Anatomy of a System for Getting Things Done

by Mike Shea on 22 April 2007

I have followed the path of David Allan's Getting Things Done for nearly a year now and, as disturbingly nerdy as it sounds, it has changed my life. I find myself handling more projects, gaining more free time, and reducing stress all at the same time. I can focus on the things that are important to me and eliminate the things that are not important.

Merlin Mann gave a quote on Leo Laporte's The Tech Guy show a couple of weeks ago that I liked a lot. It was along the lines of "Nerds like anything that makes them feel like a computer." That statement goes a long ways to identifying that strange behavior I see in a lot of guys for tweaking and screwing with technical things like cards, computers, golf clubs, and fountain pens.

In this regard I find myself with too much idle time gained by a streamlined GTD process and a sudden desire to tweak it.

For the past six months or so I have used a Franklin Covey 5x8 binder with some custom GTD-style loose leaf pages. A pocket Moleskine acted as my primary inbox or "Ubiquitous Capture Device", a far too complicated term for the place where you write in the random crap that hits your life almost faster than you can write it down.

The binder scaled very nicely and worked very well except for its large size. It is a hard thing to carry around. I had tried a single Moleskine-based GTD system in the past, using some of the experiences of other GTD geeks out in the interwebs. My attempts failed. Is there something easily changed that would make a pocket GTD system work?

Starting with a fresh look at the GTD system, we come to the four basic components one requires in order to fully implement the GTD process. We need the following:

  1. An "inbox": a single trusted place to write down any of the new crap that hits us at any time of the day.

  2. A system for managing a series of lists including projects, next actions, someday maybes, agendas, and waiting fors.

  3. A calendar system. For myself a calendar needs to go out further than a week or two. I prefer a full year.

  4. A contacts list. I need to know names, phone numbers, and addresses often at the worst times.

A look at some tools:

The Moleskine Plain Pocket Notebook

I love my Moleskine and, even when deemed impractical, I have a hard time ever giving it up. It is a perfect design in size, quality, and function. I've used them for years now and I still find myself smiling when I use one.

The Moleskine is an excellent device for an inbox. Meeting notes, new items of interest, thoughts, ideas, doodles, appointments, phone messages, email actions; anything can be sequentially written into the plain pocket Moleskine and processed into the rest of the GTD system. Personally, I don't use any particular system for writing things in it. I want it to be fast and easy. When I process I put a check mark next to every item that I have either added into the rest of my system or discarded as something not requiring any action. When an entire page has been processed, I put a check in the upper right corner of the page. This makes weekly reviews of old notes very fast.

The Moleskine fails in a couple of areas when it comes to the requirements of a GTD tool. The pages are bound so keeping lists in them becomes a challenge. Any list that moves quickly, like my @email action list, will have to be written, checked, and rewritten many times. Other lists like my "Waiting For" list or "Someday Maybe" list move hardly at all. Projects for my clients might get very lengthy, sometimes up to fifty separate projects. Moleskines scale poorly when it comes to managing lists.

When I tried to use a Moleskine for action lists, I ended up ruining the Moleskine and had to switch to something else. I spread too many lists across too many parts of the book. Lists would overwrite other sections of the book while others might have three extra pages unspent when it was time to switch. In my experience, the Moleskine cannot properly handle action lists.

Project lists and Someday Maybe lists work better in a Moleskine. These lists change more infrequently than an action list and the amount of space required can be determined more accurately. For myself I have projects broken out by client projects, company projects, and personal projects. I also have my Someday Maybe list. Each of these gets two extra blank pages beyond the lists themselves which should be plenty of room to grow but not so much room that I waste a lot of paper when it comes time to switch Moleskines. A small adhesive tab helps me flip right to the projects section of my Moleskine near the back of the book.

The Moleskine Weekly Planner with Contact's Insert

I used a Moleskine Weekly Planner for six months about a year ago. The year later they came out with a weekly planner in columns instead of horizontal breaks. This year they're back to the original again but I had already moved on.

The Moleskine Weekly Planner has a full year of weekly pages. It has enough room for a day full of meetings and spans out far enough to cover important events well into the future.

The major bonus of the Weekly Planner is the addition of a pull-out tabbed contacts insert. It only has one leaf per letter but this seemed to be enough room for all of the contacts I required to have on hand at any given time.

Carrying this means carrying at least two notebooks at once. It is slightly thinner than a regular pocket notebook but carrying two of anything can be a pain in the ass. Still, this seems to be the most reasonable way to carry a full year calendar and contacts list in ones pocket.

The Hipster PDA

The nose thumbing attitude of the Hipster PDA makes it a hard thing to dislike. It's great to watch the faces of Blackberry zombies fall when you whip out your stack of notecards bound with a single black aligator clip.

The Hipster PDA is a proven solution for list management and can almost fully implement an entire GTD system for about three dollars. It only lacks a full year calendar and a contacts list.

The system itself is almost too casual. It seems too easy to lose a single card that might have your entire list of required emails. You might also spend a bit of time shuffling through your stack of cards seeking out that one action list for "things to do when falling off of a roller coaster".

The Hipster PDA fits perfectly with the Moleskine notebook. It doesn't do so well with those lists you only check once a week but it does very well with the action list of the hour. With projects safely stored in the back of a Moleskine plain pocket notebook, the Hipster PDA is free to handle the chaos and madness of our regular work day.

By itself, one could keep all of the GTD lists along with a set of extra cards as an "inbox". That would implement every aspect of a GTD system except the calendar and contacts list. Archivability isn't great since you'll need to hang on to a thousand notecards in some sort of sealed argon-filled box for the next ten thousand years. The bound Moleskines work a lot better for archival purposes.

The Levenger International Pocket Briefcase

While the Hipster PDA gang might kick your ass after the board meeting for whipping it out, the Levenger International Pocket Briefcase is the $70 version of the ten cent alligator clip. It is a Levenger-beautiful leather bomber pocket thing that serves as a tall wallet and 3x5 card holder. If you use 3x5 cards as an inbox, it might serve as the only accessory you might need, again with the lack of a full year calendar and contacts list. The pen loop is a nice addition but any pen bigger than the beloved and popular Fisher Space pen might be a problem. Because it also serves as a wallet, it can actually replace multiple items one might carry in ones pockets with a single finely crafted bit of luxury.

The pocket briefcase is a bit heavy for what it does. Four or five stacked leather flaps all serve to hold a bunch of 3x5 cards, something easily done with a tiny clip in the Hipster PDA model. While you might reduce the number of items you carry, you aren't likely to save a whole lot of space or weight.

The price tag pushes it out of the range of some folks, although it is still a third the cost of a standard PDA. How well it works in practice remains to be seen. Office executives are likely to ask you about it but the GTD programmer types are likely to make fun of you at the next Starbucks break. It all depends upon with which gang you wish to roll.

After trying it for a day, I'm likely to return it today. Like the autonomy of each Unix command, each item in one's pockets are probably better as discreet items instead of a single item that trys to do everything. I just can't imagine wanting to pull out my wallet every time I want to see what I have to do. likewise, I can't imagine pulling out my entire set of next action cards whenever I want to buy a latte. I'm likely to buy a new Levenger wallet and I might try out the Levenger Shirt Pocket Briecase

The Levenger Shirt Pocket Briefcase

Like the International Pocket Briecase, this one is likely to get your ass kicked outside of the project management meetings by the geeks, but it might be a nicer way to hold a bunch of notecards than just a clip. It is thin enough to fit in a shirt pocket (duh) and discreet enough to fit in with any other system you have. Like the Hipster PDA, you could use it for inbox cards, next action lists, projects, someday maybes, waiting fors and any other lists you might want. Along with the Moleskine weekly planner, this could be a complete system that easily fits in a pocket. If you're like me and you have to have a plain pocket Moleskine, well, that's three things you have to carry now. That's sort of a pain in the ass.

Mike's Ideal GTD System

I'm still trying to puzzle out what the ideal system would be. I'd like a single pocket-sized Moleskine with a full year weekly calendar, a contacts insert, enough blank pages to last a year as an inbox, and some way to hold about a dozen note cards. I want a loose-leaf Moleskine of some sort. I want something like a Moleskine City Notebook, a very cool personal travel notebook customized for a bunch of different cities in the world, yet built as a full GTD system. I suppose having a notebook and a date book bound together would cause problems. It would need some sort of insert system. Frankly, I can't even noodle it out enough in my head to know exactly what I want.

Once I've tried out a few different variants of the new Mike Shea Pocket GTD system, I'll write up an article on what it is and how well it worked. In the mean time, it's back to my laboratory.

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