Ready for Anything - Part Four

This section is called Relax and Get In Motion, or, How to Be Where the Action Is. Below are the segments and my notes.

40. You're the only one playing your game.
The nature of today's knowledge work requires skills that are not yet widely recognized, such as defining one's actions, making decisions, and dealing with an overwhelming amount of "incoming stuff." "I contend that a competitive edge, personal and organizational, is maintained by one's ability to deal with surprise."

41. Too controlled is out of control.
Don't get caught up in the minutiae your organizational system and become an "organizing groupie." You still need to work and think. "[I]t's really about capturing, catalyzing, and executing creative thinking, not about 'getting organized.'"

42. The better you get, the better you'd better get.
As you start to make better decisions and maintain control over your work, your attention will move on to bigger issues. You will always have to engage with the world, at more and more challenging levels. No ABC priority list can change that fact.

43. Trusting your action choice requires multilevel self-management.
"[P]ristine organization of your details does not ensure truly productive activity." There is no simple answer to the question of what is the best thing for you to be doing at any moment. You have to trust your intuition. You exist on many levels, and you need to pay attention to all of them.

44. Your power is proportional to your ability to relax.
"Find out what's stressing you, and deal with it--now--if you want to be truly effective on all levels at once." The freer and more relaxed you are, the more productive you are.

45. Surprises, expected, are no surprise.
"Denial of the reality of constant change produces resistance and frustration." You have to prepare for the worst and think about how you would deal with it if you had to.

46. The longer your horizon, the smoother your moves.
Sometimes the habits that you have developed outlive their usefulness, and you need to make a change. Sometimes we have to give up our comfortable ways of doing things and take risks in order to regain our energy and enthusiasm.

47. You speed up by slowing down.
"You must constantly let go, relax, and refocus." By taking a break, you re-energize yourself and allow yourself to see things differently. You sometimes have to force yourself to do so.

48. You don't have time to do any project.
" actually can't do a project--you can only do action steps." Be honest with yourself about which projects are "long term" and which are "someday maybe." It's a subtle and tempting difference that often leads to procrastination.

49. Small things, done consistently, create major impact.
This is true for both positive and negative behaviors.

50. You have to do something to know something.
The people who need GTD the most are the least likely to use it. To work on productivity, you have to believe that you are in control of your life and you have to want to go somewhere different than where you are. Not everyone feels that way.

51. It's easier to move when you're in motion.
"If you're positively engaged, with any part of your life, it is easier to deal with change and to get anything else done." GTD makes you feel better because you're taking control of your life.

52. The biggest successes come from the most failures.
Just keep trying, and don't let setbacks derail you. Everything you try gets you a little closer to where you want to be, either because it's the right thing to be doing, or because it teaches you about the wrong way to go.

Quote for the day

From Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin:

Something happens to the body at fifty that at twenty you can't imagine, at thirty you don't suspect, and of which at forty you have just a hint, but cross that bridge when you come to it. You'll be a different man then. You'll forgive yourself. The chase will be over and you'll have learnt to love the world for what it is and to see yourself for what you are. It happens to everyone, even to kings.

Ready for Anything - Part Three

This section is called Create Structures That Work, or, It's Hard to Stay on Track Without Rails. It talks about the importance of underlying structure and discipline. Here are the titles of each segment and my notes.

27. Stability on one level opens creativity on another.
People rebel against "getting organized" because they haven't really figured out what they want. They associate the organization with giving them more undesirable things to do. When you're doing something you love, the "organizing" part is fun. Alternately, getting organized can help you learn to love what you do because it focuses you on what's best and most important.

28. Form and function must match for maximum productivity.
You need to know what the right tool is. To do so, you need to know what you're trying to do. You have to be both a visionary and a doer, but you have to be able to balance the two roles and understand which one is your strength, and which one might need some help. Your system has to support both roles.

29. Your system has to be better than your mind for your mind to let go.
If your mind doesn't believe that you're really following your system, it won't let you rest.

"Doing proactive knowledge work (thinking, deciding, and sorting) and setting up a well-organized personal-management system to handle the results is like hiring a fabulous executive assistant for yourself--it releases you to do the really important things you want to focus on. But if that system is not kept current, it's like having your key support staff quit without notice or replacement."

30. Response ability improves viability.
Unprocessed stuff reduces your awareness of your environment and your ability to react. But it also serves as a buffer and a layer of protection against the world. When a disorganized person cleans up, he feels vulnerable, and has to learn to live in a new world the way a reformed addict does. The unprocessed stuff allowed him to avoid dealing with real questions about his work and life.

31. Your system is only as good as its weakest link.
"A system relieves no pressure unless it truly handles its job 100 percent...Real systems must be solid enough to hold up in the toughest reality--when we least feel like maintaining them."

In an organization, the low-performer drags everyone else down. In an effective organization, they can deal with higher-level problems because they've taken care of the basics. If you know that someone is actually going to read the email you sent and do something about it, you'll be more careful about what you say. If you make careful decisions and think carefully about your work, you avoid problems later on.

32. The effectiveness of your system is inversely proportional to your awareness of it.
If you have to think about your system, you're wasting energy that could be better used elsewhere. The best systems run smoothly in the background and can handle a big increase in volume. For example, if you don't learn how to use keyboard shortcuts, or you filing system is too complicated and overstuffed, things will back up and take more time than they have to.

33. Function follows form.
A good system will not only help you be productive, it will help you engage with the things you care about the most. To do so, you have to get your whole life, including your friends and family, your staff, and all your interests and goals, into your personal-management system. "[F]irst-degree black belt is only the beginning!"

34. You can't win a game you haven't defined.
You have to know what your goals are. Some people have lots of actions, but don't know what their projects are. Some people have lots of projects, but don't know what their actions are.

35. Whenever two or more are responsible for something, usually nobody is.
Someone's got to be in charge! If different team members with different skills and concerns are competing, someone has to be able to make decisions about who does what. The same metaphor applies to different parts of ourselves. You need to think about what the creative part of you can do, as opposed to the disciplined number-cruncher part, for example, and create a plan that makes good use of each of your talents.

36. Prime your principles instead of policing your policies.
If you are clear about your principles and values, you will act in accordance with them. The same goes for your team, and for people who work for you. If you communicate your standards at the beginning of their relationship with you, you can avoid inappropriate behavior that might occur because of a lack of clarity.

37. Use your mind to think about your work, instead of thinking of it.
If your system isn't reliable, your mind will focus on things it's not good at, like trying to remember tasks. You need to create habits of action that you will be able to perform without thinking about it. "Form. You can't do, without it. Until you do, without it."

38. You are thinking more valuably than you may think.
"Give yourself the freedom to capture all kinds of thoughts that you can later reassess." Feel free to write down everything that comes to mind, regardless of whether you initially think it's important. Brainstorm and let it all hang out. You'll be amazed at how creative you are. Use paper and computers, or whatever tool works for you. Just get it out of your head so that you can think about it and process it into actions.

39. The necessity to plan and organize is inversely proportional to your perceived resources.
Scarcity creates a need to plan and clarify direction. "What we truly most need to do is often what we most feel like avoiding." For example, when we're super busy, we don't feel like we have time to stop and get organized. Allen argues that evolving and getting beyond this tendency toward self-defeating behavior is what will allow us to do meaningful work. GTD helps us to transcend.

My Killer GTD Setup

I've been tagged! I feel like a real live blogger now.

gtdfrk, of the Getting Things Done blog has invited me to tell you all about my "Killer GTD Setup." And since I love talking about this stuff, here we go...

Over the years I've tried a zillion different systems. Though I'll admit I do enjoy switching around and setting up new systems just for the fun of it, the truth is that with each change I learn something new, and my setup gets a little bit better.

Here are the three main things I've learned about myself and GTD:

  • I need to use paper.
  • As much as I love index cards, having to shuffle through them all the time doesn't work for me. I need a list.
  • It's got to be simple.
As you may have seen in previous posts, I've been reading David Allen's Ready for Anythinglately, and these quotes really struck me:
A system relieves no pressure unless it truly handles its job 100 percent...Real systems must be solid enough to hold up in the toughest reality--when we least feel like maintaining them.
The effectiveness of your system is inversely proportional to your awareness of it.
These insights, and much experimentation, have led me to my current masterpiece. Are you ready for such a mind-blowing revelation? You're sure? Ok, here goes.

Write things down in a notebook.


Phew! That was rough. Take a moment to digest. Re-read and make sure you understand. I'll wait.

Seriously, this is my current scheme: I have a Levenger Circa notebook with two sections. The front of the notebook is filled with blank paper, which I use to write notes throughout the day. I usually keep a few days worth of notes in here, before moving them out. I start each day on a new page, and date each page. That way it's easy to move notes into an archive.

The back section of the notebook, behind a divider called "Reference," is where I keep my lists. I have projects lists, next actions lists, and someday/maybe/waiting for/reminder lists for both work and home. I also keep reference lists in this section, like stuff that I've bought that I'm waiting to be delivered, and restaurants I might want to go to.

Reference section

I also have a pocket to hold loose stuff.


That's basically it. I have in-boxes at home and work. Here's my home desk:

Picture for my blog post on my "Killer GTD setup"

I keep my files nice and neat:

My files

I use my Circa punch and label maker frequently:


I keep all my contacts in Gmail, and use Gmail for all my email accounts. I make generous use of Gmail's archive feature to process my in box to zero. I keep my calendar on Google Calendar. I keep personal documents in Google Documents. I use Google Reader for all my blog reading.

I take lots of notes, and I always have my notebook nearby. I use my Circa notebook for everything, including meetings. I process my notebook when it's convenient, going through my notes to look for new projects and action items and adding them to the appropriate list.

Here are some key insights that I've had during my experiment with GTD:
  • You have to write everything down. The knowledge that you have captured the information, even if you're not going to do anything with it, is absolutely necessary. Knowing that the information is out of your head gives you the confidence and comfort to let it go.
  • You have to trust that you will review your notes. If you write it down and never process it, you won't trust your system.
  • You have to be realistic, and have what David Allen calls "clean edges." Your next actions list is sacred. Do not put anything on there that you don't really have to do. The next actions list is not the place for "could dos," "might dos" or "someday maybes." It has to be stuff you're really going to do.
That's about it. My system is simple, realistic and robust. And it works!

Oh yes, and I hereby tag Brett Kelly, at the Cranking Widgets Blog, because I think that's the best blog name of all time.

Faster reading through column size.

Sameer Vasta points out this very interesting program that purports to help you read faster and retain more information by reshaping text into a cascading column. It does seem to make reading easier, so I experimented this morning with Google Reader. I just resized my window so that the text of each post is about an inch and a half wide. It really helps! Try it!

Of course, this isn't exactly a new idea. That's why newspapers print stories in columns. But the relationship between column size and reading speed might just have been lost in the digital world.

Ready for Anything - Part Two

This section of David Allen's book is called Focus Productively. It makes the argument that our ability to change how we see things is the key to productivity. Here are the segments in this part, and my notes.

14. For more clarity, look from a higher place.
"It's not what is going on in your world that's good or bad. The world just is what it is. What makes the difference is how you're engaged with it." You need to look at your situation in terms of where you are and where you want to be, taking yourself out of the day-to-day panic and looking at it from another perspective.

15. You won't see how to do it until you see yourself doing it.
Visualization allows you to figure out how to get where you want to go. You have to see the goal before you can go there.

16. Working hard enough is impossible.
You shouldn't be just keeping busy, or latching on to the easiest thing you can be doing to feel like you're working. Having your work collected allows you to figure out what you really need to be doing.

17. Energy follows thought.
We all have tricks to make ourselves more productive and focused. Part of this is thinking about things before they happen, and thinking about the circumstances that allow us to focus.

18. The clearer your purpose, the more ways to fulfill it.
Always ask yourself why you're doing something, or why something is set up the way it is. Often you'll find that it needs to be rethought, particularly if you're unclear about its purpose. Think about the purpose of your daily habits and routines. Look at your workspace and see if it's set up to achieve its purpose effectively.

19. Best is much better than good.
Focus on doing your best. Drop your self-doubt, desire for personal comfort, and habits, and think "what is the absolute best thing for me to be doing right now?"

20. A change in focus equals a change in result.
"How fast can you get back to 'ready'?" What do you do when you get a big surprise? How easily can you refocus and act? How are you viewing a situation or problem right now? Could you see it differently?

21. Perspective is the most valuable commodity on the planet.
Leverage times when you're inspired. Write ideas down when you think of them so that you can bring them back when you need them. Take advantage of challenges by learning to see them differently. Think about situations in which you find yourself inspired. How do you get there?

22. You have to think about your stuff more than you think.
One of the tenets of GTD. You need to make decisions about next actions. You need to write the next actions down, and you need to be able to find the next actions when you need them - in your trusted system.

23. You don't have to think about your stuff as much as you're afraid you might.
People avoid thinking because they're afraid that they will be overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do. They feel like not thinking about it helps them relax. But actually doing the thinking helps you be at peace. "You need to be complete with your incompletions." "I consistently come back to the awareness that I'm not my work, because I've objectified and reviewed it."

24. If you know what you're doing, efficiency is the only improvement opportunity.
This section talks about "Stress Transcendence." "When the fulfillment is present inside me and I'm okay with myself at the deepest level, it's not about getting everything done. It's just a process of doing -- and a very conscious process at that."

25. Only one thing on your mind is "in the zone."
Focus on the task at hand. Be true to your agreements with yourself.

26. The value of a future goal is the present change it fosters.
We set up a dichotomy between "just being" and doing. But it's a false distinction, because we are multidimensional. "You are active by the nature of your intention of where and how you focus your consciousness." To create a balance life, you should ask yourself "What type of doing most aligns me with my being?" so that you can align your goals with your values.

Marc Andreesen's guide to productivity

Remember Marc Andreesen? Back in 1995 when I first started paying attention to the Web, we all resented him for being so young, so smart, and so rich after inventing Mosaic and starting Netscape. Fortunately, I'm older and wiser now, and can let go of my ill will.

This month he's launched a blog, and it's great so far. This post on productivity is well worth a read.

Commonplace books

In case you don't know what a Commonplace Book is, here's an interesting article. As a note-taking fool (see below) it's a concept near and dear to my heart.

Speed feed reading

I have been an RSS-readin' machine since I saw this post on Robert Scoble and his 622 feed subscriptions. I now follow his lead and start with "All items" in Google Reader. I make a first pass using the shortcuts (s for star, j for next item, k for previous item), starring anything that sounds vaguely interesting. Then I hit gs to go to the starred items. Then I have a leisurely read, unstarring as I go. If there's something I want to read, but don't have time, I just leave it starred for the next time. Those shortcuts sure are better than mousing!

Ready for Anything - Part One

David Allen's Ready for Anything has been sitting in my "to read" pile for a while now, and recently I actually sat down to take a look. I thought it might be an interesting blog post to summarize this somewhat scattered collection of meditations on the "why" of GTD. As in, why does it work?

The book is divided into four parts. Each part includes 10-30 short sections, each examining a thought or question related to the larger topic. The first section is called Clear Your Head for Creativity, and focuses on the importance of getting stuff out of your head and into a trusted system.

Here are the segment titles in this part, and my notes about each one:

1. Cleaning up creates new directions.
Reiterates the importance of always having the tools you need to capture inputs, and the comfort that comes from negotiating all your "open loops."

2. You can only feel good about what you're not doing when you know what you're not doing.
Traditional "to do" lists don't work because they attempt to do all the steps (collect, process, review...) at once, and because they are too simple to really capture all the different things you have to do. You have to know everything you need to do in order to feel good about what you are doing.

3. Knowing your commitments creates better choices of new ones.
"If you don't know the current inventory of your work, you won't be fully aware of what you can't do." You need to practice concentration and cooperation. You need to cooperate with your world (job), knowing what really needs to be done, and concentrate on what's really important.

4. Getting to where you're going requires knowing where you are.
Objectively review your current reality in order to give yourself a realistic picture of what's important and attainable. Take inventory of your life.

5. Infinite opportunity is utilized by finite possibility.
Create a concrete set of actions or be overwhelmed by all the possibilities. "'More and better' will always stretch out in front of you, as you attain it."

6. Two commitments in your head create stress and failure.
You have to deal with the minutiae, regardless of the other priorities you might see. GTD forces you to react to minutiae, and trains you to be productive.

7. Priorities function only at the conscious level.
Getting stuff out of your head and objectively evaluating it frees you up. By evaluating, you do things when they are appropriate, and avoid problems later.

8. Closing the open loops releases energy.
Self explanatory.

9. If it's on your mind, it's probably not getting done.
This is why review is so important. You have to trust that when you get something out of your head, that you will come back to it. If you don't believe that, you will keep thinking about it.

10. Creativity shows up when there's space.
We fear that if we look at it all, we'll be disappointed that it's not enough. But usually it's freeing, and I've also found that I'm impressed and humbled by what I've done and what I'm doing. It helps you see the boundaries you need to set, and that you really are productive after all.

11. The deeper the channel, the greater the flow.
Cleaning up increases our capacity. We hold good things back from ourselves because we don't think we can handle them.

12. Worry is a waste.
Worrying happens when you avoid thinking about thinking. You have to force yourself to think about your work and what needs to happen.

13. You are not your work.
"You process the things you have attention on so you can do what you really feel like doing." (Because you know what can wait.)

The sections are often redundant and they're all getting at the same basic point: that getting stuff out of your head and into a trusted system allows you to make good decisions about how to spend your time, and frees up your mind.

On a related note, lately I've taken his encouragement to capture my "stuff" a little farther than I might have to if I was just focusing on actions. I've started "brain dumping" whenever I can, writing down thoughts and observations in a strange stream-of-conscious quasi-journal. Afterwards, I process this content, looking for action items or observations that I can put elsewhere. For example, I keep my more creative ideas for fiction or literary writing in Stikkit. I keep my thoughts about organization and productivity in a separate document. My day-to-day notebook is just where I get stuff out of my head, without worrying whether it's stupid or important.

I'm a big fan of what Merlin Mann and Anne Lamott, call "shitty first drafts." This journal of mine is a step even lower than that. It's a collection of data that I can later edit into a shitty first draft. I find the whole process very freeing and comforting.

I'll follow up soon with section two.