Gettin’ Things Done
By Emily Boyd
I’m happy to introduce a guest post from Doug Ireton, who’s written a fantastic guide to Getting Things Done with RTM. Doug is a Sr. Platform Engineer on the Windows Server team at Nordstrom, a luxury clothing retailer based in Seattle, Washington. He is an avid Remember The Milk user, and after almost a year has finally stopped fiddling with his RTM setup (mostly). Using RTM for work and personal tasks and projects, he has achieved Inbox Zero (at least at work…). He lives in a small Craftsman-style house in Seattle with his wife and two kids. Thanks for sharing your insights, Doug!
Remember The Milk has all the features required to be a great web-based task manager for Getting Things Done (GTD) but its sheer flexibility means it can be daunting to build a well-oiled GTD machine. In this post Ill show you how to use RTM Lists, Tags, Smart Lists, and Locations to create a full-blown project and task management system based on David Allens Getting Things Done.
A good GTD system should:
- Allow you to keep track of daily tasks (e.g. pick up dry cleaning) and projects (e.g. create web site)
- Make the weekly review as easy as possible, allowing you to brainstorm tasks for each project and identify Next Actions, Waiting-For and delegated tasks
- Separate tasks (a.k.a. Next Actions) into Contexts, such as Work, Home, Calls, Grocery Store, etc., so you only see the tasks you can do at any given time.
- Keep you focused on the most important tasks you need to do today
The GTD system has five workflow phases: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do. By following the steps below to set up Remember The Milk, youll have a seamless system which supports the complete GTD workflow by getting all of your projects and tasks out of your brain into a trusted, organized system. More importantly, you will complete more tasks by working from your Smart Lists (saved searches) which display only the tasks you must do today separated into the appropriate context: Work, Home, Errands, etc.
The setup below should take about 30-40 minutes. Once you have it set up, a Weekly Review, adding tasks as you think of them, and occasionally adding/removing project lists will be all the maintenance required to maintain your system.
Create Lists for Personal and Work Daily Tasks
Start by creating two lists, ps-Daily and wk-Daily to keep track of day-to-day personal and work tasks, respectively. Youll use these lists to track all of your miscellaneous, non-project personal and work tasks, such as Pick up dry cleaning, Take Fido to vet, or Submit April cell phone bill to boss for reimbursement. Only tasks not associated with a project should go on these lists. You will keep track of project tasks on separate project lists. (For now, dont worry about the blue tags after each task in the screen shot below; Ill address those later.)Back to top
Create a List for Each Project
Next, create a list for each personal and work project you have (for example, Buy House or Create Budget). Dont think of a project as a complicated team effort requiring a project manager. A project in GTD is any multi-step effort that is not easily tracked with a single task. For our purposes, a project should entail three or more tasks. For projects with fewer than three tasks, just create the tasks on your ps-Daily or wk-Daily lists. Prefix project list names with ps- or wk- to sort your personal and work project lists together with their respective ps-Daily and wk-Daily lists.
For each project list, create a goal statement, preferably a S.M.A.R.T. goal. Creating a goal statement as an RTM task ensures you will always have your goal in front of you when you view your project list. For example, if your goal is to buy a house before summer, create a ps-BuyHouse list, with a goal statement such as .. Purchase 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in Greenwood Park neighborhood. Pre-pending the goal statement with .. ensures it will sort to the top of the ps-BuyHouse
list. All project tasks should flow from your goal statement.Back to top
Brainstorm Project Tasks and Tag your Next Actions with na
Now that you have created your project lists and written a goal statement for each list, each week (or as you think of them) you can write new tasks on your project list until you have captured all tasks required to finish the project. From this list of tasks, you will identify during your weekly review and tag with na the Next Action(s) with no dependencies. Completed tasks are automatically filtered out by RTM. Each week, as tasks youve completed drop off the list, youll identify and tag new Next Actions from the list.
For example, in the list below, Ive identified five tasks for my ps-BuyHouse project. Only two of them are Next Actions with no dependencies, so Ive tagged Email friends and Close unused credit card accounts with na. Once Ive completed Email friends for real estate agent recommendations and have a list of agents to email, Email real estate agents to set up interviews is the Next Action and Ill tag it with na.
In traditional GTD, you write down only the Next Actions during each weekly review so its easy to forget dependent tasks later on when its time for them to become Next Actions. In contrast, writing down all tasks as soon as you think of them allows you to freely brainstorm and keep track of all the tasks for a particular project on one list. Tagging the Next Action tasks on the list allows you to identify the next thing(s) you need to do to move each project forward.
Next you will use RTM Tags and Locations to label your tasks with their appropriate GTD Contexts. Then Ill show you how to create Smart Lists (filters) to display only your Next Actions grouped by Context (@Home, @Work, @Errands, etc) for laser-like focus.Back to top
Use Tags and Locations to Create Contexts (@Home, @Work, @Web, etc.)
Contexts are one of the key concepts of GTD and allow you to filter your Next Actions so you only see the tasks you can work on at that moment. For example, when you are downtown, you can pull up your list of downtown tasks. On Saturday morning, you can look at your @Errands Smart List to decide which errands to do. At work, you only have to look at your @Work Smart List.
Physical contexts such as Home, Downtown, or Work should be created as RTM Locations, which have the added benefit of Google Maps integration. You should create a location for each place you will be working on tasks on a regular basis. My locations include @Home, @Work and @Downtown.
Logical contexts such as Web, Calls, or Errands should be implemented using RTM tags. You create new tags automatically by typing into the Tags field on the Task details tab, separating multiple tags with commas. Some people go crazy with Context tags but I find the following to be the most useful: @web, @call, and @errand.
The image above shows Task details with @call and na Tags and @Work as the Location. Even though this is a personal task, created on my ps-Daily list, I set the location to @Work since I want to make dinner reservations during my workday as soon as the restaurant opens.
Both Locations and Tags automatically show up in the RTM tag cloud (image above), so you have an easy way to display all the tasks for a given context just by clicking on the location or tag in the tag cloud. An even better way of seeing only your Next Actions by context is to create a Smart List for each context.Back to top
Your daily and project-specific lists support the first four phases of the GTD workflow process (Collect, Process, Organize, Review), getting all projects and tasks out of your brain into a trusted, organized system. RTM Smart Lists focus your attention on the final and most important phase: doing your tasks.
RTM Smart Lists are saved searches with an amazing array of search operators that allow you to filter and group your tasks in meaningful ways. Just as project lists are useful for seeing all tasks for a given project, Smart Lists can be used to show you only the Next Actions you need to work on at Home, Work, or on the web.
For example, the image above shows my Errands smart list. The List tab on the right shows what the Smart List is showing: tasks tagged with @errand and na. So this list only displays errands that are Next Actions.
My Work Smart List is a more complicated example. I want it to show work Next Actions and, since I work downtown and run errands during lunch, any personal tasks which I need to do downtown, such as Pick up dry cleaning. The List tab in the image above shows the Smart List query: tag:na AND (location:@work or location:@downtown) AND NOT dueAfter:”2 weeks from today”. I use the AND NOT dueAfter:”2 weeks from today” to exclude any tasks due more than two weeks from today to keep me focused on near-term tasks.
Notice that Pick up dry cleaning shows up on both the Errands Smart List and the Work Smart List since it is an errand and a downtown task. Smart Lists give me the flexibility of doing the task during my lunch hour at work, or on Saturday when I look at my Errands list.
Recently, I also added a @Work-MIT Smart List to show only my Most Important Tasks. When my list of work Next Actions gets too overwhelming, I just work from this Smart List. As you can see in the table below, the @Work-MIT Smart List shows priority one and two work tasks due this week. Once I complete all tasks on the @Work-MIT list, I go back to my @Work Smart List.
Smart List name Smart List Query @Home tag:na AND location:@ @Calls tag:na AND tag:@call @Errands tag:na and tag:@errand @Web tag:na AND tag:@web @Work tag:na AND (location:@work or location:@downtown) AND NOT dueAfter:”2 weeks from today” @Work-MIT tag:na AND (location:@work or location:@downtown) AND NOT dueAfter:”1 week from today” AND (priority:1 OR priority:2)Back to top
Some tasks are dependent on other people, but you still need to track them to make sure they are completed. For example, you may be waiting on a co-worker to finish the new logo design for the website project you are working on. Or you may be waiting on your tax refund deposit before you buy an iPhone. Or you might be waiting for a third bid on your landscape project before deciding on a landscaper. All of these tasks are Waiting-For tasks, and should be tracked separately from your Next Actions. Instead of tagging these tasks with na for Next Action, you should tag them with wait to indicate they are Waiting-For tasks.
Any tasks you delegate to others should be treated as Waiting-For tasks and tagged with wait. I also tag delegated tasks with the delegatees name, e.g. k for my wife, Aaron for a co-worker, etc. The delegatees name tag, e.g. Aaron, shows up in the Tag Cloud so I can click on it and see all tasks Ive delegated to Aaron. This is especially useful if I have an upcoming meeting with Aaron.
Finally to round out your GTD system, create a ps-Someday and a wk-Someday list to keep track of your personal and work Someday/Maybe projects, e.g. sail around the world, read War and Peace, redesign internal web site, etc. These two lists should be created as Lists, not Smart Lists.
Move any existing Someday/Maybe projects/tasks to these lists to hold them for the future. Be sure to remove any na or wait tags so tasks on your ps-Someday and wk-Someday lists dont show up in your Smart Lists (e.g. @Work). Youll need to review the ps-Someday and wk-Someday lists during your normal Weekly Review and move any Someday/Maybe projects and tasks that you are ready to work on back to the appropriate lists (and tag them with na if required).
Your ps-Someday and wk-Someday list are your trusted holding places for projects and tasks you want to put on hold but dont want to forget about. Optionally you can also set a reminder on any Someday/Maybe projects if you want to be reminded on a
specific date, e.g. six months from now. In this way, your Someday/Maybe lists can work as a Tickler file.Back to top
- an iTunes list of songs I hear on the radio that I want to buy
- a Books List of books to read, and
- a Lent/Borrowed List to keep track of items Ive lent to friends or borrowed from friends and coworkers. Use the due date to remind you when to return them or go get them back.
Finally, I created a Work-WeeklyStatus Smart List to automatically generate my weekly status report of tasks Ive completed in the last week. Now if only RTM would email my manager a nicely formatted version of this Smart List every weekBack to top
As you process your Inbox to zero every day, any longer-than-two-minute tasks should be added to the appropriate List in RTM and tagged. I move any project-related email messages to a separate email folder with the same name as my RTM list. When the project is completed, I just delete or archive the RTM project List and the corresponding email folder. If you use Gmail, I highly recommend the RTM Firefox extension.
You should also be doing a Weekly Review, which is probably the hardest GTD practice to do consistently. Its the glue that holds your system together. Use your Weekly Review to brainstorm new tasks, identify and tag Next Actions for each project, move those tasks youve postponed 10 times to Someday/Maybe, create new Lists for new projects and archive or delete completed project Lists. You should also review your Wait-Personal and Wait-Work Smart Lists to see if you need to follow up with anyone.
Once you have written down your tasks and identified your Next Actions, you are ready to start working from your Smart Lists. Select the Smart List for your current context, e.g. @Work, and start working. You can do tasks based on whats most important today, what you have energy for, what you have time for, or pick a random task. Its up to you. Each task completed is another step toward completing one of your goals.
Remember The Milk is by far my favorite web-based task management app because it supports the five GTD workflow phases (Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do) in a seamless, automatic way. Its simple but powerful features allow me to focus on doing my work instead of endlessly fiddling with the system, moving my life forward, one step at a time.
Here’s a quick tip that works well for me: For predefined lists, searches, and Smart lists, there is a PRINT link which will display all the tasks in that list in a printer-friendly format in a new window. I have a smartlist which holds all of my ‘Next actions’. I click the print link and have a nicely formatted list which I can obviously print out. However INSTEAD, I leave the window open in my browser. If I change anything on my list, I go back to that open page and hit refresh. Voila! the list updates in its nice formatted style. So now every morning I come to my office PC, hit refresh and a new updated task list quickly pops right up. Extending this further, you can simply bookmark this link and whenever you call it up (even with a Launchy shortcut) you get your nicely formatted and up to date list. Oh it keeps going!! – If you bookmark this on your cell phone browser, you now have a nice zippy text version of your list that won’t keep you waiting forever to download. You will get asked for your login credentials if your cookies aren’t saved. What there’s more!! – Works on the iPhone as well, however mobile Safari scales the webpage so that text is way too small to read needing to scale the page manually.
REQUEST!! The Apple developer site offers that a single line of HTML can change this:meta name=”viewport” content=”width = 320″ / With this, the viewport of the webpage is optimized for the iPhone, and if you’re not using an iPhone, the page renders normally. I’ve tried on this on a couple of my own webpages which now render very nicely on my iPhone Of course, this may be obsolete when the iPhone optimized version of RTM comes out, right? 😉 But until then, maybe this would be nice to add to the stylesheet for printed pages?
What I call the Martini Method is named after an anecdote I once read about the novelist Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame). Burgess was a very productive writer, which is attributed to a system where he would force himself to write a 1000 words a day, 365 days a year. When he had completed his word count, he would relax with a dry martini, and enjoy the rest of the day with an easy conscience, and normally in bar. A friend of mines version of the Martini Method was to come into the office everyday, and not allow herself to leave until her word target had been reached. Most days she left before 5pm, though on occasion she would stay as late as 6 or 7. She would also set herself mini Martinis, such as allowing herself an ice cream in the summer once she had hit half her daily word count. Though we started at the same time, she finished her PhD a lot earlier than me!
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