I've made a few updates but most of the post is as it was originally published. Also, the modern day equivalent of "Total Workday Control / TWC" is now "Master Your Workday Now!" - from an updated version of Michael Linenberger's book that I mention below.
The concepts in the new book are very similar and I recommend you get the new book - you can see my review of "Manage Your Now" in a previous post.
I'm now using a Mac primarily, so I'm still exploring things like Omnifocus and other solutions, but there really is no equivalent to Clear Context when it comes to Entourage or the Mac. I only hope that, once Microsoft re-introduces Outlook for the Mac later this year, that it will also run Office 2010 plugins - that would be awesome, as I might have a shot at getting Clear Context back into my routine.
Enjoy! -- Dwayne
As I mentioned in my last post, I've had somewhat of a breakthrough with Getting Things Done recently, and I want to share what I've learned in hopes that it will benefit at least one other person. To you GTD veterans, some aspects of my account may seem like a rehash of things you already know, but I want to provide as complete a picture as I can so please, indulge me.
I first fell for the siren's call when I read David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) a little over 3 years ago. A former user of the Franklin Covey planning system, I'd drifted away from using that system because it didn't blend well with my highly online existence (and the binders were bulky). I was seduced by GTD because it offered a systematic approach for dealing with all the items on my radar - work, home, electronic, and physical. And, GTD just seemed to make so much sense!
The most anchor concepts that stuck me from this method were:
- Capture everything that comes into your mind as quickly as you can - tasks, inputs, thoughts, commitments, ideas, interesting things you want to research, etc.
- Funnel what you capture into the smallest number of "inboxes" as possible - create fewer landing zones for inputs into your life
- Use context lists (@calls, Errands, @computer, etc.) to organize your actions into lists based on where you'll need to be to complete the action
- When you clear your inbox, take out any "embedded actions" and convert them to "next action" statements in one of your context lists
- Use the "two minute rule" to knock of simple items without devoting energy to tracking them
- Use subject-centric filing techniques to help organize piles of "stuff" into usable buckets
- Use a philosophy of "make it up, make it happen" to help envision and focus on outcomes
- Develop a trusted system so you can put your mind at ease by dropping commitments, projects, tasks, etc. into the trusted system and count on the fact that all items in the system will be managed
- Conduct weekly reviews and perform regular "Mindsweeps" to get all the hanging chads& open loops out of your head, keep projects moving, and identify your next actions for any commitments you've made
- Use your trusted system to track all your commitments - those you've made, as well as those which others have made to you
I began in earnest and followed the process in David's book to start organizing my life.
I began to see some benefits of GTD immediately - I felt more organized, had fewer "stacks" of things lying around my office, and began to get a handle on my overflowing inboxes. I tried to mimic the techniques in the book as closely as I could - including weekly reviews.
However, over time, I found that some aspects of GTD simply didn't work well for me.
- The 43 folder "tickler file" method described in the book never caught on for me - I am not at my desk very often and don't have a lot of paper to deal with, so this technique was the first to go.
- Note, however, that I do use the general topic-centric filing technique David writes about. As he recommends, I'll create a file for a single piece of paper (or a folder for a single item of email). This really does make a difference.
- When I first got my inbox to empty, it felt great, but I found myself speding so much time trying to keep it empty that I didn't really get a lot of things done - I just pumped them into @context lists to make them disappear. This became like a game of "whack-a-mole."
- I have never been able to successfully integrate the @context concept of list management into my workflow. I tried, but the "context-centric" view never really got to be a real habit with me. As a result, my lists didn't get processed very often.
- As a result of my inability to use context lists properly, weekly reviews felt overwhelming and began to be fewer and farther between until they pretty much went away Essentially, I was getting very proficient at populating lists I seldom looked at again.I was getting very proficient at populating lists I seldom looked at again.
The net result: My system had an "out of sight, out of mind" feel, so it was no longer trusted. I began to leave items in my inbox for processing instead of putting them on a list. Basically, I think I missed the "go here and get your tasks" feel of the Franklin Covey system.
I tried a bunch of techniques to try to "fix" my GTD implementation, including:
- scouring blogs for tips 'n' tricks,
- re-reading GTD and Ready for Anything (several times each),
- incessantly listening to "Getting Things Done Fast,"
- starting over again fresh periodically, and
- even attending a live David Allen seminar
Stop the insanity?
Through these many restarts, I began to feel like a yo-yo dieter - I'd make a little progress, but I kept ending up in the same, frustrated place with my implementation of GTD. So, I decided to look for a new way to work in hopes of getting better results.
I read a bunch of other personal management books and began looking at lots of tools (web sites, Outlook add-ins, etc). Each of them had one or more interesting nuggets of learning, but none of them seemed like they'd be any more effective for me than GTD.
What's a wandering soul to do? I kept living in limbo, limping along with 500-1000 messages perpetually in my inbox, occasionally wrote things on my hand, and continued to search for a better way.
Any of this sound familiar to you? In my next post, I'll share what fate has brought to my doorstep and how I'm successfully using GTD today.
In part one of my tale, I explained my agony and ecstasy with GTD, and how I found myself in search of a better way. Today, I'll discuss how I got off of my productivity plateau and reached the next level in my journey toward mastery with Getting Things Done.
Sometimes things show up at just the right time
I was experiencing some performance issues with my installation of Outlook, so I uninstalled everything and began to gradually add programs back in a more controlled way. The day after my clean install, I got a note from Brad Meador of ClearContext Corporation, informing me that there was a a new version of their ClearContext Information Management System going into Beta. I'd had a ClearContext license for a while, but really hadn't used it for two main reasons:
- I was accustomed to using David Allen's GTD Add-In for managing my email inbox, and
- the last version of ClearContext I tried required too many steps for me to create follow-up tasks (like "waiting for" tasks).
From the feature list for the Beta version (v3) looked like it had some cool improvements, so I downoaded and installed ClearContext's Beta and began getting familiar with it. I found I liked it quite a bit - this version made it much easier to delegate messages and create follow-up reminders.
ClearContext kills seven at one blow
ClearContext uses "Topics" to organize your messages, and has buttons to automatically file messages by thread, or by topic. The program makes assigning topics very simple:
- If you move a message to a file folder, ClearContext will automatically assign a topic matching the folder name to that message - and any related messages in your mailbox.
- For example, I have a folder called "Customers" and a folder for each customer under that. To assign a topic, I can either use ClearContext to assign the topic.
- There are multiple ways to do this, but I typically go to the Topic field on their menu bar and type the topic in there. This is an autocomplete field which helps minimize typos, and if you type a new topic in there, ClearContext will automatically create a folder to match the topic you've just assigned.
- Additionally, version 3 actually prompts you for a topic any time you reply to or forward a message without an assigned topic. That helps make the use of topics a part of my workflow.
The real power -- indeed, leverage -- of this comes into play when you are processing your inbox, and you need to deal with a thread of message about a specific topic. By assigning a topic to one of the messages in the thread, they all become part of the topic. Then, by clicking the "Topic" button on the toolbar (the far right icon on the screen grab above) all of the messages in that topic disappear into the appropriate filing folder. Seven (or more) at one blow!
There are more subtleties and powerful aspects of ClearContext's topics, but this one use case alone has played a big part in making my inbox more manageable. The ability to deal efficiently with threads and topics is a big differentiator between ClearContext and other tools I've used.
ClearContext as taskmaster
Another work stream in any information management workflow is task and "future action" management. ClearContext has some useful tools in this area, as well. Another toolbar provided by ClearContext has a number of task and future action buttons.
- "Task" creates a an Outlook task out of the highlighted message, opens the new task dialog, and populates the task with a copy of the message.
- From there, can change the ClearContext Topic, change the Outlook Category to match a particular context (more to come on that), set a reminder, etc.
- You can also (via the ClearContext task toolbar) tell ClearContext whether to file, delete, or take no action on the original message.
- "Delegate" forward the message to someone else and creates a follow-up task to aid in tracking and follow-up.
- "Schedule" creates an appointment out of the highlighted message so you can specifically schedule time to follow up on that item and block it out on your calendar.
- "Defer" will make the highlighted message disappear and magically reappear after a specified amount of time - this is now my equivalent of GTD's "tickler file."
- The last button, "Unsubscribe", is a pretty interesting one - if you find yourself cc'd on a thread that holds no interest for you, press this button and ClearContext will move the entire thread to a "ClearContext Unsubscribed" folder. Furthermore, as additional message come in on that thread, they'll be automatically moved out of your inbox, too! And the messages remain there safely in case one of these irrelevant topics suddenly becomes relevant again.
Try it for free
If you're interested in ClearContext, it's easy for you to check it out. The product is very cool, and they offer a free trial on their download page. If you decide you don't like it, it is very well behaved and its uninstaller does a great job of cleaning up after itself.
Hey wait - ClearContext rocks, but I've still got problems...
As happy as I was with ClearContext for zapping inbox clutter, it still didn't solve my bigger problem. I was still:
- leaving things in my inbox because I didn't have a system I trusted, and
- tossing things into lists I wasn't reviewing regularly, and (biggest of all)
- I was holding lots of commitments in my head.
So clearly (no pun intended), ClearContext was necessary but not sufficient.
In my next post, I'll tell you about the "next big thing" that showed up on my doorstep just when I needed it.
Note: Yes, I realize that this is very Windows- and Outlook-centric, but such is my odyssey. Fear not - I will try to "net this out" with some platform agnostic learning from this experience at the end of this series of articles. And I have discovered a cool GTD resource for Mac users, as well.
Above, I talked about how I discovered the leverage of ClearContext for getting my inbox emptied out. However, I was still just moving things out of sight without a method to go an retrieve them. The essence of my problem is the same phenomenon that I see in the IT shops where I do process work:
This was not a "tool" issue - what I was lacking was a sound process (or at least a sound process that would work for me).
Searching the "next big thing"
At this point, I couldn't figure out a way to integrate GTD's "context" lists into my lifestyle and individual process, so I began to look for an alternative personal management system.
- For nostalgia, I dug out my old binders and revisited Franklin Covey. That only reminded me why I'd moved on from there in the first place.
- I read a lot of books ("Leave the Office Earlier," "Never Check Email in the Morning," "Take Back Your Life," and a bunch of other, similar tomes). While these are excellent books, they either didn't hit home with me at a visceral level, or felt like they had too much overlap with GTD.
One day, I got another email from Brad Meador telling me that ClearContext had begun working with Michael Linenberger, author of "Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook: The Eight Best Practices of Task and E-Mail Management" (also known as TWC).
Furthermore, Brad told me they'd tweaked ClearContext to support the views and workflow outlined in the book. After finding out more and discovering that the late Marc Orchant wrote the introduction (Marc was one of my favorite work+life+technology bloggers), I ordered a copy of the book and installed the TWC-specific version of ClearContext.
I devoured the TWC book, and loved what I was reading. However, there were some aspects of TWC that didn't were too different from my GTD habits and didn't feel natural to me (more on that in a minute).
Jumping into TWC
TWC is a great process framework, particularly if you are just embarking on your journey for an Outlook-based personal management system. It integrates some aspects of many of the time management / life management systems to which I've been exposed.
What I like about TWC
- TWC adopts GTD's technique of describing things in terms of next actions.
- TWC has a more prescriptive method for dealing with projects and "miniprojects."
- TWC's new Task views (chapter 3) and methods for dealing with Tasks in Outlook (chapter 5).
- These provide a different workflow that actually pulls me back to my long lists of possible actions on a daily and weekly basis. I've found that this workflow recreates the "go here to get your next task" feel I missed from other systems. It has also kept my lists from going stale.
- TWC uses 3 distinct task lists
- The TaskPad Task List (I call this my "Today" list):
- These are the next actions you want to work on today (not just those that are due today - see below for more)
- This list is configured to show only those tasks that you wanted to see on or before Today.
- You monitor this list in a kind of "dashboard" view (like the image at right).
- (There are instructions on creating this view in chapter 3, or you can let the ClearContext TWC edition create it for you)
- The Daily Task List:
- These are the next actions that have been assigned a date in the future (i.e. you've decided when you want them to show up on your "Today" list so you can consider looking at them)
- The Master Task List:
- These are all the rest of your undated tasks - the undated ones.
- The TaskPad Task List (I call this my "Today" list):
- TWC makes a distinction between a "due date" and a "start bugging me about this" date
- In TWC, you use Outlook's due date to determine when a given next action will start showing up on your TaskPad Task list - I think of this as the "start bugging me" date
- If you have a firm due date, you actually include that in the subject of the task. For example, you may have "Complete online renewal process at oregonzoo.com - DUE: 10/31/06" as a task name. If you want it to start showing up on your "Today" list 3 days earlier, you simply set the tasks Outlook due date to 10/28/06, and this task will start appearing on your "Today" list beginning 10/28.
- Note - this may sound complicated the way I describe it, so I suggest you read the book where this is covered much more clearly.
The most dramatic shift I noticed from using TWC is that it helped me get into the habit of daily and weekly reviews (sometimes more than once a week, if you can imagine!) and it really gave me a workflow that helped me work my lists.
What I didn't like about TWC
- TWC doesn't really use "Contexts" like GTD - instead, it uses Outlook "Categories" to segment and organize email
- I find Outlook's Categories to be very clunky use (lots of extra steps), so I quickly abandoned this aspect of TWC.
- The TWC inbox management workflow outlined in Chapter 6 didn't feel natural to me.
- I find ClearContext's methods to be much smoother and use its functions instead.
- TWC doesn't embrace "Topic-based filing" like GTD - rather, you file everything in big, general purpose buckets, then filter those buckets using categories.
- I'm firmly immersed in GTD's approach toward topic-based filing, and I like the advantages of this approach. Furthermore, if you use ClearContext's "Topics" you can click a button and automagically file messages in the correct Topic folder using ClearContext. Very powerful.
- I also do a lot of email management on my PDA. My PDA doesn't support assigning Categories to email messages so it was a big pain to manage things in my inbox while traveling. By using Topic folders, I can file messages from my PDA and easily find them later.
To sum up TWC, I believe it is a phenomenal methodology and, in many ways, it works better for my work style than TWC. If I were starting from scratch today, TWC would probably work just fine for me. In fact, I recommended it to a friend of mine and he is already off to the races and using it productively two weeks later.
However, it still wasn't the "all things to Dwayne" process I was seeking. What to do?...
GTD: The siren's song returns
During my evaluation of TWC, some CD's started showing up in my mailbox from David Allen's company. I'm a charter member of David's GTD Connect program (not cheap, but I'm getting my money's worth -- so far). They start sending me CD's with interviews with various professionals and GTD practitioners to share experiences. Think of them as podcasts by mail.
As I listened to these interviews and began to hear about others' journey with GTD and some of the tweaks they'd made to the system, I began to feel a renewed sense of excitement about the GTD - and a new sense of opportunity.
This led me to implement my own hybrid approach, combining the best of GTD with the best of TWC. I continue to tweak, but I am feeling more in charge of my days than I have in quite some time.
One of the coolest aspects of the Getting Things Done (GTD) "vibe" is that you can (and should) tweak the system to fit how you live, think, and work. As I've shared in my last few chapters of my Odyssey, that isn't always easy. Knowing something is broken is not the same as knowing how to fix it.
A quick recap of my condition:
My main symptoms, as you may recall, were:
- I hadn't been able to develop a workflow that turned "management of my context lists" into a predictable habit;
- Which resulted in ever-growing, stagnant lists;
- Which meant that things got lost in my "trusted system;"
- Which drove me to leave more things in my inbox so I wouldn't lose track of them;
- Which led me to distrust my system.
The opposite of hilarity ensued.
My newfound nuggets of hope included ClearContext (which helped me gain an upper hand on email and task management in Outlook), and "Total Workday Control" (which helped me with a new approach to list and task managment).
My prescription: A hybrid approach to GTD
I won't cover everything about GTD here -- you can read the book for that -- but I will recap the things I'm using intact, then the things I've tweaked to fix the things that didn't work for me.
The keepers - things I'm doing "by the book" are:
- The "Next Action" approach
- The 2-minute rule
- The Collection habit (recording thoughts and actions as soon as possible after they enter my head)
- GTD's approach to topic-based filing (physical and virtual)
- But I don't use paper Tickler files - I travel too much and am too "virtual" for that to work for me.
- Focusing on getting In to empty, and using David's processing workflow (the diagram in the book) to get there
- Using traveling GTD folders: A red Inbox one, a blue Read & Review, and project support folders
- Actively extracting the "embedded actions" from my captured notes and getting them into action list
- Keeping my "hard landscape" and nothing else on my calendar
- GTD's method of project planning (tracking is covered below)
That's not to say I do these perfectly all the time (I am still much better at work-related stuff than I am at home-related stuff, for example), but I haven't made significant changes to these aspects of GTD.
My hacks - the things I've tweaked or added include:
|I've added more traveling folders||
I've added a folder called "Supplies" that has stamps, envelopes, thank-you notes, Post-It's, and other things that are handy when traveling on the road.
I've also added one called "Shred" so I can put sensitive things in there after processing my folders on the road. Sometimes I don't have a trash can handy, so I sometimes use this as a trash folder, as well. I used to have a separate Trash folder, but I decided to trim things down by sticking with "Shred" only.
I use TWC's method for managing tasks, which has led to modified Weekly Review behavior
This includes using the Total Workday Control (TWC) views I described, which were installed automatically by the TWC edition of ClearContext.
Here's how this works for me:
I believe this is the most significant change I've made, and is the thing that was missing from GTD for me. Even though it means buying yet another book, I really recommend that you pick up a copy of TWC even if it's only to see Linenberger's kung fu for managing tasks.
|I use TWC's method of noting Projects, Goals, and Mini-projects in my task list||
I still use the GTD mindset for thinking about projects, but GTD isn't prescriptive enough for me about how to track them in your system. I've seen other tracking systems on blogs that seemed cool, but I ended up either abandoning them or was afraid to try them because they were too complicated.
TWC includes a very easy technique for flagging / tracking projects and goals in Outlook. Basically, you create a nomenclature (starting with a "P" for Project) and use it to record all your projects in your system. If I have a project about remodeling my kitchen, for example, I might create a project task called "P - Kitchen - The kitchen is updated, has more usable storage, and we love how it looks."
Then, I decide on the Next Action (or even more than one possible Next Action) and I use the project name ("Kitchen" in this case) in the Next Action text. For example, a Next Action of this project might be, "Kitchen - Discuss budget and time frame with Kathleen."
This makes it easy to tell which items are projects, and which ones are related to those projects. Pretty simple. And there is some great material in the book on "Mini-projects," as well.
For Goals, I simply write them with a G at the beginning, like "G - Exercise - I exercise for at least an hour, 3 times per week." I then create Next Actions relating to this goal, using a notation method similar to that used for projects.
|Different way of using Context lists||
I don't assign Contexts for everything the way I originally did when I started with GTD. That said, I still use a few pretty consistently (using the Categories field in Outlook). The only Contexts I use these days are:
Why do I use these?
I no longer feel pressure to put everything in a category-specific context list.
|I use ClearContext to manage my Outlook inbox||
I've already discussed this as of this Odyssey, and it is a key element in my ability to get my inbox to empty every day for the past month.
Actually, there were two days I didn't - last weekend when I was on a Boy Scout campout all weekend. But I used my newfound techniques to get back to zero first thing Monday morning. It was a piece of cake.
When you combine the email filing leverage of ClearContext with my ability to trust that items tossed into my Task lists will actually get read, I'm easily 10x faster at dealing with items in my inbox now.
All this makes it seem sooooo much easier and less stressful to clear my inbox these days.
The foundational principles
Whether you use Outlook or not; whether you use ClearContext or not; whether you use TWC or not, there are certain foundational principles I've learned that I think you can apply or develop from my experience. Here are some thoughts about what they are:
- If GTD is not working for you, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Try to separate it into the components that are working and those which are not. This "divide and conquer" at least helps you identify which things you'd like to keep and helps focus on finding better ways to fix the things that are broken.
- Beware of the "magic tool" trap. If you have a process problem, you need to find a better process to fix it.
- If your Task lists are growing longer, going stagnant, etc. and you don't trust yourself to manage the items they contain, that's a process problem. You need to find or develop a workflow that forces you to look at them methodically. For me, that method seems to be what I found in Total Workday Control (TWC).
- If you do want to find a tool to help you with a particular aspect of your life, look for one that simplifies your process rather than making it more complex (for example, I found that ClearContext enabled me to achieve a more precise and far more efficient flow for topic filing of messages in my email inbox).
- Look for others' solutions, and find a community of practice that you can learn from and share information with - GTD is very tweakable / hackable, and I'm finding that others' tweaks and hacks are helping me immensely.
Along my journey, I've found some great resources that may help you in addition to those mentioned above:
- Mac users: Todd Vasquez has done a fabulous job in creating a Mac "application" (actually a set of scripts) called Ready-Set-Do! that sets out to capture the essence of GTD on the Mac, and provide a solid workflow around it. Check it out.
- I find golden tidbits in the David Allen Company forums all the time. You can register and follow the threads for free - well worth the time.
- The GTD Connect membership offers access to members-only forums that provide even deeper-dive, facilitated resources for a fee.
- The OfficeZealot GTD Zone has links to blogs with tons of personal productivity bloggers that regularly touch on GTD.
- The sites featured in the "Productivity" and "Work, Life, and Management" categories in my blogroll (in the top navigation bar on Genuine Curiosity) are places I often find inspiring and helpful tips & tricks.
- For tools and technology related to personal productivity, check out the "Technology" category on my blogroll.
My GTD Odyssey will continue
So, that's the story so far. As a lifelong learner, I know that this journey is not over. I hope you benefit from my thoughts at this point, and I will continue to share as I continue to learn.
And I would love to hear from you with any questions, tips, tricks, and useful things you find on your own journey.