Saturday, January 28, 2012

Poor Memory and Productivity Tools

I have a terrible memory. There I said it!

One of the reasons that I'm so good at weaving is that it requires prolonged and intense focus on minute details, especially the way that I do it. I'm really good at that.

The problem is that this intensity consumes my mind entirely. Lots of things get "put on hold" while I focus. I know that I'm not unique in this. I've got just got a pretty severe version of it.

Years ago I realized that I had a choice: make my life so simple that I can handle it easily or find assistance in tracking a complicated life. I chose the latter. Yeah, I want my life to be simple, but let me tell you that starting a business and a new spiritual community at the same time is anything but simple.

So I turned to productivity methodology and software to help me live a life that's as stress-free and balanced as possible. This post is about what I've been doing and a great tool that I've just discovered.

First up is Evernote. I've written about it before, but it is really saving me from wasted time just about every day. I subscribe to the $5/month plan that lets me store as much as I want. Everything goes in there: articles that touch me, research notes, recipes, show recommendations, and more. Then, whenever I want to refer to that resource again I can just search Evernote, even if I'm not connected to the internet, and even if that webpage is long gone.

Along with Evernote, I use two programs that enhance that experience: AwesomeNote and EgretList.

AwesomeNote lets me access and create some of my notes quickly and easily. I use it like stickies, a scratchpad, or the back of an envelope. And all of these notes become searchable in Evernote. I use it to make notes about color gradations, yarn orders, recipes, and more. And when I'm done with a note, I just delete it from AwesomeNote, knowing that I can always retrieve it again from Evernote if I need it.

EgretList simplifies the work of doing shows by letting me have simple checklists. I don't use it like a todo manager. I only use it in the days around a show to handle four things: To Do Before The Show, To Pack, To Buy On The Way, To Do After The Show. And here's where Evernote magic comes in. When I'm preparing for a show, I go into Evernote, make a copy of the four lists from the last show, uncheck the checkboxes, and sync. Poof! I've got a step-by-step checklist in my pocket to make sure that I do and bring everything I'll need for the show, even if I'm dog-tired and unable to remember my own first name. If I add something new to the process, say a new carpet or a new booth banner, I add them to the lists so that I'll remember those things for the next show.

Next up is Daylite. This is the cream-of-the-crop of project management systems in my opinion. It's far more powerful than how I use it - designed to manage teams of people working on projects together with everyone having access to all of the data all of the time.

I use Daylite for longterm planning. Every show that I've done or considered lands in Daylite with all of the notes about it: referrers, application deadlines, show dates, other vendors that do that show, and every email that I've swapped with the organizers. (Daylite integrates with Apple Mail and automatically copies emails into Daylite, linked with the appropriate records.) To set up my show schedule for the year, I entered application deadlines and show dates for potential shows into four calendars: Tentative, Applied, Accepted, and Standby. The Accepted calendar is automatically synced to a Google calendar that you can see on my WEBSITE

The power of Daylite comes in the connectedness of the data. Every show (Organization) is linked to its organizers and referrers (Contacts) and linked to any year that I did or considered that show (Project). Let's say I'm looking at my list of shows from last year and I want to know if I'm considering a particular show this year. It goes like this:
Shows 2011 -> Jacksonville. Does it have a link to Shows 2012? If not, then open the note entitled "Skip 2012" or "Standby 2012" that I created for each show I was not considering and remind myself why I'm not doing that show. One click and 10 seconds of reading.

I've tried using Daylite for all of my todo list needs, but found that using it is just too much overhead for everyday items. It doesn't have the features that let me slice and dice my todo lists for maximum productivity.

The last piece of the productivity puzzle has just snapped into place for me: OmniFocus.

Before I go into it, I want to talk a little bit about the productivity methodology that I use: David Allen's "Getting Things Done", often abbreviated to GTD. The tagline for his book is "The Art of Stress-Free Productivity".

I think that there is one take-home lesson from the methodology: you must get ALL todo list items out of your head and sorted into contextual lists. The rest of the methodology gives a rigorous set of tools for what to do once they're out of your head.

Todo items take up brain space, add to stress, and rarely come to the front of your mind at the right time. Memory is contextual - you remember that you need tartar sauce when you're making fish, not necessarily when you've stopped at the store to pick up milk on the way home from work. And, while you're there, it's extremely unlikely that you'll also remember things from vastly different parts of your life like picking up a pen refill cartridge (office), grabbing a bottle of fuel injector cleaner (car maintenance), and picking up a birthday card for mom (social reminders). Most people need to make a grocery list to remember all that stuff. The GTD methodology makes grocery lists for every major context in your life.

By creating context-aware lists, you can see at a glance what you could be doing at any given time. Context is more than just location. It can also be things like "Email", while you're dealing with email, "Husband", the next time you see your husband, etc.

GTD is a thorough system that encompasses everything from one-day projects to life goals, helping you to define all of your goals, create actionable items and move those items and their goals toward completion. Like I've said before, "Action is Magic!" Define and perform the actions and the goals take care of themselves.

The piece that I've been missing in my personal productivity is an unobtrusive, full-featured GTD program that runs from the iPod that's always on my belt, with or without an internet connection.

I think I've found it with OmniFocus. Yes, it's expensive, $20 for an iPhone app in a world where most of them are $1. But it's so good that I couldn't justify trudging along with a cheaper and less capable system.

The first feature that caught my attention is the Forecast View. It shows in one glance how many tasks are behind schedule, how many there are today and each day for the next week. It lets me put in a little extra work now if I see a tough day coming up or go to that day and spread some of the non-essential tasks forward a little more. However I choose to handle it, the program gives me the information that I need to take control of the situation and get my work done.

Here's the Home Screen. From here, I can see where the tasks lie.

Flagged items MUST be done today. They are time-sensitive and can't be put off any longer.

The Inbox is special. It's the first place that items land when you just need to get them out of your head. It takes 10 seconds to pull out the device, enter an inbox item and get back to whatever I was doing. At my next review session I open it up and assign a project, context and, if possible, a due date to each one. As you can see from the 12 items in my inbox, I'm still in "dump" mode, getting everything from my head into the inbox without worrying about where it goes.

The Map view is another exciting feature. Some contexts can have an associated location. When items are marked with that context, they will show up on the map.

If I had an iPhone instead of just an iPod, I could set it up to alert me when I entered a location that has outstanding action items. Walk into the grocery store and your whole shopping list pops up automatically. Pretty cool, but not essential.

One important thing to remember is that contexts are separate from projects. The map shows all items from all projects that can be done in a given location. This is a HUGE improvement over the way our brains usually work, where the needs of the most recent or pressing project trump everything else and we forget all the other things that would take little time to do in a given location.

And then there are the projects themselves. OmniFocus supports nested projects, ie. Business:Vendors, Business:Customers, etc. At each level, you can see all items from all projects contained in that level.

The OmniFocus software is so well thought out that it seems magical. No matter what I want to know about my tasks, there is a way to see it with just a couple of clicks. Here are a few examples:

- Give me a sorted list of everything that I need to do in town, whether it's due or not. Click Contexts, Grants Pass, All Available Items. It gives me a list of all locations in Grants Pass, followed by the items that need to be done in each location. It becomes a foolproof list of places to stop and things to do because I sorted my Grants Pass contexts based on my usual driving route. I just march down the list mindlessly doing things and checking them off.
- Let me do or reschedule all past due items. Click Forecast, Past Due. Walk through them, rescheduling or doing them.
- Put inbox items into the appropriate context and project. Click Inbox. Walk through them, assigning context and project with a few clicks each.

So now that I've got the best tool for the job it's time to start using it consistently. I'm just coming out of my Winter malaise so there's a ton of stuff to get caught up on. One of the first sets of tasks on the list is to review David Allen's "Getting Things Done" and refresh my memory of the whole methodology. Thankfully, last time I read it I took notes in Evernote. This time I can review one chapter of my notes a day and reread any sections of the book that I don't remember well. So yes, I've now made a project in OmniFocus to review one chapter a day until it's done.

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