Moving Projects Forward

One of my favorite benefits of following a GTD workflow is that it eliminates a lot of the decision making for you. When it’s time to get work done, just fire up your task manager of choice, switch to your list of available next actions, and pick one. Having defined, physical next actions for each of your projects is the key to moving them forward. But sometimes you can get stuck and lose momentum. You may forget why a project is important.

I’ve found that this can happen for long running projects or for projects that aren’t clearly defined with next actions. For the latter, the solution is simple. Move your focus all the way down your hierarchy of tasks and come up with the very next physical thing you can do to move the project ahead. No matter how small that action might be, it will count as forward progress if you do it. And that might just be enough to get you going again.

But for projects and tasks that have been on your mind for seemingly ever, or for those that you just don’t remember why you signed up for them in the first place, it can be helpful to go in the opposite direction.

Take a look at the task you’re procrastinating on and move up a level to its parent. Do you remember why you added that to your list? If it’s a project, are you still committed to doing it? If you’re not sure, go up another level. Is it clear why that is important to you?

You can repeat this process all the way up to your areas of focus. Is it your career? Your side business? Your family? Whichever area you land on, it should be an important tent-pole in your life. You should be able to make the connection between why it is important to you and how that one small action can move you closer to your goal. And, hopefully, that’ll be the motivation you need to get un-stuck and moving forward again.

Permission to Forget

I think it was David Allen who said you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. It’s ironic how an attempt to do everything will actually keep you from doing anything. —Shawn Blanc

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I had reached “OmniFocus Zero”. I pulled up my available tasks one morning only to find that I had nothing to do. That’s not to say that there were no more tasks waiting for me in OmniFocus, it’s just that my Available perspective was empty. I had nothing due that day and no tasks that weren’t blocked or waiting on someone else.

A few of my GTD-doing friends expressed disbelief. How could everything be done? The simple answer is that I’m ruthless. I’m ruthless when it comes to delegating, deleting, and deferring until later.

I do my weekly review every Monday morning. One of my favorite things is when I come across a task that is no longer relevant to my life. That means I can delete it. Not only from my task manager, but, more importantly, from my brain. It’s one less open loop flying around my mind.

But it wasn’t always like this. I used to be a task hoarder. I’d write down absolutely everything, and never get rid of anything. I’d just keep kicking the can down the road foolishly and naively thinking I’d get to all of those tasks someday.

The trick I finally learned was to give yourself permission to forget. You have to make a ruthless decision and give yourself permission to admit that you’re never going to get around to that task and just delete it. If you have an item on your task list that is causing you anxiety because you just can’t get around to doing it – then maybe it’s not really something you’re committed to doing at all. Get rid of it.

You have to come to the realization that you can’t do everything. Sometimes, one concrete action is all you need to keep moving forward.

Moving to a More Comprehensive Weekly Review

Your weekly review is probably the key to keeping your trusted system running smoothly and most importantly out of your mind. For years, my review was little more than going through my list of projects every Sunday morning and making sure each was in an acceptable state.

But after reading Kourosh Dini’s wonderful book Creating Flow with OmniFocus, I’ve taken his advice and implemented a more comprehensive weekly review that covers more than just my list of projects. It’s designed to be a whole review of every system in my life that accepts incoming data or holds reference material. This holistic approach does a much better job at keeping my mind free of open loops and all of my concerns written down in a trusted location.

To start with, I now have a “Weekly Review” project filled with all the action items it takes to complete my review each week. This project is on hold so the tasks don’t pollute any of my perspectives. When it’s time for a review, I drag the project to the top of the project list while holding down the Option key on my keyboard. This tells OmniFocus to create a copy of the project rather than just re-ordering it in the list. Once the copy is created, I rename it with the date (ex: “Weekly Review 2017-09-25”) and mark it as active. I then focus on the project and begin working my way down through all the action items – checking them off as I go.

Here’s what my weekly review project looks like…

The first task is to go through all of my inboxes and process anything remaining in them. This includes, of course, OmniFocus but also Evernote, DEVONthink, and a physical inbox for postal mail. This process is pretty painless. It’s just a matter of taking a few minutes and putting everything you’ve collected over the last week into its proper, organized place.

Next up is a review of all of the projects in my OmniFocus database. I won’t go into too much detail about this. If you’re curious, you can read Getting Things Done or Creating Flow with OmniFocus – as each one talks extensively about how to do a proper review. For me, it’s a brief moment to meditate on each project and make sure 1) there’s a next action waiting to be done and 2) there are no extra thoughts or tasks about this project bouncing around in my head that I haven’t written down.

After reviewing all of my projects, I specifically pull up a perspective showing me all of the errands I have to run. This creates a solid foundation in my head of where I need to eventually go around town throughout the week. Most of these tasks don’t have due dates. Rather, they just need to be done in the near future as appropriate.

Following my errands I do a quick look over of all my custom perspectives in OmniFocus. I’m looking at each one and deciding if 1) is this perspective still relevant and something I look at frequently? If not, I delete it. 2) Is it still showing me the correct data I need to see? If not, I adjust its settings. And 3) Can I think of any other common “queries” or views of my database that I could turn into new perspectives?

The next two calendar tasks help keep me grounded. I do a quick review of what’s been on my schedule the past two weeks, which can often jog a few extra followup items out of my head. And then I get a lay of the land for the next six weeks. This, too, can shake loose tasks related to your calendar events that may have been skipped over or forgotten.

Last, is a section where I add any other recurring things I need to check in on. Currently, that’s just Google Photos as I do a review and sort of all the photos my wife and I have taken over the last week.

Finally, there’s The Pause. Dini pushes this point hard in his book and I tend to agree with its importance. This is a moment to sit back, close your eyes, and just let your mind wander wherever it wants to go. And as it does this, take note of any action items it uncovers that you can add to OmniFocus. The more stuff you can get out of your head and into your trusted system, the more energy you’ll have to focus on whatever task at hand you decide to do.

So that’s my weekly review. It takes about an hour each week, but it’s completely worth the time.

Again, my thanks to Kourosh Dini’s fabulous book Creating Flow with OmniFocus for the insight into his own review process from which I cribbed most of my ideas.

Must, Will, Might

Last month I came across a clever post about using just two GTD contexts by Matt Henderson (by way of SimplicityBliss). Like many of us, he’s experimented with lots of different ways of managing contexts. There’s the traditionalist approach where your contexts mimic the tools or location available to you: home, work, Mac, phone, etc. Then there’s Sven’s more modern approach based on energy level, which I’ve also advocated: brain dead, quick hits, full focus, etc. But Matt’s unique take is to simplify things even further into Will Do and Might Do.

It’s a fascinating idea because by getting rid of context groups such as work or personal (as I have mine setup) it implicitly acknowledges a modern-day truth we might not all be comfortable with. That being our work and personal tasks cross-pollenate and are often available simultaneously throughout the day. If you’re anything like me, you’re just a likely to pay the electric bill during a few minutes of downtime at work as you are to answer an email from your boss before bed. And with the majority of our work now available to us from nearly any device, the clean boundaries between traditional contexts break down. And as for those who used energy levels to define contexts, at least in my case, I would more often find myself scanning all of my available todos when looking for my next task, rather than taking the time to asses my current energy level and then switch to a perspective focusing on just that type.

When all those definitions fall away, what you’re essentially left with are tasks that you will do and tasks that you might do. Which is exactly where Matt’s Will Do and Might Do contexts come from.

I was so intrigued by this idea that I took the month of August to try the system for myself. However, I have made a few tweaks to the system he describes. I’m please to say that, a month later, this new system has worked well for me and I plan to continue with it. Here’s what I’m doing…

three-contexts

First of all, in addition to the Might Do and Will Do contexts, I’ve added Must Do. These three contexts impart a slight sense of priority and timeliness that I felt was missing. Tasks that fall into the Must Do context are items that simply must get done without delay. Typically, anything in this group is automatically added to my Today list. An example might be calling a repairman when the air conditioning breaks or paying my health insurance. Will Do contains tasks that I have committed to completing but that don’t have a firm deadline. Examples are “change air filters throughout house” or “install backup software on mom’s laptop”. None of these tasks are particularly urgent. They just simply need to get done at my convenience. Finally, I have my Might Do context, which is full of tasks that I would like to do some day but have not yet committed to. These are things like “schedule a cookout with Matthew when the weather is nice” or “investigate how to buy Google advertisements”.

In addition to those three contexts, I’ve left in place those that are location based errands. This means I still have contexts for the grocery store, pharmacy, and hardware store. I also have a context for any phone calls I need to make as I hate talking on the phone and would rather have all of those tasks together where I can just knock them out.

Finally, I still have waiting, on-hold contexts for tasks that I’ve delegated to other people.

This new context arrangement has really simplified how I think about my tasks. It’s made processing my inbox much faster, too. I’m no longer hemming and hawing about which particular energy level a todo falls under. I simply have to decide if it’s something I’m committed to or not. And, if I am, can I do it at my leisure or does it need to be done right away.

It’s always healthy to re-evaluate how your GTD system is setup, and I encourage you to give this three-context system a try. There’s nothing wrong with finding a more efficient way of working or a method that just makes better sense to you. Just don’t let toying with your todo app get in the way of actually getting stuff done.

No Phone Thursdays

One experiment I’ve been trying for the last two months is taking twenty-four hours each week to be entirely phone free. My goal is to give myself time back to focus on things that matter – rather than living in a half-distracted state all the time. I’ve chosen Thursdays. Anecdotally, it seems to be the day I receive the least messages, phone calls, and distractions, so there’s potentially less to miss.

The first Thursday I turned off my phone I’m sorry to say I really did have withdrawal symptoms. There was a constant buzzing in my head as if I had forgotten something or was missing out. It’s not to say I was completely disconnected. I was still online on my Mac throughout the work day. But the difference is I sought out distractions rather than having distractions pushed to me. I still checked my email. I still skimmed my RSS feeds and read the news. But without the constant pinging of my phone beside me, I was able to stay away from Twitter, Facebook, and many other websites that eat away at my day.

Making it through that first day was embarrassingly difficult. But I’m happy to say I managed. And each week as Thursday has rolled around, I’ve come to find it easier to power down my phone for the day. I’ve even come to look forward to it. My mind feels clearer – less hurried. And as I’ve become more and more used to being checked-out, I’ve also stopped checking-in on Twitter and Facebook as much throughout the rest of the week. I’ll do a short catch-up session in the evening rather than always staying up to date during the day.

As much as our always-on devices have improved our lives, I really do believe being constantly connected is taking a measurable toll on us. I know it has contributed to my battle with anxiety. And I fiercely believe in and have witnessed real internet addiction among some of my family and friends and to an extent myself. That’s why I’m purposefully trying to tone down my dependence to these quick hits of information during the day.

I’m not suggesting I (or you) eliminate social networks or whatever your particular internet vice happens to be. I get far to much use from them both personally and professionally to entirely tune them out. But I do think we’re (hopefully) approaching the height of our collective addiction and will see a pendulum swing back towards a healthier balance.

So that’s why I’m taking Thursdays off. And it feels good.

Connecting Amazon Alexa’s Todo’s with OmniFocus

Last week Amazon Alexa and IFTTT hooked up in a big way. They now have triggers that allow you to do things whenever you add an item to your Alexa to-do or shopping lists. This is awesome because now those items don’t have to live within Amazon’s ecosystem. With a little IFTTT tinkering you can quite easily have them shuttled over the net and into OmniFocus.

This means I can be cooking dinner and literally say out-loud “Alexa, add red pepper flakes to my shopping list.” Or “Alexa, remind me to schedule a cookout with Matthew.” And the next time I open OmniFocus, those tasks will be waiting for me. Awesome.

First, you’ll need to login to your IFTTT account and activate the “Amazon Alexa” channel.

Then, create a new recipe with a trigger of “If item added to your Shopping List”.

Next, for the action, send an email to yourself with the following settings…

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 7.20.21 PM

Finally, in your email provider’s settings, setup a rule for any email with the body “Alexa Todo” to forward to your secret OmniSyncServer’s email address. They’ll get the email with your to-do item as the subject and add it to OmniFocus.

Boom!

Don’t forget, your Alexa shopping list is separate from your Alexa to-do list. So do what we did above a second time for your to-do list to make sure you can add items to either list.

Duplicate Tasks

I put everything into OmniFocus – my trusted system. Throughout the day I’m constantly hitting my OmniFocus keyboard shortcut to add whatever task just occurred to me to my inbox. It’s quick, painless, and lets me stay focused on my work without breaking my train of thought. Later in the day, I’ll process my inbox and assign those tasks to projects and contexts. It’s your standard GTD workflow.

But one problem I run into is duplicate tasks.

Because I put so much into my task manager – and because I wholeheartedly trust it to keep my data safe and myself reminded at the appropriate time – I often forget what’s in there. Frequently, during my weekly review, I’ll find that I added a task, forgot it was in there, and then added it again a few days later when it reoccurred to me.

This isn’t strictly a problem. Tasks certainly aren’t falling through the cracks. If anything, the opposite is true and I’m doubly making sure I remember to do things. But it does bother me. The purpose of a trusted system like OmniFocus is to put your tasks into it so you can get them out of your brain and focus on the work at hand without distraction or anxiety. But the fact that tasks pop back into my head tells me I’m not fully letting them go. Or does it mean that I’m actually forgetting about them so well it’s only natural that they reoccur to me?

I’m not sure.

In any case, I don’t know of a solution to the problem other than being diligent enough with my weekly reviews so that I maintain a mental model of the tasks in my system. And so I can clean up the duplicates when they invariably happen.

Where do External Triggers Belong?

The great thing about blogging vs a shorter medium like Twitter, is you can have actual, in-depth conversations. There’s nothing better than someone replying to a post you wrote with one of their own. So here’s one…

Last week I wrote about External Triggers in OmniFocus. Sven Fechner of SimplicityBliss picked up my post add added his own thoughts. He agreed with the need for a designated place to park these types of tasks, but he disagreed with where I recommended putting them. He writes:

Rather than adding a new bucket, these type of external triggers I cannot control or influence get added to my “Someday/Maybe” Single Action List which already exists anyway.

When it comes to OmniFocus and GTD, I fully subscribe to the idea of “whatever works best for you”. But to his point specifically, I disagree with his solution.

The reason I don’t put my external triggers in a “Someday/Maybe” single action list is because these types of tasks are items that I’m committed to doing. They’re not tasks that I hope to someday get around to maybe doing them. I absolutely plan on finishing them – I just can’t complete them at this point in time.

So, for me, they don’t fall into a “Someday” or “Maybe” category, which is why I’ve created a new, dedicated list to place them into.

Creating a Weekly Preview from your Weekly Review

I’ve long felt that the two most important aspects of following GTD are having an inbox where you can quickly record any task that occurs to you and then the regularly scheduled review that keeps your system on track and up to date with your priorities. For me, the weekly review has always been the key component. It’s what keeps me sane and prevents me from becoming overwhelmed. I know that at the beginning of every week I’ll have a full hour dedicated to reviewing each project, killing off anything that no longer needs doing, and identifying any tasks that might have slipped my mind.

Last year, however, I changed how I did my weekly review and split it into two sessions. One on Monday mornings that I call my weekly preview and one before I check-out on Friday afternoon that I now call my weekly review.

The Weekly Preview

Every Monday morning before I begin work, I block off an hour to review all of my projects and take a look ahead at the week. Like David Allen suggests, I consider each action in all of my projects and decide whether or not I’m still committed to doing it or if it should be dropped.

During the course of the weekly preview, I consider what my large goals for the week should be. I do my best to adjust my next actions so that as I work through my tasks during the week, they naturally lead me closer to completing what I set out to accomplish on Monday.

I also take this time to do any work that influences how I spend the rest of my week. For example, I review all of our finances and any upcoming bills that are due. I also scan through my external triggers project to see if any of the triggers have happened and if I need to make any new tasks based on them.

My weekly preview is where I get my head straight, my mind focused, and my plans in order for the upcoming week. It’s about setting a concrete plan for what you want to accomplish and building the motivation to see you through the week so that the tasks you commit to get done.

The Weekly Review

My weekly review happens every Friday afternoon. It’s an hour I spend reviewing what got done, what was left behind, processing all of my inboxes, and making sure everything is ready to go Monday morning so I can spend the weekend with a clear mind.

First, I switch to my OmniFocus completed perspective and review everything that I accomplished. I often pull out items that need to be included on status reports or that should go into my journal. Then, I re-visit every project and make sure each one has a valid next action so I’ll be able to choose what to do come Monday morning. I also take one final look at my external triggers to see if anything changed since Monday.

And that’s it for the review of my actual OmniFocus data.

The rest of the review is spent processing all of my inboxes. That means going through

  • Any documents I’ve scanned to PDF
  • New photos I’ve taken that might need to be sorted into albums
  • Any new notes added to my Evernote @Inbox
  • Any remaining tasks in my OmniFocus inbox without a project or context assigned to them

Finally, I login to Mint.com and see how our spending for the week compared to our budget.

And with that, I’m done and ready to enjoy the weekend with a clear mind. The weekly review is where I assure myself that everything is in order, is safe to mostly ignore for the next two days, and will be in a good state to pick back up on Monday morning.

Technically Speaking

Like so many of my posts about productivity and OmniFocus, none of this stuff is that advanced. It’s really just a bunch of realizations that I’ve codified into routines and habits. (And that I’m having fun turning into posts on this blog.)

As for how my weekly preview and review work in OmniFocus…

I have a single action list in OmniFocus called Routines. As I’ve written about before, “I use it as a dumping ground for all the periodic checkins I have to do to keep my other trusted systems running smoothly.” Inside it are two tasks called “Weekly Preview” and “Weekly Review”. Within each of those tasks are all the other actions specific to each one that I’ve written about above.

The “Weekly Preview” task is set to repeat and be due every Monday. And the “Weekly Review” repeats and is due every Friday.

About six months ago I deleted those tasks and trusted that they were habitutal and I’d do them every week as planned. Everything went fine for a few weeks, but eventually I would bargain with myself and say “Well, I didn’t take many photos this week, so I don’t really need to go through and sort them.” That happened once, twice, and then before I knew it I had hundreds of photos in my backlog to process.

Once I realized I was getting lazy, I put the tasks back into OmniFocus. I discovered it wasn’t so much about remembering to do all the review actions each week, it was about that magical little checkbox next to each task that I can’t mark done until the task is really done. It holds me accountable.

And that’s the best way I can summarize the benefit of following a consistent pattern of reviewing your system. It holds you accountable to the priorities you’ve committed to. And staying true to your commitments is the single best way towards achieving your goals. And if you’re not getting closer to your goals, why even have a system in the first place?

External Triggers in OmniFocus

In OmniFocus, and in other GTD systems I’m sure, there is the concept of a sequential project. A sequential project is any task with two or more steps that have to happen in a specific order. You can’t move on to the next step until you’ve completed the first step.

An example that’s currently on my plate is a project called “Return Remote Control to Amazon”. I can’t “Drop-off package at UPS Store” until I “Print off and affix shipping label”.

This is a very powerful productivity weapon because it allows you to fill up all of your sequential projects with tons of tasks, knowing they won’t become a distraction or source of anxiety since your Next Action List will only show the one task you can actually do at a time.

In most cases, sequential projects cover my needs because they are comprised of tasks that I’m personally responsible for and have control over. But occasionally there are two other types of dependent actions that I find I need to handle differently because they are outside of my control. They are

  1. Tasks I’m waiting on other people to complete.
  2. Tasks that I’m waiting for some external event to happen before I can proceed.

I’ve already written about how I handle tasks that involve other people. Today, I’d like to write about that second type of situation.

In my head I think of these types of tasks as waiting on an external trigger. What I mean is, they all can be written as When This, Do That. I have a task I need to do, but not until something else that I don’t have control over occurs.

Here’s an example.

My friend Karen recently told me that she’s looking for a new job. Once she finds and starts that new job, I would like to send her flowers. The problem with this task is that I can’t simply add it to my todo list since it’s not something I can currently accomplish (because she hasn’t gotten a new job yet). It’s also not a task that I can just assign a future due date because I don’t know when it will be due. It could take her two weeks or six months to find a new job. I suppose I could assign the task a waiting context titled @Karen, but that feels a little odd because the task isn’t really something I’m waiting on her to get back to me with.

Another example that’s currently in my OmniFocus is “Setup a meeting with our financial advisor once our credit card debt is paid off”. Again, like the other task, that’s not something I can just assign a due or defer date to because I don’t know when exactly our debt will be paid off (although I do have a rough idea).

I’ve learned to identify tasks like these because they all follow the form of When This, Do That.

GTD enthusiasts will probably recognize tasks like these as being good candidates for a tickler file. I thought so at first, too, but now disagree. If I were to add the send flowers task to a tickler file to be dealt with two months from now, Karen could get a job later this month and I’d completely forget that I wanted to send her flowers.

What I need is a simple place to park these tasks that I’ll remember to regularly review. The solution I came up with is hardly groundbreaking. It’s just a bit of common sense that finally occurred to me once I became aware and identified this recurring problem.

In OmniFocus, I keep a project on-hold called “External Triggers” with a setting to review it every week.

Inside this project I add all of my tasks that fit the above pattern. When This, Do That. I don’t bother sorting or separating them based on area of focus. All of my tasks from across all of my areas get dumped into this project. And they all follow the same title structure. For example:

  • When Karen gets a new job: Send flowers
  • When debt is paid off: Follow up with Edward Jones about reallocating savings

Then, each week during my weekly review, I have a recurring task that reminds me to look through this project for any actions that have become available. Titling each task in a consistent manner lets me quickly scan the list. Also, keeping this project’s status as on-hold is key, as that keeps all of these tasks from cluttering up my list of available actions when I do my planning.

Like I said, this isn’t anything groundbreaking. But it is a strategy I’ve learned that helps me deal with tasks I might otherwise forget, while keeping them from cluttering the list of stuff I can actually do.