It’s Not The Tool, It’s How You Use It – Visible Priorities (Part 2)

Part 2 of David Freedman’s excellent guest posts on how to use tools for GTD.

Fundamentally, GTD is simply a method for choosing how to spend ones time. And for us GTDer, we’ve got a trusted system full of projects, next actions and someday/maybes to choose from. Add to that a whole set of inbound phone calls, emails and coworker drive-bys and we literally have hundreds of options at each moment of choice. In the face of all this, we want to organize our next actions in such a way that we are proactive about our priorities. Here’s the problem: proactivity in humans is a myth. We can only react. We can only respond to stimulus. In the moment of choice, we must have the right stimulus, our priorities, come into our attention so that we react to them by doing rather than reacting to something else. I use my Outlook calendar and Evernote for Android to keep my priorities in my face

Schedule Your Priorities

Yes, that’s plagiarized from Steven Covey.  As part of my weekly or morning review, I block time in my calendar to complete my highest priority next actions.  My particular convention is “WT – [name of the next action].”  “WT” stands for “Work Time.”  My calendar is a sure-fire way to get these priorities into my attention because my assistant reviews it with me every morning, I do quick scans of it all day on my Android and my assistant always alerts me of my next meeting, even if it is with myself:


Use the Evernote Widget to Keep “Today” Context In Front of Your Face

Unfortunately, this one is only going to work for Android users as the iPhone does not support Widgets at the time of writing.  Most GTDer I know have some sort of “Today” context or items that they’ve picked out of their next actions as priorities.  There is a bunch of debate on various GTD forums as to whether “Today” is a context at all, but I would make the argument that context or not, it’s a pragmatic method for putting one’s attention on one’s priorities.  Here’s the step by step:

1) If you haven’t already. configure a “_Today” notebook or tag in Evernote.  I use the underscore to make it sort to the top of lists.


2) Add the 4×2 Evernote Widget Large to your phone’s home screen.


3) Select your “Today” context to show your note list.


Now, every time you look at your phone, your priorities will be begging you to give them your attention!

It’s Not The Tool, It’s How You Use It – The Evernote Instant Agenda (Part 1)

Another excellent guest post by David Freedman whom I consider a GTD Black Belt.

EvernoteDid the title get your attention? 🙂  We all know it’s not entirely true – the tool does matter and so too does your technique.  Evernote 5 is a crowd favorite here on GTDforCIOs.  In a multipart guest post series I will share some of my favorite Evernote tricks that bring to life some practical GTD magic.

I work in a dynamic corporate environment where we value PEOPLE above all.  From a GTD perspective, PEOPLE are my most important context.  In order to build strong relationships, I want to have meaningful conversations with them at every chance encounter.  I want to talk to them about how I enjoyed the restaurant they recommended, tell them that I haven’t forgotten about the email I owe them or ask them what they are doing for their kid’s birthday next week.  Here’s how I use Evernote 5 to make sure I’m good at internal relationships.

1)  When I PROCESS (recall the steps Capture > Process > Organize > Review > Do) my CAPTURED items from my Evernote inbox, I always tag with a person context unless the item pertains to me and nobody else.  If the item pertains to multiple people, I tag the item with multiple people.  If the item pertains to a project, I still tag the item with the most important people on that project…you’ll see why soon.  I thank the curator of this blog (Michael) for encouraging a shift from my previous nomenclature of “f.Michael” meaning “for Michael” to the more contemporary “@Michael.”

DAF12)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I configure my default view to Sort By Notebook as my Notebooks provide important timing, size and status context.


3)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I use the new “Shortcuts” feature to save people context searches for those I want to be most prepared for.


4)  Prior to scheduled meetings or when I see someone walking down the hall or at any other opportune moment, I click on the shortcut in Evernote 5 for Android pertaining to people I’m about to encounter and VOILA!…I have an instant agenda.  I quick visual scan of the items tagged to that individual along with the notebook they are stored in and I load in my mind something meaningful to talk to them about.

Note that in Step 1, I mentioned that even when project is the central focus of an item, I always tag by related people.  Being that the “Instant Agenda” is one of my most valuable use cases, the project tag does not help fulfill the goal.

3 easy ways to reduce the amount of email you receive

email overloadAlmost everyone I know complains about the volume of email the get and the problem just keeps getting worse. Here are three things you can do to keep the flood of email in check.

First, think before you send an email. I know this sounds strange but more than likely the recipient is going to reply so you are guaranteed to get at least one email in return. Even more if you send to a distribution list or copy additional people. Ask yourself, do I really need to send this email? Is it the best form of communication for this message or am I just being lazy and using email as the communication medium because it is easier on me?

Realize that when you send email you are creating work tasks for your recipients.  I’m not saying that you can avoid all mail simply to reduce the workload, but let’s not tell ourselves we’re “just” communicating when we’re doing mail.  In reality we’re also giving other people stuff to do whether they like it or not.

Second, unsubscribe from all the distribution lists you are on that are not absolutely critical. This is a big one as many of the people I have coached in Inbox Zero have hundreds or thousands of unread emails sitting in their inbox because of this. There is some kind of mentality that allows people to feel “in the loop” or somehow important if they are part of corporate or web distribution lists. Remove yourself from all but the most critical ones immediately.

Years ago the common wisdom was to not click on “unsubscribe me” links because the spammer would know they had a “live one” and that email account was somehow more valuable. While that used to be true, now spammers are so smart and sophisticated it doesn’t matter. Another concern is phishing attacks and this is something to take seriously. The best way to deal with this is to take your pointer and hover over the link to see if it is really going to the domain the email is coming from. If in doubt, open your web browser and go directly to the site instead of clicking on the link in the email and find the managing communications or email preferences and remove yourself from their distribution list.

Third, turn off notifications.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Groupon, etc. etc. etc. Almost every app or web site requires you to give them your email account to sign up and they all default to sending you notifications or digests. Turn these notifications off. At minimum, set it to perhaps once a week – so it doesn’t interrupt your flow and take over your inbox. They all allow you to get the same message twice.  Once online and once in your email in-box.  Kill the e-mails and just check online for updates.

That’s it. Three easy things you can do to dramatically reduce the amount of email you receive. How do you reduce the amount of email you receive?

Why “to-do lists” do not work


I read a great article called “To-Do Lists Don’t Work” in the Harvard Business Review that reminded me of one of the most common mistakes people make about GTD. Often when people get exposed to GTD, they equate to-do lists with Getting Things Done. This is misses the subtlety of David’s system as the only thing they have in common is lists. In the article Daniel Markovitz make several great points.

  1. The Paradox of Choice – “…our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose. Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.”
  2. Heterogeneous complexity – “When your list contains some tasks that are three minutes long and some that are 33 minutes, you’ll invariably focus on the shorter one for the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes from crossing an item off your list.”
  3. Heterogeneous priority – “When your list comprises items of varying priorities, you tend to take care of the “A” priorities and let the “C” priorities lie fallow…until it becomes an “A” priority itself. But would you rather take care of your car maintenance when it’s a “C” priority, or when it’s an “A” priority: when your car breaks down at 3 AM outside the Mojave Desert, 175 miles from home?”
  4. Lack of context – “To-do lists don’t provide sufficient context for the tasks to help you determine what you should work on. How long will each task take? And how much time do you have available? If you can’t answer these questions, you can’t intelligently decide what you should be working on.”

These four things are really David Allen 101. It is critical to do the thinking about your “stuff” before you actually do your stuff. Items need to be broken down into next actions that are parked on lists that are in the right context to be able to be done when you have the time and energy to do them.

Have you ever had a to-do list that worked for you long-term?

Leverage your assistant to manage your calendar

calendarFor those of us fortunate enough to have an assistant, we know how significantly they can improve our effectiveness. I’ve am blessed to have an incredibly great assistant who makes me significantly more productive and frees me up to focus on higher-level tasks.

If you have an assistant, I strongly suggest you encourage them to take ownership of the effectiveness of your calendar. Make sure he or she understands your priorities and who can — and should — be allowed to override your planned day. Then, let your assistant begin managing your appointments for you. He or she should have 100% control of your calendar and your staff should know they must go thru them to get time on your calendar.

This can be challenging as people will try to circumvent the assistant and go directly to you by popping their heads in your office, calling your mobile phone, texting you directly, sending you an IM, etc. You must support your assistant by never allowing this to happen. Politely, remind the person who want to get on your calendar that they must go thru your assistant. Otherwise, you circumvent their authority as the arbiters of your calendar and you will have a sub-optimal situation.

Schedule time to meet with your assistant every morning to do a short “Daily Review” where you look at the day and then the week to see what is ahead. Review your current priorities and help them understand the relative importance of potential meetings or lunches. Some are truly ASAP while others can be in the next couple of weeks or even in the next month or so.

Make sure your assistant gets enough information for you to make an informed decision as to wither a particular appointment is worth your time or not. What is the agenda? Does is have to be a meeting or can it be handled via email or a phone call? Is there travel involved? If so, how much travel time should be allocated to ensure you will be there on time? What preparation should you do prior to the meeting?

Finally, work together to determine when to say “no.”  There will never be enough time in the day for all the people who want time on your calendar and ultimately that means your assistant will have to figure out what appointments NOT to schedule.

How do you leverage you assistant to manage your calendar?

Yearly Review Part 2 – Calendar Management

calendarThe second most important thing to do at the end of each year is to assess how you have allocated your time. This is critical because time is your most valuable asset. There are only 24 hours in a day and therefore you need to make the most of each one of those hours.

To complete my Yearly Review I schedule my calendar for the new year. I schedule all of my recurring meetings to stop recurring at the end of the year so I will have a blank calendar in the new year. This way I get to reassess the value of those meetings.

Open your calendar and look back at your recurring meetings. Were they worth the time you invested in them? I’ll bet they started out with the best of intentions and actually provided value but over time, they decayed into less value. Take a critical look at your recurring meetings and ask yourself if they continue to be worth the time investment.  Ideally, you will delete these from your calendar. If you’re not comfortable with removing them, then maybe you can reduce their  recurrence from daily to weekly or weekly to every other week.

The next thing you need to do is to schedule your priorities. This is absolutely critical! If you don’t schedule your priorities, your calendar will get filled up with other stuff and you wont be spending your time on the highest value items. Schedule the things that really matter first. For me, this is my family time, my weekly review, priority projects, 1:1s with my direct reports and any major commitments I may have.

Schedule these items in the morning and don’t make them more than 90 minutes. Why? Because if you schedule them in the morning and you get “overtaken by events” and have to do something else you can bump a lower priority item off later in the day. Also, there is ample evidence showing that people’s energy, concentration and effectiveness is greater in the morning than the afternoon. There is also lots of evidence that after an hour and a half people’s effectiveness drops off significantly so if you have a large project you are much better scheduling multiple 90 appointments than to try to slog thru a multiple hour task.

Schedule multiple 30 minute appointments to process you “inboxes.” For most people this is email but if your honest with yourself you have multiple incoming queues of stuff. If you follow GTD then you have your “unprocessed” queue of stuff. You may have an “inbox” on your desk, you may have incoming calls, you may have RSS feeds, you may have the incoming stream of social media or other incoming queues of “stuff” that needs to be processed. Schedule time to process your  stuff to zero.

Once you have added these items to your calendar, then whatever free blocks of time are left can be filled with meetings and other lower priority items.

How do you manager your calendar?

A blog worth reading on Getting from “In” to “Empty”

Forget New Year’s Resolutions – Do a Year-End Review

New Year 2013If you really want to resolve to accomplish something and truly make a commitment with yourself, then you need to create an environment for long-term success.  This means adopting GTD and incorporating your desired outcome into your trusted system.

I recommend you do a “Year-End Review” to reflect on last year and project into next year.  Then if something comes out of that self-reflection that you really are willing to commit to, then incorporate it into your system and work your system every week via the weekly review.  By using this approach (as opposed to a new year’s resolution) you will have a much better chance of long-term success.

The year-end review is similar to a weekly review but at a much higher level.  Here are the questions I ask myself:

Looking back on 2012:

  • What were my wins or successful outcomes for the year?
  • What were the risks I took and looking back on them were they worth it?
  • What unfinished business from 2012 do I have that will carry forward to 2013?
  • What was I most happy about completing?
  • Who were the people who had the greatest impact on my life this year?
  • What was my biggest surprise?
  • What did I give back to the community?

Looking forward to 2013:

  • What would I like my biggest win to be this year?
  • What am I planning to do to improve myself?
  • What would make me the most happy to complete in the coming year?
  • What one thing would I most like to change about myself?
  • What am I looking forward to learning?
  • What will my biggest risk be?
  • What am I most committed to changing and improving?

I also do a review of my calendar to see what worked and what I need to take a look at to improve in 2013. This will be the subject of my next post.

How do you do your Year-End Review?

How to achieve email Nirvana

email_nirvanaMany people complain how email is taking them a lot of time, but that’s what you get once you check it too often, and when you leave a lot of old and outdated items laying around in your inbox.

I assert that it’s actually less effort to maintain your email inbox at zero than to keep any amount of mail that has been read in your inbox. It will take effort to change your habits but once you get in an inbox zero habit you will realize it is dramatically superior to your old email processing routines and that will have ripple effects across your productivity, workflow and motivation.

The reason it’s actually less effort to maintain it at zero than to maintain it at 500 is that you don’t waste energy dealing with any particular email more than once. The decision about the next action is still unmade for much of what lies in your inbox. In GTD terms it is still “stuff” – something in your world for which the action is still unclear. Every time you consciously or unconsciously notice that email again and don’t deal with it, it wastes energy.

Every single item in your inbox needs to be processed only once. If you need more than two minutes to process a specific email, you process it to your task manager. In my case that is Evernote. When I am processing email and I run across an actionable email that takes more then two minutes to deal with, I just forward it to my default Evernote address.  That way it is waiting for me in my “Unprocessed” Notebook ready to be processed the next time I am processing.

This way I ensure that my inbox is always down to zero and have that inbox zero peace of mind. How do you maintain your inbox zero?

How to reduce the number of emails in your inbox

Like any other tool, email is what you make it. It’s an incredible tool of productivity, collaboration and knowledge-sharing that is ubiquitous across devices and operating systems. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled with it like everybody else does but I have learned to tame email.

I’m sure you yourself have experienced this. On average I receive over 100 emails every day. How many of these are really important? Generally, less than 10. It’s time to create some space in your inbox so you can really focus on the tasks that make a difference to your business or work.

Here are three simple suggestions for reducing the number of emails in your inbox:

  1. Unsubscribe. Be ruthless and unsubscribe from any unsolicited email lists that make it past your spam filter.  Don’t just delete it, take the time to unsubscribe and then you won’t receive any more form that sender. Be realistic and remove all unnecessary subscriptions that you may have actually signed up for too.
  2. Stop using your Inbox like a filing cabinetPractice Inbox Zero! It’s easy to let old emails pile up over time and disappear into a large, unorganized mass in your inbox. You might think to yourself that someday, perhaps, you’ll need old messages so you should store them forever. Stop thinking of your inbox as a filing cabinet and get rid of old emails completely.
  3. Send fewer emails – Every time you send an email, what’s going to happen? It’s going to trigger a response, and then you’re going to have to respond to that response, and then they’re going to add some people on the “cc” line, and then those people are going to respond.

What suggestions do you have to reduce the number of emails in your inbox?