Organizing GTD in Pocket Informant
Only read further if you want to learn, in gory detail, about how I implement Getting Things Done. You’ve been warned.
GTD IN POCKET INFORMANT
In case you don’t already know the basics of GTD and how it interacts with the app I use (Pocket Informant), here’s the way I use it now, a significant modification from my previous post:
- Project: In GTD a project is a multi-step outcome requiring tracking: “What is the outcome I want to achieve?” Get promoted to Full. Or Enter sources into DTPO… I want to Get Promoted to Full in order to advance my career. I want to Enter Sources into DTPO to further my research agenda…
Ideally, information about how a project dovetails with our larger purpose(s) should be recorded at the Project level. But PI doesn’t allow this kind of metadata for projects. So for now, I use a naming convention: I start each project with a letter code (T- for the Teaching domain or “area of focus”, R- for the Research domain such as R-Enter Sources into DTPO, C- for the Career domain such as C-Get Promoted to Full, H- for the Home/Yard domain…). As long as I limit the number of letter codes, this has two advantages. First, it allows me to quickly find a project in the project list that may contain 50+ more projects – I’m at 81 projects right now. The domain letter codes are alphabetized and therefore located right next to each other, so I can zip down to the 6 projects related to Teaching (T-) and choose from them, knowing that those are the only Teaching projects in my system. Controlled vocabulary. Second, I can then collect the projects in a smart filter (see below) based off the prefix letter code, so when reviewing I can see at once all the projects related to any domain/area of focus I choose.
- Task: A discreet physical activity to perform for a particular project: “What is the next physical action that will move the project forward?” In order to Get Promoted to Full, I first need to Find the criteria for promotion in online Senate bill. In order to Enter Sources into DTPO, I need to Transcribe AG A1 1835 (you could make Transcribe AG A1 1835 into a project and divide it into multiple tasks, e.g. “for 15 minutes”, or “10 documents”, “documents #1-#10”, “all Villars letters”, etc.).
The task is the base unit of GTD, the atom – in GTD thinking you don’t technically do a project, you do tasks that accumulate to accomplish some projected outcome. I start each task with an action verb, and reuse the same verbs over and over: Add, Brainstorm, Buy, Check out [library book], Copy, Describe, Download, Draft (writing only), Email, Enter, Find, Import, Learn, Make, Parse, Read, Return [library book], Revise, Scan, and Transcribe – I set up a number of templates in fact. If you are consistent with your action verbs, you can make a smart filter to see, for example, a list of all of the Drafts you need to write.
Each task also has several pieces of metadata that you can define. The main metadata available in PI are: starred, priority (red color bar), location, start date, end date, repetition, project, context, alarm reminder (multiple and repeated), sync with cloud service. This little pop-up window summarizes most of them:
PI also includes other things you can attach to a task. Of these, I use the free-text Comments (notes) section most often, but you can also connect a task to photos and contacts – in order to make completion of a task as automatic as possible, Allen recommends attaching whatever contact info is needed to the task when you create it, rather than creating a task like “Call Fred” when there’s an unstated prerequisite task of first finding Fred’s phone number. You can also include a Location with PI tasks: either your own or one based off a location in Google Maps. You can also Star a task – thus far I’ve been using this as a way to indicate the final due date for a major project, but I may revisit this in my revamped system.
- @Context: The context needed to perform task: “Where/who/what do I need in order to perform the task?” @ECSU Office – tasks that can only be done at my school office. @Computer-iMac – only place where I have a color scanner. @Computer-DTPO – tasks that can only be done on a computer that has my DTPO databases (e.g. not on my school office computer, though I might bring my MacBook Air with me…). @Chair – tasks to perform (e.g. question to ask or info to pass on) when I’m with the dept chair. Contexts allow you to enter tasks into your system whenever you think of them, and then later, when you’re in Context X, you can quickly pull up a list that shows all the tasks that you need to do in that context. It’s a way to decrease the amount of task-switching.
A single project will usually have multiple tasks, and each task might require different metadata – replacing a wheelbarrow wheel, for example, might require first measuring the wheel’s dimensions (@Garage), then buying another wheel (@Shopping-HomeImprovement). And while you’re at the hardware store, your shopping context will also remind you that you need to pick up a different widget for another project you’d been working on two weeks earlier…
Here’s an academic example that emphasizes the importance of thinking about where you need to be to start doing a task. If you want to Check out a book from the library, you should make the context @ECSU library, something you can do when you are actually in the library. (Note that I’ve made separate libraries, because they are different places.) Since you want the context to indicate where you can perform the action, you wouldn’t give Return book a context of @ECSU library, because it isn’t there. Instead assign the context @Home Office-To school if the library book is sitting on your home office desk – this is automatic if you use task templates. That way you’ll add it to your backpack along with your graded papers and whatever other items you need to take to school when you check that @To school context in the morning. If need be, you could also create a @ECSU-To library context that you could check before you leave your school office to go to the library (in PI each task is only allowed one context). If you are really motivated or suffer from the OCD, you could set due date reminders for the books you have checked out. But again, the key is to balance how long it would take to track the info in your system versus the likelihood you’ll forget to perform the task without a reminder (is there some other trigger that will jog your memory?), and the potential cost of that oversight. So if you are in your office at the moment you remember the book is due, you just shove it in your bag and don’t waste time recording it in your external system. The ultimate goal of the system is to get things done in order to get them out of your head (close the loops, as Allen words it). Contexts are necessary because our brains often think of things that need to be done in places where we can’t do them right away.
- Actions: A GTD-defined status of task, e.g Next Action, Waiting For, Someday, Delegated… “What is the status of this task in the project as a whole?” Note that you don’t necessarily need to predefine every task in a project – you can just define a single Next Action task as a prompt to get the ball rolling, and to keep track of that project compared to all the others you could do. If you can then complete the project without adding another task, you’ve saved yourself the overhead of typing out and tracking more tasks.
If you do want to plan out a long list of tasks for a complicated project, PI lets you define a project as either allowing multiple Next Actions at the same time (called Parallel next action handling), or require a specific order to tasks, with only the first task defined as the Next Action (called Sequential handling). After that first Next Action is completed in a sequential project, the next task in the list will be automatically promoted to Next Action.
- Tag: PI’s tag field could be used for any number of things, but I currently use it as a more refined area of focus. So I have, for example, tags for Family, Finances, Health, Service, Teaching, (subcategories of -Advising, -Grading, -Preparation, -Recommend), Research, etc. There’s probably a more efficient use of tags though – those subcategories of teaching, for example, are usually the action verb in the task name. You could, for example, make a final task in every project that indicates the completion of the project. That task, then, would be the only task in each project that you used the PI tag for. That way you wouldn’t see hundreds of tagged tasks when reviewing by Tag, just the culminating task of each project.
- Lists: The point of doing all of this is to create a variety of lists that you can use to plan and accomplish your various projects. PI offers many ways to examine your items: Inbox, Projects, Contexts, Tagged, Starred items, and Next Actions. Each of these lists can be sorted by one of the following: Progress, Start Date, Due Date, Completed Date, Action, Priority, Context, Sync To, Tag, Project, and Title. Allen, for example, encourages the use of a Next Action list sorted by Context when you need to decide what to do next. You can then go to the context you are currently in and decide which of those tasks should be done next:
- Filters: Plenty of other ways to look at your tasks with an administrative mind. Filtered PI lists include: All Active tasks, In Progress tasks, Overdue tasks, Due Today/Tomorrow tasks, Undated tasks, Completed Today tasks, Tasks with Comments, and Completed tasks. All of these can also be sorted by any one of the other fields: Progress, Start Date, Due Date, Completed Date, Action, Priority, Context, Sync To, Tag, Project, or Title.
You can also filter most views by Tag – in essence it’s a global filter by tag. So think if there might be an important universal piece of metadata that you could use that filter for. Here’s a somewhat-odd view of which projects have tasks with Teaching tags (number of total tasks in the project in gray, with the number of tasks in the project having a teaching tag in blue):
- Smart filters: If the above views and lists aren’t enough, PI lets you define a seemingly infinite number of saved searches using the various metadata. I showed how these work in my previous post. I’ve created a variety: Waiting For tasks; Research tasks sorted by Project; Someday tasks (which would turn into Someday projects if I implemented my only-tag-the-last-task-in-a-project idea described above); aggregated lists such as all ECSU contexts, tasks Due This Semester, tasks to Do in the next 7 days, tasks that tell me which microfilm reels to scan… Remember that these all work on the task-level, not the project-level.
- Calendars: PI is a powerful task manager, but unlike many of its competitors, it also has a full-featured calendar(s) that fully integrates with its task manager. The Focus view, for example, will show both your Events as well as your Tasks, in any order you want. You can view your calendar in Agenda, Day, Week, Month or Year view, depending on how granular you’re feeling. You can assign dates to a task, though Allen generally suggests not putting tasks on your calendar: keep the calendar for mandatory events only (otherwise you’ll have to wade through your calendar and are likely to become numb to all the entries), and rely on your Next Action and Context lists instead when you want to decide what to do when you aren’t already obligated by Events. Another advantage of keeping tasks off calendars is that you also aren’t constantly shuffling tasks from one day to the next when you don’t get them finished.
- Navigating PI: Since there are so many list possibilities in PI (Focus view on Today/Tomorrow; Calendar views; Task Views with all the lists, filters and smart filters mentioned above plus all the sort options), it’s a good idea to start by figuring out which lists and views are important and useful to you, and then include them in your Weekly Review checklist. Allen generally recommends starting your day with Today’s calendar view, and then relying mainly on your Next Action list to decide which tasks to complete in a given context. The key is to do whatever provides the most improvement given the effort (it’s an efficiency thang), as long as you’re not putting too much thought into making each decision every moment (which would defeat the purpose of the system). You can, of course, look at any list any time you want. As Allen points out, you consult the externalized lists as often as you need to, in order to stop your mind from worrying about what you might need to do.
Putting it all together: my sequential Get Promoted to Full project includes a task Collect Promotion materials, which can only be done in the Context @ECSU Office (because that’s where the relevant files are), has a Tag of Career, and the GTD Action is set at None because the entire Get Promoted to Full project is a series of sequential tasks and PI will automatically promote the next task in the list to Next Action when it’s its turn. This particular task doesn’t have a date assigned, though I could define one if I knew for certain I was going to be in on a particular day. Another task in the Get Promoted to Full project might be Get P&T recommendation letter from Elena, which would have a Waiting For Action. When I do my weekly review, I will be reminded that I’m waiting for Elena when reviewing my Waiting For list, so maybe I should check in with her.
So that’s the basics.