Man-Purse Desk

An ecology of desks:

To do GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD), I need to have some kind of desk to work from.  When in my Concordia University - Portland office, which I feel very lucky to have, I work from my “perfect GTD desk“.  While away from this desk, I need other desks.  The subject of this post is to document my man-purse pico desk on the road to documenting all the desks that I’ve reengineered to support GTD.  To date I have five desks:

  1. CU office “perfect GTD desk
  2. Man purse  pico desk (subject of this post)
  3. BookBook Micro Desk (future post)
  4. Kensignton/Vuylsteke rolling desk (future post)
  5. Home office desk (future post)

Having five desks has just kind of happened.  Every desk is a compromise.  In fact, being able to design the perfect desk without compromise, is not even my goal anymore.  There is an element of bricolage in taking the stuff you have and recombining it in a fortuitous way. Discovering GTD designs that work, produces:

a marvellous, deeply satisfying aptness that marks a beautiful proof in mathematics, or a great symphony.


Half the fun of writing this blog is looking back and reflecting on the designing, the prototyping, and the results of what has really moved the GTD needle for me.  And though it is sad that my insignificant life could be improved by having a pico desk, alas, it is true, the pico desk has helped.

The man purse pico desk story:

When I first adopted GTD I was “Dr. Monkey Mind, Ph.D.” thank you very much.  I had so many ideas, making so little progress, that my mind felt like an outside-in Medusa.  With hundreds of snakes wriggling in my subconscious, demanding to be heard, but interrupting to be heard at times terrible for capture and taming of the snakes.  So, the the GTD idea of “one idea, one piece of paper” hit me very hard.

One idea, one piece of paper put me into the GTD Wonkavator of stress reduction.  Instead of feeling like Agent Smith At 2:06:36 into the original Matrix movie, forehead splitting open from the wriggling snakes of unarticulated ideas, the pressure was going down.  I was feeling calmer.

My wife asked me “Why are you so happy?”

But, once my mind became used to blurting out an idea any time it pleased, and having said idea captured and processed, I needed to have the pen, blank paper, and container functions of my desk, while I was away from my desk.  My solution was the man purse pico desk.

Manpurse Pico Desk

The components of the pico desk are:

  • Zippered passport wallet.  I bought mine at REI and removed the shoulder strap.  I looked at and and can’t find anything similar enough to recommend.  
    • A cloth model is probably better than leather because the cards and pen need some give in the material to fit.  Leather models look too stiff to fit pens and cards to my eye.
  • Groupings of like “stuff” that you need while mobile.
  • 31 fresh 3″x5″ cards (you don’t need this many, that is just how many I happened to have today)
  • Two pens

Here is what the pico desk looks like:

Groupings inside:

Benefits of man purse pico desk:

  1. Have gone 3 years without loosing a receipt.  The 2nd inside pocket provides a home for receipts.  Much of the benefit of GTD to me has been in realizing that I’m a mess because I don’t have slick simple places to put things (receipts in wallets, paper in general reference files, ideas on their own pieces of paper, etc.).  An extra pocket inside the wallet was more useful than I would have forecasted.
  2. I always have business cards.  The coin pocket part of the wallet is great for holding enough cards that you will never be caught short.
  3. I always have 3″x5″ cards.  With 5 desks, oddly, the Inbox folder in my BookBook Microdesk has become the one inbox I use most.  I carry the cards and stuff around with me until I can process it.  3″x5″ cards are the key capture tool for me.
  4. I always have pens.  I keep two pens in the pico desk because if I keep only one, then the cards fall out.  So two pens is a tight fit, and I’ve always got a pen for me and one to share.  It is surprising how often I share both 3″x5″ cards and pens with people.  Most people in this world walk around “capture naked” that is, with no means of capturing important stuff to process.
  5. I don’t have to think.  Over the holidays my family traveled back to Chicago from Seattle.  We unexpected parked at the Thrifty car rental at the SeaTAC airport.  Because all my travel cards are in my wallet, I was able to flash my member card and save $30.  Very cool.  No worry.  No planning.  Just situationally ready to get it done when opportunity knocks.
  6. I can’t fall off the GTD wagon.  The pico desk is so simple and effective, I’ve never not used it.



Instructions for Kelly VanderSys (and other spouses of visual learners) on Getting restarted with GTD


There is an adoption life cycle to implementing GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD).  You can help Mark a ton by understanding what he, as a visual learner, is up against.


This is the adoption life cycle that I have personally experienced after 3 years of doing GTD.  Mark will repeatedly fall “off the wagon” of GTD.  You need to expect this, and be patient with it, and keep what you can do for him moving forward when he is in crisis mode.

When I started my new job here at Concordia last January, I fell off the wagon badly.  But then I got back on.  One nice thing about Evernote, is that you have a place to re-start from.  Once you have infrastructure, you never go back to zero.  You just go back to getting current on much less “stuff” than you started with.

When you see this cycle, go through it step by step and ask yourself “What can I do to help Mark get back on the wagon?” I think you will find that you can:

  • Do the weekly review with Mark to write down all the projects.
  • Scan, scan, scan, the important stuff that Mark is afraid you will throw out.
  • Put the paper into numbered banker’s boxes in the garage.  As you put the files into Evernote, you can put the banker’s box number on the note in Evernote so that when (not if, when) Mark freaks out and has to have paper in his hands, then he can go out to the garage and find the paper.
  • Review the papers that Mark has to pull back out of the banker’s box with Mark once a week.   Figure out what the common denominator is for the papers that Mark pulls and ACTUALLY USES.
  • When Mark pulls paper back, review with him where that paper is in Evernote, and if you Mark does not actually use the paper repeatedly, put the papers back into their correct banker’s box.
  • Papers that Mark repeatedly needs to have, and actually uses, need to go into manilla file folders and then into some kind of filing system by his desk (but out of his sight when sitting at the desk).
  • Figure out key words that corral Mark’s papers into buckets.  Then, tag the Evernote notes with those keywords so Mark can find all his stuff more and more easily over time.
  • You should get to know Evernote.  I don’t think it works well as a project manager because it does not allow you to edit in outline format.  My next-action-manager (Omnifocus on the mac) allows me to edit in outline format and outlines have become a life saver for me.
  • Probe Mark for what his inner editor is saying.
  • If what Mark is saying internally is very negative, we may need to assign Mark a writing exercise of writing down all the negative things he is telling himself. 
    • Writers do this in order to silence the inner critic.  We say things to ourselves that a fatuously untrue to ourselves.  Things like “You will never be able to write.” “You will never be able to get this project done.” “You will never be worthwhile.” These and worse.  We are our own harshest critics, to the extent that you can probe and air these things, you will accelerate Mark’s adoption of GTD.
  • Probe Mark for when he is procrastinating, and what he is thinking while procrastinating.   
    • Procrastination is self defense, it is avoidance, it is working out what Jesus really wants us to do in the crucible of a mixture of doing what we love, and doing what we hate.
  • Be patient with Mark, and encourage him to be patient with himself.
  • Make sure that Mark takes enough time off.  Scheduling dinners with friends who you love adds as much happiness to your life as making $100,000 more per year.  Life is not about money.  Life is about happiness (giving yourself away) and time.  Once Mark is on the wagon half the time, he will be much happier.  Beth (my wife 1.0) says “Bill is so unhappy when he is disorganized.” now.
  • Help Mark get better organized with the “stuff” that is bugging him the most.
  • The biggest thing that helped me at first was “One idea one piece of paper.” so be supportive of Mark doing a mind-sweep whenever he gets into “monkey mind” mode.  Because I did not (I’m still working on it) implement the weekly review, my inboxes piled up and I got disorganized.  Thus, I was unhappy for most of this year.   
    • My goofy Target totes that have all my paper project files in a clear order, enabled me to do systematic review.  Look for road blocks that are keeping Mark from being able to do reviews.
  • Getting Mark back to current on all his projects and all the open loops in his mind is the way out of frustration and too much “Inner critic” noise in Mark’s mind.  Once Mark gets current, GTD becomes possible again.  Once it is possible, then you can bite off one little additional piece of new infrastructure and try it out.  Don’t try to and implement GTD all at once (the last 10 chapters of GTD) as nobody but the unemployed can make that happen in my experience.

Visual learners have a problem with what I call “GTD vapor lock.”  After the initial flush of their minds, but before they get the ecology of system sub-components in place to do their first comprehensive review, the visual learner’s inner critic starts yapping at them and slowing them down.  Guilt, nag, drip drip drip, guilt nag, repeat.  Because you won’t see what is going on in Mark’s head, you will progress beyond him to stage 3 where you see that Mark can get a bunch of crap out of his head (project folders) and out of his face (general reference filing via Evernote).  Watch out for being ahead of him and then circle back to encourage, encourage, encourage.

Feed the elephant of Mark’s emotions, we’ve got to keep his elephant moving forward.  Don’t try to argue him forward.  Look for bright spots that you can see.  Look for bright spots that he can’t see or does not fully appreciate, and cheer-lead them into his face when he gets down.


Hope this helps!

bill meade

Order of Battle for Mark VanderSys (and other visual learners) Getting Restarted With GTD

One of my prototype customers for the blog is Mark VanderSys, a photographer and digital artist in Boise Idaho.  I bought Mark an audible copy of GTD 3 years ago when I was in the first flush of implementing GTD.  Mark has been trying GTD on again and off again ever since.  Mark is a visual learner who has been trying to implement GTD via a single comprehensive technical tool.

After launching the first five posts on restartgtd, I emailed Mark to tell him about the blog and how I think he might be interested (bottom) and here is his response (top)


I spent two hours on Skype with Mark and his wife Kelly talking through GTD, my system, why I have arrived with the ecology of sub-systems that I use, and experiments I think would be useful for him to try to prototype his way to a system that will get him to mind-like, desk-like, office-like, and life-like water.

With Mark’s permission, here is an order of battle (with my commentary) for visual learners to get restarted with GTD.

Step 1: Mind sweep

Get to a large table with nothing but a stack of 300 3″x5″ cards, and a pen.  Spend one hour writing down every idea that pops into your head.  As you wait for ideas, feel free to organize the cards you’ve written, into groups on the table.  But, drop everything when a new idea hits you, and write the new idea down.  Logic: The subconscious is holding thousands of ideas.  This is why your brain feels like Medusa where the snakes are all wriggling on the inside of your skull.  The purpose of the mind sweep is to get your subconscious dumped on to cards so that you can experience the release of stress.  Until you release your stress, you will not be able to focus your full mental faculties on the important and urgent tasks at hand.  That is, you will be fighting with one hand, and two feet tied behind your back until you get your mind dumped.

Step 2: Totapalooza

Go to Target and get 12 or 24 totes (or equivalent) to hold manilla folders.

Step 3: Slick Simple Totapalooza Storage

Figure out how you are going to store totes with manilla folders where you can get ahold of them in 5-10 seconds, but where you will not be looking at them while you work at your desk.  I use book cases (see my system here), you will need your own pleasing arrangement.  Plan on experimenting with this through multiple iterations.

Step 4: Scanapalooza

Get a 2nd computer set up to do nothing but scanning.  Your spouse, kids, admin, or friends, can do the scanning. The computer does not need to be in your office.  It just needs to be linked to your own account.  Have the scanning done in one location so that the files magically appear in your Evernote account.  Since you have a Fujitsu ScanSnap S300, I give you one week to have every piece of paper in your office that matters scanned.  If you can’t get the scanning done in 1 week, then you have to spend the $440 on Amazon to buy the ScanSnap S1500 (Mac Version | PC Version).  There, get it done, save $440.  Enough incentive?  I raked all the essential paper out of my 94,000 page file system in one week with my ScanSnap S1500.  If you can’t cut it in a week, your infrastructure is too small.  No whining.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  The fastest way to waste a mind is to have an office full of paper.

Step 5: Manilla Folder Palooza

You know that most excellent Brother QL-570 label printer you bought but are not using?  Get it set up so that you can make a folder with a pretty label in 15 seconds or less.  Organize your 3″x5″ cards into manilla folders that are projects.  Then, organize your similar projects into clumps.  You will find the clump names as you take your mind sweep and then roll it up into project folders, and then roll your projects into similar groups.  This approach is like DNA shotgun sequencing, a VERY bottom up organization.  But since your skull is about to split open from all the wriggling worms, this is a great way to take the next logical step.

Yes, I make an exception for 3″x5″ cards because there is no good way to manipulate 3″x5″ cards electronically at present.  You could see this as a rabbit running across your trail that you could chase down and invent a solution to, but since you need to feed your family I respectfully suggest you use the appropriate low technology of 3″x5″ cards and leave the inventing to someone else.  You can always scan the cards and dump them into a suitable electronic system once someone comes out with it. has a product called Curio that is in the ballpark, but I don’t think it can beat 3″x5″ cards yet.

Step 6: Organize Totes Into Project Clumps

Make folder labels for each tote so you can easily keep track of what clump of projects is in which tote.  You should not use my tote project clump names, but since you are a visual learner, I need to prime your pump.  Here are the clumps I’ve got going right now:

1. Career History (original artifacts from all the jobs I’ve held)

2. Immediate family (Beth and I, the kids, Mom Dad)

3. Broader family (Family histories, family portraits, more artifacts etc.)

4. Concordia University Projects (classes and the program I’m building)

5. BasicIP projects

6. BasicIP prospects

7. Graduate school

8. Dissertation

9. Research


11. Projects (lots of general thought projects that I occasionally pick up, add 3″x5″ cards with ideas to, then put away for completion someday).  David Allen would probably put these into “someday maybe” but for me they are topics that I enjoy thinking about and having them in a general projects tote, is pleasing to my mind.

12. GTD (my notes, exercises, questions, thoughts, etc. on teaching GTD undergrads, MBAs, professionals, and visual learners about GTD).

Step 7: Do another 1 hour mind sweep

Since you’ve made it this far, you have an initial set of ideas rolled up into projects rolled up into totes of kindred projects.  Go back to the quiet with pen and 3″x5″ paper and re-dump.

Step 8: Process Mind Sweep 2

You will continually refine and refactor (i.e., collapse, eliminate, rename, etc.) your projects.  This is normal you should expect to be refining, it is called thinking.  You just need to give yourself permission to think on paper.  The absolute pristine beauty of one-idea-one-piece-of-paper in GTD is that with file folders and totes, you can think with paper.  Use the (low) technology!

I’ve got an appointment to talk to you again next Sunday.  Good luck and have your credit card at the ready if you don’t have all your scanning complete!

Feel the love brother!

bill meade


Essential tools for GTDesk makeover

I recently worked with a high school teacher in Portland who had a desk which instantly demanded the nickname “The Abomination of Deskolation” hereafter TAOD).  The desk owner who shall remain Johnonymous, is a visual learner, and though he had read Getting Things Done (hereafter GTD) in paper and listened to it via Audible multiple times, Johnonymous was having trouble taking first steps to implement GTD.

After I spent a friday afternoon working at Johnonymous’s TAOD desk, taking components of GTD and illustrating how they might be implemented, I came up with a list of recommended tools to get Johnonymous started on his first GTD desk makeover.  Here’s the list:

  • Wireless keyboard. Wireless allows you to put the keyboard aside (in your empty inbox for example) when you are doing your desk-work to organize projects.  I use Apple’s wireless keyboards because the keys are white (readable), they are small and light, and they are minimalist.
  • But, if you are a Windows person I would recommend Microsoft’s minimalist wireless keyboard.  I fact, I’m tempted to try Microsoft’s keyboards because it is ½ the money of Apple’s.
  • Wireless mouse.  Wireless allows you to put the mouse aside (see above).  I use Logitech’s 1-battery M305 travel mice.  One battery because it aggravates my wrist less than a two battery mouse.  *Note* Logitech has about 20 different M305 mice and on, they vary about $10 in price.  I buy the cheapest model.
  • Two or three 10 port USB hubs.   I like two hub styles: in-line, and rectangle.   
    • In-line or vertical hubs <== $7.50 at Amazon which are good to put on left ad right edges of you desk to organize USB out of sight of your organizing work in the middle of your desk.   I’ve always ordered my 10 port hubs from in Hong Kong but it looks like is picking these up and will deliver them cheaper and faster.
    • Rectangle hubs. Rectangle hubs are great for cable management.  You can plug them into the computer, then hide them away under your desk where they can’t be seen.  Under the desk it is simple to plug USB devices in and out.  If you have a TAOD (the abomination of deskolation) desk, the rectangle hubs can be fantastic attached to the back of the typewriter elevator compartments.  This can allow you to put your scanner and label printer inside the desk and reduce clutter.
  • Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500. You need the ScanSnap (or equivalent) to get the paper out of your face and into your trusted system.  As I was snooping around Johnonymous’s TAOD (the abomination of deskolation) desk, I discovered that every layer of paper under the desk, had another layer of paper under it.  Reminded me of the Stephen Hawking “turtles all the way down” story as I looked at the mess and felt the tension of my subconscious mind’s parallel processes going nuts trying to figure out what to do about the disaster that before us.  Remember the “it’s about power scene” in Apollo 13?  When I see a messy desk today, I can feel all this engineers arguing about what should be done.  I can’t hear them in my head, because  they are subconscious processes.  But, I can feel them, and they transmit enormous tension to my mind when they are obsessing on messes.  The Fujitsu ScanSnap  S1500 is the perfect tool to silence your subconscious engineers arguing about your mess.  Just pick one big document, say a 3 ring binder with 200 pages in it.  Scan it into a PDF (4 minutes).  And all those subconscious engineers go silent.  Silence brings tension release.  Mind like water.  Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 is the single most powerful tool to bring you to mind like water.
  • Extra power outlets.  You can buy cheap ones, or expensive ones.  Look at your desk and decide what makes the most sense. Johnonymous’s TAOD (the abomination of desolation) desk has knee stalls (a typewriter elevator on the right, and drawers on the left).  So, mounting simple 6-outlet strips on the inside the typewriter compartment makes sense.  A 12 outlet Trip-Lite outlet strip could be mounted across the back of the desk.
  • Killer cool paper trays.  Something like the Fellows Partition Additions would be a good start because these trays can keep materials available to you, but the trays will stay off your desk.
  • Monitor arm.  Because I mount iMacs (Apple’s all-in-one computers that weigh 30 pounds) on my desks, I use the Innovative 7500-hd-1500 arm because I’m holding 24 and 27 pound iMacs.  I attempted to link to for this product but the links are not working, I bought my most recent arm from as it was $65 to $110 cheaper than Amazon.  The three models at SeaBoom do not have pictures, but I figured out their colors and have a guide here that you can use to pick your color.  I’ve been using this arm for about 10 years, since mounting an Apple 23″ cinema display on it. The arm is a brute with 5 or 6 mounting options (I just drill a ⅝” hole and bolt it to the desk) and a tension adjustment that renders the iMacs or monitors weightless.   If you have a desktop computer and just one monitor, you can probably get by quite happily with the little brother of this arm which is $130 as of this writing.
  • Evernote account.  I advise you to go to and subscribe to the professional level account for $45 a year (less than $5 a month!).  As you scan your way to an empty mind-like-water office, you will never regret the cost.  You can subscribe for free, but then you only get 60 megabytes of uploads per month which while seriously cramp your white tornado action as you scan your way to mind and office like water.  The pro account gives you 1 gigabyte of uploads (2 days worth at full tilt scanning) and then lets you add additional gigabytes of uploads for $5 each.


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

Desk 3.0

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

  • Element #1: Clear desk surface

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

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

Requirements for a clear desk are:

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

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

  • Element #2: Big desk surface

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

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

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

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

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

My friend s Messy Desk 089

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

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

  • Element #3: Slide-to-side room

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

  • Element #4: Conference table legs

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Abovedeskcablemgmt2 1


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

  • Element #6: Killer Cool Paper Trays

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Falling Off the GTD Wagon

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Here is stage 3: Resurgence of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

GTD: Before and After

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

Question 1: What is GTD?

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

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

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


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


GTDBefore02D3M 2513

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

TrustedSystem03 pptx 6

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


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


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




GTD: The Start


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

GTDBefore00D3M 2507

Here is my before desk picture:

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

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

Well, to give you a concrete example:

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

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

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