You’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. You’ve got religion. You’ve even got a Palm organizer. You’ve put “Set up GTD system on Palm” on your Project list. So what’s your Next Action?
While there are many excellent aftermarket list management and datebook solutions available for the Palm (any Palm OS device: Tungsten, Clie, Treo, Zire, etc.), the “plain vanilla” approach of using the device’s native resources for managing projects and actions is really all you need to begin with. When starting out, less is more, and you may find that the simplicity of the Palm’s built-in applications scales better over the long run than more specialized productivity applications.
All that’s required to set up a trusted personal management system is an appropriate configuration of Tasks, Calendar and Memo applications.
Categories need to be mapped to corresponding contexts where you’ll execute your next actions. Put simply, each context list is a Category in Tasks (“To Do” on older Palm OS devices). In addition to context lists assigned to categories, you will create at least two more categories: Projects and Someday/Maybe. Some PDAs allow for an effectively unlimited number of categories. The Palm OS’ current limit is 15 categories. Few people in practice feel genuinely constrained by an upper limit of 13 contexts (plus one category for Projects and another for Someday/Maybe). Those beginning their GTD implementation will likely overestimate the number of contexts they’ll need to actively manage, and over time these lists will probably be consolidated. If the number of lists becomes a problem in the beginning, try exercising some discipline on the front end and minimize your categories. For many, eight or nine well chosen contexts will suffice.
A typically array of lists might look like the following:
- @Home: Actions that require or are facilitated by being at home, such as:
- Vacuum floor
- Install shower curtain
- Watch rental DVD
- @Computer: Actions that must be done at a computer, such as:
- Email spreadsheet for June budget to Rachel
- Enter receipts into Quicken
- Draft presentation
- @Computer-Online: Optional. Useful if internet access for @Computer actions cannot be taken for granted:
- Look up Wikipedia article on Laffer Curve
- Download new Beck single from iTunes
- Upload article revisions to website
- @Calls: Phone calls to make:
- Call Karen: Happy Birthday!
- Call John: confirm dinner at 7:30p
- Call Verizon: clarify charges on October phone bill
- @Office: Actions that require being in the office:
- Create purchase order for PBX phones
- Complete Jeff’s performance review
- Fax payroll to San Diego HQ
- @Anywhere: Actions that can be done anywhere:
- Brainstorm list of possible birthday presents for Karen
- Test trial version of PDA software
- Create checklist for desk purchase
- @Errands: All of the things or people to see, pick up or take care of while in transit:
- Replace rear tires
- Pick up Mike from school
- Evaluate work desks at Ikea
- @Agendas: A list of persons who need to be addressed, with a note attachment for each person/item containing a list of topics to cover with that person. This is slightly more complex in its structure than the other lists, but procedurally, it’s still fairly simple, since it’s only a three-step process (note: these are process steps, not examples):
- Create the list of persons to be addressed
- Add a note attachment to each person listed
- Within each attachment, create a list of topics specific to the person
- @Waiting For: A list of people and the actions they need to complete before a project can proceed:
- Omnicode 2/17: registration code for software purchase
- Anne 6/23: proposal for Whittinger project
- Susan 10/15: confirmation of dinner plans for Friday
Finally, we need two non-action categories, denoted by their lack of the @ symbol:
- Projects: Any outcome intended for completion within a few months that takes more than one action step to accomplish:
- Get home equity loan
- Buy Treo
- Write novel
- Someday/Maybe: Anything you might want to accomplish at some point, but have consciously decided not to engage with for the moment, due to lack of resources, motivation or what-have-you:
- Buy Prius
- Vacation in Morocco
- Enroll in graduate school
Don’t be afraid to customize the lists if you have a unique context that serves as an effective action trigger. For instance, I once had an @Treo context for PDA-specific actions (“Test screenshots with Snap”) when the number of actions warranted it. Now they just go on @Anywhere.
I have an @Reader list for the books and articles I want to read next on my Sony Reader. A common practice in GTD is to maintain a “Read and Review” folder in which the collection of physical documents effectively serves as a list. With an electronic reader, the tendency to accumulate material at a rate beyond which is practical to read made me realize that I needed to carefully monitor how much reading I was committing to. Keeping a written list of titles makes my current reading load even more explicit than a physical pile.
@Notebook is another less standard list. This is a list of writing, flowscaping, checklisting and mindmapping actions related to corresponding projects. I keep two small notebooks in my back pocket – one for article writing and journaling, one for brainstorming – so I can write anywhere, under any conditions. Some GTD practitioners have an @Writing category. I prefer to confine my labelled categories to physical locations that queue me to review the corresponding list.
Notice that several contexts could be amalgamated into a single list. @Calls, @Treo and @Notebook all leverage ubiquitously available resources, so they could theoretically all go on an @Anywhere list. This is precisely what I did for a long time. Now I limit my @Anywhere list to actions that do not fall into these categories (except @Treo), and choose to identify the appropriate context by the particular tool used to the action. Later I may find that this is folly, but for now I find that managing two or three short lists incurs less overhead than reviewing a single long list. Experiment until you find a style your brain can track easily.
Though Getting Things Done mentions a few implementation issues specific to the Palm, the general thrust of the book is presenting the overall framework of the system in platform-independent terms. The GTD framework works equally well on a Filofax or Outlook.
One of the first reservations that comes up is the lack of an explicit link between Projects and Next Actions. Many people would like to lay out their lists in an hierarchical fashion in which the NAs are subset directly under the project heading.
Controversially, David Allen does not recommend the hierarchical approach, which is certainly popular in project management practice, where Gantt charts are the order of the day. His reasoning is twofold. It’s easier to refer to a few contexts as action triggers (@Computer, @Home, etc.) than to review a list containing dozens of projects. He also argues that blending actionable and non-actionable items in the same list blurs the focus of an action list. Projects, as they are defined in GTD, are in themselves non-actionable. “Write article on John Smith” sounds like a reasonable next action, but unless all dependencies have been resolved first (interviews, online research, outlining), the task is actually a series of tasks for which writing the article is the outcome. The concept behind a next action list is to avoid rethinking your outcome each time you need to look up the next task. Each action list is a set of blinders designed to limit your focus to what you can actually do.
The action lists should hold the results of your thinking, not the thinking itself, so it’s critically important to maintain a disciplined Weekly Review, where the thinking happens. The reward for the hour or two invested during this review time is the opportunity to use the rest of the week to execute straight off the action lists while largely avoiding having to rethink them (except when surprises occur). By making action decisions for the week up front in a single session, you can spend the rest of the week executing those decisions. Sometimes “once a week” oversimplifies the review process. With some projects you’ll need to review them during the week. But the once-a-week protocol prevents your projects from getting out of hand.
To be effective, Next Actions should have no dependencies. It’s often the case that you’ll think of an action that needs to be done, but requires completion of another action or deliverable first. Place these actions in your project support folder, or, on the Palm, in a note attachment in the Project listing. “Complete application to Stanford” is not a next action unless you actually have the application ready to fill out (and all other relevant information, like transcripts), so you can either put “Complete application” on your project list (understanding that it’s actually a subproject of your enrollment project) or put it the note field, along with other dependent action steps, of the project listing.
Formatting calendar entries for GTD is a straightforward process. If you have an appointment, put it down for the appropriate day and time. Two other types of entries go on your calendar: tasks that must be completed by or on a specific day, but at no particular time, such as sending in a bill; and optional events that take place at a specific day and time. For day-specific entries that aren’t time-specific, use the “No Time” button when creating the event in Calendar. Untimed events are sorted above timed entries.
One calendar practice that distinguishes GTD from time management disciplines is this: To Do’s (i.e. Next Actions) do not go on the calendar unless they have a time dependency. That is, you don’t use the calendar for the things you would like to get done today; it’s reserved for items that can only be done either at or by the specified time. A call that need to be deferred because the person being called is out of the office until Thursday at 9:00 am would be entered in Calendar rather than in Tasks. If, instead, the person is available anytime, the entry would be entered as a Next Action in Tasks (@Calls). An important principle in GTD is filtering out from view any items that aren’t specific to that view. Just as you wouldn’t want to see your phone calls in your @Computer list, adding items into Calendar that aren’t time-dependent reduces its effectiveness as a focus tool. Keep your calendar as uncluttered as possible, so that when you put something on it that really belongs there, you’ll be more likely to pay appropriate attention to it.
Memo lists are categories of checklists, project support, notes and reference material. Because it’s easy for these lists to get out of hand, especially since Categories in Memos face the same limit of 15 as they do in Tasks, it’s a good idea to set up a couple of important categories first: Reference and Lists.
Reference is the memo list for potpourri like software registrations, flight confirmations, driving directions, email snippets, or whatever else you define as reference.
Lists is a memo lists of lists. That is, it’s a category in Memos in which each memo contains a list. This is a great category for storing creative checklists, Christmas shopping lists (or shopping lists of any kind), website URLs, films to rent, restaurants to try, and many or lists.
The Lists category is adequate for items that need no additional support material, since a single item within each memo cannot have its own attachment, nor can the entire memo itself. For lists with items requiring more detail, create a new category altogether. For instance, if you have a memo list of currently playing films to see, the advantage of having this list as a separate category is that each entry supports a full memo’s worth of detail. For each film listing with its own memo, the title goes on that top line, which makes it the only line visible when viewing the whole list category. But when the individual record is viewed, the memo can include showtimes, synopses or reviews. A record from a memo list of products you might want to buy in the future can hold prices, product reviews, serial numbers, or addresses of websites from which the product can be purchased.
While many functions of PDAs have their equivalents in paper-based organizers, one of the biggest advantages of digital platforms is their ability to take information copied and pasted from the desktop into Memos or as note attachments.
You can look up directions for an item on your Errands list, then highlight, copy and paste the results into the Note field for that entry. If you’re purchasing a printer, you can look up the product on the store’s website, then paste the product information into the Note field of the @Errands listing. You can paste relevant snippets of email or forum posts, URLs, serial numbers or other appropriate data into these fields. It often beats printing out the information or copying it by hand and carrying printouts.
Note attachments are by no means limited to content from the clipboard. Note fields are a great place to store checklists for action and project support. For a next action like “Evaluate printers at Staples,” you may want to store a checklist of criteria and considerations informing your purchase decision:
- Cost of replacement cartridges
- Output in pages-per-minute
- Laser vs. inkjet
- Primary application (e.g. text documents rather than photo printing)
- Driver support for operating system
Collecting, Processing, Organizing, Reviewing and Doing
On virtually all PDAs and smartphones, data entry is most often done directly on the handheld device via keyboard or stylus. Another approach is to jot notes on paper, then process them at a later stages as intray content, entering data the computer by typing the information into the Palm Desktop. While direct-to-device data entry avoids double-entering, most people find that capturing notes on paper is faster and easier when mobile, assuming that paper is reliably close at hand. Jotting notes on paper for later processing provides the luxury of entering data on a full-size keyboard and monitor, and tends to be a more relaxed and focused experience. Being removed from the action trigger, there’s less pressure to make outcome and action decisions on the fly.
For the paper approach, some people keep a stack of 3” x 5” index cards in their back pockets; some people keep a sheaf of small Post-Its in their wallets. One of the most elegant solutions is to use a jotter wallet – a pocket sized folio that looks and functions like a wallet but holds a small notepad. As a wallet it takes no extra pocket space but is always available. The most popular version is the David Allen Company’s Notetaker Wallet, with separate models available for men and women.
Reviewing calendar entries and action lists can be done directly on the device, but when deskbound it’s easier on the eyes to manage lists from a desktop client like Outlook or the Palm Desktop, especially since most new inputs for collection and processing tend to arrive directly at one’s workstation via fax, email or phone.
Keep in mind that the method described in this article is just one of many ways to set up a Palm, and it may not even be the best way for your purposes. Some Palm/GTD aficionados prefer managing actions and projects with third-party software solutions, typically structured around some outlining function in order to see the relationship between projects and actions. Popular tools in this vein are commercial applications like Bonzai and LifeBalance, or free/open source programs like HandyShopper (which functions well as an all-purpose list manager, despite its name) and Progect Manager. The latter two are free. The former two are free to try as trial versions, so if the plain vanilla approach doesn’t work for you, know that you have options.