How I manage my GTD Stuff

Last time I talked about GTD and why it helps a knowledge worker. Today, I’ll describe how I personally manage the GTD system – the tools, habits and the quirks.

Disclaimer: How I manage is what works for me. It may not be the same for you. The intent is to give you example of an implementation. The process is more important than the content. Had there been a one-size-fits-all implementation, GTD probably would have prescribed it.  

I use electronic tools and external (cloud) storage of data (tasks, emails, documents etc.) for efficient access. My system has the following pieces:

– My Capture Lists
– Calendars
Evernote

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Why I use GTD?

Once asked for his telephone number, Einstein looked it up in the directory. He replied to the curious requester that why should he waste his brain in storing something when he can easily retrieve it when required. 

This is the essence of Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology – which I and million others use to organize our lives.

GTD is not a productivity tool. It is a methodology to manage stuff entering in our lives and how we manage it.  

Most of what we call organizing consists of creating to-do lists and reminders. We are typically creating these artifacts with no process to manage and use them. The result is often “we forgot”, “it fell through the cracks” or “I never got around to doing it”. There is stress, inefficiency and lost opportunities.  

Our brain is for processing, not storing stuff. We cannot depend on our memory to generate reminders or organize large information. At best, we can hold a few items in our brain at anytime. Enter a new input and an existing item may drop off. Our psyche cannot be our system.  

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The Testing Specialist

This is a guest post I wrote for Knowledge Tester blog – an excellent repository of insights into today’s knowledge tester world. The author, Majd is a close friend and ex-colleague. We both had the privilege to work together for a great group of knowledge workers. The article appeared here and I am reproducing it for Thinking Spirits audience.

In early days, life was simple. If you got sick, you would simply go to the ‘doctor’ who could treat your eyes, fix your stomach, amputate your leg and give you a diet plan. Specialization was unheard of. The patients, their diseases and expectations were simple. The medical knowledge was limited.

With time and progress, as man and his endeavors became complex, so did the medical profession. Specialists sprouted and the knowledge base expanded. The poor old doctor was replaced with hordes of specialists.

Software evolved in a similar way, albeit in a shorter span. Early software would be written by the engineer who could do everything from designing, coding, testing and deploying. There was neither need nor capacity for specialization. Time and progress, however, demanded specialization – the architect, programmer, usability designer, tester, deployment engineer and so forth. The process is recursive. In a tester’s world, automation, performance testing, penetration testing, usability testing and many others are becoming specializations of their own.

This progressive specializations has flourished – and complicated – the “Knowledge Testing” world.

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The Fish-Pond way of career planning

I sometimes envy military or civil service for their complete ownership of career planning of its people. All the folks have to do is to perform. This seems a great convenience when those in the so-called open and free work-world have to make career choices and decisions frequently. They need to plan their career themselves. Left to itself, it goes nowhere. 

Make no mistake: making one’s career is one’s own responsibility. The military or civil bureaucracy do so for their own sake. Planning and executing careers of its men is required to achieve their objectives in their gigantic systems. They don’t really love you for nothing. 

So what’s for us – the lonely warriors. Hopping from working at a startup to giant multinational to starting our own shop which fails and takes us back to safety of a ‘job’. 

I always like to use models to give context and structure to a problem. Well, here is one – what I call the “Fish-Pond” model to analyze and plan your career. It’s a 30,000 feet view – so don’t consider it prescriptive. It’s a framework to think, not set of instructions to follow. 

ImageA pond of water has fish. Big fish, small fish, fish in-between. Big fish eat small fish. Fish eat weeds. Fish grow within the pond as they eat and move around. Sometimes the pond grows bigger. Sometimes it shrinks. At others, it disappears. A smaller pond can get intruded on by outsiders. It can get dried up. The fish are of a variety. The fish can outgrow the pond. The pond can get overly populated. All fish in a small pond know each other. Fish in a big pond may never have crossed each other. While the fish can move everywhere in a small pond, fish in a big pond have territories. Generally, big fish have more say than small fish (they can eat them, remember!). There may be alligators and turtles too, but consider them as minorities. 

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Dare you work from home!

Yahoo! recently banned work from home. The news made splashes and attracted backlash.

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To me, it looks more an effort to rectify the inefficiencies in Yahoo organization that have creeped up over the years than a productivity statement. It looks remedial and reactive. If so, the Yahoo-wide ban on working from home is an overkill. It is doctoring the symptoms rather than addressing the cause. If not, and it is actually the company’s vision of how Yahoo engineers should work, the move may backfire.

I am not a big proponent of work from home. You won’t find me canvassing for it on campaign trail. Work from home is a privilege not a right. Organizations are social structures to make people work together to achieve its goals. Getting together under one roof certainly looks the most efficient way to get people to work together. Kids go to school – they don’t “study from home”. Hospitals need patients to come over – they don’t “heal from home”. Passengers don’t “fly from home”, lawyers don’t “argue from home” and prisoners don’t “serve their term from home”.

So what’s the problem?

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Are reading books of no value any more?

Is there any value in reading books now that you can find everything online? 

That’s a question that has polarized the knowledge world for a while. One group predicts the end of books now that all information is available on the internet. The other group detests the prediction arguing that books are eternal. 

ImageLets clarify the problem first. As in such debates, the core question gets so muddy that no one really knows what they are really arguing about. When we say books, its the old-fashioned hard-binded version that focuses on a single subject at length. That is what we are comparing with the astronomical quantity of information in internet addressing every possible subject. 

Another clarification: when we say books, a physical version is equivalent to a soft copy like on Kindle. That is simply a question of different media addressing reading convenience and efficiency. The structure and nature remain the same. A book on Kindle stays a book. 

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Your workspace is your friend!

LinkedIn recently shared a fabulous photo series titled “Where I work” featuring workspaces and work habits of what it calls “thought leaders” – essentially all knowledge workers. Each of the 50+ places were described by their occupants. It was just awesome to see them and the amount of thought and insight that went into their design and customization.

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The LinkedIn article was a pleasant complement to my current re-reading of “Peopleware” – one of the all-time classics for management of knowledge workers. The book dedicates one of its complete sections to “The Office Environment” and how it is one of the key components of effective work (and the most abused and ignored one as well). 

Going through the picture series, I could not help extract common themes and patterns even from a widely eclectic and diverse collection of people and businesses. Not surprisingly, many resonate with the ideas in Peopleware. One cannot emphasize the importance of a personalized, open and comfortable workspace and the impact it has on one’s work. 

Here are the common themes I found (you are welcome to add to them):

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Is process a bad thing?

The world seems to be divided into two groups. One which loves process and the other which detests it.

ImageA process streamlines, automates and standardizes a task such that doing it does not take more thinking than required nor leaves room for deviation. We create a process to automate and simplify the repetitive and make it efficient. We tend to avoid reinventing the wheel every time. We follow a process to file our taxes, claim our expenses, apply for a vacation, register our new car and communicate with our customers. A process is created to help simplify our lives and save us time. It is intended to bring order and control to our lives. 

So what is the problem? Why does the second group exist at all? What is their argument? 

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A Joke is a very serious thing …

Sometimes in life you have to confess what you have been doing in the past. I have been guilty of being a “Quotes Collector over the years. (My best defense: So is David Allen of GTD fame!)

Also at a certain time in your life, you start mapping everything you see and experience into your own world. So I went through my collection, shortlisted 40 humorous quotes and mapped into the world of Knowledge Workers and their managers!

Don’t laugh at me. As Charles Churchill said in his writings “A joke’s a very serious thing”.

Here you go ….

1 – The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to our ability to reach it.
             — Jill Shalvis
There will be things you will not have control over in the organization. They’ll itch. Accept it!

2 – You may never learn to swear until you learn to drive.
            — Steven Wright
You never grow up as a professional unless you have lived through a bad project or a bad boss. 

3 – He is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.
            — Saki
If you have “one of those”, get rid of them

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Long Walks

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
— Noel Coward

Sir Coward was known for his wit. But there is some germ of truth in every humor and this quote is no exception. It is always good to have some time and space to one self.

We tend to get more done when we have uninterrupted time to ourself. Good ideas come in lonely long walks. We solve problems in morning shower. We take a long drive on our favorite country road to clear our mind. Even, a brilliant idea or solution is there as we wake up after a good long sleep!

All this is true. We generally do our best when abetted by solitude and a conducive environment. But these observations do not have to sound as mythical as they do. They are actually grounded in the basic principles of productivity and time management.

There are two common attributes in all these scenarios – the long walks, the picturesque drives, the morning showers and the uninterrupted sleep – that help explain why they are effective for our productivity and creativity.

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