My Killer GTD Setup — Part III

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jun 19

This is the third and final installment of My Killer GTD Setup, inspired (with perfect timing) by the Getting Things Done Blog challenge to describe my killer GTD setup. I have not been happy with how my tools were working implementing the Getting Things Done methodology. The methodology is fine; the tools I selected weren’t working for me.

The good news, as David Allen says, is when you fall off the GTD wagon, you at least have a wagon to get back on. Unlike most systems.

The first part of the series looked at what my current work and home environment was and what led me to change tools. The second part examined my current tools and then looked at the criteria for new tools. This third installment will be about the tools selected and how I am using them to manage my time, tasks, and projects.

The New Setup

Recall my criteria for tools from the second part and see how they were implemented:

Single Place to Record Next Actions

The challenge of having two home computers and a work computer to record actions, along with the normal array of sources of tasks, is to have a single place to record what is determined to be next actions from the sources of tasks. Clearly, one PC won’t do the job.

The only ubiquitous capture tool for next actions out there is something on the Internet because the tool can be used via any PC, work, home or public. After looking at several tools, I selected GTD Tracks for recording the next actions that need to be done from my inbox, voice mail, or e-mail.

GTD Tracks is built around the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. While more sophisticated than a simple list maker, the program makes it easy to quickly enter in tasks and next actions, including deferring an action until later. You can set up as many “contexts” as you like with a subscription.

Here’s what entering a new action looks like:
GTD Tracks Next Action
Once you enter the information, the next action goes into your context list. Here’s what my context list looks like right now:
GTD Tracks Context List
As you can see, these contexts, with the exception of the blog stuff, is pretty close to the book. Clicking on the plus sign on any of these contexts opens up the entire list of next actions for the context. You can complete, delete, view, or edit any of the actions from this context list at any time.

For those curious, I currently have 16 active contexts, 140 next actions and 12 active projects. Pretty typical of most people.

Single place to record reference lists such as “Restaurants to go to in Seattle” or “What to Pack for travel.”

I have a lot of lists. What wine to buy, what music to buy, what to do in Port Townsend, WA, what to pack, and hobby stuff. These are checklists that I use. The deal with these lists is that you never need them until something happens. “The Three Day” list is what to have for three days of emergency stuff if something bad here happens (like an earthquake). Or we’re traveling to Port Townsend, WA, and need to decide where to eat dinner. You look at the list.

These separate checklists are all treated like a task in GTD tracks and are then stored under the “lists” context above.

Single place to record projects

Projects have always been tough for me. Since my background is also in Project Management, I tend to lay out an entire project pretty much up front. The GTD methodology, though, rightfully says that you can only “work a project” one next action at a time. And you should have one next action for each spinning plate out there and leave the rest parked in a safe place until we’re ready to have that be the next “next action.”

Projects are handled in GTD Tracks as well. I won’t show you a screen shot of my projects (hey, this is the WORLD WIDE web…), but suffice to say that you can define a project, create notes on the project, have the deferred actions associated for the project (it needs to be done later, but has dependencies), and have your listing of next actions to be done.

The next actions associated with a project also show up nicely in your Context list of next actions to be done. So, work your Context Next Action list and you’ll naturally be working the next actions associated with your project as well.

You can also set up a “hidden” project that won’t show up until you change the status to “Active.” This allows you to work a project in the thinking stage, or what is called a “Someday/Maybe” project in GTD terminology.

On the home page, your list of all active projects are shown as well as the context list for next actions. This gives you complete access to all your stuff in one page.

Not use a Personal Information Manager — it was too hard to sync it between work and two computers at home

You will perhaps recall that I have work and home PC’s and a Blackberry for work and a Palm compatible for home. Since I have two PIM’s, neither of which can capture everything through syncing, I decided to not use a personal information manager.

However, it’s important to have your stuff with you wherever you are. What I decided to have was a paper printout of all my current contexts and projects and have that in my briefcase — which I have always taken everywhere with me. Putting the paper lists in a three ring binder means I had a place to capture notes that could be uploaded later and I had all my current stuff.

What did I need at Home Depot? Oh, it’s in the “Errands” context list and printed out.

You can guess that GTD Tracks provides for printing. They do straight text printing to a file, but also offer RSS capabilities as well. Here’s a screen shot of all the options:
GTD Tracks -- Feeds
At the very bottom, there is another complete listing of actions associated with each of your named projects and each of my projects are listed below it.

At the end of the day (work or home, depending upon changes), I print out the text feeds for “All Contexts” and “All Projects” and put them into my three ring binder that goes in the briefcase. In essence, an electronically produced “hipster” GTD implementation for on the road.

Finally, find a password/critical data program that would be independent of PC or location.

I have about 150 sites that I have passwords on and another bunch of information associated with stuff that I would prefer to have in a database and have encrypted (such as the registration code for my software programs I use).

This was really the largest practical application that I used my Palm-compatible PIM for during the day. The rest of the applications didn’t really work that well for me that are more closely associated with GTD, but I couldn’t get rid of the PIM unless I nailed this password thing.

What I ended up with was RoboForm2Go, an encrypted password program that allows you to store passwords, encrypted notes, and recognize and add sites as you used the sites. The cool thing? It runs entirely on a USB device. Plug in the USB device into your PC, activate it and the program attaches a toolbar to your browser and executes passwords for you.

Then, when done, take the USB device out of the computer…and no trace of the program is left on the computer you plugged it into. Since it is computer independent, this allows me to take it with me from work to home to public computer and back through with my passwords safely encrypted.

What about the rest of GTD?

The Weekly Review

Whenever I had done the weekly review, it was more difficult for me to do so looking at the electronic screen. There is something in my nature about doing creative stuff in analog and doing the execution of the creative stuff digitally.

Whenever I did my weekly review, I did the suggested steps, but whatever was in electronically, I printed out and reviewed on paper.

Since GTD Tracks has a paper option, I do my weekly review of both next actions and projects using a printout as described above.

20,000 — 50,000 feet

Once one is past projects, doing the 20,000 to 50,000 foot work is really about having a good checklist. Want to review your goals for new projects or next actions? They are on the Goals checklist in the “Lists” context of next actions. Review the notes where the goals are contained and you’ve got your review in place.

Since you see these as part of contexts every week, you have a good standard way to review what you have for the “vertical” aspects of Getting Things Done.

Contacts

My need for contacts when away from a particular computer (where they are stored on Outlook) is limited to being able to call people. Consequently, I have all my work and personal contacts built into my cell phone. Wouldn’t it be nice if the companies offered a good way to import numbers? What a pain to get them all in the system.

Conclusions

I’ve been operating on this setup for about two weeks now. I still have some things to convert into the project area and a few lingering e-mails from my home PC to get into the system. I’m not as “clear and clean” as I need to be just yet. But, I’m close.

In spite of the really big change and essentially starting over, I’m a lot more comfortable with this system so far than any that I’ve had in the past. While more than one tool is being used, what I have seems to be working for how I work. If it doesn’t, I’ll change it.

That’s the beauty of a GTD system: the methodology of GTD will keep you whole whatever system you feel comfortable with using. That’s why all the chatter about this system being better than that system is all just a bunch of hot air. Everyone works differently. The beauty of the GTD methodology is that it allows you to use whatever tool you want as long as you are clear and crisp on the thinking it takes to get things done.

This has been very unusual for me: three very long articles on one subject. I hope that you’ve found them useful as a way of seeing how you could evaluate how you work and selecting tools that match up with your method of getting things done.

If you blog, you could also show how you do your stuff. If you don’t, you could add your method in the comments. There are hundreds of right ways of doing time and task management. Finding what works for you is the key.

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.

  • gtdfrk says:

    Scot, thanks for the last installment in your very detailed post about your GTD setup. It sounds like you have found the killer GTD setup that really works for you and at the same time you have provided other GTDers with some good advice and ideas on how to improve their own system. I used to have an offline digital GTD system (in Excel actually) and then synced that frequently to paper (PocketMod), which sounds similar to your setup. However, this process of syncing between paper and computer became a little tedious after a while. Right now I am using my Windows Mobile PDA to keep my action lists, but I still do my note taking and creative thinking on paper. At least I don’t have to sync my projects and next actions lists between computer and paper anymore.

    -gtdfrk

  • Scot Herrick says:

    I’m still working the system and making adjustments. Two weeks a system does not make!

    However, it is a fairly radical change for me and it has been comfortable so far. No matter where I am, I have one set of lists to work from regardless of context. Much nicer.

    Thanks for the challenge — the timing couldn’t have been better. I had not thought that it would be interesting to others to read through my struggles, but perhaps this will give some insight into what it takes to change a system.

  • Ryan says:

    Hey Scot – great series. The detail of your thought process is such a help for someone like me.

    But I have two questions:
    1. How do you deal with all your work email from outlook with your new “online” system?

    2. How does your employer feel about you using a web application which may contain sensitive information about it’s business?

    Thanks again!

    Ryan

  • Scot Herrick says:

    Good questions, Ryan.

    1. Outlook and online — the way I did Outlook (via ClearContext — what a great program….) was that I would turn an Outlook e-mail into an Outlook task. ClearContext allows one to imbed the e-mail into the task itself — a great feature.

    What I do now is create the next action in GTD Tracks and then copy and paste the e-mail into the notes section of the next action in GTD Tracks. So it is similar to the e-mail being in the notes section of the task in Outlook.

    I always have GTD Tracks open in a browser window (Firefox), so working this way is very simple.

    2. Employer feel about business information in a web application — to be fair, I haven’t asked. But, GTD Tracks is user and password protected, so that helps a bunch. In addition, I’m very careful to not include customer/business (or SOX for those in the US) sensitive information in the web application.

    What I did for this type of stuff was to have a specific folder in the My Documents section of my work laptop that I use to store anything like that. Again, it’s in one place.

    Then, when creating the next action task, I create the next action and include the file name of the sensitive information that is stored back on the secured laptop.

    If you think about how you work, this shouldn’t be too hard. You are really using your context next action list to trigger the next action. If part of that next action is opening a file — not uncommon — then having the file already on your secured laptop is something that you would have done anyway.

    Really good questions…hope this helps.

  • Hello.
    First a disclosure: I’m a cofounder at PassPack.

    I went over and had a look at GTD Tracks demo. It looks pretty neat actually, very simple to use. I can understand why you chose an online service considering all the changing computers you seem to do.

    You might want to try an online alternative to Roboform for the same reason – anytime, anywhere access without the USB drive.

    PassPack is an online password manager. It’s a free service and uses high security encryption as well as anti-phishing. You can store logins, software keys, notes, etc. In a couple of weeks we’ll be releasing an automatic login tool and a tool for importing from Roboform (Roboform does not offer export options – it’s my biggest issue with an otherwise valid product).

    Roboform’s form filling capacities are far better, but PassPack makes up for it in ease of use and portability.

    You can leave PassPack “always on” in a tab like you do with GTD Tracks. So it might fit well into your natural work process.

    Here’s a getting started guide if you’re interested: http://passpack.wordpress.com/passpack-getting-started/

    I realize I just gave you a ton of information, so feel free to contact me if you have questions.

    Cheers,
    Tara Kelly
    PassPack founding Partner

    http://www.passpack.com

  • Scot Herrick says:

    Thanks for the information, Tara. I went to the PassPack sight and found some very good stuff there.

    I think you’ll agree that, regardless of the tool, most knowledge workers have so many passwords or ‘personal vault’ items, that some sort of password manager is needed.

    Who would have thunk just five short years ago that would be the case!

  • […] Scot Herrick – Cube Rules: My Killer GTD Setup – Part I (Part II, Part III) […]

  • […] run into a couple of blog posts here and there about Tracks in general. The best post was over at Cube Rules. Scot does an excellent job of showing you how to use Tracks for GTD. He […]

  • cfrank says:

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your articles. I, like you, have a system problem. I have a secured laptop at work (user can’t add any programs), a work Blackberry, a personal Blackberry, and a home laptop. My system is in shambles because I can’t sync unify my work at home tasks on any electronic medium (my preference). I realized that I was going to have to look at some online task managment systems and really appreciate you describing your process. Just curious, how is it going? Is it still working for you?

    Cathy

  • Scot says:

    Cathy, I don’t use this one any more. Also, the last time I looked, this group was not accepting any new users.

    I am using Outlook as the GTD setup. I have it synched with my iPhone, using chapera as the synch device. Calendar and Contacts synch via iTunes and the iPhone, I use the Chapera service for tasks. Just like the Palm Pilot without the Notes function.

    Every person’s situation is unique. For what you have described, I would serious look at an online system for everything. I have tried several that have worked well, but each system is different. Most offer free or limited trials — I’d use the heck out of the free trial or limited offer on some test tasks and see how they work.

    Good luck — GTD is THE way for knowledge workers to manage their work. Make sure you work the methodology and that your system works to how you use the methodology. It’s not about the tool, it is about the methodology that uses tools.

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