Writing with a PDA and GTD

When I write articles for PigPog, I use a combination of tools to get the job done. Outlook and my PDA play important parts. I use David Allen’s GTD system for organising my ‘stuff’, so this tends to follow GTD ideas. If you don’t know anything about GTD, this post should still make sense, but my Introduction to GTD might help.

Starting Out – The Idea

The important thing is to capture any ideas you have so you can consider them later. I have a shortcut on my Start menu to create a new Outlook task, and it has a key combination assigned to it, so I can just do Ctrl-Shift-C to capture an idea when I’m at the computer. Elsewhere, my PDA has a voice memo recorder, or I can scribble a note into it, or make a new task. If something comes to me through email, I can drag it to a task from there. However it’s done, the idea is recorded quickly, then I can move on.

If you want to do the same thing with Outlook, you need a shortcut to Outlook with “/c ipm.task” added to the end. On my machine, the full target of the shortcut is – “C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\OFFICE11\OUTLOOK.EXE” /c ipm.task – but this will vary with different versions of Outlook. The shortcut is on the desktop, with the shortcut key assigned to it, and there’s a shortcut to that on the Start menu, so I can get to it quickly with the mouse too.

If you don’t have a very easy way of capturing you ideas, any ideas you have will probably go to waste. If it isn’t convenient to take your PDA somewhere, at least have a pen and a bit of paper with you.

Deciding What to Write About

You need to go through your ideas regularly, and decide which ones could make a decent article as they are, and which might do so later with more thought or more material. Put the ones that you might come back to away somewhere, and keep them. Check this location occasionally to see if there’s any ideas that seem more ‘ready’ now. In GTD terms, this is your Someday/Maybe List. For writers, this is your stack of ideas and raw material, and a great place to go when you want to write, but don’t know what to write.

Any item that you are going to try writing an article about goes in a different list – Projects. This isn’t actionable in itself – you probably need to take a few steps to get the article done and posted. It’s these individual steps that need doing, not the whole thing. Once all the little steps are done, the whole thing is done. So, decide what tasks you need to do first, and put them on another list. I use Outlook’s categories for this, and that gets synced to my PDA. Projects is a category, but then there’s other categories (GTD-Style) for where things need to be done. An article may need some information gathering from the Internet. If so, a note goes in the project, and I create another task – something along the lines of “Google for xxxxx”, and put it on your @Online list.

If you need to get a few thoughts together about the article, make a task to “Brainstorm for xxxxx post”, and put that on your @Anywhere list – you can do it anywhere, as long as you have your PDA (or even a bit of paper and pen at a push). After writing an article, I usually make another task to come back to it to review and edit it. (I’m doing that now, and just realised I’d not mentioned this.)

Writing

I do the actual writing in the notes for the project task in Outlook – that way, it’s right there with the task both on my PC and in my PDA. It means there’s limited options for formatting, but that isn’t actually important for the writing part, anyway. If it needs to be formatted for printing later, do that at the end. As long as there’s a box there to throw text into, nothing else matters too much. Do the writing in the ‘Project’ task, not in the ‘Write article about xxxxx’ task, though – when you’ve done the writing bit, you’ll be ticking off the writing task, but you’ll have the project one around until the article is actually submitted (and maybe until published if you then need to wait for approval, or you’re waiting to hear back about when it will run – if you’re waiting on something like that, leave the Project task alive, and put an item on a separate ‘Waiting For’ list).

On the PDA side, I use Pocket Informant for managing my tasks – it’s much more powerful than the built in apps, replacing Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, and Notes with a single application. The only real problem with Pocket Informant is that Outlook feels a bit under-powered in places after using it. If you use a Palm device, Datebk5 is a similar thing, and is also very good – with the advantage that your purchase is also a donation to a gorilla sanctuary.

Organising the Lists

There’s a bit of overhead in all this, in that you need to put a bit of work into maintaining your lists. The extra bit of work is well worth it, though, because you’ll always know what you’re doing next about all of your writing projects, and you’ll have a stock of ideas sitting waiting to be started on. Any entry in the ‘Projects’ list should have some corresponding actions in the other lists, so you need to check this regularly. I use a couple of tricks to help with this…

  • At the end of any task that’s to be done for a project, I put a ‘#’ – when I tick something off with a hash at the end, I know that it was for a project, so I can go to the corresponding project item straight away and check that there’s another task on the go. If not, I can make one there and then.
  • I keep a list of all the tasks for a project at the top of the notes section. Although this is duplicating with the items in the lists, copying and pasting makes it very little extra work to maintain, and it gives me a neat summary at the top. I can keep planned actions here that can’t be done yet too, so when I’m thinking about an article, I can note down several things that I know I’ll need to do for it, even if some of them can’t be done yet. Another plus from this is that it gives me a bit of history – I can see at the top of the notes what things I’ve already done for that article.

Getting Inspiration

Reading is good for writing. Whenever I come across an article on a web site that I want to read, but don’t want to read now, I just paste it into a new task, and pop that task in a list called ‘@Read’. I always have a bit of reading available when I’m away from my computer.

I also use eReader to read books on my PDA (and in Windows on my tablet).

Other Possibilities

There’s other things that I could do that I don’t do at the moment…

Using Pocket Word

If word count or formatting mattered to me, I’d probably use Pocket Word, and keep all active documents in a special folder uner the ‘username My Documents’ folder, so they’d get synced to the PDA automatically. I did try this for a while, but the extra hassle of switching applications just wasn’t worth it for the extra features in Pocket Word. If you like using Word on the desktop for writing, though, you might find this a better option, and if you need to keep track of word count, Pocket Word will do the job for you. Palm users can do similar things with something like Documents To Go.

If you do this, I’d recommend keeping a note of the files that go with the project in the ‘project’ task item, and making a special folder for active project documents (I made a folder called @Active). Make a subfolder in this for archiving old docs when you’ve finished with the project, unless you already have somwhere completed work gets filed away. You’ll probably want to clear this out fairly regularly, but it could be worth hanging onto the files for a little while at least – just in case.

Reading More on the PDA

There are RSS readers available for Windows Mobile, and I could use one of those to read stuff on the go. I don’t do this, because GPRS traffic is expensive, and I can read and act on content better on my tablet PC most of the time. I’ve also used NewsGator for a while, which dumps the posts from your RSS feeds into Outlook items, which ActiveSync can then copy over to the PDA. It worked ok, but made syncing a lot slower, and I just preferred Bloglines.

Conclusions

I find my PDA to be a great help for writing – it means that I can write articles wherever I am. More importantly, though, I can use odd little bits of time when I’m away from my Tablet PC to review articles I’m working on, and check through how far I’ve got with any writing projects.

Writing seems to fit pretty neatly into the GTD system too – there’s stages to any writing that can fit neatly into the ‘Projects’ idea, and the workflow of GTD can help to keep everything moving and to track where you’re at.