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Getting Things Done with Your Macintosh, Part 2

In part 1 of this article, I introduced David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, and looked at several programs that could help you implement that system. Now, I want to go into more detail about how GTD works, specifically on a day-to-day basis on your Mac.

Mind Like Aqua Finder — Remember, the key to GTD is to get tasks, vague plans, and random thoughts into the right collection buckets and out of your head as quickly as possible. Apple, in its Infinite Loop wisdom, has provided us all with a collection bucket that is always staring us in the face, but almost no one uses it properly as a productivity tool. I’m talking about the Finder Desktop.

So, what’s on your Desktop? If you’re like 95 percent of my clients, your Desktop contains the following: aliases to frequently used documents and applications; documents you worked on last Tuesday with cryptic filenames; a few notes that might be relevant around Christmas; and most importantly, the files related to whatever is the Project of the Week.

Here’s what I suggest you do: in your User folder, create a folder called “Desktop Storage.” Drag everything on the Desktop into that folder. Voila, clean desk!

“But what about the Project of the Week?” No problem. In your master list (which, as we learned in part 1, can be anything from iCal to a TextEdit document to an outline in OmniOutliner), add a recurring entry to “Review Desktop Storage.” The Project of the Week should go on one of your lists. The other stuff? You can process that later. But you can put your aliases in the Dock (and clean out the ones you don’t need, regularly), file the cryptic documents, and have the Christmas stuff come back after Thanksgiving (more on this later). Most importantly, you don’t have to do this now. Those items weren’t getting any more organized while they were festering on your Desktop, so it won’t do you any harm to have them sitting in storage for a while, provided you have a trusted reminder on your master list to bring you back to it.

Why do this? Because a clean desk is a clean slate. Click on the Desktop (with no Finder windows open), and go to View > Show View Options, where you can set how your files appear. I prefer setting the font to 11 points, with small icons, label positions on the right, and kept arranged by name; this creates a neat list in a compact space, which I can usually see behind the windows I have open. Over the course of my workday, everything I work on, download, modify, or transmogrify is kept on my Desktop (with one exception: when I’m working with files that are already neatly organized elsewhere, I use aliases to those documents instead.) At the end of my day, the files on my Desktop are a map of where I’ve conceptually been today; rearrange by Date Modified, and I can see the chronological order in which I was there as well.

At the end of the day (or every couple of days, more commonly), I process my Desktop. Files that I’m done with – no next action, ever again – are either filed or trashed, according to whether I might want them again someday. Files that I need in the future are stored in a tickler system or a “Someday” folder. Files that have immediate followup are annotated and stored in an appropriate task system.

I can hear you saying, “Nice. How?” It’s all done with the Finder, and a sprinkling of iCal and AppleScript.

Taglines and Ticklers and Softwares, Oh My! Let’s start with the basics. You’re knocking off work and processing your Desktop – which probably only has a dozen or so files on it, since you regularly clean off your desk. Do you ever need a particular file again? If not, toss it. The Trash is your friend. The goal isn’t to save disk space – we all have enough to save a bazillion URLs for future reference. You’re saving mind space, and saying, “This never deserves my attention, ever again.”

Or perhaps you do need that file again. If the file is part of an active project which you will likely need soon, go ahead and put it in an Active Projects folder, in a subfolder with a suitable name. On my desktop right now I have this very article, and the Active Projects folder is where it’s going to live at the end of the day. But after this article is published, it’s no longer an active project – and hence I’ll move it to the long-term filing.

Do you have a folder structure that looks like the following?

Users > jporten > Documents > Writing > Mac > TidBITS > In Progress > GTD > 

So did I. What an unholy mess. Here’s what my file structure looks like now (both the active and archived locations):

Users > jporten > Active Projects > TidBITS GTD
Users > jporten > Archives > 2006-07

That’s it. I create a new folder every month, put it into my Finder sidebar, and viciously file documents there to get them out of my way. If I need a file, I can generally recall when I used them last and go right to the correct folder, or I let Spotlight do the work for me. Sure, I could spend hours tinkering with my folders – but life is too short. This system, where you file only by the age of the document, is called Noguchi, and it works nicely for paper too. Unfortunately, the original Web page that taught me this system has been taken offline, but this page points to some good secondary resources.

So that’s how we deal with trash, current work, and finished work. How about stuff we want to get back to later? There are two categories of these: things we’ll get to when we get to (and don’t much care when that is), and things we want to look at again on a specific date.

For the former, I have a Someday folder in my home folder. It holds things ranging from scraps of notes I made about my cockamamie business idea for 2008, to URLs I want to visit, to software I want to play with. These items have only two things in common: none of them have deadlines, so they can all just sit there forever; and all of them have been given a yellow Finder label to tell me that there’s a comment attached (in the Get Info window), to remind me what it is I wanted to do with this file. Since it might be months before I get to it, why spend time trying to remember why I saved it? I fire up an AppleScript script that tacks a few words into its comment box and colors it yellow in one swoop; yellow is just my mnemonic for a “sticky note” to remind me to read the comments. (And yes, the script is on my Web site, along with another one that randomly chooses an item in the Someday folder to deal with. It’s just more fun that way – who wants to work on the moldiest items first?)

But for stuff with deadlines, I want to be sure I see it when I need it – and no sooner. So I have another folder that contains one folder for every day for the rest of the year. When Adam tells me he might be interested in my article on connecting a MacBook to a juice blender sometime in October, I just drag my notes about that to a folder in late September. Every morning, while I’m sleeping and my computer is not, an iCal event triggers a script that dumps that day’s files on my Desktop, and boom, they become part of that day’s processing. That script is also part of my download.

What works great about this for me is that it’s a file-and-forget process, and I almost always have an easy target. I’m looking at a Web site I want to get back to later, so I drag the URL out of Safari to my Desktop. When I’m processing it later, I either read it then, or I tickle it for the weekend or attach it to some project or task. In this way, everything gets captured, but most often in a way that doesn’t require me to spend an hour diddling around with deciding on where to put something.

So now do you see why you cleaned off your Desktop at the beginning of this article? Your Desktop is special – no other location on your hard disk gives you a wide, always-available target. If you like, when it comes time to process your Desktop Storage, go ahead and dump them back on the Desktop for processing – but put them away again later if you don’t finish. Your Desktop is a workspace, not a catch-all for your entire life. That’s what your hard disk is for, with your lists to remind you to go back into its nooks and crannies.

Linking Your Stuff to Tasks — We’ll stay with files a little longer, since so much of what we work with ends up being a file somewhere on your hard disk. If you want to be compulsively organized (and if you’re still reading this, you know you do), it’s key to be able to pull up your support files immediately when you turn to a particular task. With OmniOutliner, this is easy; just drag the file or an alias into your outline, and you’re done. What about task managers like iCal and Life Balance, which don’t allow for importing files?

(Incidentally, I don’t intend to give Entourage short shrift; Entourage has a nice system for linking tasks to projects and files with internal linking. I used it for years. In the long run, though, it wasn’t flexible enough for my needs, so I abandoned it for this system. My guess is that if you’re an Entourage user and you’re building your system, you’ll be staying entirely within that software and won’t need my help with its specific tricks. I will mention, though, that if you’re not using AppleScript utilities to help manage your data, you’re missing half the power of your software.)

You may have noticed that iCal events and tasks have a URL field, and if you paste in a URL that you copy out of Safari, you get a nice “open this location” button when you select it again. Very handy. But you can also do this with your files, since every file on your hard disk can be “URLified” to look like this: file:///Users/jporten/Desktop/gtd%20article.rtf. The problem is that these URLs don’t follow the files when you move them to a new folder. So, I have another AppleScript script (which you can download at my site) that creates an alias and links the URL to that instead; the URL always points to the alias, and the alias points to the actual file no matter where it moves. If you need multiple files linked, then link to a folder instead that holds them all. Feel free to use the same trick with the URL field in Address Book to connect files to people.

As for other applications that don’t have explicit URL fields, a nifty Mac trick works in every Cocoa application. (It’s not always clear which applications are Cocoa; don’t spend time trying to figure it out, just try it and see if it works with your favorites.) When you paste a URL into a text field, it still looks like plain text, but many applications will know it’s a URL. In Life Balance, Command-click on it to open it; in TextEdit, Control-click on it and choose Open URL. Now you can connect pretty much anything you want to anything else – for example, if you want to link one file to another file, go ahead and put the second file’s URL into the Finder comments of the first one. It works there too with a Command-click.

Dividing Current Stuff from Ongoing Stuff — In case you didn’t notice, the process I just talked about with your Desktop has the great advantage of focusing your attention on a current set of files. If you need to work with something, dump it on the Desktop. When you’re done, put it away somewhere appropriate. Those other 300,000 files on your hard drive? Not in the way. Can we apply this method to tasks as well? Here’s how I do it.

In your master list, no matter where you keep it, you’ll have your life’s smorgasbord of things that you want to do. It’s big, and it’s daunting, and that’s okay because presumably you’ll have a few decades in which to tackle it. The problem arises when it’s 3 PM and you hear about a book you want to read on the radio, or that funny noise comes out of your air conditioner, and you just want to write it down and move on. Or you want to make super-duper sure that you get back to it today, not in two weeks.

Enter iCal tasks. I use my iCal task list the same way I use my Desktop. The day starts empty, or with the events that I’ve tickled a while ago to show up today. iCal has a feature to hide events that aren’t due yet, so don’t put the actual due date in that field; put in the date you want to be reminded of it. If you’re properly breaking your work down into small, doable next actions, the due date can always be the same day as the reminder date; however, if you’re quickly noting a project for review later, go ahead and write “Big report due August 31” with a “due date” – that is, your reminder date – of August 7th, or however much lead time you’ll need to do the big report.

Ideally, at the end of each day, all of my iCal tasks have one of three outcomes: it’s done, it’s moved to my master list and deleted from iCal, or I decide it’s not that important and just plain deleted. (I’ve learned I save a lot of time if I let every new idea incubate for a little while; it takes time for silly ideas to ripen and smell bad.) This way, my iCal to-do list is always short and doable – and yes, there’s a recurring Routine task in my master list telling me to do these things. I also review the tasks that are done; sometimes they’re worth noting in my master list, especially when I realize that this is just the first step of an ongoing project.

One of the more important categories of tasks that I add to iCal aren’t really tasks at all, but rather are “waiting for” ticklers. These are items that are out of my hands, but I’m still invested in getting it done; for example, “WF email from Adam re GTD article,” or “WF rebate from Amazon.” It’s a quick method of noting that something might need more action in the future, but not now. It’s even quicker if you use Quicksilver, the DoBeDo Dashboard widget, or your favorite iCal-integrated utility to update your list without jumping into iCal.

By the way, if you’re still cringing in panic about the idea of removing your Project of the Week off your Desktop, I strongly recommend iCalViewer. It’s a fantastic utility that plasters your iCal events and tasks as a transparent background across your Desktop. If, like me, you want to be hit in the face with a regular reminder that you need to do something – or get off your butt in 30 minutes to get to that upcoming meeting – it’s a life-saver. But don’t use your files for that; use iCal.

Taming Your Email and Inbox Zero — You’ve likely noted a trend; with both your Desktop and your iCal tasks, I’ve suggested ways to keep your workspaces clean and fresh, so what shows up there for your immediate attention is always manageable and relevant. There’s one more place to do this: your email. I keep an archive of approximately 650,000 messages, dating back to 1997, but as I write this, my inbox has exactly zero messages.

You do this by treating your inbox as an inbox, not as a staging folder for reminders of stuff to do. You’ve got your master list and iCal for that. And the way you empty your inbox is to rip through your messages with the following rule: read once, do it if it can be done quickly (and I’m talking around two minutes here), or file it and forget it. This process was memorably named “Inbox Zero” by Merlin Mann, and I can no longer imagine working with email without it.

I use Apple Mail, and my system for this uses the excellent MailTags and Mail Act-On from InDev; MailTags allows you to attach metadata to your email messages, like tags and due dates, while Mail Act-On lets you create fast keyboard commands for mail processing. Similar capabilities exist in Entourage; I don’t know how Thunderbird, Eudora, or Gmail users would do this, but I strongly suspect a Google search will turn up ways to replicate these techniques.

Again, you want to follow the principles that you used in creating your Finder filing system – don’t spend forever creating hierarchies of folders that you need to manage meticulously. Go with the simplest possible filing system that covers your needs. I use a grand total of seven categories when an email needs some action on my part. The first five are priorities, ranging from Urgent to Lowest. Urgent means exactly that – this task will die screaming if I don’t do it today. I file most email messages with either High or Normal priority. I’ve learned that Low or Lowest priority messages might rot unseen for months, so I take that into account when prioritizing my email.

The other two categories (which MailTags calls “projects”) are ReplyTo or WaitingFor. I use ReplyTo for things like email to friends, or general business correspondence that doesn’t really have a deadline; by default, these acquire with priorities between High and Normal in my review folders, but sometimes I notch these higher or lower depending on what else is going on. (My review folders are Mail’s Smart Mailboxes; they’re named with leading numbers so they sort as I like them: 20 High, 25 ReplyTo, 30 Normal, 99 WaitingFor.) WaitingFor just notes that there’s something I need to do with this email but can’t get to just yet, or an email I sent is waiting for a reply. Sometimes I’ll use the MailTags notes field to remind myself exactly what I’m waiting for, if it wouldn’t be instantly obvious the next time I review that email.

What I don’t do, however, is tag every possible message with every possible project name to which it might be connected. I’ve found that with Spotlight searches, there’s almost no need to do this. On those occasions when I might need a series of email messages to review all at once, I’ll create a topical project and a Smart Mailbox to collect them. But there’s a weekly Routine task reminding me to cull these folders – I don’t want 16,000 of them cluttering up Apple Mail; I want just the five or ten I’m working on. When I’m done, I delete the Smart Mailbox, write down the MailTag somewhere for posterity in case I ever need the folder back, and let the messages live quietly in my Read Mail archive. The result is that my mailboxes, like my iCal and Desktop, reflect a list of things I’m currently managing and don’t fill up with useless trivia and distractions.

A new feature in MailTags allows you to connect an email message directly to a task in iCal, so I have a mix of older tasks that are noted within the MailTags notes field, and newer ones that are connected to an iCal task. I’m leaning toward using iCal tasks for Urgent and High priority issues but keeping Normal and lower priority work solely in Mail – again, with the idea of keeping iCal from feeling like a towering mass of stuff that discourages me from doing it. Email messages that are MailTagged to an iCal task can be opened directly from iCal, using a clever implementation of the task URL field.

MailTags is also great for filing, since it enables you to apply Noguchi to your email. An email, after it’s been read once, goes one of two places: the Trash or the Read Mail folder. If it has a priority or a category, or if it’s connected to an iCal task, it’s suitably flagged and can be retrieved with a Smart Mailbox. When I’m done with it, I just clear the tags and let it drop out of my Smart Mailboxes; the email is already in the Read Mail folder, which is where it goes for posterity.

Finally, there’s the action step in my Routine list that makes all of this functional. I have a daily reminder to check my messages in Smart Mailboxes, and all I do is start with the Urgents and work my way down until I’m out of time. Items I mark High priority generally means that I should make time for them; items marked Normal can wait a while, but should be cleared out regularly – so there’s an additional weekly reminder that tells me to catch up on any I’ve missed. And last, another set of reminders come up weekly to review the WaitingFors to see if I need to pick up any dropped balls, which I generally do while doing my Smart Mailbox and tag review cleanup.

Getting to Zero and Getting Things Done — So, we’ve now covered the three key Zen concepts of “Mac mind like water”: Inbox Zero, Desktop Zero, and iCal Zero. It doesn’t matter how horribly overstuffed these workspaces are right now; with judicious use of your master list and backup lists, you can make these into highly functional and low-stress places to organize your work and stay focused. But that begs the question of whether this actually helps you get stuff done.

Like all such systems, it’s only as good as you are. My “clean” iCal list has a few items that have been festering for a while, so I’m proof positive that this isn’t a cure for procrastination. You still need to actually do what you need to do. Where I feel my greatest sense of relief – and yes, my semblance of “mind like water” – is that GTD gives me a way to deal with a problem I suspect many of you have: my “things I want to do” mind has very little regard for “how much time I have to do it.” I want to learn Italian (still!) and learn Python; I haven’t done either yet, and both are stashed into various Someday folders. If I forget I want to learn Italian and think of it again, fine; it’ll just be written down twice. No big deal. This is the first system I’ve discovered that honors my random and not-immediately-relevant ideas, but still moves them out of the way of things that need to be prioritized.

Perhaps the best thing about GTD is that it’s easy to get back on the horse after a few missteps. I didn’t process my email properly for a few days and I had 150 messages in my inbox; when I had a chance, I sat down for an hour and processed them and now I’m back to zero. That could work for 750 or 2,250 email messages if I had a really bad month; usually it just takes a few days before I notice I’m slipping and get back into the habit. But I have 4 GB of files waiting for me in my Desktop Storage folder, from dozens of sweeps off the Desktop I never finished processing; I know that most of those files are low priority – after all, I never went looking for them and haven’t missed them – but it’s nagging at me that I need to process them, just to make sure. And that nagging feeling is the feedback loop that keeps the system working.

GTD Resources — The procedures I’ve listed here came about only after a great deal of error and trial. (I’m deliberately reversing the order of that phrase; it seems apropos when the errors so vastly outnumbered the trials.) There’s something about GTD that leads adherents to tinker endlessly with it, and then to go to online forums and meticulously document their tinkering. If my ideas aren’t exactly your cup of caffeine, rest assured, there are about 10,000 alternative methods out there to borrow and make your own.

The first stop is the informative and entertaining 43 Folders weblog by Merlin Mann. This is possibly one of the few weblogs where it is worth your time to go back to the beginning of the archives and read it all. 43 Folders has spawned two discussion forums (one Web-based, one email), and a wiki, all of which are refreshingly Mac-centric in flavor. If you’re interested in learning some of the deep voodoo that is Darwin, there’s a great deal of Unix talent on these boards as well.

Another good source of GTD discussion are the various blogs that are linked to Office Zealot; if the only places you check are here and 43 Folders, that alone should be more than enough content to ensure you’re spending too much time tinkering with your system. The lineup at Office Zealot seems to change regularly, but as I write this, they’ve highlighted links to Slacker Manager and Michael Hyatt, whose blogs frequently show up in recommended reading in the lists I read.

Finally, there’s the “mothership” at DavidCo, home of David Allen himself (or “The David,” as cultists winkingly refer to him). I don’t stop here too often, because the sales pitch for workshops, seminars, and private consulting comes off a bit strong (although I’ve frequently heard that these are worthwhile, if pricey). But the archives here are definitely worth an afternoon or two to look for good ideas, and I recommend the free monthly newsletter of tips and tricks.

And again, here are those AppleScript scripts I repeatedly mentioned.

It took me a solid few years before I developed this working system, and I have no doubt that a year from now I’ll have incorporated a few new techniques and discarded a few of these. I equally have no doubt that in that year I’ll spend more time than I should playing around with new software and making pretty stacks of sandwich orders. Such is the nature of the beast for most of us. For your own implementation, I suggest you start by reading the “Getting Things Done” book, putting everything imaginable into your inbox for processing, and creating a small, incremental system for processing it.

It might take a few months before you really feel comfortable, and a few more before you really feel productive. Most of us are very glad we made the trip.

[Jeff Porten is an Internet consultant in Washington, DC, who practices maybe three out of seven effective habits.]

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