Getting Things Done (GTD) – First Impressions

So I checked out a copy of the renowned “Getting Things Done” book by David Allen. If you go to sites like lifehacker.com, then you probably heard about this system already. I can’t do a book review because I skimmed parts that honestly did not make sense to me. I’m writing about this book though, and the strategy of getting things done proposed by the book, because I think there are some points that is applicable to any system designed to maximize productivity.

First, the GTD way of doing things is not another time management system. The book talks nothing about how to spend your weekends or how to get that 20-minute nap in the afternoon. (Well, it does talk about doing your “weekly reviews” on Friday afternoons to go into the weekend with a clean slate, but really, this is just a suggestion that may not work for you.) It doesn’t really talk much about time at all. I like this aspect of it, because, in my own personal experience, flexibility to adapt your workflow to any situation is the key to increased productivity.

Now, to the basics. GTD, in its bare elements, consists of some rather simple principles:

  1. Write down everything that you need to do. Write down everything that you want to do, as well. If anything comes up and you need to do it, or you want to do it, write it down immediately.
  2. (Complete those tasks that you’ve written down–since they’re more manageable now due to your having written them down in a smart way.)
  3. Once a week, review all outstanding/uncompleted tasks and plan for the next week. This is time to review any projects that need tweaking, etc., and should take a couple hours.

That’s pretty much it — Principle #2 isn’t really a principle as you can see, I just put it there to make the 3rd one make sense. Principles #1 and #3 are really, really new to me, and have given me some new insight into how to handle tasks.

The beauty about Principle #1 is that, once you do this, you don’t need to think about anything that has not been completed. And the lists that you end up writing up need not be detailed; for example, it could be something as vague as “learn to play the piano.” Once you’ve written this down, and you tell yourself that you don’t need to mentally remind yourself about this, you make room for other thoughts.

As for the actual tasks that really do need to get completed, you break them up into environments. It’s a to-do list, but a much better one, constrained (split up into subsections) by where you are or what you will have with you. Thus, the “Next Actions” list (GTD’s to-do list) may be composed of multiple lists like: @home, @computer, calls, emails, @work, @school, etc. See how these topics already make the decision of where you should be doing the tasks? This makes a huge difference for me. Try it out–this aspect alone will help you quite a bit–you’ll have to do less thinking about the task and how to do the task, when you’ve completed this first step of writing down tasks based on context.

About Principle #3: Apparently, this is the most important part of the GTD system (or any productivity solution). You should do your “weekly review” to take care of your various lists and “stuff” and make sense of them for the coming week. “Stuff” is anything that has not been processed, basically, into a “Next Actions” list. It could be your bank statement. A call from your friend Chris who wanted your input on deciding where to go for the ski trip. Emails. Ah, and that list containing things you want to do (like learning the Piano). “Stuff” is essentially any piece of information that has been given to you, about which you have taken no decisions how to deal with them. During your weekly review, you’re supposed to get everything that has piled up in your “stuff” bin and turn them into tasks for your Next Actions list. (My tip: make these tasks as bite-sized and friendly as possible to make sure that they can be knocked out one after another; there’s no point in writing into your Next Actions list something fuzzy like “plan a vacation trip for the coming holidays,” when “call travel agent” would be more to the point). And generally, this “weekly review” is the time when you take a step back from your tunnel-visioned Next Actions list, and try to get the big picture, and make any adjustments to your Plan for World Domination or whatever else plans/projects you might have (I’m assuming that everyone has such a plan, or set of plans, because otherwise, they are merely reacting to stimuli from their environment and not taking proactive actions about their lives). Also, it doesn’t hurt to do a monthly and yearly review to take a look at your more overarching plans/questions/ideas (your post-graduate plans, your questions about the meaning of life, etc.)

Allen does give some concrete tips to optimize the way this system works:

  • Get a physical basket or tray where you can put all the stuff into one place for processing in your weekly review (I like this idea, and I started just putting everything in one pile in one part of my room for this purpose, since I’m too cheapo to buy a tray for this); Allen calls this basket/tray as the “in” basket in his book
  • Only use your calendar to put things that are absolutely mandatory for you to do, or things that will by their very nature expire automatically after a certain date passes. This will make your calendar function as an instant visual check on which times are available for you to mold to your wish (your Next Actions list). Also, by keeping your calendar free and clear of any “to-do” activities that are less-than-mandatory, you will avoid the psychological letdown of seeing your commitments fail. Keep your calendar sacrosanct. (I like this tip too, and use it in my own calendar now. No more generic reminders on calendars!!!)
  • Keep 43 manila folders. Thirty-one of those folders should be the days in a month, and 12 of them the months of the year (voila, 43 folders). This is, essentially, a gigantic calendar that has a 3rd dimension. The point is to use these folders as way to keep track of which tasks need to be completed on that day. So if one of your Next Actions list’s tasks was to go see the Super Bowl, you could put your Super Bowl tickets into the “21” folder for the 21st of the month. The trick is to open the representative folder for the current day in the morning, and then take care of everything inside, or to use them as reminders; it’s like the President getting his executive morning briefing of all events for that day. Before you go to bed, you should take whatever is remaining in that folder, and move it into tomorrow’s folder. It’s quite an imaginative idea, I have to admit. However, I have not implemented this system because I don’t get enough “stuff” from people to really make use of all those folders. But hey, I’m sure it couldn’t hurt.
  • Keep an archive. I.e., you should keep a file system for archiving material you might need later (aka “reference material”), such as phone numbers of people or a list of those new product lines that you wanted to take a look at in the future. Receipts, invoices, faxes, they all fit into this category. Allen doesn’t like hanging folders (I think it was because they’re weird to carry around with you), but hey, if you’re archiving material and you mean to keep them inside those big boxes or drawers, I don’t see why hanging folders can be such a bad thing).

It’s only been a couple days since I’ve implemented the essence of the GTD system, but I think it’s working. I feel less stressed out because of Principle #1 (see above). Also, it took me a while to write down everything that I want to do (learning foreign languages is a big one for me). I plan on breaking down every project/plan I have written down into smaller chunks that can be considered a task in the Next Actions list. Also, whenever I write down anything into the Next Actions list, I write down the estimated amount of time that it will take me to accomplish that task (always using conservative estimates), and also the amount of energy required for me to do it (is it creative work, or is it filling out a registration form?), in my own “code” language. This way, I can glance at the Next Actions list, and just see which one is the easiest one to do (or the hardest one, for that matter). (Again, the key is to prepare these tasks for ultra-easy consumption; more thinking at the processing stage (of the stuff) about how tough something will be will help you quickly choose a task from the Next Actions list and start completing it.) The time/energy requirement are not my inventions; Allen says that you should use these criteria when deciding which task to complete next — I just systematized it into the Next Actions list itself (much like how you break it down into @home, @computer, etc.).

Try it out. Get the GTD book for more details, but basically, as far as I can tell, everything I’ve written here is the heart and soul of GTD (the book itself is filled with the typical motivational testimonials and anecdotes that are entertaining, but are, really, just filler).

Advertisements

EVGA 8800 GTS + EVGA 680i Issues Resolved

My system has 1 SATA drive and 1 IDE drive. The SATA holds my Windows XP, along with several other partitions for pure data purposes. My IDE holds another partition for storage purposes, but also has my Mint installation. (Yes, I dual-boot. It’s the best of both worlds, with games on XP and real work on my solid Linux environment.) I had some random crashings (no blue screens), and some strange behavior. Here were the symptoms of my system:

  1. BIOS would not detect my SATA drive, and would change the HDD (hard drive) boot priority from my IDE (which holds the GRUB bootloader, I think) to my SATA, thus making me automatically go into Windows without loading GRUB a choice. (The temporary solution was to change the HDD priority in BIOS to load my IDE drive first, before my SATA, and this made GRUB show up.)
  2. Even after changing the HDD priority back, GRUB would stop detecting my SATA drive, and thus would not boot Windows.
  3. Within Linux, sometimes one of the partitions on my SATA drive would not be auto-mounted by Mint like they always were before.
  4. I noticed strange characters (data reading corruption) for some of my mp3 files that were on the SATA drive in my Rhythmbox music player.
  5. My dual LCD screens would suddenly stop receiving signals from my video card.
  6. When I ran Memtest86+ v1.70 from the GRUB menu, it would run for a while, but then all of a sudden, my computer screen would go blank/black!
  7. I got error code 26 from my motherboard during POST. (EVGA 122-CK-NF63-TR LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI ATX Intel Motherboard – Retail)
  8. Suspecting bad video ram, I checked my video card (EVGA 320-P2-N811-AR GeForce 8800GTS 320MB 320-bit GDDR3 PCI Express x16 HDCP Ready SLI Supported Video Card – Retail) by going into NVIDIA Control Panel in Windows XP just to see if it would crash my system. It did. Clicking on NVIDIA Control Panel immediately crashed my system (blank/black screen, but no automatic reboot).
  9. When I booted up Mint once, one of the Screenlets started out with messed up graphics.
  10. My system gave a blank/black screen randomly while in both Windows and Mint.

The solution? I changed the power connector to my video card, from the default one that came with the video card, to a 6-pin connector that my PSU came with. The one that came with my card actually had only 5 pins (if you look inside, there is only metal for 5 of the pins, since 1 pin out of the 6 doesn’t have any conductive metal in it), although the NewEgg images on the product denote a 6-pin (PCIe) connection (see the other images in the link)! It now all makes sense, since I had attached both the 5-pin connector and my SATA drive’s power connection with the same power cable. My SATA hard drive was receiving not enough power, which explains the strange data reading corruption I pointed out (and why BIOS failed to recognize it sometimes — since the drive was not starting up at all). It also explains why my screens were going blank – my video card was not getting enough power! It’s strange, because I had not had any problems for several months with my old configuration. Either my PSU is slowly generating less power (it’s a 530 watt power supply), or the old 5-pin connector was bad.

Anyway, I just wanted to share my experience. The lesson? Strange symptoms do not always mean that you need a BIOS update, or your PSU is dying, or your SATA drive is dying, or your motherboard killed your SATA drive, or your video card is dying, or that your RAM is bad. All of these ideas were brought up in the many forums I googled up to see any similar troubles for owners of the same hardware as myself. No one suggested a faulty power connection (or that the power connection on 1 power cable (“rail” as they call it?) had been overloaded with too many connections). So, next time, be sure to check your power cables, and make sure to distribute power as evenly as possible across all the cables! (My system has since been up without a hitch running through graphics benchmarks, rendering tests, and what have you.)

Linux Mint (4.0, “Daryna”) + Compiz Fusion Screenshots

I just can’t resist — here’s a screenshot of my desktop in action. It’s using the Desktop Cube and Rotate Cube plugins for Compiz Fusion (adjustable in ccsm, as described in the last post), with a dual monitor, 3360 x 1050 resolution, with a 6-sided hexagon as my “cube” (the number is arbitrary — you can have up to 16; the number of sides the cube has is determined by how many “workspaces” you have, which can be set up separately from the preferences menu of the Workspace switcher icon, which is part of the Panel (Linux Mint lingo for the Windows XP Taskbar)).

You don’t have to worry about the minimized window buttons on the Panel adding up in an unsightly way on your Panel, because all windows/programs indicate their presence in the Window List area on the Panels that are in the same Workspace as the window (e.g., if you have 10 windows opened up on Workspace 1, those windows will NOT show up on the Panel area in Workspace 2). The idea is to have maybe 5 or 6 windows open at a time per Workspace, and then to use the other spaces as necessary.

And below is a shot of my workspace.

The gadgets on the right are those nifty Screenlets that I talked about in the last post (CircleClock, ClearCalendar, ClearWeather, RingSensors, and AllCoreCPUUsage). In case you’re curious, the wallpapers are from here. I just slapped two of the wallpapers together to achieve a separate look for the left and right monitors.

One of the coolest parts about the Desktop Cube/Rotate Cube combination is that, even when you’re rotating the cube around, all the screens are LIVE — yup, the clock digits will keep counting, the movies will keep playing, and you’ll be able to see them all change (even system dialog boxes that have progress bars on them will update live). This is how much the Compiz Fusion developers care about the user experience; kudos to them.