My good friend Eric Mack (for all the jokes I throw at him, he really is a good friend, my second best one actually) introduced me to David Allen’s work in 1997-1998, and I purchased the Managing Actions & Projects tape series when I was up in California in June 1999. I’ve tried to embrace it ever since, some times better than others. Right now is one of the better times, mainly because (a) I’m doing the weekly review, and (b) I have a system that works across the two primary computers in my life. In this post I want to describe how I use Microsoft Entourage, a BlackBerry 8707v and two Apple Macs to help me get things done!
To be fair, however, we need to put the horse before the cart. My choice of the Apple Macintosh as my primary productivity platform drives every choice about add-on software and devices.
(yet another long post!)
The Hardware: Apple Mac
I described in my essay My Productivity Equation is C – I + R = P. What’s Yours? why I embraced the Mac platform:
Any time I’ve become regularly aware of my computer taking too long to save a file, open an application or perform a requested operation, I buy a newer-better-faster one. There was a time when I was purchasing a new Toshiba laptop every 6 months! A faster processor, a better screen and more memory generally pushed the computer-as-disruptor down below the radar level. This is also why I ultimately gave up on Windows-based machines as my primary productivity environment in mid-2003 and shifted across to Apple Mac. I was experiencing daily interruptions from Windows-as-operating system (rather than the Toshiba hardware) in the form of virus vulnerability alerts and “new security problems” from Microsoft; I threw my hands up in despair and dropped US$4000 on new Apple hardware (including a 23″ monitor!) Although I still have 4 Windows-based computers in the office, I don’t see myself going back to Windows as my primary productivity environment.
(A confession. One of my Windows computers is a Lenovo/IBM ThinkPad T60, and it is a seriously nice machine that behaves itself as I’ve come to expect a machine to behave. It’s really testing my resolve to stay Apple pure!)
So I have two Apple Macs in my office …
- One for research projects, blogging, michaelsampson.net and all the personal stuff … A PowerBook 15″ connected to a side-on 23″ monitor sits on one desk in the office. It’s on this one that I do all of my research projects (big and small), blog reading, blog writing, etc. Perhaps you could say this machine is my writing retreat.
- One for my Foldera job … An Apple iMac 20″ connected to a 23″ Cinema Display, for 43″ of display real-estate (the iMac is Foldera’s, the Cinema Display is mine). It’s an awesome setup for doing my Foldera work, and the expansive screen real-estate is really helpful for juggling the multitude of windows I have open.
Following David’s advice to “keep one list of next actions across your business and personal lives” I needed a way of keeping everything in sync across the two machines. When I’m working on the PowerBook, I want to be able to view my complete list of commitments, add next actions, mark things complete and so-on and know that those updates will appear automagically on the iMac when I’m in front of that. And the same dynamic and wish-list applies when I’m in front of the iMac. Having a list that only worked on one of the machines and thus having to constantly slide across to that desk to work with my lists would be a pain.
The Software: Microsoft Entourage
Here’s my list of requirements for a software product as a trusted system to hold my GTD-related stuff:
- Mac Support … It must work on Apple Macintosh, and the lists must synchronize seamlessly and generally flawlessly across at least two machines.
- Filtering … It must enable me to see only a list of projects, or only a list of next actions, or only a list of next actions within a specific context.
- Action/Project Linkage … I must be able to see all of the next actions related to a specific project.
- Mobile Device Support … It must synchronize with my mobile device of choice for on-the-go list review, item entry and work/life productivity. That is currently a BlackBerry.
After a bit of a look-see at what was available, I’ve settled for the time being on Microsoft Entourage 2004, a component of Microsoft’s Office for the Mac 2004.
There are two design decisions in Entourage that almost ruin it for me, and you have to be aware of these. When I describe how I use Entourage, you’ll see that the interaction between these two decision decisions and my need to use two machines seamlessly drive many of my in-use decisions:
- Categories don’t sync across computers … When I set the category on a task item to “Next Actions” on one Mac and then go visit the other one, the category on the second is blank. It doesn’t synchronize! A Microsoft engineer in one of the forums I explored when shaking my head in disbelief on this effectively said “we designed project sharing in Entourage for the use case of multiple people each with a machine each, rather than one person/multiple machines. I’m disappointed that they don’t support both, but I get why it is done the way it is. The implication for me is that I had to come up with a way of working around this design decision in my world.
- Item linkage doesn’t sync across computers … It is possible to link multiple items together in Entourage, thus creating a balanced web of linkages between tasks, calendar items, emails and more. This could be used for showing actions in context of projects, for example. However item linkage also doesn’t synchronize across computers, rendering it a waste of time for me. Again, I had to come up with a way of working around this.
Here’s what I do:
- Assign everything to an Entourage project … An Entourage project is a collection of emails, calendar entries and tasks that can be shared with another person (or computer). I assign every task to a project called “Michael’s GTD” so that it flows to the other Mac in my life. And by default I share every item in the project.
- Prefix every task with category or context … When I use the Entourage task box to create a project, I prefix it with MP(10), FP(10) or PP(10). The (10) is due to projects being at David’s “10,000 ft level”, the “P” is for project, and “M”, “F” and “P” is for Michael, Foldera and Personal respectively. So a task prefixed with MP(10)- is a project for Michael. One with FP(10)- is a project for Foldera, and PP(10)- is a family project. All next actions are prefixed with “SNA-“, an idea I picked up from Sally McGhee. Responsibility areas at the 20,000ft level are prefixed with R(20), and I again divide these across Michael with MR(20), Foldera with FR(20) and Family with PR(20). It might sound overdone, but I don’t find it complex at all. It really helps me be clear about what something is … a project, a task, a responsibility area, etc. Here’s an example of some of my MP(10) projects:
- Have a single “Next Actions” category, not a multitude … I know that David’s standard advice is to have a category for each context in which you want to get things done, but I don’t use categories in that way in my implementation. I have essentially a single “Next Actions” category (prefix of “SNA”), and then add the context as the next few letters. For example:
- SNA-C … next actions, phone calls
- SNA-D … next actions, at desk
- SNA-E … next actions, email
- SNA-H … next actions, home, garage or grounds work
- SNA-OC … next actions, errands in Christchurch
- SNA-MM … next actions, mindmapping in MindManager
- SNA-I … next actions, on Internet
- SNA-WF … next actions, waiting for
- Include a project code in everything … Because I want to see what next actions I have linked to a specific project, I assign a project code to each project, and then repeat that description of each associated next action. Thus a project would start with “FP(10)-FP03-” for example, with FP03 saying that it was Foldera project 03. Associated next actions would start with “SNA-D-FP03-“, saying that it’s a next action to do at my desk and is associted with project FP03. If the next action isn’t associated with a project, there’s no project code. What this means in my Weekly Review, however, is that I can iterate through all of my projects using the Entourage search function and ensure that every current project has at least one next action associated with it. Here’s part of a screen shot (hi Dan!):
- Still use categories, even though they aren’t synchronized. Since categories can be color-coded, I still assign the appropriate category to each of my items, because it gives a quick visual distinction when looking at the overall list as to what something actually is. During my Weekly Review I assign categories to things that were created on the other Mac. Given the search function in Entourage (show every task with P(10) for example), it is very quick to list all projects, select them all, and click to assign the category of “Project”. Here’s the current list of categories I use (Entourage doesn’t permit you to get rid of the “Junk” category, grrrr):
Other software products that I looked and discounted were:
- Lotus Notes … Notes would work, and it would work across multiple multiple Macs and Windows PCs for totally transparent, seamless and flawless GTDing. But I decided that I wanted to use something other than Notes in this case.
- Marketcircle Daylite 3 … Nicely engineered piece of work that brings many things together into a single client. I was put off by the hard distinction between projects and tasks (Entourage lets me do it in a lightweight way), and the price of $149 per user. I’m sure the value is there if you need the wider attributes that Daylite offers, but I didn’t. And I already owned Entourage 2004, so there was no addition cost to pay. On the positive side, the BlackBerry would sync with it due to the free synchronization software available via Research in Motion for BlackBerry users. See Daylite 3
- Kinkless GTD … Kinkless GTD is a set of AppleScript add-ins for the OmniOutliner Professional outliner tool. There were some kinks in its implementation in my world, however. Firstly, it wouldn’t work across two computers. Secondly, I couldn’t get it to synchronize with iCal, which it apparently does out-of-the-box. Thirdly, it wouldn’t sync with my BlackBerry. Fourthly, in order to see actions in the context of projects, you have to click a button to re-generate your lists by project or context. So it didn’t work for me, but others think it is great. See Kinkless
So that’s my setup on Entourage. I’m pleased with it. It gives me relaxed control. I trust it because I review my lists regularly, keep it up-to-date, and do a Weekly Review.
The Mobile Device: BlackBerry 8707v
I’m not always in front of my computers, and so need the ability to capture thoughts when I’m out-and-about, need the ability to review my lists when I’m in Christchurch, for example, and just generally love gadgets ;-). I was a long-time Palm user, but don’t have a Palm at the moment. I have tried Windows Mobile multiple times, and have always found it unreliable (that’s the polite word for my reaction). I’m currently using a BlackBerry 8707v, the successor to the BlackBerry 8700 that I first used. It is a great device … full QWERTY keyboard, full synchronization with my Mac, and I could even get wireless email on it if I felt that was necessary (I don’t at the moment).
My Entourage lists sync fine with the BlackBerry, and any changes from the BlackBerry sync back seamlessly. The only additional step after adding something on the BlackBerry is to add it to “Michael’s GTD” project in Entourage so that it sync’s with the second computer, but that’s not a big issue. Entourage offers the ability to show all tasks that aren’t associated with a project, so it’s just a few clicks once a day or once a week to get everything flowing right.
My BlackBerry offers a search function in the tasks part, so that I can filter on categories (if necessary), or I can filter on words/phrases in tasks. One of the most common filters I apply is “SNA-OC”, that is, show me the complete list of tasks that I have to do while I’m in Christchurch. When done, I mark it complete on the BlackBerry, sync when I’m back in the office, and I’m done.
Well that’s me. GTD has been a life-saver for me in terms of keeping all of my responsibility areas, projects and next actions in alignment. Have you got any ideas on how I could do things even better?
And more importantly, how do you handle GTD across multiple computers, Mac or PC? Have you found a way to make it work?