I’ve read two great posts this week that I’m going to tie together with some other thoughts I’ve been having. Thus, I’m violating the “one post, one topic” blogging wisdom – but bear with me as the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.
I’ve mentioned before that I started writing about productivity because my own productivity system was broken. At the time, I was having such a hard time getting my life to fit inside one of the different systems that I was frustrated – I went from getting fully invested in the system, to falling off the horse, to getting back on the system…in roughly five to six week cycles, no less.
Looking back, I now realize the folly. The point of productivity systems is not to get my life into the system, but to help me live my life through a system.
Generating Motion and Scaffolding
While reading Dave Seah’s post Reevaluating the Year’s Goals, a weird tangent occurred to me. Dave said:
The GHDR System is designed to maintain momentum via natural levels of desire, whereas other systems seem to be designed to use either pressure (nagging) or structure (idealize process) to create the necessary motion. I happen to know that what works for me is just focusing on moving, and I will build structure as necessary, so it’s no surprise that GHDR has evolved the way it has.
The insight here is brilliant – I’d like to build on it a bit more. Part of what has always bothered me about GTD is purely skill-based. I’ve found that I don’t need to list every action to complete the project in most cases – using GTD, I was overplanning.
On the other hand, a lot of my creative projects needed to be left tagged “to do” but relatively unstructured during the planning phase. What I needed most is a system that helped me generate motion.
The problem was that a lot of my projects were ones that I didn’t want to do. No productivity system was going to make me enjoy things I didn’t enjoy doing – so inevitably, generating motion wasn’t enough as I’d soon become disinterested and start doing things that generally weren’t advancing that current goal.
So the second lesson: it needed to generate motion and make short bursts of work worthwhile. The main project that I need the most help with is completing the chapters of my dissertation. All the GTD’ing and productivity systems weren’t helping me.
Okay, tying this back in with what Dave was talking about, I’ve recently started teaching myself Ruby on Rails. For those of you not in the know, Ruby on Rails is a great platform for quickly building and deploying web-based applications – all of the 37Signal‘s products (Backpack, Basecamp, and Highrise) are built using it, as well as a slew of other web2.0 services. It’s great stuff, but I’ll not get too much into it here. (Sidenote: Backpack is no longer available. You can check out some other comparable apps here.)
There’s a process in building with Ruby on Rails called scaffolding. The basic idea, as I currently understand it, is to very quickly get the structure of the design you want now and quickly remove it when you deploy the application. As such, you aren’t bogged down by complicated problems – you’re actively moving towards the completed project.
This is exactly what I want my productivity system to do – it should fluidly structure the movement towards a goal rather than direct the movement towards the goal. As I complete a part of a project, I should be able to scaffold to the next and kick away the stuff I don’t need from the old system.
The reason I find this paradigm shift empowering is because it is structured around the way our lives actually work. I need to fix the airplane while I’m flying it – and though a well-structured plane would have prevented me from having to fix it midair, I’m here already and can’t land.
My Notebook-based Productivity System
It’s at this point that I’ll reveal a somewhat embarrassing secret – the scaffolds of my actual productivity system is a set of notebooks. Yes, I said set (as in multiple) and notebook (as in paper). This is anathema for most productivity gurus – the conventional advice is if you absolutely must have a notebook, everything needs to go in one.
For me, nothing beats the fluidness and simplicity of paper for charting, planning, and capturing. Everyday, I write down what I need to do and draw (DRAW!) a daily planner (or use my own if I have one printed). That planner becomes my dashboard for the day and this takes me about ten minutes to do.
(Yes, my drawings differ a bit each day – but each day is a bit different. Yes, the planner I draw is different than the one I’ve presented, but all of my planners are going through a redesign to make them more useful and intuitive. Sorry that it’s taking me so long to get these out.)
But why do I have a set of notebooks? Because I’ve got discrete components of my life that I want to keep separate, and I’ve found that having everything in one notebook makes it such that it takes me a long time to find what I’m looking for. Also, having one notebook means I go through it faster, making it the case that I spend more time trying to capture the information than if I just left them in a dedicated notebook for longer. Here are the notebooks I have:
- Charlie – For general notes I take – has blogging notes, ToDo Lists, notes from conversations, notes from research, etc.
- Joint – When Angela and I talk about some of our joint projects, it goes in here.
- Home – Notes having to do with home projects, groceries, chore lists, etc.
- Military – Everything having to do with Guard projects.
- Music – Notes I take from playing music – chord structures, lyrics, song lists, etc.
- Work-Out Log – Notes I take about my workouts and other exercise related information.
Each notebook is marked with what it’s about, and the Military notebook is visually different from the others mainly because I get them free from the Guard. They are all 6″ x 9″ Gregg Ruled, Top Bound and cost something like $4 for a three pack – this is a good size, because they fit in cargo pockets, and I can write, jot, and draw to my heart’s content because they’re relatively cheap, unlike Moleskines which cost $12-16 a pop.
I keep each notebook in the place it’s most likely to be used – i.e. the Joint and Home notebooks are on the kitchen desk counter, the Music notebook is back with my music stuff, and the Work-Out Log is down with the exercise equipment. The Military notebook is part of my uniform set and is pulled out when I do military correspondence – everything relevant to my Guard life is captured there. The Charlie notebook goes everywhere with me and is always retrievable within 10-15 seconds.
Now, this byzantine system may drive others crazy, but it works really well for me because I know where I wrote something based on what type of information it is. I don’t have to worry about listing contexts, projects, or what have you – I can just grab the notebook, put a date and time at the top of a clean sheet, and start writing. If I ever need that information again, I know where to find it.
Sometimes it happens that I write the wrong stuff in the wrong notebook – but usually I remember that I wrote it in a different notebook and remember what notebook it was, so it’s not that big of a deal.
Back to scaffolding – the notebooks help me because they generate rapid scaffolds that don’t pull from the process that I’m trying to do. Because each notebook is dedicated to a particular type of information, I can focus on what I’m currently doing without getting derailed on the notes from other projects.
When I’m done with the project, I turn the page – I generally don’t throw the page away until I get to the end of the notebook, as the ideas from one project sometimes help with another. The information from the notebook that needs to be captured permanently goes into a text file (because it’s searchable) and the rest gets recycled.
Paper-Based Task Management is Still Simpler, More Effective, and More Useful
It was Andre’s post On Paper-Based Task Management that motivated me to write about my notebook- scaffolded life. His discussion of the benefits of switching to a paper-based system is dead-on from my experience and I won’t repeat much of it. I think the most insightful piece is when he says:
Perhaps the most important advantage of using a separate organizer is perspective. Keeping my task management system outside of my production tools – my laptop and cell phone – provides an Archimedean vantage point that allows me to think about my workflow instead of within it.
Laptops, cellphones, PDAs, and the other tools we use have a tendency to diffuse our focus. Paper-based task management systems work so well because you’re not trying to work from them – the reason you refer to such a system is not to do you work, but to figure out what you need to be doing. To carry on with the scaffolding metaphor, paper-based task management systems are more prone to help you see the structure you’re building from the outside rather than from the inside.
Our projects take lives of their own sometimes (most of the time) – and computer-based task management systems cause most people to spend more time restructuring the plan and fidgeting with software than working on the product. A paper-based system lets you develop a system that scaffolds the motion you’ve generated quickly and let’s you maintain that motion without pulling you away from the work.