One of my biggest beefs with productivity and GTD advice on the internet is its provision by content creators rather than people who have, well… have jobs like the rest of us.
Don’t get me wrong, some of their advice is great and I’ve cherry-picked from the best and profited, but in a sense the connection between some of them needing to produce constant, monetized content (to the point I’ve even seen productivity people interviewing other productivity people) sometimes makes you feel like its simply not applicable to me in my context of my work and life.
Admittedly, my work and personal life is complex enough that their systems may be too onerous or time consuming and sometimes makes me just feel like I’m underperforming somehow (even though I think, objectively, most people would think I really do get things done.). It feels more like you need a reliable, flexible system of planning and prioritizing, a task system for capture and not dropping items, and a ritual of checkin and evaluation rather than many of these complex systems.
Earlier in the year, I was really impressed with a SuperOrganizers blog post on bing good at everything. He has an 8+1 bucket system where he categorized things he needed to do every week, and kept them filled, which I have to admit I quite liked. I tried adapting it and found it a compelling and useful system and modified it slightly, along with the idea of his weekly checkins to get to 7+1 buckets. The short takeaway was - have something in all your important buckets every week, but use that +1 bucket for planning and review every week. Which seems to be the particular small superpower conferred by the post. I do have to admit it has made a difference.
As I’ve started onboarding to a much more complex role, I’m finding the system cracking, especially as I try to balance a very demanding new role and personal goals and, well… sanity. Hell, even pumping out blog posts, which you think the content creator GTD types would have taught me well seems to be proving difficult. Especially, having time to think and reflect since the role is much more strategic is also an issue with the constant tyranny of meetings (and admittedly, onboarding emphasizes these at first as you figure out the lay of the land and who’s who in the zoo.).
Additionally, since I was reviewing my emacs org-mode GTD system, I wanted to also go back to fundamentals and tooling as well as improve my planning and reviewing process regardless of tool and from reviewing a few classics like Covey’s 7 Habits and Allen’s GTD. So, really reflecting on the difference and needs of task management, goals, tracking their progress, and workflows. Seriously, it’s astounding what can get triggered by two small, simple events… a boss convo about google docs, and someone ruthlessly editing a SFD presentation into being way better.).
So, first off… what am I trying to do? I think it come down to 2 things.
Systems Can I come up with a framework that can provide an overarching mental model for the system that extends the effectiveness of GTD’s task management efficiency? What is that basic framework that will allow me to plan, track, progress, and achieve goals? And how does that sort GTD operationally with not dropping the big things, both work and personal, over the longer term? What processes from planning, tracking, and review are essential and how much time and effort do those require? How do I make them resilient in the face of disruption (since life happens).
How can I make this ubiquitous for task and thought capture, available everywhere, cost-effective (money and time), and allow sharing and collaboration? Can I get it down to just one application or do things like note taking, tracking, and task management need separate apps? (and if they do, how will I interconnect their information?).
Let’s talk about what really works well and doesn’t with my current GTD system in emacs org-mode. Let’s go in reverse order and talk about the tool first.
- Capture - both in OSX (Alfred) and Linux (Rofi org-todos - which I wrote) I can effortlessly throw todos and iotas into org-mode without breaking flow. A small superpower for not dropping things.
- Ticklers - Emacs org-mode agenda date-awareness and my week tags in super org-agenda makes it so that future items do not get lost and I get a great dashboard overview of this daily.
- Separating concerns - Tagging works well here. I throw everything in log text files and have superagenda categorize things by tags like
:perso:. Works well.
- Structuring - Org-mode is actually very good at this when paired with expanding and collapsing headlines, so… high marks.
- Interconnections - Linking data or ideas via things like org-roam is possible now, though feels clunky and definitely not as efficient or usable as roam research or notion.
- Sharing and Formatting - Everything is plain text. You are essentially marking up files and any sharing needs to be handled via an export (which is often meh) and then kludge to google docs or mailed files. The look on my new boss’s face on Zoom when he got my onboarding plan in a (sanely formatted) plain text table in his email is not something I’d like to repeat. (I’d pay good money for something that pushed and pulled docs into google api and changes back to my emacs via API.).
- Collaboration - Emacs is an island. It was created pre-internet and on a file based metaphor, so while you can do complicated tmux and emacs setup for pair programming, that’s not what most people have in mind when you talk about collaboration.
- Structuring Todos - Actually, while emacs is great at managing individual
TODOs, it doesn’t have any implied logical or semantic structure to those tasks which is something I found super hard when moving from Taskpaper (which I loved)
- Aesthetics - Emacs takes work to make non-uggo and real work to make pretty. Even then, rendering is generally monospace unless you’re willing to let other things slide or break and putting it beside even other text editors like VS Code leaves it wanting. This might seem like a small thing but when you’re crafting, grokking, and structuring information all day it makes a huge difference to your mental stamina.
All right, but let’s talk about how the basic framework I use to workflow things looks.
Weekly Reviews and Planning
Sort of a big addition to my workflow in the last couple of months has been trying to be disciplined about weekly review, planning, and scheduling work blocks. Sounds minor, i know… but makes a big difference. When I completely controlled my time, this worked well, but now a good third of my day belongs to work, so I need to adjust.
Previously, I would block my day into 3 blocks: AM, PM, and Eve and have those dedicated to a particular purpose each day. Now, especially since I am remote working and shifted out of timezone to my team by 6-7 hours (DST dependent) my mornings are now my nights and the rest of my time is full-on work focused.
Weekly Review consists of looking at what I planned to get done last week, doing a Plus, Minus, and Next (Actions) assessment on the week (which is lightweight and quick) and then moving into planning the 7+1 bucket system I’d adapted, and then allocating items to the blocks of the week. However, the sheer number of categories made achieving some of those plans difficult (3 blocks * 7 days = 21 items) and going back and looking at the past for this post surprisingly made me realize I often had more than 21 items in a week due to bucketing - which was a dumb bunny thing to do. I’d be busy and getting things done all week and then still feel deflated at week end in review not feeling I was getting all I meant to get done. 7 buckets also meant it was hard to keep in my head every day what I intended to get done and I’d often be going back to my desktop image to see what I was supposed to be doing next. I also found I would cherry pick things if I was feeling rushed that were easier. So, harder stuff, the stuff you really need to get done, would sometime get shoved.
So, I think an important part of my next system is one of recognizing constraint. I often estimate I can get more done in a week than I do. Limits need to be built-in as guardrails to my enthusiasm.
Also, focusing on what needs to essentially get done in a week, particularly for longer arc projects I need to complete (eg. coursework, setting up for academia, building the game etc) needs to be inherent. No more vanity metrics about number of things I ticked off my list. Especially for those things which will not progress merely through turning them into a habit. Moving forward longer term projects which tend to need sustained, deliberate practice over periods of time.
So, to make things easier and clearer I reduced essential weekly goals down to a 3 for work and 3 personal for each week. I then allocate them to a single intention each day of the 7 I have (so, one intention per day with a spare). Weirdly, just doing this already made my life feel more manageable (and scarily gave me a much better idea of how much I was actually getting done). I could keep what I wanted to get done in my head (even if written down) and having an intention per day where I feel whether the day is successful or not based on whether I achieved it suddenly made the days feel very productive, and weeks unambiguous in terms of progress or not. In fact, backporting this to the previous weeks to backtest reviews made me feel like I’d crushed past weeks (which I think I would not have felt if I’d looked at the previous system’s list of things.). I think I still need some more discipline (for example, I was supposed to focus on coding on the Sunday and did not), but overall, the system seems to hold though I do notice some of these tasks end up having ragged edges since even spending a day on some tasks simply doesn’t finish them.
The big point here is that focusing ruthlessly on what I needed to be accomplishing at the Week level, constrained by available slots and then assigning days made a major difference. So, bottom line, pick 3 personal things and 3 work things a week to figure out success for a week and allocate just one thing per day.
Simpler Buckets - SCIL System
While it may feel like it is simply a mental hack, and I’m just rebucketing buckets, I also realized that I mentally consider some of the 7 buckets as overlapping. Even though I focus on them separately, Relationships, Health, Me, and Mensch categories are proxies for Social, Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual categories from Stephen Covey’s “Sharpen the Saw” in his 7 Habits (not that I’m a particularly big fan of the book, but it was hard to ignore the parallel when I started thinking about it). Too many buckets means scattered intentions for the week. Diffuser focus. It also muddled habits with tasks which meant BAU predominated rather than new things that needed to be accomplished.
So, after some thought (and an easy acronym since I could not keep all 7 buckets in my head at times), I simplified the buckets into 4, with the addition of a task I’m calling RPP for Review, Planning, and Pruning (Pruning, the last idea is an addition because I find I don’t assess things and drop things that aren’t working as ruthlessly as I should, BAU pushed out new things.
So, I came up with the mnemonic SCIL+R
Put at the top of the list because I need to remember to put my sustainability and self-care first. The idea is taken from the old (apocryphal) Lincoln adage about spending the first four hours he has in 6 hours to cut down a tree by sharpening the saw so it makes the work more effective and produces the result intended. For me this closely corresponds to Steven Covey’s idea of recharging in the areas of Physical (Health), Social (Relationships), Emotional (Me), and Spiritual (Mensch… I’m not religions, but I think I get the same sort of feeling from helping people and charities.). It merges 4 buckets into 1 which is helpful though slightly worried mensch may suffer vs others.
I would like to be even more of a creator and maker. This areas speaks to things like writing, making, coding, founding, and expression that I feel add to and make better the fabric of my existence (and hopefully the world). I am specifically trying to distinguish this act of creation as a focus, not just because a great many of my tasks revolve around it, but also because it is something I derive a lot of genuine satisfaction and learning from as a byproduct.
Is really how I like to think about the things I need to maintain and grow but which require effort since they are not self-supporting and can run on autopilot. This involves a lot of areas such as portfolios of projects and investments, skills, tweaking things, and even people, in the cases of mentoring and the like, but felt this sounded more like what I was trying to do rather than just keep things level. In other words, how do I apply effort to improve particular things that I feel are important and grow and build them up over time?
ABL… Always Be Learning. Learning is a big area for me. Always nose in book, or developing a new skill, expanding my knowledge, or following my curiosity someplace that makes me better. Sometimes these things are about emphasizing existing strengths, sometimes shoring up weak areas, or sometimes just trying to pick up a new skill because I love learning, but this is such a pillar of my life that I now recognize it needs to be managed as distinct even if I’m not a full time academic.
RPP - Review, Plan, and Prune
This is really a direct and shameless steal from the 8+1 buckets system, even if I’ve got mine down to 4+1. Setting time for Weekly and Monthly Reviews and making them both visible and assessable felt like a big addition to making me more productive in 2020 (hopefully, I also do worry it’s just I had more time to focus on non-work things that made this year sail along.). The key thing here is making sure I have tasks, reflections. projects, and habits surrounding my own productivity. Slightly different than the Sharpen idea, this is literally about taking time out to make sure I’m explicitly focusing on the right things, progressing, being honest with myself, dropping the extraneous or irrelevant, and systematically making progress. Focusing more on this explicitly in 2020 rather than as an afterthought has already paid dividends and made me feel much more focused and accomplished.
So, how does it work? The above is more an framework for managing weeks and months after I’ve already figured out what I actually want to do strategically for a year, though obviously it is a feedback loop for those goals (and experiments too).
So, my plan on streamlining runs something like this on a weekly basis:
- Tracking the SCIL+R as habits I need to maintain each week (in harsh, my handy habit tracker) to make sure I am “filling” those buckets weekly
- A weekly review and planning session every Sunday where I:
- Review - Do a Plus, Minus, Next review and score the week (how I did)
- Plan the 4+1 bucket items (what to do next)
- Weekly plan where I set an intention for the week (SCI or L) as a focus, my top 3 tasks for work and my personal life to get done overall, and then distribute the bucket items over the week to see if I am simply trying to do too much (and need to cut back) (when to do it)
- A monthly review once a month looking at how I scored against bigger tasks and helping to make sure weeklies are progressing larger monthly goals.
(nb: An interesting little mental hack for me in the last few months has been making my weeks “start” on a Sunday, rather than Monday which somehow tricks my brain into planning and reviewing more habitually to make sure I am prepped for the week ahead, rather than scrambling to do so on Monday mornings.)
So, that’s about the current framework idea. I’m currently looking at a few tool(s) beyond emacs to see if those will make things better or if I have to tradeoff some of emacs' strengths but really just lose out to other weaknesses. Tools will probably be the subject of the next post in this (loose) series, just to talk about how my experiments went, pros and cons, and what I eventually landed on (even if I run screaming back to emacs.).
Let me know what you think about the post @awws or firstname.lastname@example.org. The system is still an experiment, so I’ll report back on how it fares after a quarter. I’d love to hear feedback about what else or similar thinking about what works for you. Even better, (reasoned) opinions on why I might be wrong and what might make it better.