Book Review: Getting Things Done by David Allen

getting-things-doneI have discussed Getting Things Done, or “GTD” here for a long time, but I have never actually read the famous book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I recently decided to read it (or actually listen to it), and I’m glad I did.

While I have embraced principles from GTD before, like having an empty inbox, but reading the book really makes everything come together and make sense. Even though many online resources talk about the GTD framework and process, they mostly touch on specific areas, and not the whole perspective. This book ties everything together to bring some sense into the hundreds of GTD tips floating around, for which even I am to blame.

The most important lesson in the book for me was to ask myself one single question on every action item added into the system:

What is the next action?

Such a simple question can have a tremendous impact on productivity and actually finishing tasks and projects. How many times have your not come out of a long meeting discussing action plans and strategies, just to realize that you haven’t really discussed how to proceed further in the project? By asking the simple question, the direction in a meeting can change and lead to you actually knowing what to do after a meeting!

There are of course lots of other lessons to be learned in the book, but I will leave those for you to find out by yourself! The ultimate goal of the book however, is to provide you with the principles and a framework for managing your entire life, not just your work. This will in most cases lead to a stree-free life, both personally and professionally.

The book is well thought out, both contents and structure wise. David Allen speaks with authority, while still maintaining the casual dialogue style (I listened to the audio book), which makes the content even more credible. If that isn’t enough, David has over 25 years of experience from managing tasks and coaching CEOs of large companies.

The only downside for me personally is that David speaks a lot of the analog world for managing tasks, like file cabinets for instance. Even though many people probably still use these kind of things for physical media, many people particularly in my line of work keep everything on the computer. Even though it was tempting to skip these parts, they all made sense in a way, and it of course makes the book available and relevant to even more people.

This is a perfect read for everyone, so grab it in your preferred media and enjoy!

Rating: 5/5

Postbox — a new take on email?

Postbox Logo

Postbox is a new application for managing email. It has some serious competition to deal with, like Outlook, Thunderbird and Apple Mail. Postbox does mail in an intuitive and fast way, which makes it easy to manage messages and actually get things done. Their website sums it up quite well.

“Postbox is a new way to manage online communication. It lets you spend less time managing messages and more time getting things done.”

“Postbox lets you organize your mail by topic so you can focus on one thing at a time.”

“Postbox works behind the scenes to catalog everything in your email.”

“Once you’ve found it, you can really start doing things. Postbox is designed to break down barriers. Any mail content can be annotated or combined with information from the web to create new mail messages.”

The application itself seems to be based on the upcoming Thunderbird 3, judging by the looks alone. This means that it benefits from all great things from the Mozilla suite, such as great spam filtering, clean looks, tabs and client certificate support for IMAP. It does however mean that it uses the XUL interface, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it does not integrate very well into the Mac environment.

Postbox main window

Postbox main window

Looking at the main window reveals a wealth of information. To quickly view attachments, images, links and contacts there is a shortcut bar on the tab bar itself.

The application puts a big focus on tags, or Topics as they are called in the application. It is very easy to add and view Topics. Having Topics on messages makes it very easy to find messages relating to different projects or keeping on top on what to do next.

Topics / Tags

Topics / Tags

One of the cool new features is the ability to annotate messages. This makes it possible to edit email and add your own text and title to it. Then you can either replace the original message or create a copy.

Annotate view

Annotate view

Messages are threaded in a beautiful Gmail style view, sorted chronologically. On the top a list of included authors are displayed for an easy overview.

Thread view

Thread view

I will post a review later when I have had time to try it out for a few weeks. It looks promising, but it has to fill some great big shoes if it will replace Apple Mail as my default email application.

Postbox is currently in closed beta, but add your name to their waiting list and you will be notified when it is available for download.

[Postbox]

My workflow in Things

I have previously mentioned Things, my preferred application for managing tasks and basic project planning. This post is about my workflow in Things and why it makes me more productive.

There are two tasks I do every day and every week. The daily task is to look through the projects and areas to see if there is something that I want or need to do today. The Next view is very helpful here too, since it provides a great overview of all projects and areas.

The second recurring task is done every Monday. It consists of project planning, and this is where I look through all projects and areas and plan what I will be doing that week. All projects that are on hold are moved to the Someday area, and all projects that are planned for the coming week or at any specific time in the future is moved to the Scheduled area.

Using Things this way makes it very easy to see which projects I should currently focus on, as well as keeping the inactive projects hidden to clear them from the point of distraction. One thing I rarely use is the Inbox area. I most often try to tag and place the task in the correct project right away when I add it using the quick entry dialog. This eliminates the process of interpreting randomly entered tasks and try to work out where to file them.

Add context and remember what to do

Have you ever found yourself looking at a scribble with just a number, a name or some other piece of information without any context?

Always add context when writing anything down.

Instead of just writing “Call Bill”, write “Call Bill about the car on 12345678”. Now you have every piece of information you need, because it will be impossible to remember everything.

How I get things done on the Mac

Having moved from a Linux desktop to a Mac, I have been forced to find new applications to help me read email, manage tasks and projects, take notes very easily and everything else work related. After investigating the options, I have found some applications which does their job very well. Read on to find out which applications are on the top of the game.

Email

For reading email, I now use the built-in Apple Mail client. It does its job very well indeed, but it does lack some features. It is for instance not possible to use client certificates for IMAP and SMTP yet for some strange reason, but it was a breeze setting upp stunnel to listen for unencrypted connections on localhost, and forward these to the mail server, encrypted using my client certificate.

I also have problems with my todos, especially when trying to attach them to email messages. The following message appears in the log:

WebKit discarded an uncaught exception in the webView:didFinishLoadForFrame: delegate: trying to set a non-ToDo MailboxUid for a ToDo. The MailboxUid for a ToDo must be a ToDosMailboxUid

Hopefully Apple will have a solution to this problem soon.

For some pointers on how to keep the mailbox sorted out, have a look at 43 Folder’s Inbox Zero series, or one of the many Lifehacker posts.

Taking notes

Even though it is quite possible to store notes in Apple Mail, there is definitely a use for a more powerful application such as Evernote. If you are a Lifehacker reader, you will probably have it downloaded for free. With it, it is possible to take notes on just about anything, and if there is something interesting on a website, it is just a matter of selecting the text and select “Paste to Evernote” in the menu. Brilliant!

evernote.png evernote-attributes.png evernote-menu.png

Evernote has a built-in syncing facility, which makes it possible to browse all notes directly on the web from any computer! There is also a Windows client, but I have not had the chance to try that one out.

Managing tasks

To manage tasks, the popular Things is the perfect choice. Although it is just a beta, it does what it’s supposed to do – and it does it very well! It also seems to match up well with other popular project management applications. For instance, read the iGTD2 vs Inbox vs OmniFocus vs Things comparison (Thanks Maria).

I fell head-over-heels in love with this application. Right from visiting the excellent website and then firing up the application for the first time, I knew Things was something special.

A pictures says more than a thousand words, so here is one (but with the words censored out though).

things.png

It displays the task in true GTD style, which will hopefully make it fairly easy to actually manage everything. For a more in-depth introduction, have a look at the screencast on the Things website.

Calendar

Most people would assume that using iCal would be the optimal choice. Perhaps. But most people I work with are using Google Calendar, which basically forces me to use it as well. There are some tools such as Spanning Sync for syncing iCal with Google calendar, but they all seem to have some problems. It works very well syncing to the phone using GooSync and subscribing to it in iCal.

I am quite happy with this setup, and it seems to be working really well. The only thing I can complain about is that Evernote does not save all formatting from websites, like for instance Apple Mail does with its notes feature. Not a big issue of course, since the text iself often is the important part, but still an annoyance.

Choosing the right business phone

I am in the market for a new business phone. The company will buy me a new one, once I have decided which one I want. I of course can’t refuse a free phone upgrade, so the hunt has begun.

I currently have a Sony Ericsson P990i, which has served me quite well, but lacks some essential features. Its qwerty keyboard is barely usable, but I’m glad that it’s there.

The perfect phone should have a proper calendar, where it’s easy to plan a week or two ahead. It must also support having tasks in the calendar, which the P990i does not do. (Third-party application Handy day does it, but not very nicely.) It must also be easy to move meetings and tasks around in a weekly view.

For rapid text entry a qwerty keyboard is necessary, with big enough buttons for the thumbs. Other features such as wireless LAN, a good web browser, SIP phone and a proper email application is also needed.

Not many email applications seems to do a good job with email threading or anything at all to make it easy to glance the mailbox. The support for client certificates is also necessary for the business mailbox, but it seems that not many phones have this functionality either.

I have glanced long and hard at the Nokia N95, which seems to have all features including support for client certificates for email servers. The big downside however, is the lack of a proper qwerty keyboard.

The other phone on my list is the Nokia E61i, which is a proper business phone. It has a nice qwerty keyboard, and the email view seems to be quite nice. It is however becoming old, and lots of features in the N95 does not exist in the E61i — mostly the more general consumer-oriented applications. There is for example built-in support for video podcasting in the N95, which is extremely handy when commuting and traveling.

There are of course other devices such as the HTC TyTN. First of all it’s running the Windows Mobile operating system which I’m not very fond of, and it is very thick so it won’t fit into any pocket. So much for pocket PC.

Sony Ericsson has released the P1, but that is essentially the same phone as the P990i, and they have removed the proper qwerty keyboard.

The N95 using the E61i hardware seems to be the best thing right now, but waiting for that is not feasible. This leaves E61i as the winner for now, but time will tell if it stands up to the continued phone research these coming days.

Edit: First impressions of the Nokia E61i.

How to manage email – the archive or multiple folders?

I have been thinking about ways to manage my email in a more efficient way. It seems that there are as many ways to do this as there are email users out there. First things first though – I am using Mozilla Thunderbird and not Gmail or any other online client.

I am currently using the standard lots-and-lots-of-folders-in-a-hierarchy which I guess most people use. It sort of works, but it does take some time to always make sure that the inbox has been emptied of all emails that are done. Even though I have this hierarchy of folders, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to find an old message I am looking for. Why you might say? The default search in Thunderbird lacks some very handy features, like the very handy Gmail style syntax.

There is an extension called GMailUI which enables the use of these search expressions, but it only works in the currently open folder.

You might see where I’m going with this

How about not using folders at all, except for one inbox and an archive? It will be similar to the way Gmail does it, and it seems to be working very well for them. The messages could be grouped by day to make it somewhat easier to navigate through this (probably) huge folder. It could look something like this.

mailarchive.png

Having mailing lists separated from the main archive is probably a good thing though, since they are most likely logically separated from work email.

The biggest hurdle is to actually make the switch and try it out. It will probably feel like chaos is coming, but it will hopefully be a pleasant experience in the end. Thunderbird does support tags, so tagging different projects might be a good idea to keep at least some order to the archive.

If I can overcome the above mentioned hurdle and actually give this a shot, I will of course mention what the results were.

Todo.txt for getting things done

For a very simple but clever way to manage your life, turn to the most basic file format there is – pure text. When all else fails in regards to proprietary formats and digital rights management, there will always be standard text files. Since we are dealing with normal text files, they are a perfect candidate for use in a revision control system. For more information on how to setup a Subversion repository, have a look at Lifehacker special or just refer to the Subversion documentation. Now to the main part of the article itself.

Todo.txt is a collection of scripts to help you go about your task-oriented life with little effort. You can assign basically anything you want, but the standard GTD artifacts such as projects, contexts, priorities etc. work the way they should. A picture says more than a thousand words, so this following screencast from their website will say a whole novel of what todo.txt is capable of:

Note that you will need Cygwin if you want to try this in Windows. Linux and MacOS have all required tools installed from the start. For a more in-depth article about todo.txt, please refer to the excellent Lifehacker article.

Getting things done starts at the desktop

To get things done there are lots of things to be done, such as stop procrastinating and to love your schedule, but there is one thing that I still have not touched — The desktop.

When I have no tasks, the desktop is completely icon free and the schedule is empty. I do often however, get tasks that need to be worked on. An example is articles and other freelance work. There is a document structure where all my projects, articles and other documents are stored. The basic idea is using something like this:

Documents/Publisher/Article xyz/

Under Article xyz there are some sub-folders, such as Research and Documentation. When I get an article request for example, I create this folder structure (basically adding folder Article xyz, and dragging a shortcut onto the desktop starting from the top left corner. The more important or high prioritized the task, the farther away from the corner it gets.

Folders on the desktop

Of course, the calendar will show you what you will do at a given time, but the icons will help you make that schedule and prioritize between all the daily tasks a little bit easier.

Procrastination gets you sick

Psychology Today recently posted an intriguing article about the damaging effects on procrastination. There seems to be some serious health issues accumulated when being a chronic procrastinator.

Just over the course of a single academic term, procrastinating college students had such evidence of compromised immune systems as more colds and flu, more gastrointestinal problems. And they had insomnia.

It sounds rather frightening, as I also do procrastinate once in a while. It is mostly like pushing things after the weekend so I get some free time, so I hope to be in a safe zone for the moment. Success also seems to be affected by chronic procrastinators, which is fairly obvious since they seem to lack any kind of structure in their lives.

There are many ways to avoid success in life, but the most sure-fire just might be procrastination. Procrastinators sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own path. They actually choose paths that hurt their performance.

This is really fightening to say the least. Do read the article and try to figure out if you are in fact a procrastinator.