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Overflow error: need for better organization and management

I know that I have too much on my mind when:

  1. I have a brilliant idea
  2. I realize that I can’t do anything with it right now
  3. I realize that if I don’t record it, I will lose it, because I have a lot to think about
  4. I consider creating a list of ideas to come back to later
  5. I notice that I have already done this (and forgotten about it)
  6. I open the list, and notice that the idea I just had is already on it
  7. It has been there for a year
  8. This is not the first time this has happened

I’ve been thinking lately that I need to put some energy into organizing my life better, and this is a good example of why.  I am flooded with information, creative ideas, desires, and responsibilities through my work, study, home life and reflection.  I have no illusions about being able to fully honor all of these: that is clearly impossible.  However, I instinctively feel that I could do a much better job of sorting and prioritizing them to maximize my personal effectiveness and satisfaction.

I am a great fan of keeping lists: to-do lists, agendas, my inbox, journals, and other tools all serve to help me capture my thoughts and consider them in a larger context.  Rather than reacting to them one by one, I can look at all of them together and make a conscious choice about what to do right now.  List-keeping is one of the most basic strategies of personal organization, and practicing it has made a dramatic difference in my life.

However, I can see that it is no longer sufficient, and that in order to continue to improve, I will need something more powerful.  I’m not looking for a new list management tool: Remember the Milk, Futz, Tomboy, Jott, and many others provide highly optimized list-keeping facilities.  I don’t use any of them myself (being a text file junkie), but they look great, and offer the right tradeoffs for different people.  My method list-keeping is good enough for me, for now.  Rather, list-keeping is not enough.

Similarly, scheduling has been a successful strategy for me, helping me to decide how I spend my time.  I am not as proficient in scheduling as I am in list-keeping, but I understand the basics and apply them.

What I need is a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about this problem which incorporates and transcends list-keeping and scheduling, and addresses their shortcomings.  I’ve only just begun to research this area, and so far, the most relevant material I’ve found has come from Stephen Covey’s classic text The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  “Habit 3” describes a historical progression of time management tools and approaches which resonates with my personal experience, and prescribes next steps to improve upon it.  I’m not sure yet whether it’s the right direction for me, but here is what I think so far.

Things I like about it:

  • Explicit recognition of the various roles I occupy in my life
  • Helping to balance priorities across different roles
  • Promoting preventative and growth activities, in balance with day-to-day progress

Things which I feel are missing:

  • Simplicity: It seems like a lot of bookkeeping, compared to how I’m used to doing things.  I want a system which is as lightweight as possible, because organizational tools which create friction are self-defeating.
  • Feedback: I want a mechanism which helps me to regularly evaluate what I’ve done and improve upon it.  This should be as easy and automatic as possible, without requiring too much time tracking and data entry
  • Technology: As a technologist, I’m always looking for ways to bring the latest technology to bear on my problems, to make me more efficient.  Covey’s approach was designed without the benefit of the past 20 years of Internet revolution, and the software which is based on it seems a bit dry and monolithic.

Dear readers, do you find yourselves in a similar position?  What are you using to manage your life?  What else did you try?  What was good or bad about it?


Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 14, 2009 at 15:43

Posted in Uncategorized

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15 Responses

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  1. David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ book is a must in this area. It will work with your lists and give you new ways to incorporate them into your daily life.

    No organizational tool is easy to use at first. It takes work to get it to be easy. Things will break the first few months.

    Once you’re there though you just coast along. Now its just a few minutes a day adding to plans and checking things off. I spend about a half hour a week dedicated to review and goal planning.

    Life is much easier now with a plan.


    June 14, 2009 at 17:19

  2. I’m very chaotic in my thinking and tend to forget loads of things because I want to do so much.
    I’ve tried tomboy, gdesklet notes and other list keeping, eye killing programs but I keep on forgetting things.
    As a student it’s also very hard to combine a webdev job, FOSS development, school and fun.

    I usually end up doing something and while doing that thinking of one of the many things I forgot.

    I always wanted to take the time to setup a good caldav server that has a web interface and get desktop and phone clients to sync with it. To keep track of all the stuff I still have to do.
    But I haven’t taken/made/had the time to do that.

    It would be awesome if you found a solution :P

    Bert Van de Poel

    June 14, 2009 at 17:22

  3. Thanks for your comment. Can you give me any more detail about why it has worked well for you, or whether it addresses any of the missing elements I highlighted?

    I know a number of people who apply GTD, though I haven’t yet studiet it myself.


    June 14, 2009 at 17:23

    • Why has GTD worked for me? Because I applied the methodology.

      Now to go into the longer explanation. I have found that when people are looking for a new way to do something they will read about different systems and incorporate all but ‘this one thing because I don’t like it for XXXX reason’. Well what you have been doing isn’t working because you are looking for a new solution. GTD may not be the solution that ultimatly works for you but whatever method you chose give it a fair shot. Take the principles and apply them in their entirety for the first two months. Don’t toss out something because it is not the way you work. It was realizing this idea that I gave GTD a fair shot and after I saw it working for me I molded things to me a bit and that is just in a workflow type of thing.

      Now to address some of your issues in your post.

      Simplicity. Any method of organization is going to involve bookkeeping at some level. Getting started is always going to add friction to your life in learning the new process. Get beyond the starting point and see how much of the friction goes away as the rough edges are smoothed and you start gliding.

      Feedback. Review is, as others here have pointed out, a core belief in the GTD methodology and actually relies on it to work. Review and prep takes time at the beginning. Now a few minutes at the beginning and/or end of the day (goes to workflow) to review and about 30 minutes to prepare the week and month ahead and I’m good.

      Technology. That can actually get in the way at first. Looking for the program that someone else has written that works best for you in a methodology that you’re learning at the moment. Even if you have the skills to write the code for yourself you don’t know the method enough to do it. That being said I’ve found MonkeyGTD to be the most useful technologically oriented tool to work the GTD ideas. I do keep a little notebook with me for when I’m in an electronically technological deprived situation. I’ve also got a friend that uses the HipsterPDA with some preprinted cards from templates. Most people I know who employ GTD do so with a paper planner and physical file folders. Its a workflow thing.

      Bottom line is what works for some will not work for you. However when I hear a majority of my friends (or commentors) saying something might help I’ll look into it. And from my experience most everyone that discovers GTD and incorporates all (or most) of the principles wind up with a much more productive and less stressed life.


      June 15, 2009 at 21:50

  4. GTD works for some, a variation on the theme is the time management for system administrators book which is available on Safari and is an O’Rielly book.

    The brief version is you maintain a calendar for big picture view of what’s going on. You also set up what your goals in work and otherwise are, timeframes for goals are along the lines of ‘this month’ ‘this year’ and ‘long term’ (the last may be a 5 year goal, or a goal along the lines of ‘retire with a healthy savings account at the age of 50’) Finally you maintain a daily to-do/schedule page, for which you can use your Franklin Covey planner, or do on a PDA, etc. On the ToDo list you put down every task. Estimate how long it will take, prioritize it with ‘needs to be done now (today),’ ‘needs to be done soon (this week)’ and ‘needs to be done sometime (month?)’ (you may add ‘may not need to be done at all’) On the daily schedule at the begining of the day you put down any scheduled meetings, time for lunch, and time to leave the office. Now you know how much time you have to work on the priority ordered items on the ToDo list. About 10 min before the end of the work day, move any incomplete tasks to tomorrow. As tasks are done, check them off on the PDA, or line through them in the planner.

    If you stay with the planner, only keep the current month of daily sheets in the planner. add a ‘day’ task a couple of days before the end of the month to bring in the next month’s sheets. Add reminders for birthdays, holidays, etc. add tasks related to goals for the month ahead at opportune times of the month.

    Obviously there is a lot more to the program.

    There are two ‘problems’ with PDA and SmartPhone based planners. They take time to initiate, and almost none are flexible enough to work in ways that the developer didn’t envision. E.g. you want to color code tasks as work/family/hobby? Hmm, that’s a good idea, we’ll add it to the wish list for development down the line. vs. use blue highlighter to code work tasks, Yellow for family, green for hobby.

    But things are getting better there. Who knows what tasks and Google calender in combination can accomplish.

    Most powerful recommendation in the entire book though is to do your planning for the day before you open your e-mail.


    June 14, 2009 at 18:25

  5. I think a lot of people have the same problem..

    I’ll probably just make a ~/todo/ and fill it with text files named by date. the text file of the day is always open, and all my thoughts, things to do, random data, all that go in it.

    Kinda pathetic though..


    June 14, 2009 at 19:39

    • Ethana2, (and everyone else)
      Look into the package “tdl” (To Do List)

      It provides priority, long descriptions, checking stuff off as done, etc.
      It can also generate reports of things. I haven’t played with some of the advanced features, but I use it as a simple to do list.

      It works well with nested things, storing the database in the local directory, or looking up the tree for it, etc. Which means you can keep various separate ones in a directory tree that makes sense for you (and then put stuff in the directories as well).

      Oh, and its all terminal based. I’m unaware of any front ends for it, but not being pretty doesn’t bother me.

      Hopefully that helps!


      June 14, 2009 at 22:15

  6. Simplicity: With GTD you’ll likely end up doing less bookkeeping compared to conventional list-based systems where you have to keep updating daily/weekly/monthly lists. The main point of GTD is getting things out of your mind and into a reliable external system that you’ve built yourself, and you can tailor it to your requirements as long as you keep that element intact.

    Feedback: Reviewing and reflecting upon your activities is an important part of GTD, and using specialized software can make it easier.

    Technology: Take a look at Tracks and todo.txt.

    My feeling is that you’ll find value in studying GTD even if you end up not using it.


    June 14, 2009 at 20:45

  7. I read the GTD book, but found that strict adherence to what it lays out is not necessarily the best thing. The system that I use follows the basic concepts laid out in GTD, but with my own twists that allow me to better organize my life.

    Getting the ideas out of your head helps alot. Unfortunately, I have not been able to create an organizational system that I’m happy with. I currently use tomboy/thunderbird/sunbird, but find that I want more integration, and am frustrated that I do not have a synchronization system nor a mobile device that is capable of any note-taking. Hope you find a system that works for you.

    Kevin DuBois

    June 14, 2009 at 20:56

  8. I got into that kind of situation some years ago, with increasing demands on my time from work, personal life, hobbies and so on and so forth. It eventually got completely unmaintainable.

    Organizing your life better will of course help a lot, but it doesn’t take away the main problem, which is that you’re way overbooking yourself. Even if the number of commitments doesn’t change, the nature of things is to gradually demand more and more time – time which you finally do not have.

    What I did was to consciously cut the number of commitments and the amount of time I was willing to spend on each. Yes, that meant deliberately and openly limit the number of hours I spend with work (still work more hours than my contract calls for) and be open about it to my employers – all of whom turned out to be perfectly fine with it. It also meant I gave up translation work for Gnome. It was fun, but in the end some things had to go, and that was one of those things.

    For work, the easiest way to limit yourself is to keep a strict schedule: be at work at the same time each day, and leave at the same time. Aim to catch the same train (or bus or whatever) each and every day. If you have to scramble to finish something before your daily deadline that’s fine, but don’t get tempted to stay around for a while longer just to finish up – there’s -always- more things to finish and soon you’re staying an hour extra every day, then two hours, then… If you need to hit a specific external – and nonregular – deadline then crunch time is fine of course, but make it -real- 24/7 crunch time, and immediately go back to your regular schedule once that emergency is past.

    And really, we tend to fill our available time with the work we have. I’ve noticed that I actually don’t get any less done at work by keeping a self-limiting schedule; I simply tend to work at a pace that gets me where I need to be at the end of each day. I think this is especially true for intellectual work, where a fair amount of the time is really spent thinking things over rather than doing stuff. Which does make me wonder just how much I could cut my workday and still get exactly the same end results…


    June 15, 2009 at 02:01

  9. Have things front-and-center and waiting for you at the start of each day! I find that writing text notes is invaluable sometimes; I also like how Tomboy stays open, so that the next time I start up my notebook all the Tomboy windows I had open last time are open.

    I also suggest establishing a routine, including a healthy sleep schedule. Speaking of which, good night!

    Jared Spurbeck

    June 15, 2009 at 04:52

  10. What you need is WOIM:

    The model is even self-describing. The following WOIM list shows the legal structure and syntax of a WOIM list:

    [1+] WOIM-item; OPTIONS:
    Identifier (numbered: x.y.z…)
    Multi-line indicator (an asterisk)
    State/Transition (S:/T:)
    Operator: (in capitals, ending in a colon)
    Count & condition
    * Format = [x,y ?condition]
    (from/to = [x,y], x or more = [x+], less than x = [<x],
    from x to y while z=0 = [x,y?z=0], list of items to be
    applied = [A,B,C,D], etc. [?] is short form for optional item)
    Tag (ends in a colon)
    * Attribute(=value): (any specifics such as
    Responsible=Someone:, Location=Somewhere:, etc.)
    Reference (prefixed with # (#REF))
    * To an item in the same list (to jump to another item
    or to make the list recursive), to another WOIM list
    or item in another list. Use the key words (in capitals)
    SKIP to end the parent WOIM item, END to terminate the list
    Comment (in parenthesis)
    Item separator (semicolon) (adds another #WOIM-item on same line)
    Line break
    [?] indent (to add a child item)
    #WOIM-item (the child)

    More? See this site: http://www.isene.com/artweb.cgi?article=012-woim.txt

    It even has a VIM plugin: http://vim.sourceforge.net/scripts/script.php?script_id=2518

    Rubén Romero

    June 15, 2009 at 09:26

  11. From what you’ve written, the key thing that GTD would add is the periodic review. You’re already getting things out of your head and onto (virtual) paper. The next step is to have a routine for reviewing the things that you’re dumping.

    David Edmondson

    June 15, 2009 at 09:34

    • Thanks for your input.

      Most of my lists have to do with a particular person, project, etc. which serves as a trigger point. When I have my next periodic meeting with that person or project, I can refer to the list.

      It’s things which don’t fit into a bucket which I tend to “lose” as described in this anecdote. Getting into a daily habit of reviewing the “unclassified” bucket might help.


      June 15, 2009 at 21:15

  12. […] writes on ideas, organization and overflow, and that he’s ending up with so many awesome ideas, that even when he notes them down for […]

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