Spring cleaning a.k.a. the seasonal purge of GTD inboxes

Spring cleaning a.k.a. the seasonal purge of GTD inboxes

University work never gets boring. It evolves continuously, so does the problems that must be taken care of. Every now and then, I set aside some time, think about my workflow on a higher level than usual, and check if the tools and methods that form my productivity system are up to the task.

The only thing that never changes is the fact that I rely on David Allen’s Getting Things Done in all my endeavors. The core principles of the GTD drive my workflow for years. I just can’t imagine how it is possible to survive without it.

When I sit down and think over underlying principle behind my workflows, the idea is to get rid of unnecessary clutter and simplify processes as much as reasonably possible. One of the most important aspects of efficient productivity is keeping under control all the points where the information enters your system. Frankly, at this point, life is way too complicated to keep and control just a single collection bucket or INBOX. That would be too much hassle, so I always use at least few. They all have to be regularly reviewed to keep things in order and up to date.

I just finished this year’s spring cleaning, so I can tell you a little about how my current data acquisition model looks like. Perhaps will find below some ideas to implement in your own productivity system.

Two types of INBOXes

The stuff can reach me through one of two categories of INBOXes: physical and digital. Physical inbox is simply a tray on my desk (one at home and one at work) where I put any piece of paper that needs to be taken care of. This is the old school inbox as described by David Allen in his book.

Digital inboxes are many, any relying on them is more complicated. Initially, I tried to build everything around a single digital collection bucket, but it didn’t work. There were many complications that slowed down the collection process. I decided to add inboxes for special purposes, which in the end brought me to five distinct locations dedicated to different aspects of my organized life. I combined them into two types: inboxes where people throw their stuff at me and inboxes where I control what kind of information enters my system.

So, lets take a look at the first category:

  • Email – most common and unavoidable entry point. This is the place where other people push information at me. I am regularly contacted by students, other researches, administration, etc. Email is necessary and requires constant review in order to stay under control. It is unlikely that I will ever get rid of email, but in some cases the number of emails can be reduced. This is why, nowadays, I rely on…
  • Instant messaging – Slack entered my life few years ago and made a revolution. We adopted it in our research team and basically got rid of our whole internal email communication. This is a place where my colleagues can always find me, question me, and send me requests for whatever they need.

In the next category of inboxes, I fully control what information enters my system. There are three kinds of inputs. They are complimentary and all play important role in my workflow.

  • Reminders – As the numer of my projects increased every year I needed to keep all of them under control in some kind of to-do system. The amount of information of enormous and very often, I have to be reminded to do something of to follow-up on something. In my case everything lands in OmniFocus, which is one of the best task and project managing application. Every time I need to write a reminder for some action to be taken in the future, it goes straight to my OmniFocus inbox. The principle is: every task must be actionable, thus it should start with a verb followed by some other information. For example “Buy hard drive.” or “Write summary of the Wang’s paper.” I also use tasks to organize follow-ups. Some reminders are there to notify me that I am still waiting for something and a follow-up is required. For example, “Waiting for the laboratory report.”. Whenever I consider to remember to do something, it makes a new task in OmniFocus.
  • Appointments – the second category of inputs. When a meeting is set I do not put the information to some inbox to deal with it later. Instead, I immediately create calendar entry, which usually takes 20-30 seconds and its done. In modern world, it would be extremely inefficient to create reminders about putting things in calendar. As David Allen pointed out, if something lands in your calendar, it must happen on a given time, or at all. Some people have calendars driven by their assistants or other people. That is also fine. For now, I prefer to set the scene on my own.
  • Other digital stuff – this category is the most important because it is the digital version of a traditional paper tray. Every scrap of potentially usable information, notes, photos, voice records, someday/maybe things (books to read, movies to watch, articles to skim, etc.), saved websites, everything goes right into this inbox. I will figure out what to do with it later. This is also the place where I delete most of stuff. Only limited number of things passes this check point and become resource materials.

This is how my set of inboxes looks like. It allows me to conduct the collecting phase in quite efficient manner. Five works for me, you might need more. It is good idea to keep this number to minimum because at one point everything will go through one of the above channels. It just need to work for you. So, what is your next action?

Photo by LudgerA on Pixabay.

Five (plus one) tools for modern students and academics

Five (plus one) tools for modern students and academics

In order to survive modern college, both students and professors need tools that will help to deal with a huge amount of tasks and responsibilities. Luckily there are many applications designed to keep us organized, productive, and sane.

As many of students and academics, I rely heavily on my calendar. Setting it up and building up necessary habits took me years. Now, I can hardly imagine being able to function without its constant help. But calendar, despite being an essential tool, is not suitable for other things I have to take care of. That is becasue academic work also involves collecting and storing information, managing tasks and projects, outlining ideas and papers, and communicating with the team. Over time I simplified my toolbox down to five essential applications that help me to organize the whole process. Today I am gonna share with you the apps at the core of my workflow.

I need to mention that, as a long time Mac user, the software I rely upon is often exclusive to this particular platform. Still, you should be able to find suitable replacements on other platforms. Windows in particular offers many alternatives.

Collect and organize information

Evernote is the most powerful note-taking application I know. I’ve been its user since the very beginning and there is no real alternative. Yes, there are a few other competing , but no one offers such complete set of features that include (among many others) advanced search syntax, handwriting recognition (images!), and PDF annotation. Unfortunately, some features belong to the paid premium version.

Evernote is available on many different platforms and offers minimalistic web inferface. It is very easy to share notes with your colleagues or students. Very handy.

Despite being quite versatile, Evernote is not really optimized to be a literature manager for researchers. It can be used in such way, but is just not desinged to store thousands of academic papers in orderly manner. It is not only about notes. Academics need citation infomation, journal information, relation to other papers, ability to generate LaTeX citations, etc. All this can be done manually in Evernote, but there are better alternatives available. Personally, I use Mendeley. Thanks to its relationship with Elsevier, related papers search is fast and convenient. Mendeley allows me to manage a collection of few thousand research papers. Unfortunately, it started to evolve form a simple resource management system towards a communication platform similar to Research Gate. Nevertheless, Mendeley is the one resource manager I use for work.

Task management

OmniFocus is a task manager that is designed along the lines of the well known productivity system Getting Things Done, better known as GTD. The methodology created by David Allen, the world wide known productivity guru, is build on the idea of moving projects and tasks out of the mind to “the external brain”. Having handy and trusted list of projects and tasks takes burden out of our conscious. It allows to focus on the next necessary action instead of being overwhelmed by whole bunch of priorities and problems.

OmniFocus has been designed to be such trusted companion for your mind. Decade of development changed the application into a productivity monster. It is very intuitive tool for GTD enthusiasts, as it closely follows the main concepts from the book. OmniFocus comes in two versions: simple and professional. The killer feature that will make you longing for the professional edition is the ability to create custom prespectives. This is were OmniFocus truly shines as the GTD powerhouse.

The program works natively on Macs, so some of you might not be able to enjoy its features. Mac users are here for a treat, but it comes at a significant price. Good news is that there is substantial discount available for students and academics. There is no better choice for hardcore GTD practitioners.

Plan projects and write drafts

If you write or plan anything you need some kind of outliner. In another post I mentioned the importance of outlining before actual writing. Outlining application should allow you to create complex lists of things and then move them, edit them, collapse and group them. There are many applications that can do exactly that, including many free ones. So, if you want to try if the concept of outlining suits you, you can have a test run with Workflowy. It is a free outlining app that works in your browser (pro features come at price).

The application of my choice is OmniOutliner, very elegant and flexible. As it is in case of OmniFocus, OmniOutliner is native to Mac. Again, it comes in two versions: simple and professional. There are significant discounts for academics and students. Recently it became my main writing tool and the simple version is just enough for my needs. At least for now.  The outline and the draft of this post were also written in OmniOutliner.

Team communication

If there is one tool that substantially changed the way we communicate within our team, you guessed it, it is Slack. I grew up using IRC, so now having Slack as our main communication tool brings back memories. We just use is for communication, and it allowed us to get rid of internal emails. You can integrate Slack with almost all modern work tools, including almost all known cloud services. For example, it can be connected to Evernote and allow you to create or share notes with simple commands.

Honorable mention

There is one handy application that does not belong to my essential five, but I use it so much that is deserves honorable mention. It is called TextExpander and its sole purpose it to automate writing process. There are many recurring things that we have to write over and over. Try to think how many times you wrote you name and surname last week. TextExpander allows you to create a handy shortcuts (called snippets). Every time you write these few predefined sets of letters the application will substitute the correct long text in their place.

I started using TextExpander few weeks ago (the older standalone version), so there is a long way before I develop proper writing habits. Still, I already feel the difference, and so will you if you try this usefull little tool. As in case of almost all software for Mac, the conviniece comes at price. So, next time you plan to treat yourself (upcoming birthday?), you might want to consider TextExpander.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.