Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Getting things done

I reached my limit this summer: too many things to do, too many emails in my inbox, too many meetings (I'm now Vice Chair of our faculty organization; basically the campus senate), and too many things not getting done. And this is summer; it will only get worse as the school year starts. So, thanks to Merlin Mann's 43 Folders web site, I got turned on to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. The author's methods are great for me, focusing on workflow practices that can support better productivity. More than just being productivity focused, Allen emphasizes practices that remove stress from one's life, by removing the need to remember all the little things you need to do (it's all in the workflow system) and allowing you to determine what you can't do (thus removing them from your system and out of mind). His approach builds in the idea of context: labeling each task by the location or work mode in which it can be done, so you're never looking at tasks that aren't possible to do right now. I'm still in the process of grinding through my many piles and files for tasks to enter into the system, but I highly recommend this book.

One thing that has helped me implement this approach has been some very useful software. You can look through Merlin Mann's web site, or the lifehacker web site, for the tools that fit you best. I've found three tools that work for me:

  1. I like simplicity, portability, and universality. That's one of the reasons I like LaTeX for writing: all of my files are plain text and so I never have to worry about having stuff trapped into obsolete or incompatible formats. That's why I love the todo.txt software, which manages plain-text task lists. There's an increasing amount of community-contributed software that provides various capabilities, including my own software for managing lists of project-related tasks.
  2. GeekTool lets me put the output of various todo.txt programs on my desktop; it also allows me to quickly switch the display for different work contexts.
  3. A great app that implements a "tickler" system in Apple's Mail program is GTDMail. It is an Applescript that creates a set of tickler folders: one for each day over the next month and one for each month of the year. You set up iCal to run the script each morning, and it moves the items from today's folder(s) (the current date and the current month) to a "@INBOX" folder. I modified the target folder to "@ACTION" and added "@READ-REVIEW" and "@WAITING FOR" folders. So now I can process all of my emails within seconds according to Allen's workflow.

I feel better already.

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