Sure!

They made a mojo app, but instead of being great, it isn’t. They made three mistakes.

Mistake #1: They picked the wrong partner

They partnered with an unrelated service that doesn’t complement their cause.

The mojo app is part of the Rypple app. Rypple is an anonymous review service, more or less identical to the Checkster of old. The gist is that you join, and so does everyone else from our company (something not likely to happen east of California) and then you can give each other anonymous feedback. Great idea, and as soon as companies are filled with well-adjusted, confident, open-minded, web-savvy folks with a genuine interest in improving each other it will work great.

I figured this out only after spending quite a lot of time on the Rypple site. The first thing they ask for, before you can use anything, is permission to send push notifications. Then they ask for a work email address. Not a good feeling. Plus, I’m not at all interested in Rypple or what it does. I like the concept, mind you, but my company and culture simply aren’t compatible with this kind of thing.

This is why Mojo+Rypple is such a bad combination. One is an individual exercise that can be done privately. The other is a social exercise where the first thing they ask for is your work email address.

But I want to do the mojo exercises recommended in the book, so I download the app. Thankfully it accepts my personal email address, and fortunately the non-mojo part of the app isn’t too intrusive.

Mistake 2: The app doesn’t support the book or the brand.

I wasn’t even sure I had the right app when I downloaded it. I had to go back to the mojo site to make sure. there wasn’t any obvious branding that told me I had the mojo app – of course, there wouldn’t be until after I registered because that’s the first required step. Even after I registered I wasn’t entirely sure.

Mistake 3: The app is unintuitive, and doesn’t work

It’s not clear how to enter your mojo until you grok the idea that first you start by entering an event, which is similar to entering an appointment. Then you can enter your happiness and meaning values. Not the ten values described in the book, just happiness and meaning. There is no way to just add them quickly without entering an event. Entering an event is more than enough of a hurdle to make it easy to put off.

The app is supposed to be able to wake up on a regular interval and prompt you to enter these values – every hour or a multiple there of. Only it doesn’t work. Every time I go to the app the time-based reminders are turned off. I turn them on, but when I return, they’re off. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t wake up, either.

For an app that has perhaps 7 buttons, this is pretty poor quality control.

A book this good deserves it’s own app, and the author’s brand deserves one that works well.

Your email address is your identity

It seems like I’ve had the same conversation several times lately. Someone asks me for help with Linkedin, or blogging, or some other aspect of social media. They’ve signed up somewhere and let an account go dormant, and now they’re finally motivated to get it going again. This is pretty common, especially with Linkedin.

Anyway, as they try to get the old account going they realize it’s connected to the email at their last job. After all, Linkedin is a work thing, right? Why not have it connected to work email?

But they’ve forgotten the password, and while Linkedin is happy to send it to them, it’s going to go to an email address that is now dead. They didn’t realize that on the internet, their email address is their identity.

Your email address is your identity

I also come across people who are interested in an opening where I work, or what me to pass something on for them. They forward a resume, or pass on their contact info. And then I notice their email address – bigv8speedr@hotmail.com, or it’s the spouse’s email address, or worse yet it’s the spouse’s work email address. These folks also don’t realize that their email address is not just their identity, but their brand.

Many sites, like Linkedin, use email addresses to identify users – really as the unique identifier. On Twitter you can login using your email address or your screen name, and that’s quite common. The wonderful thing about email addresses is that they are unique, so it’s nice when I go to a site and they’ll take my email address as the username. I know I won’t end up being swduncan51 or some other oddball thing.

So, if your email address is both your identity, and the most basic brand that you will have, shouldn’t people take it more seriously? They should. The problem is that people still think of the Internet and their online presence as new, fangled, and therefore not really permanent. But it is and if you don’t think so now, you will the next time you have to change email addresses because you changed jobs or internet service providers.

Control your identity

Get yourself a permanent email address that has a decent, neutral brand. You won’t have to change it, ever. It will project a simple but clear brand: I am who I am, and I can communicate reliably. It will cost you as little as $10 a year, and you can get it done inside of an hour without hiring anyone. That hour includes the time necessary to find, and read more detailed instructions on exactly how to do it. Here’s the high-level:

  1. Go to a domain registrar, like godaddy.com, and buy a domain. A domain is the part of an email address after the @, and the part of a website address after the www. Your first name followed by your last name is a great choice, but not always available. I use swduncan.com because it was available and short, but .net, .org, .us, .cc, .biz and all the others work perfectly well. You can also use something nonsensical or a unique word – I used to use lornitropia.net – but keep it short and easy to spell phonetically. A domain costs about $10 per year, if you go year to year. Not bad for your own, never-changing identity.
  2. Either use the registrar’s email service, which might cost $5 a year, or go to a more serious provider like Google (free), Yahoo, Fastmail.fm, or one of the many others out there. This could be free, or cost as much as $100 per year. The advantage is that you will get good email support, lots of storage, and great uptime. Note that you are NOT stuck with whatever provider you choose. You can start with the registrar’s email, switch to Google, and maybe switch again later. Your email address will be the same.
  3. You will have to ‘point’ your new domain to your email provider. This is done by editing the DNS settings at the registrar’s site, specifically adding MX records. The details of doing this are fairly easy to find via google, and it’s really just filling out a form. Your email provider (that would be google, fastmail, etc) will tell you the names of servers to enter in MX records. Sounds hard, but you just enter in 3 to 6 server names and you’re done.

That’s it. At this point you have a functioning email address. It’s yours, and you can repoint the DNS records to point to whatever email provider you want just by re-editing the MX records. It takes a while for DNS servers to talk to each other and these settings to get all over the globe, but within 24-48 hours it’s a done deal.

Now the trick is to transition all those people who send you email to the new address.

  • Send an email to your friends with the new email.
  • Forward ALL of your non-work addresses to this new address, and change to your new address on the various sites that need to send you email. Make sure you change to it everywhere. A nice tip is to set your new email reader to show emails that have been forwarded from your old address in bold or a special color so you remember to notify that sender.
  • If you’re provider has the feature, use an auto-responder on messages that arrive using an old address. Sometimes the ‘on vacation’ feature will do this. This will help with those folks who need a lot of reminding.
  • After 6 months or so, and you are getting few if any messages coming to old addresses, you can let them drop.
  • Relax, knowing that you now have your own identity and brand, and that you won’t have to change it ever again.

Here’s a special Linkedin tip – always, always add whatever functional emails you get to Linkedin, including your work address. Linkedin uses those addresses to identify you when someone invites you to connect, and having these addresses in there prevents a new account from being created when someone invites you. However, make sure the primary email address in Linkedin is your new personal address. You want to do this so that if you unexpectedly get laid off you know your still going to get messages from Linkedin, and receive any password resets. If you really want to get the Linkedin emails at work, that’s fine – just set up a rule to forward them there. That way you’ll get them at home as well.

Another bonus tip: When you have your own email domain, you own all the users in that domain – everything before the ‘@’ in an email address is the user. This means that you can make up and use new addresses on the fly. At some store and being asked for an email address? Just give them one. I was at 2nd wind fitness and they asked for an address. I told them 2ndwind@swduncan.com. This is nice because I will know if they sell it, and I can block email coming to that address later if I want to.