The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk

In this post, I’d like to dissect what I like about my current GETTING THINGS DONE desk, how it makes me feel, how it helps flow/mind-like-water, and how somehow, it magically helps me get a ton of work done.  See the previous Before/After post to get a fuller visual on my complete trusted system.

Desk 3.0 [*Note* Desk 4.0 has its own post and can be seen here]

OK, here is a picture of my 3rd generation GTD desk which includes the legs.  The rest of this post is a discussion of the elements of the perfect GTD desk.

GTDAfter2point0

  • Element #1: Clear desk surface

The longer I do GTD, the more I find that I need to spread paper out on the surface of my desk to organize it.  I keep parallel project folders: in atoms making up manilla folders, and in bits in Omnifocus projects.  I write one idea, one piece of paper into either atoms or bits, and I organize the pieces of paper on the surface of my desk.  It is just invaluable for me to put my ideas across the desk surface and then ask myself what the individual ideas are trying to tell me.

In addition, a clear desk surface lets you take a nice butcher block sized piece of paper to mind-map when you are kicking off a natural project management event.

Requirements for a clear desk are:

  1. Get the monitor on an arm that clears your desk (I use the Innovative 7500-hd-1500 arm because I’m holding 24 and 27 pound iMacs up.  I attempted to link to Amazon.com for this product but the links are not working, I bought my most recent arm from Seaboom.com as it was $65 to $110 cheaper than Amazon.  The three models at SeaBoom do not have pictures, but I figured out their colors and have a guide herethat you can use to pick your color.).
    1. Consider switching to a 27″ all-in-one computer (Mac, PC), makes a clean desk easy
    2. If you can’t swing an all-in-one, think hard about why your brain is not worth having a high resolution 27″ in monitor (Mac, PC). Do you cut from one window and paste into another for a living?  27″ monitors double efficiency!
  2. Get a wireless mouse, and
  3. Wireless keyboard (Mac, PC) so you can move keyboard and mouse off the desk and using the surface for your brain’s organizing pleasure.
  4. Resurface the desk, early and often.  I’ve had original veneer, maple veneer, and currently, a $45 sheet of Formica (works great as a whiteboard!) on the surface of my desk.  On my too-dark, too-depressing desk at home, I’ve resurfaced with whiteboard contact paper. Amazon has a veritable zoo of contact papers (easy on, easy off if you don’t like them) which allow your brain to employ whimsy to please itself as you work.  Experiment and enjoy!

I look forward to the day when I can remove the telephone from my desk!  I currently do about 90% of my phone calling with Skype and a wireless headset.  I’ve thought about suspending the computer from the ceiling or from a cart that can be driven away from the desk to leave the desk space 100% analogue, but these are not currently practical given all the cables that have to be run.

  • Element #2: Big desk surface

The best data I’ve seen on the surface area needed for information workers comes from Demarco and Lister’s book Peopleware.

Before drawing the plans for its new Santa Teresa facility, IBM violated all industry standards by carefully studying the work habits of those who would occupy the space. The study was designed by the architect Gerald McCue with the assistance of IBM area managers. Researchers observed the work processes in action in current workspaces and in mock-ups of proposed workspaces. They watched programmers, engineers, quality control workers, and managers go about their normal activities. From their studies, they concluded that a minimum accommodation for the mix of people slated to occupy the new space would be the following: 100 square feet of dedicated space per worker 30 square feet of work surface per person

DeMarco, Tom; Lister, Timothy R. (2010-04-15). Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Kindle Locations 812-818). Dorset House Publishing. Kindle Edition.

30 square feet of work surface is H-U-G-E.  My desk is 34″ deep, so to have 30 square feet of work area, my desk would need to be 10.5′ long! As my desk is merely 6′ long, I’m coming up short with a 17 square foot desk.  I forecast that GTD will be adding some desk space to my office before too long.  But for now, I’m squeaking by with a single work surface and living 13 square feet below my potential.  :-)

Another interesting aside is how many of my students are trying to live on tiny desks.  Here’s Paulina Menchaka’s before and after desks (Paulina has kindly granted me permission to share these pictures).  See if these pictures feel the same or different when you think about sitting down to work at these desks?

My friend s Messy Desk 089Photo

Here is what my desk looks like today.  The mouse and keyboard can be moved out of the way, and the monitor can be pushed back to free up desk surface.

D3M 2950

Summary, you need elbow room to think.  You need to work with your entire brain, that means spreading things out in front of it, moving things around, giving the brain time to compost, and then listening as your subconscious bubbles up ideas.  No substitute for lots of work surface and unrestricted access to that surface.

  • Element #3: Slide-to-side room

I think it is required that you have the ability to roll your chair to slide sideways across your desk.  This is required first, because it gives you a sense of freedom not having your knees crowded from both sides (John Niebergall, you know who you are!).  Second, as projects are underway, new projects have a way of finding their way on to your desk.  With a clear surface and sideways sliding room, you can be practically opportunistic in sliding sideways and setting up a 2nd (and sometimes a 3rd) project that you have to run in parallel with your starting project.  I just get a sense of release when I look at a desk that is flexible allowing side to side sitting.  Open-ness side to side also lets you invite people to work beside you at your desk.  For example, I often have my students put their laptops on the right hand end of my desk so they can step through an Excel exercise on their own computer as I step through it on my computer.

  • Element #4: Conference table legs

My desk was part of a very business-like Jesper office set I bought in Boise in 2002.  I’ve been refining the desk ever since.

ORIGINALJESPERDESK

When, in January 2011, I was trying to fit the desk and its side skirt supports into my office a Concordia, I realized that there just were not enough degrees of freedom with side skirt legs.  For example, you can’t really have a meeting with someone across a desk that has skirts like this.  What I really wanted was a conference table.  Once I realized this, I went to IKEA, and bought a Galant leg set and table frame (IKEA part number 101.501.69 I can’t find it on their web site) for $80 and make my modified Jesper desk into the conference table style desk.

Meade s Theory of the Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE  GTD Desk

The more I do GTD, the simpler I need my desk to be.  It takes a lot of complexity to make a desk appear simple and purely functional.  Note that I have 2 cable management systems under my desk.  The white box attached to the left two legs is a $10 IKEA cable management solution that confines power strips and extra lengths of cable beautifully.  I don’t care how messy the cables are as long as I can’t see and don’t think about them.  In addition to the cable management system I have a Trip-Lite 12 outlet strip attached underneath the work surface.

Geek readers will detect an external USB hard drive on the top of the cable management unit.  In 2011 I decided to squeeze another 2 years out of my 2008 iMac by replacing the boot disk with a solid state drive and moving the home folder to external USB drive.  Amazing speedup!

Twocablemanagers

The second cable management system is perpendicular to the white box, and consists of the dark felt trays with the light brackets holding them to the underside of the work surface.  IKEA has apparently killed both these cable management systems, but fortunately, they have introduced new systems as well.  So, for $40 you can have all the under-work surface cable management you need.

Cable management above the work surface is a matter of twist ties, cable ties, double-sided-sticky-tape, and corrugated finger-pinching tube.  Here is the behind the scenes cable management story of my desk.  Since this picture was taken, I’ve drilled a 3″ hole at the base of the monitor arm so I could route all the cables directly through the desk to the cable management trays beneath it.  Here is the right hand side of the monitor arm: Note my pen and trusty 3″x5″ cards at the ready behind the iMac monitor.

Red arrows show tools behind the monitor, yellow arrows in the following two pictures show the extensive re/use of double sided sticky tape in desk enginerding.

Cablemanagementabovedesk 1

On the left hand side of the monitor arm you can see two Bose speakers, a 7 port USB hub, a 5 port ethernet switch, and an $11 fluorescent light, all attached with double sided sticky tape. All this is a mess, but I don’t care, since I can’t see the mess. Out of sight means no open loop for my mind.

Abovedeskcablemgmt2 1

Note the white plastic objects in the yellow file folder fingers on the diagonal part of the monitor arm.  These are 3D printed objects that I need to have readily available.  They are clutter unless I need them, so I keep them behind my iMac screen.  I don’t see them and so am not bothered by them while I’m working.

  • Element #6: Killer Cool Paper Trays

The current state of GTD paper tray technology is deplorable!  Even before I discovered GTD, I conducted a frustrated search of the internet to find something that was not boring, something I called “goofy.”  What I found was a multiple tray system designed by Shaunn Fynn and sold by Custom Plastics Inc of Elk Grove Village, Il.  I think that Custom Plastics has given up on selling this multiple paper tray.  You can still find a very similar desk organization system at high end wood product components manufacturers like Doug Mockett but the series is being discontinued.  No matter.  I think the requirement is for some element of whimsy in your paper trays.  By whimsy, I think that GTDers need to go beyond tidy.  We need a dash of not-too-over-organized-and-fun, on our desks without introducing clutter.  Shaun Fynn’s elevated multiple trays, are a perfect entry point a fresh breath of creative desk whimsy!

Story: When I moved to Concordia University last January, I took my original paper tray system that looked like the 3 tray system in the right of this picture:

FYNN

And then I blatantly sucked up to the awesome physical plant team at CU, and they removed the base of the tray system, and then J-B Welded the paper tray base to the base of my monitor arm.  These paper trays are fun because they can rotate around the axis of the vertical post.  You can line them up one above the other if you are felling left brained, or you can align them asymmetrically if that is what pleases your muse.

I use the top tray for my inbox (please note that since having a week to work undisturbed in my office I’m at INBOX ZERO!), the second tray has my natural project management form (I turned GTD chapter 3′s natural project management process, into a 1 page form.  See Appendix A at the end of this post if you want a copy), and the bottom tray has blank white letter sized paper.

Killercoolpapertrays 1

I started doing GTD in March 2009 (after meeting Ian Watson at COMDEX 2009 at the end of January).  It took Ian a month to get me to promise to read GTD.  The time since then has been a roller coaster journey of increased productivity, decreased stress, then increased stress, decreased productivity.  In the process I’ve refined, refactored, rethought, and redesigned my desk.  When I sit down now at my desk, I feel pleasure at being able to work.  This is true at my office desk and at my home desk (BTW, stay tuned for a blog post on an upgrade to the home desk in January 2012).

I have learned, that if I am feeling pressure from work that there are two causes:

  • First, I have not done my review.  I don’t think weekly is enough for me to get current on everything.  But daily is too often.  I have an annoying meat brain and continue to search for the sweet spot of my meat spot.  :-)
  • Second, I am not organized enough.

My desk is a key component of my trusted system.  Desk is the place where I work on atoms and bits of my next actions.  As I’ve sharpened my desk, my physical filing, electronic filing (Evernote for documents + Kindle for ebooks), I’m becoming more productive and less stressed.  I see this working for my students as well.  I think it can work for you if you have that knot of doubt in your stomach about whether you can ever hear someone say “Your desk is awesome!” (My wife Beth said this 2 days ago about my 2nd-string home office desk, and it made my week!).  If I can implement GTD, anyone can (check out the before/after pics here if you haven’t seen them: http://restartgtd.com/2011/12/29/gtd-journey-after/).

For now, my theory of the perfect GTD desk is to bring together 6 elements (However, I reserve the right to add more elements if needed!):

  1. Clear desk surface
  2. Big (ideally 30 square feet)
  3. Slide to side (open front)
  4. Conference table legs
  5. Cable management
  6. Killer cool paper trays

In addition to my work desk, I have used GTD to redesign my wallet into a pico-desk, my BookBook laptop computer case as a nano-desk, and my Kensington rolling briefcase into a mobile desk.  More on these in later posts.

  • Appendix A: Meade’s Natural Project Management 1-Page Form

MeadeNaturalProjectManagment

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Falling Off the GTD Wagon

When people discover GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD) there is a lot of excitement, and a cycle begins.  Here is the GTD adoption life cycle that I am still going through:

GTD07a ppt

At the top/beginning of the adoption life cycle is the discovery of GTD.  For me, this was the bike ride where I listened to David Allen read the Audible version of GTD.  I think I got through the first three chapters in the 2 hours I was on wheels by water.  After your first listen/read you are pumped about GTD.  Then, after you start to implement, the critic enters.

Critic?

Yes, critic.  My walk with GTD has been affected by a shrill, critical, inner voice.  Having just listened to Pressfield’s WAR OF ART which David Allen mentioned in his interview with 43Folders’s Merlin Mann in talk #1 on procrastination, I believe that the the inner critic is a big part of who can, and who can not implement GTD.  Pressfield’s distinction between the self, which wants to grow, change, and evolve, and the ego, which wants to maintain the status quo is huge.  And when people start doing GTD, they are going to press up against the distinction.  The ego is the inner critic, the self, is the child like discovery that GTD’s architecture unleashes.

There is an exercise in Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES called “Trouble with the editor” where the exercise is to write down all the negative things that the inner editor says.  When you write the self-destructive words down on paper, and look at them, you gain perspective.  I mean, it is obvious that telling yourself that you will never be a writer, in writing, is idiocy.  So Natalie Goldberg’s approach to dealing with the inner editor has informed my adoption of GTD.  In stage 1 when you think “This could work for me!” your editor is mute, gathering data, thinking up ways to trip you up for even venturing to think about doing something outside the hierarchy of people and status.

At the point you start having the opportunity to implement GTD, say in cleaning up your desk.  The editor comes back on line with words to the effect that “Change is impossible!” Because unless you are unemployed, you don’t really have the time drop everything and blow up your life and office to cut over to Allen’s system, most people kind of let GTD go, and go with the natural flow in their lives.  Easier than countering the internal editor, and besides, there are a lot of hot projects right now.  Not a good time to change.

This will go on for one, two, or three months.  In my case, when I went on the bike ride in March of 2009, I had already had an Evernote account for 7 months.  I came back from the bike ride convinced that I needed to fix my reference filing system.  But, I did not put two and two together and start moving my files into Evernote until June!

NewImage

When teaching GTD seminars now, I short circuit this initial editor delay by having students bring in their computers and documents, so they can scan their documents into their computers with my Fujutsu Scansnap S1500.  Somehow, when someone sees a 200 page book disappear into a PDF file in 4 minutes, we get to the 3rd state in GTD adoption, immediately.

Here is stage 3: Resurgence of Hope

GTD07a ppt 1

What is really *interesting* to me about stage 3 is that when husband/wife or boss/admin pairs of people start trying to adopt GTD, the two personalities progress at different rates.  The person implementing GTD (who is dealing with the internal editor) slows down and gets stuck at stage 2: “This is impossible” while the helping/catalyst person, can immediately see that getting reference files into Evernote is going to work.

In stage 3 we are back to dealing with self growth issues.  We can try this strange software and strange hardware and see if it helps.  Then we have that thrill of discovery when we can find long lost documents in evernote.

Stage 4 is crisis.  Crisis happens to everyone, even David Allen.  When crisis happens, you fall off the GTD wagon.  So, expect this, and don’t expect to be perfect.  When you hear your inner editor telling you there is no hope because you are not perfect, ignore.  Don’t let your ego get the better of your self.  One of the best things about GTD is that it forces you to set up infrastructure in an organized way.  Once the crisis is over, it is easy to go back to the organized infrastructure and pick up where you left off.  Once you’ve fallen off and then gotten back on the GTD wagon a few times, your inner editor will stop telling you that there is no hope of getting back on.

My experience with falling off the GTD wagon and then getting back on is what led me to start this blog.  Every time you get back on the wagon, the experience is different.  In fact, my GTD development has come from cycling on and off the wagon as I’ve attempted to refine and refactor how I do GTD.  Here is the core of GTD for me:

GTD07a ppt 2

I have not implemented GTD religiously.  I don’t use contexts.  I haven’t been good about doing weekly reviews.  And in the cycling off and on the GTD wagon, after three years, I’ve learned that weekly reviews are the keys to rapid wagon re-boarding.

When you do your initial mind sweeps in GTD, you get the ideas into manilla or electronic folders.  Then, if you don’t review the ideas you’ve organized (i.e., weekly review) then your brain will take those ideas back.  Once your idea has taken back the ideas, you stop getting new fresh cool ideas, and you begin wandering back to the land of Monkey Mind.

To get back on the wagon, you need to do a complete project and idea review, then a mind sweep, and get back to mind like water.  Once you are at mind like water, you don’t need check lists, to dos, or an iron will to force yourself to work.  Mind like water gets work done for free and without feeling stress.  As I fall off and on the GTD wagon, I use the process to rethink and rework my office and desk.  As I climb back on the wagon, I pick another niche in the GTD ecology that I’m evolving to work with my brain (*Note* not from my brain), and prototype an improvement.

Prototypes are sometimes high tech, but more usually, are low tech.

The last stage of my GTD adoption life cycle is ignoring the inner critic.  When you can get back to mind like water, you don’t need to plan, you can just be as you work.  When you are being, you express your true self, not your ego.  It is this true self that is interesting, point made by another fantastic writing teacher, Brenda Ueland in IF YOU WANT TO WRITE.

Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be.
Ueland, Brenda (2010-01-15). If You Want to Write (Kindle Locations 62-63). Wilder Publications. Kindle Edition.

Summary:

Adopting GTD is to repeatedly fall off and climb back on the GTD wagon.  Adopting GTD is a process of refactoring and refining how you process information so that you can get more done at the same time as suffering less.  The key to getting back on the GTD wagon is reviewing.  If you feel that you don’t have enough time to get on the wagon, you are not organized enough.

For example, while I had organized my office, my library, my garage, and my electronic files in the first two years I was adopting GTD, I had not really gotten to the bottom of handling both electronic and paper project files.  I had a stow-away box with folders full of memorabilia that could not be properly scanned.  It was not until I fully implemented my hybrid paper and electronic system, that I was able to review every folder and every file once a week.

Once I had all the pieces in place to do my weekly review, the stress fell off my shoulders anew.  Like the first time I did a mind sweep via GTD.  Weekly reviews are kryptonite for stress.  Just do it.  Just feel it.

GTD07a ppt

GTD: Before and After

GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD) has had a big impact on me.  As witness, this post shows as much of the before/after GTD as I can articulate, it will evolve as I refine the post into enough detail to please visual learners (you know who you are John Nieberall!).

Question 1: What is GTD?

To my mind, GTD is an architecture for information organization and processing that allows a person to maximize efficiency and effectiveness while dealing with overwhelming inflows of drama and data under deadline.   GTD may look like a self help book, it may feel like a religious cult when you have a GTD evangelist on your chest (hi Ian!) telling you to read and then buy crap, and then re-read.  But, GTD is information organization architecture.

GTD is important because life does not come with an owner’s manual that says “get organized in a sustainable high performance way.”  So people go through school, work, phd programs (I did all three) and never spend a day getting organized beyond coping with the next deadline.

Here is the GTD architecture diagram taken from the PDF accompanying the Audible version of GTD:

TrustedSystem03 pptx 5

 

Question 2: What did your life/office look like before GTD (circa 2009)?

GTDBefore

GTDBefore01D3M 2516

GTDBefore02D3M 2513

Not in the office, I also had a 5 drawer horizontal filing cabinet with 94,000 pages of journal articles, research data, and miscellaneous documents that were too good to throw out but not good enough to use.  Here is the filing cabinet in the garage next to the Y2K water barrel.

D3M 6097

Question 3: What does your life/desk (Circa 2012) look like after implementing GTD?

D3M 2950

Note that this desk is: (1) large 6′ x 35″, (2) clutter free from the surface up 6″, (3) canted (the front edge is 1″ closer to the floor than the back edge.  I will write more posts on desks and their requirements as taking back my desk was a key stepping stone for implementing GTD.

<<Aside>> the most up to date “after” desk picture is available in the Dungeon Desk post.

Next comes my physical filing system (Target totes) with 5″ book ends in the tote if there are not enough manilla folders to completely fill the tote:

TrustedSystem03 pptx 3 1

 

D3M 2955

D3M 2956

Before GTD had the 5 drawer horizontal file cabinet, after GTD has an electronic reference filing system in Evernote:

TrustedSystem03 pptx 1

To get from paper to Evernote I raked through the 94,000 pages of paper in the file cabinet, and ask myself for each document “Will there ever be a next action for this document?” 80% of the documents were instant “No!” and they went straight into recycling.  The 20% that were yes or maybe, were 17,500 pages which I scanned in a week on my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500.

Here is my annual capture of reference file information.  The median monthly count of documents captured, is 65.  I enter more documents at the end of the year, which surprises me.  Over time Evernote is becoming more and more essential as external short term memory.  Many of the documents I capture in evernote are web pages, the evernote Webclipper and Evernote Clearly browser add ins have become indispensable for me.

TrustedSystem03 pptx 6

Here is my cumulative Evernote document count over the past three years.  The exponential increase in files in evernote has happened as I have scanned and recycled.  At the end of 2010 I scanned paper and recycled.  At the end of 2011 I scanned a collection of 300 3.5″ floppy disks with research data sets and other archives on them.

EvernoteCumulative01

My final offering to the visual learner on Before/After GTD is a worksheet that covers more pieces of my system (GTDInfrastructureEvolution01b.xlsx):

NewImage

Here is a summary view of how I am doing GTD after 3 years:

Trustedsystem04

 

 

GTD: The Start

Hey!

I’m a late in life convert to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (hereafter GTD).  Before reading GTD I had completed a Ph.D. and had twenty years of work experience.  Here is my before office picture:

GTDBefore00D3M 2507

Here is my before desk picture:

GTDBefore01D3M 2516

I met Ian Watson at Comdex in January 2009, and by March 2009 Ian had gotten on my chest and said “You promise me that you will read GTD, or I’m not getting off!” in his fancy Brit accent.  Stung, I reeled and said “I give you my word I will read GTD” and then proceeded to download GTD from Audible and started listening to it while riding my bike down the Boise Green belt.

At the 10 mile point in the bike ride, when I turned around to return home, I had heard enough of GTD that I *felt* different.  I could see a bunch of small practical changes I could make, I began to realize that many control levers to stress and productivity were in my control, awaiting exploration.  Huh?

Well, to give you a concrete example:

  • For the first time, I knew that I needed a general reference filing system (GTD page 44).
  • Monkey mind. Though David Allen does not use the term “monkey mind” in GTD (he does use in when interviewed in the book WILLPOWER on page 77), listening to GTD for 2 hours convinced me that I was on to something that might cut through the Gordian Knot of my monkey mind problem.  Allen talks about “Mind Like Water” in GTD, but no matter, I knew David Allen was on to me!
  • One idea, one piece of paper.  When you exist in a constant state of dr-monkey-mind, one idea, one piece of paper is a point of calm providing a place to start to climb down from the crazy tree.

Taken together, these three vectors of thinking, added up to getting more organized.  In fact, you know in the movie CHARIOTS OF FIRE where the Christian runner says “When I run, I feel HIS pleasure (at 2:30 in the clip)?” At first I dabbled in getting organized.

As I dabbled, I enjoyed myself.  I stopped worrying about project deadlines.  I still had the deadlines, I just knew that I had time to do the organization that pleased me.  What was pleasing me was simplifying, organizing, jettisoning the unnecessary stuff.  I found what when I organized, I felt God’s pleasure.  Corny, but this spiritual connection is still with me today.