Brandon's Notepad

March 15, 2013

Getting Things Done @Work (Part 3)

Filed under: GTD — Brandon @ 2:53 pm
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Home > My Research > Improvement > Getting Things Done > @Work (Part 3)


This post is a follow-up to Part 1 (July 2009) and Part 2 (September 2011). I’m in my fourth year of using GTD at work, and I saw no reason to wait until summer to provide another update.


Background. To recap, I work in a fairly structured environment, at all levels really, but most especially in my team. We are charged with the task of controlling the changes made to the company’s computer systems. This means making sure that changes are authorized before they are made, deployed on schedule without conflicts, and validated by users in a timely manner. It is a high-volume shop, so we must stay organized to remain effective. Unfortunately, our corporate culture clings to paper, so we still handle a good number of physical forms. (There is a glimmer of hope that this may change within the next year, but we will see.)

A Powerful Witness. The system of Context Queues (described in Part 2) that I implemented to organize the change-effort folders based on my current involvement — doing, waiting, or done — worked extremely well for me, but it did not settle well with the rest of the team. In fact, I mentioned in my last post that it had been likened to cancer by one person. I had this private little process through which forms and folders would flow when I was working on them, and though it was simple enough to understand, it made the others feel like they were intruding if they ever had to retrieve a folder from my workspace. This was especially painful for them on the days I unexpectedly called in sick. My manager knew that my system was improving my productivity; in fact, it was exposing the variances in our work styles (making us look increasingly inconsistent) and a revealing a few inefficiencies to boot. He also saw some value in my system, but it was not something that he wanted to force the team to use as a whole. This was, in part, because GTD (my adaptations included) seemed so unorthodox and downright cultish. It was a cancer, right? So, we put our heads together and designed a new system based on the Context Queue concept.

The Bucket System. I never have liked this name, but it is accurate. The folders we use are letter-size Smead pressboard fastener folders, the ones that require a two-hole punch at the top of the pages. We like these because they are rugged and take abuse well. They fit really well in those five-inch-deep black plastic bins designed to hold hanging folders. We ordered about twenty of those boxes, labeled them with the names of the workflow states, and distributed them amongst ourselves such that none of us has two states back-to-back. Now, we each handle the parts of the change process represented by the buckets sitting on our desks. So, when a change is ready to be deployed to the QA environment, the record in the system is placed into the “QA Ready” state and the folder goes into the bucket of the same name. Whoever owns the bucket at the time is responsible for delivering the folder (which also contains deployment instructions) to the appropriate administrators at the scheduled time. We rotate the buckets periodically just to keep the process standardized and us on our toes. When someone is out of the office, we just divvy up his or her buckets.

Despite the fact that we still have to deal with this volume of paper at this day in age, one beneficial side-effect of this system is that our work is very visible. We tried to drive the process electronically, but the folders were just too ingrained in the culture. It remains our interface with the rest of the department. So, our best efforts quickly became an exercise of accepting things we cannot change — well, for now at least. Going paperless is still on our radar. Maybe someday.

Collect! Process! Organize! The team still uses a group inbox, except instead of using a single flat letter tray, we have a three-compartment file sorter that hangs on the wall outside of our workspace. This permits a bit of pre-sorting by those who deliver forms and folders to us, but it is still, essentially, just an inbox. What has changed — and this I attribute to the influence of my personal GTD practice — is the way forms and folders are processed. Any and all of us are responsible for processing the inbox whenever we see that new items have arrived. Forms are spot-checked for a few key data points, rubberstamped with the date if found acceptable, noted with a sticky if not, punched with the two-hole punch as appropriate, and dropped into the proper bucket. Folders can simply be distributed without fanfare. Nothing in our process takes only two-minutes to do, but this processing and organizing (delegation of work) is very quick and has paid serious dividends in terms of productivity. Forms don’t get pigeonholed anymore!

Look, Ma, No inbox! Yep, that’s right. Since all of my work is now delivered directly to my buckets, I no longer need a personal inbox. I kept it around for a long time, but it stayed empty, so I eventually stuck it in a drawer and freed up some space under my monitors — uncluttered and beautiful. Hot items and personal correspondence still land in my chair, but that happens rarely now, which means these items actually get the attention they deserve instead of getting buried in a stack.

Et Cetera. I’ve gotten better at using my tickler file and my desk stays clean. My e-mail archives are quite sparse since I’ve made it a practice to delete messages as soon as possible. I still haven’t worked journaling into my process, but it’s coming. I continue to use my book of record as an inbox for nuggets of information, meeting “action items”, and the like, but now it resembles a check register or (accounting) journal page as each item is date stamped on the day it is recorded and again on the day it is processed into something else, say a note or a work ticket in our ticket-tracking system.


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September 28, 2011

Getting Things Done @Work (Part 2)

Filed under: GTD — Brandon @ 3:30 pm
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Home > My Research > Improvement > Getting Things Done > @Work (Part 2)


I began documenting my GTD implementation at work in July of 2009. In the last two years, several things have changed, so I figured it was time for an update.


The Fallout. Taking the plunge was a risk, so I talked GTD up as something that “just makes sense” (which it does, so I wasn’t lying). I admitted that I was experimenting and that I was going to do so 100% until I discovered that it “just doesn’t work after all” (which hasn’t happened yet). Many coworkers started to treat me like I had joined a religious cult or Amway. Nevertheless, I stuck with it and while no one really ever embraced it, I could tell that others were becoming more comfortable with me doing it. Win.

What Hasn’t Changed. The way my team worked as a whole did not change. We still have our group inboxes, both physical and e-mail, our standardized processing, and such. I’ve kept my clean-desk policy, though I’ve struggled to follow it from time-to-time, usually in the busy periods. I still have my tickler file, my general reference, and my gear. I’m still in “reduction” mode, leaving as few things (if any) in my e-mail inbox as possible. I love not having to worry about things that I know don’t exist anymore anyway. I still have my physical inbox, front-and-center between my monitors, and my coworkers have done a great job of respecting my preference over using my chair as “in”. I do still get “hot” items in my chair, and because these usually are truly urgent, I don’t complain too much anymore.

Outlook Tasks. I remember being so excited about using Outlook to record open loops and next steps. I could even access them from my company cell phone. This didn’t work well for several reasons, some technical and some behavioral. I may document the details at some point, but suffice it to say that I abandoned Outlook Tasks after two (maybe three) attempts.

The Book Of Record. My book of record has fallen into a serious state of disuse. This is due in part to a marked improvement in the quality of meeting agendas and followup minutes/notes within the department as a whole. Agendas are either printed or sent electronically by the person holding the meeting. Also, as my team has shifted from workflow improvement to a more operational capacity, notes are usually recorded in our ticket tracking system, not on paper. We also consolidated our project-work files into a shared directory, and now, when we meet, we often focus on how the docs should change and not on white-board sketches or strictly verbal presentations.

Contexts Revisited. The contexts I defined before were spot on; however, my job responsibilities changed a bit, so I ended up eliminating two of the four contexts. Specifically, the prep work for both the weekly planning meeting and the staff meeting shifted to someone else. That left @Desk and @Rounds. After a while, these folders became more trouble than they were worth, so I voluntarily dropped those as well, replacing them with three special context queues using letter trays.

Context Queues. As I mentioned in the post two years ago, the work my team performs is highly structured. We coordinate the changes made to our computer systems. Each change “effort” is represented by a ticket in our ticket-tracking tool and each has a folder to contain the paper byproducts of the process. These folders typically live in one of two file cabinets, depending on whether the effort is active (in deployment, testing, etc.) or closed (pass or fail). I determined that the folders on my desk at any point in time were in one of three queues: doing, waiting, or done. I found a set of three hanging-style letter trays that would easily accommodate the bulky folders. To make my coworkers (outside of my own team, of course) hesitant to take folders (which becomes a problem on occasion), I labeled them using Latin: Expedio, Exspecto, and Humo respectively. For my own edification, I thought it was appropriate to use first-person, present-tense, active-voice, indicative verbs. The first two are the etymological ancestors of “expedite” and “expect” in English, simple enough to recognize, but the third, “Humo”, is not so intuitive. This means “I bury”, which is what I do with folders for completed efforts – I bury them in the archive file cabinet.

New Challenges. Overall, I think GTD is a good fit for my personal work environment and has led to some gained efficiencies; however, I have noted a few issues.

First, a minor problem, reminders to do things would make their way into my tickler file; this is appropriate until I am out of the office unexpectedly, at which point the rest of the team now has to deal with my tickler file. One way to mitigate this was to add an electronic note to the ticket and then slip a printed copy of that into my tickler.

The second problem is much larger. My GTD implementation has developed a bit of a bad reputation. It has been called a “growth” (think: “tumor”) to our already-structured system. I suppose I did graft it into the process, so to speak. Efforts would travel through the normal work flow, but they entered some sort of “subsystem” when they hit my desk. We have discussed implementing a set of queues that would eliminate my three context queues without losing the benefits.

By policy, our e-mail is deleted after a specified retention period. Individual messages may be retained longer, but they must be tied to something to show their usefulness. I need to work on integrating some form of journaling into my inbox processing.


July 2, 2009

Getting Things Done @Work (Part 1)

Filed under: GTD — Brandon @ 12:21 am
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Home > My Research > Improvement > Getting Things Done > @Work (Part 1)


These notes are a direct product of my application of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” philosophy at one particular place of employment beginning in the year 2009. What follows is a litany of lessons learned during the process. I decided not to categorize these lessons, because each builds upon the ones prior — it is best to read them in sequence, as a story.


The Problem. At first, I didn’t know if there would be a place for GTD at my workplace — I work in a highly structured environment as it is. Most of my job entails creating and enhancing business work flows to handle changes to computer systems. The rest of my job involves using those work flows myself to approve requests and track activities. Nonetheless, there always seemed to be clutter on my desk that kept me from seeing what was important and what could wait. Admittedly, some things weren’t getting done.

Room For Improvement. Collection was not a big problem, but processing and organization were major areas of improvement. Reviewing and doing were victims of the prior, but shaped up on their own once processing and organization issues were resolved.

Group Inboxes. Regarding Collection, almost all items, actionable or not, arrive via two channels: as e-mail in my team’s shared inbox or in papers or folders in the team’s physical inbox. Delivery of items to specific team members is generally discouraged for the sake of expediency. Processing our normal work items is, for the most part, standardized.

My Chair Isn’t “In”. The biggest collection change was the addition of a physical inbox to my desk. I’ve asked my coworkers to place papers and file folders there — whether I’m at my desk or not — instead of handing them to me or leaving them in my desk chair. In the past, I always preferred the “chair” method because it forced me to look at things as soon as I return to my desk. The problem with that method is that papers and folders would be automatically transferred to some other stack upon my arrival just so I could sit down! They would be “out-of-mind” in short order.

A Right & Proper Inbox. Placement of the physical inbox is key! I purchased a low-profile, black-wire-mesh letter tray and placed it between the two monitors on my desk, just behind my keyboard and slightly raised. This accomplished two important goals. first, it made the inbox almost invisible to anyone but those who know to put things there — remember, official items go to the team’s physical inbox. Second, the inbox is front-and-center, but not in-the-way, so I don’t miss things that need my attention. I’ve noticed that having paper in the inbox bugs me, which prompts me to keep it empty.

The Book Of Record. For some time now, I’ve used a bound record book for taking meeting notes. Before GTD, the book would also contain information in all stages (collected, in-process, etc.). I now treat all such notes as inbox material and, once processed, entries are marked very visibly as “DONE” with a rubber stamp.

Group Processing. As mentioned above, the processing of items in the team’s inboxes is fairly uniform. For e-mail, we use color-coded Categories (was “colored flags” before Outlook 2007) to identify “ownership” of messages and check marks to indicate which messages no longer require any action or conversation on our part. In other words, when someone checks off a message, it’s been processed. A reply is the simplest less-than-two-minute “next physical step” possible.

Group Organizing & Doing. Most e-mail and all paper we receive prompt some action in our workflow-management system. This is how we organize and do most of our work. An informational item usually becomes a note to an existing request or ticket, whereas a sign-off moves the request or item to the next state in the workflow.

Personal Processing. I still receive “official” paper in my personal inbox, so that processing doesn’t deviate from the above. I have parallel methods for handling paper and electronic items that pertain to only me.

The Right Contexts. I am finally comfortable with the contexts I have chosen. It’s not the number of contexts, but the frequency with which you can place yourself into those contexts that is most important. I force myself to enter each context at least once weekly, thereby forcing a weekly review for everything automatically. Mine are:

  • @Desk: stuff I can do when at my desk (very fluid).
  • @Rounds: stuff I need when I walk around talking to others (daily if possible).
  • @WeeklyPlanning: stuff I need to plan and report the team’s weekly activities (weekly).
  • @StaffMeeting: stuff I need to take to the staff meeting (weekly).

Outlook Tasks In Context. In my opinion, Outlook 2007 greatly improved the usability of Tasks and Categories. I starting using Tasks to record my open loops and their next steps. Contexts are assigned using Categories. Of course, I use a parallel set of context folders for paper items.

Paperless…Almost. I try to use Outlook Tasks as much as possible, but sometimes, it actually makes the most sense for me to print an e-mail, stamp it with the date, organize the paper in the proper context folder and mark it in my e-mail client as processed with a check mark.

Delete Stuff! A major hurdle was getting out of a constant “archival” mode and into a constant “reduction” mode. I’ve learnt that things often need not be saved if the important info can be scraped off or summarized. Unfortunately, the corporate culture dictates that we should keep everything just in case we need it to justify what we decided to do. So, the freedom to throw things away does come at a cost — the time, energy and soul-searching required to confidently decide that an item will, indeed, never be needed again.

Don’t Delete Everything! I have to respect the “sacred ground” of the team’s e-mail inbox and archives. All unprocessed items live in the Inbox. Completed (checked) items are archived in a mass e-mail grave periodically. I only have the freedom to ’empty in’ or at least to move in that direction in my personal e-mail inbox.

Two-Minute Warning. In my experience, Allen’s two-minute processing heuristic isn’t realistic. This is due to the nature of my work. A ten-minute rule, however, is practicable. If it can’t be done in ten minutes or less, it gets queued for ‘doing’ later.

The Tickler File. The tickler file is the most fascinating piece of under-used innovation on my desk. Mine is a set of plain file folders sporting the appropriate labels and stored in a cardboard file box that makes it very easy to flip through the contents. I (strive to) use it daily, but things are so structured and electronic already, I find that I have little to put into it. Like the Inbox, I have placed the tickler file box immediately to the left of the leftmost monitor, so it is always in my face, demanding to be kept current.

The General Reference. I created a “general reference” file as recommended, but not quite as described in the book. In my home directory is a folder that contains many text files with important bits of information. There are several benefits with this implementation:

  • Reference items are automatically alphabetized.
  • Contents can be easily searched electronically with tools like grep (hey, I’m a Unix guy, ok!?).
  • The information can be easily incorporated into e-mails and such without retyping.
  • Files can be backed up regularly without a photocopier.
  • The lack of paper makes for a more comfortable workspace.

Filed amongst the text files are other types of files as well, such as PDFs, graphics files (e.g. screenshots), exported e-mails (technically still qualifies as text, but…), spreadsheets, etc.

My Gear. I’ve place all of the office supplies I use daily within an arm’s reach: hole punch, stapler, coffee can full of pens and pencils, another coffee can full of highlighters, sticky notepads, regular notepads, dry-erase markers, various rubber stamps, paper shredder and telephone.

No Papers Left Behind. To stay organized, I’ve adopted a clean-desk policy and (strive to) stick to it. All papers are filed somewhere (other than the Inbox) at the end of the workday. Of course, it helps that the physical inbox, file box and office gear are all “in my face” — I have no more room for clutter. This also prompts me to record things electronically as often as possible.


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