My work rate is pretty insane. Even I suffer from lost productivity. In this post, I explore the main challenges I have seen across many organizations in the last 15 years.
In September 2005, my manager at Derby University at the time, Gareth Buxton, introduced me to the book Getting Things Done. I read it cover-to-cover and now have my own copy.
This book is now legendary in the area of personal productivity. Getting Things Done – GTD for short – is a way to remove all the stress associated with trying to manually keep many tasks on the go. GTD accomplished this through a very well-designed process of collecting tasks, processing them (adding context, splitting them, creating projects for more complex tasks), and eventually scheduling them or working through them.
I’ve tried to implement this three times in the past: once at Derby University (which was pretty successful for around four months), once whilst I was at edge IPK, and a third time whilst at MarkLogic. Each time, the approach lasted three months before falling to pieces.
I think it’s about time for another try. Before I do, though, I wanted to analyze why it may have failed before so I can avoid the same pitfalls this time around.
Problem #1: Application Integration
First of all, we are all slaves to our corporate overlords. Depending on the company, you may be forced to use particular applications. Your GTD strategy needs to fit into this world, as employees don’t have a way to change corporate tools across the board.
Most tasks start their life as either meeting notes, receiving emails, or phone calls, plus the occasional Skype, text, or IM message. I use Evernote for meeting notes (most of the time…). In my meeting notes, I tend to use asterisks or empty tick boxes (a very nice Evernote feature for to-do lists!) to document tasks.
Unfortunately, although most apps do integrate with Evernote, they expect new tasks to be documented one per note and in a single named notebook. This is just plain dumb – they live within notes rather than exist as notes themselves. Indeed, this goes against the very GTD philosophy of collecting simple task descriptions then, later on, fleshing them out with full details (i.e., with a note).
This impedance mismatch causes me extra time when logging tasks, and indeed I tend to slip back to simple TODO notes.
It's similar with email. I’ve seen some attempts at email integration before, but the simplest solution I’ve found is to forward an email to a collecting address from the GTD app (or indeed to a monitored Evernote notebook…), which is then captured and becomes a task.
The downside here is, again, one email per task. If only I could hit forward, add a bulleted list at the top of the forwarded email, and have that split into several tasks, all with the same email attachment, perhaps optionally grouped within a project.
Of course, no app does that properly or flexibly enough.
Likewise, I don’t tend to sit with my GTD app open all the time. Ideally, I want a way, after planning what to do in a day, to send those tasks to, for example, my Outlook tasks. Previously, I’ve ended up carrying my iPad around for GTD stuff (as it works offline, whereas many Mac GTD apps don’t! Weird!), or have multiple windows open (one email, one GitHub, one GTD…you get the idea).
In short, application integration needs to be much, much slicker. It also needs to cover as many apps out there (and crucially on a corporate desktop) as possible. Asana seems the best for this, whereas excellent GTD tools like facilethings.com have very few integrations.
Oh, and if you don’t have GitHub integration, then that sucks.
Problem #2: Teamwork
All GTD tools seem targeted at individuals. There is a folder for "Waiting on" in a GTD standard setup, but this doesn’t really enable me to track time spent waiting on projects – only the fact I am waiting.
Recurring checks are needed here to send chasers or reminders to others. These are manual and left to me to figure out when to do them. I effectively end up with an ever-increasing list of tasks I’m waiting for others on. This hardly reduces my stress levels.
A better way of supporting team working is needed. I like Asana’s approach to this of team collaboration within projects, but again, it relies on all workers using the same tool and using it in accordance with (complex) best practices. If only there was a way to track others’ progress – i.e., through forwarding “Yeah, I’m working on it, should be with you by Monday,” emails and adding a chase flag to them.
This tends not to be supported in GTD apps, which is a massive oversight.
Problem #3: Recurring Tasks
As mentioned above, everyone has recurring tasks. Expenses, weekly update reports (again, because the organization you work for doesn’t use your snazzy apps for this) – we all have and loathe these things.
Whereas apps do support (but don’t approve of) scheduling tasks to calendars, they don’t support recurring tasks as I would expect. For example, I may or may not on a particular week need to produce some content before a recurring meeting or task. There’s not typically an easy way to say, “Add these three things, but ensure they are done before this fourth thing already set as a recurring task.”
Even worse, if the recurring task is postponed (bi-weekly customer update meetings, anyone?), then you need to represent that in the dependency graph of tasks.
Most GTD programs support subtasks, but not “before-dependency” tasks. This is very common in the real world, though – tasks that only exist because of other tasks and are scheduled relative to them.
Problem #4: Work vs. Private Life
GTD apps encourage you to aspect all elements of your life in the same app. Problem is, our brains are context-sensitive. Using GTD apps, it is very, very easy to start doing 15-minute work tasks in your private time. This is unacceptable from a stress relief point of view.
I want a filter that can block work tasks and projects from view or notifications when I pull the shutters down. I shouldn’t have to see the myriad work projects hanging around the one home improvement project I’m working on this weekend.
It is very difficult to switch off when using GTD apps 24-7, yet it is vital if you don’t want the stress of having forgotten a very important personal task such as buying birthday gifts, getting the car serviced, or going to a doctors appointment.
Problem #5: Leisure and Rest Time
I recently discovered the Pomodoro method of task scheduling! Remember those cooking timers shaped like a tomato? The idea is that you turn on a timer (preferably a physical one that ticks, apparently), and work solidly for 25 minutes. You then take a 5-minute break doing something else before doing another Pomodoro sprint.
After four sprints (two hours) you take a longer break (i.e., take a walk, grab a coffee, grab lunch). During the Pomodoro, you do not respond to any interruption whatsoever. Instead, you call them back in the 5-minute window.
Sounds great in theory, but if my manager phones me, I want to know what they are asking immediately so I can then schedule the task, then ignore the call – not ignore the call, worry about it for 20 minutes, then get around to calling back and inevitably missing them, thus beginning a large stressful game of phone tag.
I’m sure it works for roles that do not have a lot of fast-moving communication, but software sales is not a good fit for this postpone interruption use case.
Problem #6: Shifting, Not Relieving, Stress
Imagine this: You’ve shifted all your tasks into a central repository so that you can’t possibly forget them. This is indeed a good bit of stress relief. You’ve even prioritized them and selected the tasks you want to do today.
So, you work through today’s lot. You add new tasks as they appear, but don’t do them now (unless, of course, they take only a couple of minutes…).
At the end of the day, you inevitably have not finished everything, as other things pop up. This leaves you 80% complete every day. That doesn’t leave me in my happy place – missing personal deadlines all the time.
You then look at the task list the next morning and find it has grown, not shrunk. Gulp.
You simply move the stress to the first thing the next morning, and indeed over time you learn to anticipate the stress waiting for you first thing.
Also, if you over-schedule tasks, you then see the time taken elongate past what you had planned and have to manually move tasks back in time. Not a good feeling.
The best call centers are productive because their staff says, “What’s next?” and are given a work item. They work through that until completion and then say, “What’s next?” once again.
This works because the user doesn’t need to manually go through tasks and prioritize them or schedule them – they just churn through them as they arrive. This truly removes stress from the engagement. (Yes, I do realize some call centers have targets like four minutes per call…but I’m talking about scheduling, not performing, stress).
I personally think the daily task review should just be about re-prioritization only. You then say, “Here are the time slots I have available today because I have lunch here with a friend, a call here, and a meeting here.” The GTD app should then push me the task that may fit into that slot by complexity or min/max time – and only give me tasks I can complete in those slots.
No more stress that way – just pushed tasks when I can complete them. I then could have the joy of gaining task complexity points – adding up all the relative complexities of the tasks to give me a daily score. Thus, it's no longer the number of tasks but the amount of actual performed work that I see. I see what I’ve done, not what I’ve missed or let slip.
No tools support this way of thinking about working yet, though. Although I’m sure you could manually simulate this…almost…
Problem #7: Reliability and Longevity of Tools
I used IQTell for about five months between August 2015 and January 2016. It was a great tool with lots of promise. Unfortunately, it’s developer and support teams were based in the USA. This meant when it (frequently) had stability issues, we in the UK would be unable to use it for eight hours at the time – until the Californians woke up! Utterly useless.
Although the integrations were great, the UI was a bit clunky, macros were unnecessarily complex, and stability caused me to kick this into touch.
Also, a lot of these GTD tools vendors are tiny, but you wouldn’t know from their websites. They could go bust tomorrow, leaving you well out in the cold, with your task list vanished! Even larger companies disappear or get bought by behemoths, so there’s always that worry, too.
Problem #8: Security and Information Governance
You never know what legal jurisdiction your information is stored in or who has access to it. Privacy statements are very poor, with many companies hiding the fact they do share your data with others.
I can’t use these tools for all my work at my day job because of the sensitivity of it. So, it’s just lower priority stuff. This creates an obvious issue – multiple silos of tasks and data.
I’d prefer a desktop app to store all the tasks, with point-to-point encrypted channels to sync with other devices I have. None of my data should be readable by the GTD app vendor. They may need to know that “Project 1” has 52 tasks with an average completion time of six hours, but they don’t need to know the title, notes, or details in order to provide me with that numerical insight.
All this stuff should be encrypted up the whazzoo, with my local apps able to send it to my local GTD application without forwarding emails or slurping my Evernote notes.
In short, these tools hold much promise, but until they fit into how I work, they are doomed to failure. I’ll keep looking to see if I can find a tool flexible enough to help me with my day job, and I’ll keep you posted!