My personal set up

Here’s the thing: when you go looking at comments about different tools, you’ll probably find what I did: lots of people talking about the tools, but not as many talking about the meat and bones of how they set things up. (There are a few, but not, in my opinion, enough!)

So, I wanted to do a detailed overview of exactly how my system’s set up. (It got long, but I think having it all in one place is easier than splitting it up.)

A few basics:

I’m not going to cover all of Getting Things Done as a system here (the links from the last task management post do a good job there), but I do want to highlight the really basic process.

1) I become aware of things that needs to be done.

2) Can it be done quickly right now? If so, do it.

If not, and it needs to be dealt with, put it in the trusted task management system. (If you’ve wondered why I’m usually very quick to respond to email, this is why: most emails are a “do it now” thing for me, or they sit for weeks.)

I’ve found it works best if – whenever possible – I attach whatever material I really need to do the task to it (a link to the email or file I need to work with, specific reminder notes of what I’m doing with it.)

3) Review.

This involves reviewing new items and putting them in the right place, as well as making sure the actual task is clear and unambiguous. (I do this daily, with a longer review weekly to pull in items I might be neglecting.)

4) Rinse, repeat. Adjust as needed. The tasks go ever on and on. That’s okay.

Tools I use:

In part two of this series, I talked about the fact that I really like a program called Things for my task management.

It’s pricier than many other options out there, but it has several features I really like (robust repeating task choices, multiple ways to sort or group tasks, the ability to highlight something in my email and turn it into a task with one step, good handling of attached files and other information).

It’s also highly compatible with the Getting Things Done methodology, which I use as the base for my system. (I mentioned in part 2 that syncing was often seen as its downfall, but since then they’ve launched beta testing of a new way to sync that seems promising.)

One thing I’ve wanted for a while is a way to track things on a weekly basis, since there’re usually a moderate number of larger tasks that I want to accomplish in a given week, and it’s helpful to have a list. I played with doing this in Things (by creating a “This week” project, and creating duplicate projects) but found it frustrating. I’m currently trying out a web-based tool called Workflowy for this (and some other bits and pieces), and I’ll talk about that at the end.

Below, I’ll be showing some screenshots. (These were mostly taken in early February, and they’ve had identifying details edited out of them. The Workflowy one, I just did tonight.)

The big picture:

I’ll start with a few big picture things, and then we’ll have more screenshots of particular bits. This first image is large (it shows the whole window), so you may want to open it in another tab/browser window so you can see how things fit together.

Main window of Things illustrating my task management structure.

As I mentioned, Things is designed for the Getting Things Done methodology designed by David Allen. (Part two of this series has additional links and resources about it.) This system – commonly called GTD – is based on the idea of contexts. In other words, you collect items based on what you need to do them. (These are often labelled @whatever, in order to force them to the top of sorted lists, and because it’s a nice little symbol play for location contexts, like @home).

Contexts can be about places (@home, @work, @desk, @office). They can be about the tools you can use easily right then (@phone, @web, @computer).

One of my adaptations for the system is to include contexts for the level of attention/focus I have available – for example, being in a quiet office/coffee shop by myself is different than sitting at a reference desk where people will be coming by at varied and unpredictable intervals with questions I want to help with. More on that when we get to tags.

Containers for information:

What I like about Things as a program is that it gives me multiple ways to connect information. Starting in the left sidebar, we see:

The inbox where you collect stuff you need to decide what to do with. (Tasks that have yet to be assigned a project, context, etc.)

Areas of focus are broad categories that collect information in different ways.

Today is the screen I work from most of the time, the items I want to work on that day.  I usually aim at about 10-12 tasks on a day, some of them big, some of them small. (If I run out, I go and look for more in the appropriate context). Usually, these include:

  • One or two scheduled items (like a meeting or event I’m going to)
  • 3-5 household tasks I want to get done (take out the trash, change the cat litter, etc.)
  • 3-5 items for work (or, currently, job hunting) that are the main things I want to get done that day.
  • 1-2 items for other areas of my life, with an eye to keeping things in balance (something to do with my spiritual life, something to do with a creative project, maybe a movie or TV episode I want to watch while knitting, etc.)

Next lists the next items in each project, all together. This makes it easy to stay on top of the entire project, see if I’m missing something, etc.

Scheduled is the place to see all tasks that are assigned to a particular day in one place. Sometimes these are things I want to do on a particular day (review materials for an interview or class), sometimes these are repeating tasks (a reminder of trash and recycling days). Sometimes they’re things I don’t need to think about for a while, but do want a reminder of eventually (making plans to go to a concert or event with friends, but when the event’s a few months away.)

Another time I use this is a reminder of things happening in the distant future. For example, I have two renewing subscriptions on my current debit card, which will expire later this year – so I want to remember before they renew that I need to change the card number (sometime after I have the new one, but before the account expires). So, for each account where that’s true, I have a little reminder about a month before the renewal date.

Someday is a classic GTD category for things you want to do, but that aren’t really on your radar right now for some reason, often because they need more time or energy than you have at the moment. (Future travel plans, projects you’d like to pick up, etc.) By sticking them in their own location, they’re easy to review quickly every so often and see if they’re more accessible now, or maybe have become important enough that you’ll make the space in your life for them.

Projects is where all the projects live, both current ones and archived/inactive ones.

People is a setting I’m not currently using, but it’s great if you have specific people you coordinate work with regularly. As you come up with things you want to discuss with them in your next meeting, you can assign those tasks to them, or you can use that to track tasks you’ve asked them to take on but need to check in about.

Active projects are the projects that are currently ongoing in your life. We’ll come back to this.

Areas are for different parts of your life – you might have work, home, family, etc. I break it down a bit more than that, because it helps me keep an eye on balance in my life (and arrange the projects in a way that works well for me.) This is the part I adjust most often, I think – as I write this, my current set-up is shorter and more compact.

Moving over to the top of the right side of the window, you’ll see my tags (which I use for contexts: @computer and @email are obvious. @exit is what I use for the couple of most important tasks for that day.)

Then, in the main area of the window, you’ll see a collection of tasks, sorted by project. (Things will let you group them without projects, too, but I prefer to see the projects and sort them so that the more important things (finding a great job) are at the top, and the less critical ones (housekeeping stuff that could happen today, but could happen tomorrow and be fine) are down below. This lets me mostly work my way down the screen during the day.

Active projects:

You can see here a simplified version of my project list (I usually have a couple more personal writing projects and religious community projects active). Most of my projects are ongoing, but I have two shorter-term projects listed here: one was for a trip to Boston for a hiring conference in early February (which you’ll see later as our example project), and the other is about planning a weekend-long event in my religious community.

As you can see, you can name your projects anything you like. I like making these personal and evocative. “making my dream job real” is a lot more visceral than “find job” (and it’s a bit less depressing to see on the screen.) I do the same thing in the Areas section, with “being an amazing librarian” for general professional tasks, ongoing learning and growth, etc.

How many projects? That depends on you. I like to be able to see all my projects and areas without having to scroll the window, so sometimes I go through and prune and combine things.

Generally, though, here’s what I do:

One project per major area of my professional life. So right now, job hunting. When I’m working, I might have three or five, focusing on different areas, like:

  • welcoming and engaging space (tasks related to making the library a fun and useful place to be – reminders to tidy, water plants, a trivia question good for a particular day, etc.)
  • sharing information: tasks related to sharing what we’re doing with other people (social media notes and things to talk about, blog or newsletter items, etc.)
  • internal practical stuff : creating documentation, collecting and pulling together stats.
  • instruction: notes for particular instruction projects, collaboration with teachers, resource guides and notes, etc.
  • collection development: breaking down larger tasks into manageable pieces like “review May Booklist for new titles”.

One project for each major writing area because I use them to collect reminders of things I want to write about (basically, one task per blog post). I find that putting them all in a ‘writing’ project makes it hard for me to see quickly which posts are for this blog, and which are for my personal blog (which I write under a persistent pseudonym, since I talk about things like religion and health there.)

Sometimes the task is just a reminder of the topic. Sometimes I stick notes in the note field with specific areas I want to discuss (the main headings, usually) or examples I want to use, or whatever it was that made me think of writing that post.

Other significant projects, basically anything that’s got a concrete start and end (otherwise, it goes in an area) but that has a bunch of different tasks associated with it. (If something is just a couple of tasks, I’ll stick it in the most appropriate area.) Planning a trip to Boston, or planning a community event are the two you see here.

Areas:

Areas are basically larger groupings of projects – so “be an amazing librarian” is my professional life, “tending home and self” collects everything from reminders to take out the recycling every other Tuesday or that it’s the 15th and I need to pay my rent to reminders to schedule a doctor’s appointment or oil change. I also use it when I set up quick lists of to-dos for house cleaning (stuff that changes a little bit each time.)

These are the ones I seem to fiddle with the most: I always have a professional-life one, and always a home-and-self one. Right now, the others are my religious life, creative projects, enjoying life (social events, fun stuff I want to read/watch/do).

Tags:

I use tags to sort by contexts. Here’re my major ones:

  • @computer (things that require the computer, but not ‘Net access)
  • @phone (phone calls)
  • @exit (for the top few tasks each day)
  • @out (errands)
  • @email (things to send or reply to)
  • @web (things that require my web browser)
  • @home (things I need to be home for. Cleaning, often.)

I also have tags for:

  • focus (do I need it for the task? @focus if I do, @fuzzy if I don’t)
  • desk (for tasks that are good when I may get interrupted – desk as in ‘while at reference/circulation desk’, and that’s carried over into my personal uses.)
  • complexity (do I need to think about it, or just do it? I tag the simple ones, but not the complex ones.)

Some examples might be:

  • writing a job application (cover letter, resume editing to suit the position, etc.): @focus, @computer, @exit
  • writing a complicated email response about a community project to someone who’s obviously upset: @email, @focus, and probably @exit (because I want to get a response out promptly.)
  • doing the dishes: @home, @simple
  • going through my ‘to sort’ folder: @fuzzy, @computer, @simple (great for nights when I don’t have the focus to write, but don’t want to go to bed yet.)
  • casual project, personal blog post, etc. which I plan to work on while waiting for a friend to call: @desk, @web, etc.

Other tags you might find helpful might be something like @building (for stuff at work, but not in your immediate area: I used this to remind myself of things that had to go down to the main office, for example, last job.)

Working within a particular context: I do this a little less than standard GTD methodology suggests I should, because a lot of my tasks have some level of scheduling involved (job application is due on X date, need to finish something by the meeting date next week, etc.) and at the same time, most of them work better if I do them in sequence of a project, if I’ve got access t all the tools.

For example, I may research a particular job, write the cover letter, print the letter and resume to PDF, write a covering email, and send, all in one go, even though these are technically some different contexts. Or I might spend an evening focusing on event planning, alternating phone calls and emails about specific details.

However, I will have days where I go through and do every task of a particular context (phone calls to set up appointments for various things, emails about a particular project, etc.) And I’ve found the context system priceless when dealing with questions of focus, whether I may get asked something mid-thought, etc.

Tasks:

The trick with the tasks, I’ve found, is to break them down into small enough concrete pieces that it’s obvious to me (even if I’m tired, distracted, etc.) what the next step is. If it’s not obvious, I need to break it down more. I’ll talk more about this in the next post in the series.

Another sample:

Here, you can see the tasks for my trip to Boston in February. They’re ordered roughly in the order I wanted to do them. A couple are scheduled (things I needed to do on a specific day), but others can be done in any order.

(I picked this project in specific because you can get a good idea of a whole project without it being overwhelming.)

Task list for my trip to Boston in February

You can see that one of these (checking the weather) has a note. In that case, it’s a link to the Weather.com page for Boston, but it could have been an attached file, or a link to an email in my email program, or a reminder of what I wanted.

(And to explain that task – like most Minnesotans, I have a range of winter coats. Did I want to bring the bulky down coat or the lighter weight one?)

Bigger picture:

As I said way up at the top of this page, I like the GTD system a lot, but I often felt like I was losing track of what I wanted to get done in a week’s time (or how much I wanted to cram into a given week).

So, I’m currently playing with creating a weekly “Here’s the major stuff I want to do this week” using a different tool, Workflowy. Here’s what that looks like:

As you can see, it creates a nested list, where I can check off tasks (and hide them, if I want) as I go. I’m also using it for a few other concepts that don’t fit well in Things (self-reflection questions that aren’t yet something like a “write this blog post”, and a way to store the many many books I’m thinking I might want to read – doing it in Things gets really cluttered really fast.)

Scheduled is for the scheduled tasks and appointments I have this week. This is a really busy week – two phone/Skype interviews for possible jobs. Three events for the 501(c)3 where I’m on the board (our regular monthly meeting plus two site-related meetings about our year’s events).

But there’s also two social outings to see friends, some self-care (that’s the Feldenkrais: it’s a body modality focused on helping you learn how to use your body to do more of the things you want to do with less strain), some car care.

5 job applications are my goal most weeks. It’s the number that feels like the best balance between being able to do really good, thoughtful cover letters (with all the research that goes into that), without being overwhelming. Of course, if great jobs pop up which need an application quickly, I do more. So, here I list the specific jobs I want to focus on, based partly on due dates, and partly on whether certain jobs fit well together.

(For example, if I’m looking at several school library applications, it’s easier for me to group them together than alternate them with public library applications – the things I talk about in the cover letters are a bit different.)

Other stuff I want to do - an idea of blog posts I want to make time to write, playing around with a request from a friend (she wants to hear a recording of me playing my harp, as you might guess), something I need to do to prep for the organization’s Sunday meeting.

Of course, lots of things aren’t on here: knitting isn’t. Actually practicing that harp isn’t. Exercise isn’t. Mostly, those things live elsewhere (goal tracking software, which I may also talk about somewhere) where what I really want to make note of isn’t that I did it – but how regularly I’m doing it.

Next post(s):

In the next post or two, I plan to talk about:

  • The actual lifecycle of a task
  • Writing well-focused to-do items.
  • More about managing tasks in a high-interrupt setting.
  • How far to break down writing tasks. (You may have noticed I don’t break mine down a lot. There’s a reason for that.)
  • And maybe tracking ongoing goals, rather than tasks. (This might be its own post.)

If there are other things you’d like me to talk about, feel free to suggest in comments!

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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