Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Forty-three Folder Tickler File

I am splitting this out from the post that follows. This is a "Tickler File" that you use to keep track of things that should be done on a particular day.

This is a simple and amazing little tool. It is made up of forty-three manila folders -- one folder for each month (12), and one folder for each day (31). I have 12 side-tabbed folders with a label on each for each month, and 31 center-tabbed folders labeled with a number for each day. It becomes a rotating file system. You start with tomorrow's day number (say "10" since today is July 9), put "August" after "31", put "1" through "9" after "August", and "September" through "July" in back.

The folders contain anything that should be done on that day - a sheet of paper or 3x5 card with "do X" on it, or a bill that needs to be paid on that day, or a reminder to review locations for a vacation. For example, if you want to call your sister on her birthday August 5th, put a reminder card ("call sis") in the number "5" folder. If you need to do something in, say, October ("Check out where to buy pumpkins"), put it in the "October" folder. Then, when October comes around, either do it, or put it in the day that makes sense.

Tomorrow morning, the 10th, I look in the number "10" folder (the one in front), take out the things that need to be done, and place the "10" between the "9" and "September" folders. Now, "11" is in front. I do the things I pulled from the file (or defer, or whatever). Thus, it is an active file, each day rotating to the next month. When the month folder comes up (as in the "October" example), do or re-locate the items in the month folder.

Now, you could put these onto a regular or electronic calendar. The key is physicality. For example, I have my auto registration note in there on a particular date. This is the note from the DMV. Sure, I could have a reminder on the calendar to "pay registration." Then what? I see the reminder, and now I have to find the note. With the tickler file, the note is there. Or, if I want to call someone I met at a conference next week, I put their card in the folder for that day. When the day comes around, I see the card, and call the person. It is deceptively ingenious.

I did "Google" for a good link to create a tickler file - there are a few examples and entries. However, the ones I found seemed a lot more complicated than just the basic forty-three folder setup I have. My set ends up at about 1.5" thick, which makes it portable. I take it with me in my laptop bag, and place it between two metal L-shaped bookends on my desks.

The key, as mentioned in the book, is that it must be a trusted system. You must check and process the contents of the tickler file daily. If you are going away for a few days, check all folders until the day you get back for things that need to be done.

This is a really good tool.

Getting Things Done

June and the first part of July have been incredibly busy for me -- here I posted a review in May, and then kept quiet for two months!

What I have been doing lately is putting in place David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology. You can read the links, but in a nutshell, it is a set of processes and techniques for organizing your life. It is really more than a "time management" system. The concept is to capture all the things you have your attention on, deciding what to do with them, which then clears you mind of having to think about them, so you can focus on what you need and want to do, and then, get them done!

In the web blogging and free-lance development and graphics arts community, the concept of time management is huge. People like David Seah, companies like 37 Signals, blogs like 43 Folders, interesting low-tech tools like the Pocketmod and the Hipster PDA, all try to explore and find ways to maximize personal and business productivity. In this world, David Allen's Getting Things Done (or "GTD") is virtually a standard. Some practice it, some practice variants of it, some contrast their techniques with his, and some reject it, but nearly everyone references GTD.

As I started reading about personally productivity and trying various techniques out, I saw these references to GTD. Most of those writing about it tried to explain it in their own words. In so doing, they tended to emphasize parts and de-emphasize others (in other words, distort the program) based on their own problems in productivity they were addressing. As a result, I did not have a clear picture of it, and even had a bit of a negative view.

However, it became clear that I needed to read this book, since it is so influential in the community. As I started reading the book, it became clear that there is gold there.

Another thing became clear: GTD is much different from what I read about in the blogs. So, my first word of advice to those that want to do this, get the book!

Rather than describe the process, I will describe the results, at least some of them.

First, my office at work is cleaner and more organized than it has ever been. And, two months into this, it is still organized! This is huge.

In going through all my stuff, I determined what was actionable and what was not, and of the stuff that was not actionable, what should be kept and what should be trashed. And, of the stuff that should be kept, how it should be kept. This is key: It is one thing to have the manual to your wireless bluetooth headset that you know you should have somewhere. It is quite another to have a place for it and know exactly where it is! And get to it in seconds.

So, no more loose crap on the desk or in my office.

Second, I feel much more in control of what I'm doing. I know that I have captured all the things I need to think about or do that are important to me. That includes, for example, this blog post. Rather than have the twinge in the middle of the night "Oh no! I need to rotate my tires!," it is captured (and if it isn't, I can capture it right then). As a result, if I get an "Oh no!" midnight moment, the next moment I think "oh yeah -- got it," and go back to sleep. The result of that is less and less "oh no" moments. That is huge. That is part of what Allen refers to as "Mind like Water," a term borrowed from Martial Arts. Rather than being distracted by incomplete actions and little niggling things that are competing with each other to get my attention, they are addressed, "processed," and out of the way and off my mind. As a result, I can focus on the what I decide needs to be done.

The process of doing this has been like tectonic plates shifting. It is not an easy process. It is not completely straightforward. I read the book over and over and over as I went through the process. The book is really well written, but it is an overview, a set of guidelines. There are books like this, mostly written by experts in a field that know so much about the field that each sentence covers a general process that seem obvious when read (and written, no doubt), but when implemented show that there are a lot of details that need to be filled in.

David Allen gives the outline of the process in the book, but he does not lay down the exact step-by-step actions needed to actually do this. This is a good thing, since it allows for flexibility, but it also requires serious study and trial to come up with the details that work with you. This is one reason the blogs talking about GTD are so varied in how they describe it.

For example, Allen recommends having a calendar, but does not say whether it should be paper, a planner, or electronic. He does not recommend any particular tool for doing this. He recommends, but does not demand, a tickler file (something I have implemented and love, so far). He recommends, but does not demand, using checklists. He provides pretty broad guidelines. As a result, I was trying all sorts of specific ways to capture next actions, projects, etc.

He does cover the key principles very well -- the concept of "mind like water," the power of capturing everything, the power of "Next Actions," where the you define the next physical action that needs to be gone toward a project or goal, as opposed to vague todos like "Find a new barber" or "Organize garage."

As a result of going through this, I find that this is not a one-shot activity. You don't just implement GTD and go home. This is a process that morphs and changes as you work with it.

In my case, I found that using electronics is not necessarily a good way to implement GTD, especially if you are using a tool on a computer (as opposed to a hand-held). If you have, for example, a list of errands than need to be done when you are out in your car, having the list on your computer does nothing for you. In my case, I have a manila folder with one 3x5 card or sheet of paper for each errand that needs to be done. If I have a gift card from Target, say, I put the card in the folder so I have it when I am out and about and something takes me to target. I put my dry cleaning ticket in the same folder so I have it when I pick up my dry cleaning. GTD uses the concept of "contexts," which indicate the various places where you are when you do tasks, such as "at work," "on the computer," "on the phone," or, in this case, "running errands." If I am running errands in the car, I do not have my computer, so a low-tech folder is much better. Also, why write something on a list when the physical item, such as a dry-cleaning ticket in the Errands folder, does the job?

As a result, GTD can be a pretty physical discipline. It goes outside any possible electronic system you can have. I do have parts of the system on my computer. I use MindJet's Mind Manager to track a number of things. I am not convinced that electronic is necessarily the best way to go with GTD, though. Sometimes paper and pencil are the best technology!

Another physical tool that Allen recommends (and I briefly mentioned above) is the "tickler" file, which I broke out into a new post. This physical tool is just plain better than an electronic implementation, just as the physical "Errands" folder is better than having an electronic "Errands" list.

So, so far, so good. I am finding it a good set of guidelines. I am finding gaps that I am back-filling. I have tried one or two GTD-oriented task managers, and found that they do not work for me because of the physicality issue noted above. But, I have to say that this has been a major adjustment, but a good one. I recommend looking at it.