Can you manage GTD lists with a spreadsheet?

Below is a blog post from GTD Times. Do you use GTD (Getting Things Done)? If not, what tools do you use to manage you’re time – Pen and Paper; Outlook; Mind MappingEvernotePomodoro Technique?

Can you manage GTD lists with a spreadsheet?

Yes, you sure can.  GTD Times reader Angela wrote to share her format for tracking action items.

GTD has made a significant impact on my life, and I’m glad to share a specific technique that has worked for me.

I format my Action Items list in a spreadsheet. It’s really convenient to add items as they come in chronologically or during the processing of  ”in.” Then the items can be sorted according to context. This is easily done by just having three columns in the spreadsheet:

1) Context (errands, @computer,  etc.)
2) The item itself
3) Notes such as phone numbers, reference data, referral name, etc.

You can process “in” without wasting time inserting rows in order to put like items together. Just add more items at the bottom of the list. It is a simple procedure to sort the data by context, and BAM – action items are grouped according to context.

It has worked best for me to keep this spreadsheet on my desktop. This way I don’t have to open my spreadsheet program, open a folder, find the document, then open the document. A quick double-click on the desktop opens the application and the document, and I’m ready to scribe.

Editor’s note:  You can also add a keyword for projects and actions, and then sort by the Item column to see the Projects with their next actions.

Is the To-Do List Doing You In?

SWOT Analysis MyThoughts Mind Map

Is the To-Do List Doing You In?

When the to-do list brings black clouds—and anxiety. Here’s how to make the list work for you.

By Kathleen McGowan, published on December 07, 2005 – last reviewed on December 20, 2010

Many days seem to bring an endless barrage of tasks and responsibilities, all of which apparently must be tackled right away. You spend the day putting out fires, but by the end of the day you haven’t accomplished any of the really important things you set out to do.

In desperation, you draft a to-do list—but most days, you can make little progress with it. When you look at the list each morning, a big fat cloud of doom is right at the top—those difficult, complex, important tasks that are so crucial to get done—and so easy to avoid.

Plenty of us create a to-do list to address feelings of being overwhelmed, but we rarely use these tools to their best effect. They wind up being guilt-provoking reminders of the fact that we’re overcommitted and losing control of our priorities.

Is there a better way to use the to-do list? Experts on procrastination and efficiency say yes.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do a “to-do.” According to procrastination researcher Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, people often draw up a to-do list—and then rest on their laurels. The list itself becomes the day’s achievement, allowing us to feel we’ve done something useful without taking on any real work.

In fact, drawing up the list becomes a way of avoiding the work itself! “Too often, the list is seen as the ‘accomplishment’ for the day, reducing the immediate guilt of not working on the tasks at hand by investing energy in the list,” says Pychyl. “When a list is used like this, it is simply another way in which we ‘lie’ to ourselves.”

It’s an example of what’s been called the “procrastination field”—we’re preparing ourselves to work, we’re getting all set to take it on, but we never actually start doing it. Instead, we waste time and make ourselves feel terrible by circling around it.

For many people, that takes the form of attending to a barrage of tiny details and immediate requests. Burying yourself in busywork is an effective way to avoid more important—and more challenging—tasks. Pychyl says that procrastinators typically “binge” on low-priority activities, bustling about with stuff that’s second- or third-level priority, rather than tackling the things they really need to do.

If this is your pattern, a to-do list can be a big help—if you use it the right way. If there’s one dreaded chore that stays on the top of your list for a while, says Pychyl, that’s a signal that you should either tackle it right away or admit you’re never going to do it and strike it off the list altogether.

Break it down. In order to make it easier to begin working on big, intimidating tasks, efficiency experts suggest breaking it down into much smaller parts composed of specific, tangible activities. Research has shown that tasks that don’t have an obvious action plan or structure are the hardest ones to face.

Make it easier on yourself by listing specific actions and subgoals. Your to-do list will get much longer but, paradoxically, will be a much more helpful tool.

Make a flow chart. This type of list “becomes a ‘flow chart’ that tells you when to start and when you’ll be finished,” says psychologist and life coach Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit. “You create an overview and act like a project manager who is less likely to be overwhelmed or distracted by low priority or urgent tasks.” I use a mind mapping software to create my to-do list.

Each item on the list should have a priority assigned to it, he says. Another way to motivate yourself is to schedule alternating tasks: spend one hour on a number-one priority item, and then “reward” yourself by doing something easier and lower-priority for the next 30 minutes.

Maintain focus. Lists help you maintain momentum. If you’re working on an important but difficult task, and a concern or thought bubbles up regarding a different responsibility, jot it down and return to it in a half hour or so when you’re done with the project you were working on.

Get real! Fiore says that a strength of to-do lists is that they force you to be realistic about the amount of time you have and to make some hard decisions about priorities. “Realistically, you can’t do it all,” he says. “But you can focus on the best use of your time now, in alignment with your higher priorities and with the reality of human limits, humbly accepted.”

Note-Taking Tools

I found this blog post (Methods of Work) very helpful. I’m interested in what you use for note-taking. Please see the poll question below.

I reposted the blog and highlighted what I use everyday.

Methods of Work: It Didn’t Happen If You Didn’t Write It Down

It may be an iffy plot device from a Tom Clancy thriller but it can be a valuable approach: if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.

That applies along multiple axes. If you think of a good idea and don’t record it somewhere, you’ll forget it. Inevitably. If you need something done by a certain time and don’t record it somewhere, you’ll miss it. If you learn something while roaming through code, or exploring a new tool, write your experiences down. You’ll thank yourself later.

But How?
There are lots of ways to do this; I’m going to go through some I have tried. One prominent area I am going to ignore is purely commercial tools; I haven’t had the need, and since I spend most of my time in Linux, my options are limited anyway. Folks I know who are serious about GTD really like Microsoft OneNote; I have friends who rave about it. Don’t ignore it if you are a Windows person and can justify the cost (under $100).

The Early Years – Emacs
For a looong time, I had a file called ‘notes.txt’ open in an Emacs window. When something needed recording, I jotted it down in simple outline format, using dashes and asterisks. When a note became old and not immediately relevant, or was finished, I just moved it to the bottom. Primitive indeed. But I could get Emacs on every computer I had, text files are easy to mail around, so it worked for me. But having everything in one file made for a big jumble.

Mind-Mapping: Great for Actual Note Taking
My favorite live note-taking application for complicated subjects remains FreeMind (or XMind). A nifty mind-mapping application which is freely available, works on any platform (courtesy of Java), is fast, scales to complex mind maps, and full of export options. I really like the export to Flash; and animated, interactive Flash representation of a map. Very nice indeed. It is really good in meetings where you can just grab concepts and polish the organization of the map later. But it isn’t really a general solution. I find the lovely expressiveness of mind-mapping leads me to over-produce content, and I get too caught up in presentation if I am not careful.

Evernote – Lots of Virtue, Lots of Vice
For a while I used Evernote as my main note taking app, but sadly it isn’t great at this. It is cross-platform, by virtue of being a web app, and it has never lost a jot of content. But sometimes I don’t have a network connection. At which point, fail. Evernote also has some weird design decisions. For example, when you click on a note, it doesn’t immediately open for editing; I can’t think of a single time where that was useful. You have to click an extra button to edit it. Bizarre. Plus it doesn’t do simple asterisk to outline translation on the fly, which, dang it, it should. Itought to have an outline mode, period.

There are advantageous to having the data in the cloud; it works on a variety of platforms, and has a pretty nice iPhone app. But beware, if you add rich-text formatting to your notes via the desktop web interface, you will not be able to do so with the iPhone app. Apparently, the Evernote folks think the iPhone is unable to handle rich text; Steve Jobs would be amazed. What will they say regarding the iPad?

Evernote has enough quirks that I don’t use it for everyday notes, though I do use it for longer term stuff.

Google Docs, Zoho, etc.
You might think Google Docs and the Zoho suite would be contenders, but neither work without a network, and both are fairly heavy as webapps go. Now, I use Google Docs for other things, especially when I need to edit a doc with several other people. But Google Docs has privacy issues, and there are anecdotal tales of lost and censored documents all over the web. Which would be only somewhat worrisome, except that Google-as-service is marred by the lack of a phone support option. Pity the Nexus One customer with a problem. With no way to get someone on the phone when something is wrong, I am loath to trust more of my data to Google (GMail is enough of the kool-aid, thank you).

Zoho actually has a dedicated note-taking component, but it also seems too heavy for simple text notes. Somehow, the presentation just doesn’t gel for me. It might reward a larger investment of my time. I have no time at the moment however.

Stupid Simple Text Files — Still a Good Way To Go
So for the last several years, I’ve taken advantage of a feature common in text editors these days — session management. Under Windows (when I am forced to use it) I use Notepad++, under Linux, I use Kate. Both of them let me designate Sessions, collections of files to manage en masse. Under Linux, I have my default Kate session open, iconified, to the system tray on startup. Under Windows I just have a shorcut to do it on-demand. I use Windows less so I have worried about it less. This allows me to have multiple files, each to cover a broad area. Dead simple organization.

A couple micro-format conventions (dashes for titles, asterisks and indentation for outlining) take care of formatting. This is the polar opposite of the expressiveness of FreeMind, but I find it helps me concentrate on the content not the formatting. Plus, text files are the lowest common denominator of storage; easy to backup (Paste them into Evernote occasionally!), easy to mail, easy to search, amenable to source control checkin.

Let’s Note Forget: Pencil and Paper
Yep, for lots of things, you can’t beat pencil and paper. I carry a Moleskine clone in my laptop bag; I’m on my forth or fifth in four years. For notes where diagrams are important, can’t beat it. Laying UI components? Get your pad. For lots of stuff, you can’t beat paper.

The downside is, you can’t go back and reorganize easily. Sometimes notes on paper feel like they are being chiseled into stone compared to working with an electronic note.

But in some jobs, keeping a log is a must for professional reasons, as patent trails an such. Hard to argue against a physical notebook.

Right up until the point where you lose the notebook itself. Ouch.

Fun with Wiki’s
Wiki’s, like mind maps, can be fabulously expressive. We have one at the office, and while sometimes it resembles a disorganized dumping ground, searc makes it pretty useful, and most of my technical musings end up there.

TiddliWiki is a neat idea I used for a while. It is a complete personal wiki completely contained in a single HTML file. There are lots of things to tweak, lots of templates and flavors around to suit various tastes. But … I mostly hate wiki formatting. The disconnect between the editing representation and the display representation is too large for me. YMMV.

Buy Why? Why Write it Down?
Why do this? Really, at this point, recording things is part of how I frame the design and understand the problem. It helps me break things down, and build up solutions. It enables me to identify what the hard parts will be, and what is low-hanging fruit.

It never fails to amaze me how much I learn by doodling notes about a problem, walking away for a couple days, emphatically not thinking about it, then coming back to it. The back of my brain apparently isreally adept at making progress on a problem when I seed it and leave it alone. Having the original notes written down when I come back is key to making sure you don’t forget a bunch of details.

Another benefit is in the trail you leave behind. It can be fulfilling or depressing, depending, to look back and see what you got done and what you didn’t. It is much easier to identify that I am in a trough, development-wise, when I can concretely see that my velocity is down. Conversely, it is cool when you are just generating good code at a fair clip to look back a mountain of identified and disposed of tasks.

So take notes. Jot stuff down. Use any method that suits you, but your great thoughts never really happened if you didn’t write them down.