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GTD in Pocket Informant Usage Scenarios

So what’s the point, you might ask, of fiddling around with all these arcane beasts like Context and Action? And why should we care about the Parent Task-Child Task relationship? Read on for how my setup in PI is used.

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Checklists for the Academic Grind

With all the preparatory discussion of Getting Things Done out of the way, here are a variety of work-related projects and tasks that I use in Pocket Informant, most of which can be reused regularly. These are largely glorified checklists, which, recent research has shown, are extremely useful. Even experts (like experienced doctors and pilots) benefit from them when time is short and focus is too easily distracted. Remember that the point of these GTD-themed task checklists is to do all of the thinking about the process once, when you make the list (though you can obviously revise it). So GTD checklists should be slightly different from “trigger” lists (lists of things that trigger you to remember other things), in that the GTD tasks should be explicit physical actions. This way you don’t have to reconstruct the process every time, usually right before the thing is due. You don’t have to, for example, spend the mental energy (as small as it might be – it adds up) to remember what exactly you’re supposed to do with the ‘receipts’ entry on that list. These lists are made even more useful with additional metadata à la GTD, and the ability to integrate them into your calendar. Read More…

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. Read More…

This academic historian pledges to Get Things Done

After reading the new edition of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), and with a year or two’s distance from my first imperfect implementation, I’ve decided to embrace the system whole heartedly, rather than just adopt a few of the ideas. Because I’m a nerd historian, first time around I focused on the digital calendar/task list (aka Pocket Informant). It has been very helpful in allowing me to capture all my projects and ideas, but I didn’t really implement the other stages of clarifying, organizing and reflecting on my projects and tasks. I clearly need to focus on the mental side of the equation: applying the two-minute rule, asking “What’s the next action I need to take?”, phrasing projects as outcomes I want to achieve, making tasks actionable, deciding which tasks to perform (horizontal thinking) based off of my Next Action list, and reviewing my system regularly – I ended up doing about 4 weekly reviews last year, which is suboptimal. So, yeah, I was kinda using GTD before, but not the most important parts.

For those living under various rocks (i.e. most of us in the humanities), GTD is a comprehensive, flexible, generic system to organize and manage your various commitments. In my reading, the fundamental question that Allen wants everyone to ask and answer is: “Why am I doing this, how does this relate to what do I want to be doing, and how do I achieve that?” If we have a robust system that allows us to acquire a significant degree of control over the hurly-burly of our daily activities, we will have the time to make informed reflections on what we are doing and what we want to do, whether you’re assessing your life at 10,000-foot increments, or using different horizons of perspective, or whatever life-work metaphor you want to use.

The system is much more concrete and practical than the previous sentences might suggest, however. You use categorized lists of projects and tasks (pointing to reference materials you store digitally or on paper) to see which tasks you can choose to do at any given time in any given context (horizontal thinking), and to plan any specific project (vertical thinking) in as much detail as you’d like. You sort your lists with the metadata, using it to decide which actions to perform at any given moment, as well as to review and plan during your Weekly Reviews. If you capture, clarify and organize all your projects in the right kind of system, you’ll be able to align the projects you’re working on with what you want to be working on. As Allen describes it: you externalize all your projects into a trusted system to get your head clear (capture), you then clarify the meaning and importance of those projects by dividing them into discrete tasks (clarify), you organize your lists to help you decide which tasks to perform when (organize), and assess your progress on a regular basis (reflect).

Most of the details of his system are self-evident and his suggestions seem obvious when you read them, but we humans are really bad at being consistently self-aware and following through on good ideas, particularly when we have lots of things competing for our attention. GTD is a rationalized system for our monkey minds, in other words.


Various internauts have debated whether GTD is even relevant for academics or “knowledge workers” or “creatives.” I’ll let others hash that out (see for example here and here and here), but I will briefly summarize my own thoughts:

  • Many parts of the system can be adopted piecemeal without going whole-hog.  Just capturing all the ideas floating around in my head about things I’d like to do in months or years, and facilitating a quick check of my projects anytime concern wells up in my mind, has alone been worth it.
  • GTD is probably less useful/less necessary in the summer, if you’re an academic like myself who has the summer “off”, when it’s easier to find large blocks of time and there isn’t the pressure of teaching and serving and administering. But maybe GTD is even more important then, because it’s too easy to waste away the summer without external obligations forcing deadlines upon you.
  • GTD is probably less useful (given laptops, smartphones and the Cloud) than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still extremely useful, and managing all those lists is even easier with apps. Some IT-types undoubtedly have all their tools with them at all times or only work from home. But I, like most academics, teach in some contexts and not others, have certain equipment and software only in specific contexts (what I can do on a plane vs. in my home office vs. in the library), have certain documents and books one place but not another, and so on.
  • All that said, GTD is more useful for academics than our idealized view of ourselves as thinkers might lead us to believe. Much of life isn’t about research; much academic work isn’t research (especially if you’re at a teaching school); and a surprising amount of research is busywork rather than thinking deep thoughts.
  • It turns out GTD is based on the same principles that I’ve been trying to practice (and preach, in class and on this blog) for a few decades, with tools like argument mapping and note-taking systems like Devonthink. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of the recent cognitive research about the human mind backs up the main principles (the new edition has a chapter on that). To wit: At least start thinking about whatever’s worrying you. Externalize. Organize. Avoid multi-tasking. Convert unknown unknowns and known unknowns into known knowns, by converting a project into an outcome with concrete tasks to perform.
  • At the least, GTD allows you to see how many and what kinds of research projects you need to decide to do (or not do), and how these research projects relate to all the other projects in your life.

I’m not particularly concerned about enforcing a GTD orthodoxy or debating whether David Allen first developed each of these points, much less what the core of his “system” exactly is. The only important question is whether the system (in part or in toto) achieves its stated goal, assuming you’re busy enough to even need that goal: do you feel more in control, cope with your obligations better, and have a better perspective on your life? To the extent GTD lets you do this, use part of it or all of it. If it does most of it, tweak it where you want while trying to stay consistent with the broad principles (e.g. getting clear by avoiding using your brain to rethink what you’ve already thought and avoiding using your brain as the main memory place…). Or ignore it altogether. As always, I’d recommend reading the (new edition) of the book – it’s cheap – before relying too much on what people online say about it.

Next up: my system as implemented in Pocket Informant.
After that: a variety of checklists (implemented in PI but broadly applicable) that I’ve made for common academic tasks, teaching and research particularly.

Get clear

Blogs are inherently narcissistic vehicles – Look at me, world! Let me tell you what I think! So why wouldn’t everyone be interested in looking at my new office setup? Think of it as an extension of note-taking. And yes, I’ll post next on my tweaked GTD setup.

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What should historical research look like in an age of digital collaboration?

Historical research, as most of us know, has traditionally been a solitary practice. Even in this postmodern age of killa’ collabs and remixes with co-authors named feat., historians, by and large, are still a lonely bunch of recluses. Admittedly, one’s choice of subject has a lot to do with how crowded your subfield is. Unfortunately (or not?), I’ve rarely been in a position where I knew somebody else who was actively researching the same war as me (War of the Spanish Succession) and might want to look at the same sources. John Stapleton is the closest example from my grad school days, and he focuses on the war before “mine,” so we’ve given each other feedback and pointed each other to various sources from “our” respective wars over the years. In general, though, it’s been kinda lonely out here on the plains.

But the times they are a-changin’ and the prairie turf is being transformed into suburban subdivisions. The question is whether all these houses will follow a similar aesthetic, whether their architecture will reference each other, or whether the only communication between neighbors will consist of vague nods at the grocery store and heated arguments over how far their property line extends. (Thus far, subdivisions are still segregated into ethnic neighborhoods.)

If we look beyond the discipline of History, we’re told that it’s an age of collaboration (CEOs say they want their new employees to work effectively in teams) as well as the age of information overload (I believe that – my main Devonthink database has grown to 104,000 documents and 95 million words of text). Even the other kind of doctors are having a rethink. Now this whole Internet thing allows like-minded individuals to communicate and commiserate across the planet, and not just with their neighbor next door. “Global village” and all that. As a result, even historians have figured out that we can now find out if we’re alone in the universe or not – I assume everybody has Google Alerts set for their name and publication titles? This academic version of Google Street View certainly has certainly expanded my worldview. My one semi-regret is that, thanks to online dissertations, conference proceedings and even blogs, I now find out I was in the archives 10-15 years too early, and there are currently a bunch of people both American and Euro looking into the period – and by “bunch” I mean maybe 6-12. Even more reasons for making connections. Hmmm, someone should create a blog that allows EMEMH scholars to communicate with each other…

So how should historical research work in this interconnected digital age, in this global, digital village? In an age when the moderately-well-heeled scholar can accumulate scans of thousands of rare books and hundreds of archival volumes? The combination of collaboration and digitization has opened up a spectrum of possibilities, and it’s up to us to decide which are worth exploring. Here are some possibilities I see, stretching along a spectrum from sharing general ideas to swapping concrete primary sources (Roy Rosenzweig undoubtedly predicted all this twenty years ago):

  • Topic Sharing. The way it’s traditionally been done, in grad school, or if people meet up in the archives or at a conference or on fellowship. You let people know the specific topics you’re working on, and let it progress from there: “Oh, you’re working on X. Do you know about …? Have you checked out Y? You should really look at Z.” This has two advantages: first, it allows participants to keep the details of their research close to the vest, and more fruitfully, it allows the historiography to develop into a conversation rather than separate ships passing each other in the night – it’s such a waste when something gets published that really should have looked at X, Y or Z, but nobody suggested it. Or, perhaps peers studying the same period/place offered comment, but other potential-peers studying the same theme didn’t (or vice versa). Sharing subjects also forces people to acknowledge that they might not be the only person writing on topic X, and encourage them to consider whether they might want to divvy up topics rather than writing in ignorance of what others will be publishing, or already have written. Say, hypothetically, when one thinks they want to write a chapter about how the French viewed battle in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then discover that another scholar has already written about a thousand pages on the subject. So letting others know what you’re working on would be a start: type of history, subject (sieges? battles? operations? logistics?…), type of study (campaign narrative? commander biography? comparison of two different theaters?…), sides/countries (including languages of sources being used), and so on.
  • Feedback and advice. This requires longer and more sustained interaction, but is far more useful for all involved. I’m not convinced by the latest bestseller claiming that the crowd is always right, but crowdsourcing certainly gives a scholar a sense of how his/her ideas are being received, and what ideas a potential audience might like to read about in the first place.
  • Research assistance. Here, I would suggest, is where most historians are still living in the stone age, or more accurately, are on the cusp between the paper and digital ages. Most of our precious historical documents survive entombed within a single piece of paper(s), in an archive that may require significant costs and time to access. Depending on a government’s view of cultural patrimony and the opportunity for a marketable product, a subset of those documents have been transferred to the digital realm. But not many. This is where many historians need help, a topic which we’ve discussed many times before (as with this thread, which prompted the present post), and where collaboration and digitization offer potential solutions to the inaccessibility of so many primary sources.
    But there is a rather important catch: copyright. Archives and libraries (and publishers, of course) claim copyright over the documents under their care, and they frown upon the idea that information just wants to be free (ask Aaron Swartz):
    CAC copyright slipSo this puts a bit of a kink in attempts to create a Napster-style primary source swap meet – though I am getting a little excited just imagining a primary-source orgy like Napster was back in the day.
    Fortunately there are steps short ofscofflawery. Most of these revolve around the idea of improving the ‘finding aids’ historians use to target particular documents within the millions of possibilities. These range in scale from helping others plan a strategic bombing campaign, to serving as forward observer for a surgical strike:

    • A wish list of specific volumes/documents that somebody would like to look at. This could be as simple as having somebody who has the document(s) just check to see what it discusses, whether it’s worth consulting. This, of course, requires a bit more time and effort than simply sharing the PDF.
    • Or it might mean providing some metadata on the documents in a given volume. For example, I discovered in the archives that if the Blenheim Papers catalog says that Salisch’s letters to Marlborough in volume XYZ cover the period 1702-1711, and I’m studying the siege of Douai in 1710, it is a waste of one of my limited daily requests to discover that Salisch’s letters include one dated 1702, one from 1711, and the rest all on 1708. The ability to pinpoint specific documents would in itself be a boon: many archives have indexes and catalogs and inventories that give almost no idea of the individual documents. Not only would it save time, but it might also save money if you want to order copies of just a few documents rather than an entire volume.
    • Or, such assistance could be as involved as transcribing the meaty bits of a document. Useful for full text, though purists might harbor a lingering doubt about the fidelity of the transcription.
    • Or, it might mean running queries for others based off of your own database. I did that for a fellow scholar once, and if you’ve got something like Devonthink (or at least lots of full-text sources), it’s pretty easy and painless. Though if there are too many results, that starts to look a bit like doing someone else’s research for them.

Of course with all of these options, you have to worry about thunder being stolen, about trusting someone else to find what you are looking for, etc., etc. And there probably isn’t a good way to assuage that concern except through trust that develops over time. And trust is based on a sense of fairness: Andy’s questions about how to create a system of calculating non-monetary exchanges have bedeviled barter systems for a long time, I think.

As usual, I don’t have a clear answer. Simple sharing of documents is undoubtedly the easiest solution (cheapest, quickest, fewest number of eyes between the original source and your interpretation), but I don’t have a system for the mechanics. Nor am I clear on the ethical issues of massive sharing of sources – is “My thanks to X for this source” in a footnote enough? If some documents are acquired with grant funds, can they be freely given away? And the list goes on…


Devonthink update

In case anybody wonders whether DTPO can handle large databases, here are the current stats for my main WSS database:

WSS db as of 2015.01.05

WSS db as of 2015.01.05

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