Michael’s Scribbles: 2008-04-06

I did these ‘scribbles’ posts for a couple of days, then nothing. I didn’t stop typing them up – I just didn’t write any in the first place. Now that I am scribbling again, I’m doing it in a different place. I’m experimenting with using my Mini Filofax again. It’s a bit of a trade-off, as these things so often are. The area of paper to write on is quite a bit smaller than in a Moleskine, so I’m using a lot more pages. On the other hand, though, the paper is better, and I can have separate sections for other things. I’m not keeping a real GTD system at the moment, but it’s still useful to have some lists, like a wish list and a shopping list.

It’s quite possible I’ll be back to the Moleskine within a day or two, or that I’ll try to stretch my jeans pocket to cram in my Pocket Filofax. I have a worrying amount of fun trying them, though, and that’s the important thing.

GTD with Emacs PlannerMode

Latest Update: Updated link to the Woodnotes guide.


Recently, I’ve been trying out a new way of doing GTD, and it seems pretty good to me. In the end, it was Emacs I couldn’t cope with using, but if you get on with Emacs, this could be for you. Let’s start with a disclaimer this time, though…

  • This is one for the geeks.

It’s all based around using the Emacs text editor, which isn’t the easiest thing around to use, even just to edit a text file. It balances a couple of elisp programs on top of that, too, which let you do all sorts of clever things, using nothing but plain text. If you’re geek enough, though, and the idea of keeping everything in plain text appeals to you, this is one fast GTD system…

I should probably add another mini-disclaimer here to point out that I’m more of a wannabe geek than a real geek, so don’t think you have to be able to poo in C code, or reprogram your George Formby grill to pick it’s heat settings up as an XML file from your fridge. You need to be able to hack at text files, though, and not be too put off at reading manuals and learning a little elisp.

The System

Just so you can decide if it’s worth your while continuing, let’s start with a bit about the end result if you set up everything described in this article…

  • You’ll be living in Emacs – all of your organizing will be done in Emacs.
  • Plain text files will be used for storing all of your data. You could even edit the files with other programs, but you’d lose some of the automated stuff that PlannerMode provides – like duplicating tasks to a day page, a project page and a context page.
  • Platform independent – you won’t have much problem if you decide to switch later from Windows to Linux or MacOS – they’ll both run Gnu Emacs and should be fine with all the other bits too. I’ve not actually tried any of this on other OSses, but it’s likely that most of the developers of the apps concerned aren’t running Windows.
  • Create tasks in Emacs, by doing Ctrl-c then Ctrl-t. This will give you a series of little prompts for what, when, and projects/contexts.
  • Daily Planner pages – every day has a corresponding page, listing all the tasks for that day, along with a section for scheduled things and a section for notes.

You can also get some idea of how the system will look in practice from eclair‘s screenshots, linked from near the bottom of this article.

Emacs

It’s all based on emacs, so you have to get that up and running first. There’s two options for this – Gnu Emacs, and XEmacs. Gnu Emacs seems to be used by more people, so there’s a bit more documentation around, and things are generally better tested with it, so that’s my choice. XEmacs integrates better with Windows, and has a nice simple installer, which is a bit of a help, but when you’re trying to get something running that you’re not familliar with, you probably want to go with whatever’s been tried by the most people. If you already use XEmacs, all this stuff should work just fine, but if you don’t use any Emacs at all, I’d go with the Gnu for now.

  • Update: I’ve been using XEmacs more recently, and PlannerMulti, the add-on that makes GTD possible with Planner, doesn’t work as it stands with the newest version of XEmacs. It can be fixed by editing PlannerMulti’s code a little (thanks, Neilen!), but it might be another reason to go with the Gnu unless you have a particular liking for XEmacs. If you do carry out the linked fix, it’s the changes in the diff listed at the bottom of the post that worked for me. Entering tasks works slightly differently afterwards – instead of entering all of the contexts or projects you want to attach the task to with spaces between them, enter one at a time, and when you’re done, enter ‘nil’ (will usually be the default after you’ve entered the first one anyway). This may make more sense once you’ve read further on down, but it only applies if you decide to go with XEmacs and fix PlannerMulti yourself anyway.

Although Emacs is available for Linux and MacOS, I’m going to be assuming I’m talking to Windows users here. Hopefully most of it will be quite understandable for others too – most Linux users probably already have Emacs (or they use Vi and now they think I’m evil).

Getting

You can download Gnu Emacs from here – it’s the ‘emacs-21.3-bin-i386.tar.gz’ file you want (13Mb).

Installing

You need to unzip the file first, but it’s not actually a zip file – it’s a ‘.tar.gz’. If you’ve dealt with much Unix stuff in the past, you’ll probably be familiar with these already, but if not, they’re a tiny bit odd. It’s actually a .gz file, which contains a .tar file, which then contains the files you want. A decent unzipping program will handle these pretty easily, but you may need to open the .gz file, then open the .tar file inside it to get to the juicy bits upon which we wish to feast. If you don’t have any preferred unzipping software for this, 7-Zip does the job quite nicely, and it’s free. If you install that, just double-click the .tar.gz file, then double-click the .tar file/folder in the window that opens. In there, you’ll see the actual Emacs folder that we’re after- you can drag it from there to where you want it.

Once you’ve got to the Emacs folder, you need to copy it somewhere so we can run it. Although it should work ok pretty much anywhere, it’s really happiest somewhere without any long filenames – ideally, rename the folder to just “emacs”, and drop it in the root of your C: drive.

Under the “emacs” folder is a folder called “bin”. In there, there’s a program called “addpm.exe”. Run this, and you’ll get a nice icon for Emacs added to your Start menu.

Because of its Unix roots, Emacs will tend to refer to things relative to “~” – the Unix way of referring to your home directory. This isn’t set under Windows, and Emacs seems to assume it means the root of C:. Although this will work ok, it’s a bit inconvenient, and can mean a whole lot of messy files and folders all over the place. It’s a good idea to change this before we start. Right-click on My Computer, and select Properties. On the Advanced tab, click the button for Environment Variables. Add a new User variable, called “HOME”, with the value set to the folder you want to act as Emacs’ home. Personally, I put this under…

C:\Documents and Settings\pigpogm\My Documents\home\

…and just created a “home” folder in My Documents. This keeps it easy to get to, without cluttering up the root of C: any more than we already have.

Warning: Changing (or setting) the value of ‘HOME’ won’t affect many Windows programs, but you might find it upsets some. The only program on my system that was upset by it was The GIMP, which wanted to use the new HOME folder for it’s .gimp folder and font cache. When I started it and it started wanting to set up a new user, I just cancelled, and copied the .gimp and font cache files from where they were (under the docs and settings\pigpogm folder) to the newly created home folder. It then started again fine.

Setting the HOME variable isn’t needed to make things work, but if you don’t do it, don’t get all upset when Emacs does a poo all over your nice clean C: drive.

Learning

Emacs is not easy to learn. Even just being able to open and close files, and edit a bit of text is kind of tricky. Gnu Emacs does give you a menu in Windows, which helps, but to get the best out of it, you need to learn to use the keyboard for as much as possible. The best way to get started is probably to run the tutorial from the help menu. That will teach you most of the basics of editing, but you’ll need to spend a couple of hours going through it, at least.

PlannerMode

Modes

Emacs is always running in a mode. The main mode it runs in at any time is a Major Mode – which can also have any number of Minor Modes. Minor modes just change little things, like turning on and off font colouring, or changing how tabs are handled. Major Modes can change a lot more, like hiding some characters, making text display differently, or pretty much anything else. Many functions of Emacs can act differently depending on the mode it’s in. When nothing else is specified, it’s normally in Fundamental Mode. If it’s not, and you want to get back to normal, just switch to it by entering “M-x fundamental-mode” (and if that means nothing to you, you need to work through the tutorial).

PlannerMode is another mode. Planner, though, is based on another optional mode called Muse.

Muse

If you’re familiar with the idea of a wiki, Muse implements wiki-like functionality in text files.

Even if you’re not familiar with a wiki, that’s still what it does, it just doesn’t help you as an explanation ;)

A few extra options for formatting are enabled, like beginning a line with a star and a space to make a heading, and anything in double square brackets is turned into a link to a file with that name. So, if you type the text “Write Article on PlannerMode (Amazon UK, Amazon US)” in a file in Muse Mode, the square brackets will become hidden, and the text will become a link. When you move into the linked text and hit enter, Emacs will open a file called “Write Article on PlannerMode”, in the same folder as the file you were editing.

If the file doesn’t exist, it creates it. The upshot of all this is that you can create new pages very quickly and easily, just by mentioning them elsewhere.

Muse can do other things too, like taking all the files in a project, and publishing them in some other format – like a PDF file or a web site – but the wiki-like functionality is what PlannerMode makes use of. Once it’s working, you can pretty much ignore Muse if you like – Planner will use it quietly in the background.

Getting Muse

Get muse from this page on the Emacs Wiki – I followed the link to the releases, and grabbed muse-3.02.93.zip.

You should go there to get Muse, to make sure you get the most recent release. In case there are problems getting it from there in future, though, I’ve attached the version I used to this article – there should be a link to it near the bottom of the page.

Setting Up Muse

To make Muse work, first you need to unzip the file you downloaded for it, and stick the muse folder from inside it somewhere (I renamed it from muse- to just “muse”). I put mine under the home folder we created earlier, in a folder called elisp (‘elisp’ is the language used for Emacs extensions). So, the folder for the .el files that make up Muse is “~/elisp/muse/lisp/”. ‘~’ is home, and the actual .el files are in a subfolder of the Muse folder called ‘lisp’. So, to make it work, we need to add a line to our .emacs file (the script that Emacs runs at startup). The .emacs file is in your home folder. At this point, you need to be able to edit files and save them again in Emacs without breaking anything. Edit the file “~/.emacs”. Add a line to the beginning that says…

  • (add-to-list ‘load-path “~/elisp/muse/lisp/”)

This tells Emacs to look for extensions in that folder too. We could probably copy the lisp files to somewhere else that’s already in the load-path, if we wanted to, but it seems neater to keep them in their own folder. Anyway, this is what the documentation I found said, and it worked, so I’m not going to play with it.

You shouldn’t need to do anything else for Muse – we don’t need to make it load at startup, because we’ll let Planner do that for us.

Planner

Planner adds to the already nice bits done by Muse, and turns Emacs into a speedy plain text organiser.

Getting Planner

Now you need to download a copy of Planner – it’s available from the Emacs Wiki. Again, I visited the releases page, and I grabbed planner-3.41.zip.

(As with Muse, the version I used should be attached at the bottom of this page, but it’s only there in case of disappearing files – you’d be better off getting to most recent release from the real source.

Setting Up Planner

Very similar to Muse. Stick the ‘planner’ folder (rename all those version numbers away) in a folder under your elisp folder, then add a line just after the one for loading Muse…

  • (add-to-list ‘load-path “~/elisp/planner/”)

Planner doesn’t use a lisp subfolder, so that should do the job. We need planner to load itself at startup, though, so we also need to add another line to our .emacs, after all the add-to-list bits. Make a couple of blank lines to space things out a bit, and if you want to add comments, do it on extra lines, and begin them with two semi-colons (so you could add a line at the very top that says “;; Set the Load Paths”, for example). Now add another line…

  • (require ‘planner)

This tells Emacs that it has to actually load Planner (if I’ve understood this stuff correctly – do let me know if I’m wrong – I just know it works like this ;).

To be able to do GTD with it, we need one more thing – the extension that Sacha made for us that lets us use multiple ‘projects’ with one task. Without that, we won’t be able to use projects and contexts, so we wouldn’t be able to do GTD. Time for another line, after the previous one…

  • (require ‘planner-multi)

Planner-Multi is in the folder with Planner, so Emacs already knows where to get it from.

This is probably a good time to create the “Plans” folder under your home folder – PlannerMode won’t start cleanly without it.

At this point, it really should be working, but it wasn’t for me. I’d have a try at this point, in case things work more easily for you – later versions of the files may fix this problem. Close and reopen Emacs, and do “M-x plan”. If planner starts up without errors, and gives you your “* Tasks”, etc screen, you’re good to go.

That didn’t happen for me, and the error tells you to look in the Planner manual. The readme tells you the wrong location for the manual, but I found the bits I needed to change on this page of the manual, on the current maintainer’s site. Once I’d added the lines listed there to my .emacs file, Planner started up ok.

Just in case the page vanishes (it’s not responding at the time of writing), here are the lines I added…

(setq planner-project “WikiPlanner”)

(setq muse-project-alist ‘((“WikiPlanner” (“~/Plans” :default “TaskPool” :major-mode planner-mode :visit-link planner-visit-link)

(:base “planner-xhtml” :path “~/www/Plans”))))

You should now be able to ‘M-x Plan’ successfully.

Using Planner

Planner is another Major Mode for Emacs, but you run it by typing “M-x plan” – this will always start PlannerMode, and bring up today’s page – if you’re already in a Planner page, it just switches to today.

When first run, it opens up today’s plan page – every day gets its own page, with three sections – Tasks, Schedule, and Notes.

You can just fill in the Schedule section yourself, in whatever way you like.

The notes section can be used the same way, but makes a little more sense if you follow a few conventions (start each note with “.#n“, where n is the number of the note, and number them upwards, creating newer notes at the top).

The Tasks section is where the magic of PlannerMode happens.

Tasks

Although the tasks section is just text, you can cause problems if you edit too much by hand – Planner provides shortcut keys and menu options for creating and modifying tasks.

PlannerMulti

PlannerMode has one limitation that makes it of limited use for GTD – you can only attach a task to a single project. The problem is that projects are also the only method available to implement contexts – so a task could be attached to a context or a project, but not both.

Fortunately, Sacha has hacked a way around this – PlannerMulti. It’s an add-on to PlannerMode that allows you to enter multiple ‘projects’ for each task. For GTD use, you can use it to attach a task to both a project and a context. If you followed through the ‘Setting Up Planner’ part above, you’ve already got this installed and working.

GTD

If you don’t already know about GTD, you’ll probably want to read my introduction before we go much further. It’s a way of organising all the stuff you have to do. You probably know about it, though, if you’ve got this far down.

Working the System

Open today’s Planner page…

  • M-x plan

Create a new Task…

  • C-c, C-t
  • Enter the task description (“Look up Emacs on Wikipedia”)
  • Choose a date…
    • Today: Enter – (the entry will keep moving forward if you don’t complete it, so you can treat this as can do, not must do, if you like.)
    • Tomorrow, etc: +1, +2, etc.
    • On the 14th of this month: 14
    • On Date: Type the date.
    • Undated: nil – (might well be a well-used one for GTD people – you actually type the word “nil”, then hit enter.)
  • ‘Page’ is both Project and Context in GTD terms. Separate with spaces, so your projects and contexts can’t contain spaces. Examples…
    • SalesReport @Work-Computer
    • ServicingCar @Calls

Mark a task complete…

  • Highlight the task (move the cursor into it).
  • C-c, C-x
  • Planner marks it as complete here and on any other pages on which it’s listed.

Viewing a Context – there’s a couple of ways…

  • Find a task that’s in that context, put the cursor on the context name (should be a link) and hit enter.
  • Open the context’s file – should be wherever your planner files are, usually “~/Plans/”, then the file is called whatever your context is called. So the @Work context is probably a file called “~/Plans/@Work”.

Working it Further

There’s lots more options – rescheduling tasks, modifying the projects they’re connected to, editing the title, marking as delegated, pending, in progress, cancelled, etc, etc. Rather than go through all the options here, though, you can find them all for yourself. Once you’re on a Planner page, there is a Planner menu – have a browse through it. It lists the shortcut keys next to many of the items. Experiment with what the options do.

To keep your data safe whilst you’re playing and learning, just keep backing up the Plans folder. The easiest way is probably to right click on it, Send To, Compressed Folder. When the .zip file appears (Plans.zip), rename it (maybe ‘Plans 2006-05-25.zip’, for example), and keep those copies somewhere safe. If things go horribly wrong, you can always bring the whole folder back to before you broke it.

Other Resources

Sacha

Sacha didn’t originally create PlannerMode, and doesn’t actually maintain it any more, but a lot of the work on the current version, including lots of the stuff needed to make it work with GTD, were done by her. You can find out more on her PlannerMode page – in the blog that she writes and updates directly through Emacs. She’s quite a geek, and creative too (she’s one of the writers behind D*I*Y Planner), which is a great combination.

Clair Ching

Clair’s old site has some pages with lots of good screenshots to show you what PlannerMode actually looks like in real world use. If you’re still debating if it’s worth the effort, check them out…

She had a new blog with more Emacs goodness.

Woodnotes Guide to Emacs for Writers

OK, so it’s intended to be for writers specifically, but this guide from Randall Wood (hey, his first name is my last name) is one of the best introductions to Emacs around for us Windows users. He explains a lot of the terminology that can otherwise be a shock to the system – like a window being called a frame, and paste being called yank.

(Thanks to Clair for the link.)

Genehack

More of a productivity-side view than geek-side, this is another good article on how PlannerMode can work in reality…

Related

GTD and Productivity

There are a few articles in our Productivity section, but the most popular ones are…

  • The PigPog Method – doing GTD without a project list, one next action at a time.
  • PigPogPDA – not really a GTD system as such, but a simplified system using a Moleskine notebook.
  • GTD’s Dirty Secrets – what GTD doesn’t help with.

Text Editors

PigPogPDA – A Moleskine Hacked into a Complete System

Introduction

What Is It?

  • A Moleskine hack.
  • An extreme Moleskine hack.
  • A simplified GTD system (What system? See our GTD Introduction), with relatively little actual organising. May be useful if you fancy Doing GTD Without Doing GTD.
  • A complete personal management system for those who’s needs aren’t too complicated.
  • A rather over-the-top system for dealing with just the capturing and processing end of GTD.

Quick Overview

The rest of this post goes into quite a bit of detail, which makes it all sound a bit more complicated than it is.

It’s just a notebook, you make your notes from front to back, in the usual way. You have a bookmark of some sort to keep track of where you’re up to, so you can quickly open it and make a note. The only ‘clever’ part is that you have another bookmark, which marks the point at which you’ve dealt with everything in some way. Doesn’t matter if you’ve actually done the things, or just made a note of them elsewhere – as long as you’ve processed them in some way, so you don’t need to look at them again.

Normally, the second bookmark will lag a bit behind the ‘main’ one, and at least some of the stuff in-between needs doing or adding to a list somewhere else (maybe just some other pages in the same notebook). Anything left behind the second bookmark is pretty much ‘archived’.

If that sounds like something you’d get on with, read on for more details, and ideas on how to implement it.

Translations

I never thought anyone would want to translate one of my articles – I’m honoured that a couple of people have done just that, though…

Why?

I was finding GTD a bit much for various reasons, but didn’t want to stop entirely – I needed to be Doing GTD Without Doing GTD. This is the system I came up with in the end. It’s simpler than GTD, and wouldn’t scale to the sort of level that GTD will, but it works pretty well for me, so it seems reasonable to think it might work well for other people too.

Equipment Needed

  • Moleskine Pocket Reporter (Amazon UK, Amazon US) notebook. This is, after all, a Moleskine hack. Actually, any notebook could be used, I just find the Moleskine Pocket Reporter to be a good shape and size, and has all the right features. They’re relatively pricey, though, and aren’t easy to get everywhere, so you may want to substitute.

  • Pen or Pencil. Your choice. Needs to be pocketable, and work well for quick scribbled notes, but if you can find something you enjoy using, all the better. I started with the Staedtler Mars 780 Leadholder, but I’m now back to using my old favourite Cross ion. The Pilot G-Tec C4 is another good choice – writes very small, so you get more notes to the page. Makes my writing look even worse than usual, though.

  • Post-it Tags – available from most office supplies places, they’re little tags where the sticky part is clear, with a coloured non-sticky part – meant for adding tabs to books, much as we’re going to do shortly. Although I’ve specified colours for each use, it’s just to make explaining easier – use whatever colours you prefer.

Preparing

Page Template

Looks Like This

The basic page template is just a ruled line at the bottom, maybe two centimetres or three quarters of an inch from the bottom, then a line from the top of the page down to this line, about the same distance from the right hand edge. Doesn’t need to be exact, and you might prefer wider or narrower margins. Just see what you find works.

How To Mark

Trick I picked up years ago from one of my school teachers, for marking a ‘margin’ line on pretty much anything with some thickness to it – he used it for marking wood for cutting, but it works just as well on a notebook…

  • Hold your pen or pencil in hand as usual, between thumb and first two fingers.
  • Rest your second finger on the page.
  • Press the first knuckle of your third finger (ring finger) against the edge of the pad.
  • Slide down the page, using fingers as a guide – do it once or twice with the pencil just above the page, to get the idea, then lower the pencil and draw the line.

The result won’t be as perfect as a ruled line, but not far off, and you can do it anywhere without needing a ruler. Careful of paper cuts.

Why a Template?

The main section is for your notes and scribbles. Drawings, even, if you’re so inclined. The margin on the right is a space for notes added later – maybe actions arrising from the things on the left, or follow up clarifications.

The section at the bottom is for two things – space for the tags, and a space for titles for active pages. If a page is just for capturing quick notes and scribbles, it will be left blank, and just used for the tags. If a page is brainstorming or mind mapping of an idea, event or project, a title can go in the middle of the bottom section, where the tags won’t obscure it. Remember, the sticky part of the tags is clear anyway.

Titles at the bottom seems a bit odd, but it does seem to work, especially with the reporter style notebook and the tags.

Mixing with Other Ideas

The same template idea can be mixed in with other stuff…

  • Leslie Herger, for example, uses a system with two pages based on the PigPogPDA idea, followed by two pages of general ideas and notes. The block of four pages tend to get used up around the same time, then she moves on to the next block.
  • Peter at Getting (Some) Things Done …Eventually has mixed parts of the PigPogPDA with other things very effectively – adding the other parts of GTD to sections of the notebook.
  • This system at azazil makes a system from a Moleskine diary, using ideas from this article, and hyalineskies‘ excellent system. Both of these have taken some ideas from the PigPogPDA, but built some great stuff on top of it, and made a much more complete system.
  • I currently do something similar to the PigPogPDA, but using a Filofax. The ‘active’ marker is the ‘today’ plastic ruler, and anything that would be behind the ‘processing point’ gets taken out and archived elsewhere. My GTD-style context lists, and Someday/Maybe stuff just go in different sections.

Stock Up on Tags

The last page in the Pocket Reporter is thick card – use this to stick spare tags on – maybe one spare each of pink and blue, and a good stack of yellows. They peel off this page easier than the other pages.

Date The Edge

No, not the fella from U2. Use a Sanford Sharpie or similar marker to mark the date you start the notebook on the edge of the pages. When you’re done with this one, you’ll mark the end date on it, and they’ll all stand in a line on your shelf looking impressive ;)

Using

Blue and Pink Tags

These mark out the boundaries of your active capturing area. I use a blue tag for the processing point (closest to the front of the book), and a pink tag for the collection point (closest to the back of the book).

  • Blue Tag – Processing Point. Anything before this point has been processed, and you don’t need to refer to again – unless it has a yellow tag to mark it as active. I keep this one stuck on the left hand side, which makes it stand out better.
  • Pink Tag – Collection Point. This is where you need to note down any new ideas. Sometimes, there will be notes beyond this point, but only when you’ve needed a full page for something. I keep this one on the right hand side, so it’s the only non-yellow thing on its side. You might want to keep all yellow tags on the left, so you can find the collection point by feel, and don’t have to look for colours before making a quick note.

Obviously, you can use whatever colours you like for this. I’ve picked yellow for the active markers, because they’ll be easiest and cheapest to buy, and blue and pink because they stand out well against the yellow and each other.

Active Tags

Anything that’s currently being worked on gets a yellow tag. I find it best to keep them all on the left side – that way, the pink tag can be found easily, because it’s the only tag on that side. Good for when you need to make a note of something quickly. See the ‘Variations’ note further down the page – I’m currently using a slightly different trick for active pages, which seems to work better than the yellow tags.

What Gets an Active Tag?

Anything that’s active. If you’re planning an article, or a party, or you’re working on a list of people you’ll need to tell about something, or a list of things you need to do this weekend, or…

You get the idea. Anything you’re still working on that has a page of its own. Single items should be moved into a list before getting a yellow tag.

Can Active Tags be Before the Blue Tag?

Yes. If you’ve processed all the notes past the point of that page, as long as there’s an active tag on it, the blue marker can move forward beyond it. The yellow tag keeps it active, and lets the blue tag move beyond the page.

Can Active Tags be Ahead Of the Pink Tag?

Yes. The Pink tag is your current capture point – if you’re only halfway down a page, and want to start working on a list, or mind mapping something you’re intending to do, you just move forward to a new blank page. The capture point doesn’t have to move forward, though, until the page it’s on is finished. In this case, you’ll have active work, with a yellow tag, further towards the back of the book than the pink tag. That’s ok.

Alternative to Active Tags – Page Numbering with an Index

I used a variation on this in my second PigPogPDA, and it seemed to work better for me. Rather than having the yellow tags, I started it by numbering all the pages, but skipped the first page (the first one after the card page, that is. The one that sticks to the card page a bit). The first page, I used as a kind of contents page for the pages that would otherwise have had yellow tags on them. So when I want to do a bit of brainstorming about something, or make notes on a specific subject, I scribble a title in the bottom part of a template page, then write the page number and the title on the first page. Things can be crossed out when they’re no longer active.

One page should be enough for the contents, continuing on the second side if needed, but you can always leave a second page spare at the start if you’re concerned about running out of space.

The advantages are…

  • Less tags getting in the way – all those yellow tags are a bit of a mess.
  • Faster to find a page. Once you’ve got a few active pages on the go, even if it’s not a lot of them, it can take a while to find the one you’re looking for among all the yellow tags. This way, you open the first page, look up the page you want, and flick to it.
  • Quick reference to all active pages, making it easier to review what you’re working on.

The numbers are in the very bottom right corner of each page.

Capturing

Capturing is pretty simple, just as it should be. Open up a the pink tag, and make your notes. Draw a line across between items, all the way to the edge. The right hand side margin can then be used to tick off items that are done, or make little notes of actions coming from that note.

Processing

Processing starts from the blue tag (closest to the front of the book). You check each page, and if there’s anything actionable in it, you need to either do it, or clarify what it is and add it to an active list somewhere. That somewhere can be another page further forward in the book, or it could be a to-do list somewhere completely different.

If you’re just capturing with this system, the actual to-do list could be in a copy of Outlook, or index cards, or whatever other system you like.

If this is your entire system (it is for me), you just make lists as and when you need them further forwards in the book. If you’ve got several things noted down that you need to do this weekend, make a page for Things To Do This Weekend, and put these on the list. Then you can mark the items off. When each item on a page is marked off, move the blue tag forwards. Skip any active pages with yellow tags – they’re already marked as active, and when they stop being active, we’ll process them before removing their yellow tag.

Ideally, the blue tag should meet the pink tag fairly regularly – that means you’re all up to date with things. If they’re too far apart too often, you’ve probably got too much stuff between them that’s outstanding, and need to either start doing things more, or you might need a better Productivity) system. Or if you’ve got mostly crossed out items, with just a few that you’ve not dealt with clogging things up, you can move them forward…

Moving Things Forward

Sometimes, there’ll be something sticking the blue tag from moving forward, because it doesn’t really belong in a list, but you can’t (or can’t be bothered to) do it. Feel free to just copy it to your current capture point, and continue moving the blue tag forwards. If there’s a few of them, you could always collect them together in a ‘Stubborn Items’ list. You don’t want to build up too many active items, though. They’ll all need copying forwards to a new book when you reach the end of this one, or you’d have to carry two books around.

Reference Stuff

Personally, I keep reference stuff elsewhere – I need that stuff on a computer where it’s searchable and can be archived and backed up safely.

If you really want reference stuff mixed in with this system, I’d probably just get another colour of tags, and tag reference stuff with that. The blue tag would, obviously, just move forwards past them.

Archiving

Simple trick – mark the start and end dates of the notebook on the side, and they’ll all line up on a shelf with the dates showing.

Other Tricks

  • The elastic on the Moleskine notebook can just about hold the tip of your chosen pen or pencil, keeping them together in you pocket.
  • The back pocket in the notebook is just wide enough for credit cards and business cards, and it will also hold index cards and paper money quite nicely. If you can manage with only a few items, you might be able to replace your wallet – I have.
  • Clip your mobile phone under the elastic too, and you’ve got yourself a PigPog Communicator.
  • Number the last ten pages backwards – 1 on the last page, then 2, and on inwards. That way, when you hit the number 10 when using new pages, you’ll know you’ve only got ten pages to go before needing a new PDA.
  • When starting a new book, mark up a page halfway through first, and make a note at the top of it to buy another Pocket Reporter. When the pink tab reaches that point, you’ll already have a reminder in place to replace your PDA well before it runs out.

Related

  • GTD Introduction – if you don’t know what all this GTD stuff is.
  • GTD – The PigPog Method – if you’re after more of a small tweak to the basic GTD, to cut down on managing projects.
  • 43 Folders – the finest source of inspiration for productivity hacks, especially with Moleskines and Apple Macs. Use the links there to buy your Moleskines if you’re in the US.
  • DIY Planner – Organising and productivity with paper, with a more creative twist.
  • Post It Flags – Post It’s range of flags.
  • Mojo – Moleskine Reporter pads at Mojo UK. For US suppliers, see 43 Folders.

GTD: Processing Whilst Collecting – Is It a Problem?

Once you’ve been doing GTD for a while (however half-assed your implementation), you start to find yourself thinking in GTD terms. You spot something that needs doing in the living room, and your mind jumps straight to “Hmm – tidy side table needs to go on @Home.” The problem is that this isn’t how GTD is supposed to work. You’re supposed to just capture the fact that the side table is a mess, and process that note later. Once you get used to doing it, though, you shortcut through the steps and just find yourself wanting to stick the item straight on the appropriate list.

The Theory

In theory, the way it should work is this…

  • You spot the messy table.
  • You make a quick note, “Living room side table messy”, and put it in your inbox. In practice, this could be a category in your Palm, a page in your notebook, or a real sheet of paper in a real in tray. The David has always said that the implementation doesn’t really matter.
  • Later, when processing, you pick up the note, and decide what to do with it…
    • What is it? A note of something that needs doing.
    • What’s the next action? Tidying the table.
    • Will that action complete the loop? Yes. It’s a single action, not a project.
    • Can it be done now? I’m at home, upstairs, but yes, I could go and do it now.
    • Will it take less than two minutes? No. It’s really quite a mess.
    • Defer It: Add it to the appropriate context list – in this case, probably @Home.

The Practice

Once you’ve got the idea of GTD, what you’ll probably do is cut through most of that…

  • You spot the messy table.
  • You add Tidy side table in living room to your @Home list.

No Problem

You got the same result, and all that really happened is that you jumped instantly from spotting the situation, to the end result (well, before actually doing it, anyway). There isn’t a problem. You saved a bunch of time, and saved yourself a chunk of work.

Except…

Where it Might be a Problem

There are a couple of situations I can see where this sort of shortcut can be a problem…

  • Avoiding Thinking: You’re just pretending to make the shortcut, but you’re really avoiding thinking about something, and you end up cutting out the middle steps, and putting something on your list that’s still stuff. It’s not really a single action, so you can’t do it. Using the sortcut is ok, but you need to take care that you are skipping the thinking parts because they’re really obvious, not because you just don’t want to do them.
  • Your System Requires It: I found recently that I’d set up a system for myself that involved me making a checkbox or a dash before things as I captured them. Anything with a checkbox needed something doing about it; dashes were just there for information. The problem was that I had to decide which things were actionable before I’d written them down. Don’t do this. It’s important that your collection tool allows you to just make notes, and work out later if they’re actionable or not. Otherwise, you’ll either rush the decision so you can start writing, and get it wrong, or you’ll end up not making a note of some things at all, because you’re not sure how to start.

Conclusion

Generally, processing whilst collecting is ok, as long as you’re doing it because it’s become so obvious to you. Beware of the traps, though. Don’t let stuff end up on your action lists, don’t sidestep the thinking process when it is needed, and make sure you’re set up for noting down anything, anytime, without worrying about what it actually is until later.

GTD – The PigPog Method

Last Update: Added a link for Gretchen (one of the people who helped create the PigPog Method), to her new site – Girls Can’t WHAT? – inspiration for girls who can.

This article describes how I actually implement the GTD system using my iPaq and Microsoft Outlook, though it could be done just as well with almost any computerised lists. It’s my solution to the GTD problem of linking next actions to their project. If you don’t know what GTD is, you’d probably best start with my introduction. If you do GTD, but use paper and pen, have a look at MarkTAW’s Cascading Next Actions method – similar, but designed for paper users.

GTD is all based on David Allen’s excellent books. You’ll get far more from reading the books than from any web site.

Introduction

This article covers how I implement the GTD system – there’s quite a few other ways, which you may want to look at before reading this one.

The Problem

There’s a few problems that people have with GTD…

Actually Doing Things

GTD is great at organising what you have to do, and keeping you on top of everything, but if you don’t actually do any of the things, it’s only of limited help. Anyone who knows me could vouch for the fact that I’m probably not the best person to advise on that ;)

If you really want my thoughts on it, see my post on GTD’s Dirty Secrets.

Weekly Reviews

A lot of people resist doing the weekly review. It’s pretty much vital for GTD that you don’t skip weekly reviews, but it’s a problem for many people. My system reduces the impact of missing one a little, but only a little. By making the review a bit easier, though, it might make you resist it less. It might not, but it’s worth a shot.

Connecting Projects to Actions

Ah. This is the one for the PigPog Method. This we can help with. Read on.

The PigPog Method

Background

I should point out before I start that the PigPog Method was produced through a long discussion between quite a few people on the GtD_Palm Yahoo! Group. It’s by no means all my idea, and in fact even the post where I started it all off was just me pulling together a few ideas I’d picked up from the group. Too many people to remember had valuable suggestions that, put together, made this method, but special thanks should go to James Cameron, Gretchen, Ricky Spears, Harold (I think?), and Teri Pitman.

The Basic Setup

Personally, I implement this using Outlook Tasks, but you should be able to apply the PigPog Method with almost any setup. It wouldn’t be a convenient system with paper, though, it really needs a computer of some sort. I’ve used the same system in the past with Palm PDAs and an iPaq hx4700. Both worked well.

For the most part, my lists are pretty close to the standard ones David Allen recommends. I keep any non-action stuff in the Memos / Notes, rather than Tasks, so Someday/Maybe goes there. My @Action lists are…

  • @Anywhere
  • @Home
  • @Internet
  • @Other
  • @Waiting For
  • @Work

There’s also ‘Agendas’ at the bottom of the list, for things I need to speak to somebody about.

What? Where’s the Projects List?

David Allen says we need a Projects list to keep track of all of those things we need to do that will take more than one action to be complete. That way, when we have ticked off the first action on that project, we won’t forget about it altogether. However, these things will only get picked up once a week at the weekly review. There is the risk that you’ll end up forgetting about something for up to a week, that really needed doing before. Also, I always found the ‘projects’ part of the weekly review to be annoyingly difficult and time consuming. For every project on the list, and it can be quite a few (David reckons 40-70 is common), you have to search for a matching action on one of the six (in my case – however many you have) @Action lists. If you don’t find one, does that mean you just didn’t look carefully enough, or is there really no action in your lists for this one? How do you know it when you see it? It’s not so bad if you look at the project and can remember what the next action was – then you will probably know where to look for it, and can make sure it’s there pretty quickly. If you can’t remember what the next action was, though, you could have a tricky time trying to find one.

In the PigPog Method, we get rid of the Projects list entirely. In a computerised system, it’s just not needed any more, and keeping track of it is a big waste of time. Using the example we used when forming the method on the GtD_Palm group, if your project was ‘Conquer Albania’, and the first action was ‘Place Army Wanted Ad’, the item on your tasks list would be Place Army Wanted Ad {Conquer Albania}. Your project and its associated next action are there together on the one line. This item goes in whatever @Action context list it belongs in. If you are going to place the ad on eBay, it would go in your @Internet list. Once you’ve placed the ad, you just edit the item to Responses to Ad {Conquer Albania}, and move it to your @Waiting For list.

Planning and Keeping History

If you like to plan your projects a bit further, you can put planned future actions in the notes for the task, and just copy and paste them into the subject line when you’re ready. I use a template that I inserted using Pop! (costs a little) on the Palm. You can also use TeikeiDA (free) if you know enough about Palm DAs (Desk Accessories) to be able to deal with the Japanese documentation (or if you can read Japanese), or use Shortkeys Lite (free) for Windows. Anyway, the template…

>=Outcome=
>
>=Plans=
>
>=History=
>
>=Notes=

Outcome is a statement of the desired outcome – how we’ll know when the project is complete. I’m actually completely hopeless about filling this in. Plans is for any actions planned in the future. History is for actions that have been completed, or notes of things that happened that were connected with this project – I timestamp these using another Pop! (or Shortkeys Lite) shortcut. I keep less history now than I used to – it wasn’t something I used often enough to need it, but you may be different – if so, remember to copy the information to somewhere else if you purge your completed tasks. Notes is for any other information. In the case of things like these blog entries, the notes will contain the actual article as I’m working on it. This is being typed into the Notes section of an Outlook task entitled Write {Blog: GTD: PigPog Method} right now. That way, all my work in progress is always with me in my Palm, ready to be worked on anywhere.

Advantages

The biggest advantage for me is that I never have to worry about projects not having a next action. I’m forced to think about what I’m going to do next with a project before I can update the system to the fact that I’ve just done something. That helps to keep things moving. I’m slightly encouraged to do more than one thing, as that saves changing the item as many times. The Weekly Review is less daunting, because the hardest part of it is automatically taken care of. There’s one less list to look at. When I find the item that says that I should write a blog entry about something, the notes from when I brainstormed about it are right there in the task item. When I come to review and proofread one I already wrote, the written article is right there ready.

Disadvantages

There’s only really one major disadvantage to this method – there can only be one next action. If you often have the sort of projects where you could do several different things next, depending on where you are when you have the time and inclination, this may be a problem. There’s nothing to actually stop you from sometimes making a separate action that isn’t physically attached to the project, but if you have to do that a lot, the PigPog Method may not work well for you. When you’re new to the PigPog Method, there is also the danger that you could tick off a whole Project on ‘auto-pilot’, when you only intended to tick off the action. To work around this, you can keep completed tasks visible, and purge at the end of each week, so everything gets an extra check before it’s actually gone. This also gives you a second chance to copy any history you want to keep to the calendar where it won’t get purged.

Conclusion

I find the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages, but then again, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this at all, would I? It takes away a lot of what I found unpleasant and difficult with GTD, and makes it all feel much more fluid. I’m a born fiddler, and I do keep trying different methods, but the simplicity of the PigPog Method has lured me back every time.

So far.

Other Resources

GTD Wannabe has made some macros especially for doing the PigPog method with Outlook – I’m honoured…