Thursday, March 27, 2014

Getting Things Done ... works for me!

My job is complicated and hard and I’m surrounded by interesting people who often disagree; that's why I like it.  I stay late and wake up at night thinking of ways I might do it better.  I look forward to going to the office, usually.    But recently I have begun to feel things are too complicated; I was clawing through emails and obligations, trying to meet deadlines and still move things forward. Whatever was on top of the pile, at the top of my inbox, or knocking at the door got my attention.  Lots of little things, and some big things began to slip by me. It was bad.
A friend once recommended a book called Getting Things Done, by David Allen, for people in my situation.  He's an organizational guru, I guess, so I figured it might be good at least for tips and commiseration so I bought a copy.   It's a fairly complicated system, in that it seems to encompass just about everything.  You begin by offloading all your duties, obligations and aspirations; there's a place for everything.  But it's fairly straightforward too and about halfway through the book I began to to think hmmm...  There are hierarchical lists: Projects, actions, tasks.  And there are places called "someday, maybe" and "waiting for," and areas to dump things you haven't yet had time to sort. If you put everything down in the system, he claimed, you can then relax your biological mind.  That sounds nice.  

Actions items, according to Allen, should be things you can actually complete.  Not “the enrollment project” but “ask Bill for the data on x.”  These are concrete pieces that you can do in a sitting, and for each you can estimate the time it will take.  If that's less than 4 minutes, he says, don't write it down, just do it.  Everything can be assigned a priority, of course: high, medium, low.  That much I'm already used to, but each also can have a context which is the location or environment where it can be accomplished.  I can’t paint the bedroom when I’m at work, for example, but I can do my grading at work or at home.  And any item can be tapped to move it forward a bit -- sort of a "consider this next" if time allows.  There are fixed deadlines, of course, which go on the calendar ...  and reminders for things you don't need to do now, but will need to do later.  You can mark the things you need to do but tend to avoid, like taxes or grading.  Please, system, show me the important things I have the hardest time thinking of.  All these nuances made sense, I thought.

When you put everything in to the system (notebooks, filing cabinets, drawers, bulletin boards) you can clear your desktop, clear your inbox, and clear your mind, he says.  And then, if you're in the office, say, with 30 minutes before a meeting, you can ask it for things you can do there that are important, that will take less than 30 minutes, with priority items first.  Oh and highlight the things you would most like to avoid.

One of the worst things, I've found, is sending someone a task you need done before you can move forward.  It might just be a question that needs answering --not exactly on my "to do" list, but not exactly off it either. The GTD system recommends a “Waiting For” bucket for warehousing things like this.  And it recommends scheduling reminders for things like this, so they aren't lost between the cracks.  A calendar event should also be able to schedule its own reminder.  There's another place called a someday maybe  list where you keep track of your pipe dreams. Fix the motorcycle. Learn the piano, go to China ...   not a real project or action item yet, but who knows.

But Dave Allen wrote this twelve years ago.  No way I'm going get out notebooks and file folders. I mean I need it synchronized with my email and calendar because that's where I feel like I spend most of my time. 

So, I’m thinking to myself, someone should write an app for that.  Hmm..  I typed in GTD into the Playstore and as it turns out, someone has.  It's called IQtell, and it’s become my favorite application since Google Earth; it does everything I mentioned above and more.  Syncs to my IOS, Windows, and Android devices. Plays nicely with email, calendar and my go-to notepad Evernote.  I can read through my emails and swipe them right into the GTD system, organized correctly and archive the original which is still hyperlinked to the action item.  It sends texts.  Pretty frigging amazing, I must say.

I set it up to show just the tools I use.  I make macros easily, then with just a click I'll file it, schedule it, archive it, schedule a reminder -- whatever -- and move on.

I've become a little evangelical about IQTELL and GTD.

When Google Earth came out I asked my wife to remind me of it the next day because I was sure to think it was a dream. What that did with the world, IQtell has done for my mind. I can finally see it and it's not pretty, I assure you.  But it's working much better now.  

I'm sold on GTD and I'm sold on IQtell too.  I've invested quite a bit of time into it and have not been disappointed yet.  I've since learned that there are other programs out there: You'll see them compared HERE.

But I don't care. This one seems to do it all.  It's free, there is a lively forum, great training videos and quick email support.

Disorganizized?  Try it!  You may like it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

How to Kill a Good Idea

If you ever find yourself in a position of some authority you will be able to push your own projects forward -- and I hope they are good ones because they are going to be a lot more interesting to you than anything else is. Other people will have ideas too and fortunately they will often be flawed. When that happens just sit them down and carefully explain where they went wrong.  Be as encouraging as you can.  

Sometimes their idea may be  good; this is where real leadership comes in.  You must be quick and ready with a response.   You have to assess the proposal, the person you’re dealing with, the climate, the surroundings, the level of threat.  Think of it as a pathogen and you are the antibody; be decisive and quick.  This is a direct challenge for the resources you need to put toward yourself.

It would look bad just to fire them, and anyway you might need creative people around in a pinch. But that good idea has to go
... unless you can steal it, which is the best option for all the obvious reasons, if you can pull it off.  If the idea hasn’t been shared in a public forum, or if it wasn’t fully formed, or it came from someone with no status or power -- perfect.  They may even be flattered that their brainchild has been … “adopted" by someone who is actually in a position to raise it up.  Don't feel bad about calling it yours -- it’s an opportunity for them to practice gratitude and humility.  That’s very character building.

But what if you can’t take credit, how do you kill a good idea?  Here are some things to consider.

Ignore it.
You were just too busy to open their email or return their call (yes, you’re that important ). They may take their idea somewhere else, if you're lucky.  Then it won’t be your problem.  Added bonus: after your dominance has been well established you'll get fewer calls to ignore. 

Let’s not, and say we did.
Don't say this outright, of course but this one is fun because there's a lot of pretending involved.  You have to take on a little bit of the project, of course -- but very very little.  There, it’s done. 
But we already went over that!
Express surprise.  They’ll think they missed an important meeting, that they’re out of the loop.
That won’t work, but I can’t tell you why 
Say it like you know something that they don't know and that you're even protecting them from a political gaffe or pointless effort "Oh nope!  Trust me.  That'll go nowhere."  Give someone nearby a knowing smile, that’ll surely throw them off track.

Great idea, why don't you do it?
Only use this one if they've come to you for help, not for permission, or it may backfire.  But if you're certain they don't have the resources to follow through it will end nicely all around.

It’s too late for that!
Goodness gracious, why didn't you suggest that when it would have been helpful?  Say it with incredulity and you’ll really drive it in, ouch! 
I'll take it from here
Then just put it on the back burner indefinitely.

That breaks best practices
This is one of my favorites, but use it sparingly.  Not only are you cool, for the jargon, but it will look like there actually is a list of "best practices" -- and you know what they are. It's like priesthood almost.

There's a committee already working on that
It could actually be true -- who would know?  But imply that their work is duplicative and therefore a waste of everyone's time.

That’s already been decided
This is a quick straight-arm technique.  Sure, it’s rude, it’s blunt, but sometimes you don’t have to care.
Nice idea, but there are more important things to do
(Yes, that’s right -- your things.) 

There’s no budget for that
This may work if there is even a little money involved.  You’re also showing that you know the financials; they don’t.  And that’s that.

Someone would sue us if we did that
It's not illegal, we'd win for sure.  That's not the issue.  But lawsuits are expensive!  Surely they'll understand.

An attack diversion
Use this as a last resort and only when the good idea is really bad for you. Accuse them of being sexist or racist, or homophobic -- use any of those conversation stoppers and be vehement and intimidating so everyone around you is cowed, and will appear to agree.

Let's do a study!
Involve them designing an elaborate survey to measure the viability of the plan.  If it comes back positive,  misinterpret the results in the conclusion of a "final report."  No one will read the report but the matter will be put to rest.

You need to talk to Joe
There is no Joe, but send them to someone peripheral and let them try to find their way back.
I have something else for you to do
Oh, listen, that's nice but I need you to do something for me.  (And you should think twice before promoting your own ideas again, upstart).

We've tried it and it didn't work
Been there, done that.  Particularly with newcomers, this will set them back.  It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not; they won’t likely question history.
We'll discuss it at the next meeting
Say this at every meeting.  Notice you’re not actually saying no, you’re willing to discuss it.  So they should be happy. 

It’s against policy
It’s just a bit risky if there is no such policy.  But then, who knows policy?  Anyway what is policy?  With a small p it could mean anything … even best practices which just means “a pretty good idea, says me.”

I can’t hear you.
Don’t say this, of course.  But pretend you don't understand their proposal. "Huh?"  "What?"  Misinterpret, mix up some important details. Pretend to be baffled; it could even be fun.

Say something crazy
We don't need [a stick in the sand -- (their idea)] ... we already have [a paper airplane].  It'll be so unexpected that you may get the stunned silence you're after. Then change the subject.

I’ll warn you that in a weak moment you might catch yourself actually listening, as if it might be a legitimate idea worth real consideration.  You might even find yourself wondering  “hmm… wouldn’t that be something, is it worth a try? Maybe I could actually help make that happen?” But then it’ll hit you: “Why didn’t I think of that?”  No good.  That’s the signal that it's time to pull the rip cord:  

I’ve got to go
Look at your watch and exclaim “Oh my god. I have another meeting!”  That’s right.  You just called it. With yourself. In the coffee lounge.

Another crisis averted.