And for those who need statistics from my first full academic year of real GTD use:
Total tasks completed (i.e. those that I bothered to enter into Pocket Informant and not just do right away) from 2015.08.22 to 2016.05.11:
1200 tasks (probably 3-5 hours-worth of entry time over the span of 8 months).
And to see how much I used the various pieces of metadata, and to get a better sense of what I did with my time, in broad brushstrokes, I record the following summaries for posterity:
I wouldn’t analyze these too closely, since some tasks were deleted, since not every task had every possible piece of metadata – some of them were just ephemeral reminders to myself (“Bring cheese”) set up with Siri, and since different tasks required differing amounts of time to complete. But still, it’s kinda interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing…
And speaking of generic end-of-academic-year checklists:
- Clean work office
- Inventory work office supplies
- Bring home perishable food items (office, fridge)
- Clean up computer folders on work computer
- Copy work computer course folders to Dropbox
- Order any outstanding textbooks for next semester
- Wish happy summer to faculty/staff
- Return library books
- Update CV
- Write semester-end thoughts for each course (keep textbook? different assignments…)
- Brainstorm generic teaching improvements
- Clean home office
Ha! Thought I’d let a GTD post go by without a checklist? You’ve been chklstd!
I continue with my conceit that anyone will care about my checklists. I create them largely to facilitate my use of GTD (see GTD tag). Specifically, to speed up entry of tasks in my Pocket Informant task manager, as well as to make it easy for me to complete small, atomized tasks of a larger project, without having to stop and reconstruct all the subtasks each time. So without further ado, these are the tasks I should perform after each conference:
- Save receipts for reimbursement (scan, file)
- Revise Contacts (PI, Contacts)
- Update Farley file on old contacts
- Add new contacts with Farley file info
- Set Google Alerts for new contacts/authors
I’m not saying I’m a cyberstalker, but…
- Email contacts with any follow-ups
- Tell any non-attendees about interesting bits
- Schedule any due dates for future publication of paper (PI, make Project)
- Search for any mentioned publications/authors (Zotero, DTPO)
- Enter specific Papers and Panels (DTPO)
- Import conference program
- Make conference tag
- OCR program as needed
- Enter comments/questions on my paper/panel (topic tags)
- Enter my notes on other papers (topic tags)
- Import conference program
- Enter general thoughts on conference (DTPO, with conference tag)
- Current trends among other researchers?
- What kinds of questions/debates came up?
- Identify potential “competitors” (DTPO, with conference tag)
- Develop strategies to coordinate with other researchers & minimize potential overlap/scooping
- Enter any Notes, Photos… from conference, museums, bookstores… (DTPO)
- Take notes on museums & other sites visited (site tag)
- Consider how to use in courses
- Add any forgotten pre-conference prep tasks to checklist template
I think that’s a good start.
Continuing with my never-ending quest for the perfect research workflow.
The processing stage of research is usually the most challenging, thought-intensive part of the research process. Because I have oodles of primary sources and feel compelled to use them in order to make robust generalizations, and because more sources generally increase the odds of finding exceptions to the rule, this is where my research tends to bog down. So it would seem particularly important to manage tasks here, and to match your time and energy level to the sources you’ll be reading. Read More…
Yeah right, like I know the answer to that question. But it doesn’t mean I won’t speculate. And my speculations led to me develop the following strategies that should help one be a (more) productive scholar while teaching 3-4 courses per semester:
- Accept you won’t be that productive.
- Spend almost all your time working and thinking and writing.
- Avoid teaching many new courses (i.e. new preps).
- Design your research around small projects (articles, book chapters, encyclopedia articles, book reviews…).
- Design you research around edited projects. Let other people do most of the thinking and researching and you just get to react to it.
- Collect as many primary sources as you can, while you can. You never know when you’ll be able to get back into the archives.
- Design your research around questions that can be answered with published primary sources.
- Explore an old subject from a new angle or perspective.
- Recycle and renew half-written drafts from your past, even stretching back to grad school.
- Focus on subjects that aren’t incredibly popular, so as to avoid having to keep up with a large and ever-burgeoning literature.
- Focus on subjects that aren’t incredibly popular, so as to avoid getting scooped by PhD students and faculty at Research I institutions.
- Speed up parts of the research process through software (particularly bibliographic and note-taking).
- Analyze historiographical trends, by counting titles and keywords.
- Write crappy history. Specifically, avoid delving into the complexity of real human lives (and real human interactions), and instead generalize about an entire continent over a generation by referring to one published theoretical treatise on the topic, or one single case study.
Guess which one I choose? Actually all of the above, though I’d like to think I’ve avoided #14.
But now is the time to focus on:
16. Waste some of your time trying to figure out a way to systematize and atomize your research process, so that you can complete bits of your research during the normally-busy school year.
And how would one do this exactly? I don’t know, but here are my first ruminations on the puzzle. All framed by, you guessed it, that damn Getting Things Done cult. Read More…
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…
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.
HAVE BLOG, WILL ARGUE
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.
With the new semester approaching (why is the most appropriate metaphor an oncoming locomotive?), I thought I’d get prepared ahead of time. Feel free to follow along.
Last year I got around to reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Over ten years old, it’s a bit of a cult in the private sector and with IT people especially (witness its coverage on Grad/ProfHacker). Reading the book for myself, I was fascinated by the way in which he broke down all the types of tasks and projects into discrete elements, and combined them into a coherent system. And his discussion of the psychological barriers to organization and productivity rang oh-so-true to my ears. If you know much about his system, you’ve probably seen this summary diagram floating around the internet (and you know I give him extra credit for creating a diagram with icons):