GTD Revisited, Week 2: Mind Like Teflon #amwriting

Some minds are like water; others are like Teflon


Certain things just slip off my brain, like a raw egg off a greased Teflon griddle.

Now, one of the stated goals of GTD is “mind like water.” To quote,

In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.
—David Allen, Getting Things Done

I wish. I’m not calm like a still pond. Unlike his ideal GTD practitioner (or the karate student of his analogy), I am unable to control my level of attention. The result? I can build a habit (such as flossing my teeth), do it three months in a row, and have one day where I’m distracted—and it’s gone. I may as well give up on habits; I will always need a checklist for the simple things I need to do daily.

Right now, I’m struggling with simple things to do that aren’t getting done in a timely fashion—for the reason that I have serious trouble remembering them. Example: make a call to cancel an appointment during business hours. Whether I am able to do this is entirely dependent on

  1. Looking at Habitica or my calendar before end of business.
  2. Making the call right that moment.

If for any reason I can’t make the call exactly then (need to gather materials, need to keep the phone line open for an incoming call, need to keep lunch from burning—anything) it will slip off my Mind Like Teflon and I will be very lucky to remember it before end of business. Most often, I don’t.

Put an alarm on my phone, iPad, or Mac? (or all three at once—I’ve done that, too) That might work for a very rare event, but if I’m hyperfocused I’ve been known to not hear a Star Trek-like klaxon alarm going off at 90 decibels. If you think I’m exaggerating—well, I’m not. I nearly died as a teenager because I was hyperfocused on reading a book—in a car that was on fire. People were yelling and pounding on the windows—I didn’t hear.

Further, if I have a loud alarm going off every day, it shortly becomes background noise. I will turn it off and go right on with whatever I’m hyperfocused on, without ever registering that the alarm went off. I know, because I have.

Beeminder, like the alarm that goes off every day, is beginning to merge into the background.

This is a long, rather negative post, I’m afraid. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and it’s not getting better as I’m getting older. If anything, it’s getting worse as I add “senior moments” to all the other things that keep me from getting… stuff… done.

Habitica at least has the virtue of being free (though I choose to subscribe.) And there is a certain flurry of activity every night at about ten PM as I look at my Habitica lists and say, “Oh, s__t.” I’m therefore not about to abandon it, as I may well do with Beeminder. But I need to find a better way to get time-sensitive things that are not appointments—done.

Any ideas?

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GTD Revisited, 2017 #amwriting

My current GTD system


I’ve been using GTD in various incarnations for a while now:

Other examples exist.

Of course, GTD itself is just a discipline for gathering stuff to do, prioritising stuff to do, and getting it done in decent order. Implementation method is optional—and I’ve gone through several iterations (as shown above) on how to make it work for me.

My problem with my implementation up until this week was that I’d stopped using it. I was using automation to stuff everything into Trello, using it as my collector. But I’d stopped looking there on a regular basis, and had started using Habitica’s To-dos as my collection point—not by intentional design, but by, well, laziness.

Habitica has many virtues. Being a collector for possible things to do is not one of them. The least productive (things that I should just decide Not To Do), the hardest (high-value things to do that need to be broken down more), and medium value but non-urgent things to do all end up at the bottom of my Habitica list, getting redder and redder, their experience points getting higher, and breaking the game by providing experience points, gold, and mana all out of proportion to their true value if and when I finally get them done. I find this horribly demotivating in terms of getting the high-value items (like finishing my novel draft or making an appointment for a physical) done in a timely fashion.

I’m not the only Habitican who’s noticed this problem—and the Habitica developers are considering several different approaches to making this more motivating for prompt attention to to-dos and working better with outside to-do systems. In the meantime…

I’ve cut out the middleman. In order to do my weekly GTD review, I once had to open Trello, and open Google Calendar, and consider where to put my Trello cards on the calendar once I’d decided to do them this week. I then had a rather elaborate and failure-prone protocol for putting the lucky Trello cards into a special column so that Zapier would automatically place them on the Google calendar on the chosen day. Then I had another Zapier automation which would stuff them into Habitica just before they were due.

Now I collect things to do on my calendar. I actually have four calendars in my Google account—one for real, timed “Appointments,” one for “Scheduled” to-dos , one for raw, “Unprocessed” to-dos, and one for “Processed”, prioritised to-dos that have not been scheduled (this is also where I put time blocks so I’m sure to leave enough time for writing and exercise.)

Note that I don’t use the Google Tasks thing. They show up off to one side. I need to see my things-to-do stacked up on the day I plan to do them, as in my illustration. The to-dos are the all-day items.

I’ve convinced IFTTT to dump raw to-dos from iOS Reminders and Evernote into that “Unprocessed” to-dos calendar and make them nominally due on the next Monday. On Monday I do my GTD review. I take anything undone from the last week, delete its to-do from Habitica and stuff its calendar item back into Processed and re-prioritise it. All the Unprocessed to-dos are either deleted or given a priority. Anything that is priority 3 or above is moved to an appropriate day in the “Scheduled” calendar. (I never put more than six items/appointments due on any one day, including writing and exercise—if I don’t have room for something, then either it or something else goes back into the Processed calendar.) I then move leftover Processed to-dos to the following Monday. Zapier then takes all the items added to Scheduled and stuffs them into Habitica at 00:01 am on their due dates.

This way, no to-do hangs around in Habitica for more than a week, growing more and more evil. Monday morning I don’t have to open both Trello and my calendar, because everything lives in my calendar now. Zapier doesn’t have to try to parse Trello cards and stuff them into the calendar, just stuff the scheduled calendar items into Habitica later.

Okay, I admit it. Programming all the automation is—dare I say it?—fun. And eliminating the Trello collection step makes it a lot simpler. So, onward to Getting Things (like more writing) Done.

Winter Productivity Cleaning #amwriting

Holiday Productivity Slump?

Holiday Productivity Slump?


Happy New Year!

I’ve fallen behind on writing, as measured by my Beeminder writing time tracker. See that nasty flat spot? The one that starts with the jog down in the “path” on December 29? Yes, I “derailed”—I fell so far behind my intended performance that Beeminder charged me. Foo.

Default behaviour for Beeminder is to lower the bar slightly, and then give me seven days of “flat spot”—days on which I need not meet my performance goal. The intention of this is to build up a “buffer” of a few days of performance.

I’ve taken shameless advantage of this by getting some unpleasant non-writing tasks done that I’ve been putting off. Tasks like selling my old Mac Mini and various other small electronics, following up on an auto insurance claim, and taking a massive pile of unused stuff to charity. I’ve cleared my Habitica to-do list of a bunch of nasties that had been hanging on for months—things that really weren’t that hard (selling the Mac Mini, auto claim) but which were . . . emotionally draining (translation: scary). I dread bureaucracy (hence the auto claim delay) and I dithered for months about the Mac, which had a bad internal optical drive. (Sell it as-is, or provide a cheap external DVD drive? I finally decided to provide the cheap external.)

I also made the mistake of agreeing to beta read a friend’s novel draft. This resulted in days of agony while I tried to decide—take the risk of souring the relationship and tell him the truth as I see it? Or just do the “Looks great!” useless email? I finally got up courage and told him my real opinions. If he never speaks to me again—it’s better than having copped out. But I won’t do it again, for anyone outside my writing group. I don’t trust my level of tact (I’m reasonably certain I have none.) At least in the writing group, I can see the face falling and the chin quivering, and adjust my tone if I need to . . . or fall on my sword apologising.

So all those scary things are behind me, and progress on my draft is ahead (I hope.)

Slowly Hacking My Way to “Having Written”

Image courtesy of khunaspix at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of khunaspix at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My former writing teacher at WritersCollege.com, Stephen Morrill, once wrote, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.”

My goal is to get to “having written.” To get a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end, done, edited, reasonably polished, and published. But that takes dedication (which I have; you don’t go back to something — again — without being dedicated,) courage, and focus.

Focus is the problem. Writing is scary every single day, and since I have problems focusing anyway, my brain slides off the scary task of writing like slime off Teflon ™.

But my life hacking is working. I have something scarier than writing today — paying $5 to Beeminder today. My barriers — and my excuses — are melting away. I’ve had very little back and shoulder pain now, for more than a week. My knee is slowly healing. And I’m gradually developing better sleep habits — poor sleep habits being yet another thing that feeds into my arthritis.

Doing something foolish like staying up too late — well, I just paid $5 for that, so I’m less likely to repeat it. Surprisingly, I get more than just a $5 slap in the wallet — I also get an empathetic note from customer support if I bother to send in a postmortem report.

I’m continuing to use Habitica to provide positive incentive, as well. Now that I’m making progress on some stubborn negative behaviors, rewards I’ve set up for myself that seemed out of reach now are beginning to beckon: A massage for reaching a BMI reading that is less than “obese.” A bathing suit for reaching a BMI reading that is “normal.” A day at a spa for actually publishing something. No need to invent a reward for getting my arthritis under control — I haven’t hiked the local mountains in far too long. As soon as I can handle a mile walk, I’m out there.

And I’m finding that it’s okay to enjoy life on the way. To plan vacations with Hubby that are not contingent on getting anything written, that have no purpose but to have fun. (Hint: I will be travel blogging in April and in September. Details to come…) That’s hard both for Hubby and for me — to travel, not to visit relatives (though there’s nothing wrong with that), not to attend a conference, not to check out possible retirement spots, but just because we want to go . . . somewhere. Australia. Iceland. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Stay tuned.

The Wonders of Beeminder

Screenshot 2015-12-16 10.02.00As a person with addiction problems also diagnosed with ADHD, well, my natural thought process is all about short-term gain and blowing off long-term pain, if I even notice long-term anything. I’ve not been making much progress on getting a publishable manuscript together, losing weight, increasing exercise, avoiding non-Paleo foods (which exacerbate my rheumatoid arthritis) or getting more sleep (lack of which exacerbates my rheumatoid arthritis.) I cover several of these things in my GTD practice (still doing that, via Evernote (for collecting) and Trello (for managing.)) Sadly, having a thing in my GTD list and actually doing it are two very different things. I’ve been having some success with Habitica, but there are certain things in my life that have proven resistant to its gentle carrot waving — and frankly I’ve learned the game well enough to avoid incurring its not very intimidating stick.

I was considering life coaching in desperation, but finding a good coach, and finding where I could come up with the hundreds of dollars needed were mysteries I couldn’t solve.

Then I found Beeminder. You track your goals with them, and if you go off course, they charge you. An excerpt from their website:

What is Beeminder?
It’s reminders with a sting! Or, goal-tracking with teeth. Mind anything you can graph — weight, pushups, to-do tasks completed — by replying with data when Beeminder prompts you. Or connect with a service (like Fitbit or RescueTime) to report automatically. We plot your progress on a Yellow Brick Road to your goal. Keep all your datapoints on the road and Beeminder will always be free. Go off the road and you (literally) pay the price.

So far, I’ve paid them exactly $1 for ten “freebies,” which means my first deviation from the “yellow brick road” is free. In return for this, I’ve been able to

  1. Work steadily on my writing! This alone is beyond price.
  2. Stop eating foods that make my rheumatoid arthritis worse, thus improving my mobility.
  3. Take advantage of #2 by gradually increasing the number of steps I take daily, improving my overall health.
  4. Gradually move my bedtime earlier so that I can get more sleep, thus lowering my stress level, lowering arthritis pain, and improving mobility.
  5. Start doing some range-of-motion exercises that I’ve been neglecting, further improving my mobility.

All of these interact with each other — so, a typical day for me before Beeminder:

I am in pain, especially shoulder and knee pain. The pain makes it hard to sit and write. I feel bad for not writing and besides I’m in pain, so I comfort myself with food that I know will make my arthritis worse in a day or so. I take some Tylenol to help with the pain, but I can’t focus so I just fire up a video game, which of course requires questionable food. Then I feel worse for neglecting my writing and other chores, so I stay up late to try to get them done and write a word or three, and I probably eat more pain-inducing food and get very little sleep ensuring high stress levels and therefore high pain levels in the morning. The entire day, I have moved only from bed to couch to kitchen to bathroom to bed — not healthy.

A typical day after Beeminder:

I am in pain, especially shoulder and knee pain, but less than yesterday. I take some Tylenol and do my range-of-motion exercises (a Beeminder goal), which help somewhat with the pain. I pack up my electronics and get out of the house, making sure to take another dose of Tylenol with me. I find a coffeeshop with a comfortable chair, far from the siren call of video games. I get writing done!!! (a Beeminder goal.) I take breaks from writing and walk around the shop, to increase my daily step total (a Beeminder goal.) I do not eat the tempting but arthritis-worsening goodies at the shop (a Beeminder goal.) Having completed my word goal for the day, I return home, do my chores, maybe have a session with a video game, and get to bed earlier than I have been for quite some time (a Beeminder goal.)

Further, Beeminder gives me every opportunity to avoid paying them money. The two times I’ve “derailed” (gone off the path to my goal,) I’ve had a chance to correct data, or just beg Beeminder not to count the incident. But both those derailments were real derailments from which I didn’t beg off, so I’m now on the hook for $5 for the next derailment on each of those goals. The derailments gave me valuable feedback on just what happens to push me away from my goals.

Beeminder has noticeably improved my quality of life after a few short weeks. I have paid them a paltry $1 to crack the whip over me in areas of MY choice, and they have done a wizard job. Should I incur an occasional $5 or $10 or even (Heaven forbid) a $30 penalty, I will count it money well-spent.

Trello with Extra Zap(ier)s and IFTTTs

http://Zapier.com and http://IFTTT.com can make repeating tasks in Trello.

http://Zapier.com and http://IFTTT.com can make repeating tasks in Trello.

The problem with Trello (or for that matter, Evernote) as a task manager is that it doesn’t handle repeating tasks. And my favorite task game, Habitica, has its own limits — its repeat schedules are much more flexible than they used to be, but not so flexible as a semi-decent calendar or task-only app (examples: Google Calendar, Toodledo.) In addition to this, I really want ONE place to mark off things as done — I find it enough of a pain to follow a bloody list, even one I’ve made for myself. Having to mark things off two or three times — well, it leads me to sulking for a week or three before guilt and boredom drive me back to my lists.

My previous post on Trello, “Trello — Its Impact on GTD, ADHD, The Universe, and Everything”, promised more detail about my use of Zapier and IFTTT. Both these services follow a trigger–action paradigm: the service watches for a particular sort of event in an app you tell it to watch — the trigger. When the service sees that trigger, it sets off another event in a second app — the action. Here are my current trigger–action pairs:

  • Zapier:
    • Scheduled Trello task -> Google Calendar “For Tasks” (This takes care of the rare case in which I schedule a task directly from my main Trello board.)
    • Credit Habitica with Trello completions (Major coolness! The Habitica “action” is unofficial, so that you have to request access via Habitica. But worth it — I no longer need to copy one-off tasks to Habitica by hand.)
    • Events from Google Calendar “Appointments” to Trello (I treat appointments — rare in my schedule — as one-off to-dos.)
    • Evernote ToDo items to Trello
  • IFTTT:
    • If any event starts on Google Calendar “For Tasks”, then create a card in – Trello, Silvers’s Plate board (This is the core of my repeating tasks list.)
    • If every day at 01:00 AM, then create a card in – Silver’s Plate board (This is just a reminder to look at my Habitica daily lists so I don’t forget them…)
    • If card assigned to me in – Trello, Willow’s Journey, then create a card in – Trello, Silver’s Plate board
    • If card assigned to me in Trello, Manifester, then create a card in – Trello, Silver’s Plate board (The above two put items from my writing projects into my daily tasks so I don’t forget….)
    • If any new iOS reminder, then create a card in – Trello, Silver’s Plate board (So I can use Siri to remind me later of things I think of while driving.)

The truth is, that I’d use Zapier almost exclusively if I could afford it. Zapier is a much more flexible automation tool than IFTTT. IFTTT’s only advantages: it can automate events triggered by things in iOS or Android OS, such as a new iOS reminder or receiving an Android SMS. And it’s free. Zapier, by contrast, costs $20 a month if you want more than 100 successfully triggered actions per month and/or more than five scripts.

Zapier’s $20 per month gets you 3000 (!) successfully triggered actions — far more than I need. I could use about 300. I wish they had, say, a $5 per month option for 500 triggered events — I’d pay that in a heartbeat. As it is, I use IFTTT when I can to avoid being maxed out on triggered actions.

But still, maintenance of my task list is down to a minimum, and my level in Habitica is climbing higher and higher!

I love technology.

Trello! Its Impact on GTD, ADHD, the Universe, and Everything

Screenshot 2015-08-11 10.30.12“…Or, The Silver Dragon Discovers Kanban…”

Indeed, I have not been living under a rock for the last three decades. The term “kanban” has entered my ears, mostly in connection with my husband’s factory (he’s plant manager for a (small? medium?) manufacturer.) It never occurred to me that it could simplify my life.

I came across Trello when looking for something to help me collaborate with my son, Andrew (also a writer, also ADHD) on a story. We needed something that was visual because both of us aggressively filter auditory signals and distractions and/or quickly learn to ignore them. We needed something that didn’t look or smell like specialized email (I’m looking at you, Asana, and you, Evernote Work Chat) because email almost never gets Andrew’s attention (if I want him to see an email message, I text him to look at his email.) Messages had to look and smell like specialized texts, be controllable so that the level of interruptions is minimal (for me), and the project management had to be very visual for either of us to be able to work with it.

It also had to be cheap or free.

Trello met all those criteria. The fact that it is the tool the many collaborators of Habitica (formerly Habit RPG) use to coordinate their efforts is an impressive endorsement. After all, many of those who find Habitica useful have attentional challenges…

I set up my current writing project rather easily using the project management information I’d already captured in iThoughts (another post for another Tuesday.) While researching Trello, I’d come across references to it being a kanban-style project management app. So, I researched kanban, kanban for knowledge workers, personal kanban, and picked Hubby’s brain.

Net result: I now have a personal kanban board (On Sandra’s Plate), separate from my writing projects. New stuff I put into my writing projects is automatically pushed into my GTD collector column, “Unprocessed,” with an IFTTT recipe. Reminders from Siri — another IFTTT recipe, straight to “Unprocessed.” I can still use Evernote to collect, because I’ve automated that with a Zapier script to stuff everything in my ToDo notebook into, you guessed it, “Unprocessed.”

Once a week, I go through the Unprocessed stack and categorize the stuff therein more or less as in “The Secret Weapon” and move it to the “Unscheduled” stack. I look at my Google calendar (via Pocket Informant) where my periodic non-daily items live, and move things from “Unscheduled” into “Scheduled,” with due dates that don’t overload any one day with more than 5 things to do (appointments count as things.)

Yet another Zapier script moves all those periodic non-daily items into my “On Deck” stack on the day they’re due.

Every morning, I move anything left over from the “Doing” stack yesterday to “On Deck.” I pull stuff due today from “Scheduled” into “On Deck.” Periodic items due today have already landed there courtesy of Zapier. I look at the pile, reschedule if I need to in order to limit the “On Deck” items to five (change their due dates and move them back into “Scheduled.” Or maybe delete them if I decide they’re not that important after all…)

I then pull ONE item out of “On Deck” into “Doing.” I do that. I move it to the “Done” stack. Then I pull another item out of “On Deck.” There’s never more than one item that I’m “Doing” at any time. Even when I get distracted (never “if” I get distracted. I’m ADHD; distraction happens) it’s hard to avoid that glaring one “Doing” item. It never gets lost in the visual murk.

For those of you who were wondering, yes, I still use Habitica to provide myself with incentives, more for daily routine checklists (I loathe their non-repeating ToDo handling.)

So, more detail on iThoughts, and possibly more detail on how I automate recurring tasks to show up in Trello, next week.