Getting Things Done and Tuning Out

I decided to start this year right and make yet another attempt at organizing my entire life. I decided to implement the suggestions in David Allen’s Getting Things Done (which has been collecting dust for over a year). My first order of business was to totally and ruthlessly extricate myself of distractions – specifically the internet. I know for many this sounds easy, but I’m an internet addict and my profession involves working in front of the computer.

The Problem
In previous organization attempts I halfheartedly reshuffled junk from one bin to another. Sure things were out of sight, but not out of mind. You would be amazed how something like “need to buy milk” can cause chaos when it’s swimming in your mind with the dozens of other little things you need to do (including clearing out your email inbox).

It also didn’t help that in the course of implementing a project I would also get preoccupied with instant messenger, social networking sites, and assorted junk media websites. So now my mind was at critical mass trying to focus on what had to be done, having tons of miscellaneous chores swimming in my subconscious, and then reading a “cool” link someone sent me on youtube or that I found on Reddit. My disorganization was making everything difficult and frustrating. Also, I work in a field of numerous context-switching. Few employers appreciate the fact that programmers can spend an hour or so just figuring out what the hell they’re doing when they’re suddenly distracted by telephone calls, impromptu meetings that don’t affect you, or suddenly yanked to another “high priority” project.

Something Had to Give
My mind was blown and I would either go stir-crazy or take control. The first order of business was to turn off instant messenger, check email only twice a day, and stay the hell away from Digg and Reddit. IM is something that many bosses require you to have now. Ever since I started working managers have asked me to either sign into IRC, ICQ, or AIM. I also used to check my email out of boredom or because I’m just plain obsessive compulsive. Reddit and Digg (in my way of rationalizing) was a programmer’s escape when I simply couldn’t think and needed my biological CPU to stop thinking so much. So, removing these things for a full business week for me was difficult at the beginning.

The Solution
Once I made the decision to block out the internet except for reading the news and checking my email twice daily, it was time to implement Getting Things Done (GTD). I first went through all my junk and cleared out most of it. I gathered a couple inboxes and started processing all my action items. I made a few next actions lists, project folders, and most importantly started using my calendar only for timed actions. No more putting my to-do list on the calendar. When you submit to this system one very important component is to review weekly or bi-weekly your lists and projects to ensure you’re still on track

The Result
It’s still too early since I’m on week one, but so far I’m really enjoying the system. One side-effect is that I’m so used to worrying about all the “stuff” that I have to do that I don’t know what to do with my extra time. For the first time in years, I have the time to fully develop my creative and analytical sides. I’m not burying my head in the sand and simply ignoring the little things I need to do, but processing and organizing them accordingly. I highly recommend this book for anyone that feels like they are just spinning their wheels creatively or productively. It took much discipline (and still does), but I feel very confident that I can pull this off.

Some Suggestions and Peculiarities
Besides Omnifocus & OmniOutliner for Mac, I found that most of my solutions were low-tech. I don’t have a smart phone, iPhone, or PDA and all of those didn’t quite fit my needs. GTD works very well with hi-tech or low-tech tools, but to me crisp paper suits me quite fine. Here is a list of things I used. Results will vary and you should use whatever tools help you to be more organized:

  • Moleskine journalist pad for capturing things for my in-box
  • 5 x 8 Moleskine for notes, journal, or doodling
  • I have a Moleskine weekly calendar which I love because you can glance the days on side and notes on the other page. If I do get tempted to write a list, it won’t be on the calendar itself
  • Omnifocus: There are other programs out there like Outlook, Things, and iGTD, but I have Omnifocus and it works great.
  • OmniOutliner: Man, I LOVE this app. I really enjoy being able to make a dropdown out of anything
  • iPod: I work well when my music is playing
  • Cambridge Limited Project Planning Notebook: Honestly, loose leaf will do, but this is great for making Next Actions Lists
  • Embrace Minimalism: If you don’t need it, trash it
  • lifehacker.com: I know everyone is a “geek” or “hacker” these days, but this blog has good suggestions

Conclusion
I still have to refine my system a bit and make things as simple as possible. I’ll update my progress in the following weeks, but I feel very good about things. If I am as ADD as my lovely wife says I am here’s a way to be productive without the need for drugs