ScanSnap GTD Tricks #1: Next Action Stamp


As I was depositing a check with my ScanSnap this morning, I had the idea that I should post a few ScanSnap GTD tricks. Then Joe Terrana posted a comment to the 2014 Getting Started with Getting Things Done post, with a cool *new* trick.



Go to Amazon, then order this custom rubber stamp, and then follow the instructions to “Contact Seller” and send them “Next Action” as the message for the stamp.

Then once the scanner arrives, you can stamp paper with “Next Action” scan the paper into Evernote (Click here to subscribe to Evernote), and then after Evernote does optical character recognition (OCR) on the stamped part of the note, you can search for “Next actions” and find all of your scanned next actions.

Very slick.

Very Simple!

Thank you Joe for the ScanSnap GTD Trick #1.

bill meade

p.s., I had the idea, since Evernote also attempts to recognize hand-written characters, that I could scan a note card with “Next Action” on it, and perhaps achieve the same result as using a custom rubber stamp. Here is what the card looks like:


Expecting Evernote to be able to read my handwriting is not a fair test, I know. But, it seemed like a fun trial. Evernote’s explanation of how OCR works says that it take a “few minutes.” I’ve always assumed that Evernote takes “over night” to complete OCR operations, so we’ll see how long it takes for this note:

  • 1st check on indexing status: 20 minutes later … not indexed.
  • 2nd check on indexing status: 11 hours later … not indexed.
  • 3rd check on indexing status: 23:10 later … not indexed.
  • 4th check on indexing status: 33 hours later … INDEXED!!!!

However long it takes, I’ll update this post after Evernote indexes the card to see if it is possible to simply write “Next Action” and have OCR recover the magic GTD words.

You can tell if an Evernote note has been indexed by clicking on the i at the upper right of the note:


And then looking at “Attachment Status” 3/4 of the way down the dialog box (red arrow).

While it is true that GTD indexing can be measured in minutes 33 * 60 = 1,980 minutes. It is not a safe workflow to depend on Evernote scanning documents immediately.

Success … kind of

After my index card was OCR’d by Evernote, I am able to search for the word “Next” but alas, “action” in my hand writing was not recognized. :-(


I was not able to determine precisely how long it took for Evernote to do the text recognition.

Lesson Learned:

You can buy a self inking stamp, and Evernote will read it. Thanks again Joe Terrana for giving me the stamp idea, so I could have the stepping stone idea of just writing “next action” on the card.

It would be smart to create a sample card for yourself, scan it, and then see if Evernote can recognize your hand writing. In fact, if you’ve already written “next action” on a 3×5 card that you scanned into Evernote, you might be able to test this out today. Just search on the GTD Magic Words! 

Quick Index of Most-Read Posts


One idea, one piece of paper … One idea, one card … Seriously? Bill’s cards often have >1 idea …


Example De Jure Misuse of One Idea One Piece of Paper

This post began as a response to a reader email. In the beginning was R. asking about cards. I’ve expanded the post with pictures and some of my GTD history, in the hope that this post can be a stepping stone for other people on the GTD journey.


Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. But, I’ve been looking forward to writing this email ever since I skimmed your message 2 days ago.
On Wed, Aug 13, 2014 at 8:49 AM, R. wrote
I am finding one thing extremely difficult to get my mind around.
The one idea, one 3×5 card.
​I got 1 idea 1 card from David Allen’s “one idea, one piece of paper” which I can’t actually find in GTD, but I came away from GTD thinking it. Whether he said it or not. Or, intended me to take away the 1-idea-1-card concept, the value is 100% in idea modularity.
What I mean by idea modularity, can be seen by comparing separate 3×5 cards with what most people do, which is to carry around a “log book.” I used to carry a log book and paste business cards into them and write notes, mind maps, action items, etc. in them. But there is a problem: log books turn into higgledy piggledy quagmires of open loops.
I would write stuff down, and then never come back to the idea. Which, my subconscious saw, and consequently, my subconscious kept the job of “not forgetting” so I wasted just as much energy remembering, as I would have without the log book.
David allen talks about taking these kinds of log books and blesses using them AS LONG AS YOU GO BACK AND RAKE OUT ALL THE OPEN LOOPS and capture them in a modular way. By modular, I *think* David Allen means taking the idea and getting it into a project folder that the idea relates to. Here is what he says:

David Allen:

“I usually recommend that clients download their voice-mails onto paper notes and put those into their in-baskets, along with their whole organizer notebooks, which usually need significant reassessment.”

Allen, David (2002-12-31). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (p. 118). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition. 

By “reassessment” I *suspect* David Allen means the ideas usually are laying in log books in all their chocolaty project goodness, waiting to be articulated as projects, and then converted into next actions. At least when I was keeping log books, I rarely wrote down projects, let alone next actions. In fact, what I usually did was to write down “AI” for Action Item and the wrote down a project (not a next action). And to my brain, projects laying around in their chocolaty project goodness in a log book, were anything but actionable.
So, back to cards …
3×5 cards are modular because they capture the idea in next action form, stack neatly, and they go cleanly into manila project folders. And as I’ve said many times on RestartGTD, when I open up a project folder with note cards in it, and I see all my ideas in one place, ready to go, I have an “ahhhhhhh” feeling of relief at not having forgotten the ideas, and a flash of excitement as I can dive into the project (spread the cards out on my huge dungeon desk) and get going.
IMG 20140104 143951
Bill Dungeon Desk
For me, being habituated to a trusted system process of getting ideas on cards and cards into folders, enables me to make up project folders for ideas, usually in advance of the folder turning into a real project.
Yeah, this opens a whole new can of worms. How can I make a project for something that isn’t yet a project? I will tell you. I. Do not. Know. But, somehow, my subconscious seems to have gotten a handle on preemptive project definition … via working with a trusted system. Cool!
I start having ideas a month or two or three ahead of projects. So, I just create a folder, and file it in a Target Tote.
Target Tote Action Shot
Target Tote Label
And then once I’ve added 8 to 15 cards to a folder, that folder reaches some kind of critical mass, and the project folder turns into a real project. At that point, I have a realization that those thoughts in THAT folder I started, are now “real” and have to be acted on. *Bing* subconscious has now upward delegated a project to my conscious.
After reviewing your from 12-30-13, 3×5 Cards and Manila Folder GTD Startup, I felt that I understood the mechanics of the process you use, but I found myself straining to read how you breakdown 1 idea per card. I saw several lines on every 3×5 card and was unable to translate that to an example of  appropriate granularity for ideas.
​There is tension in my mind when I write stuff on cards. ​
ASIDE: Story of Bill starting GTD:
When booting up GTD, I initially used letter paper to capture open loops and thoughts. Just like David allen says.
Generation 1 GTD Desk
This was before I discovered “thematic clumping” folders together in totes from Target. Consequently, all folders were created equal, and I bought large folder organizers, took books off shelves, and had massive quantities of folders (look to the left of the top of the big display and you can see folders in an organizer.
This was a bit much. I only accessed a minority of the folders, and all the folders had letter size paper in them. And the volume of paper began to work on my head. Here is a picture of my tote library of thematic clumps. Turns out there are a lot of ideas in one’s head that when they can be safely captured, flee in delight from staying in the cranium not being forgotten. Who knew?
Thematic Clumps of Captured Ideas
(and some non-recyclable papers)
But, now I’m way ahead of myself. As GTD began to produce paper, it was a bit much. I was not expecting a lot of refugee ideas from my head, to insist on be resettled in paper, in thematic clumps of Target Totes. So, I took a temporary detour from using paper, and being 100% David Allen, to using OmniFocus.
In fact, I got so carried away with electronic organization I entered 100% of my paper into OmniFocus. Electronic heaven of GTD organizing. The only problem was that I could not stand to sit down to my computer.
Because … all my work was there waiting for me.  My desk became a trap. In fact, let’s take another look at my desk:
Does anything stand out about this arrangement? Like the iMax screens (don’t forget, event he iPhone was waiting expectantly)?  Note I have subsequently gone to a single monitor, and zero materials (not counting cats) on my desk.
Another David Allen saying that I remember from GTD (but which I cannot find in the Kindle version) is that if you get TOO ORGANIZED, your brain will refuse to use your trusted system. OmniFocus put me face to face with over-organization. A first for me.
Omnifocus, is great. Omnifocus is powerful. But because OmniFocus has built in outliner I was seduced/intoxicated to the dark side of one idea, one piece of paper. I had entire projects outlined with next actions. Project = heading, next actions = list underneath. In fact, reflecting, this is better but from my brain’s perspective, not different, from the land of higgledy piggledy quagmire log books. And my brain did not like it. So my brain went on a GTD strike, for the old work rules.
So, to wrap up this aside, I had to go back to paper. My brain “gets” paper.  But with letter paper, there is so much wasted space. Seems like a lot more wasted space that 3×5 cards. Because I recycle every piece of paper, I thought “3×5 cards must even be less paper to be recycle!” (*Note* which I don’t want any recycling experts reading this, to disabuse me of. :-)
So, I went back to paper, manila folders, but this time, using 3×5 cards exclusively.  Sorry the aside got so long, but this sub-story of my GTD journey, is a common GTD occurrence. GTD is a long string of sub-stories.
Articulating sub-stories is a big reason that I started the RestartGTD blog. In fact, this re-telling of the paper to OmniFocus to 3×5 card cycle, made me realize that the thematic clumps of ideas in Target totes, happened, because my brain finally had a repository for thousands of ideas it was not forgetting. Once it could trust me to not lose the ideas, it went (subconsciously) full bore to dumping the ideas to long term storage in my trusted system.  *Note* to self, people implementing GTD for the first time, might want to plan for a lot of resettling of ideas on to paper or whatever their brain likes as a storage media.
ENDASIDE: Story of Bill starting GTD
When I’m writing ideas on 3×5 cards, I don’t discipline myself to a single idea per card. You caught me!
Only one idea per card, feels like wasting paper, just as using letter sheets felt like too much waste. So, if the ideas are related to the same project, because I’m a cheapskate|undisciplined, I’ll write multiple ideas per card. Or, like the card at the top of this page, I will sometimes title with a project, and then bullet with next actions to complete the project.
However, you will be heartened to know that while I’m writing the 2nd and 3rd ideas on the card I’m thinking “You’re doing it wrong. One idea, one piece of paper!” I just don’t listen to myself, because I want fewer cards to do the work.  And in many cases, a card is enough for a honey-do project like trimming bushes.
I believe I am way ahead of where I would be if I only had the GTD book in attempting to implement GTD.
​REMEMBER: GTD is not about “doing it right.” GTD is about hacking your own brain by building a system around it, that your subconscious can use to make you look like a genius. Life in GTD is experimentation, discovery, planning, de-planning, refactoring your system, and trying again. Originally I intended RestartGTD to become a sharing platform for people who bump up against hard issues with GTD, sharing their success with others.
GTD as David Allen does it, is a highly weaponized system for sales people. But, most of us are not sales people. So we have to listen to our feeling, intuitions, and and make efforts to test, evaluate, and reflect on what is pleasurable, as well as what works.
Hope this helps!
bill meade ​

What is GTD Warm Boot Step #1?

Where Does a New Work Flow Start?


The Author @ HP Boise Legal Circa 2001

The last time I had a cube in corporate America, the cube came with 4 walls. Apparently, a few things have changed since “back in the day.” Today a cube is truncated into a
c | u | b | e so that four people put together have four walls. So I’ve got a corner or 1/4 of a cube.

Ironic Math Question: Is a corner of a square, a square root?

Back story, at HP I asked that my cube have zero work surfaces. Instead I ordered two lobby chairs that had tablet arms for laptops. And on the chair I used, installed a long work surface that reached from the right table arm to the left. Top down my cube looked like this.


The fun thing about this set up was people would come in, sit down and say “Why is your cube larger than everyone else’s.” This was fun, because my cube was not larger than everyone else’s. Same as.

And same as brings us back to desk 1.0 at new job in the insuranceville company town.


It is only natural to feel a moment of remorse for moving from my dungeon desk (see below) to a corporate environment with a uniformity fetish. However, life is bricolage (RestartGTD link) and constraints set you free (see previous post).

IMG_20140104_143951.jpgOne big constraint of the new work space is books. Perhaps you have seen my picture in my library around the internet …


Spitzweig 1850

Alas, no more shelves, ladders, or extraneous reference materials. The internet is some compensation, but Mostly I’m shifting my references into Kindle and where possible, PDF files.


GTD Start Up

I decided to start with a 3×5 card heavy GTD setup. One idea, one piece of paper. Then, a manila folder for each project. In slinking around the supplies room if found a lot (20) diagonal folder holders that were “locally available” to install without causing any drama. So, here is what my desk looks like when I arrive in the morning.


When I first arrive in the morning I move my monitors out of the way, up to the shelf, and then do a relaxed mind sweep. At least for now, I’m arriving at 8:00 am which is a scosh before my group, so I can take 10 minutes or so to allow ideas to bubble up, write them on cards, and then organize the cards into groups (columns).

My new boss (who no, has not read GTD … yet …) is great at emailing me projects, hints, tips, etc. So my first week, I started by taking her emails, cards where next actions were captured during conversations, and then hacking out an initial set of projects. Each project gets a folder, and a diagonal slot at upper right on my desk. Cards get filed in project folders.

This physical folder organization has felt to me like it has helped trust to develop fast. If I’m not at my desk, the information is available for my boss to walk up to the folders, find the project she is concerned with, open the folder and see:

  • At the very front a list of next actions for the project. Think of an excel spreadsheet list that has completed tasks and next tasks.
  • The individual 3×5 cards with next actions on them.
  • Supporting materials for the project (most of which she has lent me, so this is great for her to be able to “pull back” materials she needs)

I also have a “Projects” folder with a list of all the individual projects. This list has been handy as my boss is on the spot with her boss and her peers about what I’m going to be doing (this company has a strong norm of close monitoring of new employees).

That is the initial set up so far.

bill meade

GTD Modularity: What is Up With That?

GTD hit me like a ton of bricks. Modularity bricks that impacted my skull in this order:

  1. Paperless reference filing with Evernote and a ScanSnap. If you don’t have it, uneedit.
  2. One idea, one piece of paper.
  3. Indulge your brain, organize to fit how your brain works.
  4. Organize, … just enough.
    Too much organization and your brain will refuse to use the organization, not enough, and you are hosed.
  5. Separate functions.
    1. Processing from doing  <== HUGE
    2. Building infrastructure separate from processing or doing <== HUGER
    3. Feeling guilty, from building infrastructure, processing, or doing <== Hugest!!!!

bill meade (please email me, don’t feel guilty about it! … just do it. Do it now!)

Number 3 Reason GTDers Don’t Use Evernote … after installing Evernote


TLDR: Why people set up and then don’t use Evernote

  1. The first reason is that implementing GTD changes too many things at once.
    So, Evernote, even if it is installed and working, won’t be used. Evernote is a sub-casualty of the 83% failure rate of GTD implementations.
  2. The second reason is because we blow off the GTD weekly reviews, infecting our GTD system with guilt that comes into focus (like a magnifying glass starting a fire) when we sit down to use Evernote. End result is we stop sitting down to our computers and stop using Evernote. *Note* This is also why people stop using Outlook, Omni-Focus, etc. for GTD.
  3. The third reason why GTD people don’t use Evernote after implementing it, that Evernote can be implemented in too many ways. And, … no two ways to implement Evernote agree. Too many choices to an overwhelmed brain = no choice. So, stop web surfing about Evernote, and start experimenting with your own work.

If you too have abandoned Evernote while trying to implement GTD, please share why?

Done! Good! Now go buy something to organize with, on Amazon! Invest in organization.


Why GTD people stop using Evernote is a surprisingly popular topic. So, I’m going to identify a couple more of the big reasons that GTD people stop using Evernote. This post is about reason 3, how the many alternative ways of implementing Evernote, stop people from using Evernote.


Source: .com

The perfect illustration of a GTD user implementing Evernote is not just a deer in headlights. The perfect illustration is a deer in a dozen of the spot lights used in police helicopters to run down fugitives.

User: “I think I’ll try using Evernote”

  • {event} Client installation on an iPad happens
    (10% of users who attempt to install quit here)

    • Wait, what? Why aren’t people installing Evernote on their PCs first? Seems that the PC is passing in influence. See RestartGTD’s Browser De Jure page for GTD viewership. GTD like it or not is becoming an iPad thing.
  • {event} Account setup happens
    (50% of potential users quit here)
  • {event does not happen} Opening Evernote for the first time on iPad
    (25% of potential users quit here)
  • {event} User opens Evernote for the first time

Even if we give Evernote 100% of the loyal users who open Evernote on their iPad for the first time, Evernote has still lost 85% of its users by the time a user opens Evernote for the first time.

Worse success rate than a David Allen GTD seminar!

Of course, I could be wrong about the percentages above. Still … Evernote is computer (desktop or laptop) first. With its new users swarming in from iPad and iPhone land, there are going to be a lot of wasteful problems (from the perspective of GTD).

For example,

  • once the person who has followed the steps above sees their Evernote account, what will they see? None of their existing information. = #EvernoteProblem
  • how can we fix this?
    • By installing Evernote Web Clipper and Clearly for a week or 10 days, so the user has some web-browsing history built up, that s/he will recognize when Evernote first opens. = #EvernoteProblem
    • By *distracting* the user to next import their paper with a scanner (scroll down to the file cabinet picture) before they open Evernote. Oh, crap, this requires Evernote to be installed on a PC with a scanner. Oops. = #EvernoteProblem
    • By scanning directly from scanner to Evernote on iPad or phone.
    • Without something drastic, can we fix this?


= #EvernoteProblem * #GTD Problem = .15 *.17 = Success Rate of Evernote & GTD

.15*.17=.03 Or, 3%


How can trying to implement Evernote with GTD be a good idea if it kills off an additional 14% of successful GTD users beyond what David Allen’s Company experiences?

  1. Once a GTD user puts their information into Evernote, it becomes easier to do reference filing correctly, than to not do reference filing. Reference filing is a keystone GTD skill. This helps *a lot* with people staying with GTD!
  2. Those 14% of GTD users were going to fade anyway. I *think* this because I talk to people who are “formerly known as GTD users” and they say “I use about 50% of GTD. I was really into it at first, but then it became too much to keep up with.”
    • Why? When I ask, “Do you use Evernote web clipper?” they invariably say “What is Evernote Web Clipper?”
    • Hypothesis: 14% of GTD users would be saved if they tried Evernote for their reference filing.
  3. Evernote is a platform, not a well-known, habitually used product. So what?
    • So … the marketeers at Evernote are clueless at how to help people who have a dozen police helicopter spot lights in their eyes. Platforms give markets new-to-the-world-capabilities, marketing people are trained to more efficiently sell old-to-the-world-capabilities.
    • So … in GTD terms, a new platform allows us to experiment with new degrees of freedom in organizing. The way our brains work with new platforms is trial and error. Our brains will try using the electronic tools, then pull back and compost on how the new platform *feels*. Then, confidence in a new way to use the tool appears from nowhere, and we implement the tool. And iterate improvements from there.


Don’t web surf to figure out how to use Evernote. Experiment with your own next actions, projects, reference filing, and inboxing. See what pleases you and run with that. When you feel *hindered* by Evernote, stop doing that. 

You can start with paper, that worked for me! See GTD Time Lapse for my 5 year history of GTD evolution.

You can go all digital. That did not work for me. I went back to paper + Evernote.

The trick is to start. Don’t think “I can’t start without the perfect system.” Think, what can I improve the most, with the least effort. Or, better, what would be fun to really focus on and improve? After 200+ MBA students, I think getting a ScanSnap and Evernote going as your reference filing system can’t be beat.

Whatever you do, keep evolving your GTD. GTD is like a bicycle. When you stop moving, you fall over.

bill meade

3″x5″ Cards and Manila Folder GTD Startup

IMG 20131230 203033


I had a request after yesterday’s post on clutter, to show the basic 3”x5” card and manila folder system that I urge people to implement GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD hereafter) with. This post’s purpose is to answer any questions about 3”x5” and manila as I implement GTD.

Your mileage will vary on my advice.  In fact, over time, my mileage with 3”x5” cards and manila folders has varied. The goal is to find a natural and expressively powerful way for your brain to work, not to rigidly adopt ideas. Right now I use a hybrid paper and computer (Evernote + Dropbox/Google Drive) GTD system.  But, I reserve the right to go 100% electronic in OmniFocus in the future, or 100% paper. If it feels good, do that!

Cards and Folders:

So, I helped an accountant implement GTD. Before GTD the accountant was very organized, in fact, almost over-organized.  Take a look at the desk before and after the GTD makeover:

ALPFAGTDAsPresented pptx 13

Accountant Before

And then, we scanned all reference materials into Evernote, recycled the paper, and set up a simple manila folder project system with one folder for each project, and all materials (letter paper, post it notes, etc.) captured within folders.

ALPFAGTDAsPresented pptx

Accountant After

Note the differences in the same cube. By switching note taking 100% to 3”x5” cards, ideas (one idea, one piece of paper) become mobile. Prior to 3”x5” cards, notes were taken in spiral bound notebooks and post it notes.

Spiral bound notebooks trap ideas in random order (see GTD page 30 where David Allen says “written notes need to be corralled and process instead of left lying embedded in stacks”) and post it notes seem like such a good idea when you are capturing the idea, but who knows where they go (with missing socks in the dryer?) when you need to refer back to them.

The basics of a GTD 1.0 makeover:

  • All object cleared from workspace where they can be seen in main working position (usually looking at a monitor). The single worst thing you can have in front of you when you is a picture of a person. Your subconscious can’t stop itself from processing faces. If you must have pictures move them out of view of your main work position.
  • Manila folder system kept outside field of view in main working position. In the after, the manila folders are at far left of the desk.
  • All reference materials scanned and entered into Evernote. All project materials gathered into manila folders. Please stop second guessing yourself and order the ScanSnap iX500 so you can finally get this over with.
  • *Note* Reference folders and project folders are PROFOUNDLY different. David Allen specifies supporting references be kept out of sight (GTD page 38) so having Evernote capture all of your materials is great.  Besides, you don’t have to figure out how to move a filing cabinet into your office. And even better, you can take a filing cabinet out of your office!

And, … that is it.

How It Works:

You have an idea, you write the idea down on a 3”x5” card. One idea, one piece of paper, simple really!

IMG 20131230 212643

Now, where do you put the 3”x5” card? If you don’t have a project that this idea is related to, you need to create a project. To do this I print a folder label on my Brother QL-700 label printer (link to Amazon for convenience but OfficeMax is cheaper). The print dialog looks like this:

IMac27label01 lbx

Then I print the label (2.5 seconds) and attach to the manila folder. Giving me a nice neat folder to hold my project.

IMG 20131230 213221

Next, you can put the 3”x5” card you created inside this folder. But now where do we put the folder? My answer is to buy itso small bins from Target …

IMG 20131230 213627

And then insert a small metal book-end inside …

IMG 20131230 214039

and then accumulate project “clumps” in the itso tote.  Here is an itso tote with my current clump of writing projects.

IMG 20131230 203109

You can see that the book-end prevents folders from becoming bowed.

The Payoff:

For me, the payoff from organizing projects in this way happens once I sit down to do the project.  I take the folder, open it up, and then I can spread out all the ideas I’ve accumulated about the project. When I see that all my ideas are where they should be, I get a subconscious jolt of affirmation. Aaaahhhhhh all the ideas are here. Now, let’s go!

IMG 20131230 213318

bill meade

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

Analytics of Procrastination and Guilt: Before and After GTD

Snapshot 10 24 12 11 51 AM 10 24 12


The purpose of this post is to share an “aha!” I just had while working with my beloved 3×5 cards. The “aha!” is represented on the graph above under the orange B.  But first, let me share with you my experience with procrastination and guilt.


Writer’s block, cramming, starting projects and throwing them out after one burst of work, impulsive leaps off critical project paths onto distracting tasks (pinball anyone?), failure to launch until every piece is perfectly in place, number of projects building until it seems like the number of projects will inevitably and immovably go up forever,  procrastination has taken many forms in my life.  At root, I have come to believe that procrastination is the reciprocal of organization.  Of course, I may be biased by having experienced GTD for the past four years.

The graph at the start of this blog post is a subjective attempt to weigh how much procrastination I did before and after GTD.  I picked percent numbers vaguely thinking that I could measure procrastination in my memory, by estimating how much time I remember spending procrastinating.  I don’t think I spent 65% of my time procrastinating, but playing with how much I feel I procrastinated before and after GTD, it was the difference between the two levels that had the biggest contribution to the number.  The relief from procrastination has been a big part of the “stress free” productivity of GTD, for me.

As I continue to apply, continue to refine my GTD system, I am procrastinating less every year.  More and more, work that I used to dread sitting down to do, is easy to sit down and do now.  And I’ve noticed that when I’m procrastinating, that this is a signal for me to do a mind sweep and get my mind cleared.  It is like as I try and remember things, the things I’m remembering become a pile, and then a knot, and then a Chicken-Little like voice in my head playing an endless loop of “[: Don’t do it now.  You are too tired.  Maybe tomorrow:]”  GTD has given me the system to organize well enough that I can mind sweep and silence the voice, untie the knot, organize the pile into 3×5 cards, and then sit down and do the work.

In THE WAR OF ART, Steven Pressfield talks about resistance in much the same way I’m talking about procrastination:


Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing.

We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.   Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Pressfield, Steven (2010-08-30). The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (Kindle Locations 134-138). PREMIERE. Kindle Edition.

And like the ex-marine Pressfield is, his little war manual of creative accomplishment teaches how to confront resistance with frontal assaults, flanking attacks, and interlocking fields of fire:

RESISTANCE AND SEX   Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleeps with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved. Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work.

It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.

Pressfield, Steven (2010-08-30). The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (Kindle Locations 178-184). PREMIERE. Kindle Edition.

My favorite passage of the book is where Pressfield confesses how resistance almost killed his book:


When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly; rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel. That’s a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument. The rationalization Resistance presented me with was that I should write, say, a war piece in which the principles of Resistance were expressed as the fear a warrior feels.

Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was so unhappy not going ahead. I was developing symptoms. As soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.

Pressfield, Steven (2010-08-30). The War Of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle (Kindle Locations 227-234). PREMIERE. Kindle Edition.

If procrastination is a battle you are always fighting, you might want to consider that it is really, a war.  And if it is a war, Pressfield’s WAR OF ART might be *handy* to have around.



Source: Wikipedia

As much as I’ve felt procrastination in my life, I’ve felt guilt, more.  It it isn’t bad enough that we have the Chicken-Little voice telling us to procrastinate.  On top of Chicken-Little we get a siren sucking our energy, distracting us, criticizing constantly.  Siren works to define this second voice for me, because either the Greek idea of sirens as femmes fatale who lure to destruction, or the modern sense of a loud noise that prevents thought is the net result.

And this is a separate issue from procrastination.  When you overcome procrastination and sit down to do the work, you can hit a brick wall if your inner editor/siren is blabbering, stabbing, ridiculing, bargaining, etc. with your creative capacities.  The best antidote I’ve found for the guilt is doing the work despite the voice.  As you get fully into the project, the editor/siren fades.  the second best antidote I’ve found is Natalie Goldberg’s “Trouble with the editor” (p. 33) exercise in WRITING DOWN THE BONES.

Trouble with the Editor

THE MORE CLEARLY you know the editor, the better you can ignore it. After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background. Don’t reinforce its power by listening to its empty words. If the voice says, “You are boring,” and you listen to it and stop your hand from writing, that reinforces and gives credence to your editor. That voice knows that the term boring will stop you dead in your tracks, so you’ll hear yourself saying that a lot about your writing. Hear “You are boring” as distant white laundry flapping in the breeze. Eventually it will dry up and someone miles away will fold it and take it in. Meanwhile you will continue to write.

Goldberg, Natalie (2010-08-31). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library) (Kindle Locations 518-523). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

We knowledge workers may not have invented guilt, but we sure have perfected it!  But man, has GTD ever cut down on the guilt I feel.  Over the years as I work organization through my life, work has gone from happening in spasms, towards the asymptote happening in flow.

What about the orange B?

Snapshot 10 24 12 11 51 AM 10 24 12 2

Over the past four years I’ve procrastinated much less, but while my guilt level initially was way down, I find that I’m feeling a little more guilty about less procrastination over time.  See the orange A in the figure.  This was disconcerting.  Doing better but not getting my full measure of stress relief!

Recently I was going through my: procrastinate>>”Oh, I need to mind sweep and 3×5 card this”>>now-organized, work cycle.  And as I sat down after organizing, to work, I had the realization that one of the reasons I procrastinate is because I’m subconsciously afraid that if I just do the work, I’ll do the wrong task first.  In English this time:

I procrastinate because I fear doing the wrong task first.

Interesting!  “Fearcrastination!”  Look it up in Google, it won’t exist until this page has been indexed!

What about the orange B?

Well, the experience of realizing that I procrastinate because of possible starting task error, that I “fearcrastinate” gives me a handle to cut down both procrastination and guilt about procrastination.  That is, as I succeed in cutting procrastination and gaining insight into procrastination, I can feel the guilt line bending horizontal at the orange B.

This is the GTD idea that I want to put across in this post.  Organize when procrastinating and then when you work, you will have no more guilt to deal with. Simple really!  Sorry it took 1492 words.  :-)

bill meade

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