Struggles with GTD and possible solutions

Unclutterer reader MrsMack recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My … struggle is with the GTD method. I’ve read the book and I think it could work really well for me, but the required cleared-schedule, back-to-back two days to get started is so intimidating and too overwhelming. I don’t have the liberty to turn my life off for two days to work without interruption. How can I ease into this?

I first discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity when I was an IT Director at a residential school. That was a crazy job, as I was supporting about 80 computers, a network and more, including heading up the help desk for there school’s 100 employees. It was easy to feel overwhelmed and I often did. Fortunately, I discovered David Allen’s method.

Adopting it in earnest took a lot of work, not just in my own behavior but in the materials I was using. I felt it was worth the effort, but I also realized how much effort was involved. Processing everything in my work life to get “clean and clear” took days. Personally, I recommend taking time off and completing the work as he suggests. I found it saved me time and frustration over the longterm. However, I know this isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you genuinely don’t have two days to dedicate to this process, the following are the alternatives I suggest:

Pick the area that’s most in need of attention and focus on it for as long as you can (two hours? four?). You might have enough time to get your desk/work area and your work projects “clean and clear.” Then simply “GTD” (if I may use it as a verb) that aspect of your life. This will reduce the overwhelmed feeling and get you comfortable with the system, so that when you’re ready to tackle the next area, like that pesky garage, you’ll be an experienced machine.

I do believe in David Allen’s method, especially in the very real feeling of being on top of everything that comes from getting “clean and clear.” I also realize that GTD is not the best fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are several alternative methods you might find interesting or appealing.

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done system. Leo created his Zen method specifically to address what he sees as “…the five problems many people have with GTD,” namely:

  1. GTD is a big change of habits
  2. GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is too unstructured for many people
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals

If any of those five issues are ones you’re having with GTD, maybe Zen to Done is an alternative that could work for you.

Another program is Asian Efficiency’s Agile Results. I’m not super familiar with this method, but it’s been popping up on my radar off and on for a while now. Like Leo’s Zen to Done, Agile Results is more goal-focused than process focused.

While working on this article, I reached out to my buddy Mike Vardy of the website Productivityist. His “theming” method is quite compelling. To begin, look at what he calls the certainties in your week. For example, on Sunday, there will be no interruptions and the family will be home. On Monday through Friday, the kids are away, and on Saturday, the family is home. With those certainties identified, he creates themes based on the results:

Sunday: No interruptions, family-home
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Kids at daycare, wife at work
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Kids at daycare, wife home
Saturday: No interruptions, family-home

The final step is to “lock down,” as Mike puts it, the remaining days. His final themed schedule looks like this:

Sunday: Creative Day (Writing)
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Saturday: Family Day

It’s clever, and a part of a larger method of his Now Year formula. His alternate method might work for you.

Getting on top of everything can be a chore, but it’s well worth the effort irrespective of what method you ultimately decide to adopt.

Getting Things Done: The 2015 revised edition

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was first published in 2001, and Allen released an updated version in March. So, what has changed?

Long-time fans on GTD will be glad to learn that the fundamentals are the same as they’ve ever been. If you have the original edition, there’s no need to rush to get the new one. However, if you’re buying the book for the first time, you’ll want this new version.

There are a number of small changes, all good:

  • Outdated references to phone slips, faxes, answering machines, Rolodexes, and VCRs are gone. Certainly some people still use these things, but they aren’t as central to most people’s lives as they once were. Now there are references to text messages, mobile devices, and scanners.
  • References to specific computer programs (Lotus Notes, etc.) which were used as examples have been removed.
  • U.S.-specific references have been replaced with more international wording. For example, a reference to U.S. K-1 tax forms has been replaced with the more generic “tax documents.” This K-1 change also illustrates the move away from examples that apply mostly to business executives — not everyone, even in the U.S., will know what a K-1 is. (It’s a form showing income from a partnership.)

But there are more substantial changes, too. There’s a new chapter about GTD and cognitive science, talking about studies that support the GTD methodology. However, I found this chapter to be a slog to read, and the connection to GTD seemed tenuous in some cases (although quite obvious in others).

There’s another new chapter entitled “The Path to GTD Mastery,” where Allen acknowledges that it can take some time for people to get proficient at the GTD basics, much less moving beyond that to his other two levels of proficiency. But here’s the part that caught my eye:

Even if a person has gleaned only a few concepts from this material, or has not implemented the system regularly, it can bring marked improvement. If you “get” nothing more than the two-minute rule, it will be worth its weight in gold.

The two-minute rule, by the way, says that if a task is going to take two minutes or less, you should just do it now rather than adding it to a list. And it was nice to see Allen say something I’ve long believed: You don’t need to do everything the GTD way to get some benefit from the methodology he proposes.

There is also a new glossary and much more discussion about how the GTD processes work in a world where information is increasingly found in digital forms, and where people may work from a coffee shop, not just an office.

But some of my favorite changes were random comments added throughout the book. For example, here’s the new quotation, from Mark Van Doren, which opens the book:

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give … our attention to the opportunity before us.

Of course, I noticed what Allen wrote about being organized:

Being organized means nothing more or less than where something is matches what it means to you. If you decide you want to keep something as reference and you put it where your reference material needs to be, that’s organized. If you think you need a reminder about a call you need to make, as long as you put that reminder where you want reminders of phone calls to make, you’re organized.

And here’s his advice on uncluttering (or not):

People often mistake my advice as an advocacy for radical minimalism. On the contrary, if throwing something away is uncomfortable for you, you should keep it. Otherwise you would have attention on the fact that you now don’t have something you might want or need. …

You like having and keeping your twelve boxes of old journals and notes from college? You like keeping all kinds of nutty toys and artwork and gadgets around your office to spur creative thinking? No problem, as long as they are where you want them to be, in the form they’re in, and you have anything you want or need to do about that captured and processed in your system.

Note: There’s a footnote explaining this advice is not intended for those with a hoarding disorder.

While Getting Things Done is still a ponderous read in some places, I think there are enough good ideas that it remains my favorite book on time management.

Just in time

Many businesses employ a “just-in-time” (JIT) production method. In the JIT strategy, supplies are ordered just in time for production so items are manufactured just in time for shipping them to the customer. The reason this system is popular is because factories do not have the expenses of maintaining large warehouses. Using funds to purchase and store unused inventory means those funds are not easily available for other opportunities.

Care must be taken when manufacturers employ the JIT method. If not enough stock is stored then deliveries, and associated delivery charges, increase. Also, the variations of cost prices can affect manufacturers to a greater degree.

A number of years ago when I realized that I had toilet paper stored in every closet and cupboard (when I counted them, I had over 200 rolls), and I always seemed to run out of shampoo, I realized that I had to start employing the JIT method for my household supplies.

The JIT process

Estimate how long it takes to use up the item. To help you estimate, when you open a package, write the date on the lid or underside of the box or bottle with a permanent marker. When you have used up the item, you’ll see the date and get a fairly accurate estimate. For example, depending on your household, you may use 1-2 rolls of toilet paper per week per bathroom. A 250mL (8oz) bottle of shampoo may last a month. It might take 3 months to use up 500m (500yds) of plastic wrap. Consider seasonal and situational changes as well in your estimations. You might use more plastic wrap during the school year when you are making children’s lunches. You might use less shampoo after you get your hair cut.

Estimate repurchasing time. The time it takes to purchase replacement items may not be an issue if you can easily pick the items up during your weekly grocery shopping. However, if you purchase items from a specialty store that you visit infrequently or order items online and have them delivered, you may need to plan well in advance. For example, our family loves Kraft Caesar salad dressing from Canada. It takes us about two months to use up a bottle. We have an open bottle in the fridge and we store one extra bottle in the cupboard. As soon as I open the bottle from the cupboard, I order another one because it takes about 3-4 weeks to ship from Canada to the UK.

Allocate storage space. The storage space that you have will determine the amount of product that you purchase and how frequently you need to repurchase. You may determine that you don’t need to store as much as of some items as you thought. (I really didn’t need 200 rolls of toilet paper!) This may allow you to free up some space to store other items that take more time and energy to purchase. For example, storing an extra bottle of your favourite salon shampoo would result in fewer trips across town to the factory outlet.

Hone your forecasting methods. It isn’t always easy balancing how much of certain items you need with the storage space that you have. Certain changes can affect your forecasting such as changes in household routines as well as changes in the products, such as package size and price. If you keep the JIT method in mind, over time you’ll determine what is right for your needs.

Using batch processing for your professional social media accounts

Years ago, I learned a lesson from ProBlogger that has helped me effectively and efficiently use Twitter for my work. The lesson is part productivity, part organization, and perfect for Unclutterer: working in batches.

Way back in 2008, blogger Darren Rowse wrote about the benefits of organizing your outstanding tasks into similar batches, and then addressing each batch individually:

In my understanding of the term ‘batch processing’ it was always used to describe systems (usually computerized ones) where data was collected together for a period of time before it was processed. Instead of doing every small ‘job’ as it arrived jobs were ‘queued’ or collected until the computer was ready to process them all at once. This meant that the computer could do these ‘batches’ of jobs all at once when it would otherwise be idle.

Darren started to batch outstanding tasks — writing, processing email, social bookmarking and so on — and found that getting these done in a burst of energy freed up time for other, more taxing activities later. Today, I use that advice to great effect while tweeting for Apple World Today.

I’m in charge of the Twitter account at Apple World Today (among other things). To provide an interesting experience for our followers, I’ve created a list of daily themed tweets, as well as a schedule for when they’ll be published. Over the weekend, I sit down and write what will be our tweets for the week. Getting this done ahead of time frees me up to concentrate on the myriad other things I have to do and, I’ll be honest, it feels so good knowing this task is done.

The following is the theme schedule I follow:

  • Monday: Funny stuff to start the week off right. Amusing photos, videos, etc.
  • Tuesday: Behind the scenes. A look at what my colleagues and I are working on, like articles in progress.
  • Wednesday: Informative or surprising tweets. Quickie how-to tweets or tips that are 140 characters long, or little tips that people can use right away. People love these, and they take the most thought from me.
  • Thursday: Retweet interesting content from followers and share relevant industry news.
  • Friday: A look at our work culture. Unlike on Wednesdays, Friday posts focus on my colleagues and I as people. You’ll see us with our dogs (or cats), at the cafe and so on.

Even if you don’t tweet as part of your job, batch processing tasks can be an extremely effective way to organize your tasks. However, those of us with “Twitter” on our job descriptions will certainly benefit from devising a formal schedule and “batching” time to sit and write the week’s tweets. You’ll get time to formally sit and consider how you’re using social media, you’ll free up time for other tasks during the week, and you can practice your organizing skills, too. As Michael Scott would say, that’s a win/win/win situation.

One definition of project clutter

According to the 2007 article “Measuring Visual Clutter,” in the medical Journal of Vision, “clutter is the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task.”

This definition implies that clutter depends on a task being performed and is strongly tied to messes made while working on a project. Having too many items for a task will impede performance because the user has to sift through inessential items to obtain useful ones. Conversely, too few items may reduce productivity because the user has to go elsewhere for the items and the task takes more time than necessary.

Project clutter may also be dependent on a person’s level of skill at a particular task. Novices at a particular task may prefer to have only those objects necessary to perform the task from start to completion. Whereas experts at the same task may have items from several projects on their desks at the same time because they are familiar with the processes for each project.

Within families and offices, because project clutter depends upon the task and the users’ expertise, one person’s way of working and their tools may seem like clutter to someone else in the family or office and cause tension. Finding the answers to “How much stuff needs to be out to complete a project and for how long?” can go a long way in resolving these disputes.

Solving project clutter disputes

Begin by planning the project and defining the break points. If you have a large project to be completed that may disrupt normal household or office operations, divide the project into a series of tasks with logical points for taking breaks. For example, if you were making a quilt, cutting fabric into the correct shapes would be one task. If you were re-organizing an office filing system, categorizing the accounting files might be considered one task.

When examining your tasks, estimate the amount of time needed to complete the task and how long it will take you to return the workspace to its original state. For example, when I am preparing our quarterly submission for sales tax reimbursement, it is easier for me to remove the files from the filing cabinet in my husband’s office and stack them on the laundry room counter for the period of time I am working. The counter has lots of room for me to work and my office is beside the laundry room.

I love doing my quarterly tax claim on the spacious laundry room counter and it takes me several hours to complete the paperwork and return all the items to their regular storage area. I schedule this task on an evening when there is very little laundry to be washed or early on a Sunday morning before the counter is used for school homework projects.

It takes a bit of planning when using shared space but it will reduce clutter and improve everyone’s productivity. Talking about these issues with your family members or coworkers before you begin working will give everyone proper expectations and reduce tensions. Finally, working through this process with a child will help him/her to better understand time management, productivity, as well as putting away items when you’re finished using them.

Sleep and productivity

Yesterday, Jacki Hollywood Brown’s article explored the relationship between music and productivity. Today, I want to continue with another productivity booster, which has been called the “third pillar of health,” sleep.

The relationship between sleep and productivity seems obvious: adequate sleep means you’ll have enough energy and focus for the coming day. While that’s true, there is much more to it than that.

A 1999 study discussed at 2013’s Corporate Sleep Health Summit demonstrates that a lack of sleep can affect not only productivity, but innovation. After losing just one night’s sleep, subjects experienced “…particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information.” While most people don’t regularly lose an entire night’s sleep, consider that many driven business people and entrepreneurs wear their four and five hours of sleep like a badge of honor.

Meanwhile, a BBC study suggests that deep sleep “makes room” in your brain for the next day. “One of the main things the brain is doing [during deep sleep] is moving memories from short-term storage into long-term storage,” the study claims, “allowing us more short-term memory space for the next day. If you don’t get adequate deep sleep then these memories will be lost.” Ever forget some crucial information for that big meeting? An extra hour of sleep could be the remedy.

Now that I’ve described just some of the benefits of a restful night’s sleep, I want to point out some technology that will help you hit the hay.

Sleepy Fan ($1.99, iPhone). When I was a kid, I spent summer nights falling asleep to the sound of a large box fan, not unlike this one. I fell in love with is steady hum, and today I use the Sleepy Fan app in its place. It offers three fan types to choose from, and even lets you adjust the sound itself.

The FitBit has a feature that lets you track your sleep. When paired with a smartphone app, it lets you view data on your previous night’s rest, including restful moments and when you were fidgeting.

The Philips Wake-up Light is a nice alternative for those who dislike being jarred awake by a screeching alarm. Over a period of 30 minutes, the Wake-up Light gradually brightens itself from dark to a custom illumination level (up to 250 lux) and provides pleasant audio.

You can get a good night’s sleep, listen to music appropriate to your task at hand, and enjoy a satisfyingly productive day.

Music and its relationship with organizing and productivity

There have been many studies over the years about the effect of music on productivity in industry. One study has suggested that music increases productivity when workers are engaged in repetitive tasks that may not be intellectually stimulating. The findings of another study show that music has a positive effect on a person’s emotional state and can help with self-motivation.

Dr. Lesiuk of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami carried out a study in which workers could listen to whatever music they liked for as long as they wanted. She found that those people who were reasonably skilled at their jobs realized the most benefit. Workers who were identified as experts saw almost no effect on their productivity and some novices found that listening to music was distracting and did not help them accomplish the tasks (which makes sense as they were acquiring new skills).

In short, music will likely help you and/or your employees be organized and productive. If you have a project you have been putting off for some time or if your task involves repetitive work (such as sorting through clothing), turn up the volume and listen to your favourite music to get you motivated.

However, if your task involves complex decision-making (such as writing a research proposal), you may want to keep your surroundings quiet, especially if the task is something you don’t usually do.

Personally, I find when I listen to dance music with a fast beat (anything from the Big Band Era to Disco to Electronica) my house gets organized and cleaned much faster. When I have a large re-organizing job such as a storage area clean out, I listen to classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Van Halen, AC/DC). If I’m working on a project that requires my full concentration such as writing or working on data analysis, I don’t listen to music at all because I end up singing to the music and getting distracted from my work.

Most of the time I work from home so I can choose the music I like, but if you share a working space, keep a set of comfortable headphones handy so as not to disturb your co-workers. At the office, always check with your manager or supervisor before you don your headphones. Some companies have policies regarding listening to music during working hours. If you are a manager, consider letting employees listen to music if you find it makes them more productive.

Do you find listening to music helps you be more or less productive? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Left-handed organizing

Tools are extensions of your hands. When you use proper tools, you decrease the possibility of injury, pain, and fatigue because they require less continuous force and can be used without awkward postures. The correct tool also reduce clutter because you have the best tool for a job and aren’t constantly purchasing the same item repeatedly in search of the ideal tool for you. How you complete processes is similar, too, because when you work in the best way suited for you work times are reduced, you’re more organized, and more comfortable.

When fellow Unclutterer, Dave talked about the value of his utility knife, I had to agree with him. However my utility knife is different from Dave’s because mine is a left-handed utility knife.

If you’re a southpaw or live or work with one, the following are some productivity and organizing tips that might be beneficial for you.

Buy good quality left-handed tools. As stated earlier, the proper tool for the job is essential. It will lead to increased productivity, less fatigue, and fewer injuries. Start with the tools used most often such as scissors, can openers, vegetable peelers and even manicure scissors. Consider purchasing other left-handed equipment that can make certain tasks easier, such as gardening shears and sewing scissors.

Set up your personal space. On the desk of a lefty, the pen caddy would be placed on the left side and the telephone on the right side. Because lefties sit facing the right side of the desk, the desk lamp should be placed on the right side as well. Professional organizer Julie Bestry has a great post about left-handed notebooks that might help lefties increase productivity.

Set up shared spaces together. When lefties and righties share space, it can be a bit more difficult to be organized and productive.

Sometimes shared spaces can be set up ambidextrous, for example, putting the telephone in the centre of the desk so it can be answered with either hand. Alternatively determine who uses the space for a greater period of time and set it up according to that person’s hand preference.

Research indicates that individuals show a preference for the use of one hand, and it is not always the same hand for two different tasks. This suggests that right- or left-handers are not general categories, but rather are defined as a function of the tasks. For example, many lefties prefer to use their computer mouse with their right hand so a shared computer would have the mouse on the right hand side. This means when people work together to organize a space they can develop solutions that will allow all users of the space to be productive.

For a great overview on left-handedness you may wish to read, “Why are some people left-handed? An evolutionary perspective.

For left-handed shopping try:

Schedule time to schedule your time

As a part of my 2014 personal audit, I revamped my daily routine. I scheduled time for everything I’ve got my hands in, both professional and personal. Writing for Unclutterer, writing for TUAW, work on the Home Work podcast and Board Games Weekly, attending to the kids, and other family matters (like leading Cub Scouts, various pick-ups and drop-offs, even evening blocks of time to spend with the family). After all this scheduling you’d think I’m squeaky clean, right? Well, almost. I failed to schedule time to schedule time.

It sounds silly, but it’s crucial. In the course of a day, several things happen. I complete tasks. I gain new ones. “Stuff” comes in that I must attend to, like dates to remember, papers to review, emails … you get the picture. All of it must be dealt with, even if that simply amounts do deciding what’s trash and what must be done with the rest. I built a great system during my personal audit, minus the time to react to the ever-changing demands of modern professional and personal life. The following is how I’m fixing this oversight.


The “what” here is a combination of new information that arrives during the day, as well as progress on existing projects and actions. A regular review of how I’ve organized and categorized my stuff is quite beneficial, too.

I’m not suggesting you obsess over your lists, as that’s counter productive. But regular mini reviews are helpful to determine where you stand.


For me, early in the morning is not the right time to create an updated schedule. It seems tempting to sit down and say, “All right, let’s see what we’ve got today.” I get overwhelmed or distracted in that situation, and the next thing I know it’s 9:00 and I’m still fiddling with what I should be doing instead of working. Instead, I update the schedule for the following day at the end of my work day. For example:


After dinner on weeknights, my wife and I complete the same tasks. Review the kids’ backpacks. Make sure papers are signed/reviewed, etc. Next, we have the kids make snacks for the next day and pick out what they’ll wear to school. Mornings are stressful enough without having to run around the house trying to find clean socks. Again. For the hundredth time. Sigh. So, getting these tasks done in the evening is a huge stress reliever.

The same goes for work. In the evening, I identify and list what I’m going to do the next day. I rest easier and can get right to work in the morning.


I also added “fiddle time” to my schedule around midday. During this time I check off items I completed in the morning (a terrific feeling), review any incoming stuff that arrived since the morning, and finally review how I’ve categorized/organized existing items. It only takes a few minutes and now that I’ve scheduled daily time for it, I get it done and feel much more relaxed going into the afternoon.

Finally, repeat these steps when your work day is almost over and you’re energy reserves are running low. Then, schedule tomorrow.


Because reviewing an organized list of to-do actions and projects can reduce a lot of stress. Even when I feel I’ve got an overwhelming amount of stuff to do, the knowledge that I’ve got it categorized, sorted, and into my trusted system gives me a very real sense of being on top of things.

It’s great to have an effective to-do system that you love — just don’t forget to take the time to attend to it. You’ll be glad you did.

Apps to track your fitness

Improving fitness and health is a popular New Year’s resolution. And scientists who study such things have found that keeping track of your workouts can help with reaching your goals. Tracking helps you monitor your progress and that is beneficial because increased strength and endurance are often hard to perceive. Also, it is much easier to remember your workouts when you see them rather than trying to remember what exercises you need to do or what weights you need to use.

Pen, paper, and notebooks are ideal for recording and monitoring your progress. You can record as date, time, workout description, weight levels, repetitions with as much or as little information as you wish. There is no special technology required and it is very cost effective. However, your notebook may be too bulky to carry with you back and forth to the gym and it may be time consuming to re-write the same information over and over again. It isn’t easy to see the information in a graphical format either, which is why I recommend apps you can access on your smartphone, tablet, or other digital devices.

Fitbit is a bracelet that tracks your steps, calories burned, and distance travelled. It syncs with your smartphone and provides a daily report of how active you are. There are several models of bracelets. The most basic models track steps, calories burned, and distance. The more advanced models track heart rate, sleep quality, and have a built in GPS tracking system. With the Fitbit website you can set goals, earn badges for reaching your goals, and connect with other Fitbit users to create a support network.

Abvio is a software company that makes three easy-to-use apps for your smartphone that can be used to track your workouts: Cyclemeter, Runmeter, and Walkmeter. All three apps allow you to record splits, intervals, and laps. They also have maps, graphs, announcements, and built-in training plans. These apps will sync with different types of sport watches that monitor heart rates. Cyclemeter can connect to some types of bicycle computers to record cadence as well. Abvio does not have its own website, but the data from the apps can be exported and uploaded into various other social fitness sites.

Those who participate in different types of sports such as yoga, martial arts, or horseback riding, may wish to consider The Athlete’s Diary. It is a multisport computer log, available for both computers and smartphones. It has a special-purpose database program designed for athletes and keeps track of the date, sport, category (training, interval, or race), distance, time, pace, route/workout, and has an area for comments. The Athlete’s Diary syncs with your computer and smartphone through Dropbox so you can use either device to enter your fitness data.

Virtual Trainer Pro is a really unique app for your smartphone. It is a database of hundreds of exercises, each demonstrated in a video by a fitness expert. You can create your own routines easily by dragging and dropping the exercises into the order you wish to follow or you can use one of thousands of ready-to-use workouts. Tracking your score and earning points and medals will help to keep you motivated.

There are many other apps available for monitoring fitness progress. Some are sport specific, others also allow you to track caloric intake and nutritional information. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or you’re a serious fitness pro, being organized and tracking your fitness information will help you to reach your fitness goals.

Perform a personal audit for 2014 to guide you in 2015

I can hardly believe it’s near the end of December 2014. For my kids, the weeks and days before Christmas are passing at a snail’s pace. For me, the last 12 months have been the blur of an Indy car race. How are we about to flip the calendar onto another year? Speaking of, where exactly are we?

As the new year approaches, many people start thinking about resolutions. I’ve no interest in resolutions. I’ve typically been fueled by reflections on the previous 12 months. And that’s what I’m focused on this year. I’m conducting what I’m calling a personal audit. It starts by asking myself two questions, providing honest answers, and then drawing a plan from the resulting lists.

Question one

Question one is simple: What went well in the past year? My answer is in the form of an unhindered brainstorm. I’ve got a pen and a notebook and I simply list whatever comes to mind. There’s no stopping to think or question each item. I’m simply listing. For example:

  1. Relationships with the kids
  2. The Home Work podcast
  3. Launching Board Games Weekly
  4. Getting healthier
  5. The garden out front

… and so on. When writing this list, I keep going until I can’t think of another thing. It’s important to be honest here and, again, to resist the urge to stop and second guess each item. There will be time to deal with the specifics in a bit. Now, on to the second question, which some of you may have guessed.

Question two

What went poorly? Composing this list follows the same rules as its predecessor: just let it flow. Some highlights from my list:

  1. Finances
  2. Travel
  3. Spending time with family, either in person or on the phone
  4. Spending quality time with my wife, away from the kids (date nights)
  5. Day-to-day productivity
  6. Staying on top of daily chores

Once both questions have been answered thoroughly, I move on to step two: categorization.

Categorize it all

While reviewing the lists, certain groupings become clear: family, finances, health, professional life, travel, learning, and personal organization. These are the areas that saw success, failure, or both. I made these lists because the act of brainstorming and then sorting the results into categories lets me see the areas of life that are important to me. Now, I can make informed goals for next year, as opposed to pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-blue resolutions like “Be happy.” The following are the goals I’ve created for 2015 based on the personal audit I did of 2014.

Financial: Use budget software regularly. I’ve toyed with You Need A Budget in the past, but not consistently. It’s my fault for losing motivation; the software is excellent. This coming year I’ll be back on track.

Professional: My podcasts are doing nicely. This year I’d like to expand their reach, and attract/increase sponsorship opportunities.

Health: This was hit-and-miss this year. I’ve gotten much healthier than I was six months ago, but there’s still work to do. Getting winded after 15 minutes of kicking a soccer ball around is not fun and honestly, quite embarrassing at 43. This year I’ll continue to eat right, obsess over my Fitbit and increase the amount of walking I do.

Personal organization: I’m great at forgetting to do important things. This year I’ll research and adhere to strategies to make myself more successful in this area.

I’ll continue in this manner until I’ve addressed all items and categories on my lists.


I know what you’re thinking. “Dave, you just created the list of resolutions you denounced at the start of this post.” It can seem that way, but I assure you, I haven’t. It’s all thanks to how I plan to pull off the goals I’ve created. Specifically, I’ll be making projects, actions, and reviews.

Let’s start by defining a project. I use David Allen’s definition: anything that requires more than one action be completed before it’s marked as done. So, “Walk for 30 minutes” isn’t a project, but “Attract podcast sponsors” is. The next step is to identify all of the projects I’ve created, and then to break them down into concrete, observable, measurable action steps. This is crucially important, as it’s how I’m going to:

  1. Define what “done” looks like
  2. Know if I’m making progress
  3. Act and keep moving forward

Define, know, act steps — for each project. If I had nothing else to do in the world but attract podcast sponsors, what’s the first thing I would do? The second? Third? And so on. This is repeated for each project. Next is the good part.

If I were to say, “OK, Dave, hop to it. Here’s your 15 projects for 2015. Go be a better you!” I’d fail in no time. So, my final step is to identify what I’m going to work on in January. And then February, March and April, etc. Finally, I set up regular review days and put them into my calendar. I’ll schedule a reminder during the last week of each month to see how I’m doing and make adjustments.

In short (too late, I know), I’m treating the result of my personal audit like any other project I’d have to complete for work. “Walk 45 minutes per day” gets the same treatment as “Get the Williams proposal on Mr. Johnson’s desk by Friday.” Actions are defined as well as review dates.

Be flexible

What if you do this and you hate it? Change it! It’s your life! As a former boss used to say to me, “Don’t be afraid to abandon the mission.” If it’s not working, make adjustments. Maybe you’ll have to scale back a project or alter the execution plan. That’s fine, and so much better than tossing up your hands and saying “Oh, forget this.”

Finally, and I didn’t do this but it’s a nice idea, you can create metrics to work toward. You can identify the “amount of money in my savings account” or “number of steps walked in a month.” I lump this in with defining what “done” looks like, but you can certainly use this tactic if you want.

I suggest sitting down when you have some quiet time and performing a personal audit. Be completely honest and nonjudgmental with yourself. Organize the results and set clearly-defined, attainable goals from there, as well as regular review periods. Finally, if you’re unhappy with how it’s going, make adjustments. There’s no shame or failure in being proactive and taking steps to make something work for you. Here’s to a fantastic 2015. I hope you all achieve your goals.

Todoist is a task manager with two cool tricks

We’ve covered some nice productivity software over the years, like TeuxDeux and Due. Today, I want to point out Todoist, not only because it’s nearly ubiquitous, attractive, and effective, but because it has two features I think are really great. The following reasons are why Todoist is the digital project manager that has my attention these days.

It’s everywhere

Okay, so this isn’t one of the cool tricks but it’s something very much worth mentioning. Todoist boasts that it’s available on 13 platforms and devices. I’ve been using it on my Mac and iPhone, but you’ll also find options for Android and Windows, plus extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Outlook, Gmail and more. In my experience, synchronization between my computer and phone is lightning fast.

Import and export

Todoist lets you make color-coded projects and tasks, complete with tags, due dates, repeating events and so much more. It’s great-looking and effective. What’s really cool is its ability to import and export templates.

Here’s how this time-saving feature works:
When you create a new project, it’ll probably have several steps that must be ticked off before the thing can be marked as done. You can be really thorough, like me, and add due dates, contexts, color coding and more. Sometimes there will be a project that you’ll do over and over. A good example is the podcast I run at 5by5. Each week I go through the exact same steps, from scheduling to research and publication. I could add those steps to a project week after week, or I could just use a template.

Once a project is set up exactly how you like it, select “Export template” from within Todoist. It converts all those steps into a simple text file, with all my customization intact. I can store it wherever I want, and opting to import it sets up that project all over again, and all I had to do was click a single command.

There’s a great post on the Todoist blog that features several templates that are ready to import and use, including holiday gift shopping, pre-Christmas organizing, a holiday party plan, and even one for travel. I’m using the Christmas organization one now, and have saved the travel template for the future. This feature saves me so much time.

Karma points

I promised you two tricks, and the second one is something I should not like as much as I do. As you complete tasks, Todoist awards you with “karma points.” The more you use the app, the more points you receive. There are several ranks to earn and a pretty chart. Ignore the app or fail to complete tasks on time, and you’ll start to lose points. Yes, it’s 100 percent gimmicky and silly, but I totally get excited when I see my point total climb.

There are a huge number of project management apps available, and Todoist is only one of them. But I love its clean looks, near ubiquitous access and fantastic templates. You can use Todoist for free as long as you like, or upgrade to the premium version for $29 per year. I’ve found it to be definitely worth the expense.