43 Folders

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

My Analog GTD Whitepaper

I've been a GTDer since March of 2006. I started out with kinkless GTD on an iBook. But ever since I lost my laptop in June of 06, I've needed a robust and portable analog GTD implementation, one that can accommodate the deadlines and heavy writing/notetaking demands of academic work. Taking advantage of the narcissistic exhibitionism of the productivity prOn craze, I decided to share it here. Any comments would be greatly appreciated. (If I had money to afford a digital camera, I might have posted some links to Flickr photos, but alas, you'll have to fantasize the old-fashioned way, using your imagination.) Perhaps somebody may even find something useful here that they can add to their system.

Here's the system.

1) Collection device. My main hipster PDA (binder-clip style). One side is made up of 12-15 blank index cards. The middle is for reference. And the other side contains a project list, agendas, and calendar cards: monthly, weekly, daily (see below for details). If I really need to be portable, I carry just this hipster and a small paper booklet (a la pocket mod) with actions from my system arranged by context. Thanks a ton, Merlin, for the hipster PDA! I have yet to find a handier collection device. Since there are no covers to unfold, I can jot down stuff immediately, even while walking.

2) Calendar. While the most current calendar cards (usually this month and next month) reside in my main hipster, I keep a separate hipster PDA (also binder-clip style) for long-term planning. I could never figure out how to print those damn slick DIY-hipster templates on my Samsung ML-1710, so I've used ye old-fashioned ruler and pen method. I actually employ multiple calendars:

a) Deadlines. These are my taskmasters. One month per card, with the numbers 1-15 and 16-31 running down the left side of the card (vertical orientation), front and back respectively. Any absolute deadlines (dissertation deadlines, class preparation deadlines, job applications, targets for completing drafts, project due-dates, birthdays, etc.) go on this card. A quick daily scan reminds me of any urgent stuff I need to be working on and helps me keep on track.

b) Possible activities. Same format as the deadline cards. Here I jot down activities and events of interest (lectures, parties, concerts, art openings, theater shows, sales, etc.). I don't take advantage half of these, but it's my way of keeping track of what's out there.

c) Monthly calendar. Grid style. My hard landscape for long-term scheduling. Here's where I put down appointments, plane flights, classes, etc. I also use this as a portable tickler solution. I use capital letters (A,B,C, etc.) for tickler items, listing the reminders connected with each letter on the back of the monthly calendar: (A - start working on job application, B - get gift for John's birthday, C - job application deadline in one week, D - tickets on sale for 10/29 Bob Dylan concert, etc.). After consulting my deadlines card, I often add tickler reminders to this calendar to keep myself on track.

d) Weekly calendar templates. A fresh stack of weekly planner cards. I fill one of these out during my weekly review, at the beginning of each week. Stuff from a, b, and c flows into this weekly calendar as I sketch out my upcoming week. I put appointment details and goals for the week on the back of the card.

e) Daily schedule templates. A fresh stack of daily cards, with hourly scheduling. During my morning review, I quickly sketch out commitments for the day, filling out free hours as I go along. I also put down any to-dos that HAVE to be done today. On the back are logs to keep track of my spending and diet.

Granted, this calendar system is a little baroque, but I've found that multiple calendars really help me to sort out different types of reminders. I like how the various long-term calendars flow into weekly and daily planners, allowing for constant re-assessment of my schedule/work agenda.

3) Actions. After trying unsuccessfully to use the DIY hipster PDA method (http://www.davidco.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-2038.html">http://www.diyplanner.com/templates/official/hpda[/url]), I came across this archived davidco thread ([url]http://www.davidco.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-2038.html), which suggests using an index card per project. This method stuck. At the top of each card (vertical orientation) goes the desired outcome. (I try to keep projects as small and discrete as possible.) Beneath the outcome I write down next actions and put a check-box by the current next action. If the project generates simultaneous next actions or smaller sub-projects, I put a circle by those and open up new index cards. If there's a deadline, I mark that clearly on the card. Any brainstorming or reference information can goes horizontally on the back of the card. The sum of all these cards is a thick stack of actions.

The beauty of this system (for me at least) is that I can rearrange the deck of cards any way I want: by context, by project, by areas of responsibility, by priority, by deadline. I can work out of any of these modes. Everything in my current world is in that stack.

I use color index cards to divide up the stack (often into multiple hipsters). I have Someday/Maybe, Waiting, Agendas, and Recycle dividers (in purple). These are basically "holding" spots. Recycle is where I put any projects where the next action has not been defined. I transfer agenda items (including shopping) to lists that go in my collection hipster PDA.

Context dividers: Home and Office are in green (i.e., stuff at home). Email, Computer, Phone, and Read/Write/Brainstorm are in blue (i.e., stuff that can be done at home or on the road, thanks to Web 2.0). Errands and Library are in red (i.e., stuff away from home). Yellow card dividers mark off unassigned actions (i.e., not in a context), as well as high priority items.

This system has allowed me to think in terms of work-flow rather than static lists. I can reassess my work quickly and efficiently, depending on the type of day I'm having. Each morning, I rapidly flip through my project/action cards. If I have imminent deadlines, I can simply pull out the highest priority cards and focus on those for the day. Or if I want to get a bunch of mosquito tasks done, I can sort all my cards into contexts and swat down targets of opportunity during the day. Or I can use some combination of the two methods.

The key is that each morning I review all of my active projects in a process that usually takes less than five minutes. This, for me, is an efficient way of deferring less important stuff, so that I don't have to get distracted by it on long lists.

The system also helps to drive projects forward, since I can quickly add or open a new next action after completing something. (If I don't have time to think of a new action, I put the card in the Recycle pile and review it when I process my inboxes at night). I think of each card as an open loop I'm trying to chase through to completion. I find this system much more dynamic and intuitive than long lists of items. It's also super easy to defer actions and projects to Someday/Maybe.

If I need a more portable solution, sort the cards by context and transfer the actions to a blank pocket mod.

4) Academic work. In my bag I carry a stack of extra index cards and two Moleskine's (one large, one small). I've developed an index card note taking system. Each card gets a unique ID, which is made up of a card code (N for notes, J for jottings, B for bibliography, R for research ideas/agendas, etc.) and a date/time stamp. So a note card would get a stamp such as N 06-10-14 10:32. For notes, I also create a bibliography card, giving it an ID made up of the author's last name and the date of publication. This ID "links" the note cards and the source. I index the notes using subject cards. For instance, I might have a subject card on the American novelist Philip Roth, listing the ID of every note card about Roth. I backup this system by typing my notes into one long plain text file, which I can search using grep. At some point, I plan to break up this growing file and import the entries into DevonThink, but that's a Someday/Maybe project.

I use the small Moleskine to flesh out ideas, jot down insights or impressions, and to store important reference information related to projects. This is basically a log of my work, activities, discoveries, thoughts--all in rough form.

The large Moleskine is for drafting material. For instance, after I read a book, I try to draft a page or so in response. Or I might try to flesh out my early ideas about a topic. (One of my Someday/Maybe projects is to learn BibRef and LaTeX, but for now I'm stuck with Word for typing the final product.)

5) Upper level planning. I have a separate hipster PDA for the higher levels of GTD (20K, 30K, 40K, 50K). At 20K, for instance, each area of responsibility goes on a separate card. I use color coding to link up the various levels of GTD; at each level stuff is divided into 4 main areas (professional, personal, home, relationships). During the weekly review, I lay out my upper level cards on a big table and arrange them hierarchically, placing my projects beneath. This helps me sync up with the big picture and to see any areas that are being neglected.

6) Reference files/piles as needed. The final piece of the puzzle is to create index card files on an as needed basis. These include restaurants, fun ideas, books to read, movies to watch, writing ideas, books I want to look up at the library, gift ideas, wishlist, etc. If I'm heading to the movie store, I can simply pick up my pile of movies to watch.

If you've made it to the end of this post, thanks for indulging me. Call me perverse, but I enjoyed taking on the challenge of doing as much as possible on paper. The irony, of course, is that I depend heavily on Web 2.0 (del.icio.us, Gmail, Google home page, Writely) to stay mobile without a laptop.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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