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.

On Trade Show Exhibit Justification

How do you justify exhibiting at a trade show? I suspect this is a thorny issue for a lot of companies. It’s a large expense, it’s not usually measured very well by the exhibitor, and the show company can’t measure the benefit to the exhibitor directly. With no one measuring, it can be hard to justify trade shows in the marketing mix.

People think that trade shows are about getting new leads. This is a little like saying going to the mall is about increasing your self-esteem and life outlook. Yes, the trip may result in that, but what you do at the mall is shop and buy stuff. What you do at a show is meet with people and communicate with them. They may become leads, but really you’ve made a connection that can’t easily be made any other way.

So rather than calculating what a lead is worth, or wether or not a sale would have been made but for the show, let’s consider this on a much more basic level. It’s about visiting with people.

Let’s start with a basic assumption: On average, your company meets with one person per hour per employee while at the show. I’m not considering just planned customer visits, but all the contacts that happen. Industry colleagues you chat with, but otherwise wouldn’t. New people. Competitors. Suppliers. Press. Your network, old and new.

Sure, there are empty hours, but there’s also the 3-hour dinners with customers and others as well. I think one visit per employee hour is probably quite conservative, the real answer is probably closer to 2-3 per hour.

So let’s say you have a small booth at a major show. You’re going to take 5 employees, and the show is 4 days long. That’s about 200 visits that will be made at the show. What would it cost to make those visits? Would you even bother, with most of them? Now many of these visits wouldn’t merit a trip on their own, because it would be far too expensive. But that’s where the value of a show really comes in – bulk buying of visit hours, with very low marginal cost per visit. It’s a unique situation in business, except for similar events like conferences.

Going back to our example, you have 5 employees going to a show, travel’s probably $7000, booth is $3000, another 5k in other stuff. Let’s round it up to $20k and you have $100 per visit. that’s pretty cheap.

But STEVE, c’mon, what about shipping equipment and samples and what not to the booth? What about the booth itself! Do you know what these things cost?!?

Yep, they’re expensive, but they’re not really part of the visit, are they? Companies do these things for branding and image related reasons, not because they couldn’t meet with customers without them. I’m not advocating they just put up card tables and leave all the product at home, I’m simple stating that costs need to be allocated where they belong.

Even so – let’s add them in. Wow, that per visit cost went up, didn’t it. BUT you have to remember that now we’re talking about a visit where your employee toted along some rather expensive equipment just for that visit, including a custom-built meeting room. That doesn’t happen very often, does it?

Now let’s consider another aspect of this: Scheduling.

In our example, there were 200 visits. Do you think you could schedule those 200 visits in four days without the trade show? Do you think you could get them all in even in a year? Probably not – many of those visits were ‘dry holes’ – people you thought could help but couldn’t. Or thought would be interested in having help but weren’t. Or whatever. 1 in 10 perhaps turns out to be valuable, but that one probably wouldn’t have taken your call without the show. Think about it – many of the people your company met with aren’t friends or acquaintances, they’re people who don’t really know you. Are they going to jump at having you come visit them in their office – let alone fly to see you? What would you have to offer (i.e. dinner, lunch, whatever) to help persuade them to give you some time?

Consider the opportunity cost of this.

When I was a product manager in the printing equipment business, I remember one show where a customer had come to talk about a rather involved, space-age kind of project. Very cutting edge, and there were a number of technical issues. Because I was at DRUPA (the largest printing equipment show on the world), in one day I could meet up with the relevant people to determine the feasibility of the project. Outside of that show it would have taken months. The point here is not that new projects are likely to crop up, but that you have access to a huge array of people in a very convenient way.

One last thing

Do you have employee meetings? They’re expensive, right? How about team building sessions, or other events designed to get people out of the office together for a little bonding? Travel to trade show, along with the time spent a trade show provides some of the same benefits.

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.

Online Bully Defense

Yesterday I wrote about how one’s email address has become their online identity. As I think about online identity, it occurs to me that a difference in strength of identity might be enabling online bullies. Just as a physical bully seizes initiative to exploit another’s physical weakness & lack of vigilance, online bullies can operate in the same way. If your whole online life revolves around one site, and the bully has a stronger presence, bullying is enabled. It’s a difference in strength of online presence and reputation.

The internet is so new, has moved so fast, its not surprising that this is happening. Even well-funded corporations who have devoted huge resources to PR are still challenged to manage their reputation online. No wonder kids can find themselves exposed.

Helping my kids develop a stronger online identity, in advance of them really needing it, will help them be more bully-resistant. Having their own place to publish content is also a hedge against social sites changing terms or moving from free to paid. At the end of the day, what will matter in the long run is what comes up when someone types my daughter’s name into a search engine.

I’ve pulled their domains, and when needed we’ll develop sites for them. They have control over the content, and can build whatever presence fits them. They can probably manage the SEO of their own site well enough to make it place higher than Facebook or other pages, which is a hedge against the inevitable, regrettable social media content. It can be the site they mention to prospective employers (preferably, investors) or whoever else they need to impress.

They can still enjoy all the fun and drama that comes with Facebook and other sites, but they will have their own presence on the web as the anchor. This is the same strategy recommended to businesses, and the same logic is applicable to personal brands as 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 –, 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, 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 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 – 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,, 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 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.

Hotels offering luggage service?

With the recent news that Spirit airlines will start charging for carryon bags, it seems clear that the entire charging-for-luggage theme is really just the airline industry trying to make itself profitable again. It was obvious to anyone that charging for carry-ons first would have resulted in no revenue, so they started where the money was – in the bigger bags. Charging for carry-ons is more offensive, but with cheapskates avoiding the checked-bag fees crowding the bins providing a nice scape goat…

The airlines will be happy when the day comes when no one thinks it unusual that you can’t bring your stuff for free. But are airlines really the best custodian’s of our stuff? One has to keep in mind that shipping people and shipping goods are two entirely different businesses.

Suppose that hotels offered a luggage service. It would look like this:

  • You book a room, and the hotel asks where to pick up your bags.
  • They pick up your bags the day before you leave – maybe just the morning of that day. They drop off a complimentary ‘personal items’ bag, with some coupons in it for your destination (ad space the hotel sold, by the way) and room for personal items.
  • You fly to your destination, maybe multiple hops, but “you don’t care because your bags will be there”.
  • You get to your room and your bags are waiting when you get there.
  • You enjoy your stay, having lived in fresh clothes sans washing miracle fabrics in the bathroom sink, or laundry charges that would buy a German luxury car.
  • When your trip is over either the next hotel is coming to get it, or it will be shipped back home.

They have a lot of incentive to get it right because your stay with them depends on your luggage being there. You will pay for this because of this, and because hotels, unlike airlines, have not established themselves as professional losers of luggage.

I don’t think it will happen because hotels have refused any responsibility for their customer’s belongings for too long to be able to see the opportunity. They also make a lot of money on laundry, I’m guessing.

If someone created the business that did the picking up & shipping, and provided the inter-hotel transportation (we do travel on multi-hop trips after all) they could make this happen.

The advantages for the customer:

  • No more hauling heavy bags – no more need to live in a carry-on world either.
  • No airline fees.
  • Less hassle with security.
  • You could have a separate bag for each hop, providing more flexibility and choice.
  • Now when you check out in the morning, you not only don’t have to take your bag with you on your site-seeing, you don’t have to come back for it either.
  • If your travel plans are disrupted, you can change flights without fear of losing your bags.
  • For an extra fee you buy insurance in the form of a pre-paid credit card, which gets dropped off with your bags, to be remotely activated in the event your luggage is lost or delayed.

Yes, it would be a tough business to implement, but far from impossible.

How not to have a web presence

So I’m after some woodchips to use as mulch, and I was very happy to find this great offer on the Dorshak tree service web site:

Dorshak Tree service is offering free woodchips to anyone interested. No hidden costs, no catch. Woodchips can be used for many different things including landscaping around your home, flower gardens, areas you would like to keep weeds to a minimum and many other uses.

The woodchips come from our daily tree removals and may contain various different species of trees. We do not distribute pine (unless requested) or diseased material. We will deliver to you a full truck load which may contain from 15-20 yards of chips. We do not deliver specific amounts and what you will receive will be within these totals.

I fill out the form they provide, and off goes my request. I’m wondering if I’ll get a response because last year when I was thinking about having someone take a tree down I filled out their quote request form, and after the obligatory ‘We got your message, and we value your message, and we will respond to your message Real Soon Now” kind of email I never heard from them. After a few days, I make a mental note to give them a call, and of course forget.

Yesterday I took a moment to look through my spam folder and happened across this message from Dorshak:

Thank you for your woodchip request through Dorshak Tree Specialists.
From tree removals to stump grinding and plant health care, Dorshak Tree Specialists can take care of all your tree care needs.
A delivery of woodchips will arrive to you shortly if you need more information please call one of the numbers below.

Uh oh! I was headed out of town (As I write this I’m on a train to Cleveland) and not going to be back for a few days. I suddenly had this vision of my poor wife coming home from a day with the girls and finding 20 yards of mulch in the driveway. I call Dorshak to find out if they can at least tell me when to expect my bounty of chips. Brad, the first guy on the phone, gets my name but doesn’t really know anything about chip deliveries, so he puts me on hold to check with someone. Someone else picks up. The next guy, who’s name I missed, explains that due to customer complaints they really didn’t do residential deliveries anymore. He explains this in a voice that makes it clear the policy has been changed for a long time, and I’m one of the infrequent folks who uses the web form.

Now I haven’t yet had the pleasure of doing business with the Dorshak Tree service, so they may be phenomenal with trees.

However, as a web presence they are similar to far too many other companies who get a nice site put up, implement some features to respond to customers, and then fail to follow up on the implementation. I’m sure they got busy, had enough business where they could just accept the customers who are willing to call and ignore the rest. It might never be a problem. Or, a big recession happens, and then every customer is dear…except those that were alienated during the boom times.

It happens, and it always will happen, but it should happen because of things that are hard to fix. Text on a website is NOT hard to fix. I’m sitting on a train right now, and there’s maybe 15 people in this car. I bet if I got up and asked if anyone did website work I’d get 3 or 4 takers. Heck, I’d fix it for a load of chips. Or two.

Fix your web site and stop annoying people who might otherwise be your customer someday.