The sentences approach to email

E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.
E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

I often wonder how much time I’ve spent writing and responding to emails over the years. Perhaps five.sentenc.es may have a solution to reducing the amount of time spent in my inbox.

I got my very first email address in 1997 when I started my MTh in Ministry at the University of Edinburgh. It was [email protected]. Other than my fellow students, most of whom I saw on a day-to-day basis at New College, I only knew about four or five other people who had email back then.

Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to reduce how much email I receive. I’ve unsubscribed from all but the essential email newsletters (and even then I could reduce things further, or move those to a different email account) and I now have a folder called “Action” in Outlook/Exchange where I store the emails that I need to reply to.

I quite like this ‘… sentences’ approach to writing emails, however. It offers four options:

According to these sites, the problem is that “email takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.”

Their solution: “treat all email responses like SMS text messages, using a set number of letters per response. Since it’s too hard to count letters, we count sentences instead.”

It’s certainly an interesting solution. I’m sure there are some situations where it won’t work, where you simply need to write more, where telephone or face-to-face conversations are not convenient (which may be a better forums for lengthier discussions).

I’m going to give this a go for the next month or so and see how I get on. Choose your weapon: two, three, four or five sentences.

Pomodoro technique for productivity

Pomodoro tomato kitchen timer
Pomodoro tomato kitchen timer

A few months ago I came across a productivity technique called Pomodoro. The name comes from a Pomodoro kitchen timer that the creator of the technique first used; pomodoro is Italian for ‘tomato’.

The technique is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility. It combines five steps:

  1. Choose a task to complete.
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer to 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task, uninterrupted, until the timer rings.
  4. Take a short break (5 minutes).
  5. Every four ‘Pomodoros’ take a longer break (15-20 minutes).

Windows 7 gadget

I thought I’d give it a go and not having a kitchen timer to hand went to look for a Windows 7 gadget that would give me this functionality. But I really didn’t like any of the specifically Pomodoro gadgets. They were either ugly (sorry), took up too much room, offered more eye candy than functionality, or were locked into a strict 25 minutes/5 minutes cycle.

This week, however, I discovered the Work/Break Cycle Timer from Daniel (he doesn’t supply his surname):

Screenshot of instructions showing how the timer works

First off it is compact and just looks great.

The timer has two states (white and blue). Set the white timer to how ever long you want to focus on work, the length of your break is set using the blue timer. An alarm goes off when the timer reaches zero; or, alternatively, the timer can control your iTunes, pausing it for the break.

The timers are easily set by clicking and dragging the hours, minutes and seconds digits up or down with the mouse.

So far I’ve found it a very useful little gadget.

Review of GTD Agenda

Gtdagenda.com

Back in October I got an email from Dan Baluta from Gtdagenda.com asking if I’d take a look his web application.

Of course, I was delighted to … but then a few things got in the way (I came down with a bug, and then Reuben and Joshua arrived, and then I got shingles, and then I didn’t sleep for a few months!).

Finally, this week, I’ve managed to have a good poke around the application and get to grips with much of what it does. Here are my initial impressions.

Getting Things Done

As the name might suggest Gtdagenda.com is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method of productivity.

In the words of David Allen himself:

… the subtle effectiveness of GTD lies in its radically common sense notion that with a complete and current inventory of all your commitments, organized and reviewed in a systematic way, you can focus clearly, view your world from optimal angles and make trusted choices about what to do (and not do) at any moment.

GTD embodies an easy, step-by-step and highly efficient method for achieving this relaxed, productive state.

It includes:

  • Capturing anything and everything that has your attention
  • Defining actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps
  • Organizing reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access them
  • Keeping current and “on your game” with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions)

GTD core

As such, Gtdagenda.com has four main tabs which are at the heart of the application:

  1. Goals
    Record your primary areas of responsibility, assign them to categories (e.g. work or personal)
  2. Projects
    Define your projects, assign them to related goals and give them a priority (1-5).
  3. Tasks
    List the tasks required to carry our your projects, tell the application which project they belong to, and what its Context is (these are defined elsewhere).
  4. Next Actions
    Lists the tasks that you’ve assigned as Next Actions — ideally you’ll have one task per project classed as a next action, as projects move forward one task at a time. Next Actions can be emailed to you on a daily basis, which is quite neat.

Additional features

Besides the core four tabs that are at the heart of GTD Agenda there are three further sections:

  1. Checklists
    I love this utility: define things that you need to do often (e.g. exercise or update your blog) and then check them off when you do them. (See screenshot below.)
  2. Schedules
    Schedule daily or weekly activities; these can be linked to projects.
  3. Calendar
    It’s a calendar!

Checklist and graph
Screenshot from the checklist screen

I was about to write that there were four further sections, because above the Checklists, Schedules and Calendar options there’s a button for “Contacts”. I expected that this would have allowed me to record key contacts related to projects or tasks but it appears instead to allow you to send invitations to friends. But it doesn’t explain exactly what the invitation is for.

The official tour

For more details, including more screenshots, check out the Some of the things Gtdagenda can help you with page.

As an aside, it’s a shame that this page isn’t linked to once you’re logged into GTD Agenda. It might be more useful than the existing Help page, which would be better labelled “Support”.

Prices

There are three price plans for GTD Agenda: Free, Basic and Premium. As you’d expect the more you pay the more features you receive.

Features Free Basic Premium
Goals 3 30 Unlimited
Projects 5 50 Unlimited
Contexts 5 50 Unlimited
Tasks Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Price Free $39.45 / year $69.95 / year

These were correct at the time of review, check the GTD Agenda website for up-to-date details.

My impressions

Ease of use

On the whole I found GTD Agenda pretty easy to use, but that’s because I’m already pretty familiar with the GTD methodology. I wonder how easy someone less familiar would find it, particularly as the Help option is more than sparce. I had to log out and check out the guided tour pages to find out more about some of the features.

As a test I took a few of my actual Goals, Projects and Tasks and entered them into GTD Agenda. It only took me a few minutes and the results were pretty decent. Clicking on “Move domain hosting” project gave me a good overview of the project (start date, related goal, number of tasks, progress and notes).

Goals

While I found it easy to add new goals I couldn’t work out why GTD Agenda had immediately categorised two of my goals as “Completed”. Sure enough they had no projects assigned to them, but neither did two other goals and they were classed as Active. I wasn’t sure if I was simply misunderstanding the model that it was using, other if this was a bug.

What does annoy me though is the compacted list of “My Goals” that appears at the top of every page. I don’t think it helps and it takes up too much valuable screen space.

Tasks vs Next Actions

I find the two tabs for Tasks and Next Actions to be a little cumbersome, I would have preferred one but with more options.

The Tasks tab shows a list of all defined tasks; the Next Actions tab is essentially a filter to display only those tasks that have been defined as the next action to take a particular project forward. I can see why this has been done, but I think that it would have been more efficient to have done this on the Tasks tab.

At the moment within Tasks you can group your list by either priority or project. I would have liked two further options: as I said, show Next Actions, and Group by Context. That’s how I work: within a particular context, e.g. sitting at my desk, I like to see a list of all the tasks that I could do here.

Disappointments

Aesthetics

I remember WordPress before version 1.0. It was nowhere near as slick as the current version (in fact, here’s a screenshot of WordPress 0.7.1, which is the first version that I ever used):

WordPress 0.7.1

So I have hope for GTD Agenda, because I think that its design is the weakest aspect of the application.

Having been using ZenDesk and BaseCamp for a few months GTD Agenda by comparison feels somewhat clunky and a bit retro. The application, in my opinion, could do with the loving attention of a Web designer and information architect.

Even a brief liaison with a CSS Framework would make the world of difference.

Heading

I find the heading “Gtdagenda.com” difficult to read and am disappointed that you can’t click it to take you back to your GTD Agenda Home page. Not least because I instinctively do it time and again.

Layout

How some of the screens are presented too could do with some strategic tweaking, for example, how categories and priorities are displayed. As an example rather than the priorities being listed at the end of each line (see below):

My list of goals

I’d have preferred the use of headings to clearly group Priority 1, Priority 2, etc. I don’t find the “Priority 1 line” useful, not least because the text is 6 pixels high and I’ve got bad eyesight.

Integration with existing systems

I already use a number of tools, desktop, mobile and online, to carry out my GTD-style organisation. I use Microsoft Outlook synchronized with my mobile phone, and also occasionally with a Psion and a Google Calendar (depending on my requirements).

But there was no way for me to import any of that information into GTD Agenda. Everything I wanted to enter into GTD Agenda had to be done manually. And once it was in there, I couldn’t get it out again — there is no obvious way for me to export my data other the calendar as an iCal feed into Outlook 2007.

As such, if you start using GTD Agenda it looks like you’re locked into using it exclusively. And if you don’t have Web access where you are you can’t easily add new tasks, although if you have mobile Web access there is a mobile version: www.gtdagenda.mobi/.

Conclusion

On the whole I like Gtdagenda.com. It has some useful functionality, it’s quick and easy to setup (assuming that you know your way around the GTD method) and has some nice features (email notifications of tasks, iCal feed, checklists), and I like the sidebar featuring a calendar, and lists of contexts and projects.

If I were to give it a score, I’d give it 3/5. It’s not quite polished enough but if some of the minor design flaws were tweaked, the application given a facelift I think and the import/export issue addressed I think GTD Agenda could be a really useful tool, even the free version.

Certainly, if you’re looking for a Web-based tool for managing your life in a GTD-style then certainly consider GTD Agenda, or at least keep an eye on its progress.

How I took back my life

Filing

On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!

Crisis

Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for

PDA/Outlook

Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.

Process

Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.