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Using Categories & Tasks in Entourage

Snapshot of a few categories in Entourage 2004 Categories are a powerful tool for organizing any of the information you store in Entourage 2004—whether it’s email, contacts, appointments, or notes—but I think they really shine as a way to provide context for your task list. I use Categories almost synonymously with the idea of "contexts" that David Allen discusses in Getting Things Done—as a way to identify the location, conditions, tools, or focus needed to work on a given item. As I said the other day, I try to use my Categories to provide ready answers to the "How," "Where," and "When" of a given task as clearly and uniquely as is reasonable. You want to be analyzing and thinking about this stuff when you’re planning it, so you won’t have to process it again when it’s time to actually do it.

Still, it’s important to me to strike a balance even when I’m planning and processing: how do I touch each item as quickly and infrequently as possible while still ensuring that it pops up when and where I might need it later? For me this usually means applying only one Category per item and changing it later if the need arises. I mean, for example, I know I need to be online in order to send an email, but I don’t want to get bogged down in trying to describe every conceivable facet of the task with the finest granularity.  (Keep repeating: "GTD is about action;  it’s not about playing with lists.")

Also, as I’ve said before, I’ve found context to be one of the most challenging aspects of implementing GTD—especially because, on some days, my contexts feel limited to "computer" and "everyplace else." Still, getting contexts right for your unique situation can be critical to succeeding with GTD. If you’re struggling to think about what you should be doing next, something’s not working. For "next actions" to have the kind of brain-dead physical simplicity we all crave, they need to be situated in a way that lets you take them up wherever you are and without a constant level of meta-thinking about "whether this is in the right place."

All that said, here’s an overview of the Categories I use most when processing, filtering, and doing the items on my task list (currently ~150 items). Your mileage will absolutely vary.

Functional Categories

  • brainstorm - Never used if I really mean "write," but useful for when I need to generate ideas, start an outline, or when I want to just set aside a few minutes to get my head around a new idea.
  • calls - Requires a phone. Grouping phone calls into 20 contiguous minutes at a pass can save time and minimize future distractions.
  • chores - Stuff around the house—whether work or personal—that usually requires non-computer physical activity (Heaven forfend!). By the way, these are a great application of recurring tasks.
  • email - Reading, writing, sending, and responding to email. Most often attached to an item that will require a long note or detailed reply (> 2 minutes, end to end).
  • errand - Anything I need to do outside the house, in the neighborhood, Downtown, etc. (Reminder: I use SplashShopper to manage actual shopping lists, so no need for crufty "Buy foo item" tasks where "Go to Safeway" will do better)
  • read - Reading articles, web pages, proposals, books, etc.
  • write - You know. Writing. Usually implies work on a computer, except for when I just grab a notebook and hit the road to get a fresh environment. The point is, I know it’s time to turn everything off and focus on putting words on a page (or editing the ones I already have down)

Computer-Related Categories

Again, I know that many of these imply nesting; for my own system, I can live with that. I only want to tag an item with the Category that best represents its context (there's no manageable system that can do all the thinking for you). These sub-categories are still much more helpful to me than a generic "@computer"—that’s about as useful to me as "@breathing" or "@NorthAmerica."

  • mac-anywhere - Something, like installing a program I’ve already downloaded, that I can do anyplace I can use my laptop.
  • mac-online - Generic category for a task that requires an internet connection (I prefer a more specific one like "email" or "mac-research" whenever I can)
  • mac-desk - Requires I be in my office since the task requires something in that room—CD-Rs, an external drive, second computer, or supplies of some kind (e.g., cleaning the screen, fixing a friend’s Mac, etc.)
  • mac-code and design - General category covers design and development, graphic and html production, etc.
  • mac-print - Many true "next actions" begin with printing something out. Emails, documentation, an old draft I want to review—most start with a print job.
  • mac-research - Might as well be called "Google." This is just anything I need to look up on the web. (Word of warning: here be dragons. Don’t let a "quick search" ending up leading you to an extended surfin’ safari.)

Other Contextual Categories

  • agenda - An item I need to bring up when I talk to someone, the person of which is usually implied by the Project that’s applied to it in the "Project Center" (although I sometimes just add the person’s name in the Title of the task)
  • media - Movie, TV show, or CD I want to watch, buy, etc. Usually ends up being added to my big "Media.txt" file unless it’s specifically a time-based reminder ("O.C., Thursday @ 8:00")

Non-Contextual Categories

These are  oddballs. A couple of them are GTD-inspired, but I think they all represent potential action down the road. Consequently, I filter them out of most action list custom views, and just review them separately every week or so. I think it’s important to add that many of the tasks tagged with the Categories "maybe-later" and "waiting" actually began life as a regular, functional todo I’d given myself, but later got retagged/downgraded to be one of these temporarily disowned items.

  • maybe-later - Lower priority items that I wouldn’t miss if they never happened, but would still like to maybe explore some time.
  • waiting - An intransitive task (basically, someone else’s todo) that is likely to turn into a task for me when I hear back from that person.
  • opportunities - Usually an idea for a project someone wants to do that I want to keep on the edge of my radar screen until I’m ready to do something with it. This needs a better home, but it works for now.

So that’s a quick look. I hope some of it is useful for you, but more importantly, I hope it helps you undertake a deeper look at how you organize and plan your work. To understand your work and not have it overwhelm you, I think it helps to grok where and when you can actually perform the constituent tasks. Getting your contexts wrong can mean a lot of frustrating list management and dropped balls, but knowing with confidence that your tasks are assigned appropriate contexts can be a huge timesaver and a big load off your brain.

What special contexts do you use to keep items on your radar screen? Any novel Categories you're using in your PIM?

(Nota bene: Fellow Entourage fans, be sure to tune in later this week for a post on the least utilized and most misunderstood feature in Entourage—custom views. GTD-friendly recipes await you.)

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About Merlin

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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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