Getting Things Done: Reviewing GTD in a complicated organizing program




I have an artist friend, Mark VanderSys


Source: (2/3 down the page)

who runs a small, extremely high-touch graphics business: By extremely high-touch I mean: gigapixel pictures with digital scan backs, heavily customized web sites, and seemingly impossible pictures without parallax (i.e., the entire width of the picture is taken at a perfect 90 degree angle to the subject) and …


extremely clean low-retouch photography


New Addition:
The picture at the top of this post is an un-retouched image taken of objects spinning. It was taken with a digital scan back in a standard 4×5 industrial bellows camera, Mark gave a tutorial at BetterLight where he showed step by step how the picture was taken. Click here for the magic pixie dust demo via an .mov file that shows the process.

Mark and I have been implementing Getting Things Done together for several years. Mark uses a customer requirements planning program,, to organize, share, and track his work. Mark and I just spent two hours looking over his implementation of Asana, and reflecting on how GTD lives in very complicated, very powerful systems like Asana.

Lessons Learned

  • Using Skype to share screens is easy!
    1. Get your Skype session going.
    2. Click on the plus thought bubble at the bottom of the screen
    Skype3. Click share screen in the pop up:
    Fullscreen_2014_09_27__3_49_PM4. Continue your conversation while sharing your screen!
  • Complexity of the tool, Asana, Omni-Focus, whatever, expands like a gas to fill your energy and memory, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed. And,
  • … complexity crowds GTD logic out of your mind.
  • When GTD gets crowded out by a tool, we naturally stop managing self-expectations. You are now standing at the top of the GTD off-ramp.

How to implement a new program

  • Get some work into the system. Don’t worry be crappy.
  • Get to know the system, really try to make it work. But, relax. Rome was not built in day.
  • When you get frustrated, talk to your GTD buddy. Getting started with GTD is much easier when you have a buddy. Mark VanderSys is my GTD buddy.

What your GTD buddy will tell you:

  • Slow down.  Rome was not built in a day.
  • Go back to basics. Now that you know a bit about Asana (or OmniFocus, or whatever) it is time to re-read the first three chapters of Getting Things Done. As you go through the chapters s-l-o-w-l-y, write ideas on 3×5 cards, page by page through chapters 1 through 3.
  • Focus on how the program allows each of GTD’s tools to be implemented. Make notes of next actions for doing GTD more fully.

Organizing Work with Hierarchy … and in an Intertwingled World



Source: Preface Intertwingled


  • Organizing tools allow different kinds of organization. In particular, different kinds of project-next action relationships.
    • Paper
      … with a next action focus, manila folders, creates an implicit one-to-many work hierarchy. One project, one manila folder, and inside many next actions. All the next actions relate only to the project indicated by the folder’s name.  
    • Outline tools
      … like OmniFocus (built around OmniOutliner), Evernote, and OneNote use an implicit one-to-many work hierarchy. That is, you start with a project, and then create N next actions to complete the project. But advanced tools like OmniFocus go a bit further. Next actions can relate not only to projects in a hierarchical way. Next actions can also relate to contexts. So the simple one-to-many hierarchy of project and actions, begins to fray. GTDers are coached to think of projects and contexts as a kind of matrix organization structure, and then next actions live at the intersection of project and context.
    • CRM (Customer Requirements Management)
      … systems like ASANA however, are not limited to one-to-many work hierarchy. Yes, you can create a project and then a task underneath the project. But in addition, Asana tasks can be related explicitly to multiple projects.

      This is a many-to-many link which CRM systems have evolved so that a next action can be tracked in relation to many projects. With many-to-many relationships, CRM allow GTDers to use “more colors of the rainbow” by tracking multiple projects that a next action relates to, but CRM systems shatter top-down one-to-many work hierarchy that a GTD person is used to seeing, and substitute an extra step of running queries, to see the full status of a next action against its projects. Very disorienting … at first.

  • Ugh, I’m feeling scared. Overwhelmed, dizzy. What can I do if I need to use a CRM system to implement GTD in my intertwingled life?
    • Go back up to what your GTD buddy told you above:
    • Just be aware of what the electronic system can do. And use GTD within that electronic system, as fully as you can. Don’t force yourself to use too much complexity.
    • Wait. Over time, as you keep your eye on GTD inside the system, you’ll have ideas. For example, you might have the idea in Asana, of doing a query that shows you the next actions in the system, that will move the most projects forward. Might be useful to try!
    • Experiment. Let these ideas come, and then experiment with them.

Thanks Mark VanderSys for a fun afternoon of GTD buddy check in!

bill meade

Evernote Bugs … or bad Evernote weather … or an uninitialized variable (file name?)


In the past week I’ve noticed problems with Evernote capturing from Web Clipper and Clearly. For example, go to this WIRED article on an artist who did a self portrait with GPS equipment and DHL taking the equipment around the world.



When I opened the article in Chrome for Mac, Evernote Web Clipper, and clicked Save:


Evernote said that it saved the clip:

Artist_Admits_He_Didn_t_Actually_Use_GPS__DHL_to_Create__Biggest_Drawing_in_the_World____WIRED_and_Evernote_Premium But … the clip did not appear in Evernote on my Mac after I synchronized.


GTD Evernote users, *might* want to check that web clippings are actually being captured. Just to be sure.

Fast Ways To Double-Check-Web Clipper:

  • When Web Clipper displays the confirmation that your note has been captured:
    Artist_Admits_He_Didn_t_Actually_Use_GPS__DHL_to_Create__Biggest_Drawing_in_the_World____WIRED_and_Evernote_PremiumClick on the title of the article to open the note in Evernote, to make sure the note is there.
  • Or, instead of using Web Clipper, capture the note with Clearly. I’ve had no trouble with Clearly capturing notes this week.
  • Open Evernote on your computer, click the Sync icon
    Evernote_PremiumAnd then click on the “All Notes” (or “Clear” icon if you have run a search) and then scroll to the top of your notes to make sure the note Clearly or Web Clipper says it captured, is there.

This might be a problem of capture (from Web Clipper or Clearly) or it might be a problem of synchronizing. I’m using Evernote Mac 5.6.0 which I think is a beta release.

Book Recommendation Direct from David Allen



Received book advice from David Allen Friday:

“BTW, if you haven’t got it yet, absolutely get the new book
out – The Organized Mind– by Daniel Levitin. A tome of
research validating GTD principles (amongst a lot
of other stuff).”

To order click here. I’ve ordered but am not very far in yet. I’ll update this post with some sound bites from the book as I make my way through. Another book like THE ORGANIZED MIND that is very good (with an interview of David Allen and an example of Drew Carey implementing GTD) is WILLPOWER by Baumeister and Tierney. 

It *looks* to me like both THE ORGANIZED MIND and WILLPOWER would be ideal to read via That is, install the app on phone and listen while on your commute.


What is GTD? RestartGTD’s GETTING THINGS DONE technology notable



I once worked in Hewlett-Packard future-products-marketing. HP had a tradition of preparing single piece of paper, with writing on both sides, that answered five questions, and calling these documents “Technology Notables.” And while I was at HP, I fell in love with the format.

The technology notable five questions are:

  • What is it?
  • How does it work?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What is the strategy?
  • What are the objections?

Technology notables translate product features, into benefits for customers. Writing notables was a hated job, so I volunteered. And discovered the power of a simple format, to make complex features into understandable benefits.

I don’t know why I haven’t written a GETTING THINGS DONE notable until now. I just had the idea this morning after 3.5 years of writing But, whatever, NotableGTD01.pdf draft 1 is now downloadable.

For GTD evangelists reading, this is a document that is intended to be an skull-piercing shell. That is, you can send this to your hardened, cynical, anti-GTD friends who need GTD, but don’t want to listen to you talk about GTD. And, … some of your friends may come around.

Cynics are frustrated idealists. The key to overcoming cynicism is to penetrate the skull and reach down to whatever embers of idealism remain, and to feed the embers oxygen in the form of hope.

When I was at HP, I knew that a technology notable was dialed in once I began to get “Thank you!” voice mails from sales people around the world. Always after they had briefed themselves on a technology notable for a sales call, and then closed a sale at the expense of a competitor. Not a bad result for a Ph.D. in marketing! :-)

——————————————————————————————- Uglified HTML Version. Click for pretty PDF

Technology Notable      


What is IT?

A way of looking at your life through the lens of an organization system that accepts and processes work. Developed over 40 years by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done.


How does IT WORK?

  • By applying pre-processing rules:
  • Is there an action needed? If so, what is the next physical thing that needs doing?
  • One-Idea-One Piece of Paper.
  • If you can do it in 2 minutes, just do it.
  • Plan work naturally.
  • Review work weekly.
  • By separating processing work, from doing work:
    Step 1: Get your work into your inbox … everything.
    Step 2: Take one piece of work out of your inbox and process it based on actionability.
    Step 3: Once all work has been processed, decide what to do next.
  • By using simple infrastructure tools: Inbox, Calendar, Reference Filing, Project Files, Contexts.



What are the benefits?

Release of Mental Stress: Having all open-loops processed into project actions, reference files, recycle bin takes an enormous load off your mind. You recover memory until now, wasted with “not forgetting.” And, worry about forgetting stops, adding more mental power. An emergency department doctor who implemented GTD said “I can’t believe how much less stress I’m feeling.” An MBA student who implemented GTD said “I’m not dreaming about work any more.”

Increasing Quality and Quantity of Results … With Reduced Stress: GTD’s system is a container that pre-processes work focusing on actions. GTD distills work to its essence, clarifies tasks, and allows your mind to fully “get around” every work item. Time you spend worrying vanishes, and the mental energy you recover by not worrying and “not forgetting,” shifts via the GTD invisible hand, into closing out projects. You get more done. A lot more if you are prone to over-thinking, and worrying. A spouse of GTD implementer said “Why are you so happy?” More results at less stress will put a GTD smile on your face too.

Death to Guilt: Generalized guilt about work, is the quiet desperation of our time. You achieve the American dream, house, mortgage, cars, kids in evil-and-anti-family team sports (I may be a little bitter about team sports). And you are likely to feel constant guilt over being pulled in many directions. GTD cuts guilt, allowing you to savor blessings, and begin to consciously budget more your life.


What is the strategy?

To build an organizing system that allows you to maximize your brain. GTD gets your unconscious into the game of processing work. If you are disorganized, your unconscious burns enormous work energy, the unconscious is 90% of our cognitive processing power. And the unconscious is obsessive about what it does: put a picture in front of your eyes and the unconscious facial recognition neurons spin up and fire-fire-fire until the picture is out of view. Have an important piece of work come into your life that you don’t process and put in its proper place, and your unconscious will be on you, just before you go to sleep, to review all the things you can’t forget. Do you enjoy dreaming about work? If not, develop a GTD system, and like the MBA student, you’ll say “I’m dreaming again.”


What are the Objections?

  • I can’t implement GTD.

True, but irrelevant.[1] Everyone, even unemployed people, fail in implementing GTD. I started because GTD success means starting, falling off the wagon, then restarting GTD.

The real question is “What is in GTD that I could implement, that would make my work life much better?” And that system for most people is reference filing in Evernote. Full instructions here.

  • I’ve tried other organizing systems, they did not work, so GTD can’t work.

This is fear talking. “I’ve tried B, so A can’t work.” May be convincing emotionally, but not logically. If you really take a look at Getting Things Done (Chapters 1 – 3), you will find that you are using lots of GTD, successfully, right now. Probably, the previous systems you have tried, are working. But, because you have not processed your work all the way to the edges (including personal tasks as well as occupational), you have not experienced the benefits of your subconscious letting go of worry and letting go of “not forgetting.” GTD for you is likely to put in place one or two keystone infrastructure pieces (Evernote reference filing, in my case), and a couple new skills (Next actions, and project lists). C’mon, you in the game, and … you are almost there!

  • Implementing GTD, or reference filing, or the 2-minute-rule will take too much time and I’ll fall behind.

Gilb’s law is that there is always a way to measure, that is superior to not measuring at all. I think “Allen’s law” should be that: “There is always a way to organize, that is superior to organizing unsystematically.” If you can just get the pile of your stuff, processed into “projects” and “other, “ you increase efficiency and effectiveness enough to pay back initial time costs, in one week! After one week you’ll be at break even. Every week after that, you’ll be at a >1 multiple. Productivity increasing over the long term should be the goal.

Validation Test: How many projects are you working on right now? Take a second and think. Fix a number in your head before reading more. OK, got your number? Double it just to be conservative. Now compute 300 – [2x your number]. The average GTD newbie has 300 projects. 300-[2x your number] = worry, guilt, not forgetting and procrastination. Just process all those 300-[2x your number] projects and you’ll feel a lift, a lightness of knowing what is going on. And you will gain a giddy GTD smile.

[1] If you can implement nothing else from GTD, you can implement asking yourself “What is the next action?” from work events, and using the 2-minute-rule. Which is, if you can do it in two minutes, just do it.


Nice post on “just do it” getting started with GTD


Check out EricTheGeek’s great post on Getting Started with Getting Things Done at Life is PERL. Eric takes exception to my 27 Steps to getting started with GTD. And if Eric’s approach works for you, go for it. Don’t look back. Just do it!

I have also written on simple GTD start up methods. And would like the record to show that 27 steps is many fewer steps than in the 11 chapters in the Bible of GTD … GETTING THINGS DONE by David Allen. But I’m evangelizing more than GTD. I think Evernote keeps me on the GTD wagon. And, I’m also evangelizing getting a ScanSnap to help break with the past. And a monitor arm. Wireless keyboard. Wireless mouse. Real Desk. But I digress. All these recommendations in 27 steps here.

bill meade

Tunnel Vision

Top 5 Causes of New-Job-Tunnel-Vision

  • Meeting 30 people at once on the “first-day-tour-of-death”

What happens is that you get to see 30 people whose names you instantly forget, and immediately start feeling guilty for not knowing.

  • Asking the new boss for a project list, before accepting the job

What happens is that you get a list of 10 projects that the boss wishes s/he had time to do. This is great except that what is left out is the time-to-come-up-to-speed on the company’s infrastructure. The projects won’t be do-able for at least two months. So they sit on your project list mocking you until you are no longer clueless. The new boss *hopes* you can do these. But, you won’t be able to do them.

What happens is that your boss-to-be won’t have time to read any of GTD, even if you buy him/her the Audible version of GTD. But, new-boss’s expectations of your performance will be amped up.

  • Taking a job in a “guns-drawn” produce-or-die company

If you are joining a little company that is rapidly becoming a big company, you will be entering a “guns-drawn” environment. You can be optimally organized, but the organization has such intense needs for people it does not yet have, that you will be working constantly to bring definition to work that is inherently beyond the infrastructure of your employer.

Peter Drucker (Two must reads: Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Post Capitalist Society) articulated the essence of knowledge work as defining the work to be done. But, it is possible to work places where there is so much work to be defined, that one GTD person can not succeed on “normal” GTD terms. Be mindful of what you can do. GTD only allows you do maximize what you can do, not to do everything a rapidly growing company needs.

  • Not managing self-expectations

As a GTD person, it is at time, easy to allow expectations creep to exceed your GTD work capacity. Every company will accept every hour you give them. And, demand obedience to a corporate culture. Mature GTD practice requires that you manage your own expectations about what can pragmatically be accomplished.

The hard part of this is is focused on your responses to every-day-emergencies that happen. In the course of accepting and processing incoming work, emergencies happen. The best part of GTD for me personally, is when I am being the greyhound running down the path, and when a rabbit (the emergency) crosses the path, turning on a dime and running down the emergency.

But, … when you have emergencies every day, you will fall behind accepting and processing your work. Your boss will not hold you accountable to getting all the work done. The boss wants the rabbits run down so s/he looks good. You have your weekly meeting, and the boss will focus on the latest rabbit. This is the GTD temptation tipping point. This is where your self-expectations can get out of whack.

Your job as a GTD person, is to accept and process your work. Then, to do the most important work. When you get to the point where you can’t process all the incoming work, say in OneNote (my new favorite work processing tool), you are no longer managing your self expectations.

What is Tunnel-Vision?

I had a tunnel-vision experience recently. I needed to send an email in Outlook to my boss. And I wrote the email, no big deal. But when it came time to send the email, the only send button I could see was “encrypt and send.” I said to myself “Self, where is the normal Outlook send button?” But I could not see it.

When your vision narrows, and you can’t see stuff on the computer screen plainly in front of your eyes. You are over-wrought. And when you are over-wrought. You are done for the day regardless of what time it is.

When your brain can’t process normal stuff in front of it. You need time away from the work, to subconsciously process. To finish getting your head around what you are trying to do. And what you need to do. Like a trotting horse that is driven too fast, when you start galloping, you slow down.

What to do about tunnel vision?

Pull your head out of the oven. The muffins are not going to get done faster by you watching them bake. Your body is keeping the oven door open!

  • Take a bio break. Always acceptable.
  • Take a walk. Preferably with a colleague who you can share your experience with.
  • Go to the Apple store. For some reason, it is easier to get out of being in a feeding frenzy, by watching all the Apple fan bois in their feeding frenzy. Gives *perspective.*
  • Take a laptop and go to a public place, and then log in and focus on processing work, not doing work. There is always something you can do processing work that is superior to working in a tunnel. Getting back on the GTD wagon is therapeutic.

What not to do about tunnel vision?

  • Try harder. Sitting at your desk.
  • Talk to the boss. Instinctively s/he wants you to be a uniform plastic person with an unlimited appetite for doing. Any words you say that threaten this stereotype can and will be held against you.
  • Force things to happen.

Remember the game

New jobs seem like sprints. But they are marathons. Remember the marathon. Don’t burn yourself out early. Think “What would David Allen do?” and do that. Repeat. You can only do the best you can do. If you can’t silence fear in a new job. You need another new job. Life imposes limits, unless you manage your own limits. Reflect. Refactor your expectations. Manage your expectations.


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! 

Use OneNote and Snipping Tool for your Excel GTD Crib Sheet


I’m teaching a remedial Excel class this week, and so I’ve developed a tutorial to get people going using OneNote to capture crib sheets in Excel. I store my GTD crib sheets in Evernote (Example, Click here to subscribe). But OneNote is a great program too and if you have Microsoft’s Office, you have OneNote for free.

  • If you have a Mac Office, you probably don’t have OneNote but you can get OneNote for free.
  • If you have an older version of Office for windows you can get OneNote for free here.


To create your OneNote Excel crib sheet do this:


When OneNote opens, then create a top Tab titled “Crib Sheets:


Then add an Excel page:


Then copy the first entry from the image at the top of this blog post.

  • To enter A1 + B1 = C1 do this
    • With the pinky finger on your right hand, push the = 
      sign on the keyboard


Now, start Excel so we can get some practice using our Excel crib sheet!

Next question: How do I snip from Excel?









You have created an Excel crib sheet, and made your first entry!!!



Use GTD to become an Excel guru

The Big Secret of Excel

Is that everyone who uses Excel uses this use model:


Excel is complicated. It is easy to remember the functions I use every day, but, the functions that I don’t use every day, I forget. Whenever someone, say Chris at 4:30 pm on Friday asks me to solve an Excel problem. Say with the boss’s boss’s boss standing behind us waiting for the distilled essence of our genius to flow neatly through our wrists into Excel. This kind of pressure means I can’t remember anything I was not doing earlier on Friday. I call this pressure-forgetting.

What Excel Gurus Do

Excel gurus do one thing that non-gurus do not do. Gurus keep Excel notes in Crib Sheets:


One excellent way to do this is to use Evernote (Click here to sign up). Here is my Evernote crib sheet set up:


I created an Excel notebook named “CribSheets” and dragged CribSheets to the top-left-hand corner of Evernote (top left red arrow).  At present, I have 25 crib sheets on R, ggplot2, SAS, MySQL, etc. The tools of my trade. At the top of my list (2nd red arrow) is my Excel crib sheet.

Excel’s Paradox

Excel functions are easy to learn, but hard to remember. And they are even harder to remember when the boss’s boss’s boss is standing behind you while you work. The GTD connection here is that because I have an Excel crib sheet in Evernote, no matter where I am, I can log in to Evernote, and access my crib sheet. My brain knows this. And, knowing that I have the answer on a crib sheet gives me GTD confidence. GTD confidence is a countervailing force to pressure-forgetting.

The Save

On Friday, sitting in front of Chris’s computer, with the boss’s boss’s boss waiting for the worksheet, my subconscious floated me a lifeline. It said “What about a helper column?” Helper columns are an Excel *trick* that I have stored away in my Excel CribSheet. And helper columns solved the immediate problem.

I did not open my crib sheet. Just knowing that my subconscious thought it would be worth a try was enough. I tried a helper column, and *it worked.* Then Chris said “Oh, yeah, I forgot, can we subtract the rows from this other tab?” No problem. A second helper column did that. Life is good.

Life and Excel


Richard Feynman “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” p. 26

What a contrast Excel life is. The boss’s boss’s boss gets a clean worksheet and the pantry workers are fighting an epic battle between pressure-forgetting, organization, and the typical Excel problems of “The worksheet is done, but it will not let me save it!” which also happened. “Damn deez doilies!”

But no worries, the *trick* is to use helper columns to filter the data with Vlookup. I’ll rebuild the worksheet from scratch, starting by saving the empty worksheet. 2 minutes.

Crib Sheets

From a GTD perspective, crib sheets seem to fall between a reference file and a project file. Because I don’t know when I’ll need the crib sheet, it is not really a project. So I prefer to keep Crib Sheets in Evernote, my reference filing default.

However, I will post a step-by-step on how to set OneNote up to house Crib Sheets. They can live in OneNote just fine.

The requirements for crib sheets are two:

  1. Crib Sheets must be available (synched) on all your computers. And …
  2. Crib Sheets must allow you to insert screen snap shots (jpg) files in-line with the text you type.

The tool you use does not matter. Many tools will do that meets the above two requirements:


The key to becoming an Excel guru is not forgetting. And to not forget, a crib sheet is 100% effective. Try a crib sheet. See if your brain likes the taste of it. See if your brain will give you GTD Confidence when the boss’s boss’s boss is waiting.


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