Thursday, February 26, 2009

Embedding GTD Into My Life Systems

Hi Gang...For you frequent visitors, just a quick note. I do not plan on turning this into an "All GTD, All The Time" blog...I promise. It's just been on my radar a lot lately for a few different reasons, so I thought I would share with those that are interested. We'll return to the regularly scheduled programming soon (along with an announcement about this site). In any case, if you'd like to delve into why I GTD, feel free to keep reading.

Getting Things Done, the enormously popular personal productivity methodology created by David Allen, provides a systematic approach to helping you master your workflow and has literally changed my life for the better. I'd like to explain a little about why it's been such a powerful tool for me, allowing me to take my performance to the next level.

I was first introduced to the GTD methodology a few years ago. As I mentioned in a past post, reading the Getting Things Done book really struck a chord with me. I was never much on taking notes. Even in college when I was working on my engineering degree, most of my notes were sketchy at best. Instead, I prided myself on being able to keep it all in my head. I was pretty good at doing so and this habit followed me into the work world. The beginning of my career was focused pretty heavily on development-oriented tasks and was fairly routine in terms of the tasks I needed to accomplish and the projects that I worked on. However, as I got older and my workload and responsibilities increased, I found that I started to get some leaks in my "system". Indeed, balancing work and home life was becoming much more burdensome, as my rapidly growing family started to impose greater demands on my time. While before I just had to worry about work stuff and home stuff and was able to keep these in nice and tidy buckets, I found myself juggling kid stuff, school stuff, sports stuff, etc. I was still being productive, but it was all getting to be too much to keep track of and items were certainly slipping through the cracks. Luckily for me, right around the time when it was getting particular cumbersome to manage, a blog post pointed me to David Allen and GTD.

I picked up the book at my local Borders store and thumbed quickly through the chapters to get a preview of what was ahead. To be honest, I kept finding myself drawn to point after point, so I knew I needed to get home and start reading it right away. The concept grabbed me. Why? Well, for one reason, it was new and shiny, with the promise that my life would now be spectacular. Of course, I knew it wasn't going to be quite that simple, but I did feel a certain excited energy because as I progressed through the book, I felt like I was having a bunch of mini-revelations. The core of the GTD methodology is really very simple. A lot of it could even be considered common sense. However, I've found that what we call "common sense" is often easily overlooked and it takes someone else to point out the obvious. In my case, it was Mr. Allen addressing the fact that you can't keep it all in your head. Our brains aren't designed that way, so we really need to find a means to capture all of those things we are thinking about into a "trusted system", one that we can be assured will not forget and will allow us to focus on the appropriate work at the appropriate time. I had found exactly what I needed.

After completing Getting Things Done, I was excited to get to work. I spent a couple of days collecting all my "stuff" and went about the task of processing it, keeping the workflow diagram close by my side. Wow...this was going to be a little harder than I thought. Just in this first act of processing my gigantic pile of amorphous materials, I found myself failing in some of the areas Mr. Allen warns you to watch out for. I wanted to pick and choose through the pile, grabbing the things that seemed interesting or whose disposition I could quickly determine. I had to fight hard to overcome this desire and realized at that point that embedding GTD into my life systems was going to take some work. Like anything else, certain habits needed to be formed, others broken, in order to be successful. With this realization, I doubled my efforts and forged ahead.

Now, being a self-respecting geek, the next challenge was to find the best GTD "system" I could. about information overload! Searching the internet revealed the myriad ways that people have implemented GTD, from the most basic analog approach (pen and notepad) to incredibly complex electronic constructs that required a manual to make sense of. Unfortunately, I made the mistake that many in the beginning do, and dove down the rabbit hole, switching back and forth between many of these systems before truly getting a handle on the basic tenants of GTD. I went back and forth between electronic tools (mind maps, web-based lists and task systems, etc.) and the analog methods that seemed almost like a renaissance for paper in some ways (moleskine, hipster, et. al.), but I couldn't seem to hit on the magic system that made it all click. In the end, I came to the realization that the tool doesn't matter nearly as much as the method. There are a few key things you need. First, it needs to be always accessible. Second, there needs to be some attraction to the tools. If you hate carrying around a paper pad with you everywhere you go, then an analog GTD system is probably not right for you. Now that I figured this out, I set about concentrating more on how to "do" GTD rather than what my GTD container looks like. This was another important step in my GTD journey.

Although I was doing all this switching back and forth between systems, I was making some progress in ingraining the GTD habits into my daily routine. Even at half speed, I recognized a notable improvement in my ability to deliver and keep on top of my work. That's one of the great things about GTD. I was only fractionally taking advantage of what GTD had to offer, but it was still leaps and bounds beyond where I had been. The idea of the two minute rule, making decisions on! On the surface, I found that the methodology couldn't be easier, but I also came to learn that there are many subtle nuances which can only be discovered with patience and persistence. It was in this period that I worked hard to build the necessary habits that would support good GTDing.

Over the ensuing years, I had ups and downs with my GTD implementation. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in stating that the Weekly Review was the hardest thing to do, although I knew it was actually the most important piece. I found myself resisting carving out the time to do the Weekly Review, not because I didn't have the time, but because unconsciously I knew that I would have to face all my projects and tasks and I would feel like I was failing if certain things had slipped. This is silly really, because the whole point of the Weekly Review is to help you recover from such slips. It's your opportunity to find the leaks, plug them, evaluate how you are doing and what you need to do to move all of your projects forward. The light bulb finally went on when I was doing a Weekly Review and found a fairly big hole around a project I was working on. Had I not performed my Weekly Review, I would likely have missed the task altogether and caused some major issues with that project. For those of you just starting out with GTD or who are trying to get back on the wagon, believe me...focus on the Weekly Review. It is powerful and compelling and it really is the key (or the "secret sauce" as I believe Mr. Allen calls it) to this whole process.

Even when you feel like you're on top of things, it's possible to fall off the GTD wagon sometimes. Back when I finally settled on a system to use for GTD, I had made the decision that the best place to capture my projects and lists was in the context of my day-to-day work environment, Lotus Notes. Thus, I created my own, home-grown extensions to my mail file to support this work. Since I used the To Do features of mail along with my own customizations, I had all my action lists syncing to my Blackberry, so my system was always with me. It was in this period that I really got into the groove and felt like GTD had made a significant improvement in my life. I felt more focused, delivered high-quality work, and was able to stay on top of my ever growing list of responsibilities. Simple things, like keeping an @Errands list, saved enormous amounts of time, time that I could then put to use productively in another area of my life. And it was here that I discovered the reason that we're all trying to work this productivity stuff in the first place. The feeling of knowing that what you need to do is captured somewhere safe and that it's alright to be focusing your attention on living in the moment was spectacular. Now I won't lie to myself and say that I am a GTD superstar, because it was when I left my previous employer to come to IBM that I fell off the wagon most ungracefully.

Finding myself in a new job that required me to show off the just released Lotus Notes 8 client on an almost daily basis made it impossible for me to make changes to my mail file. I had a really great system and when I lost that, I found it hard to readjust. I once again returned to the rabbit hole, needlessly testing various implementation practices, finally going back to an analog system (just keeping my next action lists and projects in a simple notebook). While I found myself enjoying the simplicity of that world, the truth is most of my existence and work is in the digital realm and so a lot of needless double entry and context switching was going on. It was time to step up again and get back in complete control. Enter eProductivity.

Recently, I've been lucky enough to begin using the eProductivity system developed by Eric Mack. It's a phenomenal tool built to take advantage of the power of the Lotus Notes platform, all the while adhering to the principles and best practices of GTD as laid out by Mr. Allen. Mr. Mack has been building the foundation of this system for years, continually refining it, researching what works and doesn't work. I'm just a little over a week into this journey, but I already know that eProductivity will be the system I use from here on out. I've already written a couple of posts on the eProductivity system, so I encourage you to check them out here and here.

I keep finding new things to love about this tool. First, processing the inbox is almost effortless now. Being a user experience advocate, I can tell that a lot of thought and effort went into making things just work. I'm finding that I have no resistance to attacking the incoming mail. This in itself is incredibly powerful, because it lets me get to work focusing on my tasks and projects rather than "doing my e-mail". IBM pays me to get things done, not work on my inbox. As I move along on this next stage of my GTD journey, I'll be posting more details about eProductivity and how it really is the absolute best GTD tool for Lotus Notes (just ask Mr. Allen...he uses it!).

So that brings me to today. I'm thrilled to be walking this next path on my exploration of GTD. Getting back into the groove just feels "right" and the addition of eProductivity has brought my game up a notch (and I haven't even got everything migrated over yet!). I'm particularly looking forward to using the Weekly Review Coach that is a key feature the software. I'm super excited about this tool, which is one reason I've been talking about it so much lately. If you are interested in personal productivity and want to explore a tool that will bring the best of what GTD has to offer to Lotus Notes, you should definitely take eProductivity for a test drive.

Aside: David Allen uses Lotus Notes and eProductivity and in fact has said a lot of really great things about Notes. This is very positive for IBM and I hope that going forward you'll see us take advantage of the "free press" that he is giving us. He's a highly visible figure in the world of personal productivity...really a rock star. I hope this helps some of those people that have had blinders on with regards to the Lotus portfolio take those blinders off and see the kinds of stuff we are working on. Many of our products are truly transformative and it's encouraging to see smart people like Mr. Allen get that and then evangelize it to the world!

As I look back on my progress to this point, I'm pretty happy about how GTD has served me. While I haven't been perfect, the tricks I've learned and the tools I've leveraged as I've practiced this methodology have allowed me to play in a higher league than I did before. In the end, GTD allows me to get more done, deliver work of higher quality and lets me use my mental cycles to focus on important things...things like developing new UI techniques in Notes, figuring out how I can help more in the community and spending time with my family. After all, that's what Getting Things Done is all about.


Buzz Bruggeman said...

and no mention of ActiveWords?



Chris Blatnick said...

@Buzz...Don't worry...that's coming! :-)