Back in the Saddle

So many false starts. My journey as a knowledge worker has been a roller-coaster of periods where I've felt like I was managing my projects and caseload with an acceptable level of operational competence, combined with periods of feeling like I was reacting to the nearest deadlines or the loudest email or voicemail in my inbox. Through it all, since I graduated from law school and was hit in the face with the reality of being a professional, I've had two regular companions on my quest to achieve a level of focus and tranquility in my work: David Allen and Merlin Mann.

Being in Northern California, where Allen and Mann both live, and having an opporutnity for a complete change of scenery professionaly as I work out of our San Francisco office for a month has triggered a impulse to get back in the saddle and try to regain a sense of equilibrium with my work. I started, on the recommendation of a friend, to listen to Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin's podcast Back to Work, which has been a welcome distraction from the perplexingly long commute from Berkeley to the Presidio.

I've also decided to repurpose an abandoned MacBook Pro as my primary machine for getting things done. It's not my "work" machine - we're a solidly Microsoft shop - but I'm molding it into the machine I'll use to do work. For the first year of working at Pro Bono Net I (usually) dutifully avoided bringing in my own tech, but one day I finally decided I'd had enough of the friction I experience trying to do work only on my work-issued Windows machine, and as long as I'm not violating any kind of corporate policies, it can only be a good thing if I can eliminate cognitive friction and be better at my work.

Work documents stay on on the organizational file server or in Google Apps. The part of my workflow that I've moved over to Mac is emailing (with all correspondence saved to the company server) and, most importantly, project and task management. I've spent the better part of 8 years obsessing over the best tech and tools to manage my GTD system, and in the end, I always find myself gravitating back to the Mac, for reasons that I'll delve into in future posts. The important realization that made me feel like I could give myself permission to make this workflow change is that, at the end of the day - and to be totally morbid about it - if I get mauled by a psychotic clown in the street, as long as my office will not be worse off for my having moved what is essentially my personal organizer to a Mac, then there's absolutely no reason not to use the tools that I like to use.

I liken my decision to cops who, instead of using a department-issue six-shooter, decide to bring their own (and often better) guns to work. At least, that's what I think I've seen them do in the movies.  You know the movies I mean - the ones where there's an old cop who's one day from retirement who has a department-issue revolver, and he gets paired up with a young hotshot detective who has a Glock or a SIG Sauer or somesuch.  And there's a shootout with bank robbers with machne guns and the old cop gets shot and then... well, you know where I'm going with this.  

In case you couldn't tell, I don't actually know any cops.

It remains to be seen how long this latest iteration of my GTD system lasts - but something feels different this time. I think knowing that I'm geographically near two people who have been a big part of my development as a knowledge worker, and whose thinking on knowledge work and creativity has been an inspiration may be just enough of a shove to keep this push-cart moving this time around.

Apologies to all for book-ending this post with horribly mixed metaphors.

Getting Things Done with Google Tasks

Many who know me know that I'm a proponent of David Allen's Getting Things Done method of personal productivity management. There are a LOT of blog posts out there summarizing the methodology, so I won't duplicate work that's already been done (See what I did there? Productivity!), except to emphasize this very central point:

Getting Things Done requires you to keep complete and organized lists that you will actually use.

While this point may seem obvious to anyone who has even skimmed the book, it gets lost easily in the excitement of playing with a system that many believe promises to relieve you of stress, make you productive, get rid of all your junk and clutter, allow you to succeed in life, bake you a cake, and buy you a pony.

It's especially easy to forget this point for us geeks. Once a geek gets to the point in the book where David is talking about tools, and he mentions the Palm PDA (page 95 of the paperback, for those of you following along at home), the book probably gets thrown aside as the geek immediately performs a Google search for "best getting things done software application gear gadget perfection ultimate," leading to an epic time-suck of software and application reviews and comparisons. And thus, in the name of personal productivity, have countless hours been wasted by geeks and procrastinators 'round the world.

I was one of them. I still get the itch to look for the best new software and system. I've even tried to go the super-geek route by going completely Luddite and keeping my lists on notecards clipped together with a binder clip. (Also lovingly called the Hipster PDA, as made popular by Productivity Geek Extrordinaire, Merlin Mann.) Nothing says "geek" more than willfully rejecting technology completely. Or maybe that really says "ironic hipster" more than geek. Hmm...

Sometimes a new web-service or application would almost stick for me, and for a little while I'd almost hit that sweet spot of productivity where the system started to become a little invisible to me, and I was just Getting Things Done, instead of constantly tweaking the system. That was pretty rare though.

A lot of the software and web-services targeted at GTD'ers have abandoned the basic paradigm of paper lists (i.e. one piece of paper as a container for all the lists of a certain context) and opted to parse the tasks down to individual objects that can then be tagged with multiple context tags and priorities and due dates. Then, the user is required to create a myriad number of saved searches using filters, making the system pretty cool from a data-management perspective, but much more complicated than useful, in my opinion.

I submit that the tagging approach is actually antithetical to the beautiful simplicity of Getting Things Done. The point is to break things down by one context only. Priorities are to be determined when you scan your lists to figure out what to do - the importance of doing something in any particular moment is relative to the importance of doing any other thing on your lists. And if something has a deadline or due date, it probably should be on your calendar, which you are hopefully reviewing daily, first thing in the morning, to see if there's anything about to blow up in your face if you don't take care of it today.

The Google to The Rescue

When Google quietly launched Google Tasks in Gmail in 2008, I had pretty high hopes because, well, let's face it, I'm something of a Google fanboy. But more importantly, it had a simple interface and promised a synergy between processing emails and creating and completing tasks that really appealed to me. Unfortunately, the lack of an API that allowed third-party developers to create a mobile application that could access my tasks really killed it for me. However, last year Google launched a pretty good mobile web interface for tasks. That, plus having gotten lost in the weeds in another complicated and frustrating iPhone task app, prompted me to give it a shot. For now I think I've found a great, simple tool that balances the simplicity of paper with the convenience of cloud computing, and allows for direct linking of emails to a task better than anything else I've ever experienced.

The Setup: At a Computer

First things first: where are these Gmail Tasks I speak of? Many people may have never even noticed the link that Google snuck into Gmail, or maybe you clicked on it once when it was first launched and haven't paid attention to it since. It's in the top left of the Gmail interface. When you click on it, you'll see a window pop open in the bottom right of the Gmail window (where your chat window also opens up). You can actually pop that Tasks window out by clicking on the arrow in the upper-right hand part of the Tasks window.

One of the problems, at this point, if you're a GTD adherent, is that you'll realize that you can only see one list at a time. Which means, if you're faithfully organizing your lists by context, you may have an @computer list as well as an @office list, and you want to be able to look at both of them at the same time, because you want to be able to scan all of the commitments you have that you can handle in that moment, so you can make a good decision about what to do next. Only having one window was nearly a dealbreaker for me. It felt like keeping lists in a spiral notebook - I'd have to keep flipping back and forth to review the various tasks I had to take care of.

Then, thanks to this blog post on makeuseof.com I learned that you can actually create an application shortcut of the Gmail Tasks widget, which gives you a stand-alone window of your task lists. (You have to use the Google Chrome browser for this.) Plus, you can open as many instances of this widget as you like. Instead of being stuck only being able to view one list at a time you can have this:

So now, instead of having several lists bound up in a spiral notebook, my tasks lists are like separate loose sheets of paper that I can spread out on my desktop, so I can see everything that I could possibly do in a particular context. But unlike loose sheets of paper, my lists will never get rumpled or lost, and they don't have my chicken-scratch handwriting on them.

And the best part? From within Gmail, you can turn an email into a task, either by selecting "Add to tasks" from the "More Actions" menu, or by selecting an email and using the Shift+T keyboard shortcut. When you look at your task in the Tasks window, you'll see the subject of the email as the task description and a link that takes you directly to the original email, which is very handy when you get around to dealing with that email.

The Setup: on your phone

If you don't have an internet-capable phone then this doesn't apply to you. But for those of you who have a smartphone, all you have to do is navigate to gmail.com/tasks, and you'll have a mobile-optimized version of your Gmail Tasks. I use it on an iPhone, and while I would much rather have an app that allowed for offline use, Google has done a really good job with the web interface to make it very useable.

There's no way to show more than one list at a time on the iPhone, but that's okay. If i'm somewhere where I can knock off tasks from many different contexts at once, chances are I'm either at my office or at home, where I have access to a computer.

Not Perfect, But Close

I'm still hoping that there will be an API soon for Gmail Tasks, so some creative developers can start playing around with a different front-end application that uses the Tasks data (and will allow me to access tasks offline when I occasionally need it), but other than that gripe, I'm very happy with Gmail Tasks as a GTD tool, and I can finally stop looking at the system and just start doing things.