Bad-Ass Execution Principles

Don Fornes of Software Advice recently published his Bad-Ass Execution Principles which is based on David Allen’s classic text on organization and productivity, Getting Things Done. One of the great things about GTD is the core concepts can be applied using everything from paper and pencil to today’s modern cloud/mobile tools. It all depends on how you and your company work to best apply the GTD principles to your situation.

Don has adapted these principles to fit their company culture and to reflect the use of online applications like Basecamp, Gmail and Google Calendar. He calls it Bad-Ass Execution Principles.

Getting Stuff Done

Write everything down. Getting things out of your head and onto paper will help you remember them–and documenting everything in one place will help you stay organized. Software Advice uses a web-based project management application called Basecamp to keep track of projects and to-dos.

Break up your projects into next steps. Large projects can seem insurmountable. Breaking them up into actionable items and next steps can help you focus on the task at hand and work through projects systematically.

Immediately deliver value. When assigned a project, it’s important to try to deliver something right away. This will help you get feedback early on, to make sure you’re on the right track and prevent you from investing too much effort in the wrong direction.

Aim for quick wins. A small, positive accomplishment at the beginning of a new project will help establish trust and authority, as well as give your project a kick-start.

Google it! You want employees to feel comfortable asking questions when they need to, but if something is easily researched online, they should be resourceful and solve some problems on their own. This saves management valuable time, and builds problem-solving skills and shows initiative for employees.


“Projects” list. Create a list of your projects in one place: paper lists, iPhone notes, or web-based apps will work.

“Next Actions” list. This is a list of the very next step you will take for each project, including emails, phone calls and meetings.

● “Waiting For” list. Track what you are waiting on from others by creating this list in addition to your personal task list. This will help you stay aware of when you need to follow-up with someone.

Keep your inbox clean. Don’t let emails pile up. Is an email actionable? Add it to your “Next Actions” list. If an email isn’t actionable, you should archive it.

Track dates and actions on your calendar. Deadlines, appointments and actions (day-specific and time-specific) should be added to your calendar. Sign up for notifications so that you can get a reminder when the required action is due.

Review your project lists every day. Be sure to look over your calendar and lists every day. As you complete your projects, mark off the tasks. This will give you a sense of accomplishment and keep you organized.

As you can see Don has done an excellent job in melding GTD with the culture and tools of Software Advice. How do you implement GTD at your workplace?

Prioritization in GTD

Another guest post by André Vargas on how he prioritizes tasks in Getting Things Done. He explores the merits of just using ones intuition and judgement vs. a more scientific approach to prioritization and sequencing of tasks.

I am a big fan and practitioner of the science behind the optimal sequencing of tasks for efficient program management (Lean, managing the rework cycle rather than the schedule, dependency matrices etc.).

But what about prioritizing one’s own tasks? GTD’s key message on prioritization is to use one’s own intuition and judgment. While as good an answer as any, the academic in me just could not accept that it was so simple. Surely there had to be others out there with this same question and moreover a need for a more scientific approach to prioritization and sequencing of tasks? I set out on a quest to find answers that would satisfy both my practical just get it done side and my academic theoretical mind.

AV1In my research, I found a host of blog entries, tips and tricks, some with similar methods to those I use in managing programs and projects, including one where the writer created a spreadsheet to house all his items and applied a Boston matrix prioritization technique I love to use myself. This is how I use it: First get the business benefit, the ordinal priorities, then understand the technical and change complexities of implementing or executing the tasks. Once this is done you can plot your results in a classic Boston matrix and pick the quick wins quadrant first.

AV2In my career as a program manager for complex systems, I have used plenty of prioritization techniques to fight the tendency of every task being priority 1. My favorite was one where I had all tasks take roles of “teams” and had each play every other task like a fantasy league (business stakeholders would vote on the outcomes in a fun and interactive way). The end result being a “league” table with a really good proxy for prioritized tasks. The scores would end up as a win, a loss or a tie.AV3

Each win would give 3 points, a draw one point and a loss zero:

AV4For the ease of implementation axis, I use technical complexity estimates (function points, planning poker etc.) and also level of effort in terms of the business change of the equation. However, this was not enough. This first matrix needs to also consider dependencies. What if a key precursor ends up in the third quadrant? All dependent tasks are not feasible even if they are to be done first! Therefore, after the initial sequencing, we need to understand all dependencies. I create a matrix of all tasks against each other and mark which task needs which tasks to be completed. The goal of the matrix is to try to move the most dependent tasks under the diagonal. This means the enablers go first. There are tools out there that have advanced algorithms to do this for you.

Great! The academic in me was finally happy! I could, in essence, map out what my intuition was telling me.

But wait. Reality check. Would creating such a cumbersome overhead align with stress free personal productivity? Wouldn’t doing all this work create a whole new level of stress?

Maybe intuition and judgment are really the way to go?

To answer that, forthwith I will experiment with being conscious of my intuition and judgment. Is my next action really a next action or a project? I will revisit the meaning of horizons, and also take extra care when applying context tags to my Evernote notes.

Will the sheer act of chronicling what needs to be done–without laying things out in a matrix—then letting my instinct takeover be enough? I’ll let you know, in the meantime I would be interested in knowing your thoughts and experiences prioritizing in GTD!

Synthesizing GTD and Agile practices

Another guest post by André Vargas on how he compares Getting Things Done to Agile methodologies. A fascinating dive into the world of SCRUM and GTD.

ScrumAs an agile practitioner and program manager for complex software systems, I have always been attracted to tools and systems that make my life less stressful and more productive. From early in my career I followed the principles of GTD because it helped me manage my personal workload and as far as managing my teams’ workflow, l have similarly leveraged the power of Agile methodologies such as SCRUM to make my teams be as effective as possible.

Because I am always searching for what can be improved in anything I do, I thought it would be a fun exercise to explore how GTD compared with agile methodologies like SCRUM and if there were practices from each methodology that could be combined to improve productivity. What I realized is that without even consciously thinking about it was that I had already created a sort of GTD/Scrum synthesis in my approach to project management and it was working.

To demonstrate what I mean, I have taken the GTD process summary posted here on May 18th in “How to reduce stress in your life” and share with you how I have applied the principles of GTD to our Scrum approach and vice versa:

High Level GTD – Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do

High Level SCRUM – Product backlog, Sprint Backlog, Sprint planning, Sprint and Retrospective

GTD – Capture all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place. (open loops)

SCRUM – All requirements, user stories, project to-dos, wish list items etc. are always collected in our product backlog. A good match, both systems are great at collecting the things that need to be done. It also has a soothing effect on business stakeholders as they know we capture everything, and take their feedback very seriously, even if their requests are not implemented right away. Here, we reduce our business stakeholders’ stress!

GTD – Eliminate all the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now.

SCRUM – At a personal level, you know how to eliminate stuff or delegate it, with program delivery, most of the work is ours and requested by business stakeholders, and elimination of items is more an exercise of prioritization and budget, although the items remain in the backlog unless obsolete. We use a lot of impact assessments and trade off analysis to discuss with the business, what needs to be done, thus always striving to work in the most important “stuff.”

GTD – Create a “Trusted System” that supports your working style and values.

SCRUM – There are many scrum-trusted systems out there, from basic posters with post-it notes to sophisticated cloud tools and enterprise systems. In our program we use TFS 2010 with the Scrum Template. Personally, for my GTD processing I use Evernote.

GTD – Put your stuff in your Trusted System to get it out of your head.

SCRUM – We record every request from the business and every issue or bug on our TFS system. Interestingly, getting stuff out of my head, as the program manager, sometimes gets me into trouble! I trust the system. I know everything is there, but sometimes, I am caught off guard by a business stakeholder randomly asking me about that one item most important to them, and I don’t have it in my head! Oh well, typically I respond that I will look up all the details and get back to them, but this is one, where I almost feel I need some in my head even though I prefer not to have to.

GTD – Review your system periodically to ensure you have everything.

SCRUM – This is a big one that I have expanded the scrum process with GTD. In our scrum process, we do sprint planning every 2 weeks, however, not all team members work at the same velocity, thus dependencies and sequencing of work can be impacted causing release risk. We have daily standings to update each other of status, but it does not work as a review like the sprint planning does or the daily review does in GTD. Therefore we have introduced item reviews twice a week to ensure we are all maximizing team productivity.

GTD – Do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment.

SCRUM – GTD’s focus is one of personal productivity, and scrum is more of an agile team performance system. Everybody works differently, so the way we optimize our time in our scrum process, is based on business benefit and implementation complexity of the work to be done. The team takes on the items which are high in priority and easiest to implement (low hanging fruit) first, enabling tasks are always worked on as high priority, then we take on the high priority complex items. We negotiate with the business to always be working on high priority items so we move back to the backlog lower priority items. The way I process my personal to-dos does have inspiration from our prioritization method, so I do think of benefit and complexity when deciding next actions during my processing. Where possible, I have shared my GTD process with team members, so that they, within the scrum process, can best optimize their time. In particular, our business analysts benefit most from GTD as they are at the center of everyone’s needs, from business stakeholder’s requirements, user support, developers, testing and release management. Their time is always at a premium, so GTD helps them be more productive. Two GTD golden nuggets here that I have used are in terms of language. We use a subject of “Waiting for” when we need someone to respond quickly to an important issue, the psychological power of these two words is amazing and really keeps the team attentive to each other’s needs, no one likes being a bottleneck others are waiting for. The other one is “Next actions.” It is amazing to me the number of emails, and discussions between team members that seem to not have an action to them. I typically reply all with just a simple question” “Next Actions?” and suddenly, the thread translates into items for the backlog, solution steps, all of which gets the team moving again.

GTD – Iterate and refactor in a continuous improvement cycle.

SCRUM – I am a big fan of continuous improvement, in our scrum process, we conduct sprint retrospectives at the end of each sprint. It always amazes me and makes me happy that there is always items we could have done better, and we do act on those as they become internal items in our TFS system to improve during the next sprint.

I hope you have enjoyed the post, have you suggestions on other golden nuggets we can use from GTD in scrum or vice versa?

Early in my career, I learned that the key to reducing stress was to “download’ the to-dos that were swirling around in my brain to a concrete, paper list. Having that list let me shut off my worry; once it was on paper it was no longer in my head so I could truly enjoy my out-of-work life. Over time my list evolve from scattered loose-leaf papers to a big red book of all my stuff (my trusted system) until eventually I found GTD, my trusted system today. – André Vargas

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.

How I Use Evernote

With so much feedback about Evernote, I decided to ask David Findlay to write a guest post about how he uses Evernote.

I got my first job when I was 17, filling shelves on Saturday nights in a supermarket. The incompletes in my world were obvious and needed no tracking. Empty shelves here, pallets loaded up with new stock over there — combine the two, fast and neatly enough to appease the over-zealous shift manager.

I’ll turn 30 in a few months as the Business Manager for a not-for-profit group that includes a multi-site church, a crisis-relief charity and a registered training organization working with the long-term unemployed.  I also play drums with a local jazz big band and do life with a wife and two small, energetic kids (pocket rockets). Life is busy. I have more inputs arrive in my world in the average waking hour than I used to receive in a week as a 17-year-old supermarket employee.

Evernote holds my trusted system

Evernote holds my trusted system for practicing GTD — for dealing with all these inputs and converting them from amorphous “stuff” into precise action and follow-up. It works in partnership with my brain — which is not bad at assessing, deciding things and asking questions, but is hopeless at coping with large incoming volumes of disconnected information, storing that information and retrieving it quickly.

I also take my use of Evernote further than many people do by keeping ALL my personal filing in Evernote, as well as health and exercise logs, personal journal, sheet music* and random thoughts that might become something I present to my team at work, something I write about or simply something I come back to and reflect on a month or two later.

How I interface with Evernote

I get stuff IN to Evernote primarily through email and scanned paper. These are my two primary collection buckets, and it’s here that I decide something is worth acting upon, or may be later, and then feed it to Evernote for tracking. Evernote’s Windows app by itself has some value as a collection bucket, and the mobile app is useful when traveling or in meetings, but most of the time they’re all outshone by email and scanned paper, in my mind. Press a button on your scanner or forward to your Evernote email address, and it’s all waiting for you in Evernote.

The Evernote email address is far and away the best feature of Evernote. Because every app, blog, share button, content hosting site, social network, security alarm and internet-enabled doohickey allows you to send at least a link (or in many cases, full content or logs) via email, you have an automatic way to post information directly to Evernote, almost regardless of where it is.

I organize content in Evernote primarily through notebooks for incompletes — one for each horizon of focus, with a notebook stack at the top for next actions, containing one for each context. I also have a single notebook for filing, which is organized by tags. I use note-linking** to link task notes back to projects, and to link projects back to Areas of Focus or 1-2 year Goals. This helps me to retain some sense of purpose and connection up and down the six Horizons of Focus — that deadline I’m working back late to meet or thorny policy issue I’m pushing (to the unified groans of colleagues) may actually have some significance in the context of a 2-year goal I’ve set. This kind of big-picture motivation is sorely underrated.

Filing – Garbage in, garbage out.

The archivist in me always recommends that people take care to make sure their “filing” notes are titled and ordered consistently. Once you start dealing with a large number of notes (say, 2000+) then searching — and even tagging, if done sensibly — might only narrow things down to the nearest 30 to 50 notes. The ability to eyeball a list of six-year-old notes that long and know exactly what’s in each one without having to physically open them is a rare and valuable gift you should give to your future self.

Attachments – Use them for templates

Nearly a year ago I began the adventure of templating many of the repetitive tasks I do. I now keep these templates in Evernote, including partially filled forms that I regularly submit, standard-form contracts, report templates and Outlook email templates for messages I need to send often***. I also use a note template for when I’m starting a new project, which forces me to articulate the scope of the project, the successful outcome and a sequence of next actions — or sub-projects — that need to happen to get it moving.

Time-sensitive reminders

I use email through constantly to remind me of deadlines, and as a tickler file of sorts, to bring back to my attention info that will be useful at a known time down the track, but not now. I often email Evernote links to, knowing that at the set time I’ll be able to click straight to my thoughts or files on the task I need to deal with. One recent example — I used follow-up then to receive a link to the note in which I filed the tickets for the Coldplay concert, purchased nearly a year ago, to pop up in my inbox with a reminder to print them, a few hours before we had to leave for the event.

The rewards of Long-term use of Evernote

The simple act of repeatedly collecting useful information and having it made accessible at a moment’s notice brings significant rewards over time. This immediate, anywhere access is a benefit of Evernote that’s not available through many other formats in which people might hold their trusted system.

I’ve found that I could retrieve the contact details of a mechanic I used years ago (couldn’t remember his name, only the work he did on my car), based on an old service docket I kept. I could remember the words to a song I played years ago because I kept the sheet music for it in Evernote, and I could find it at the time the song was actually stuck in my head on a car ride. I could contribute valuable material in a strategic regional meeting for our movement, because I had taken notes in Evernote during a seminar I attended eighteen months ago in which a high-level administrator had covered exactly the topic being discussed. I could make decisions quickly while filing my tax return, find out what I claimed last year and what documentation I kept for it, then decide if the same thing applies this year, because it’s all in Evernote.

Novel uses for Evernote

Delayed departmental reports

When I have a colleague coming back from annual leave and I want to notify them of any key developments or progress made in their area while they were gone, I’ll write the report up in a note in Evernote. Then I’ll create a public link of the note, and shorten it using clockurl before emailing it to them, so the link won’t become accessible until 8am on the morning of their return. This helps me prepare ahead of time so it’s no longer on my mind, while protecting their serenity for the last few days of their break.

(Not) Health logs

There are a many tracking apps out there for recording your diet and exercise (and in fairness, a few of them are really good), but during periods when I’m tracking these things closely, I’ll write the particulars out in a note. No need to complicate things, or add another app to my phone or another collection bucket. The most viscerally impacting of these are some 4-Hour Body binge day logs from my last weight-loss experiment. Any time I struggle for dietary motivation, I revisit all the tragic lists of garbage I ate on prescribed binge days, complete with their approximate caloric contents. 2,500 calories of custard-crème-filled donuts in one two-hour session? Thank you — I’m going to go and eat an entire head of lettuce right now.

Evernote, in the beginning, was nothing more than a way to practice GTD that appealed to my nerdier side. None of my colleagues used it (which made it so much cooler, somehow). There’s a good reason why it’s become mainstream, and why I’ve stuck with it longer than any other piece of self-management software: it handles with excellence the things my brain doesn’t do at all well. It makes me look better than I really am.

* Sheet music stored in Evernote and read on a tablet is a useful practice tool. Don’t use it on stage, though — the screen glow from your tablet annoys the lighting tech and it’s nigh impossible to reliably flick pages during the more difficult pieces in between strokes with your left hand.

** There’s enough friction in this action that it only gets maintained and updated during a weekly review. Hence, missing or rushing a weekly review always results in lost perspective, not just control.

*** I’d prefer to use mailto: links instead of templates, but sadly Evernote’s Windows app won’t let you add &subject= and &body= arguments to these, so I can’t template a full email using a link. Outlook’s .oft templates are the next best thing, although you have to recreate them any time you want to make changes.

Evolution of My Trusted System from To-Do Lists to GTD

This is the second guest post on GTD for CIO’s from my friend, co-worker and fellow GTD enthusiast André Vargas.

As a junior solutions developer straight out of the University of Copenhagen, my company took its new recruits to an HR seminar where the topics included items like Work-Life Balance and Productivity Tips & Tricks. While all lectures provided useful insights, my takeaway “nugget of gold” was found during Tips & Tricks.

See, I’m one of those people who tend to bring work home. If unchecked, I stuff all the stresses of a project’s not quite finished or not yet begun business into a very heavy “mental briefcase”.  That’s why, when the Tips & Tricks speaker brought up “The Tomorrow To-Do List,” he immediately had my attention.

His simple, yet genius suggestion was to end each workday with an action list for tomorrow; a well-thought out way to hit the ground running for the yet to come. I put this suggestion to use the next day and I was empowered.

A simple ‘mental download’ at the end of the day, although technically extra work, allowed me to let go. It was a way to power-down the “hard drive of my mind” and it was a gift. We all need to recharge our batteries and have well-rounded lives.

Andres Red BookMy “Tomorrow To-Do Listing” started as reminders scribbled on small pieces of paper, or entered into Outlook. While this more scattered approach proved helpful, inspired by a colleague and mentor, I eventually moved on to a journal (I chose a bound book with graph paper so I could put little squares by each task which I would fill in with a color as I progressed).

Each day would add more pages, and regularly, perhaps once a week, I would go back, cancel out no longer relevant responsibilities and move forward uncompleted tasks to a new page for the upcoming week.

Andres BookThen I started adding notes from meetings, design diagrams, colleague and client business cards, and personal reminders. My notes and the supporting material were not only helpful in the short term to help clear my mental cache, but they became a narrative of my work; a bible if you will of whatever project I was working on. I have maintained this book for 6 years and still have it today as a reminder of my trusted system.

I say ‘reminder’ because I have moved on to an even better method: “GTD” (Getting things Done).  It’s a more comprehensive system that addresses what I was trying to do with my handwritten book for years. When I was introduced to GTD, I was like a kid in a candy store; so happy to find the guidelines and structure I had attempted to create on my own for years.

My “Tomorrow’s To-Do list” has become my “Next Action Items list” and it has allowed me even more efficient task-management, enhanced my information processing and prioritization and time perspectives. GTD also introduced me to my new favorite list: the someday maybe list, which I am just starting to work on!

Clearly I’m pretty excited about this, but you don’t have to be as enthusiastic as I to reap tremendous benefits. Just try to find the system that works best for you, and keep it up because the simple task of creating a list allow you to shift the way you viewed tomorrow’s workday from a day filled with tasks still left undone, into a day filled with powerful potential.