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,, 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 –, 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.

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.

Should we follow companies that limit Twitter access?

A few days ago I wrote a tweet about whether it was fair to follow companies that don’t allow their employees access to Twitter. It got one response, and I’m not sure I was very clear. On second thought, I don’t think I phrased the question well. The question isn’t really whether it’s fair to follow companies, but whether it’s good for the Twittersphere.

Here’s what I’m thinking about: The success of Twittering from a business perspective depends on there being a large audience of followers ready to read & act on tweets. If there is no audience, there is no reaction. However, many companies block access to Twitter (and Facebook, and Linkedin, and etc.) to most of their employees, even as they ramp up social media marketing plans. This seems hypocritical (or at least short sighted) to me.

In a B2C world it’s not necessarily a problem, but in a B2B world it is. At the office I’m a customer for, say, trade show logistics, or business analysis. At home I’m not. So am I going to follow these people at the expense of valuable personal time in short supply, if I can access Twitter only from home?

There seems to be an assumption that while they’ve done the prudent thing in blocking access, all of their customers aren’t as sharp and will leave things wide open.

I wonder if many decades ago companies were ramping up their telemarketing campaigns even as they enforced policies limiting phone access to their employees? Or before that, direct mail campaigns back when people didn’t get their own mail?

So, should we follow companies that limit Twitter access to their own employees?

Encourage your employees to leave

Should the day come when I’m running my own business, I’m going make the following standing offer to my employees:

If you wish to leave, I will pay you 5% of you salary, plus an additional 1% for every year you’ve worked for me to do so.

I’m sure it would maintain a focus on how people are treated, and for those folks who’ve gone stale and are feeling trapped, it would offer an escape. More than likely the person hired to replace them would make enough less to cover the deal anyway.

The Death Of Social Media Marketing

Social media is a popular subject in marketing, and has been for a while now. As we see usage of Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and similar sites rise, people can’t help but see opportunities for advertising and marketing in general.

In many ways it would seem to be ideal. We’re trying to build relationships, after all, and these sytems embrace relationships – actually they depend on them. They are measurable in many ways, viral, or potentially so, and are cheap.

The problem is that their success is their downfall. As they become more popular their use is increasing limited in business environments.

As the economy crumbled and people feared for their jobs social networking has become more popular to build an insurance policy against a layoff. Folks who have ignored networking for years are suddenly getting interested. Of course in tough times companies work harder to eliminate waste, and activities like social networking are often viewed as waste. It’s silly, as networking can be very powerful, but we’re dealing with perception here, not reality. Apparently when a company networks it’s powerful, when an employee networks it’s waste.

The ironic part is that the same companies that are banning these sites are probably starting social media campaigns. They hope to woo customer personnel to join their networks, read their tweets, and generally be good pals, all to the benefit of the bottom line while at the same time they’re denying their own employees the ability to do the very thing they ask of others.

How long do you think this will last?

Social Media Has 18 Months…

I predict that within 18 months the use of social media on company networks will be banned by most of American business, and the participation by business people during working hours (and thus the 80-90% of the marketing value of social media) will collapse.

When this happens, it will change. It will become far less focused on companies, and lot more focused on individuals. As people lose the ability to administer their networks on company time or with company resources, they will also lose the urge to use their networks to company benefit. If you’re busily trying to keep your Linkedin page up to date at 10pm, are you going to worry first about how you’re representing your company, or yourself? When you’re sitting at your desk you’re far more likely to keep the company’s interests in mind.

Similarly, when your participation in these sites comes purely at your own expense, are you going to follow your vendor’s or customer’s pages, or stick to family & friends?

I hope I’m wrong.

Try to look like a genius on Linkedin…and fail

Want to try to look like a genius on Linkedin’s Answers?

Pick a question, any question, and draft an answer drawing from the following sure-fire ways of providing what looks like useful input without answering the question.

For example, suppose the question is “Is it time for lunch yet?”

  1. Suggest that the question would be better asked in a different way. Provide a link to this tangential subject. “I think what you mean to ask is “is this the right time for ME to consume lunch?” Please see the attached link on Zone Dieting and the Hindu Clock Diet.”
  2. State that it is critical for business today, mention coordination, and include the magic phrase “it can be challenging!” “This is critical thing for business today, and I now that in my experience I’ve often run into this problem. Coordinating with others is key – it can be challenging!”
  3. Always, always mention that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For some reason people think this is a profound statement. “I’ve dealt with this in a variety of ways: Clocks, growling stomach, pestering coworkers, etc. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.”
  4. Ask what the goal is, then simplify and answer: “What is the goal of eating lunch? If you’re hungry, I would eat.”
  5. Ask backgrounder questions, then make some assumptions about the answers, choose an easy set of assumptions and answer that: “In what context are you asking? Does your employer have a set lunch time, or is it up to you to set your own time? If it’s up to you, then I would go when you’re hungry.”
  6. Write an elaborate response on how to search for existing answers. The key is to make it long enough that one gets the impression would have been easier for the author to do the search than to write about it: “I think this has been answered before. It might have been in Management, or maybe it was Organizational Development. Anyway, you should be able to find it by doing some searching: Go to “Q&A”, then “Advanced Search”, in the search box I would try phrases like “chronology of lunch, lunch, time, eat” etc. You might need to change the category, or use the category ALL. If you get too many responses, just use aditional search terms to narrow the search. You should be able to pull up the answer.

Fortunately, along with a fair bit of noise, Linkedin’s Q&A usually provides some great input.

Hey VMWare, did you notice the missing sale?

From time to time I need to run the odd Windows app, and while I still have a few laptops that have XP on them, it’s more convenient to do it on my mac. I’ve tried both Parallels and VM Fusion, and to be honest I don’t think I could differentiate them. They’re both the same price, and since the latest trial I used was VM Fusion, when I decided to buy this morning I figured I’d stick with them.

I am always amazed when I see how hard companies will make it to do business with them, and VMWare proved to be like so many others. Instead of just taking my money and giving me a product, they want to waste my time create a “relationship” first. I must have a login. Of course, I already have one because I had to create one to get the trial. But now it doesn’t work. So I try to recreate it. They won’t let me – they say that the account already exists.

Let’s clarify what should be happening: I give VMWare $80. They give me a very large number that makes the software work. What could be simpler? I should be able to go to a single page, enter my credit card info and email address, click, get email with magic number, done. It should be easy, but it isn’t.

Most transactions are like this. I will have very little interaction with the company once the sale is made, but they always want me to make an account. It is almost always just a speed bump for all future transactions. The only time I actually use these accounts is when I go back looking for tracking info to find out what happened to the package. Not much tracking to be done for software downloads.

Some companies, like Land’s End, are smart enough to know that I may not care to create an account. They’re smart enough to give me the option of just making the sale. I wish more were.