The other day, Celia and I were walking in Boston’s beautiful Arnold Arboretum when she asked me who’d responded to an email I’d sent. When I pulled out my phone to answer her question, she said she felt she was walking with a third person, a stranger.
“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists…”
—Umberto Eco, SPIEGEL Interview, 2009
Managing my life
Are you blessed with a perfect memory? Me neither! To avoid unpleasant consequences, everyone like us needs a reliable way to keep track of things we have yet to do. As I age, my memory slowly deteriorates. But my life shows no sign of becoming simpler. There will be entries on my To Do list until the day I die.
Over the years I’ve tried many different methods to implement effective To Do lists and I’m sharing here the system I’ve used successfully for the last 7 years. I hope it will be useful information for anyone like me who has struggled to track and prioritize their personal life and professional work.
Creating a successful To Do list methodology
One of the reasons why it’s hard to track and prioritize To Dos is that we have a tendency to pick an available tool without first deciding what To Do list methodology will work for us. So many tools exist — simple written lists, elaborate day planners, electronic devices, software, apps, etc. Most of them have built into them an implicit methodology as to how we should manage our tasks. Unfortunately, one person’s methodological meat may be another’s poison.
After much experimentation, I have settled on using a combination of Kanban and Getting Things Done methodologies to capture and prioritize my life tasks.
The simple yet brilliant Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology doesn’t prescribe a complete system for organizing your life. Instead, it encapsulates only the essential workflow processes you need to follow to clear and organize your work-life, plus what you need to know in order to choose tools and procedures that work for you. Each person’s implementation of GTD is unique.
Kanban and GTD — a winning combination!
The essence of Personal Kanban is the creation and continual updating of three lists: To Do, Doing, and Done. Tasks migrate from To Do –> Doing –> Done as we work. Most practical implementations (including mine) add a Waiting For list, to capture top-of-mind tasks that currently require action outside our control before working on them.
To these core lists, GTD suggests adding separate lists for each set of project tasks. So I have a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Boston list (for when I am at our apartment there), a Book 3 list (for tasks remaining before I publish my next book) and lists for current client projects. I move tasks from these lists into and between the core Kanban lists through the review process.
Regular review and updating of your To Do implementation is essential for it to be useful. Schedule reviews in a way that works for you. I like to review my Kanban/GTD implementation at the beginning and end of each day, plus at any time when it’s not obvious to me what I should be doing next.
Implementation Trello is a superb tool for implementing Kanban/GTD; check here for more information on how I use it. When I’m occasionally deviceless (yes, it still happens in this oh-so-connected world) I rely on good old paper and pen to capture ideas and build short in-the-moment To Do lists, e.g. shopping lists. My manpurse holds a Levenger Pocket Briefcase, always filled with 3 x 5 cards, a Reporter’s Notebook, plus a variety of reliable pens, ensuring I can always fall back on a two-thousand year old method of making lists.
Amazing methodologies and technologies are available to us. Effectively planning and managing a complicated life can be easier and less stressful if you adopt approaches like Kanban/GTD and adapt them to work well for you. The choice is yours!
I’ve lost count of the number of To Do list managers I’ve tried over the years—there have been so many. Most recently, Omnifocus and Wunderlist were my repositories, but I eventually grew frustrated enough to dump them; nothing I’ve used has eliminated the time-honored alternative of writing notes on scraps of paper that get scattered around my desk.
I have been using Trello for the last six months, and I’m very happy with it. [Update in 2021: Six years later, it’s still my favorite to-do list manager!]
Here’s what I like about this nifty piece of software.
It runs on my desktops and mobile devices, syncing seamlessly between platforms. I can update my To Do lists anywhere. (Trello runs on Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, iOS 7+, Android 4+, and, should the spirit move you, your Kindle Fire HD – 2nd Gen.)
It works flawlessly. (Wunderlist, I’m looking at you—I shouldn’t need to frantically email tech support when all my lists vanish; yes, you did restore them for me which is very nice for a free service but…)
Trello can handle much more than To Do lists. I keep all my To Do’s on one Trello “board”, but you can easily create additional boards for projects that have more than a few associated tasks if that works better for you. (Or you could color code a project’s items so they stand out on your main To Do board. Or you could tag them. Or…)
It’s very flexible without being over-complex (Omnifocus, I’m talking about you.) I use a combination of Getting Things Done and Kanban methodologies, and Trello makes it a snap to extend the core Kanban model (To Do, Doing, Done) in any way you like. Each Trello board can have any number of Lists, and each list can hold any number of Cards, which are your basic individual action items. For an example look at my To Do board above, which includes a set of three priority To Do lists (cool, warm hot), a Brattleboro list (for things to do when I go into town), a Waiting list (off screen) for things I’m waiting for someone else to get back to me on, as well as Doing and Done lists.
Moving stuff about is a dream. On a desktop device, drag a card with your mouse to where you want it. No delay, just drag it to a new list and it pops into place. On a touch-screen, use your finger to drag; it works the same way. Wunderlist sometimes had annoying lags (“did I move it or not?”) while Trello just works—Steve Jobs would be proud.
More features are available when you need them, but they don’t get in the way. See this intro Trello board that lists some of the things you can do that maybe I’ll want to do some day.
Trello is free for the functionality I need. If you start using it inside an organization, you can purchase Trello Business Class, which costs $5 per user per month or $45 per user per year and adds administrative controls and security (plus export in CSV format; see below). That’s how they make money. At the time of writing, Trello has ~5 million users.
See why it’s my favorite to-do list manager?
Of course—nothing’s perfect! (But Trello comes close.) The main thing that’s a little disturbing is that all your data is stored by Trello and if the company’s massive server cloud was vaporized you’d lose all your lovely To Dos. The free version of Trello only allows export to JSON, which cannot be opened by Excel, and you’d need to use a JSON->CSV converter to get your To Dos in a form that us mere mortals can view and manipulate. The only other thing I find a little clumsy is the procedure to add or change a due date for a card, though writing this article led me to discover a world of Trello shortcuts which simplify such operations. (Yup, more evidence that the best way to learn about anything is to try and explain it.)
Sign up today! It doesn’t cost anything, and no salesperson will call. Want to explain to me why the To Do list manager you use is way better than this? Type away in the comments!
An important part of the Getting Things Done methodology, of which I’m a devotee, is a weekly review. For years I’ve struggled to consistently implement the GTD weekly review, but I’ve never been able to completely integrate it into my professional life. Creating a regular review habit isn’t easy for me, and, I suspect, for many. That’s why my success with a work life review could be valuable for you.
An accidental discovery
I fell into doing a work life review by chance. When I was an information technology consultant, I billed my clients at the end of each month. As I added up the billable hours I found myself thinking about the work I had just completed for them: the effort it took and the aspects I did or didn’t enjoy.
As the months went by, based on what I was noticing, I slowly started to make changes in:
How I was doing my work.
The kinds of work I promoted to potential clients.
The clients I chose to work for.
For example, I realized that working with clients who paid well but wanted me to be at their beck and call, or who treated me disrespectfully was not worth the stress and occasional unpleasantness I experienced. Over time I dropped these clients and became better at choosing work situations that were a better fit for me.
My monthly work life review became an essential part of my professional routine during my 23 years as an IT consultant. Twelve times a year, with the results of the past month’s work spread before me, I gave myself the opportunity to reflect on what had happened and what I might like to change. This practice made me a better consultant—and a happier one!
But I’m not a consultant!
Even if you’re not a consultant or self-employed, invariably there will be aspects of your work that you can make choices about, and a regular work life review will still be useful. Implementing a work life review is important because, in the constant rush to keep your business healthy and responsive or to keep up with the demands of your job, it’s easy to neglect to review the direction of and satisfaction with the work you perform. When you don’t take the time to do a regular work life review, your relationship with your work is likely to get stuck in a rut.
For example, during a review perhaps you’ll notice there are certain work tasks you like better than others. At some point you may be able to alter your job duties so they’re more aligned with what you’ve discovered you prefer. Or you get an opportunity to delegate activities that don’t fit with your abilities or interests. Being aware of what you want for your work environment makes you ready to act on openings that could appear at any time.
Even if your manager or boss directs every minute of your workday, a work life review can still be a useful exercise if you’re considering changing your job.
Getting in the habit
Convinced that a work life review would be useful for you? It’s helpful to tie it to a regular and appropriate work activity. Why? Because it’s hard to make time for, and easy to put off such optional activities. My end of the month billing was ideal, since it required me to review all the work I’d done over the previous four weeks. Look for similar kinds of reviews you already perform as part of your work. See if you can incorporate a work life review at the same times.
It’s important to schedule a regular review. Once a month worked well for me.
Here are questions to ask yourself during each work life review.
What activities am I spending time on?
How much do I enjoy working on each activity?
How stressful has my professional life been since the last review, and how is that related to the amount and type of work I’ve done?
Could I change my work emphasis to make my professional life more enjoyable/lucrative by:
Concentrating more of a particular subset of clients, or by giving up a client?
Focusing on the kinds of work I enjoy/find more lucrative?
Turning down work offers that my reviews indicate are not a good fit for me?
I didn’t find it necessary to include the development of action outcomes at the end of every review. Rather, I began to notice patterns over several months and these helped me make changes, both small and large, to my consulting practice when the right opportunities presented themselves. You may prefer, however, to include a brief evaluation at the end of each review, perhaps in writing, so that you can discover recurring themes from one review to the next.
I encourage you to develop your own design for your review. You may decide, like me, on an informal, intuitive review, or a more formal process with fixed questions, written responses, an evaluation, and action steps. Ultimately, creating a review that works for you and is easy to implement regularly is what’s most important.
Perhaps you already use a work life review? What do you do, and how has it affected your work life? Share your process and discoveries here. And if you are inspired to start a work life review, I’d love to hear how it works out!
I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years, and have learned a few things about working productively. During that time I:
Consulted on information technology for hundreds of companies.
Wrote and maintained almost a million lines of code.
Ran a couple of small non-profits (still do) and served on my local United Way Board.
Wrote Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and am now hard at work on my second book.
Along the way I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with different environments and work processes, always with the goal of improving my productivity. As you might expect of a proponent of the philosophy of risky learning, some things worked and some didn’t. I’ll reserve the things that didn’t for another post.
You may not have as much control over your work environment and process as I do. Nevertheless, perhaps you will find helpful some of what follows.
Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty
Twenty-five years ago I purchased two astronomically expensive high-quality office chairs. Until then I had sat on a sagging ancient chair rather like the one pictured. Hours spent in this chair had taken its toll. A kneeling chair replacement, while an improvement, was not comfortable for long periods. The marvelously adjustable Steelcases that made me gulp when I signed the check paid for themselves many times in adjustability, comfort, and eliminated physical therapy appointments.
A few years ago I replaced both chairs, and this time I was happy to sign the check.
In the same spirit, I learned the importance of correct ergonomics for computer keyboards and mice (later, touchpads). Long hours toiling over these machines translate to pain and discomfort if keyboard heights aren’t right and you don’t position pointing devices correctly. Don’t skimp on firm work-surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; you’re body will be the victim if you do.
Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office onto my home I spent serious time and money creating a space that I would find beautiful. Built at the northwest corner of my home, the office receives natural light from two sides and looks out onto a flourishing garden and beautiful Vermont stone walls and woods.
Knowing my appetite for workspace, I also took the opportunity to build about three times more beautiful custom desktop space than I thought I’d ever need. (A good thing I did—these days it’s pretty full most of the time.) Having a beautiful space for my work feeds my energy and spirit and helps me get through those times when I’m feeling creatively blocked and work isn’t going so well.
Getting Things Done
No question—until the day I die I’m going to have tasks on my to-do list. Being at peace with this reality in the here and now is hard. I am perpetually interested in exploring more than I can practically accomplish. As I age, my ability to keep track of and continually re-prioritize what’s important lessens. Embracing Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a lifesaver. I may always be trying to bite off more than I can chew, but GTD allows me to avoid being overwhelmed by the consequences of my curiosity. What many don’t understand about GTD, and what makes it so powerful, is that it doesn’t impose a specific implementation on you; it’s a framework that helps you build process customized for your needs. Here’s more information on why and how GTD works.
Highly flexible, continuously-on backup of digital stuff
I have one word for those of you young enough to miss the decades when personal computers were expensive, hard to use, and frequently broke. Lucky! I’ve spent too much time configuring and running expensive and all-too-fallible equipment designed to back up valuable digital data. Today, there’s no excuse for losing any of the ever-increasing quantities of information we entrust to our electronic gizmos. My four computers continually back up to each other (local back ups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote back ups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers).
You can easily back up to other computers or hard drives in the same location or across the internet (perhaps your friend’s business across town) or to hosted servers sitting elsewhere on the internet. The name of this magic is CrashPlan. (No, I do not get a penny for recommending their service.) If you’re not using a service like this with every computer you own these days you’re nuts.
Work in sprints, not marathons
It took me years to learn that working at a problem or task for hours on end without a break is not an optimum way to work. Please don’t make this mistake (no matter how young you are). Currently I decide on the task I want to work on, set a timer for twenty minutes, and work uninterruptedly until the timer sounds. Then I’ll take a break for five minutes and repeat two or three more times before taking a longer break. I came up with this approach myself; an almost identical version is called Pomodoro. The frequent breaks give my brain relaxed downtime to mull over a problem and, often, propose creative solutions. And I find it easier to ignore the lure of the modern environment of constant email and internet distractions by telling myself I’ll just work for twenty minutes first.
That’s my summary of what I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?
Have you ever thought about improving your personal work environment?
Your web browser has eight windows open, and each window sports at least half a dozen tabs. Your monitor is festooned with Post-it® notes. Hundreds of handwritten reminders, business cards, file folders, magazines with slips of paper peaking out, and unread articles litter your office desk.
Are you, perhaps, feeling a little overwhelmed by your personal work environment? If so, and this is a habitual state rather than an occasional, acceptable occurrence, read on!
Here is what I have found to be the most powerful tool that will help to restore your sanity when workspace chaos has expanded beyond your comfort zone. (You do have a comfort zone, I hope?)
Let’s start with a key question. Why is your personal working environment habitually and unacceptably out of control?
Answer: Because it’s reflecting a way of working that isn’t working for you.
So making changes in your physical environment, by buying twenty plastic filing trays, dumping sixteen piles of paper into file cabinets, switching to an iPad, or even setting fire to your office is not going to solve your long term problem.
What you need to do is change the way you work. And change, as we all know, is hard.
Luckily, a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time thinking (and written a lot of books) about how to make changes in how you work. I’ve worked for myself for the last 27 years, read many of these books and tried their techniques, usually with limited success.
Getting Things Done
Five years ago I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (known as GTD by devotees). Published in 2001, it’s still Amazon’s best selling book in the categories of Time Management, Health & Stress, and Self-Esteem. This doesn’t surprise me, as the book is brilliant. Unlike other productivity methodologies, it doesn’t prescribe a complete system for organizing your life. Instead, David explains clearly:
The essential workflow processes you need to follow to clear and organize your work-life; and
What you need to understand in order to choose tools and procedures that work for you.
Implementing GTD does not involve throwing out or changing all the ways you work now. Rather, Allen’s approach gives you both a powerful lens to see what is functional in your work-life, and a comprehensive framework for making improvements.
Creating GTD that works for you
Each person’s implementation of GTD is unique. One person may use file trays and 3 x 5 cards to capture “stuff”, another, GTD software running on a personal computer or mobile device. If email messages are piling up in your inbox, there are GTD approaches to keeping your head above water. Ultimately, you’re responsible for doing the work you need to do. GTD just provides a practical way to create the system that works best for you.
Am I 100% successful at implementing GTD in my work-life? No. Sometimes I find it difficult to maintain the necessary discipline. I also have some reservations about David Allen’s approach to reviews. But I have integrated GTD’s key features into how I work, and have obtained a significant increase in productivity. More importantly, I understand why my work environment can deteriorate and what to do if it does. Possessing this understanding is empowering for me.
I hope it is for you, too.
Do you use Getting Things Done? What’s been your experience? Or do you prefer another methodology to organize your personal work environment?
Every couple of weeks, in the free hour between my afternoon yoga class and evening men’s group, I head to the local library to work on my laptop.
Having just received a new 3G iPad, I left my heavy MacBook Pro behind and brought the iPad for its first test outside the office. I also brought Apple’s Keyboard Dock which combines a solid external keyboard with a convenient stand that holds the iPad upright. The combination was less than a quarter of the weight of my old laptop. Nice!
Here’s what surprised me while working at the library desk. The iPad, like the iPhone and iPod Touch, does one thing at a time. To switch apps you have to press the Home button, which suspends what you’re working on, and pick the next app. Writing an outline in Simplenote for an upcoming presentation and want to check your e-mail? Press Home, touch Mail, read mail, then press Home, touch Simplenote. Annoying, right? After all, any inexpensive netbook can run several programs at once and flip between them with a single mouse click.
Well, actually, I liked using the iPad better because I got more work done.
On the iPad, the app you’re currently using takes up the whole screen, so I wasn’t aware that more email or Tweets or stock price changes or new blog comments or <enter what distracts me here> had arrived. So I was able to concentrate on what I was working on. And the extra press/touch needed to switch apps acted as a small but significant disincentive to frequently multitask—so I stayed in my outline much longer than I would have done if I’d been using my laptop.
Yes, I admit it; I could use my laptop in exactly the same way if I was more disciplined. But, usually, I’m not. So this behavior of the iPad environment works for me in a situation when I want to stay focused on doing one thing.
I should be clear; the iPad isn’t going to be the optimum platform for all my work. When I’m moderating a chat, and need a Twitter client open plus multiple browser windows to research topics that surface, the iPad is not going to be my preferred computing platform (though dedicating it to one app during the session might well be useful). But my brief experiment confirmed that, for much of what I do away from the office, the iPad is a viable, and in one way superior, platform for getting things done.
Would using an iPad help you get things done better? Or would your life benefit more from the continuous availability of a multitasking computing environment?