System complete.

Still sick, but still plugging away. I think that IttyBiz article I wrote about last week is really keeping me motivated to work. Or it’s just a New Year’s burst of energy. Or it’s because my David Allen action plans take off all the stress and I can just focus on one thing at a time. Who knows? I’m sick; my head’s fuzzy.

The book I read yesterday, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, is still in my head. I keep thinking of random characters and events. I like this book so much better than its prequel/companion, Oryx and Crake.

Spent most of the day working on my “syllabus” for 2010. I decided to write up a summary/analysis of 2009 before I got going on this year’s plan, and to my surprise I (a) enjoyed the process, (b) didn’t procrastinate at all on the writing, and (c) took two hours and four pages to do it. My original idea was that this would be a proper analysis, like something I’d turn in to my advisor, or present to the boss… I guess I did take it pretty seriously. But I can’t think of a better worktime use for two hours in early January than looking back over the past year and figuring out what went wrong and what worked well.

My new plan for this year looks quite different from my previous syllabi; it’s much simpler, because it’s meant to work in conjunction with my new project sheets and action plans. I’m a little apprehensive about it but also hopeful that this will finally be a system that will work really well for me. This is how the system looks right now:

  1. 2010 syllabus/plan: Meant to give an at-a-glance general sense of where the next few months are headed. Contains monthly goals to keep me on track. This is the only part of my system that does not come from Getting Things Done. I’m not even really sure I need it anymore, but I like how seeing many months at once gives me an easy way to “step back” a little.
  2. Calendar: Contains only date-specific appointments and deadlines. I only need to check briefly with my calendar every morning to know if there’s anything truly urgent that day; if not, I can move on to my “In” folder.
  3. “In” folder: Contains only my Project List, Action Lists, and papers for a few ongoing projects and tasks. I used to call this a to-do folder, but I’d never get around to the “do” part because the folder was so full of stuff that wasn’t relevant to the immediate tasks at hand. Now, the “in” folder contains only what I need to do immediately.
  4. Project List: Taped to the inside front cover of my “in” folder. This lists all the projects I’m currently working on, and suggested deadlines for each. I’ve defined projects broadly, using David Allen’s suggestion to think of a project as anything that requires multiple steps for completion. The project list isn’t a to-do list; it’s just there to help me review quickly and easily all the major things I’ve got on my plate at any given moment. Right now there are 28 projects on my list.
  5. Action Lists: The heart of the system. These are basically to-do lists, but they’re not dated, so I don’t have to do the guilty I’d-better-shift-this-to-tomorrow reshuffling daily to-do lists require. This is, again, an Allen suggestion, and it makes sense — though I admit this is the source of my apprehension. I’ve lived with daily to-do lists for years, and I’m a little nervous that without them I’ll forget to do something in time. But really, I can scan this collection of lists about as easily as I can a single list, and this way I don’t have to recopy the list each day. Taking a really smart Allen tip, I’ve headed each of these lists with a work context to make it easier for me to figure out what to do at any given moment: brainstorming, at the computer, internet, crafting, errands, reading, drawing, and so on. With the lists titled in this way, if I’m trying to stay away from the computer, for example, I don’t have to skim through all the items on my single to-do list that would require computer use; I can just pull out “brainstorm” or “draw” or what have you. Likewise, if I’m going somewhere and I know I’ll have some free time, I can bring along whatever’s on my “read” list, or I can check my “errands” list before I go out. All the actions on these lists are pulled from my Project Sheets: I’ve taken the top (first) action required for each project and placed it on the relevant action list.
  6. Project Sheet: A single sheet of paper that lists, in order, all foreseeable next steps for any given project. I keep these outside of my “in” folder, either in project folders (see below) or in regular folders (my Satsumabug Projects folder, for instance, contains the project sheets for everything I’m working on for the shop). By keeping project sheets and action lists separate, I never have to read a giant list of to-dos all at once; my action lists only contain the immediate next step for any given project. This keeps the action lists short and sweet, and completely non-overwhelming. When I finish that first step, I check it off and add the next step to the relevant Action List. Allen points out very intelligently in his book that you can’t do a project, you can only do the actions related to that project; so, having a list of actions for each project makes perfect sense (and it’s a huge psychological boost to break complex projects down into friendly, manageable actions; I learned this five years ago while writing my undergrad thesis!).
  7. Project Folders: I use these for projects that require extensive documentation, like the family history project. Each of these folders contains the project sheet for that project, and then any other related papers.
  8. All these folders sit in a vertical file on my writing desk.

You can see my new system is multi-tiered and extensive. I know it seems quite complicated, possibly excessively so, but I’m loving it. The past year has made it head-bangingly obvious that I’m the type of person who takes on a lot of projects and wants to keep track of tons of details, and when I don’t have an exhaustive system for dealing with all these projects and details, I go a little nuts. Allen’s system may seem OCD, but for me it’s perfect — I’m having no trouble implementing it because it’s related to what I’d already been doing for months or even years, only with huge improvements in efficiency. The idea is that now all my “open loops” — all the stuff I’ve got to think about at any given time — are written down and accounted for, and accounted for in a logical and manageable way, thus freeing up the parts of my brain that usually fret about them to focus on the task at hand. I have to say, so far, it’s working beautifully and I don’t feel anxious or stressed at all!