Cross Disciplinary Evil of Clutter

Keep your station clear YouTube

“Keep your station clear, or I will kill you!” 38 seconds
Source: Ratatouille


I left a browser tab open with Greg Bauges’ “Code Like A Chef: Work Clean” blog post to remind myself to create this short blog post on the cross disciplinary evil of clutter. Clutter is the strategic enemy of productivity, calm, creativity, and discovery. From kitchen to garage to office, clutter tells you that you have not organized for what you are doing.  So, potentially, you have not decided what you are doing.

Sound bits and bites from Greg’s post:

Thomas Keller (chef) bits and bites

  • Being organized – … ‘working clean’ – is a skill to develop
  • Organization is about setting yourself up to succeed
  • Clean as you go to avoid clutter
  • Clutter interferes with the cooking process

Greg Gauges (programmer) bits and bites

  • “Working clean” is the most valuable concept I’ve adopted from the kitchen
  • Working clean takes two forms: physical workspace, virtual workspace
  • I am continually cleaning my virtual workspace
  • Email does not stay open
  • The goal of a professional programmer is to produce clean, organized code
  • We can avoid pressure by keeping our systems, our code, and our design as clean as possible

This post reminded me of the scene in the animated movie Ratatouille where Colette (Jeaneane Garofalo) teaches Remy (Patton Oswalt) how to cook by avoiding clutter’s complexities “You cannot be mommy!”

On Clutter:

What I’ve learned about clutter:

1. Clutter happens when I do not have places for things

  • Example: Reference filing materials in piles on my desk before using Evernote
  • Fix: Creating Stations (See THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF) with everything you need to complete a specific task, kept out of site until you are doing the task.
2. I am bi-polar about clutter.  I can be repelled by clutter, or, I can knowingly run into the burning barn of clutter
  • Example: Mindless internet surfing
  • Fix: Understand why running into a burning barn seems good.  Usually, it is fatigue-generated for me. Naps are important, but I have a hard time taking them. Exercise is also important, etc.

3. A clear desk and focused work environment (i.e., lack of clutter) pierces the armor of resistance to people hearing about GETTING THINGS DONE

  • Example: I worked with an accountant at a big firm this year. My GTD implementation process is to get desks 100% clear, get all reference materials into Evernote, and then get a simple 3”x5” card and manila folder system set up for projects. The accountant’s desk was by no means messy, it was just cluttered with every possible tool that might be useful. Clearing the desk, once everyone realized the accountant was not leaving the firm, brought peers and senior managers to ask about how they could implement.
  • Fix: I think we unconsciously hate the clutter we create at our work stations. Try nuking all objects that are in your field of vision at your desk computer. Just try it

bill meade

Operationalizing Allen/Hallowell: Part 1




Yesterday I posted about Hallowell’s 2005 “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Under Perform” and how it reminded me of Dietrich Dorner THE LOGIC OF FAILURE in how central the role of fear is in our mental functioning. 

Purpose of this post is to for me to articulate for myself, how I’ve “built out” from GTD in my personal inner-frenzy control system. Where I’ve ended up is with an 8 component system that started with GETTING THINGS DONE (Organization in the following pie chart). 

Screenshot 11 13 13 1 03 PM

The Big Three:

In this post, I’m going to force myself to pick the “big three” most important components from the first (Organization/GTD) component (slice of pie). 


The three most important components of GTD which help me manage my inner frenzy are:

  • #1 Reference filing

While I was listening to GTD for the first time, riding my bike on Boise’s green belt, David Allen’s words:

The lack of a good general-reference file can be one of the biggest bottlenecks in implementing an efficient personal action-management system.

Allen, David (2002-12-31). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Kindle Locations 828-829). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Were an armor piercing round that cut through my thick skull and made me think “Evernote! This is how I should be using Evernote!”  By far the most powerful GTD tool is reference filing.

I think this is because references, if not focused and confined, spontaneously generate clutter and chaos. References are inherently deer-in-headlights confusing to the disorganized.  References are too important to throw out, but not important enough to be in use at the moment. 

ALPFAGTDAsPresented pptx

So reference filing is #1 for my GTD system, clutter is the #1 strategic enemy for my mental functioning. 

  • #2 One idea, one piece of paper  
My first instinct for the #2 tool of GTD for me, is “next action thinking” but … I don’t think next actions can out-weigh one idea, one piece of paper for positive impact on my system. I’m cheating a little bit here. One idea, one piece of paper is the flip side of the coin from “mind sweeps.” No matter, the two tools come packaged as one for my GTD implementation. 
I’m pretty sure that God put me on earth to help unsuspecting people discover that they are great inventors. While IP Portfolio Manager at HP I discovered the educational impact that inventing (the process of capturing the minimum information about an idea, sufficient to evaluate investing in that idea) has on people. Like Betty Edward’s DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN that makes the point that drawing is not inborn, it is a way of seeing … 

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Archives Page 5 of 5 Drawing Right 3


… inventing is not an in-born skill. Like drawing, inventing is a way of seeing the world. 

Betty Edwards, a public school art teacher, discovered right brain/left brain research after becoming angry with a class of 11 and 12 year olds that would not cooperate in copying a drawing from an overhead projector.  The class was noisy, distracted, and unfocused. 

Betty got so mad that she turned the drawing upside down and said something like “Now try and draw this!” The result was that the students went silent (upside down drawings turned off their verbal left-brains and unleashed otherwise suppresed pattern recognition in right brains) and then the class drew great copies. So Betty packed up the drawings and went to San Jose State’s psych department and asked “What just happened.”

I have used Betty’s drawing exercise (page 52) in my own classes and at the end, when you invite the class to turn over their finished drawings, students often *gasp* when they see the quality of what their right brains produce. Back to Betty … 

What happened with Betty’s class was that Betty discovered turning off the left brain allowed the right brain to show what it can do in pattern recognition and replication. A bit surprise, a big win, for everyone involved. Life is like that, discoveries rule! 

Inventing works a little differently, inventing focuses on technical and economic enablement. But, once people can take an idea and articulate it technically and economically, suddenly, they awaken as intra-preneurs and entre-preneurs. OK … stop. 

I *apologize* for the digression. What this has to do with one idea, one piece of paper is that before I discovered GTD I was carrying my “cause” of evangelizing invention around in my head, *feeling* that I had a book rattling around inside, but … I was unable to sit down and write the book. 

However, after 18 months of doing GTD and “one idea, one piece of paper” I found that I was able to sit down and write. In hindsight I ascribe this, to suffering a form of “intellectual constipation.” Constipation about a subject which I not only knew a lot about, but which I cared a great deal about. When you allow yourself to try and keep your ideas by “not forgetting them,” creative doom is near, creative constipation doom.

In fact, once I started implementing GTD after my fateful Boise green belt ride of David Allen Audible book fame, a dominant sensation from applying “one idea, one piece of paper” was relief.  Relief because I had begun the process of eliminating “not forgetting” from my life. It took 1.5 years of “one idea, one piece of paper” to remediate my 25 years of working without a trusted system. 

  • #3 Natural Project Management

Discovering “natural project management” in chapter 3 of GETTING THINGS DONE was a bit like discovering the natural law legal tradition in an under-graduate philosophy of law class.

Philosophy of law? Yes! Beyond “must needs” there was code law (“Wait, what? French? Louisiana? Mexico? Glad I don’t live there!), positive law (“Sucks to be you if you are not THE QUEEN.”), and natural law (“Good is good, bad is bad, don’t mix them!”). Natural law made sense, all the rest exist because of guns pointed directly at people ala the Matrix and Trinity saying … “Dodge this!”

Let’s see, if you do one-idea-one-piece-of-paper then you’ve got a manila folder for each project. Oops, maybe I’ve tacked project folders on to the one-idea-one-piece-of-paper/mind sweep. Sorry for the unintentional 3-in-1 … 

*Aside* I have to just *rave* about how much better life is for me now that when I *feel* a project coming, I make a manila folder for it. Typically, I feel a project coming about 3 to 6 months before the project actually is precipitated into my daily routine. So I have my premonition that a project is about to happen. I create a manila folder, print a folder label (*Note* I just updated label printer from a Brother QL-570 $51 to a QL-700 $54 because I found the QL-700 for $39.95 on the shelf in OfficeMax in Vancouver WA), create a folder and then dump the 3×5 idea into the folder. 

Once you have a manila folder with a project name on it, when you have an idea related to that project, you jot it down on a 3×5 card, and drop it in the folder. In 2, or 3, or 4, or however many months it is before the project begins, you keep accumulating 3×5 cards with ideas. Then, once the project starts for real, you open the manila folder with all the 3×5/ideas in it and have this “AAAAHHHHHHHHH here are all the ideas” experience.

This “everything is here” feeling is what “mind like water” is all about. Your brain has a trusted system. It can create great ideas, the great ideas get captured (one-idea-one-piece-of-paper), and related to where they *deliver* value.  

Natural project management, the distilled essence of which is a list of each project, and next actions planned out for each project, is manageable. Manageable by putting your head down, focusing on results, and then working the next actions to make the results happen. 

bill meade 









Get “IT” Off Your Desk!!!


Screenshot 6 26 13 9 10 AM

Source: Ebay


I’m always on the lookout for paper trays that get paper off my desk, so the entire surface is free to organize 3×5 cards on.  Ken in a comment pointed to a very interesting family of off-the-desk products.  Purpose of this post is to show the product family off and point out the relative cost-effectiveness of these desk accessories compared to say … Steelcase desk accessories.  

The accessories:

In addition to the three tray unit for $40 above, there is a two tray unit for $30 … 

Screenshot 6 26 13 9 16 AM

And a two tray + phone organizer for $40 … 


A formidable six tray unit for $40 (the unit that Ken alerted me to) … 

Screenshot 6 26 13 9 20 AM

Note that the paper trays are rotated 90 degrees from their orientation in the three tray organizer, so it looks like the trays can be mounted to the tower, from either side, or the tray’s back.  

A rotary catalog + paper tray organizer for $40 … 

Screenshot 6 26 13 9 22 AM

And to mix it up a little, a catalog + phone organizer for $80 …  

Screenshot 6 26 13 9 26 AM

For comparison, here is a Steelcase task light for … $340!   

Screenshot 6 26 13 9 29 AM

So what? 

These desk accessories are significant because, like monitor arms, they allow you to clear the surface of your desk.   Here is my desk before monitor arm: 

D3M 3218

Here is my desk after monitor arm:  

D3M 5534

Having the monitor off the desk surface allows a dramatic increase of usable desk space.  Having a monitor arm allowed me to write on my desk or sort 3×5 cards (my atomic unit of thinking) without restraint.  

My desk surface is an IKEA conference table, so it provides a lot of space.  I used this table for a year and then on impulse leaned over the desk and stretched my arms to see how much of the surface area I could reach: roughly 40%.  I composted this for a few months and then with the help of my cats … 

D3M 5576

I cut out a plug for the mandatory hole in IKEA conference tables, and then diagrammed a semi-circle of 15″ at the middle of the desk:  

D3M 5578

and then cut it out:

D3M 5580

Then bought white edging material at Home Depot that I ironed on to the raw edge of the cut. 

D3M 5585

 With the cut-out I can now reach 80% or so of the remaining desk.  Of course I have lost some usable desk space from the cut out, but I have gained much more use of the remaining desk space.  For example, without the cutout, I needed to push my keyboard 14″ or so from the edge of the desk in order to get my forearms on the table (my perfect ergonomic position for typing).  As I type this my keyboard is about 5″ from the top of the cut out, and my forearms are just wresting over the edge of the cutout.  Comfy! 

So what? 

The signal in the noise of this post is that if you work at it, you can get your desk clear, you can improve the usability of your desk, you can be more organized and more comfortable at the same time.  The more of your desk you can use, the more focused your work can be.  

bill meade  





Perfect GTD Desk +2: Desktopia Redux

D3M 5585

See also: The Perfect GTD Desk +1

See also The Abomination of Deskolation Redeemed 

See also: The Perfect GTD Desk


Perfect GTD desk +1 has been refactored once again.  The above action shot displays several changes:

  • The monitor arm has switched ends of the desk
  • The cable access door in the Ikea Galant Conference Table has been filled in with wood
  • Gave up on mounting the Fujitsu ScanSnap on the monitor arm.  It was cool to look at, but even cool stuff is clutter when you are trying to get work done.  So I resurrected a shipping box and mounted both the ScanSnap and the Brother label printer on the box.  So far so good, the box has not interacted with the chair legs.
  • Screwed the chair mat to the floor in the correct location with 4 2″ drywall screws.  *Bam* no more wandering chair mat!!!
  • A 15.5″ semi-circle has been cut out of the center front of the conference table.
  • To create a 15.5″ radius, the conference table was slid forward until the back edge of the desk was flush with the Galant support frame.
  • I also slid the conference table surface to the right until the left edge of the work surface became flush with the left side of the Galant support frame.  Here’s an action shot of the top left corner of the desk:
  • D3M 5586
  • Power adapter moved from underneath the work surface to Galant table legs.  With diagonally crossing cable ties it was simple to mount the power adapter and then slide it around to readjust it.
  • A cordless remote control light switch was added (mid right hand of the back of the iMac) controlling the keyboard light, the floor lamp over the desk, and the floor lamp in the corner of the office.
  • The “un-drawer” was shifted left and canted at a diagonal angle from lower left hand corner of the desk, to upper right hand corner.  This removes the un-drawer from constant collisions with knees.
  • The purpose of the undrawer is to hold all the items that need to be at hand, but that clutter up the desk surface.  I have stapler, tape dispenser, utility knife, a 10 port USB hub, flash light, and my Plantronic USB headset (wireless headsets suck!).
  • Action shots:

D3M 5589

D3M 5590

  • USB and power were added to the right hand end of the desk (form the semi-circle side of the desk).  While I wanted usb and power plugs available, I need them to be out of sight, and they can’t be mounted under the surface without cables working their way out with gravity.  So I turned both poet and USB adapters 90 degrees and mounted them with cable ties and cable tie anchors.
  • Action shot:

D3M 5587


When I sit at my desk now, I’m in the semi-circle and can rest both elbows on the work surface at all times.  I can also reach a much larger proportion of the work surface.  I especially noticed the altered surface to volume ratio of the desk when I wiped it down with Windex to shoot the pictures in this blog post.  Standing in the semi-circle it is easy to wipe down the entire surface of the table.

When people try the desk out, the first word that comes out of their mouths is “Game changer!” and then “I’m going to do this to my desk!”

The monitor arm now swings the iMac completely out of the way of the desk.  Action shot:

D3M 5591

And when sitting at the desk, it looks like this:

D3M 5584

How To Section:

I started with this configuration:

D3M 5567

This worked OK, except that it began to bug me that the cable access door in the work surface did not do anything.  If a feature is not doing work then it is clutter by definition.  So I stripped the monitor arm off the desk, removed the power outlet and the IKEA cable management baskets, and then the un-drawer which you can just see peeking out under the work surface by the red mouse.

Then I detached the work surface, and laid under the desk sliding the surface to different places and then seeing how it *felt* from beneath and above the desk.  I had the idea to slide the desk forward and to the right to maximize the work surface overhang.

Next I started drawing curves on the surface of the desk.  Because it is a whiteboard, I was able to draw, look, erase, redraw, and play with the shape in my mind.  I like the idea of reshaping the desk with bulbous organic curves at the corners like this:


But, I was too chicken to cut very much out of the desk.  Because desks are experience goods, you can’t think your way to what you will love.  You have to generate and test.  So I decided to start simply with a semi-circle cut out.  Starting out the project looked like this (mr. batik supervising):

D3M 5576

D3M 5578

I decided to cut the cable access door plug from the semi circle and marked it with whiteboard marker.  Then I drew a 15.5″ radius semi-circle from the measured center of the front edge of the work surface.  Then cutting began with a jig saw and after the semicircle was cut out, I hustled the iMac back on to the left side of the desk this time.  I don’t know why I tried the left side of the desk.  Just happened that way.  At this point the project looked like this

D3M 5580

Once I re-mounted the iMac on the monitor arm, I was delighted to see that shifting the work surface forward created an opening between the desk and the wall, that allows the iMac to swing behind the far edge of the work surface.  This leaves the work surface completely clear for jotting down ideas, spreading out 3×5 cards, etc.  I like the additional openness of this configuration over where I started from.  Gratifying to contemplate.

At this point I cut a grommet hole out of the semi circle and then used steel straps to mount the cable access door plug and grommet hole plug from the under side of the desk.  Action shot (sorry it is blurry):

D3M 5592

Then I filled in all the gaps around the plugs with white plastic wood which I was very delighted to discover at  Much sanding and re-filling and re-sanding ensued. And once I got the work surface to be “not terrible” I moved on to finishing the edge the jig saw cut.

I was surprised at how easily iron-on melamine edging went on.  Get a clothes iron, cut the length of edging you need, then slowly iron the melamine edge on to the work surface.  Took about 30 minutes from start to cleaned up.  And I’m very delighted with how the edging is staying attached.

Partial component list for desk:

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Idea I Kno now, but did not Kno yesterday



See also yesterday’s post about


In addition to allowing students/professors a context in which to catalyze the communion of kindred minds, allows teams to do the same thing.  The team market is probably bigger than the text market by an order of magnitude (schools have students for educational life which for college is 4 years, work environments have people for their entire working lives which is about 40 years, thus a factor of 10).  

So what?

I remember reading in POST CAPITALIST SOCIETY (I *think*) about Drucker’s consulting clients going through his books page by page looking for tools that they could apply.  I’ve shared this idea with entrepreneurs who vehemently scoffed … on the way to crashing and burning.  Yes, it seems unlikely that a team could sit around a conference table and go through INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP say.  But means that people don’t have to meet synchronously to share ideas.  Books can be downloaded to iPads, then read and marked up during travel, and then once back on the internet *foom* re-synchronized.  

Young whipper snappers could enter an entire back of envelope business plan into a book.  I once had a student who wrote a business plan and then gave a paper copy of the plan to his company president.  At a key point in the plan Mike inserted a $100 bill with a post it note on it that said “If you’d like to have about 30,000 more of these, keep reading!”  

What other uses for in GTD and business?

  • could sell businesses a subscription service to electronically share strategic documents requiring communion of kindred minds to make work.  The service could be a VPN within a business.  I wonder if SAP or Oracle would be interested in buying this document/thought linking capability?  
  • could provide a back end linking service to connect from markups in books and company documents, to Evernote, OneNote, OmniFocus, Remember the Milk, etc. I’m always writing notes to myself for raw materials to lecture on as I re-read my texts.  If I could simply access my text markups while in PowerPoint, it would be a time saver for me.   
  • Books are reference materials, annotations of books being swept into Evernote (the world’s most perfect reference system) would be a huge win for me personally.  *Note* this blog post comes to you from an office with 5,000 books surrounding the author.  :-) 

Stay tuned!!!

I’m still early in my digestion of what means.  I’m sure there will be more to come as I figure out how to run my GTD system pipes backwards with  

bill meade 


Perfect GTD desk +1

Screenshot 12 19 12 4 53 PM 2



I’ve been holding out on  :-(

I’ve been working since April 2012 on a successor to my “The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk” post (which is the most read post on this blog).  1.5 years after we moved to the Portland area, Beth and I bought a house which allowed significant expansion of the good enough home office desk.

As a sufferer of chronic rhinosinusitis, I’ve found the need to keep facial tissues close at hand.  In fact, VERY close at hand as tissues go from box, to my face, to the trash in one choreographed motion.  So in the new house I have a GTD trash can.


my desk work surface is expanded from a merely “big” desk into an “Ikea conference table” sized desk that is 77″x43″.  I bought yet another Innovative 7500-HD-1500 monitor arm to hold up my 27″ iMac i5. I know that $260 for an arm seems exorbitant, but getting the computer off the desk is the best money you can spend in taking back your desk.

Also, if you’ve got a wall that you are facing when you work, you can get a monitor arm for $30 that will be great for giving you back your desk.

Anyway, to be optimal, I should have gone to IKEA and bought a conference table surface for $65 in the “as is section” but, I did not realize that the components I needed for my upgrade of “The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk” would be available in the as-is department.  So, instead of saving 35%, I bought the full price $229 brand new white GALANT conference table (instead of the $65 as is white conference table).  I bought new adjustable Galant A-legs for $15 each, but in thinking about it I could have gotten away with buying 2 new fixed length Galant A-legs for $10 each and then 2 adjustable legs.

Screenshot 12 20 12 11 17 AM 2

Driver’s eye-view of the Perfect GTD desk +1

OK Bill, what is behind the monitor?

Screenshot 12 19 12 5 35 PM

Well, as usual, there is a lot going on behind the iMac.  I’ve used cable ties to attach a 3-tier paper tray to the Innovative hd monitor arm.  *Note* because the iMac and paper tray are hanging off the monitor arm, there is an angle that I had to compensate for with the paper tray.  Why? Because if you can’t get the paper tray approximately level, then you’ll have paper splashing on to your work surface.  = Unpleasant.  Here is a shot of the angle compensating cable tie.

And the indispensable ScanSnap S1500 rests on the base of the monitor arm. It is visible, but not when I’m looking at 3×5 cards on my desk.

Screenshot 12 19 12 5 46 PM

OK, what is going on under the desk

Excellent question!  Here is a macro shot of the under side of the desk:

Screenshot 12 19 12 6 00 PM

Once again I’ve availed myself of IKEA to provide pseudo drawer space as well as plain Signum cable management (US$10).  The Galant cable management tray (US$5) works as a static drawer.  Desk tools that conventionally clutter up desk surfaces are verboten in my conception of the perfect GTD desk.  So, I mounted the Galant cable tray a bit back from the front of the desk (to avoid hitting it with my knees), but still in easy raeachability.

In addition to microfiber cloth, stapler, and tape dispenser which are immediately available, I also keep a pocket knife and an eraser readily at hand.

Crayons?  You think Crayons are cool?

Well, in short, … I don’t know what to think about crayons.  Crayons come with memories, fun, and … crayon mess:



which … I’d forgotten about since I was 5.  But, still, writing on an IKEA conference table with Crayons™ is a great option if you are into crayons.  They come off with Scotch-Brite No SCRATCH sponges and Windex.

Screenshot 12 20 12 11 34 AM

Crayon mind mapping
(about moving ERP into b-education)
48 years after giving up crayons!

I felt giddy playing with crayons as a 53 year old!  The crappy wax mess that falls off the crayons, the problem of sharpening a crayon, the inevitable anger resulting from trying to sharpen a crayon in a pencil sharpener, the flash back to the 64 crayon set that had a sharpener in it (At least until you broke the first crayon off).  I found myself thinking about all the downsides of crayons as a dumb smile came over my face and I created a complex mind map that felt “just a little bit permanent.”

Buy crayons, write on your IKEA conference table, undo all the art formerly-known-as-damage, with a Scotch-Brite pad and Windex.  Fondly remember the voice of your mom yelling at you about using crayon on the table/wall/sibling.  You own the conference table, you can do with it whatever you want!!  Fun memories!


First and foremost, except for legs, you can make-do in building your desk by shopping the AS-IS department at IKEA.  This will peel about 35% off the total cost.

Second: grommet management.  Move the grommets away from where you will work most at your desk.  For me that is working at the computer.  And, place Signum cable grommets out of sight if you can.  You can’t control where the cable runs are, but you can control the wires between cable runs and move them out of sight.

Screenshot 12 20 12 11 22 AM 2

Third: Find a work surface that does not have a pre-cut grommet in it.  I like the simplicity of IKEA parts, but I was forced to remove the monitor arm and re-place it through the steel support deck, because the particle board of the surface was not able to carry the 50 pound load of the monitor arm and items hanging from it.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you for 2012!!!

So we are just almost exactly at 1 year into and about 130,000 page views.  The blog really started with the “The Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD) Desk” post which Lifehacker kindly picked up, and we are about at the end of the year with this Perfect GTD desk +1 post.  I’d like to thank everyone who has read, everyone who has commented, and especially everyone who has emailed back channel to this year.  I’ve had a blast opening my GTD kimono.  And it has been fun sharing the GTD love and enthusiasm with you.

May this year bring a happier, more robust recovery, and smarter GTD thinking than any year going before.  You guys reading this rock.  Let me know how I can help in 2013!

Support RestartGTD by buying at from this link!


bill meade

Musings on eighth grade organizing …





THE NEW YORK TIMES has a curious article: Working From Home, Without Sideshows, today.  

 Work OR Home?

From a GTD perspective, this OR dichotomy *feels* odd.  The GTD perspective on where to work is not an OR.  GTD is AND.  As in, how do I work at the office, and at home, and on the way between office and home, and when I’m at any phone, and when I’m at any computer, and …  Which is to say, all the places in our lives and moving among them, are interruptions to work that we must pre-organize our GTD selves in order to work around, in, over, under, and through.  

Now while I feel like a robot for looking at the world as a place to work rather than play, GTD has allowed me to feel less stress and live with increased happiness, because I am in harmony with my American cultural programming to work, work, work.  But more sanely, GTD has allowed me to sneak fun into my work in many new ways, so GTD has an impish rebellion component as well as the Protestant Work Ethic component.  


Source: Stetson Hills School

Work or Home, todo list, checking off todo list, the NYT article is written from what I have come to see as the “eighth grade school of productivity”.  

  • Make an outline of the work you need to do.  
  • Letter the projects in capitals, 
  • then break down the projects into sub-steps 
  • and number them.  
  • Underneath the numbers use lower-case letters, etc.  

This “work is accomplished by sitting along and developing documents” paradigm was the crowning achievement of my eighth grade year at John A Hannah middle school in East Lansing Michigan.  

Screenshot 12 16 12 12 42 PM

Microsoft Word = Eighth Grade Thinking With Unlimited Money Pushing From Behind
*Note: the outlining in Word has never worked* 

Home offices then are most productive when optimized for the eight grade approach to work: 

  • Separate space to work that “sets a tone that says ‘work happens here.’ –Angie Mattson
  • Rules with significant others to prevent interruptions -Angie Mattson
  • Organized work space “If your work space is cluttered, your mind is cluttered” –Janet Bernstein 
  • “Your desk … should only have the essentials you need….”-Janet Bernstein
  • “Don’t work in pajamas or sweats…” -Janet Bernstein
  • “Build the kind of accountability found in traditional offices” –Jason Henham
  • “Create a to-do list for the day and cross each task off as you do it.” –David Smith 

But, … but … but … 

While I adhere to most of the above bullet points, the idea that a grown person’s organization can be improved by re-voicing the eighth grade perspective on productivity and adding new bullet items, is bogus.  When working adults talk about productivity by going back to the eight grade productivity model, we don’t learn.   

How can you say that?  

Because one of the fun things I’ve learned about Getting Things Done by helping people get started with GTD and Get restarted with GTD, is that school teachers are very disorganized.  


Source: After Kutscher & Moran

Not out in the open, but in inner mental lives, and most aggravatingly for GTD parents, in organizing infrastructure.  Now, before you launch the flame to, let me say, “thou teachers do protest too much”.  I’m actually not in the ballpark of criticizing teachers with this comment.  Instead, I’m replaying comments of my public school teaching clients.  Many public school teachers have abominations of deskolation organizing infrastructures.  

And I think this outside of the cup neatness vs. inside the cup chaos is part an parcel of the eighth grade organization model that is the default organization taught in US schools.  

Think about it, the reason that GTD was different when you were first exposed to it, was that it was not an 8th grade step-by-step process, or a list of platitudes to crank up self-control.  Instead, GTD is a system.  A system plus a workflow template that works end-to-end.  Even more in that David Allen has refined GTD over decades, with hundreds of users.  

Another contrast between 8th grade organizing and the real world is given by looking at what eighth grade organization training did not provide: 

  • An organized infrastructure for doing knowledge work that is larger than 1 notebook
  • Something along the line of David Allen’s “trusted system” 
  • A-Z filing 
  • Capturing all sources of important documents 
  • Paper
  • MS Office documents 
  • Web pages
  • eMail 
  • Illustrations 
  • How to think with paper
  • working out ideas via draft after draft of writing, vs, working out ideas with meta-writing tools like: 
  • Given a set of facts, create a powerpoint in 2 hours to present the story of the facts, as coherently as possible
  • Fill in gaps with assumptions, and document each assumption
  • How to take an organization for a project, and then evaluate what is missing and what is un-necessary
  • How to apply common sense in the face of “groupthink” and “Abeline paradox” pressures in groups
  • How to distinguish important knowledge gaps from trivial gaps 
  • How to think for oneself about what is necessary and what would be “nice to have” 
  • How to do “raiding party” research to fill in important gaps
  • How to confront fear of criticism in a group, think for oneself, and then opportunistically obtain information
  • How to divide up research across a team
  • Matching people with passions
  • Helping team members get over paralysis through analysis 
  • Using the network of all team members to find “hot” information

Enough Musings What Was Cool in the NYT piece? 

The links in the article were very interesting in a GTD-way.  In particular I liked Janet Bernstein’s web site questionnaire

Screenshot 12 16 12 4 45 PM

“Clutter words” like: overwhelmed, frustrated, procrastinate, embarrassed, lack of organization, stepping stone their way across the questionnaire.  

I thought it was Fun-ronic (fun+ironic) that the organizers had broken/empty links in their web sites on the big day of a NYT article.  This is a goof that I would make!  Sign of genius! 

Screenshot 12 16 12 4 46 PM


Screenshot 12 16 12 4 49 PMSource: 


Hope this was enjoy able! 

bill meade  


On In box to-do lists and over engineered organization



I came across a provocative post by Paul Kortman on Boomerang, an add-in for Gmail that facilitates using your email in-box as a todo list.  The “boomerang” idea is that you can:

Screenshot 11 21 12 10 24 AM 2

Source: Boomerang

In his post, Kortman talks principally about using boomerang’s 2nd feature above, sending email away to return to your inbox at a later time.  Like, … a “snooze” alarm for items that can’t be acted on immediately.  

Here is what Boomerang looks like when you install it (see Appendix A below for installation instructions): 

Screenshot 11 21 12 10 37 AM



Screenshot 11 21 12 10 37 AM


Screenshot 11 21 12 10 38 AM


Screenshot 11 21 12 10 39 AM


Screenshot 11 21 12 10 39 AM

What is the GTD angle? 

That Boomerang is yet another tool.  Something to experiment with to prototyping more efficient ways of working.  

What should my email look like? 

Good question.  The orthodox GTD answer would be to be regularly getting to in-box zero.  I find myself however, gradually drifting further and further from inbox zero (right now I’m at inbox 536) without feeling stressed or becoming preoccupied with what is in my inbox.  

The actual next actions list that I’m using is not kept in email, it is kept in my OmniFocus inbox in: Vacation, Today, This Week, This Month, Eventually buckets:

Screenshot 11 21 12 10 45 AM

 Since adopting this organization scheme from Salvatore antirez Sanfilippo my email box has become something of a ….


Source: Apartment Therapy

Yes, my email has become a junk drawer.  And the strange thing is, I don’t feel bad in a “clutter” way about it.  I pass into and out of my email all day, put the stuff that matters into my Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Eventually buckets (Vacation exists this week because I have it off school and have out-of-routine things I’d like to get done). 


Maybe, but, I don’t think so.  In the cause of being “just organized enough” I’ve let my inbox go to seed.  I’m getting everything done, I’m experiencing mind like water, I’ve just reached the point where keeping the inbox empty, *feels* like drone work.  


Maybe.  But email imposes so much overhead.  What overhead?  Well, for example, when you reply to an email, 99% chance that the email you replied to should drop itself into the @Read folder. Right?  But that does not happen.  We have to manually rake back through the inbox and waste motions tracking down and filing messages.  What is worse is that when someone replies to your reply, the entire message thread will pop itself back into the inbox.  Bother.  

More and more, I’m beginning to think that Google is on to something with search.  :-)  That I’ll be better off just searching the junk drawer for the items I know are in it, rather wasting effort on over-engineered organization.  The distinction between @Read and Inbox is loosing its difference to my mind.  

The acid test: 

For me, the acid test of newly configured organizing tools is whether they feel like clutter.  And my junk drawer inbox does not feel like clutter.  I’m not preoccupied with it because I’ve raked out the important stuff and stuck it in Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Eventually buckets.  

All the action in my inbox takes place at the top, and I find myself not really caring about how long the stack of messages is.  Where before GTD I panicked at lots of email messages, today I don’t,  I know I’ve got all the essentials covered.  And I hate wasting time organizing just to look organized.  A junk drawer inbox works, … for me.  And, I’m going to say “This is OK.”  

I may try Boomerang, but I’m an oldster, I like having my email on all my computers safely in IMAP.  I’d have to switch to Gmail on line if I fell in love with Boomerang.  We’ll see if that happens.  

bill meade 


Step 1: Open your browser and log in to your Gmail account 

Step 2: Go to ChromePreferencesExtensions and click on “Get more extensions” 

Screenshot 11 21 12 11 17 AM

Step 3: Type “boomerang” into the search box and then click the “+ ADD TO CHROME” button to the right of boomerang.

Screenshot 11 21 12 11 18 AM 2

Step 4: Then click the “Add” button in the lower right hand corner 

Step 5: Go back to the tab where your Gmail is open, and click “refresh” 

You should now have Boomerang working.  Click compose and look for the Boomerang line at the very bottom of the message (on the new compose dialog in Gmail).  Click here for Boomerang help.  


Evernote VS DropBox a GTD Perspective




“Which should I use, Evernote or Dropbox?”  

This is a frequent question for me.  Which you should use, or whether you need to use both, is a question of degrees of freedom that you need to do your work efficiently AND effectively.

What is a degree of freedom?

I learned about degrees of freedom as a 20 something college graduate who was discovering computers for the first time.  I had a friend, Glen Kuhn who was teaching me about mainframe computers, at the same time as the Bell+Howell division I was working in was flailing unsuccessfully with microcomputers.   

About a month into learning about mainframes, I asked “Which is better, a microcomputer, a mini computer, or a mainframe.”  To which Glen replied, “That all depends on what kind of power your need.  Do you need rotational power?  Or, do you need something else.”  I had that “I recognize this is an interesting analytical distinction feeling,” at the same time as my brain hurt from trying to understand what a degree of freedom was. 

Trying to understand degrees of freedom stayed with me until several years later in graduate school, I discovered M.J. French’s LUMINOUS book Invention and Evolution.

French’s illustration from page 95 brings the idea of a degree of freedom into sharp focus:


 Source: Invention and Evolution, p. 95

A degree of freedom may seem simple from the outside, but they are not.  Degrees of freedom are often counter intuitive, like pulling the string on part (b) of the above diagram causing the wheel to roll up the incline and wind string on to the axle.  

But it gets better!!!!  


Source: Flickr

Degrees of freedom also “nest” in sequences like Matryoshka dolls.   

Another M.J. French explanation of this idea is the human arm.  The shoulder is a ball joint and has 3 degrees of freedom. The elbow is two degrees of freedom (one bend to allow wrist to move from straight arm back to chest, a second that allows a twist so that the hand can turn things over).  This gives 5 degrees of freedom.  The wrist can bend back and forward, and also in a fly-casting motion, which brings us to 7 degrees of freedom.  The fingers can bend down and back, and also sideways to spread the hand wide (2 DOF x 5 fingers = 10).  So we are at 17 degrees of freedom to the knuckles.  Then the fingers + 8 2nd and 3rd knuckles within the fingers. This brings us to 25 degrees of freedom.  The general pattern in animals is to have a 3 degree of freedom joint, at the body, then a two, and then 1 degree of freedom joints as the limb travels away from the body (see French p. 98-100)

So what? 

Well, degrees of freedom like the human arm has, are important because they allow the arm to do work.  The nesting of 3-2-1 degrees of freedom is what gives humans the potential for great manipulative skill.  

So what’s the connection to GTD? 

The connection to GTD is that trusted systems also have nested degrees of freedom.  


Source: Flickr

In fact, the nesting order of degrees of freedom are a large part of why GTD is a continuous improvement discipline.  We can’t really simulate in our minds the best set of tools, the best nesting order of the tools.  We can’t think our way to the globally optimal GTD system for ourselves.  

So, we prototype, we test, we exploit serendipity, and over time we stumble towards greater efficiency and effectiveness using the GTD architecture.  When David Allen says “the tools don’t matter” what I hear him saying is that “the lower degree of freedom tools don’t matter as longs as you’ve got the higher degree of freedom tools I teach, working well.”  

Give me an example!

Ok, when I read GTD I keep getting hit by the root-level many-degree-of-freedom tools. For example: 

  • Next actions.  Distilling the nub of what needs to happen, is like a 3 degree of freedom joint.  We can then stuff next actions into our two degree of freedom manila folders or OmniFocus databases, or Evernote.  Whatever.  Next actions are high degree of freedom architectural features that allow us manipulative skill to make our days efficient and effective. 
  • Reference filing. Getting your paper stuff into Evernote, is also like a three degree of freedom joint.  Once you have your reference archive in an easily searchable form, you discover: (a) that you can find ANYTHING in 60 seconds, and (b) that organizing stuff is a waste of time.  Google is right, don’t organize, search!  
  • Project filing. Distilling what projects you are working on down to a file (manilla or electronic) is a high degree of freedom intervention.  If you are lucky to be mentored by a GTD black belt as I was with Ian Watson, s/he will tell you “keep your project files separate from your reference files.”   
  • One idea one piece of paper.  Perhaps the most important degree of freedom-providing intervention for me.  One idea, one piece of paper gives your thoughts modularity.  Allows them to go to the correct project, or to multiple projects.  Allows you not to forget them over time.  And allows your conscious and subconscious to collaborate in chewing over an idea.  
  • Weekly review.  Again, like the idea modularity of one idea, one piece of paper, weekly reviews provide your work a lot of degrees of freedom.  Refreshing on your projects replaces trying to predict (impossible) what the real deadlines are.  Refreshing prevents worry.  Refreshing allows sleep.  Refreshing allows calmness when you are overloaded with work.  

What does this have to do with Dropbox and/or Evernote?  

Everything!  Think of Dropbox as a screwdriver, and Evernote as a hammer.  Now everyone knows that you can use a screwdriver as a crude form of hammer.  Not a great hammer, the degrees of freedom of a screwdriver are too different from a hammer for it to work very well.  And the same is true with hammers working as screwdrivers.  You could probably remove some screws with the point of a claw hammer.  But, it is probably better to go and get a screwdriver.  

Now the key question: Would your rather use a screwdriver, or … a hammer?  



Source: After EK&FamilyBookReview

Of course, we instinctively know that we need both tools in our toolbox.  Why? Because they have complementary degrees of freedom! We also need pliers in the tool box, and and power tools (which tend to be lower degrees of freedom than manual tools).  

So what? 

Well, the “should I use Dropbox or Evernote” question boils down to “What degrees of freedom do you need to support your GTD work?”  And to the end of helping you figure this out, I’ve made a personal assessment of the degrees of freedom of Dropbox and Evernote and entered the data in the table below.  


Source: billmeade please email with corrections, comments, and additions!
Excel source here.


Source: After EK&FamilyBookReview

BUT … BUT …? 

I suspect for most GTDers, the answer will be “choose both.”  I’ve had a pro subscription to Evernote for 4 years.  Evernote actually predates my walk with GTD.  And, I’m skating along with DropBox’s free account.  I’ve recommended DropBox with affiliate links so many times that I’ve got just short of 20 GB.  So, I’m working to keep only active project files on DropBox to avoid spending money. 

Which service to start with, to push GTD forward fastest? 

I’m a fanboy of both, but I’m more of a fanboy for Evernote when I get this question.  As I have stated repeatedly, I think Evernote is the GTD tool that will pull you back on the GTD wagon when you fall of.   If you can just get the first 500 pages scanned into Evernote (12.5 minutes with a ScanSnap iX500) then a gravitational attractor to GTD flow, begins.  It will not be long before you are scanning stuff in automatically without having to hypnotize yourself.  Another benefit of Evernote is that you don’t need to purge your files to avoid filling up your office.  

DropBox is great for lots of projects where the information is inside electronic files (Again, a lower degree of freedom tool).  So, your mileage may vary on my advice. 

Deer in headlights

Source: Purchased from Shutterstock

I’m a deer in headlights: Which one to start? 

Flip a coin and pick one.  Give yourself one two or three months with the one you pick first, before you try and pick the second service.  One is enough things to change at once.  

There is no downside to picking either service.  Just do it! 

bill meade 

2012 Fall Semester: How the smart student will organize – Part 1 Get Infrastructure



“Professor Meade, how should I get GTD organized for school this year?” What follows in the rest of this post, is my default advice for freshmen coming to college this fall.

Step 1: Get a laptop computer …

… with at least a 500 gigabyte hard drive.  A new hard drive is surprisingly inexpensive ($64 for 500 GB and $75 for 750 GB on Amazon as I write this) so think about adding a new hard drive to your existing laptop, or if you buy a used laptop, upgrading the hard drive.

If you have no money you still have options:

  • Option 1: Start your laptop quest at your local version of Portland’s FREEGEEK.ORG.  Since you don’t have cash, you can trade time working for, for a computer.
  • Option 2: Ask around family and friends for a laptop that is “too good to throw out, but not good enough that anyone is using it” and then put Linux Mint on it.
  • What is Linux?  A free operating system with a free clone of Microsoft Office 1997, and a large free software library.  This is the no-money-down-gtd operating system and software system.
  • Why Linux Mint and not one of the other Linuxes?  Because Linux Mint has all the drivers you need from the start, no hassles to get your DVDs to play.
If you have some money then you can:
  • Option 1: Buy a laptop at  You can get a good enough laptop for about $180.
  • Option 2: Shop a Goodwill store in Lake Oswego OR and pick up a pretty nice laptop without hard drive (see above links to buy a big new shiny hard drive) and then install Linux Mint.  My students inform me that the Lake Oswego store has tons of laptops without hard drives.
  • Option 3: Go to Walmart and buy a cheap Netbook for $250.  I *think* you will find that the used laptop is a better value than a new netbook.  But your mileage may vary.  I don’t have a preference between Windows 7, Mac OS X, or Linux, I use them all.  The Mac has been the least work for me, that that is what I use for my laptop.
  • Option 4: Check out laptop prices at local retailers like Staples, Office Max, Best Buy.  Do this on-line so you don’t have to deal with pushy sales people.  Compare local retail to laptop prices for PCs and Macs.
If you have more money and want more performance:
  • Macintosh options I think look good:
    • If you want to buy a new Mac, the cheapest way I’ve found is to go to Apple’s online store and look for refurbished computers.  These will be one to three generations older than current models.  But … they are often much cheaper than new.  If you live in a city with an Apple store, buying a refurb is low risk because if you have a problem, you can schedule an appointment at the genius bar, go in, and have the Mac Geniuses fix it.  If you are worried about having long term support, you can buy an Apple extended service plan and a refurbished computer for less than the purchase price of a new mac alone.
    • If you must have a new Mac, then look around.  Portland’s Best Buy (13″ Macbook Pro for $1139) and Amazon (13″ Macbook Pro for $1,140) both often sell Macs for less than the educational price for Macs bought directly from Apple, although for the 13″ Macbook Pro, the lowest price is currently from Apple ($1,099).
  • Windows options I think look good:
    • Ultrabooks are a great value. Instead of buying an iPad and a laptop for school, or an iPad, a laptop, and a Kindle device, just get an ultrabook.  These are from $800 to $1,500 in price, they weigh about 3 pounds, and you can carry an ultrabook in a backpack without pulling your shoulder off.  Ultrabooks are also a great place to start if you want to have a wicked fast Linux machine.  *Note* I have not installed any Linuxes on any Ultrabooks, but it seems like this would be a cool thing to do.

Step 2: Do not spend money on Microsoft Office or Anti Virus.

Your college will have a “no-additional-cost” copy of Office and AV software waiting for you when you get there.  First thing that happens after you get your login to the campus network is that you’ll be able to download Office over the network and install it on your laptop.  *Handy Hint* when installing over the campus network, don’t use wireless, plug your laptop in with a good old fashioned ethernet cable.  10x faster.  Also, the campus wireless will be so clogged with other students installing Office wireless will take for.ever!

Step 3: Install your software platform for this semester:

You will need to create accounts for all of these services except FireFox and the office suites.  So the process is: install software, create account, validate account (via email) and then link account to each of the programs.  After you have installed all these tools, go back to their respective web sites, and take the tours they offer.  This will only make your brain hurt, but, the process of sprouting organizing roots is fertilized by brain pain!  So, lean into the brain pain, but don’t worry when you don’t understand everything at once.  The roots are growing….

Step 4: Get a copy of David Allen’s GETTING THINGS DONE and read THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS ONLY. 

After they make it through the first three chapters, students usually want to read the entire book, but I advise against this.  David Allen documents a process in chapters 4 through 13 that 100% cuts you over to GTD in 3 days.

When students attempt to implement the 3-day-cut to GTD, they run out of root system, and like the seed that fell on the hard ground, get fried as life burns down their attempts to improve.  Getting organized is hard work, and is filled with setbacks.  The setbacks are why I titled this blog “restart” gtd.  Like exercising, doing GTD is restarting GTD once life has taken you off track.

This is normal.  So, what readers of GTD need is acknowledge that change will take time, that implementing GTD is an exercise in experimenting with tools.  So, a more pragmatic way to get started is to read, absorb what you can, then pick one tool to experiment with in moving your brain into the GTD groove.

My current formula for students is to have them read chapters 1, 2, and 3, and ask themselves, “How does it make sense for me to start growing some organizing roots?”  So, read 3 chapters, and think about how they apply to you.

Step 5: Start classes and let GTD percolate.  Give yourself a month before coming back to GTD.

Your subconscious will be working on understanding GTD, understanding school, and figuring out how to bring the two together.  So, don’t force yourself to implement anything in GTD, just let time work for you as you compost the David Allen model.

Step 6: Finish building your GTD 1.0 infrastructure

In addition to the above infrastructure, you need a study area.  If you have space for a desk, that is a great study area, but most students don’t have space for a desk, so instead, find a conference room, or table, or study carrel where you are comfortable and can work.  Think of this place as home base for your work.

Next, get a briefcase desk organized.  You may want to check out my restart GTD post on my briefcase desk.  But the goal here is to consolidate everything you need to do your college work in your briefcase.  Think of your briefcase as a “station” that you can do all of your homework at.  Everything you need to do homework, should be in the station:

  • Blank 3×5 cards (20) and 8.5×11 paper (10)
  • One in-box manilla folder to gather ideas as you work
  • Foam ear plugs to block out noise.  You can also use in-ear headphones, but listening to music costs you about 10% of your productivity while studying, so foam is more efficient.
  • 2 pens and/or pencils as you prefer
  • Space in briefcase to hold your laptop and power adapter
  • Microfiber cloth to keep your device screens clean

In the next installment of GTD for students I’ll introduce the idea of articulating GTD, which takes a GTD process and builds a system for that process.  For example, GTD’s “one idea, one piece of paper” can be implemented with 8.5×11 paper or 3×5 paper or 4×6 paper, or with an electronic note.  Articulating is the process of thinking about how you could implement GTD processes, and then picking one articulation of that process.