Friday, October 01, 2010

Superstar Productivity in the Cloud

I've been a Getting Things Done© disciple for a few years. Over that time I learned a couple of secrets to leverage David Allen's principles in my day to day work environment:
  1. Work context is everything - physical context is becoming less important
  2. Keep it simple - use the parts that make sense for you
Work Context
I spend 80% of my day online.  Either on my computer, or my Android phone.  A large portion of that time is spent communicating with people ... and Gmail does most of the heavy lifting.  Since this is where I work from, this is where my GTD experiments were honed.  If you have a similar work profile, perhaps you'll find something useful in my experience.

Getting Organized
1. Collection
The Gmail Inbox is a natural collector.  Don't fight it ... feed it! Stuff all ideas, tasks and loose ends into your inbox.  How?  Simply email yourself. I've added a little twist to boost this process.  First, I added a contact with the email address of Gmail essentially ignores the +action part and sends email to your usual address.   The extension lets us setup a filter, essentially flagging incoming email directed to this address. The filter: Mark as read, Star it.

2. Inbox Processing
One of the worst habits that people develop is using their inbox as their task list.  This creates anxiety and confusion since there are actionable items, reference information and a collection of flotsam all jumbled together in there. To avoid this dilemma it's important to grasp a few key GTD principles:

  • Collection, Inbox Processing, and working through your Task Lists are distinct processes, not to be intermingled.
  • One of the results of Inbox Processing is the creation of several lists.  I've simplified these task lists into three:  Things I need to do soon (now).  Things I need to do sometime (action).  Things I've given to someone else and want to follow up on (waiting)

A Bit More Setup
Gmail has a very cool Labs feature called Superstars. Basically it let's you put different types of stars on your email entries.  In addition to beautifying your mail lists, we can use this feature to quickly organize our task lists. First go to the Settings -> Labs tab in Gmail and enable Superstars.  Then in the General Settings tab, pick three specific stars that best represent for you the three core lists: now, action, waiting.  Here is my setup:

In my case, I've used the red exclamation symbol for items that need to be done soon, the yellow star for things that need to be done sometime, and the purple question-mark for things I am waiting on others to do.

Process Logic
With this simple setup, you have the recipe for quickly processing your inbox.  Several times a day (or more often, depending on your situation) go through everything in your inbox from top to bottom and apply the following logic:

  • Is it actionable?
    • Can I do it in under 2 minutes?  If yes, just do it, then archive the item to remove it from your inbox.
    • Can someone else do it?  Mark it with your "waiting" superstar and forward it to them, changing the subject to describe the desired action.  Archive the item to get it out of your inbox.
    • Does this have to be done at a specific time and date, or is it a meeting?  Create a calendar item and archive the email.
    • Does this need to be done this week?  Mark it with your "now" superstar and archive it.
    • Does this need to be done sometime? Mark it with your "action" superstar and archive it
    • In each case, change the subject as necessary so that it reads as an action item, you can do this by simply forwarding the email to your address outlined above.  Mark the new item appropriately and archive all processed items to remove them from your inbox.
  • Not actionable.
    • Need to reference this later?  Consider attaching a label to the item to help organize them. Archive it to remove it from the inbox.
    • Not important information?  Delete or simply archive it.
The goal is to quickly and frequently empty your inbox, and set up your work activity for efficient processing.  Also, it is important only to schedule things that have a fixed date and time and allow all other actions to "float" so you can have maximum flexibility in prioritizing your work.  Your "starred" list may look something like this:

3. Doing the Work
Now it's just a matter of working through your top action items.  Basically you access your list of things that need to be done now and work through them.  I've used another feature of GMail Labs - Quick Links. Once you enable it, you can easily save any email search into a list for easy future access.

Here's an example of searching for my top priority to do items and creating a quick link:

Once completed, remove the star from the item and it automatically will disappear from your list. Don't worry, everything is still saved in Gmail and you can use the powerful search features to quickly find it in the future.

4. Weekly Review
Once a week review all your tasks and update them accordingly.  Just click on the native "starred" category in Gmail and you'll get a complete list.  

A Few More Tips
Here are a couple more things that I've found helpful:

  • From your urgent task list, put the ones that have to be done today back into your inbox.  I know this breaks the "empty inbox" rule, but I have found that since the inbox is the natural place you are working in constantly, having these items always "in your face" is helpful.
  • Make sure you restate email subjects as action items before assigning them to yourself.
  • Send yourself an email whenever you get a random thought or a useful piece of information. You'll be surprised to find how quickly you will build a highly usable knowledge base, and attain superstar productivity in the cloud