Michael Koehler

Exploring the intersection of productivity, technology, and life.

Untrusted System

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Road Block

Photo Courtesy of Nate Grigg

In the GTD world, the two hardest things to do are picking a trusted system and making the weekly review a habit.  When I started practicing GTD I thought these were separate issues. I have since realized that they are deeply connected.  If you don’t trust your system, a weekly review is impossible.

In the last few posts I described how I started with GTD and started my search for my trusted system. This was my first road block.

As I mentioned, I started with paper. Just a project list and folders per project to hold the supporting paper documents. No next action lists yet, that was the next step. But, as one learns so often with GTD, sometimes the apparent next step is not really a next action. I quickly realized that picking a trusted system was the real next action, and paper was feeling wrong to me.

I like paper. It was a natural for reducing that pile of unresolved stuff into a project list. Fast and easy to add to, I made quick work of getting that stuff corralled. But in my gut I knew that actions are more ephemeral than projects. They come and go rapidly, and while paper allows for them to come, the only way to get them to go is cross them out. That feels good (something done!), but soon leaves that nice ordered list in a mess.

Adding to this was the reality that almost all my professional work came to me in email. So, I concluded that my trusted system had to be electronic. But that left a lot of options. So began my years of wandering through the wilderness of trusted systems.

My first try was to use Outlook. The David Allen Co. paper on setting up Outlook was enticing and Outlook was my most prolific inbox. There were also Outlook add-ins that promised to streamline the process and make it fast and simple. So off I went.

I emerged over a year later having tried nearly every way possible to make Outlook work and finally gave up. Outlook was great for email, calendar and contacts (I had even found some great add-ins that made it even better), but any attempt to bolt a project and next action tracking system onto Outlook tasks was never anything more than a kludge.

At that point my lists were in disarray and a weekly review was nothing more than a someday/maybe. I retreated to paper, but this time it was electronic paper. At least that way the cross outs as things got done could be cleaned up.

I looked at the multiple options and selected OneNote. OneNote is a fantastic program as it is basically a computerized shelf of three-ring binders. You can put anything in it. I had been using it for action support and reference for quite awhile, and loved it. I had even tried to leverage its ability to link with Outlook. Adding the project and action lists seemed the natural next step. Another year passed during which I discovered that the very thing that had made OneNote seem so perfect was its greatest weakness. To OneNote everything is a collection of electronic sheets of paper. I could make it handle lists easily enough but to OneNote they were just pages. I wanted something that linked my actions to their projects and OneNote had no idea there were projects and actions on those pages. I could fake it but the software was not going to help me. This was the core of the issue with Outlook, it knew what a task was, but when it came to projects it was clueless. I craved something with less friction, so while I stayed with OneNote I went looking for something else.

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Written by mwkoehler

2011/03/31 at 9:15 pm

Posted in GTD

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