26 June 2007


Organisation is a wonderful thing, and not all of us are innately good at it. Sometimes there are just so many things to do that it's hard to know where to start and what to do next. If you're interrupted and a new task arises, how do you deal with that? If it's quickly done, do you do it there and then, or put it on the pile? I've been pondering these things and have listened to a lot of productivity speeches, and it's all starting to gel.

"Email overload" is a well-worn phrase, but unfortunately if that's how your work arrives then you need to deal with it. All up, people attempt to send my firm around ## emails per day. Many don't even arrive, as the email system can see from the first few bytes that they're spam, and the connection is dropped. The rest of the spam is cleaned up at the next stage, so very little gets to my desktop. So all I'm left with is internal corporate spam, and real work. I've got to deal with it.

I've always liked GMail, but just like my work inbox, that inbox gets cluttered up as well with things to do. I read about GTDInbox (http://www.gtdinbox.com/) and found it intriguing. It's a GMail add-on that helps you utilise the principles of Getting Things Done (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done) by David Allen. I investigated this and have become quite interested in his approach. Very generally GTD focuses on actions and contexts, not projects. It encourages you to get things to do out of your head and into some sort of container where you can deal with them intelligently. The GTDInbox helps "Get tasks out of your head, answers 'What should I do next?', and reduces stress. Get things done."

Actions and contexts need to be explained. If the project is "renovate the office", then that's relatively daunting. However, there are specific actions to be done, just as if you'd delegate them to someone else. Each action (eg: choose light fittings) has a context - that is, it needs to be done in a certain place - on the phone, using the car, at work, at home, using the computer, going home from work, and so on. These are contexts. So, if you think of a task and write it down, then assign a context, then the next time you find yourself in that context you can just look up the tasks to be done in that context and do them all. You don't worry about the project per se - you just get things done and eventually the project gets done. So, I might have three tasks: take the cat to the vet (context: car), pick up dry cleaning (context: car), buy some grout (context: car). If I'm going to walk towards the car I stop, check my "bucket of actions" to see what I can do in the car context, and then go and do all of them.

A bucket

The bucket of actions could be a PDA (I like my iMate JAMin), or email, or a diary, or a notebook. It doesn't matter too much. In my case, since I'm pretty much online all the time I find email works well. Although my Outlook has dozens of folders, the main ones are "Next action", "Action", "Deferred", "Waiting on someone else", and "Archive" (i.e. Done). GTDInbox makes it very easy to assign contexts and actions to emails. So I can sit at my desk, check "Next actions" and do them and empty it, then move on to "Actions". When email arrives it is either assigned to Next Action or Action, or delegated, deleted or archived. If it takes less than 2 minutes to do, I do it there and then.

Now some of this is slightly wishful thinking, as it takes time to learn these things and change habits. Besides, there are many other productivity theories out there. HOwever, this one fits email perfectly. There's also a commercial Getting Things Done Outlook Add-In from Dave Allen's web site (http://www.davidco.com/) that works well with the system. Try it out - it might reduce stress and help you use technology more effectively.