Action Sequence and Daily Planning

[note: this is an older post from a previous blog which I've decided to migrate over to here. I have since this time fallen in love with Things for OSX. Nothing compares to it.]

I’m a productivity nut by necessity. I have a lot of widely varying projects and activities, and if they are not carefully managed, life becomes about reacting to problems rather taking actions toward progress. A few years ago I dug into the “Getting Things Done” system and, like many others, found it to be a major positive change. Now, I don’t follow or agree with every aspect of GTD to the letter, but I do feel the basic principle and the general psychology behind it is solid. The idea of getting everything out of your head and into a system you trust in effort to relieve stress and overload is fairly profound in my opinion.

The problem is, finding the right tools to manage your system is tough. Especially if you are a relentless long-term planner with a lot of wacky, grand ideas. For a couple of years I’ve used a simple, physical notecard system to collect all my actions. It seemed to work the best for me for a long time, but as projects increased in size and I got more into applying context to my day, the physical system became cumbersome and inefficient. I needed something digital, searchable, and clean.

Applications like that weren’t really available until quite recently. Now there seems to be a glut of GTD focused applications out there. And a lot of them are pretty good. I’ve been using a free one called ThinkingRock, and they get a lot of things right.

First, let me define the various modes of a good system as I see it:

Collection – essentially brainstorming and getting any thought you have out of your head and into the system. You should never expect yourself to remember something any more than a couple of minutes in my opinion. Think of it, dump it out.

Processing – This is where you look at the pile of thoughts and ideas and decide where they go, if they are indeed actionable, steps you might have forgotten, the overall sequence of actions (we’ll get to that in a bit), the context of an action, time it will take to do, priority, etc. Really, you are just making sense out of the mess and the result is a huge amount of data amounting to your next several days, weeks, months and even years of activity and pipe-dreams.

Planning – This is where reality sets in. You know you have a finite amount of time in your day. You pick from the huge library of actions in your system resulting in a short list of things you can focus on for the day (in my opnion, this should be a daily thing at least).

Doing – Well, just that. Knocking out the actions one at a time. And while your system may not actually do this for you, it should help to focus you on those tasks.

The collection aspects of ThinkingRock are quite good. Maybe a little more cumbersome than necessary, but still, their approach is good. And frankly, several applications seem to get this more or less right. And for the most part, processing is good as well.

But, like every other GTD app I’ve tried, ThinkingRock gets two major things flat out wrong. There is an important oversight in processing and there is no assistance in planning and doing.

What my dream system would have, and I’ve yet to see, is self-aware sequencing of action and daily planning mode.

Self-Aware Sequencing – What I mean by this, simply, is that typically there is a sequence of actions that must happen for a project to be complete. Doing x allows you to do y which allows you to do z. Now, most systems will let you position the order of actions in a list to approximate sequence, but this is problematic. The whole point to me of the “processing” mode is to figure out which individual actions need to be done and in what order they fall to complete the project. So, why be forced to take that sequencing into consideration (part of the “processing” mode) when you are in the “doing” mode? I just want to know what the “next action” is for completing that project. And when I complete that, I should be shown the next action after that. I care not to know what is five steps down the line. If anything, that just stresses me out. Especially when looking across 10 different projects. That means, consciously or subconsciously, you are being forced to acknowledge potentially 50-100 actions that are in your view! Which brings me to…

Daily Planning Mode – As I said, just show me what’s next for each project. If I have 10 projects (or even 2 main projects each with 2 sub-projects), that means I’ll be looking at only 10 potential actions. If I only have time for 5, I should be able to hide the others for that day. Because, other than when you are in the processing mode (or perhaps a periodic review of your entire system) you shouldn’t have to see things that you can’t do yet. Some people may consider those actions “deferred”, but I’ll get into why I think deferred actions are a bad idea in a future post.

And both these features play heavily into the “doing” mode. Only showing you a short list of easily accomplished things can really help motivate you to knock them out quickly. Showing you more than that (and especially a LOT more than that) can make you feel like Sisyphus eternally rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back to its original position. You never feel a sense of completion.

And one last item for the tool wishlist. Do all this in a web app, not a only local app. I want to access my system from any computer anywhere I go. Or even from my phone. Extra points certainly if you can have a local client for when you are off-line, but having this all on the web so you can keep synced is essential.

All that said, ThinkingRock is worth your attention, and I only use them as an example because that’s the system I’m currently using. And like I said, everyone else gets those points wrong as well. Let me know if you’ve found a tool that does them.

  • J Ryan Williams

    I am principal of Websuasion LLC, based out of Fayetteville, GA. We Develop Web and Mobile Applications, Produce Video and provide tools and methodologies for Responsible Brand Marketing.

    This blog tends to focus on the technical and conceptional aspects of our work with Ruby on Rails, iOS, DSLR video, the business process and a little branding discussion at times. I welcome your relevant comments, and if you have questions, feel free to speak up. For info on rates and service packages for Websuasion, please visit our Service Packages page.

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