How to reduce stress in your life

StuffI received a lot of positive feedback on a previous post The Basics of GTD, so here is a slightly different overview of GTD and why it relieves stress.

It all starts with “stuff”…

We all have “stuff” in our heads and it shouldn’t be there. David Allan defines “stuff” as: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” (page 17 of Getting Things Done) and when we have stuff in our heads, it causes untold stress and anxiety.

Stuff has no “home” and, consequently, no place to go, so it just keeps rattling around in your head causing subconscious stress. David calls this stuff “open loops” and we are all too neurotic to stop thinking about it, and we certainly don’t have time to actually do everything we keep in our heads.

So we sprint from fire to fire, reacting to the “latest and loudest” praying we haven’t forgotten anything, sapped of our creativity and the flexibility to adapt our own schedule to the needs of our friends, family or ourselves. In this situation our “stuff” has taken over our brain like a virus, dragging down every process it touches and rendering us spent and virtually useless.

Here is an overview of how GTD addresses all the stuff in your head. The process is – Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do.

  1. Capture all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place. (open loops)
  2. Eliminate all the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now.
  3. Create a “Trusted System” that supports your working style and values.
  4. Put your stuff in your Trusted System to get it out of your head.
  5. Review your system periodically to ensure you have everything.
  6. Do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment.
  7. Iterate and refactor in a continuous improvement cycle.

So, basically, you make your stuff into next actionable items that you can complete. Everything you keep has a clear reason for being in your life at any given moment—both now and well into the future. This gives you an amazing kind of confidence that nothing gets lost and you always understand what’s on/off your plate.

Also built-in to the system are an ongoing series of reviews, in which you periodically re-examine your now-organized stuff from various levels of granularity to make sure your vertical focus (individual projects and their tasks) is working in concert with your horizontal focus.

Really not that complicated and I guaranty it works. How do you manage your stuff?

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 followupthen.com 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 followupthen.com, 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.

Why I love Evernote

Evernote Logo

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in BusinessWeek by Rob Walker called As Evernote’s Cult Grows, the Business Market Beckons and it got me thinking about my use of Evernote.

Over time, Evernote has been “stealing” minutes from other productivity applications in my life. The biggest “looser” has been Outlook. I used to use Tasks in Outlook for my “Trusted System” but for the last couple of years I have been using Evernote.

It has also been stealing minutes from Word because I do lots of my rough outlines and “brainstorming” in Evernote too. It just seems like Evernote is so flexible and solves so many of my problems that it continues to gobble up more and more of my time.

As Walker says in the article, “Once you get it, they say, you live and die by Evernote” and sooner or later you get caught up in “The Evernote Lifestyle.” Not only do I rely on it as the foundation for my GTD Trusted System, but I use it for and ever-increasing range of tasks.

It’s logo is an elephant because it is designed to help you “Remember Everything.” Here is a quick example, I’m in the gym and I keep running into the same people in the locker room but forgetting their names. So, I say “I’m sorry I forgot your name” and then when they tell me I put it in Evernote with a little clue to help me remember. Then the next time I see the person I just whip out my phone and I can easily find their name. This has happened countless times.

Getting information in and out of Evernote is the key to its success. You can capture anything – your ideas, things you like, things you hear, and things you see. You can capture and retrieve your “stuff” on any device because Evernote works with nearly every computer, phone and mobile device out there. And you can find you stuff fast by searching by keyword, tag or even printed and handwritten text inside images.

Evernote is exhibit A for what a modern app should be. It is easy to use, fast, free, works on virtually all devices, leverages the cloud to store your information and sync it across all your devices. It leverages the “freemium” model where you can pay for additional functionality.

The people who I have recommended Evernote to generally fall into one of two camps. They either, try it for a little while and quit because they don’t “get it” or it becomes the foundation for their entire organizational structure and they can’t imagine life without Evernote.

Which camp do you fall into and why?

Use Siri to capture your “stuff” while driving

SiriI use Siri on my iPhone to capture any idea that comes to me when I am driving. It is fantastic because I don’t have to unlock my phone, launch an app, or type anything that would distract me from driving. All I have to do is hold down the home button on my iPhone and wait for the familiar beep that is Siri. Then I say “text inbox” and whatever I want added to my trusted system. It is that easy!

Here is what you need to do. Set up a contact called Inbox in the Last Name field of your contacts with your Evernote email address. Once you have this you are ready to go.

The reason you use text instead of email is Siri asks for the subject when you email but not when you text. Now, when you go to your default Evernote folder (Unprocessed for me) you will have a “Mailed In Note” with your “stuff” in the body of the note.

This is a simple way to avoid distracted driving while capturing your “stuff” in the car. For most recent cars that have bluetooth integration you can use the cars built in microphone and speakers to truly make it an integrated experience.

Try it, you will be amazed how well it works.

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.