Tag Archives: GTD

Random observation about workflow and life

It used to be, in graduate school and in my early career, that I really couldn’t get any serious work done unless I had large, uninterrupted slabs of time to work with. I had to have 3-4 straight hours, at least, if I wanted to read a journal article, work on research, or get grading done.

But increasingly, it seems like, in my work at a small liberal arts college, this ideal of monolithic slabs of time with which to work has become unlikely. There’s always the out-of-nowhere fire to put out, the meeting that gets scheduled in the middle of a big block of time, the unexpected student dropping by, and so on. Having kids makes the fragmentation of time even more common and pronounced.

However, I’ve noticed something since being mostly at home with my 6-, 4-, and 1-year olds this summer so far: Not only can I count on frequent interruptions if I try to sit down and work on things, I actually need those interruptions to stay focused. It seems counterintuitive, but my attention span is such that I have a hard time staying truly on task for longer than an hour. When I have to stop and fix lunch for the kids, or break up a fight, or change a diaper, every 30-or-so minutes, it actually provides me with a break I didn’t know I needed, and I end up getting more done with the interruptions than I would in an equal stretch of time without them. (In fact this blog post was interrupted about half a dozen times in the writing and editing of it.)

So I’m not so sure about the advice that new professors often get about making sure to carve out big slabs of time in which to work. You have to go with the flow of how you work and how life impinges (in its own wonderful way) upon your work.

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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Personal, Profhacks, Vocation

Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day assembled and ready to go. Then I get the kids up (if they aren’t awake early, as is all too often the case) and we’re out the door for school by 7:15.
  • I try to get to the office by 8:00 or a little after and reply to messages for no more than a half hour. Anything messages I don’t get to wait till the afternoon or later. I don’t even use Entourage or a “push” email client; I use the web access to our email server so that I’m only alerted to new messages when I ask it to alert me.
  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I try to take 8:30-9:30 and do something scholarly and/or creative. This might be working on a computer program, watching part of a video from MIT OpenCourseware or iTunesU, reading a journal article, working on a blog post, or the like. When I first became a professor I was instructed that I needed to find large chunks of time in which to do research, but this approach simply hasn’t worked for me. Instead, I try to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook,  shoehorning intellectual work into my busy schedule one 30- or 60-minute segment at a time.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually don’t teach at all (it’s a feature of my college’s scheduling). So I give myself until 10:00 to do my GTD Weekly Review. Then I take the entire remainder of the day and try to get every single course I teach fully prepped through the following Tuesday. That way there is no preparation work to be done through the week, and all I have to do is pull out my materials and walk to class when it’s time. This doesn’t always work, but no ritual works all the time, so I don’t let it bother me as long as I am prepared for at least tomorrow’s classes.
  • I almost always make dinner for the family, and I eat with them and then play games or horse around or what-have-you until it’s bedtime for the kids, which is 7:30-8:00 at our place.
  • From 8:30-9:30, I like to spend time walking on the treadmill while I am watching a course video from iTunesU on the iPod Touch. (Right now I’m doing Gil Strang’s linear algebra course at MIT; also on my “course schedule” is an intro biology course at UC-Berkeley and a basic statistics course from a community college.) I do that 3-4 nights a week. On the other nights I will try to practice my bass guitar (through headphones, of course), work on blog posts, or something else fun.
  • I always read in bed until I fall asleep, usually by 11:00 PM.

And I try extremely hard never to bring work home — no grading at nights or on the weekends for me unless it’s crunch time. This is a commitment I made to myself and to the family early on. I eventually became a GTD disciple precisely because I’ve found that particular approach to work to be very amenable to a satisfying family life, uninterrupted by work tasks that could (should) have gotten done earlier had I been more focused.

Now it’s your turn. What are your daily routines and rituals? How do they make you happy and productive?

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Back to Jott

After trying either to live without Jott or to use an alternative speech-to-text service like reQall (which seemed very unwieldy to me), I finally decided to go back and give the new, for-profit version of Jott a spin. And actually, it’s fine.

The service is still the same — you call 866-JOTT-123 and leave a message, and Jott transcribes it to text — and it appears to work just as well as it used to (which isn’t always so great, depending on the signal strength and your enunciation skills). What made Jott the killer app for me, before it went out of beta, was that the text transcription of voice messages was sent directly to GMail. (Or your choice of several other links.) Some of the links from Jott to the rest of the web are still free (such as Twitter) but the others, particularly all the Google apps, are “premium links” which you can have for $3.95 a month. Having to go to a web site to retrieve my tasks from Jott was just one or two steps more in the collection process than I wanted to do.

But as I said, as it turns out, it’s still OK: Under the “basic” (free) plan, when you leave the voice message, the transcription is placed on the Jott Desktop (a website), but there’s still an email notification sent that contains a link to the appropriate message. I have my email set up to send to a GTD label in GMail, so when I check my GMail inbox, there’s my task, just as it always was — I only have to click a link. It’s not like I have an entirely new inbox to add to my list of inboxes, and that was the main sticking point with the Jott Basic plan.

I don’t know if there was anyone else out there as anal-retentive about GTD as I am who might have been ditching Jott for the same reasons as me, but if so, I’d say it’s OK to go back.

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Monday GTD moment: Scholarship and GTD

This is the third installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.

Last week I wrote about grading and GTD. I noted that grading is kind of a poor fit in traditional GTD. A prof can grade anywhere, so the idea of contexts fits awkwardly; and grading “tasks” are usually projects, although we think of them as tasks and although the next actions contained in those projects are usually nothing more than smaller projects. GTD wasn’t really made for the academic profession, and so the staple activities of academics don’t often fit well.

Another area similar to grading in its relatively poor fit within the canonical GTD philosophy is research, or more generally scholarship. By “scholarship” I am including not only the usual pure research that most profs do (at least while they are getting their terminal degrees) but also any significant creative activity based on one’s expertise that contributes to a discipline or the application of a discipline. This is Boyer’s model of scholarship, and it is finding increasing purchase at colleges and universities all over. So, for example, an applied mathematician who contributes her skill by consulting “on the side” for some external project is scholarship; so would be research that she does on the teaching of applied mathematics or using her expertise to  do a math workshop with a bunch of elementary school kids.

Scholarship is hard for many reasons, perhaps the main one being that original creative work is amorphous. When I was working on my dissertation, the hardest aspect of that work was that at any given point in the process, although I could always measure how much work I’d done, I had no way to tell how much more work I needed to do, what course of action was really the best next action, or even if my previous work was going to remain or be wiped out by the discovery of a mistake or a more elegant and general theorem. It wasn’t like reading a book, where you knew not only how far you’d read but also how far you had left to go and which page was next, and you had a reasonable assurance that the pages you’d read wouldn’t disappear from the book once you’d read them.

Even now, I have all these scholarly projects I want to finish (or start), and I struggle to GTD-ize them. For example, I’m currently working through this book on probability as a self-study course. Some parts of this project are pretty linear and predictable and therefore have clearly-defined next actions —  “Read and work through examples in section 1.2”, for instance. But then the nonlinearity hits. I will eventually read through all of Chapter 1 and will need to work through the exercises. Do I do them all in order, or do I skip around? Would it be fair to lump exercises 1-5 together as a single task, or is that another project? Is even a single exercise a task, or a project, and how can you know in advance? Academic or intellectual work is a black box — you have no idea how long it’s going to take, what resources you will need, whether it is properly thought of as a task or a project, or indeed even if David Allen’s idea of a “task” (a single physical action) is even appropriate at any level.

Scholarship is highly nonlinear, which makes it much different from the business tasks for which GTD was originally created. But it’s what also makes scholarship fun and rewarding, and it’s why most of us eggheads went and got PhD’s in the first place. So, what’s a scholarship-enthused, GTD-powered prof to do in order to bring this important aspect of his work under the GTD framework? Here are some thoughts.

1. Use the review process — all six levels — to craft a coherent and realistic scholarship plan. The heart of GTD is the weekly review, but don’t forget the other kinds of review that Allen talks about in the book. Specifically, Allen gives a six-level model for review in terms of altitude: 50000+, 40000, 30000, 20000, 10000 feet and “runway”. The weekly review often tends to stay on the runway — which, if your work looks like mine, resembles the runways at O’Hare around Christmas — but those higher-level reviews are important. Scholarly directions change rapidly and often at the discretion of the individual. In the business world, you don’t often get the opportunity to change the fundamental direction of your work on your own initiative. But in academia, every day has the potential for such change. If I decided tomorrow to stop studying cryptology and start doing mathematical finance, I could do that. That ability is liberating but also a recipe for stagnation. It’s important to see your scholarship, regularly, not only in terms of current projects and areas of responsibility but also in terms of where you want it all to head in the next year, the next two years, and so on. The tenure and promotion process at an institution, if that process is well-designed, will help profs to think in these terms, but only once a year or (post-tenure) every five years. GTD, done with these higher altitudes in mind, would say to think about the big picture a lot more regularly so that your overall plan is more coherent.

2. As much as possible, concretize your research agenda. Since scholarship is amorphous, once you get down to the level of 10000 feet and lower, some superimposition of structure on scholarship is necessary. It doesn’t always fit well, like a nice suit on an unruly young boy. But it’s still important to break the scholarship plan you’ve created down into manageable projects with a list of concrete next actions. Having “Write a paper” as a project will lead nowhere; most scholarly activities are projects within projects, and at bottom you find one project that can finally be broken down into discrete next actions, each of which has a well-defined context. The challenge is to get to that point. (This is a major similarity with grading.)

3. Don’t be bothered if the plan changes. The nature of research puts all scholarship-oriented action lists into an automatic state of flux. That nice, tidy list of actions under the “Prove the twin prime conjecture” project stands a good chance of being brutally rearranged if, say, you discover a journal article that shows your main theorem so far (which you thought you proved 3-4 next actions ago) to be false, or somebody proves it first, or if you get an unexpected opportunity to work on something else which requires dropping or postponing the project. We all know that research and scholarship are highly volatile areas. But one of the strengths of GTD as a workflow management system is that GTD assumes that tactical decisions will change fluidly and constantly, and that’s OK. The system doesn’t fall apart if things change; you just adjust your next actions and move on.

4. Subdivide your Read/Review folder and make it more like an inbox. Read/Review means something very different to an academic than it does to a business person. The entire life of an academic could be summed up by the term “Read/Review”. So I think Allen’s conception of the Read/Review file needs to be expanded for academics. In my system, I’ve got three Read/Review folders for physical stuff and three for electronic stuff — the three folders in each medium being Teaching/Service (articles about the profession, articles about GTD, articles about pedagogy, etc.), Research (traditional research papers from journals), and Popular (math-related but not from journals; sometimes ed tech items make it in here). I treat these folders like inboxes in the sense that I make them part of my weekly review. Sometimes I gather articles that look good at the time, and I do intend to read them, but they get crowded out by something more urgent. I find that I need to go through Read/Review at least 2-3 times a week to process stuff. Expanding on the Read/Review idea helps keep fresh ideas coming onto your radar screen and into your brain.

5. Stick to your guns with GTD on everything else besides scholarship. Being a prof involves wearing lots of hats — we teach, we serve on committees, we grade, we mentor and advise students and colleagues, and many other things. In order to have the time and flexibility to carry out these amorphous, nonlinear scholarship projects, we have to exercise discipline in getting things done that are “morphous” and linear — stuff like grading, prepping courses, working on committee proposals, and so on. If a person can use GTD to get those tasks and projects under strict discipline and control, then there will (for the most part) be time and space in our schedules to do scholarship. But if the manageable stuff is running all over us, then we can forget about research, unless you are one of the tiny minority of professors who do research and basically nothing else.

I think there’s a great deal of connection between being happy in your academic work and being balanced. The more we enable ourselves not only to be excellent teachers but also active scholars, the more we benefit and so do our students and institutions. I think GTD can help in that regard.

Have a productive week!

[Photo by Jay Lichtman; artwork by ynot2006]

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Monday GTD moment: Handling grading in GTD

This is the second installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. Here’s the first post. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.

It’s week 5 of the semester for us, which is crunch time for students — and professors. This is the time of the semester when everybody has tests and papers all due, usually on the same day, which means there’s lots of grading. I don’t like grading, but it has to be done. And if I treat grading lightly or let it pile up, I will make mistakes when I grade and students won’t get the feedback they need to improve in a timely way. As an academic type, grading is one of the most important, difficult, and time-consuming features of my job and therefore requires careful management. But it doesn’t fit neatly within the GTD framework which I use semi-religiously to handle all my other productivity issues. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned that have helped me use GTD to be a better grader.

1. Grading is its own separate context. This is not canonical GTD doctrine. In David Allen’s book, contexts refer to physical locations or tools that you have on hand, such as @home, @phone, and @errand. Contexts are about where you are or what you have available to work with. But I’ve found that, unlike in the business world, in the academic world there are not only contexts for locations and tools but also activities where I have to be in a certain “place” in a mental sense to get them done. Grading is one of those contexts. I can grade basically anywhere and I don’t always need particular tools to do it, but I do need to be in a particular state of mind to grade. And while I am grading (and even for a few minutes after I am done grading) I can’t easily switch gears — much the same as if I were running an errand or talking on the phone. Also, and importantly, I’ve found that if I try to shoehorn my grading into a typical place/tool context like @macbook or @office, grading tasks get put into the same place as non-grading tasks, and guess what kind of task would usually win my attention? Having an @grading context helps me to maintain my focus regardless of location or tool needed. When I have some time and space to grade, I focus in only on the tasks under @grading without interference from stuff that is not grading (unless I choose to look at multiple contexts at once).

2. Most grading “tasks” are really projects.
One of the main problems I had early in my career with grading was that when confronted with a grading task, like “Grade Calculus test 1”, it took so long to get it done that it became demoralizing even to think about it, and so I’d shelve it and procrastinate. What I learned through GTD is the crucial definition of the project: A project is a thing that needs to get done but which requires more than one physical action to complete it. That’s all. Nothing more. Projects are not always highly complex long-term constructions — making a peanut butter sandwich is technically a project. Upon adopting this wide-open criterion for projects, I realized that the reason it’s easy to get demoralized by the sheer quantity of grading is that we think of grading a test as a task, when in fact it’s a whole lot of tasks all related to the same thing that needs to get done. As David Allen says, you cannot “do” a project. You can only “do” a physical action. So where a prof can get discouraged by looking at the one “task” of grading a calculus test because it takes hours and hours of work, by seeing one’s progress through the various tasks of the project (Grade problem 1, grade problem 2, etc.) you can feel, rightly, like there’s stuff getting done and you can see your progress. This is just an extension of what we math profs always tell students: When you have a difficult problem in front of you, break it down into manageable parts that you can do, and then do the first one.

3. Grading tasks have to be broken down into granular tasks — but not too granular. There’s a question related to what I just wrote in (2): What exactly is a single, physical action when it comes to grading? It’s possible to be too granular in breaking a project down into tasks. For example, if I took my calculus test and broke it way down into tasks — Grade Alice’s problem 1(a), Grade Bob’s problem 1(a), and so on throughout all my students’ work on problem 1(a) in all my sections of calculus and then throughout the entire test — then the list of tasks is so detailed that it takes longer to enter it than it does to actually do the tasks. But we do need to break projects down into their constituent tasks, so some happy medium needs to be found. For me, the middle ground is to consider the grading of one section’s worth of papers on one problem — or perhaps one page of an exam — as a “task”. So “Grade Calculus Test 1” would go in as a project, and the tasks in this project might be “Grade Section A page 1”, “Grade Section B page 1”, “Grade Section A page 2”, and so on. And of course these are all filed under the @grading context (unless there is a good reason not to, for instance if grading requires the use of a computer).

Here’s what it looks like right now in my system for one particular item, the Quarter-Term Exam for my calculus classes:

The A and B refer to the sections I teach. As you can see, I still have a way to go. But because I am conceiving of grading this exam as a project rather than as a single monolithic task, I can at least feel good about the fact that I got page 1 graded for both sections, and I have a reasonable quantified sense of how much longer I have to go. So I don’t get discouraged. (Or if I do, it’s because of what I see when I grade, not because of the grading itself!)

Have a productive week, and don’t let the stacks of papers get you down!

[Photo by wudzy]

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Monday GTD moment: The tickler file circa 1888

This is the first of what will hopefully turn into a weekly feature here at Casting Out Nines — a Monday morning post on workflow/task management in general and GTD in particular. Hopefully a GTD post will get everyone out there motivated to manage our time and work better through the week.

The tickler file is one of the more memorable characters in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It consists of 43 different folders — twleve of them labeled by month and the rest labelled 1-31 for the day — which you use as a system for physical items from your inbox that you choose to defer to a later date. The tickler file is set up with the current day up front and then subsequent days behind; the months are at the back, next month first. If you have an item from the physical inbox you are deferring to a later date, just chuck it in the appropriate folder, and — this is what makes it work — every morning, check the current day’s folder for stuff, then move that folder to the back of the folders listed by day. (And yes, this is where the name for Merlin Mann’s productivity blog came from.)

I didn’t “get” the tickler file at first when I started using GTD — perhaps it sounded too much like something a naughty Office Depot employee would have stashed in his underwear drawer. But lately I’ve been making myself include the tickler file as part of my morning getting-into-the-office routine, and it is paying dividends. College faculty still live in a world that is centered on physical artifacts — student papers, official memos, items sent for review by publishers and routed around by departments, even non-paper items like CD’s still probably outnumber electronic “stuff”. So have a tickler file as part of my trusted system allows me to safely chuck away physical, non-trash stuff that I’m deferring until later.

But, did you know that the tickler file is not original to GTD? Witness this graphic:

That’s an image from US Patent 377335 for, yes, a tickler file. So this was a good idea even back then — a time we normally think of as less stressful and overloaded with work, but I suppose there must have been “stuff” to deal with even that long ago.

Have a productive day!

[ht Unclutterer]

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Farewell, Jott, I hardly knew ye

Jott, the voice-to-text program I have blogged about a couple of times, has come out of “beta” (you mean Web 2.0 apps can be something other than “beta”?) and, sadly, is no longer a free service. (You mean Web 2.0 apps aren’t always free?) There will be a “Jott Basic” plan that will remain free, but all it allows you to do is leave voice messages to the online “Jott desktop”; it does not include the feature that made Jott so addictive useful, namely the ability to have voice messages transcribed and sent directly to your email account, Google Calendar, Twitter, or other supported services. For that, you have to pay $3.95 a month for the regular plan or $12.95 for the “Pro” plan. Also, the basic plan includes ads.

I can’t begrudge Jott for wanting to have some kind of a revenue stream, but I have to say that I am very disappointed in this move, and I won’t be using Jott from here on out. I use Jott to capture thoughts, ideas, and other stuff when I am not near a pen and paper or a computer — driving home, walking across campus, whatever — by phoning them in to Jott, and then Jott sends them to a special GTD folder in my Gmail for non-dated stuff and into Google Calendar for dated stuff. Jott allows me to eliminate several “collection buckets” — notepads, voice recorders, etc. — that I would need for collecting on-the-go stuff and instead just use my normal GMail/GCalendar account. It sounds like laziness, but making me go to Jott’s website to my Jott Desktop to get the stuff that I would capture using Jott, rather than sending it straight to GMail/GCal, adds a lot of complexity to my collection/processing routine. Too much.

Is it worth $4 a month? Not for me; in my household we are pinching every penny we have,  which is one of the reasons that free Web 2.0 apps are such a blessing for me. A search for Twitter posts on “jott” reveals a handful of “It’s worth it and I’m going to pay for it” tweets out there, but a lot more people are like me — disappointed and getting off the Jott bandwagon. Jott would keep a lot of its current users if the free plan would allow Jott to send to just one email or calendar account, and the $4/month plan could send to multiple accounts. Jott, if you’re reading this, give it some thought. Otherwise, it’s been fun, but…

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