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Impressive paper-based project management workflow

Martin Ternouth's paper system, overview

Ask E.T.: Thinking and Paper

I like so much about the paper-based system Martin Ternouth describes (and illustrates!) in this Tufte thread that started in 2002 (scroll down a quarter of the way; sorry, no permalink).

This system relies on several of the patterns that first attracted me to Getting Things Done— especially use of things like the “Overnight and Today” box which is like the Inbox in GTD, or like the many reviews that Martin builds into his process. There are a couple things in particular about this system that really resonate with me, and that, in my opinion, make this a must-read for people who either juggle multiple projects or have a challenging time managing their time and their workflow:

  1. One task at a time on the desk - I love the fanatical insistence that only one coverslip—and consequently one project—be in the working area at a given time. In addition to keeping things tidy, this really forces you to maintain what David Allen calls “vertical focus,” or that ability to shut off inter-project scanning so you can concentrate on the task at hand without distraction.
  2. Tight cycles, hard edges, and fresh starts - Inherent in the use of the paper workspace and each bucket (collection, holding, in progress, culling) is the understanding that everything needs to be clear by a certain time, or according to a weekly schedule. A practice of clearing your workspace and your inbox every night does more than foster a clean desk; it demands that you evaluate your progress, review your immediate landscape, and then always find some kind of formal caesura to your work. The day must end at some point.

These are both things that I’d like to get much better at. Working at home, I have a habit of half-assing through the working hours of the day, and then half-assing through the supposedly relaxed family time of the evening. Neither one gets the attention it deserves as I blithely flip through emails or surf the web. So I find the idea of an “end of day” ritual intriguing.

The practices Martin discusses, while probably a bit stiff for most excitable multi-taskers, represent the sort of “back on the wagon” strategies we all need when things start to get frayed. It’s also full of smart advice on the piece of GTD that most people still find most vexing: the implementation and maintenance of a trusted system. Lots of good stuff to consider adapting here—for GTD and beyond. For, you know, actual work.

If you enjoyed Getting Things Done and like things like Josh DiMauro’s index card system, I really recommend you check this out.

Thanks to Griff for the link tip.

(See also: Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 review of The Myth of the Paperless Office that led to this referenced thread. Like so much of his stuff, it’s a terrific read. Pick quote: “The solution to our paper problem, they write, is not to use less paper but to keep less paper.”)

Tait's picture

Neat to see this popping...

Neat to see this popping up. I was using Ternouth's method before hearing about GTD. It works great for desk, paper-based work, but does not appear to be well suited for, say, remembering to change the oil in the car while out on errands.

My current system is a hybrid of PigPog using the Hipster and Ternouth's for paper handling.

Most of my projects which require support material need just one or two pages, so it doesn't make sense to create a project support folder for it: just pop the sheets into a cover slip and throw into the stack.

It's also a really good idea to limit one's self to one project at a time - saves so much on lost and mis-filed papers. His suggestion of a "current project" box works great for me.

I've been working that way for weeks now - it's really pretty smooth.




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