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GTD Refresh, Part 4: Getting Sorted

GTD Refresh, Part 4: Getting Sorted

File Folder

    Last week, I talked about finally getting my projects in order. Of course, that’s not a one-time thing, but I’m not quite ready to talk about the process of bringing new projects into my lists just yet, whether “on-the-fly” or as part of my weekly review.

    But getting a grip on my projects, both big (there’s a book proposal I want to write) and small (I need to find a decent dentist) is a two-step process. The first is what I described last week: identifying all my active projects and getting some next actions assigned to each of them. The other part of the process is setting myself up to actually do them.

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    In some cases, of course, I can just figure out what needs doing and go ahead and do it. But for the bigger projects, I need materials, and that means files.

    Maintaining files is a weak area for me, not because I, like any other full-blooded productivity geek, don’t have a healthy lustful appreciation of file folders and my standard-issue GTD label-maker, but because it’s the least interesting and fussiest part of doing anything. But I’m 1800 miles from home – if I am going to get anything done in this 5-week sojourn, I don’t have any room to forget anything crucial, or for being disorganized.

    I can’t think of anything less interesting than talking about putting paper in folders (except maybe actually putting paper in folders) and I’ve posted about filing before, so I won’t get into the mechanics of it all here, except to say that every project gets a folder (or sometimes a hard-bound notebook, if it will be unfolding over a long period of time) and every folder is neatly labeled. While a project is active, I’m careful to keep every scrap of paper related to it – I would rather have a little extra cleaning to do at a project’s close than find myself without something I didn’t know would be important down the line.

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    What I do want to talk about here is that perennial chestnut of personal productivity literature: paper vs. technology.

    Now, I’m a big old geek, no getting around that. I’m the kind of guy whose as likely to have his nose stuck in his Blackberry as not, who fantasizes about new home network configurations (I’ve got two old PCs under my kitchen table waiting to be repurposed…), and who travels with not one but two laptops. I love well-designed software that does a job beautifully, and love the searchability and security of keeping important information in electronic form, preferable backed up in multiple places.

    That said, I am as far from paperless as possible. My productivity system, indeed my office as a whole, is “paper-full”. For all the arguments against it – and believe me, the environmental impact alone pains me, though I try to use recycled paper whenever I can get it – I find paper is important. No paper, no productivity.

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    For one thing, I’m a writer. And while I am pretty comfortable letting words flow from my fingers through the keyboard to the screen, I can’t edit that way. I’m just not comfortable enough with the screen to read for any length of time at it, and especially not to do the kind of finicky re-thinking involved with a revision for publication.

    But that’s just for writing. My preference for paper goes way beyond just editing and revising. And here is where, I hope, it gets interesting for GTD’ers everywhere.

    There’s something very physical about GTD, or perhaps about working in general. Something about writing things down with pen or pencil on actual paper, about holding things in your hands, that acts as a trigger for action. Email, Evernote notes, tasks on online Todo lists – I find it all too easy to scroll through them, to glance at them and think “yes, that’s something that has to be done” and not actually do it.

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    But paper, something I hold in my hands, something I  physically manipulate… It’s as if physically interacting with my work in a material way triggers that animal part of me that feels the sun moving across the sky and knows that work must be done, and if not now, it will be too late.

    So while I use all manner of virtual technological tools to get things done, in the end most things funnel to a paper file – a nice, heavy file folder stuffed with papers. I buy decorative file folders for two reasons: a) they tend to be made of sturdier stock than plain folders, thus holding up to use better, and b) they are easily differentiated one from the other, making my work just that little bit easier to get to.

    When I’m ready to go to work, the folder comes out, the contents get scanned, and somehow, almost as if by magic, I get down to working. And things get done.

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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