Posts filed under GTD

An Ode to Due Dates


Eric asked a question about workflows in doctoral programs, especially with OmniFocus and Scrivener. I’ll deal with Scrivener in another post, but I had to make some significant adjustments to my OmniFocus workflow in order to handle the doctoral program.

Wisdom of the Due Date

I have read and heard several task management experts who warn against excessive use of the “Due Date.” In summary, the argument goes something like this: if you assign due dates to everything, you won’t be able to trust your system to know when things are actually due. For example, if I assign a due date to “Get a Haircut” for February 28th at 5:00 p.m., it’s hard to make the argument that this deadline should receive the same weight as “Pay Income Taxes” on April 15th at 11:59 p.m. If I don’t get around to getting my haircut on 2/28, I’ll probably live.

I have come to believe that this is, in general, very good advice. There are many tasks in my system that don’t need a due date, and so I don’t assign one to them. For example, I have a task in my system right now to go to some of my old notebooks and ensure that I capture any research questions that I’ve listed in them. I’m hoping to do that this week, so in OF, I flagged them. But I’ve not assigned a due date to that task. If I decide to worry about it another week, I’ll defer the task so that it will show later (more on defer further on).

But I did discover a HUGE bug in that system. Sometimes I need a due date so that I can effectively plan to complete a project for a specific date.

For example: if my dissertation proposal defense was on 2/28, there are several checkpoints along the way that also need to be met. Each task within the project needs to be completed along a timeline to get the project done on 2/28. So while these technically don’t have due dates, they can’t all be pushed up against the final day.

In truth, I ended up giving most things on my task list a due date during the Ph.D. During weekly planning sessions, I would assign due dates for anything related to school or work, and due dates for home projects that I needed to make sure were done. During the week, I had to let go and follow my system - if something had a due date, I treated it like a REAL deadline. I didn’t afford myself the luxury of thinking, “Well, this must be one of those fake due dates.”

So I reached the point where I used my weekly planning sessions to map out a week, assigned due dates to anything that needed to get done, and then followed the plan during the week.

Courses as Projects

In my day job, I treat each course I teach as a project of single-action items. In much the same way, I created a project for each course in my Ph.D. I arranged each course as “sequential actions” and listed all of the readings, papers, and assignments from the course, and flagged all of the items. The benefit of this arrangement was that in my “Next Action” perspective, only the next action for each course would show up. I also set defer dates for things that I couldn’t do until a specific point in the semester.

Next Action Perspective

I have a perspective called “Next Action” that takes any available flagged tasks, and arranges them by due date. If I’ve flagged any items that don’t have due dates, they also appear (at the bottom of the list). The perspective looks like this…

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 3.44.17 PM.png

Since all of my coursework had due dates, all of my available next actions in each class showed up in this perspective. If a task was deferred, it wouldn’t show in the “Next Action” list until it became available. Creating a plan where the “Next Action” list was useful for the entire week took some planning during the weekly review - but it was so nice to be able to look in one perspective and follow the plan. Items with no due date fell into the “important but not urgent” category, I was able to tackle those as I had time and energy.

Schoolboy Contexts

One major evolution during my Ph.D. was in the use of Contexts. When I started, I was using contexts in terms of energy. That was a mistake. I needed to be able to group actions. So I ended up with a set of contexts that were verbs, not nouns.

Verbs like “Read, Write, Edit, and Contact” were crucial. Not only did it organize my activity, but it also helped organize my energy. When I was too tired to write, I could read. When I was out of ideas, I could edit. When I had time to shoot some emails or make calls, I could check out the Contact context. I also discovered lots of use for contexts like “Plan, Develop, and Explore.”

Capturing and Weekly Reviews are Key

The two most important GTD practices of my Ph.D. were Capture and Weekly Reviews. I used Siri and the email drop to capture the bulk of my tasks. At the beginning of each semester, I processed the syllabi to ensure that I had a rough skeleton of the courses.

Weekly planning was the other indispensable part of my workflow. Every Sunday - every single Sunday - without fail - I set aside at least an hour to review my next week. I made a plan I could follow, and arranged tasks with due dates that made sense for the tasks I needed to complete. I even planned meals, and selected what podcasts I would listen to on my drives.

I also did daily reviews. I quickly learned that this was not a time to negotiate my due dates; instead, it was a time to orient myself to the plan for the day. Once I had my orders, I executed.

What I’m Still Doing

In the months since finishing the Ph.D., I’ve discovered that I have a lot more breathing room, and fewer deadlines for projects. This means that I’m seeing a lot fewer due dates; but I still use them more than I did before going back to school. The biggest change has been in my contacts. I’ve also adopted a naming convention for tasks to use Lee Garrett’s Kanban approach to OmniFocus(genius, Lee!), but I am hoping that the new OmniFocus 3 with tags will give me the same functionality without using the naming convention.

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Posted on February 5, 2018 and filed under GTD, Task Management.

Shoot yeah - I use paper

When I was a kid, we were forbidden to use curse-words - but mom also forbade us to use euphemisms for curse-words (e.g. darn, heck, gosh). Even to this day, I know that if I were to use salty-language, my mom would find a way to force me to the floor and wash my mouth out with soap.

But at some point in my childhood, I discovered that my mom uses a euphemism as well - she says "shoot" all the time. When I called this to her attention, she told me to "Shut up!" We're not supposed to say "shut up" either ;-)

For all of my exhortation to going paperless, and leveraging technology to improve workflows, paper is my "shoot" - I still use paper to navigate my way through the day. I think it's a great way to keep my shoot together, and I think you should give a shoot as well.

The Problem

As I've mentioned before, OmniFocus is the nerve-center of all my projects and tasks. But having a task-managing database in electronic form does present several problems that a hybrid approach can address:

  1. Capture: I am all thumbs when it comes to typing on a smartphone. It takes me a great deal of focus and time to get things typed correctly. I frankly thought that this was a problem unique to people my age and older, but I've begun asking my students about phone-typing. They tell me that, while they can type quickly, they also have to edit a great deal. Sometimes writing things down can be a lot faster.
  2. Distraction: When I grab my phone to check for the "next action," I'm actually presented with a wide-range of well-meaning distractions. I don't mean Facebook; in fact, some of the distractions are really important. I may discover that students have submitted work in the LMS, and I want to see how they did. I may have an important email from the Provost. I may have even come into some money from a Nigerian prince. My phone is a lot like my fridge - I can go there looking for carrots, and come away with chocolate pudding.
  3. Face-to-which-face: I do capture tasks into my OmniFocus while in conversation with others, but that does mean that I need to stop the conversation and enter information. There are a lot of times where this distraction actually damages the conversation; I'm looking at my phone (or talking to my phone) instead of the person. Writing things down is not only faster, but more conducive to keeping discussion going.
  4. Microtasks: I have a heater under my desk to keep my feet warm. When I turn it on, I need to remember to turn it off before I leave work. I'm not sure whether that task really requires that I open OmniFocus, create a task, schedule a reminder, and figure out its context. It's a little thing that I want to complete, but not something that really warrants the time to create the task.

The Solution

Each morning, during my morning planning routine, I open OmniFocus, my calendar, and my Moleskine. I process any tasks that are in my inbox, clean up the calendar, and decide what tasks need to be done for the day. For those who follow a GTD-like method, this should be familiar. But I also write the tasks (on the left page) and the appointments (on the right page) in my notebook, and identify two or three big tasks that will result in a successful day.

When new tasks emerge throughout the day, I log those on the task list in the notebook. If I finish them before the end of the day, they may never show in my OmniFocus. If I don't finish them by the end of the day, I usually capture them and process them in OmniFocus. Every once in a while, I'll migrate a task to a following day without logging it in OmniFocus, especially if it's a micro-task that I'll do tomorrow.

I have discovered several keys to doing this effectively and efficiently:

  • Morning Routine - Open the task manager and choose tasks that need to be done today. I mark the ones that came from my OmniFocus with an O so that I know they need to be marked off in OmniFocus (later). I also scratch out my calendar for the day.
  • During the day - New tasks are added in the notebook. Any chicken-scratch that I need to scribble down (e.g. a phone number) goes under the schedule portion of the notebook.
  • End of the Day - When I'm ready to wind down, I migrate incomplete tasks into OmniFocus, and process my inboxes. By the time I have processed my in-boxes, the notebook is closed for the day.

I use a notation system for tasks that help me track not only priority, but also which tasks need to be checked off in OmniFocus, or added to OmniFocus.

✓ = Done
→ = Moved forward, not in OmniFocus
O ← = Migrated into OmniFocus to be done someday later
! = "Big Important Things To Do" (I try to have several of these each day)
X = Deleted task
D ← = Delegated task migrated into OmniFocus

Tips and Tricks

  1. Nothing Fancy - I don't spend a great deal of time with making my notebook pretty or fancy. These pages need to simply help me make it through the day. I've seen some very elegant Bullet Journals that look remarkable - but if I spent half the time doing that, I'd miss out on doing some things that are really important and valuable for me.
  2. Waste Pages - Some days have finished with almost nothing on them. I recently spent an entire day working on a data-set, so I had three tasks and no appointments. I still started the next day on the next page.
  3. Daily Planning - At a minimum, this approach will only work if one plans at least once a day. I finish my day by processing any captured and incomplete tasks back into OmniFocus. 
  4. Note-Taking - I still keep notes in Evernote as often as I possibly can. When I capture something in the notebook that really needs to be in Evernote, I'll scan it with Scannable and send it to Evernote. Usually, though, these are scratches that don't need to go anywhere. For example, I was trying to call Anthony, but I couldn't reach him. I scratched his phone number down so that I wouldn't have to go back to my contact manager every time I wanted to try again.
  5. Specialty Lists - I have a few running lists in the back of the notebook. These eventually find their way into Evernote, but I can quickly capture items that relate to one another. For example, I have a running list of research questions that pop up when I'm working with others. I also have a Netflix list, a reading list, and a list of people I promised I'd have lunch with some day.

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Posted on February 5, 2016 and filed under General, Task Management, GTD.

Helping Students Manage Part 3: Common Pitfalls

It can be frustrating for faculty who try to help students manage tasks and commitments, particularly when students seem to "shut down" during the mentoring process. Often, students will ask me to help them to develop a system, but give me the infamous "blank stare" as we get into developing a process. The easiest, and least helpful, way to respond to the student is to is assume that he is lazy or unmotivated - that may be true, but there are other possibilities as well. I've found that it helps to parse the reasons why students shut down during this process, and to think about mitigating the approach based upon these challenges. Frankly, I've seen these same processes at play for my colleagues who have asked for help in developing workflows as well!

1. The "Silver Bullet" Problem

Somewhere between "I want to use your system" and "That doesn't work for me" lies a vast landscape of different options and approaches to time/task management.  Helping students discover a system sometimes means choosing between thirty different methods, and then an overwhelming number of options within each system. I've used the Franklin Quest, the Covey, and the GTD methods in my own career: I don't even know what I would call my current method. And how many apps on the iTunes store claim to be the "perfect GTD solution?" Students can face a choice-paralysis paradigm - I first have to spend all this time finding the perfect system, just so that I can get around to completing all of the work that I needed a system for in the first place. This is, in my experience, the primary reason for the "shut down." I can almost see the language on the student's face; "I'll just work on getting my current assignments done and maybe pick something during the next break." 

Solution: Start really small. I will often ask the student to bring her syllabi to the meeting, and we will go through the assignments and get them into a single list. No software, no fancy system, no clever methodology. Presenting students with software options may be overwhelming, as may the introduction of your own methodology. If a student has NO system, start with paper. If a student has a paper system then needs to be managed by a database, I will often introduce her to Wunderlist, and then encourage her to use that database for a semester. If a student has used several options, I will help her explore the strengths and weaknesses of different software options. If there was a silver bullet for time and task management, we'd all use it - but there isn't. Start small - VERY small. 

2. The "Emotional Intelligence" Problem

When I attended Hyrum Smith's workshop on time management, he encouraged us to write down EVERYTHING we did on a legal pad for a week. That turned out to be a difficult task. I didn't mind writing down things I was proud of doing; "10:15-12:00 - Graded papers." I did, however, find it emotionally difficult to be honest about how I spent other chunks of time in my day; "1:15-2:00 - Stood at the coffee machine describing "Weekend at Bernie's" scene-by-scene with Larry." Having the emotional honesty to write EVERYTHING down can be a difficult, partly because we start to see places where we are less productive. It's much easier to lie to ourselves about what we do with our time, and build a narrative that makes us feel better about our productivity. When a student says, "I've been working on this paper for three weeks," what he actually means is that he worked on the paper for about four hours over the span of the last three weeks. But this emotional honesty is super-important in developing plans that will be productive and effective.

Solution: I encourage students to put "time wasters" on their calendar (XBox, NetFlix binges, Facebook) when they are longer than 15 minutes. If these activities are going to happen, then they are important to the student - regardless of how important they are to other people. The reasons this is valuable for students is that they have the opportunity to make micro-commitments to themselves that they will keep, and also deal rationally with the work that they find less attractive or enjoyable than Candy Crush. If a student unwinds each day with a couple hours of xbox, why not put that on his calendar? He can schedule an appointment with himself to play xbox from 6:30-8:30 p.m., set a timer to remind him to quit at 8:30, and go on to the next commitment. 

Naps are an excellent, and extremely necessary, part of this exercise. I've only known of one student who didn't like naps - and he was a weirdo. Students have infamously poor sleep-hygiene, and will often discount the importance of a good nap in the afternoon. Frankly, I find that the promise of a nap is the only GOOD reason to get up in the morning. I recommend to students that they schedule 90-minute naps as part of the plan, and be good to themselves an follow through with those commitments.

3. The "False Expectation" Problem

I worked with a student several years ago who put everything into a system, and gave a lot of time and energy into crafting what eventually developed into an elegant task and time management solution. I confess that I was surprised when he didn't turn in his major paper in my class. When we met to figure out what went wrong, he launched an interesting complaint - "I did all this planning, but stuff still doesn't get done." Yep - stuff doesn't get done. The passive voice of that verb is really important. Planning doesn't mean that stuff gets done, it merely shows me what needs to be accomplished.

As I reflected on his choice of phrase, I realized that my language contributes to this passive position. I often try to make things sound easy so that students will not feel overwhelmed by the many options (see Problem #1). But things on my task list don't "get done" - I do things. It is possible that my own language in helping him contributed to some magical thinking, deemphasizing the doing, and emphasizing the benefits.

Solution: There are two approaches that I believe help with this problem. First, I changed the way I use language when discussing productivity. I used to tell students that "When I put something on my task list, it gets done." Now I tell my students, "When I put something on my task list, I DO IT." The change from passive to active helps mitigate the false expectation that making lists is productive work.

Second, I help students focus less on "capture" and more on "doing." I read and followed some advice years ago that has paid off immensely (for the life of me, I can't find it to give credit). The author suggested that one start small. My first "task" was "to put my socks on tomorrow morning." I wrote it down the night before, and checked off the next morning when I put my socks on. This was a genius suggestion - because I discovered the joy of crossing things off my list. It also resulted in an awareness and intentionality in completing tasks, even the ones that might get done without planning. It focussed attention on planning and doing - not just planning. I always grin when a student starts putting things on his task list that he already did, and then checks them off. That's the moment when he is focussed more on what gets DONE than what gets captured. Besides, I do that for myself ALL the time (wink).

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Posted on December 5, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management, Calendar Management, General.

Helping Students Manage Part 2: Developing a Task Manager

Students are often unaware of how overrun they really are, and how deeply they need a system for managing the vastness of tasks they need to manage. I've discovered that the best way to help students find peace is by showing them how overwhelmed they are, and then offering a solution to mitigate the mess.

Step 1: List out the assignments

I encourage my students to bring their syllabi to a meeting with me, and we go through them listing all of the assignments that are due in the semester. When we've exhausted those, we'll discuss the other tasks that are looming in their futures (pay the cable bill, purchase plane tickets for break, register for the next semester, etc.). This list should precede any discussion of which tool they will use to manage tasks. In fact, I don't discuss tools until they have a an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of tasks to freak out about.

Step 2: Identify the Projects

Students will often times list "Write English Paper" as a task. We discuss the steps that will need to go into that project, and list them accordingly (with due dates). It's a great time to discuss the difference between a task and a project, and help the student identify which is which.

Step 3: Find a Tool

Once the tasks are laid out in on paper, the student can clearly see the need for a tool to manage tasks. I have found that students typically like Wunderlist, in part because it is free, and in part because it seems to make sense to them. Asana and Todoist are also great options. In spite of the fact that I LOVE my OmniFocus, it is simply overwhelming to a student who is trying to navigate task management for the first time. If they are willing to pay for it, I think Nozbe is another excellent choice.

Other Tips

  1. Be Vulnerable - I think it is very helpful to students when they can see that we also have a lot of tasks on our plate. It is also useful to show students that things happen best when they are planned for. I show my students my task list, and share problem areas with them in keeping things managed. To date, every student I have helped has said something like, "Oh, I get it!" when I've shared my own task list with them.
  2. Be Transparent - I mentioned this in a previous post, but I will oftentimes ask a student to wait while I enter a task into my OmniFocus. I believe that this is a necessary teaching moment, but it also communicates to the student that she is important enough to me that I keep track of my promises. Being transparent to allow students to see my process has proven VERY valuable.
  3. Be Strategic - I don't scaffold assignments for upperclassmen. I figure that they need to have the ability to scaffold assignments on their own. I do, however, give suggestions for how major assignments can be broken down. In recent years, I've even started doing this with my freshmen - instead of grading scaffolded assignments, I share with them a plan for breaking the major assignment down. Many are initially confused - "You mean I don't have to turn this in?" But it's a great way to reinforce learner-centered instruction while showing them a path to self scaffolding.
  4. Be Helpful - I recently had a student ask me, after class, "When is that assignment due?" As you might imagine, I had stated three different times in class that day that the assignment was due on Friday by 5:00. My initial reaction was to dress him down - "Didn't you listen during class?" I caught myself in time to ask him a different question - "Are you having a hard time keeping track of assignments?" As it turned out, he was overwhelmed. The question he asked was not so much a problem of listening, but that he was trying to hold all of his due-dates in his head. We met after class, and he is using Wunderlist to keep all of his assignments and due-dates managed.
  5. Be Available - Research indicates that students the more time students have contact with faculty, the better their chances of academic success. I have a text-expander snippet for all of my class emails that states that I am available if they need any help managing their tasks or calendar. Some students wait until they are overwhelmed to take advantage of the offer, but it gives me the chance to help find solutions when they are overwhelmed. And as much as we are likely to forget this, students are never quite sure whether it is appropriate to spend time with us in the office.

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Posted on October 26, 2015 and filed under Task Management, GTD.

Crisis Cleanup

I was in Prague this last July to present a paper at a conference, when my summer pretty much devolved in a few short hours. It started when my wife called to tell me that a member of our family had died in an accident. Within an hour of that call, I learned that one of my grants was unexpectedly defunded. Additionally, my step-daughter and her family moved in with us for the month of August as they prepared for a move to Costa Rica, I took two classes, and tried to get ready for the new semester.

In short, I've been in a constant crisis-state for about a month-and-a-half. I breathed a little sigh of relief last Thursday when, for the first time, I started to see some regularly coming back into my schedule and task list.  

In some ways, working in Higher Ed is similar to running one's own business. We have the freedom to choose many of our priorities, but we can also feel like the weight of an enterprise rests on our shoulders. And when crisis comes, the whole system can feel like it's falling down around us. 

I took some important lessons away from the last six weeks...

1.  Crisis tests priorities - One evening, my wife came into our make-shift bedroom (the kids and grandkids were in our bedroom) and said, "I just need to get away with you for a little while." My first reaction was, "I've got too much to do," but I knew she was right - I needed the same thing. We drove around town for about an hour, just spending the time talking to one another. Crises test our ability to make good decisions on the best use of our time - and spending time with those most important to me is the best use of MY time. In GTD terms, many of my current projects became "Someday Maybe." 

2.  Crisis tests our independence - I was overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and colleagues over the last six weeks. When the grant was defunded, several of my colleagues helped me scramble to find institutional funds and draft an interim plan. A family friend took us all to a resort for a day of rest. I am rarely comfortable with giving my plans over to others, but crises are times where we can discover our need for interdependence.

3.  Crisis can redefine success - It is tempting (at least for me) to feel like we are failing to meet our goals and objectives when we are constantly sweeping up the messes around us. I had to spend some time reminding myself that, at least for a while, "sweeping up" is success. In time, the messes will accumulate at a slower pace, and we can start to plan again. 

4.  Crisis is exhausting - I only made it to the gym a couple of times over the last six weeks. I run on the treadmill with a heart-rate monitor. Usually, I can run at 4.5 MPH with my heart rate at a steady 140 - but lately, my heart rate has been at 160 at the same speed. I shared this with one of my colleagues in the Exercise Science dept. He looked at me incredulously, and asked, "Ever hear of stress?" We just don't have the same energy under the stresses of crises that we do in calmer times. Feeling tired and run-down is not exclusively emotional - it's physical as well.

I was able to make a pretty good list of future posts during the last six weeks, so I am hoping that I'll be back to regular updates. Meanwhile, if you find yourself in crisis, be sure to cut yourself some breaks!

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Posted on August 29, 2015 and filed under GTD, General.

Capture - 3. Tasks

I feel a little under-equipped to describe the process of capturing tasks - there’s a LOT of information out there on getting this done. I do think that Higher Ed presents some special challenges when it comes to capturing tasks. We don’t just sit at a desk, promises are made in the hallways, and important ideas emerge in the strangest situations.

As a means of comparison, before I worked in Higher Ed, tasks almost always came in the form of emails or phone calls. I was oftentimes at my desk when promises were being made. I always seemed to have my Franklin Planner open and ready for inputs whenever the need arose. Nowadays I find that tasks emerge in very disorganized ways. I’ve lost track of the number of times I finish class, pack my back, and head to the door when a student asks me for something that will result in a task. Collaboration with colleagues many times finds its genesis as we walk between buildings. We’re on the move, and that means that capturing tasks can be a moving target.

Here are some ways that I’ve found to make capturing tasks just a little easier…

Low Tech

The easiest, and perhaps most effective, method I’ve found for capturing tasks on the go is an index card in my pocket. I will often grab one at the beginning of the day, and write short notes about tasks that I’ve gathered on the fly. I tend not to use my low-tech method when I have a way to input the task directly (like when I’ve got my computer open, or can easily enter one on my mobile device), but I do like to use a notecard for capture when I’m moving around campus.

Once I’ve entered a task into my task manager from a notecard, I simply draw a line through the task so that I know it’s been captured. There have been times when I filled a 3x5 notecard on both sides before the day was over. This low-tech method has been one of the best solutions I’ve found thus far.

Medium Tech

Siri - Many task management apps will talk to Siri. I use OmniFocus, and it will grab tasks from a specific list in the iOS Reminders app. This means that I can ask Siri to “Remind me to change Larry’s grade to an A,” and it will capture into my OmniFocus Inbox. I’ve mentioned this before, but I find that it models good productivity-habits for students when I take a moment to capture something in Siri. Many times, my students will ask, “Can you help ME set up something like that?” I am always happy to get that question ;-) If you use OmniFocus, HERE is how to set it up. 

Email Drop - Many task managers have a dedicated email address that will send tasks to your Inbox. I actually entered this address in my contacts list, and nick-named it zzz. When I need to send myself an email (or forward an email) from my mobile device, I just type zzz in the “TO:” field, and it populates my OmniFocus email address. Another REALLY cool idea is to share that email address with people you trust (colleagues, staff, wife). My staff have my task email address, and can send me tasks into my OmniFocus Inbox. I was nervous initially, but I am now extremely happy that others have my task-inbox address. I’m even a little sore when those same people send me an email with a request - I’d rather it just go to my task manager.

Drafts - I can’t say enough about this app for iOS. It is an extremely well-designed text editor. The geniuses at AgileTortoise put a great deal of thought into how one would USE a text-editor on iOS. When you open the app, you get a cursor on a blank note. It opens VERY quickly, and one can just start typing. But the power of Drafts is found when you decide what you want to DO with that piece of text - you can turn it into an email, or a text message, or send it to Evernote, or html. If you use OmniFocus, you can also send the text as a task to the Inbox. This app is reaching the point of replacing my pocket notecard entirely. Drafts has become one of the most important apps in my entire workflow.

A Little Nerdier

There are some ways to automate tasks into your task manager. I use several that I find so useful that it was well-worth the time it took to set it up.

IFTTT - If This Then That is a simple script developer to help manage the “internet of things” (take it from a linguist, that’s becoming a term). I have a couple of recipes that rummage through my gmail inbox looking for key words. When those key words are present, the emails are forwarded to my OmniFocus Mail Drop. For example, some of my student workers accidentally send my messages to my email, rather than my OmniFocus email. I have a “recipe” (that’s what IFTTT calls these scripts) that finds the key word VMS and forwards it to my OmniFocus Inbox. More recently, our finance department asks us to submit a report monthly - but the start-date and due-dates are always changing, so they send us a reminder every month with updated details (uggghhhh). IFTTT looks for the key word, and forwards that to OmniFocus.

Hot-Spot - If I receive a file in an email that needs action, I will usually forward the email (with the attached file) to my OmniFocus Mail Drop. But there are times when I need to act on downloaded files. THIS script has been shared around the internet a few times - it uses Hazel to convert a file into an action in OmniFocus. Joe Buhlig’s instructions are the clearest version I’ve found. He has a GREAT site, BTW!

Capturing tasks is only the beginning - they must be organized and ultimately done (or NOT done), but having ways to ensure that they get captured so that they don’t have to be remembered is key to getting them done. If you’ve any tips for capturing tasks, please feel free to share them!

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Posted on July 8, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management.

Capture - 2. Evernote

If you look at satellite pictures of my back yard (stalker), you’ll see a well-worn path from the door to the back corner. Every time our dog goes outside, he runs to that corner. What’s weird, though, is that the path is not technically a straight line - about halfway down the path, there is an inexplicable bow. It’s as though Jett has been avoiding a big rock on his way to the corner every time he runs the path. There’s nothing there - he apparently likes to make a miniature detour on his way to bark at the neighbor’s dogs.

I think Jett’s behavior is a good illustration of the challenge of capturing information, tasks, and responsibilities. Why do I write stuff down on a sticky note, when I know I’m gonna have to go back and enter it again somewhere else? Why do I save web-pages as “bookmarks,” when I’ve a billion to scroll through already? Why do I make a grocery list on the back of an envelope, only to discover that I forgot to bring my pen to the grocery store?

Evernote has really helped me address a lot of these “detours” over the past several years. There are a number of ways to “capture” things into Evernote, other than opening a note and typing. This means that just about anything can be easily directed into the Inbox, without creating a significant detour in the workflow. Here are a few of my favorites…

Default Inbox

When you use Evernote for the first time, it creates a notebook with your account name as the default notebook. I changed the name of mine to “!Inbox” - the exclamation point makes the notebook sit on the top of Alphabetical listings. You can change any notebook to be the default notebook by clicking the settings wheel on the bottom-right corner of the notebook, and selecting “Make this my default notebook” Having a dedicated inbox is the first step to Evernote Nirvana, as this is where all new information will go IN, and from where all processed information will go OUT (to other notebooks). I’ve written elsewhere about setting up Evernote more generally.

Email Drop

Evernote provides the user with a unique email address that will send information directly to the default notebook. To find this, open the Evernote web-app at, and go to account settings. On the account summary, near the end of the list, will be an email address that is attached to your default notebook. If, at any point, this address is compromised, you can reset the address. Forgive me for the blocked out information on the image below - as my mom used to say, “I trust you, I just don’t trust the other drivers.”

The email drop EXTREMELY valuable, and may be the most important part of my workflows with Evernote. There are some obvious ways to use this email address, and some not-so-obvious-but-oh-so-cool ways to use it as well.

Before Evernote, I used to try to delete emails that I thought would never be important. I’m not talking about spam here, but the email from Larry announcing to the university that his daughter was visited by the tooth-fairy. I am quite happy to hear it, and don’t mind the email per se. But I have found it difficult to accurately predict what will be useful in the future. Nowadays, I keep a great deal of email in my email-archive. I still delete spam and a lot of bacn as well, but Larry’s family dental history may well be archived in my email account.

However, when Larry sends me some data that may be important for a future committee meeting, I’ll forward that to my Evernote Inbox. If something seems important, or potentially important, and I believe that I will want to reference it someday, I send it to Evernote (e.g. emailed receipts, travel confirmations, interesting articles, committee reports).

Some email doesn’t seem important at the time I receive it, but becomes important in the future. Since I archived it in my email, I can find it and send it to Evernote. So Evernote has the stuff that seemed important (at one time or another), and my email archive has stuff that may never be important. Who knows, Larry may ask me to give a toast at his daughter’s wedding one day, and I’ll have some great tooth-stories to share.

I’ve found that some of the most important information in my email is in my “Sent” folder. If I send data, or information, or anything that I want to keep reference of, I add my Evernote Email Drop address in the BCC line. I just used it this morning - HR asked me for some information for an upcoming retreat. I blind-copied Evernote, so that I can pull that same information up in the future (cuz … you know … HR loses stuff).

Pro-Tip - If you forward the email, it will have all the forward-formatting. But in (Apple Mail), you can “redirect” an email to forward it without all the forward-formatting.

Web Clipper

This is the second-most used feature of my Evernote workflow. I must confess that I hesitated to use it much in the beginning - I really didn’t see the need to save something in Evernote that was retrievable on the web. Nowadays, I clip a lot of stuff. Searching in Evernote for something I clipped is SO much faster than navigating the web to find it. I clip online-payment receipts, interesting articles (not academic ones, I use Zotero for that), instruction manuals, conference schedules, blog-posts - a LOT of stuff. I did worry whether I would clip stuff that would later be useless - and sometimes I do clip stuff that I decide later on is not worth keeping - but I clear that out on Friday afternoons when I process my Evernote Inbox.

The web clipper is available for Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and IE. It’s also available on mobile devices, if you have Evernote installed on your phone or tablet (and you should). Here’s how to set it up on iOS…

Once you have the Evernote app on your device, open a page in Safari that you would like to clip. Choose the “send to” icon…

Scroll the top row to the right to the “More” button

Turn on “Evernote”


Now you can “Share” web-pages with Evernote, which clips them into your Evernote Inbox.


If there is anything I don’t like about Evernote, it’s opening it up on my device to take notes. It takes a moment for the app to open, and there are a few clicks to make to get to a new note. Plus, you have to name the note in one field, and then click in the body-field to take the note…ok, this is totally a first-world problem. But I will show you a more excellent way…

Drafts by AgileTortoise is my FAVORITE iOS app. I procrastinated for a long time in trying it out - and I wish I had started using it the day I learned about it. Drafts is a very simple text editor for iOS - but it is also very powerful. Drafts opens quickly to a blank page, where one can start typing immediately. That’s nice when someone finds out you’re going to Jason’s Deli for lunch, and they ask, “Hey, could you pick me up a Southwest Turkey Sandwich with no cheese, no turkey, and extra bananas?” 

But it’s also nice for taking notes in a meeting. I have been trying to go “iPad only” at conferences and meetings lately, and I’ve been using the Markdown features of Drafts to take notes. Drafts can export any note into Evernote in several different formats. I’d be happy to describe how to use Drafts and Evernote, but AgileTortoise has two EXCELLENT articles on their site. Drafts will also make a repeat cameo when we discuss capturing tasks.


While a lot of my scanning gets done on my desktop scanner (click HERE for a recent post on going paperless), I use Evernote to scan a lot of bits of paper - receipts, sticky notes, my Moleskine notebook. I prefer to use Evernote's Scannable app, in part because it allows me to capture a scan very quickly without opening the Evernote app. 


Evernote is so ubiquitous that most automation packages have found ways to integrate it. If This Then That ( has great integrations with Evernote for web-automation, as does I use Feedly for my RSS reader, and clip a lot of stuff to Evernote from there. 

Cleaning !Inbox

By the end of the week, my Evernote Inbox can be pretty full. As mentioned previously, I tend to first decide whether I was under the influence when I sent stuff to Evernote, and delete as much as necessary. I then process the notes, adding tags and sometimes changing titles of notes. Most everything gets sent to my Reference notebook, which is my archive in Evernote. I try to get the Evernote Inbox to Zero at least once a week.



Posted on June 30, 2015 and filed under GTD, Evernote.

Mind the Gap - OmniFocus is great, but...

As I’ve described earlier, I’m pretty much “all-in” with OmniFocus for my task management. Of all the apps I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a LOT of them), OmniFocus is the best at capturing tasks, managing personal projects, and focussing on specific tasks and next actions. I REALLY love how I can hide all of the stuff in the “future” and focus entirely on the tasks at hand. If I’ve a project that I am doing alone (and most of my projects are my own), you can believe that it's in my task-manager. And though it is expensive (compared to other task management apps, some of which are free), I have become convinced that one gets what one pays for.  

The Problem

But there’s a problem with OmniFocus that has proven (at least to date) insurmountable - there really isn’t a way to manage “shared” projects. OmniFocus is a personal task management system - it’s not designed for sharing tasks or sharing projects. This is actually a big problem, and leaves a significant gap that needs to be considered when selecting a task management system.

The gap is ubiquitous for OmniFocus - even OmniPlan (a project-planning app) doesn’t support managing tasks with delegates in OmniFocus. Even as the support forums continue to suggest that they are thinking about how to integrate OmniPlan and OmniFocus “someday,” there has been no development thus far.

Here’s an example of the problem…

I tried to use Trello to manage projects where I am collaborating with colleagues. In the case below, I shared a project with several colleagues as we wrote a grant together. As sections of the grant were drafted, edited, approved, and ready for submission, we were able to track where we were in completing the entire project. It’s a great way to communicate where things are in a shared project.

But if I am assigned a task in Trello, and my colleague Jennifer is assigned other tasks, there’s no way to integrate those into our OmniFocus systems. I’ll have to create a task in OmniFocus, and then when I have finished, go back to Trello and mark the task complete.

It’s double-entry - and in a perfect world, this is a problem we shouldn’t have. I’ve tried Basecamp, Podio, Trello, OmniPlan, and a whole bunch of other shared project services, and run up against the same problem. One has to go back and forth between the two platforms.


  1. The least-elegant way to deal with this is to visit Trello, find out what’s been delegated to me, and enter the tasks in OmniFocus. When I’ve completed those tasks, I would return to Trello and mark them completed there. The same could be done with other shared task/project managers. Frankly, this is what I do for the few shared projects I have there. Not good - not good at all.
  2. For shared projects that have predictable (and recurring) tasks, Podio can be worth the investment of time. We have a program that students can sign up for, and their application requires approvals at a couple of different stages. We created a web-form in Podio, and use Globiflow to send tasks to the unique OmniFocus mail-drop. This really only works for predictable flows - any project that is ad hoc won’t be worth the time it takes to set up this workflow.
  3. If one has more shared projects than personal, it would probably be best to use a different task-manager app. Nozbe, Asana, and Todoist are really good at managing shared projects, and gives the user the ability to manage shared project tasks and personal tasks in one place. They are not nearly as customizable as OmniFocus (which is why project sharing works, I’m sure), but they can be quite useful for those who have a lot of shared projects.

I’m still in limbo when it comes to minding the gap between shared projects and OmniFocus. I do recommend that one consider this gap when deciding whether to choose OmniFocus, or another app that better manages shared projects.

Have YOU found a way to mind the gap between shared projects and OmniFocus? If so, share the wealth!!!

Posted on June 15, 2015 and filed under Task Management, GTD, General.

Getting (Re)Started

I recently met with a colleague who wanted to get started on organizing her workflows - and I was reminded that I sometimes reference terms or software without providing some context for how those terms or applications can be effectively used. Since summer is kind of our reorganization time, I thought I’d share a short primer on some of the basics of getting workflows set up.

Key Terms

Inbox - An inbox is a place where stuff gets directed, and most often processed from. I have an Inbox in my reference system, one in my task manager, and one in my Dropbox. David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) suggests that one have as many inboxes as they need - no more and no less. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I am really trying to limit the number of inboxes I have to process. Here’s how I manage that…

  • Major Inboxes - My two most important inboxes are in OmniFocus, Evernote, and email. I process much of the email out of my email inbox, and send it to OmniFocus or Evernote (or delete or archive it). If I need to DO something, I send it to Omnifocus - if I need to remember something, I send it to Evernote. The idea is to funnel as much into these two spaces as possible, and then process those inboxes (organize, delegate, defer, or do).
  • Minor Inboxes - These are inboxes that I don’t mind if they fill up over time. I’ll process them “when I get to them.”  For example, I have an inbox of papers that need to be scanned, or articles to read in Zotero, or things to read in Feedly. Actually, to be very honest, I treat my voicemail at work the same way - I’m going to try to do better on that in the coming months.
  • Automated Inboxes - I don’t always get to control how information and tasks are sent to me, but whenever I can automate the transfer of information from other inboxes to my task manager or reference manager, I figure it’s a good use of my time. and are great starting places for these kinds of automation.

Project - I refer to “projects” a lot, but this term is widely defined. I think of projects that are objectives that have more than one step (task), or tasks that are somewhat grouped together. For example, if I am building a new course, it’s a project - it will take more than one task for me to complete the objective. When I am teaching a course, I have a number of tasks that are related to do that work - so I group the tasks together as a “project.”

Key Software

To be clear, software is not necessary to have good workflows (we sent a man to the moon with slide rulers and typewriters). There are some applications, however, that give me a great deal of peace, security, mobility, and access. Here’s my list of necessities…

  • Reference Manager - The reference manager holds information that I may need to get to later. Having one place to send and retrieve information is immensely valuable. A good system will allow one to share reference material with others for collaboration. I use Evernote,* but there are several other options available as well. Almost every reference item (receipts, meeting notes, course material, etc.) goes into my Evernote. I used to keep academic references in Evernote as well - but in the last year, I’ve broken down and used Zotero (to see a comparison of Zotero and Mendeley, CLICK HERE) to manage journal articles and books. Limitation: A reference manager is great for finding stuff you want to LOOK for - but being reminded of things you want to DO is a different ball-game.
  • Task Manager - The task manager holds information that I need to DO. Some things that need to be completed are projects (research project), and some are just stand-alone tasks (take out the trash). A good system will have several features: the ability to organize projects, integration with email, start dates (to defer tasks) and due dates, and tags (or contexts). I have tried a BUNCH of these, and I have discovered that you get what you pay for. I use OmniFocus, but I also really like Asana, Todoist, and Nozbe. Limitation: A task manager needs to be reviewed consistently to ensure that the most important tasks are visible and ready for work. Also, having “to-dos” organized does not mean that they get done. The point of a task manager is to DO stuff.
  • Appointment Manager - I like to think of a calendar as an appointment manager. Any specific time I have dedicated to spending with others (meetings, class, dinner) gets a place on the calendar, as well as any specific time I have made an appointment with myself (exercise, project, reading). I use Google Calendar, primarily because my campus uses it - but gCal has some great integrations, and syncs well with other calendar apps. I’ve grown quite fond of using alarms before appointments, as I find I can sometimes get lost in a project or a conversation and potentially miss the next appointment. Limitation: Using the calendar as a task manager can become cumbersome. I rely on my task manager to remind me of upcoming due dates, rather than putting them on my calendar.
  • Contact Manager - I’ve become increasingly convicted of the idea of treating students and coworkers like a small business might treat customers. As a result, I have abandoned the idea of using an “address book,” and picked up the idea of a Contact Resource Manager (CRM) that helps me track conversations, phone calls, and meetings. I recently wrote about using BusyCal to manage my contacts, and I grow increasingly dependent on this software to help me see what conversations have recently transpired with a colleague or friend. Limitation: Contact information is constantly changing. It is important to occasionally clean the contacts list (merging duplicate entries, deleting old email addresses, etc.).
  • Email - ‘Cuz, well … email. I am a believer that the best way to handle email is to get stuff out of the inbox - I send stuff to Evernote (for reference), OmniFocus (for tasks), or archive so that my inbox is completely empty by the end of the workday. Limitation: Bill Lumbergh returns to make the point.


  • Start with a task manager - Even of you aren’t going to use Omnifocus, take a look HERE for some excellent tips on thinking about organizing tasks effectively. Some folks use Evernote to manage tasks - but I do not recommend it (I tried it for a while). A legal pad of “to-dos” is fine, but you’re missing out on some real developments in achieving greater focus, peace, and efficiency if you’re using paper. I have spent enough time with my system that “capturing” a task is a seamless part of my day.
  • Start with Free - BUT - With some rare exceptions, I have learned that free software is usually worth its price. I recommend trying out software that has a free trial (the App Store on Mac and iOS needs to figure out how to offer free trials), and then purchase the one that gives you the best performance. Also, consider watching the online tutorials (like on youtube) before making a purchase to see how others are using the technology.
  • Build Structurally - There are lots of apps and services that can nickel and dime a user into spending serious dough, only to find that they are not as useful as you thought they’d be. For example, I like Taskclone to pull tasks out of Evernote and into OmniFocus - but that purchase makes no sense if I decided not to use Evernote.
  • It Takes Time to Save Time - I’ve lost track of how many people tell me that they downloaded Evernote, and it didn’t work for them. When that conversation develops, it usually ends up with a statement like, “Well, maybe I didn’t really spend much time looking at how I could use it.”  I totally respect that . You may not have much time to spare to learn how to use a new tool - but I think it’s smart to make a note to come back to create a little space later and try again. Besides, saving time is only one goal of greater efficiency in my workflows - I also want peace from the nagging fear that I forgot something, freedom to think creatively, and easy access to responsibilities.

*None of the links in this post are affiliated with this website.

Image Credit:

Posted on June 3, 2015 and filed under General, GTD.

When I'm Overwhelmed

If you're like me (and as John Rody used to say, "I know you are sometimes"), life in the academic world can be a whiplash between manageable and outright panic. There are a few times a year where I feel like I'm barely able to tread water with the number of tasks and projects I need to worry about. I've just endured another one of these - the last three weeks of a semester can be especially stressful. Having survived the mayhem, I'm ready to breathe a little, make new plans, and clean up the landscape.

I think one of the special stresses that adds to the mayhem is the worry that I am not following through on the disciplines and habits that are important to me.  I notice that I feel stress not only from the amount of work that I need to accomplish, but also from the worry that I am dropping the ball.  But I believe that there are some ways to think more strategically about a GTD methodology during times of immense stress and overwhelming responsibilities.

 Here are a few tips that seem to be working for me in stressful situations...


Before you say, "duh?!?", lemme say what I mean about preparation.  I have a pretty clear idea of when the major stresses are going to come, so I get ready for the storm by making some adjustments to my method...

  • Adjust Start Dates: Whatever projects or tasks that I can defer until AFTER the busy period, I go ahead and defer them BEFORE the busy period.  That way, during review, I am not having to concern myself with low-priority tasks or projects.
  • Review Due Dates: Be careful about "due dates."  This is especially true when I am preparing for stress - I need to know that whatever tasks pop up as "due" are ACTUALLY due.  Sometimes due dates are actually soft-reminders. I prepare to ensure that due dates are REALLY due dates.
  • Complete Tasks Early: As I prepare for the final weeks of the semester, I try to get everything done that I possibly can before the storm comes.  That's not always possible, but I've found that there are a lot of things I can knock out ahead of time.


When I am feeling overwhelmed, I feel much better about managing my tasks if I focus upon "capturing" the stuff into my task-manager.  In fact, I have really begun to find a great deal of stress-relief by merely agreeing with myself to "focus on capturing."  I think this works, primarily, because the stress of feeling overwhelmed can be exacerbated by a concern that I am letting things slip.  If I can be intentional about capturing, I find that I can have some security that things aren't be lost (regardless of whether things are getting done).

  • Capturing High Priorities: If a task comes along that will be important, I try to process it at the time of capturing (assign start date, due date, context, and project).  
  • Capturing Low Priorities: If a task comes along that isn't very important, I let my inbox fill up a little more than usual.  
  • Prioritize Capture over Do: This is the real secret. I usually give myself an "attaboy" when I complete a task - but when I am overwhelmed, I get the self-prescribed "attaboy" when I capture something.

Daily Review

During the normal times of my year, I do a review once a week - I find that is sufficient to manage all of my responsibilities and to ensure that I don't lose a task or allow a project to fade unnoticed. But during the storm, I review daily - sometimes several times daily.  While that may sound like a great deal of time, it really isn't.  I am specifically finding "next actions" in smaller sets, bringing them to the top of my system, and managing smaller collections of tasks.

  • Next Actions: When I am overwhelmed, I avoid listing 10-12 tasks that need to be completed. Instead, I list 3 at a time.  When I've completed those 3, I get another 3. The daily review (or several times daily review) gives me a chance to pick up the next group of tasks.
  • Prioritize Difficult Tasks: This is similar to the advice that I often hear to "eat the frog" - to do the least preferable thing first - but I try to go back to my task manager to find the next actions that take more energy first. I find that I feel a lot less stress when I know that the only tasks left are the things that are easy or pleasurable.
  • Procrastinate: Seriously! If I am swamped, and I discover that I really CAN do something later, I defer the task.  The secret to effective procrastination is to schedule time after the storm to catch up on the stuff that was deferred when I was overwhelmed.
  • Omnifocus Tip: I have two different perspectives for viewing available tasks.  One is a perspective that I borrowed from David Sparks, called "Clear."  It shows all available tasks. I use this perspective during normal weeks of the year.  But when I am feeling overwhelmed, I flag specific tasks (like three at a time), and use the "Today" perspective that shows only flagged actions.  
  The "Clear" perspective - shows all available and remaining tasks. Borrowed from  David Sparks.

The "Clear" perspective - shows all available and remaining tasks. Borrowed from David Sparks.

  The "Today" perspective - shows only flagged items so that I can concentrate on just a couple of "Next Tasks"

The "Today" perspective - shows only flagged items so that I can concentrate on just a couple of "Next Tasks"

Clearing Up the Mess

When it's all over, and the storm has passed, I will often give myself a morning to go through my system and recalibrate.  For many folks in Higher Ed, this can be especially useful because we sort of live in three major seasons of the year (Fall Semester, Spring Semester, Summer).  I actually schedule several days for transition - cleaning up old files, archiving things (digital and physical), and planning for the next semester.  

Part of that transition, for me, is to spend some time at what David Allen calls the "thirty thousand foot view." This is a great time to go through the projects remaining and decide what needs to stay, what needs to be added, and what needs to be deleted.


If I know that I am going to be overwhelmed (end of the semester, writing a grant, submitting a paper), I like to know that I can prepare and repair.  I should note that there are times when I can't be prepared (crises like a death in the family, illness, etc.), where I will sometimes go through my next actions and defer them ALL until later.  I can't prepare for crises.  I can prepare for the seasons of the academic year, and even find a little joy in them by making small adjustments to my GTD methodology.

*Image Credit:

Posted on May 16, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management.