How I took back my life


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!


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


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.


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.

Scotland on Rails — three months on

The JRuby Guys at Scotland on Rails
A presentation by the JRuby Guys (Charles Nutter and Thomas Enebo) at Scotland on Rails.

This is a post that I’ve had sitting in my WordPress drafts since early April about the Scotland on Rails conference that I attended, actually the same weekend that Jane and I discovered that she was pregnant … so that made it a memorable event.

It’s been quite useful to come back to it after three months, because some things have settled in somewhat. I’ve had the chance to reflect quite fully on my experience of that two day conference (over a Friday and Saturday) and realise what I really took from it that has been valuable.

Initial response

This was my initial response, written a couple of days after the conference:


In many ways the conference was excellent:

  • Great location and venue (South Hall Complex, Pollock Halls in Edinburgh)
  • Very well organised
  • Interesting, knowledgeable and passionate speakers
  • Friendly delegates
  • Plenty of space (both physically and in the timetable) to mill about and meet with folks


However, in many ways I personally found the conference disappointing

… and that’s as far as I got. Now we’ll never know.

Seasoned reflection

What I struggled with mostly was simply my inexperience with the Ruby on Rails (often abbreviated to just ‘Rails’) framework and Ruby as a language. So I sat through presentation after presentation that went into the nuts and bolts of the framework/language, and entirely over my head.

What I went there hoping to get a sense of was what sort of projects Rails could be used for within our university setting. I guess I was looking for more of a Show and Tell kind of stream of talks. Wow me with what cool and funky projects you’ve been using Rails for.

Instead it felt like, in many ways, a conference for über-geeks. The opening keynote presentation was about the new features in the next version of Rails; but in microscopic detail. It was like having an interest in rally cars and going to a conference about rally cars, but the opening speech being about how they manufacture the nuts, bolts and components that make up the engine.

The second keynote speech the following day, by David A Black was — in stark contrast — inspirational. It was deep, artistic, philosophical and simply inspiring.

The other notable presentation, for me, was by The JRuby Guys. They were approachable, entertaining and very knowledgable. What interested me most was that JRuby is essentially a “Java powered Ruby implementation”. It allows you to run Ruby (and Ruby on Rails) within a Java environment. Our servers are mostly Sun machines, which have Java built-in, which means that if we wanted to adopt Rails for any projects this would be an excellent way to deploy them with as few hiccups as possible.


But despite the numerous presentations that went entirely over my head (I thought MVC was a music and video store rather than a programming architectural pattern) the one thing that I took away was a real respect and appreciation for Agile software development and Test/Story-Driven Development (TDD/SDD).

The examples of agile that were shared in the various groups and presentations made perfect sense to me, I could see the practical uses of it in my own work at St Andrews. That’s what I ultimately got out of the Scotland on Rails conference; well, that and a free t-shirt! Oh, and the O’Reilly stall made a bob or two from me.

Interestingly at a recent staff meeting we’ve agreed to look more closely at Agile. I’m looking forward to that, and I have the Scotland on Rails conference to thank most sincerely for that.

Fife on wheels, Scotland on Rails, Gareth on Twitter


Fife on wheels

I can’t remember … much actually! No, I can’t remember any other new year where I’ve been clobbered with quite so many bugs as this one.

I seem to have had at least one new stomach bug or virus each month. Some months I was greedy and had at least two.

So I approached going out on my bike for a half-hour cycle last night with some trepidation. I still didn’t feel 100% and I didn’t want to push myself over the edge. Or indeed pedal myself over the edge. But I went out, all the same.

My word! Did I feel great today!

(Answer: yes.)

So I went out again this evening.

Scotland on Rails

I predict that tomorrow I’ll feel even greater.

Or at least I would, if it were not for the fact that I need to be picking up my colleague (Dougal*) in St Andrews at 06:30 and driving to the two day Scotland on Rails conference in Edinburgh.

Gareth on Twitter

I don’t expect to be blogging from the conference, but I shall likely be Twittering from my electric mobile telecommunications device. You can follow me at

By the way, Scotland on Rails isn’t about railways or trainspotting, it’s about Ruby on Rails, a programming framework brought to life by the lovely folks at 37Signals.


  • My colleague isn’t really called Dougal. He’s called Kevin. But since he introduced me to colleagues at the University of Edinburgh during a meeting there last month as Darren I’ve been calling him something different every time I see him. Even if his enquiry is important to us!

More tea vicar

Baptism party

Today Jane and I were in Edinburgh for the baptism of our nephew Aidan.

En route we managed to buy me a really nice dinner suit (for only £95) from Slater Menswear on George Street in preparation for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain‘s 25th anniversary concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall next month.

We also popped into John Lewis to get a couple of presents. Which is where I spotted this mug and teapot.

Teapot with More Tea Vicar on it, next to a mug saying God

That’s like the best tea party you could ever hope for!

On our way home we popped in to see my brother Eddie in South Queensferry … where we had our tea. More tea vicar?

A lovely, relaxed day with family and friends.

Everyone wants to meet me again

This morning in the internal mail at the University I received an invitation to the Reunion 2008, since this year it will be 15 years since I graduated from St Andrews.

This afternoon in my email I received an invitation to the New College (University of Edinburgh) Reunion of Divinity Alumni. I graduated from there nine years ago.

Why, after all this time does everyone want to meet me again? Don’t they know I have a blog?

And I’m on Facebook.

And about a million other Web 2.0 social networking sites.