6:30 am As I wait for the water to boil for the French press, I scan my email. Outlook is set to show the preview pane similar to the experience using the Mail App on my iPad. When a message is selected, it is previewed without the hassel of double clicking to open. Messages are not read; rather they are skimmed. I do a preview to see what issues, requests, and correspondences await me. This frames the beginning of the work day.
7:30 am Several mornings a week, I commute an hour down the interstate in Connecticut. Driving allows me to think. The caveat is to have commercial free music that won’t invade my thinking zone. Before setting off, I launch Voice Memo on my iPhone and start a new recording and immediately pause it. The trick is to capture thoughts, plans, or messages I want to send. As things pop into my mind, I add short sound bites to the recording on the iPhone.
9:00 am After checking in with the staff at the office, I process my email inbox. Using OmniFocus and a paid subscription account with Evernote, I go through the email sorted oldest first. Old messages have been previewed at 6 am. As they are reviewed a second time it is easier to make some snap decisions on what to do next. Applying the principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), I process the messages. If it can be answered in under 30 seconds, a quick reply is dashed off. Anything that requires more than two minutes is transferred into the inbox of OmniFocus as an action item within the inbox. Short emails are copied and pasted into the text area of the action item while email with attachments are forwarded to Evernote. At this point I don’t worry about projects, contexts, or time needed, instead it is more important to capture the “to do” within the program. Effectively, I perform the mind dump on a mini scale which is at the bedrock of a GTD habit.
If the email is reference, I forward the message to Evernote and use additional language in the subject line in the form ”# <notebook> @ <tag>”. For example, an iTunes receipt for an App gets forwarded to my Evernote email address with the addition in the subject line of “@IT #receipts”.
To digress for a moment, one of the many powerful features of Evernote is the ability to put multiple tags on a message (or note) and place them in broad notebooks. Evernote has excellent search features and with the paid account, you can email messages with attachments. Furthermore, PDF and image files are searchable. While I use Dropbox as well, there is no metadata for a file stored in a folder. Evernote allows me to add context to the file. In fact, folders are fairly useless. This one feature alone is a major reason and advantage to forward messages to Evernote as opposed to merely saving the message within my email system. I avoid quota issues,add additional text, transfer a message into a project, and search quickly saved email messages. More on this transformation later.
Every message is deleted after I read it. Everyone. Some are deleted immediately. Others have a quick response and then deleted. Some are forwarded to Evernote, and then deleted. Still others have an entry in OmniFocus as an action item, and then deleted. By the end of this session, I achieve inbox zero. No need to celebrate, I achieve an empty inbox every day. David Allen’s assertion that this freedom is euphoric is actually very true. I don’t worry about the email inbox, avoid stress of searching through saved folders, and satisfy my obsessive compulsive disorder.
Once email is processed, I listen to my voice memos and create entires in the OmniFocus inbox. Lastly I look through my notes taken in Notability from meetings I attend the previous day as well as any other action items from voicemail, hand written notes, mailbox, etc. When done, I have a long list of new items in my GTD program of choice, OmniFocus.
I try very hard not to schedule meetings first thing in the morning since it conflicts with this discipline.
9:30 am My colleagues who are skeptical of my system, quip at this point. “You have merely moved email from one inbox to another. In fact, you have taken more time.” As Lee Corso would say on ESPN’s College GameDay, “Not so fast, my friend.”
There are many GTD mobile apps and programs for consideration. My criteria is my product has to be full featured. I have used several web based systems from Remember the Milk to Nozbe. OmniFocus, a Mac product, is great because it ties into my calendar and with the iPad App shows (or forecasts) items with my appointments. What is important is that my GTD software allows me create an action item that includes a note field, a project name, a context, start and due dates as well as the ability to sync to the cloud and additionally there is an iPad and iPhone App.
Each item in the OmniFocus inbox is now processed. Simple items go into a single action list called “Miscellaneous”. These are basically either longer email responses or items that require one step to complete. The action name is the next step.
Anything that requires more than one step is transformed into a project. A project has multiple steps to complete. What is important at this point is to record the next step needed to move the project forward. If more than one action is obvious, I add these additional steps. If I am pressed for time, I only focus on exactly the next step. This may seem trivial but it is the leverage needed to move a project forward. When I return to this project at a later date, the next step item is my starting point and allows me to immediately dive in without the need to review the whole project and accompanying documentation. I have learned from experience not to limit my projects just to work. We all think of personal items that need to be done and if neglected in this process I can not achieve the peace of mind. I group projects into folders. My broad folders are IT, Home, and Officiating (for three sports where I am a referee).
All action items are given a context. Contexts are either verbs (research, phone, email, review) or nouns (computer, meeting) that specify what tool is needed to complete the action step. Contexts are given to the next action step and with a click of a button can be grouped for review. For example, I can sort all the action steps and see the context “email”.
Lastly, I add time boundaries. Start date is always “today”. If there is not a specific time due date I pick “Friday” giving myself this work week to return to the item. If there is a specific date something is needed, I make sure to make the due date the Friday prior to allow OmniFocus to remind me of the task and have some time to review.
Nothing feels better than checking off action steps during the day. It adds a great sense of accomplishment during the work day.
9:45 am - Lunch. My work day consists of either meetings or desk time. During meetings I use my iPad heavily and the App Notability to take notes and Evernote to search for saved documentation. If the meeting involves a great deal of dialogue and interaction, I sometimes use the record feature in Evernote to embed an audio recording that I can later review and transcribe into notes.
Meetings often have take aways or action steps. I transcribe these immediately during the meeting in OmniFocus by adding one entry to the inbox. Later, when I process my inbox I expand the items and add context, project or list names, due dates, and next steps.
If the meeting has an electronic agenda, it is forwarded to Evernote. If there is paper items given out at the meeting, each item is scanned to a PDF on the office multifunction printer, and once received in my email, forwarded to Evernote. Therefore, I eliminate almost the need for actual filing cabinets. What gets stored in these mechanical dinosaurs are booklets, contracts, schematic drawings, or anything too large and complex to scan. However, I often use my iPhone to take pictures of drawings or white boards and then the iPhone Evernote App to immediately file them away with the proper tags. If there is physical document saved, I make a notation in Evernote.
Notability is great for text editing and hand written notes or diagrams. I keep the Notability files to add content but always make a PDF to Evernote to make sure I have a copy in one place. This also gives me a series of updated notes on a project as I collect numerous PDF updates.
Desk time always has a duration from fifteen to 90 minutes. At these times, I go back to OmniFocus and look only at items with a due date of this Friday. Larger review items that require more focused attention are slated for the morning as I sip coffee. They are completed or if progress is made, updated in OmniFocus with the next action step recorded when I stop. When I find myself drifting, I know it is time to move on to another task. I scan the list of projects/action steps and resolve several that take longer than 30 seconds but needed no more than 5 minutes. By the time the next meeting or lunch occurs, I have completed several tasks.
Before leaving the office, I process my email inbox once again. It takes me far less time than the morning routine because I left it in an inbox zero state. Once done, my inbox remains empty.
Afternoon. At some point everyone takes a break and for me I usually catch up on social media which includes twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. Evernote has both a Mac OS plug-in and browser add-ons to help you take screen shots, selections, or full web pages. Interesting links are saved with a “R&D” tag. (GTD disciples: this is effectively my someday/maybe list.) Tweetdeck will allow me to send interesting tweets directly to Evernote. Again, there is beauty of having one place for all my stuff.
Fridays. Fridays are a little different. This step took the longest to implement in my GTD system. On Friday I schedule “close door time” to attack any action items that are time sensitive and have fallen off the plate the previous days. I try to literally clear off my desk. Papers are sorted and filed, snail mail opened and read, and if necessary new action items created in OmniFocus and next action steps recorded. Bills are paid, voice mail cleaned out, any coffee mugs washed. While it does not always happen, when accomplished it allows me to relax more on the weekend and address home tasks. If the Friday predates a vacation period, tis ritual becomes nonnegotiable and must be done. Even if I have to stay late on a Friday, I won’t start a vacation period without clearing the desk. When I have failed at this task I struggle to let go on vacation. Some part of me continues to churn with those pesky tasks.
Results: I don’t wake up in the middle of the night and stress over all I have to do. On the very rare occasions this happens, I get up and write out single action items. This is a warning sign that my discipline has slipped on the daily routine or I am overbooked. These early morning sleep interruptions happen far less frequently than when I began down this road. It took me time to try and test various GTD tools. I made refinements in my buckets. I tried several variations of contexts. I was never discouraged to reorganize my folders, projects, etc. Applying GTD is an organic process.
Evernote changed my life.