Posts filed under Task Management

Collaboration in Research - Part 2: Planning Tools


In Part 1, I described potential roles for members of a research team. In Part 2, we’ll finally take a look at a group of tools for planning that I find useful in helping to organize teams and keep everyone headed down the research pathway.


The “Right” Tool?

As I mentioned in Part 1, I have found it most efficacious to allow the members of the team responsible for a specific role to choose the tool; or at least have a voice in the tool of choice. That said, I think one of the poorest approaches to choosing tools is the belief that there is a “right” one. I was recently discussing with a colleague how much I appreciate the old-school “notecards” method of qualitative research. There are all kinds of tech-tools available for qual research (NVivo, Dedoose, etc.), but prolonged engagement that results from physically writing and manipulating notecards can be a major advantage.

I always shudder a little when colleagues ask me, “What task-manager should I use?” The little smart alec inside my head always wants to respond, “None of them; you don’t deserve any of them.” People tend to believe that it is the tool that organizes a person/team: that if I just had the right platform, I’d communicate effectively. It’s just not the case.

Also, I wish to note that I have no financial relationship with any of the companies described below - except that I’ve given them some of my money ;-)




I love this platform so very much. It is highly adaptable for use, and affords a team the ability to configure it in just about any imaginable structure. Trello is built on the KanBan approach to project management; where there is a logical stream of items through a process. The other advantage of Trello is that there is a low barrier to entry: it’s free to use at a basic level, and one can immediately get going with very little introduction. That low barrier of entry, however, belies the depth and power that is available in the platform.


  1. Low Barrier of Entry - Trello can be used for free, and one can immediately get into the system with very little introduction. This makes Trello especially useful for ad hoc research teams.
  2. Creatively Adaptable - Trello is highly adaptable, especially when one upgrades to using power-ups. My administrative assistant and I use Trello to manage several of our workflows: we run our disabilities accommodations requests and testing center entirely on the Trello platform.
  3. Wide Resources - Trello has a great Twitter presence, and offers a newsletter with lots of ideas. Moreover, you can spend a lifetime on youtube seeing how folks use Trello for different workflows.
  4. Excellent Integrations - The power-ups are integrations that work within the platform. Some are specialty apps, and others are integrations through APIs to other services. I’ll give a huge shout-out to the Zapier integrations, in which one can get very granular about what’s happening on the cards.
  5. Interactive - Trello is web-based, and all members of a team can contribute to the way that the Trello board develops, and make updates in the workflow.


  1. Creatively Adaptable - Yep, I said that was an advantage; but it’s also a disadvantage. When you can do almost anything with a platform, it can be hard to get moving. Finding Trello templates can be helpful; and Trello has a nice Trello board for templates.
  2. Too Many Cooks - The highly interactive nature of Trello makes it difficult to control what happens on the boards. For example, if Larry gets drunk and decides to edit the entire board, that can prove frustrating for the rest of the team. Other tools allow for more control by a Project Manager: Trello does not.
  3. Dependencies - There are times where a process really requires a careful analysis of dependencies: we can’t do Y until X is complete. In my experience, task dependencies CAN be done in Trello, but it’s clunky and undependable; and for my money, there are some projects where clunky and undependable just won’t fly.


  1. Explore - If you’ve a free afternoon, why not try Trello? It’s free. See whether there are ways in which it addresses your team’s needs. Check out Trello on youtube, and see how others are using it.
  2. Collaborate - I find that Trello is most powerful when I use it in collaborative projects. If a project is more individual, it’s probably going to be in my OmniFocus.
  3. Visualize - That said, I use Trello sometimes for projects where I want to visualize my road to completion. For example, I had a Trello board for my Ph.D. degree plan. I had a column for the courses I needed, another for the courses I’ve registered for, another for the courses I was in, and a final column for the courses I had finished. It was sooo neat to see the cards flow from left to right - and to send the last three course cards into the “complete” column at the end.
  4. Similar Options - StrikeBase is very similar to Trello. It’s a freemium option.

OmniPlan (et al.)


It’s no secret for readers of this site that I am a HUGE fan of the OmniGroup. I’d buy their waffle-iron if they sold one. And OmniPlan is, by far, the most professional project management tool I’ve used. OmniPlan is available on MacOS and iOS (though I’ve not tried the iOS version), but it is not available for other operating systems. I would recommend software like OmniPlan in situations where there a) a team is targeting a specific deliverable, and b) a professional-grade approach to project management is required. It is not, however, useful for ad hoc groups (at least by my experience).


  1. Pro-level PM - Project management, as a discipline, is really about leveraging resources (people, capital, data), time, and scope toward a specific outcome. OmniPlan is designed to handle each aspect of the “PM Triangle” in ways that give a clear understanding of the critical path toward completion. Put another way, this is a pro-tool!
  2. Critical Paths - In projects where there are specific milestones and multiple dependency structures, software that can help the PM manage the critical path is, well, critical. In Robert’s case, where the research team needs to meet critical deadlines for FDA approval, my mind goes to a product like OmniPlan. This is especially powerful when one can compare the project baseline with the actual progress - something OmniPlan does very well.
  3. Resource Allocation - If equipment, material, money, or personnel are important considerations for a project, OmniPlan is a great tool to manage those resources. This can be really valuable for projects where it is necessary to track the resource cost of a project.
  4. Visualization - Users of OmniPlan can visualize the project in terms of an outline, Gantt charts, or a network view. The network view is especially useful in understanding the relationships between different tasks or groups of tasks in the project scope.
  5. - There is a phenomenal course available on for those who want to get help in a) using OP, and b) managing a project. I had used this product for a long time before stumbling upon the course at Lynda, and boy did I miss out.


  1. High Barriers to Entry - OmniPlan is expensive; currently, the Standard version is $149.99 for MacOS, and $74.99 for iOS. The Pro version (which I do not own) is $299.99 for MacOS, and $149.99 for iOS. Additionally, it takes a good while to learn to use the software to its potential, and I discovered that there are a lot of PM principles I needed to learn to maximize the platform as well.
  2. Low Collaboration - Drunk Larry won’t mess with your carefully planned project (unless you allow him to). It is difficult to network this tool. Each member of the team would need to have the software. I am currently using this software with a small team, and the file is stored on a network so that we can share it; but collaboration is NOTHING as delightful as it is in Trello.
  3. Flexibility - I am sure you are allowed to use OmniPlan however you’d like, but the platform is specifically designed within the professional milieu of project management. It is really for projects where dependencies need to be managed.
  4. Low Integration - So if I were in charge of the universe, I’d have a seamless integration between OmniPlan and my beloved OmniFocus. I have it on good authority that this is something that OmniGroup has thought of; but so far, integrations with other software is clunky at best. One can export projects into OPML, so that’s nice - but really, that’s more a definition of exportability than of integration. My OmniPlans tend to live lonely lives of desolation.


  1. Lynda - If you’re not sure about the cost of the software, I highly recommend the Lynda course. Not only will you see how the software manages projects, but you’ll also get a clear understanding of the methodology of project management that the software is addressing.
  2. If you’re on a Windows platform, Microsoft Planner is very similar in terms of methodology. That said, it’s been a loooong time since I’ve been in MSPlanner.
  3. This platform is really useful when you’ve a planner on the team who is willing to manage the project and report to the group.

Note: I’ve not yet bitten the bullet to purchase OmniPlan Pro, which I understand offers some publishing options that may be especially valuable. To date, I’ve just not found a use-case where I work with a team that needs to see the outputs of my plan, so I’ve no real sense of its value.


Database Approach


I actually have a project currently managed in FileMaker Pro. I’ve also used Podio and BaseCamp to manage projects as well. Shoot - I can imagine using Evernote or DevonThink as a kind of very simple database.


  1. Bespoke Utility - Some projects need to be monitored in unique ways. I have a longitudinal study where I am collecting data over a long period of time. In that case, I decided that a database is the best option.
  2. Data in the Database - The biggest advantage to using a database approach is that the actual data for a research project can be incorporated into the project management system. Everything can live in one location; the data, the workflow, and even the communication.
  3. Infinite Flexibility - Trello is flexible. Your own artisanal database crafted just for your project can be whatever it needs to be. You get to decide what variables are included, what views need to be represented, and how progress is visualized and understood.
  4. Potentially Affordable - I used Podio and Basecamp for free. Even FileMaker Pro is relatively inexpensive (I purchased mine through a volume license agreement).
  5. Integrations - OK, for FMP, the integrations are terrible. But Basecamp and Podio have some very nice integrations and API hooks.


  1. High Barrier to Entry - The high barrier in the case of database approaches is that the entire system needs to be built. The advantage of having something tailored to a specific research team’s needs may also be a disadvantage if someone has to build it.
  2. YMMV - These tools are only as useful as the architecture and construction allow. I think this is why so many of us resort to some kind of pre-built platform. If you need a feature in your database, you have to create the feature. If it stinks, or doesn’t work, the architect needs to make it right. So some databases can be very useful - others can stink. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Potential Training - If not all of the team members are involved in the database construction, training becomes a potential issue. I can’t point my colleagues to a youtube video of how to navigate the database I built - unless I actually create the video.


  1. Databases are especially useful if you’re connecting workflows and planning to the data used in your research.
  2. Some database options (like Basecamp and Podio) are better for collaborative work. FileMaker Pro is going to require more build time, more management of the platform, and some training to make it useful for a team.
  3. In instances where it is necessary to build a major database to manage the data of a research project, it may be worth the time and effort to build a few workflow variables (approvals, completions, assignments, etc.) and views to the system.

SpreadSheet Approach


No project management tool list would be complete without a shout-out to the most common approach to managing projects: the spreadsheet. My guess is that more projects are managed in spreadsheets than anywhere else. And why not? They can be very useful for ad hoc projects, or places where we just need to see some basic bits of information.


  1. Very Low Barriers to Entry - Most people know how to use spreadsheets, so there’s very little in the way of learning curve. Almost everyone has access to them, and they can be an almost no-cost option.
  2. Flexible - The reason we default to spreadsheets is that a nice table is easy to formulate. I actually recommend that students use spreadsheets as an assignment tracker, because we can usually create something meaningful in short order.
  3. Collaborative - In the case of a Google Sheet, folks can work on the plan at the same time, make edits to items, and even chat about elements on the plan in real time.


  1. Lack of Design - Spreadsheets, even beautiful spreadsheets, are not pretty. They are clunky. You have to go to the spreadsheet to see it. They don’t look nice on an iPhone. With so many great, low-cost, and beautiful options available, it just seems that settling for generic cheese slices wrapped in cellophane is a real shame. And I bet this is the first time spreadsheets have been compared to generic cheese slices ;-)
  2. Low Integration - There are some web-hooks available for Google Sheets; but again, spending much time at all fashioning a complicated set of Zapier rules for a spreadsheet plan may not be efficient. That wheel is already invented.
  3. Simplicity - If a project has any complexity to it whatsoever, the spreadsheet can quickly become cumbersome. Database approaches at least allow for multiple views of the variables.


  1. I recommend using spreadsheets when the project is so small, or the involvement of members is so cursory, that training people to use your tool of choice doesn’t make sense.
  2. If you’re having to explain to other members how to navigate and understand your spreadsheet, it’s time to move to a different tool.

Next Time: We’ll review some tools that may aid in communication for research teams.

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Posted on February 14, 2018 and filed under General, Task Management.

In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man Is an Alien

Workflows and Collaborators


Whenever I find a product or a workflow that allows me greater concentration, I find reverting back to the old ways especially painful. A great example of this is my TextExpander: I can’t type on someone else’s computer, because I have so many snippets that have worked into my writing (I have even caught myself writing a snippet when writing something in long-hand). Adjusting to the workflows of others can be especially daunting, especially when they tend to do things in ways that are tragically inefficient. I had this experience with my dissertation.

The Problem

I guess my readers have observed that I am a big fan of Scrivener. I don’t know of a better writing tool. And while many use Scrivener for creative writing, I have discovered that it essential for academic writing. Almost everything I write starts out in Scrivener, unless it starts in Ulysses. If I have to open a MSWord document, I feel a tiny pang of disappointment and malaise.

So you can imagine my horror at having to write my dissertation in Word. My committee members wanted to track changes and see revisions throughout the process. I deeply appreciated all of the feedback (and they gave me LOTS to be appreciative of), but I couldn’t functionally use Scrivener for my dissertation and maintain a lot of the tracking that was being done. If you’ve seen the APA template for Scrivener, it is SO awesome. I had edited the compile menu for my institution’s unique requirements, but I rarely had to do any formatting work. There are ways to collaborate with others not using Scrivener; but in the end, I just decided to use Word and keep moving.

This happens in other situations as well. I’m on a research team where everyone wants to do everything on a Google doc. I spent hours trying to convince a colleague to use Trello, only to discover that I’d spent more time in the persuasion than the work would actually take. I created an OmniPlan project for a huge disability compliance project, only to find that the rest of the team just wanted to use a spreadsheet. I’m not the most powerful power-user, but among some that I am fated to work with, I am often advocating for tools and methods that present insurmountable barriers to those I’m working with.

The Solution

I have found that there are several questions that need to be explored in doing collaborative work, and particularly in terms of what tools or methods will be employed in the collaboration. While some of these questions may seem obvious, I’ve discovered that I actually have to be intentional about asking them.

  1. Does the choice of tool/method slow me down, or the entire team? I am learning that I tend to assume that if I am slowed, the entire team is slowed; call it the illusion of validity cognitive bias. It is entirely possible that the net-effect of using spreadsheets to track the progress of a project is faster for the team, even if it takes more time for me individually.
  2. Does the choice of tool/method really result in different outcomes? Is a presentation in Powerpoint any less effective than a presentation in Google Slides or Keynote? Shouldn’t I get similar statistics from Stata, R, SPSS, and Excel? Does Dedoose or NVivo really provide any better observations of qualitative data than notecards spread out on the floor? If the tool or method does result in different outcomes, then I am more comfortable in advocating for the right tool - but I think it’s a question that must be answered.
  3. What is the ROI of training/investment regarding a tool or method? If, as a team, it takes 20 person-hours of training to use a tool that saves 2 person-hours, is that a useful tradeoff? Sometimes the benefit is not in hours saved, but in accuracy. In the example of the disability compliance project, the stakes of missing a deadline with the Office of Civil Rights are potentially quite high. I decided to fight for a system that would allow us to see deadlines and contingencies throughout the reporting process. In other instances, I find that low stakes or minimal return on investments of time, resources, or finances in training an ad hoc team to use the right tool may justify a hearty shoulder-shrug.
  4. What is my real investment in this tool/method? In the example of my dissertation, I so very much looked forward to the elegance, efficiency, and delight of my beloved writing tool. It has served me so well in all of my other writing; why should I not use it in my magnum opus??? I had to come to terms with the realization that I probably could go through the collaborative process with my committee in Word just fine - I just didn’t want to. It boiled down to an emotional investment. I might be willing to fight for an emotional investment; but I at least want to deliberate about the fight before throwing down the gauntlet.

When You DO Decide to Fight

I think it’s fair to assert that sometimes my tools/methods are better than those that others. I may have given more time, energy, and development in my approach. Others may have defaulted to the familiar, or chosen tools and methods that lead to poorer outcomes. In situations where I’ve decided to the adoption of my tools and methods, I’m learning that I need to evaluate my own mindset. Here are some tips…

  1. Be Prepared to Train! This is deeper than the obvious “Show them how to do it.” I had a staff-member who wasn’t keeping her part of a project updated in Trello. As it happens, she had lost the password, and the password recovery emails were going to her spam folder. So the training became “how to find emails in the Google spam folder.” One would assume that practitioners in higher education would think about how we train one another, but I am constantly discovering ways in which I fail to think about how learning happens for colleagues.
  2. Be Prepared to be Patient! Maybe it’s just me; but I act like “Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy” more often than I’d care to admit, even if it’s in my own head. You know what? I’ve been working on my task-management system since September of 1992. I spent hours learning how to use OmniPlan on I don’t remember my password for Trello either: it’s just that Dashlane remembers it for me.
  3. Be Prepared to Be Responsible! If I assert my own tool or method with a team, it’s probably only fair to assume that I should be responsible for that approach. For example, when I did decide that our compliance team was using OmniPlan, I had to assume that I would be the one building the project with that tool. If Larry wants to use his dang spreadsheet to manage the project, I’m sure we can argue whether Larry should be in charge of building the spreadsheet. But I’m learning that when I advocate for “a better way,” that likely means that I’ll be the one responsible for that choice.
  4. Be Prepared to Learn from Others! It may not appear obvious to this point in the post, but there is an assumption that underlies the entire theme: that I know best how things ought to be done, that I am the one-eyed man among the blind. My assistant started using Trello because I asked her to; but I realized soon after that I needed her to train me on all of the ninja things she’s learned to do with it. Remember when I mentioned the research team wanting to use Google Docs? Turns out, it was a GREAT way to do that project.

I’ll write more about some collaboration tools and methods that I think can be very effective for research and teaching; but I think that it is imperative to ask important questions about the value of those tools before assuming that there is a “better way.” And in those instances where a fella believes he has the better tool, he’d better check himSelf before he wrecks himSelf.

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Posted on February 9, 2018 and filed under General, Writing, Task Management.

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.

Helping Students Manage Part 1: Using iCal for Task Management

I've elected to start a series of posts on helping students manage time and tasks effectively. I have learned that when students see their faculty using good methodology, they ask for help. That said, setting a student up for OmniFocus is not always a good first step.

Several weeks ago, a student asked me whether he could just use his iCal to manage tasks.  My first reaction was, "Probably not." But as I looked into it, I found a way to make that happen.

The key to this method is to use the "All Day" banner section of the calendar to create tasks. This really only works when a person has a few tasks to manage, but it can be done. It's not REALLY a GTD approach, but the students with whom I've shared this have found it to be a great entry-level approach to managing tasks. Time will tell whether they let me help them navigate thicker weeds ;-)

Below is a screencast I created to help my students use the method. Feel free to share it with any students who need a quick and easy solution.

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Posted on October 2, 2015 and filed under Calendar Management, Task Management.

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.

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.

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.

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