Tag Archives: Writing

GTD – Mastering Workflow, Mastering Life

This post is the first in my series about mastering productivity from the perspective of a full time working mom of a toddler with a side business. That’s me with the side business, not the toddler. 

If you’re looking to be more productive, more effective and grow as a person, then there is a bewildering world of self-help business books out there to choose from. Some are fashionable for a year, others stand the test of time. David Allen’s Getting Things Done has been successful enough to warrant a brand new edition in 2015.

It’s always the book I recommend that people start out with. Not because it is a literary masterpiece, but because the methodology he describes allows you to sort out the little things so you then have the mental clarity and space to then deal with the bigger life questions. Books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People start with life purpose and other lofty aspirations. I really don’t recommend that as a starter for anyone. Ever.

Despite saying the GTD method is for everyone (and it really is), the book is nevertheless aimed at business executives, with the secondary motivator of selling consulting services. I’ve never had to worry about forgetting to get flowers for my secretary’s birthday (although in the 2015 version I noted that’s been changed to a less culturally charged ‘assistant’). With that in mind, I want to show you over this series of posts how I’ve implemented it in my work, personal life and side business as a writer, without the requirement for a corner office.

Since 2009, I’ve probably read Getting Things Done at least once a year. That’s what I’ve always believed anyway. When I decided to write this series, it forced me not to just choose the bits I was most interested in, or needed a refresher on, but really read what he was saying like it was the first time I’d come across it. I’m not going to lie: the chapter on Mastering Workflow took effort.

I’ve heard so many people say they found the material ‘dry’ and ‘hard-going’. I’d never really thought that to be the case, but re-reading a chapter like this, so early on, I can see why people got stuck here. In a single chapter, he gives you the entire methodology. The remainder of the book is the detailed ‘how to’. I’m a fan of the big picture, but this is intense stuff.

Luckily, it can all be summed up in a handy flowchart. Get a copy. Put it where you’ll see it. It will be more helpful than constantly going back to this chapter while you’re starting out.

© David Allen

I find it interesting that the flowchart remains unchanged, but the titles for the stages have been updated between the two books.

What next?

“Every decision to act is an intuitive one. The challenge is to migrate from hoping it’s the right choice to trusting it’s the right choice.” – David Allen, 2001 Edition

Instead of being overwhelmed by this chapter, I’d suggest doing a quick assessment of where you are now. Some simple things to consider:

  1. Do you already have an existing tech or analogue system you need to use? There are some great ones out there that are designed with GTD specifically in mind, but learning the methodology can be hard enough without being distracted by a new tool as well.
  2. Are there some things you can do straight away? The 2 minute rule (see flowchart) is easy and doesn’t require any further support structures.
  3. Which area of your life is causing you the most stress? Ignore the work-life balance for now. If you’ve got a single project causing you problems, then decide if you could implement a GTD strategy just for that. If it works, you’ll find the momentum to expand out into other areas.
  4. If you’re like me, you don’t naturally trust other people to do what they’re supposed to. As a result, doing work that isn’t technically yours to complete can be the source of many feelings of overwhelm. Make a master list of things you are waiting for and then hand off those tasks. The list will allow you to control what you’ve delegated and you can check back in with people at any time.

“Basically, everything potentially meaningful to you is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your mental space.” – David Allen, 2015 Edition

David Allen sets us up in this chapter for doing hard work. Getting through it separates the wheat from the chaff. He wants you to go all in on the method and promises a life of ‘stress free productivity’ and ‘mind like water’ as the end result. He’s also been quoted as expecting it to take the average person two years to really master the system. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but I believe you can implement an effective enough strategy in a few months or even weeks. If you want to take it further then that solid foundation is one you can build on when you’re ready.

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Evolution of the bullet journal

Evolution is, perhaps, the wrong way to describe it. The phenomenon that is the bullet journal method is slowly coming full circle, leading us all right back to where it started.

As I’ve discussed before, I was a relatively early adopter of the system. I know I was using it at a job that ended in December 2013. Given that Ryder Carrol launched the Bullet Journal website in August 2013, I must’ve been one of the first people climbing aboard that waggon. Plus, it led me to the Pen Addict podcast, which allowed me to rekindle my love affair with all things analogue.

Above all, I found it because it was a productivity tool. A system to better manage my To Do list. Although I’d been using a digital task manager for my personal life and a GTD style spreadsheet for my work tasks, when the proverbial hit the fan, I always grabbed a pen and made a paper list. Five years later, things are still the same. A handwritten list allows me to focus on what is truly important, rather than scrolling through lists of next actions throughout the day and wearing myself down with decision fatigue.

Then, at some point, bullet journaling and Instagram collided. The emphasis on actual productivity became muddied. Yes, there were things to do on people’s lists, but no growth once things got under control. People who had come to the system because they needed to manage their overwhelm had everything in one place at last, but the twins of effectiveness and efficiency were nowhere to be seen. This is, of course, a gross simplification and uses broad brush strokes, but when your productivity system becomes an art portfolio with token tasks, then it’s missing the point (unless you’re an actual artist). Underneath the bujo hashtag is a mind-blowing array of beautiful images.

No one’s bujo looked like mine. Four things to do each day and space for a beautiful sketch? You’re living the dream then. A day with only four things for me to do is a lazy weekend day. And with it the bitter, mostly envious thought of well if you spent less time drawing perfect layouts, you’d actually get more done. This is not necessarily true, but the images of weekly spreads across the various social media sites made it difficult for anyone new who didn’t want that element to feel like they could do it. It can be demoralising as much as it can be inspiring.

Not to mention that all those pretty accounts led to a wrongly perceived gendering of ‘how’ to bullet journal. I couldn’t imagine someone going into a boardroom meeting with all those pastel shades and flowers and being taken seriously. The culture we live in would, sadly, make one of two assumptions. Firstly, if it was a man, he would be mocked endlessly for his girliness. If it was a women, then she clearly isn’t as focused and capable as a man. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s the world we live in until we make progress in making it better.

Yet the system is perfect for that environment. Writing by hand removes the perception that you’re secretly checking your email, which happens when you take notes on a laptop. A well-organised and maintained system allows you to easily flip through to previous meetings and related collections. Your actions and waiting fors are captured quickly so nothing gets lost. The act of capturing the notes themselves stops you from zoning out when that powerpoint presentation hits slide twenty.

So the bullet journal is at a point of reckoning. Ryder is an astute businessman and creative, so was prepared for this moment already. His book, The Bullet Journal Method, takes it gently back to where it began – a productivity tool. The emphasis is what made it attractive in the first place: it’s not about getting more in your system, it’s about focus on what matters.

So, the bullet journal breaks down to this:

  • As long as your notebook is something you want to engage with, it doesn’t need to be a work of art
  • A notebook that comes with an Index and numbered pages does half the work for you
  • You don’t need to do everything – keep the parts of the system that work for you
  • You can use a bullet journal in conjunction with digital tools – it’s not sacrilege to use an online calendar
  • The bullet journal is a methodology that plays well with others – you don’t have to abandon GTD or personal Kanban to use it
  • You don’t need an expensive notebook and pen (although I prefer them)
  • It doesn’t have to be a specific, larger size format that you see most often depicted – I apply the same principles to my pocket notebooks

What got you here won’t get you there

As I move deeper into a year focused on doing what matters, the saying ‘what got you here won’t get you there‘ (made popular by Marshall Goldsmith) has begun to resonate more and more. When life changes in some fundamental way, then you have to change too. This applies to career, family and everything that gets wrapped up in those banner labels.

What has got me here, certainly won’t get me there. Why? Because of that other buzz phrase right now, the one about doing things for ‘the season you’re in‘. Now that one resonates even more.

When you have a child in your forties – your first child especially – you suddenly enter a whole new season. The real problem isn’t that you have to adjust, it’s that, if you think about it, your seasons are now out of order. Another spring has followed summer and now it looks like your autumn and winter are probably going to be rolled into one.

I’m fortunate to have done so many amazing things in my life. I’ve lived in several countries and traveled to many more. I’ve had a few fulfilling jobs (and a few less-fulfilling ones). I’ve been employed, self-employed and consciously unemployed. I’ve written a book that received a best-seller tag from Amazon and plenty more that should never see the light of day. I implemented a successful morning routine and got my health in order.

Now I stumble into the bright lights of the office each morning and need to double-check that I really have got dressed. My morning boot up sequence has been cut from an hour to a maximum of fifteen minutes. Journaling has kept me sane – I refuse to sacrifice that. As for my health, I frequently fall into the spiral of no sleep = poor decisions + low energy. I am officially a different person to the one I was a year ago. A person whose spring is just starting and those seeds I’ve planted have yet to sprout into life.

What got me here won’t get me there. It will again one day, but not just yet. Those seeds will become flowers again at some point, but until then, I have to keep moving forwards.

But how?

I need to ask better questions. Create new routines, not just abandon old ones and let chaos reign.

It’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s also not a quick fix, super-easy solution. With my morning routine, there are some things which are sacred and others which were luxurious habit (see my previous post on streamlining my morning using the MD Paper diary notebook). Reading isn’t happening right now, but it will be again. I know that writing 1000 words each morning can be curtailed by sudden wailing, but I’ve become less fixated on the number and more on at least writing something. 400 words might not be as good as 1000, but it’s better than zero because I’m worried the baby might wake up.

This new season – I have to learn to go back to small wins. Small habits. What are the building blocks I used last time to build the castle. Which ones can I re-use? Which ones are the foundation stones.

I don’t have the luxury now of an hour to exercise in the evenings if I want. Not without compromising other things that now suddenly matter more. The lack of sleep means that I tend towards inertia at every moment of calm. The only way out of that is to remove anything that causes friction between myself and an activity. I’ve always advocated for that, but now I need to recognise just how small those barriers might be. I need to monitor and measure things that I’ve long since taken for granted.

So here’s my simple five step plan. I’m doing it and sharing it so that no matter what season of life you’re in, if it’s flowing along nicely or a momentous change has suddenly derailed you, it’s possible to make a change.

Make a conscious choice. Then make changes.

  1. What are the cornerstones you already have?
  2. What are the unconscious habits you need to let go of or change?
  3. What are the small changes – the tweaks – you can make that will have disproportionate results?
  4. What are the friction points stopping you from getting started each day?
  5. What are the goals, dreams and plans that you need to let go of, even if it’s just for now?

MD Diary Notebook pros and cons

2018 was a busy, complex year. In 2019 I’m going simple.  As simple as possible whilst still being effective. So when searching for a paper planner, that was my main focus. After a wide range of searches, I settled on the MD Diary Notebook and now we’re a few weeks in, it’s serving me well.

Why simple?

In 2018, my morning routine was too much to handle. Becoming a new mom meant I needed less if I wanted to get any real work done, but instead I somehow started to hold onto the morning routine as being work in itself. In short, I used it for procrastination, whilst still checking boxes and feeling good about myself. When doing my yearly review it was abundantly clear how little work actually got done. This year, my goal is to simplify everything in order to focus on what matters.

To give you an idea of how much I need to simplify things, here is a list of all the paper based products I used last year as part of my ‘routine’.

  • A one line a day memory book
  • A Leuchturrm weekly planner
  • Trigg Life Mapper
  • Midori Travelers Notebook and inserts (x3)
  • Pocket notebooks, e.g. Field Notes (x5)
  • A5 notebooks for journaling (x8)
  • A5 notebooks for creative projects (x1)

It’s no great surprise that traveling this year was nothing short of impossible unless I only wanted paper in my hand luggage. For this year, my goal is to stick with the following:

  • A one line a day memory book
  • MD Diary Notebook
  • Pocket notebooks for ideas on the go
  • A5 notebooks for creative ideas

That’s a serious cut and I still want to keep the elements that work. Journaling has kept me sane after countless sleepless nights and full time work days, so I don’t want to let it go completely.

So why choose the MD Diary Notebook?

Firstly, the majority of the book is lined pages, with slightly darker lines splitting the page into quarters. It allows me the free form elements to control the pieces of my practice, but the structure allows me to limit it to a single page per day. That in itself reduces the procrastination time. I’m not artistic enough for a fancy BuJo, but as Ryder Carroll himself pointed out in his recent post, it’s not about prettiness and social media likes, it’s about serving a purpose.

This gives me the pages I need without requiring me to brush up on my calligraphy, or having to draw out calendar pages. If you do like artistic and pretty, then the lined format is much less likely to work for you.

I use the first quarter to write down three things I’m grateful for, a positive affirmation and my main goal for the day. That then leaves me the remainder of a page to do a brain dump and get any nagging thoughts or events I want to remember in the future off my mind.

Monthly Calendar View

The MD diary allows me to combine my planning and routine together so that when I travel, everything is in one place. Each month has a square for each day, with a wide right-hand margin and further space at the bottom of the page.

Admittedly I have to keep my writing small and neat to make this work. Many would argue that it doesn’t leave much space for a whole month’s worth of planning, but again this forces constraint. Is it really going to get done this month or is it more of a wish-list item? I use a digital app as my actual task management system because I’m very granular (a typical GTD-er) so don’t need that space for long lists.

The Year View

The year view is also compact. Perhaps a little too compact for most people.

Again there is space down the side for important notes, but I’m guessing this section will work with different coloured highlighters and a key to what they actually mean in the margin.

Of course, form factor isn’t everything. There still needs to be sufficient quality and that is something I’ve always found to be the case with any Midori product. The paper works well with every fountain pen I’ve thrown at it, including a 1.5 stub nib with reasonably wet ink. Due to the space restrictions, the majority of users are likely to be writing with a medium nib at most, so I don’t see this being a problem.

General planner-procrastination observations

Last year I spent far less time on creative ideas. There were probably fewer A5 notebooks in comparison to previous years, but the ones I did fill were packed with naval gazing more than actual work. Similarly I used a LOT less pocket notebooks. Looking back, that was because I was firefighting for much of the time and my old GTD habit of capturing thoughts and ideas to put into my system began to slide.

So far I can completely recommend my new setup as a way to control the start of your day, but as is the case with these things, the true test is if it is still working for me by the time that second quarter of 2019 rolls around.

Sugar cubes, pudding tax, ‘New Year New You’ marketing and simplification

The first full week of each new year is when I actually begin any planned improvements. I’m such an introvert that I need time after the holidays to process and set my focus. For those starting their resolutions on New Year’s Day, this is the tough week. This is where it gets real. I’m just starting out and there is something nice about that, even if it means tough is still lying ahead, waiting for me.

It’s no surprise that the first week of the new year has been filled with health related stories designed to tap into people feeling guilty for their holiday gluttony and determined (again) that this is the year they’re going to turn everything around. 

It’s interesting to see that sugar has largely replaced fat as the demon in the headlines. When I first began looking into the benefits of a sugar-free lifestyle in 2015, saturated fat – indeed any fat – was still public enemy number one. The change has been swift and is getting less subtle. 

That Public Health England are now focused on reducing sugar intake as one of the key ways of reducing the obesity epidemic is the main driver behind this. I’m under no illusions that this is an altruistic gesture. Obesity simply correlates to more occurrences of diabetes and heart disease (amongst many things), all of which cost the NHS money to treat. Regardless of the motivation, it’s good to see that finally people are starting to be told the truth about how much sugar is added to our foods by manufacturers.

Of course, depending on the media outlet involved, the presentation is different. Nanny state and tax threats drive some clickbait headlines, others provide a more balanced view. But the truth behind the message is the same across the board – we need to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets.

What none of it seems to want to focus on is how hard it is to actually make that happen. A few foods get targeted here and there as extreme examples,  but that doesn’t really help people with the everyday foods that have sugars added to them. The unexpected ones – those often labelled as ‘diet’ and ‘low fat’ – that catch people out.

More importantly, none of them seem to offer any insight on the simple fact that there is something addictive about sugar. Something that makes it hard to cut out sweets and chocolate, no matter how much information we have or how good our intentions are. This is the element that trips people up time and time again, myself included. Just one little taste, one bad day, can get us reaching for a sugar-based snack before we’ve even had chance to think about what we’re doing. Time and time again I’ve done this since the baby was born, eating in some sleep-deprived haze and having very little memory of when or how. This lack of intentionality is something I absolutely must address this year, hopefully with the addition of an extra hour or two asleep each night.

I’ll be experimenting with general simplification of my life to do this and if it works well, that will be something I share throughout the year. There is a certain attraction to achieving more by doing less, but it will be interesting to see if the promise lives up to the theory.

So below are some of my favourite headlines of 2019 blitzing those with resolutions to think about. Where there isn’t a link it’s because I simply refuse to give clicks to certain sources. That’s another 2019 resolution for all of us. Let’s not feed the trolls.

Children are getting targeted in the blitz, with the story that children have already exceeded their entire childhood quota of sugar by the age of 10. That’s 8 whole sugar free years they then need to do just to break even. A scary thought. But I loved Matthew’s sugar experiment with his family – this is the kind of visualisation that you don’t get from simply reading the labels and doing the calculations in your head.

Are we going to get a pudding tax? Some progress has been made with other foods but I think a pudding tax is silly. Target the misleading foods and the everyday foods first.

And of course, the thought that our government would be together enough to order anyone to do anything is implied by the Sun’s headline ‘KIDS will be ordered not to eat Frosties and Coco Pops under tough new government guidelines’. The actual story is about a set of simple recommendations, but why not get people in a defiant and self-destructive mood instead? See earlier comment re: trolls.

If you’re more interested in the information behind the headlines, including some practical and actionable tips on how to eliminate sugar from your life, then my book is a steal at only 99p on kindle. It won’t break the bank and may change your approach to diet and healthy living forever. I’m re-reading it now to remember my own lessons!

 

Not interested in changing your diet but itching to make other improvements this year? Then take a look at my book on Resolutions instead. Goal setting doesn’t need to begin January 1st. Why wait for tomorrow to become a better version of yourself? Not just for the next week, but with a strategy that lasts.

Field Notes Still Hanging Around: Black Ice

Just to be clear, this edition has now sold out on the Field Notes website. Where it’s hanging around is on my desk, never getting used as part of my creative writing or planning routine. So I thought it was time to do a Field Notes Black Ice review and work out why.

I was really excited when I first saw the Field Notes Black Ice edition. One of my favourite things about Field Notes is their constant push towards innovation. Not only was this a beautiful looking edition with its shiny cover, it was also a brand-new way of binding the Field Notes.

This edition was found more like the Write notepads. Having tried Write notepads before this edition I was slightly dubious from the start about how this functionality would fit within my life. One of my favourite things about a Field Notes notebook is its ability to lie relatively flat on the desk. This is only a small thing for some people, but I find it very easy when the book is close to ignore the tasks inside. Having the book open on my desk means I am more likely to achieve what I need to do during that day as part of my creative/productive workflows. This, in the end, was one of the biggest downsides for me, along with the line drooling inside. However I did love the orange colour of the lines and thought them a beautiful compliment to the binding.

I know for many people these two features combined won’t really be a problem. But for me this turns a beautiful looking edition into something I really struggle to use in daily life. Normally I can get through a fieldnotes notebook in approximately three weeks. Sometimes, if it is particularly busy I can complete one in two weeks. if things are less busy it can take four to five weeks. However on my first run I used the Black Ice edition for over six weeks now and it was only half full. I simply did not find myself reaching for this edition like I normally do with the Field Notes in my pocket. Instead I began to scribble my notes on pieces of paper and dream about the next release. I also started using other notebooks to record my ideas and small tasks began to get recorded in my paper planner. Eventually it got put into my Dudek Modern Goods pen and paper stand and it has been there ever since.

So why would anyone like this edition? The one thing I can’t deny is that Black Ice looks beautiful. The cover somehow remains shiny metallic looking even after the six weeks of use. The cover also crinkles nicely in the pockets. One of the many reasons people enjoy using Field Notes is how they look once used and have a slightly distressed finish. The use of new binding as opposed to the traditional three staples means that this edition is slightly thicker than usual. This makes it harder to bend and tear when in the bag or in the pocket so along with fewer signs of wear and tear, the pages stay very much intact. Some of the editions of Field Notes immediately prior to this (I’m looking at you Two Rivers) had definite issues when it came to keeping the paper inside the cover. Given how much I enjoyed holding the book open and cracking the spine, I expected this to also be in edition where the pages fell out easily, so was pleasantly surprised when they didn’t.

I often see Black Ice for resale, so it seems I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t make it work for them. Given that I’m in the process of re-shaking up my routine and productivity system again, it was time to clear the desk. Sadly, the half-finished Black Ice will be consigned to the drawer with the completed notebooks.

Maybe one day I’ll want to pull it out again.

The Blackwing 54 – A Writer’s Pencil

Whether you’re more of a fan of digital or analogue, I’m a firm believer that the more attractive a tool is, the more likely you are to use it. When it comes to getting things done, that also means more gets done.

Palomino are known to make beautiful, unique looking pencils that make people willing to step up to the relatively expensive price point. If people are prepared to do that for the standard issue, then they are more than willing to buy into the limited edition concept.

Which leads me to…. the Blackwing Volumes Edition 54: The Exquisite Corpse. A pencil unlike anything they’ve released before and possibly the fastest selling quarterly release ever.

Look

I’ve yet to see any photograph that really does justice to the colour of the 54. That goes for the rose-coloured body and the teal stamping. Truly gorgeous. I’m in two minds about the colour of the eraser ( a fairly standard blue), but as they’re interchangeable then I know that if another colour comes along in the future then it will be easy enough to swap.

Feel

For me – and many others – the real selling point is the core. The Blackwing 54 has the extra firm core that has so far only been made available in limited edition releases. As the Blackwing 24 has been my favourite edition of all time, I’m happy to see a release that has the same innards.

As you would expect from a premium pencil, the graphite just slides over the page regardless of how hard it is, making it an absolute joy to write with.

Point Retention

It is the point retention of the Blackwing 54 that makes it a writer’s pencil. When writing longform pieces, there is nothing worse than having to stop and sharpen your pencil every three minutes. It’s possible to write with the Blackwing 54 for longer than a standard Blackwing 602 (and certainly longer than the affectionately named MMX), but without sacrificing a nice dark line in the process.

Comparison

Although there are three volumes editions with the extra firm core, in my experience they are not actually identical. The 530 was lighter than the 24 (something other people noticed too), which was a bit of a disappointment. In my test below, you can see how they all line up – with the majority standard favourite, the Blackwing 602 – included for comparison.

The overall verdict? I love this pencil. It makes me want to get out my notebook and write for hours. The 24 is still my favourite, but from a writing perspective, the 54 has to come in a close second.