Category Archives: GTD


Lessons Learned: 2009 – Principles to Live By

The past year has been a tumultuous one — learning to raise a child, traveling all over the place, both by myself and with my family, finishing my Ph.D., starting a company and a couple of side businesses, and much more.

This year I finally started keeping track of lessons learned, not on a per-incident basis, but in the form of ‘principles to live by’ — things I’ve noticed forming a pattern over time. I’ll preface this list by saying that these principles apply to me specifically — I won’t say that they’re appropriate for everyone. However, they might give you something to think about in terms of your own best practices. None of this is original either, but out of all of the advice I’ve read, these things have really worked for me. Without further ado:

Brock’s Principles to Live By Based on Personal Experience

  • Don’t exercise until done with work for the day
  • Don’t drink alcohol until done with work for the day – yes that includes irish cream in the coffee and a beer if you go out to lunch with people and they’re having beers.
  • Exercise regularly, both strength and aerobic
  • Get enough sleep
  • Limit caffeine consumption to the equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee per day, and none after lunch
  • Eat enough fiber
  • Plan your day
  • Don’t plan to do any work while watching an infant/toddler
  • Plan to clean/tidy/play while watching an infant/toddler
  • Limit work hours – work expands to fill the allotted time
  • Batch
  • Emphasize the positive, deemphasize the negative
  • Don’t complain
  • Know your goals
  • Say No
  • Don’t buy it if you can rent it, unless you’re going to use it regularly
  • Don’t keep it if you’re not going to use it regularly or unless it’s very hard to get. Give it away or sell it.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt
  • Clean environment – clean mind
  • Keep an accountability partner
  • Where possible, never leave any preparation to the day of an event — things always seem to pop up that prevent last-minute prep
  • Avoid instant messaging. It makes it too easy for conversations to drag on. Use email for asynchronous and phone for synchronous conversation.
  • Act professional in business, and give the best you can at the fairest price you can. It will pay itself back quickly and repeatedly.
  • Wait for the upgrade. You don’t have the time or money to be an early adopter anymore.
  • Pack lighter. You can almost always buy something you need there.

Much of this learning has been done through and inspired by the “Think Try Learn” / Edison philosophy/platform, now at v1.0. I’ve learned some other, more specific things through that site, including how to really increase my strength and musculature quickly, and how true the “what gets measured gets managed” mantra is.

What have you learned this year? Do you have any “principles to live by”?

Weighing Next Actions Using Prioritized Goals

Merlin Mann has uttered many sagacious phrases (and even sentences) about priorities. For example:

You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.


Astute as that is, how does it help you choose what to do when you sit down at your desk? Sure, there are the obvious things. But if one of your priorities is “start a company”, and another is “maintain my relationships with my wife and daughter”, there’s still a lot of ambiguity when deciding just what is the best thing to do next.

I’ve discovered that keeping an ordered list of goals (note, my actions are not ordered or “prioritized”) helps immensely. It has two main benefits:

  1. When considering adding a new next action, project, commitment, or whatever, it’s easy to look at or think about the list and say, “This does [not] match up with any of my goals. I will [not] incorporate it into my to-do list.
  2. When sitting down to plan your day (you do that, right?), it makes it easy to decide what goes on the list. Start at the top of the list of prioritized goals, and work down. Pick actions suitable to your energy level, setting, etc, that move you toward your most important goals first.

Of course, you can’t really assign priorities to your goals. They exist. You just have to think about them and then formalize them by writing them down. More wisdom from Merlin:

I think priorities are simple to understand precisely because their influence is so staggeringly clear and unavoidable to behold, then act upon. Ready for this one?

A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. Otherwise, it’s necessarily not a priority. [Emphasis his]

In my book, a priority is not simply a good idea; it’s a condition of reality that, when observed, causes you to reject every other thing in the universe – real, imagined, or prospective – in order to ensure that things related to the priority stay alive.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

Merlin on 43Folders (The entire post is definitely worth your time and a major part of the inspiration for what I’m writing here.)

Here’s the exercise to do for coming up with your ordered list of goals: think about what’s important to you in life. Really important. Everything-stops-for-it-important. Write it all down. Compare the items in your mind — if you had to choose between two of them, which one would come first? Repeat until they’re in order.

See, it’s insightful for Merlin to talk about how priority just happens, but it’s so easy to forget about what’s important to you when you’re sitting in front of a computer (or a blank canvas or staff sheet, or whatever). If you want a method to ensure that you stick to what’s really important to you when distractions abound, give it a try.

I’ll give you a real-life example of how this was useful for my wife Amanda and I. Between our jobs, our daughter, and her day care, we have very little time or money to spare these days. We were making a list of goals using the method I described above, and I said, “maybe we should pause Netflix for a while.” She said something about how we enjoy watching stuff from Netflix and we have so many interesting things queued up to watch. I thought for a second or two, and looked at the list of goals that we had so far made. I asked, “Where on that ranked list of things that are important to us does ‘sitting together not interacting and watching tv shows and movies’ fit?”. She replied: “pause it”.

What are you still doing that wouldn’t make it onto your list? What aren’t you doing that would?

Review: Where the !@#% did my day go?

I’ve been using daily planning techniques, in the form of “big rocks”, since October 2007. In fact, I left a comment on Matthew Cornell’s blog about it about a year ago (his post is here).

Matt’s been testing and honing his ideas on daily planning as an addition to a GTD-like system, and I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the results: his new eBook on daily planning, Where the !@#% did my day go?.

Despite having practiced daily planning paired with GTD for almost two years (and GTD for nearly four), I found several new gems in the book. In particular, the practice of inserting everything into the daily plan, including calendar and inbox-checking tasks, is new to me and will help streamline my current process. I opted to skip the ‘getting started’ phase of the book and the one-week challenge, given my experience, but I found that they really covered the nuances of the practice well. Furthermore, every pitfall that I’ve encountered in daily planning was addressed by Matt later in the book.

Matt also detailed a number of experiments to try, to help hone the system for one’s individual needs. These covered every single experiment and metric I’ve run on my daily planning, and added several more that I’m considering trying. Ultimately he suggests trying for a “touchdown” — finishing all of the tasks on the list. This is the rule for me, rather than the exception. It provides a really nice feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day, a feeling I couldn’t get from looking at my list of remaining, actionable tasks in PHPMyGTD (20-80 normally, I prefer to keep it below 40).

I found very little to criticize in the book, and most of it can be traced back to personal preference. For instance, Matt mentioned the use of an accountability partner for holding to one’s daily plans. For me this makes a massive difference in my discipline, enough that I created, a site for finding accountability partners. (It’s unfortunately not really active at the moment.) I also find it really helpful to estimate the time required for each task explicitly and then write it down, reporting back to my accountability partner each day how the actual times matched up to the estimates. On the whole, however, the book is nothing short of an excellent introduction and manual for daily planning practice. If only this book had been in my hands two years ago when I started this practice, I could have saved myself months of tinkering and lost time.

Inbox Census

Per Matthew Cornell’s Inboxes of Our Lives post, I decided it was time for an inbox census.

  1. Mailbox – this is outside and gets dumped into the next one before anything else is done with the contents
  2. Landing strip inbox – This is a letter tray. I throw in mailbox stuff and anything I find around the dining room that needs to be put away. This is emptied primarily into the inboxes in the office downstairs. Sort of a transitory inbox, like the mailbox.
  3. Shower slate – Yes, I have an inbox in the shower. It’s a plastic slate designed for use by scuba divers. Great for those ideas that always seem to hit you in the shower, far from most paper, pens, or electronic note-taking devices.
  4. My side of the dresser – We have a long, waist-high dresser in the bedroom. Typically my receipts and so on get dumped there. Now and then these go in the landing strip inbox and are processed from there. This needs revision so that there’s a proper inbox, plus probably a tray for the things that live in my pockets. This is also mainly a holding location.
  5. Desk inbox – This is one of the main inboxes, where all of the stuff from upstairs and that I generate at my desk ends up before it’s processed. Pretty conventional GTD.
  6. Computer desktop inbox – I have a folder on the Desktop on each of my computers called Inbox, which is symlinked to my home directory as well (mv foo ~/Inbox/ is handy). I’ve tried putting these on Dropbox so that I only have one inbox across all of my computers, but some of the files end up being pretty large, which clogs the Dropbox sync. So I don’t do that anymore. Important: any program that has an optional default download location, I set to dump files in this directory, not on the desktop or a ‘Downloads’ folder, which is totally a one-trick pony.
  7. Other computer inboxes – I have a number of shell accounts on clusters, my web server, and so on. Each of these has an Inbox, but it’s typically used only locally. For example, if I need to send some files to our cluster, I usually scp them to machine:~/Inbox/. Then I know where to find new files on each machine.
  8. Jott – I normally check Jott using Jott Express, on my computer. I’ve started using Jott Express to add new items as well, rather than writing them on pieces of paper and putting them in the paper inbox. The nice things about this are (1) I can add to it via SMS, (2) I can add to it via a voice call, which is transcribed, and (3) it’s the same on all of my computers, as it’s hosted on Jott’s servers.
  9. Work bench – Okay, this one is really sad to look at. Whenever anything needs filing away in the storage room, I throw it on the workbench. This makes the workbench useless for actual work. I need a big box on the workbench, or to put stuff away directly. I do like batching the storage room stuff, so I think I may go the big box route.
  10. Meditation notebook – If you’ve ever tried mindfulness meditation or the like, you’ve surely experienced the flood of things bouncing around in your head that you didn’t even know were there before. Meditation can be like going through David Allen’s trigger list, only better. A lot of teachers will advise you to just let the thoughts pass. That’s anathema to a GTD fanatic like me. Why let them continue to bounce around in your head (or — eek — disappear)? They need to be out! On paper or something! So I keep a notebook and pen nearby when meditating. When something important pops up, I write it down and go back to meditating. The thoughts don’t bother me any more, and I know that they’ll get into the system. I typically empty this one right after sitting.

I think that’s it. Clearly there are some inboxes that could use tweaking. I didn’t explicitly realize before that I had ‘feeder’ or ‘holding’ inboxes and ‘real’ inboxes, but there it is. Most of them arose because I find I’ll inbox (did I just verb that?) things more readily if there’s an inbox handy, rather than having to go downstairs or whatever. How many inboxes do you have? Any strange or otherwise interesting ones? How many are feeders?