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How does a geek hack GTD?

MytxtsetupProductivity programs like Getting Things Done obviously have been developed around the needs of managers, sales people, and entrepreneurs. This makes sense given that those are largely the people who are buying the books, listening to the CDs, and attending the seminars (or certainly represent the largest market share of potential customers).

But, one of my main goals with this site was to discuss the way that productivity plans and methods designed for the business world can be reframed in a context that's useful for developers, programmers, and garden-variety geeks. This is not to say that geeks don't fill many or all of these managerial roles in their work, but they also tend to have work styles, deliverables, and skillsets that are markedly different from the average, notional GTD user.

The prime example: "@computer." Man, geeks don't just use a computer for occasional work or to "look something up on 'The Interweb.'" They live on their laptop and take it anywhere they'd bring their wallet. They eat wireless like potato chips and crank out code for a living. They have an IM window and an IRC channel running all day. They're streaming conferences in and live-blogging conferences out. In short, if they follow the stock GTD setup, they will have a very, very long "@computer" list.

So I wanted to start a conversation about how geeks handle their lists, their projects, and their agendas--not so much in terms of the tool they use to store the information, although that's fair game--as with how they segment the information and decide when to break it into pieces. I'll start by providing the setup used by a San Francisco web developer who spends a lot of time on his PowerBook: me.

(Please note: since I'd love to see a lot of discussion about this, please post your response on your own site and just send a single trackback ping to this post (hit: http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/1128456). Comments below are ok for short responses or for posting links to your non-tracback-able site, but please try to limit yourself to a paragraph or so. Thanks.)

My basic tool setup

To get the tool part out of the way, everything I mention here is maintained in the following way (for today, anyway: ask again tomorrow)

  • all lists in text files, kept in directory "~/Documents/txt"
  • all main GTD lists set to backup automatically on Save to "~/Documents/txtbak"
  • PsyncX backs up both directories to an external drive each night
  • primary GTD lists kept open all day in BBEdit
    • Currently running a demo of 8.0, so they're all in one document/drawer
  • Finder labels
    • primary David-style GTD lists: red
    • current hot agendas and contexts: orange
    • 43 Folders-specific files: yellow
  • list items usually added via append using my Quicksilver trick
  • all documents maintained in Markdown for easy HTML conversion

My lists

classic GTD lists

  • PROJECTS - every multiple-action outcome to which I'm committed
  • _@nextactions - next physical action toward project completion or resolution (note "_" at beginning pulls it to the top of alpha lists)
  • @inbox - unprocessed items
  • @waiting - things I need from other people
  • @someday - projects and actions for "someday, maybe, later, or on-hold"
  • @agenda_foo - separate agendas for each client and important person in my life

my additional non-geek lists

  • @dailysweep - the emergency work pileup file that I generate when I need to lock-down on the "Seven Things" hack mentioned the other day
  • @groceries - Although lately, I've been leaning toward SplashShopper for the Palm

my additional geek lists

  • @tech - somewhat similar to a generic "@computer," but functionally more similar to "@someday." A dumping ground for any skill I want to learn, tool I want to play with, or setup item I want to tweak. This could be about sites, applications, or what have you. It's the parking lot for every random item I might want to follow-up on someday. Once I commit to a given item, it gets moved to PROJECTS and a next action is generated.
  • @geekbench - this is a new project I'm working on to share questions and projects with other interested geeks (think: Ask MeFi meets LazyWeb meets Lifehacks meets advice column...all via RSS and Trackback). More on this in a later post
  • @palm - stuff I want to play with and experiment with on my newly-resuscitated Palm Vx
  • scratch.txt - not a list but a great little hack; leave a "scratch pad" text file open all day and use it as the place for typing odd bits of information you'll soon put someplace else. (Keeps you from having a dozen Temp files or "Untitled Document"s)

I also have a bunch of other ad hoc lists that are specific to a certain context or that I only need for a short period of time. My rule of thumb--and arguably the core of my own system--is to group like items for as long as possible, but then break them into pieces as soon as they start becoming a horizontal distraction.

My approach and where I get value

I suspect that I probably have more buckets than most of you do, but that might be written off to my modest regular expression skills.

But I also believe it's vitally important to honor the sanctity of the "classic" GTD lists; if anything stays on one list that really belongs somewhere else (or in its own new area), you risk losing a lot of value and trust in your system. I'm rigid about moving "super-TODOs" from "@nextactions" to "PROJECTS"--but only if I really am committed to it as a desirable outcome. That's the critical distinction over other productivity hacks. You aren't just shuttling TODOs from list to list; you're actually negotiating a future for yourself.

This additional layer of refactoring and evaluation has been a terrific aid for me, so I've tried to set myself up in a way that makes that examination easy and desirable. I now constantly find myself asking whether I really want to commit myself to something, so my TODO list doesn't feel like a millstone around my neck anymore. It just seems like a series of simple, miniature tasks that get me incrementally closer to the goals I've set for myself. And that feels pretty good.

How about you?

So, I guess my questions to you practicing GTD geeks are these:

  1. What additional contexts and buckets have you added to replace or augment "@computer," "@online," and the other standard GTD buckets?
  2. At what point do you feel the need to create a new bucket, and how long do you maintain it?
  3. Given that your job may involve an endless series of tiny tasks and bug fixes, how do you use your @nextactions list? Do you use a tool outside your list?
  4. Any other great hacks you're particularly proud of or find really productive?

Important: Trackbacks preferred, please

As above if you have a site that can send a trackback to this entry please post your reply on your site and just ping this entry once. Commenting or linking to your response below is fine, of course, but keep it short, pelase.

So tell me: how are you hacking Getting Things Done?

Edit: 2006-03-21 - Nomenclature fixed: changed "nerd" to "geek."

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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