Mind like Tomatoes

After an interesting exchange with a fellow blogger I feel the need to map out a bit more thoroughly than last time the pragmatic mashup of GTD and The Pomodoro Technique that is the method of my current madness. This is then a post about methods...aargh  and I am (strange to say) not much of a method wonk. No really. It is all too common to see productivity methods and the tools that go with them (generally software) become precisely the kind of mental tar-baby that we were trying to avoid by adopting them : goofing around with new software is probably less mentally challenging than dealing with you piles and files. The thing that has always endeared and adhered GTD to me is just that it works for me. Other methods, Covey et al, bounced off my polished procrastination, leaving me feeling guilty. GTD allows me to do things that would otherwise not happen. It sticks with me despite my ability to go haring off after any gaily apparelled concept that trots past. It is just fierce enough to make me do the thinking I need to do but not so grim that I despair of satisfying its constraints : hence the affection and enthusiasm.

GTD evolved out of the kind of busy commercial middle and executive management environment Peter Drucker wrote for. Its bones and brains were honed against a deluge of inputs and interrupts, lack of clarity, moving targets and the pressing need to remain sane while keeping an ever increasing number of plates safely spinning. It is indeed about "getting things done" and the unsaid follow-up is "despite your screw-ball environment". The assumption is that the (for me unsung) rigourous process of defining a Next Action will automatically chunk things into a size you can focus long enough to handle. That is mostly true, but not always. Read more...


Of Tomatoes and Discipline

Discipline. Now that's an old-fashioned word. It conjures up images of strict parents, being stood in the corner, being unable to do what you want; but there is another side. Any skill that takes dedication and focus is also called a "discipline". The image there is of perfecting a movement, refining your understanding, excluding distraction. The common theme is focus, excluding one thing so that another can be successful, pouring your energy into one bright spot, rather than dissipating it over a wide field. Read more...


Thymer and Remember the Milk

I have a pretty strong distrust of anything that claims to automate your GTD process: most of them claim more attention than they relieve and become jobs in themselves. Nevertheless I do need somewhere to park my next actions at home. Work is wall-to-wall Outlook and I synch it down to my smartphone, but at home I use gmail for email and a low-tech wall-calendar for agenda items because the children can use it too. I looked at both Thymer and Remember the Milk as candidates, please do not write in to tell me that there are others...

Thymer has a very elegant interface, uncluttered and fluid and I found it very pleasant to use, but it is not quite my GTD cup of tea: tasks get hung on a timeline, there is an emphasis on timing activities (great if you charge time) and the ability to bump a task onto a later date is a way of setting priorities. You are basically loading a day with tasks off your inventory and pushing back everything you do not regard as urgent and important. That is rather like Michael Linenberger's approach, not incompatible with GTD, but priorities play a bigger role than I like. Projects are nicely implemented and Thymer makes it easy to share a project with someone else. I suspect that Thymer might work very well for time-driven project groups working from a bill-of-work, but it did not suit me. I also missed the ability to synchronize, Thymer is expecting to be your desktop and does not talk to anything else. Thymer is freemium, there is a very basic version for free and you pay a monthly subscription for the full product and group usage.

Remember the Milk has slightly clunkier tabbed interface, orientated around an inbox. It lets you set up task groups any way you like and synchs reliably with my Windows Mobile smartphone and reputedly also with iPhones. Cute, but currently not very necessary for me is the Twitter interface: a well-aimed tweet will insert a to-do into your RTM account. RTM is definitely less fun to use than Thymer, the interface needs two clicks to complete a task for instance, but they win on synchronisation ability:  I like to have the same task list at home and work.


GTD Unplugged


What goes around comes around and one of my hobby-horses has come around again. My personal approach to GTD coaching is to emphasis the mental game. It is not about having a particular set of macro's or a specific tool. It is about how you think. For me this is very basic, but I keep having to prise people away from a technology of some kind and demand they do their own thinking.

It is a  great human weakness to wish for a magic wand, the device, glistening and replete with hard-coded wisdom, that will fix your wagon for good. It should dovetail itself to your psyche without actually needing any kind of conversation with your conciousness or change on your part whatsoever.

No dice.

This applies in many fields of effort. I remember consulting with a company which insisted that only the promised following version of a particular bit of call-center software would enable them to do their jobs properly. One of my other clients had the same job to do. For that client is was executed by an experienced and painstaking man with a bunch of file cards and an excel spreadsheet.

This particular train of thought was sparked for me by a course I gave recently, my super-fast half-day GTD intro, in which a lady sat who, without being difficult about it, had already implemented the behaviors I was describing with simple tools. This was for the good and sufficient reason that she had what Dutch people call a Duo-Baan or shared job. She and her job-partner rarely met, but remained in absolute synch with each other by exchanging lists. She had knife-sharp Next Actions, well-defined Waiting Fors and a complete project list all set up in Excel and paper files. Her partner could walk in and pick up everything that was relevant immediately.

The tools are not important. Clarity is important. Completeness is important and above all Thinking It Through until it is blisteringly explicit is very, very important. If you can get those things right you could probably use trained rats and parchment to run your life.


GTD and the Pomodoro technique

I have been working seriously with the Pomodoro technique recently. I find it genuinely useful for achieving focus on a single extensive task. I used it to plow my way through an extensive e-learning trajectory (3 hours of material) and to focus on writing documents.

Engaging with the Pomodoro technique made me realise that GTD offers relatively little in the way of strategies for executing, so Pomodoro fits nicely into the DO layer of GTD.

If you want to integrate GTD with pomodoro all you need to do is use the work inventory aspect of GTD, look carefully at your Next Actions and select any that you want to move on that need a substantial effort (30+ minutes). These you can block into your diary as pomodoros. I tend to label tasks as "Review course training material 2PD" which means that I should block out 2 pomodoros worth. I do use a pomodoro sheet to record my progress on pomodoro tasks, but I process the "urgent and unplanned" part of the sheet back into GTD.

An unexpected and not totally welcome effect of Pomodoro-ing is that you suddenly realize quite how little focussed intensive effort you manage in one day. My current record is six Pomodoros, though it should be said that I am currently only 60% available as I am recovering from an eye operation. The technique also makes it very visible when you under or overestimate the time needed for a task.

If you have some kind of standard block of intensive work (perhaps a regular report to write) I recommend blocking it out in Pomodoros and seeing how your estimate of the time needed matches up to reality.

Where GTD conflicts a little with Pomodoro is the handling of interruptions. In GTD the emphasis is on flexibiltity: you snap round, handle the interruption and then return to the inventory of your work, perhaps with a different focus as a result of the interruption. Pomodoro emphasises remaining focussed on the task at hand, straight-arming incoming interruptions to handle after the pomodoro has expired. Both have their advantages. As I gain more experience mixing the techniques I will post further thoughts.


Burning up your will-power

I got very interested recently in experiments being done in the field of "ego depletion". The theory proposes that humans have a  limited quantity of "ego" or willpower. When you exercise self-control you use up this resource and will then be less able to persist with other tasks. In the classic experiment of this field hungry subjects were left with plates of radishes and chocolate-chip biscuits. Half of the subjects were allowed to eat the biscuist and the other half were asked to only eat radishes and ignore the biscuits. The subjects then had to try to complete a difficult puzzle that was, unbeknownst to them, impossible.

The "biscuit-resisters" gave up much earlier than the people who were allowed to eat biscuits and they were more tired at the end of the experiment. Later experiments with tasks that were not impossible showed that people who had not had to "burn willpower" resisting a normal impulse were much better at the task. They got better results. I looks as if "ego" is also needed for complicated thinking, like a sort of mental jet-fuel.

It is of course dangerous to glibly apply a limited experiment to the complexities of everyday life, but the image of will-power being drained away by resisting temptation is very appealing and aligns with many experiences we all share: the fatigue of resisting an impulse, a bad habit, the catastrophic results of trying to adopt several "good habits" at once.

If we do accept these results, what can be do to use them in ordinary life?

  1. Allow for reduced performance
    If you are resisting a bad habit you are depleting your willpower and will be less able to keep going in other areas needing persistance or higher level performance. If you are having to keep yourself to a strict diet you will not be as sharp as you might otherwise be...
  2. Don't try to do everything at once
    If willpower is being use for five different things there will be less of it available for each of them, so you risk failing to complete anything. This is very like the classic advice on goals: one or two give you focus, twelve is a recipe for failure.
  3. Limit the time you spend exerting willpower
    If you stay in the room with the chocolate-chip cookies too long you are burning will-power all the time. Stay there too long and you may "snap" and grab a handful! The whole point of exerting willpower is to create a success, to visibly, tangibly and emotionally succeed in controlling your own behaviour. Mark that moment very conciously, reward yourself and then back off to give your will-power a chance to recharge!

Training e-mail


I recently ran a course for a group of colleagues on e-mail handling. Though this is one of the classic benefits of GTD,  getting to grips with e-mail, it is one I have slightly avoided teaching or coaching. For me the chief benefit of GTD is that it clarifies your thinking; as a result you do not get snowed under so easily. Many e-mail handling courses are merely "go-faster" tricks for Outlook and fancy macros. That covers up the real problem. To handle e-mail, voicemail, drive-by bosses and a day chock-full of meetings you do not need macros or short-cut keys. You need to be able to think clearly and productively about one thing. Finish that thinking, store the result and refocus rapidly on the next thing. Read more...


My life as a dog


One of the things David Allen says about thinking and focus, is that "it's not about whether the information is available, it's about whether you are available to the information".  Forget the nutty, mystical stuff where people think that imagining their dream life will cause it to appear. This is all about what you notice, what opportunities you take and what you filter out.



The purpose of meetings...

I was inspired by this post at 43 folders to start thinking about meetings. I seem to be at different meetings to most people, perhaps because I have the luxury of running many of the ones I attend. Many posters complained that meetings they were attending were boring or irrelevant. I may be a bit hard-assed here, but I feel that you should then be questioning  the purpose of the meeting. It is highly professional to say respectfully and without malice that a meeting is not relevant to you.

Of course being able to say that with conviction depends on knowing the purpose of the meeting! My favourite question for starting any meeting is, "why are we doing this? What do we hope to achieve?". You would not believe how often people give me blank looks or contradictory answers. Do not back down from this question. You need to quickly determine the purpose of the meeting, so that you can work out what your outcome is. If you cannot see any useful outcome inside the meeting then state that in a respectful way and depart: you will be more productive elsewhere.

Another benefit of asking the why question is that it gives everyone a common focus. If a number of people do not agree on the desired outcome then you need to have that conversation before trying to decide anything else. Everyone needs to be pulling in more-or-less the same direction!

Once the outcome is clear the job of the chair is much easier: it is to ensure that everyone remains focussed on achieving the outcome agreed to at the beginning. Having clarity about purpose, is crucial: it allows her to decide whether what is being said is germane. If we all know that we are deciding how to handle a specific risk to the project, rough-up figures for the product introduction or choose a training programme for next year it will be clear when someone is going down a "rabbit trail" and you can close them down without friction.

I also feel that I have an obligation towards any meeting I attend: I must ensure that I understand what is going on or I shall not be able to contribute usefully. That is why I ask questions about anything I do not understand.

Finally, at the end of the meeting, you can check whether you achieved your outcome.

That is the quality check: did we do enough in this meeting or are there more actions needed to achieve the desired outcome? What next-actions did we define, for who? Do not wait until the last minute to call for next-actions, it always takes a little while to get that clarified.

Question for you fine folks: how do you keep meetings on track? What are your golden rules?


How well is your presentation going?

Birmingham University in the UK used to have something called a "lecture cube" for gauging the speed or uptake of a lecture. It was red on two sides, white on two more and green on the remaining two.

Depending on how the students placed them on their desks, the lecturer would see a field of colour in the audience that would let him know if he was too fast/obscure (red) or too slow (white). Green meant just right...

This sounds like a device that would be useful in big meetings. Looking around the room and seeing a lot of red would mean you have wandered off topic.