Uncommon Ground

Getting organized in 2018 – Putting it all together

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

When I started this series I didn’t think it would take me three months to finish, but it did. If you’ve been following along, you’ve read about how I keep myself organized. In this last post, I’ll put it altogether by running through the process with links to the individual steps. If you’re familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done, this will look pretty familiar, although I discovered most of these practices on my own well before I read his book.1

It all starts on Sunday morning. I brew myself a nice cup of coffee – black, no sugar -, sit down at my laptop, and boot up OmniFocus. I move tasks that may have accumulated in my OmniFocus Inbox to the appropriate Project folder or subfolder.2Then I use the Review perspective to review all of my tasks. I’ve set different projects for different review frequencies. Some I review every week, some I review once a month, and some I review only once every 3-6 months. But everything gets reviewed at a frequency experience has taught me is appropriate. Every week the review will review tasks that need to be rescheduled (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) or dropped. And every week the review gives me ideas for new tasks or projects that get entered into the appropriate place (sometimes it’s Someday/Maybe for things that I just need to think about, sometimes it’s a new project or a new task in an existing project). With that review done, I’m confident that I’ve planned for anything I can plan for in the following week and that my complete list of projects and tasks is in good order so that I’ll be prompted about other important things when the right time arrives.

I review my calendar for the week ahead at the same time. Before I became a dean, I made appointments with myself for blocks of time that I could use for focused work. I treated those time blocks as real appointments and did my best not to let other commitments break them up. As a Dean, I can’t be that inflexible. Too many things arise that need prompt, if not immediate, attention. I’ve cut back on scheduling blocks of time for focused work. Only when I have a really important project that has a looming deadline, a grant proposal for example, will I put a “Do not disturb” block of time on my calendar with instructions to my administrative assistant to check with me before scheduling anything short of a meeting request from the President or the Provost in that time block. That’s as close as I can get to planning deep work time ahead of time. Mostly, I have to take advantage of time blocks when they appear, and they are rarely more than a couple of hours.

On any given day, my calendar and OmniFocus keep me on track. Some of my OmniFocus tasks have specific times of day associated with them, meeting preparation for example. Many have only the end of the day, 5:00pm. I review today’s task list every morning. As a result, I can often pick something to do without checking OmniFocus first, but I do check it frequently throughout the day, often because I’m entering something new that just came up.

At meetings I rarely take paper. I’ve either saved the electronic versions of documents that were sent or scanned paper versions to PDF. Either way, any documents I have before the meeting are in Dropbox, Evernote, or both. Any notes I’ve made before the meeting were probably made with Emacs using Markdown, and published to Evernote with Byword. At the meetings I use pen and paper, my everything notebook. At the end of the day, I’ll scan notes to PDF and save them to Dropbox or I’ll scan them directly to Evernote. As I wrote earlier, I don’t have a clear plan for what goes to Dropbox and what goes to Evernote, but either way I can get it from any electronic device I have handy. If there are action items I need to follow up on, I will have marked them with an arrow (==>) in my notebook, and I transfer them to OmniFocus. I also check over my everything notebook during my weekly review to make sure I haven’t missed any action items that need to be recorded.

Writing it all out like this may make it sound pretty time consuming and complicated, but it’s not. The daily task management is a natural part of the activity and it doesn’t add any time. It just uses the time differently. The weekly review takes a bit longer, but spending 15 minutes or half an hour with a nice cup of coffee looking over the week to come is a nice way to spend a quiet Sunday morning.

I already mentioned in an earlier footnote3 that there’s one moderately complicated thing I do. I use Zapier to automatically creating meeting reminder tasks in OmniFocus whenever a new meeting appears on my calendar. There’s a good chance that you don’t need such a thing. I do. Self-diagnosis is a risky thing, and self-diagnosis of psychological conditions is particularly risky, but Simon Baron-Cohen, a Professor of Psychopathology at Cambridge, developed and validated a self-administered test called the Autism Spectrum Quotient. It consists of 50 simple questions. I’ve taken it several times. I’ve read quite a bit about Asperger’s Syndrome in the last several years,4 but when taking the test, I’ve tried to answer it as honestly as I can. After a hiatus of 3-4 years, I took it again about a month ago and scored a 39. Yesterday I scored a 40. The screenshot shows what that suggests about me.

I have a good friend who is a educational psychologist. When I told her about these results a year or two ago, she dismissed them. She suggested that the traits I have are those of someone who is gifted and talented. Maybe she’s right, but whether she is or not, the list of characteristics she sent me along with the explanation of why someone who is gifted and talented is often misdiagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome (or autism spectrum disorder) simply reinforce one thing that I’ve learned about myself thanks to the advice and counsel of another very good friend. In order for me to participate effectively in meetings, I have to be well prepared. I have to know what’s on the agenda, what topics are likely to come up, and what I think about the various options that could be laid on the table. I also have to prepare myself psychologically to project confidence and expertise. Because of the extrovert culture in which we live,5 that means I can’t sit quietly and listen, which is my default behavior. I have to participate actively. That means I have to prepare, and for me, part of preparing is a ritual of reminding myself not only about what the issues are, but also about how I need to behave, a ritual of stiffening my spine and building self-confidence. The OmniFocus task that pops up for me a few minutes before every meeting contains a link to an Evernote note that reminds me what to do. I find it extremely helpful, but you probably don’t need it, and you probably don’t need Zapier to connect your calendar to OmniFocus.

  1. Just as I had discovered most of the practices Cal Newport describes in Deep Work before reading it last winter.
  2. I didn’t mention earlier that one of the things I like about OmniFocus is that I can forward e-mails to its Inbox. When I receive an e-mail that needs a response later, I forward it to OmniFocus so that I don’t lose it. As I’ll describe a little later, I also have OmniFocus tasks that prompt me to prepare for meetings. I use Zapier to automatically create reminders in my OmniFocus Inbox whenever a new meeting is scheduled. It’s a bit complicated, so I won’t describe it. Ask me if you’re interested.
  3. You are reading the footnotes, aren’t you?
  4. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) doesn’t recognize Asperger’s Syndrome any more. Rather it says that individuals who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome under DSM-4 “should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder” (link).
  5. Read Susan Cain’s Quiet if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

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