Jeremiah Rogers

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Jeremiah Rogers
Wed, Jan 23, 2013

I’m in the midst of learning the system Getting Things Done (GTD), based on David Allen’s book by the same name. I’ve been learning GTD for a few years and wanted to pass on how I understand it today. This is the summary I wish I’d seen two years ago. If I’m successful this might convince you to try it out.

A System of Hacks

GTD is a system of hacks to make my life easier. They empty my mind of clutter and give me a way to deal with that clutter elsewhere.

A simple hack is remembering to take a box to work. The hack is I put the box in front of my door at night so I see it in the morning before I leave home.

And that’s all GTD is: I make a decision to do something, I move that decision outside of my mind into the external world, and I stumble across it later and get it done.

Life is complicated and it’s not always clear what I need to do next. It’s easy to get stuck in endless loops checking email or Facebook. Sometimes I wish I worked in a factory where all I had to do was stamp widgets. The hacks of GTD let me turn my world into a factory. I spend some time at the beginning of the day deciding what to do and setting up the production lines, then I just mindlessly stamp widgets and my life moves forward.

Turning your life into a factory

Below are the basic steps to turn your life into a factory.

1. Exporting

The first step of GTD is you write down everything on your mind that you want get done. All the emails to respond to, projects to finish, things to clean, people to see, movies to watch, books to read, places to visit. All the scenarios of the life you want. (This is called your inbox).

At first you’ll end up writing down what’s at the top of your mind. That check you need to write, the friend to call back, the email to respond to from your boss. But as you move down the page your mind gets clear of what needs to get done this hour or this day and you start writing things that are really far out in your future: connecting with old friends, buying a house, buying a car, moving to a different state, switching jobs, switching careers. The simple fact that you've put this on paper or into a computer, outside of your mind, frees your mind to dream big about things that are really far from completion.

2. Processing

Now you have this big list of outcomes and you look at it. You’re overwhelmed because it’s four pages long and you don’t even know where to start. You think: I need to send that email this week. I can call my friend back right now. But you also think: How can I buy a car when I don’t even have a license? How can I buy a house without 20% down?

You sift through this insane list of dreams (GTD calls these projects) and find the next widget to stamp to keep each dream moving forward. You write minimal instructions to your future self to stamp the widget (GTD calls these next actions).

If the project is to host a party, the next action is to check your calendar for a good night to host. If the project is to buy a car, the next action is to check your bank account and see how much money you have. If the project is to take a vacation in Japan in September, the next action is to find out if your passport is expired.

3. Acting

Your big lists of projects is now broken down into a much simpler list of tiny actions. You don’t have to think about the huge project. You just have to make that phone call, check your bank account balance, or dig out your passport.

The magic is that you now have a list of phone calls you need to make that’s always with you in your phone. When you’re stuck waiting at the DMV with nothing else to do you dig out that list of phone calls and make five of them at once. Now five of your projects have moved forward.

That’s it. That’s your factory.

What’s the rest?

That’s basically it. Every time something comes to mind that you want to get done drop it into your inbox. Periodically you take everything in your inbox and write out the next action. You then assign each of these next actions a context like “phone call” or “email.”

Then you act. When you’re at your phone you make phone calls. When you’re at your computer you send the emails. Having these lists of tiny things to do frees your mind to stop thinking about the big picture and just stamp widgets.

Really, that’s it?

No, I lied. GTD is contains a bunch of other hacks that you can read about in the book.

  • Mail projects to yourself in the future with a “Tickler file.”
  • Move projects you can’t do today into a “Someday/Maybe” list that you deal with in the future.
  • Maintain a reference list of restaurants, movies and places to see that you might want to check out in the future.
  • Label boxes and drawers in your apartment so everything has a natural place and you never forget where something is.
  • Learn to throw things away that you don’t need anymore.
  • Learn to review your whole system every week so you begin to trust it, and as you trust it you offload more and more of your life into it and free up more of your mind.
  • Learn to tackle huge projects without stressing over them.
  • Learn to align your day to day life with your long term dreams and moral values.

So this is just a task list?

No, tasks lists are fundamentally broken and they rarely work. This ends up being a constantly evolving plan for your whole life. It goes a lot deeper than a task list because once this is out of your short term memory you're free to expand and expand to really capture long term dreams.

One of my projects is to "Fix my knee." This is probably a year long process of regular doctor's visits and daily stretching. I have a project for a visit to Japan later this year, a few projects to make sure I see certain friends for lunch, and a saved list of things I wish I'd brought last time I went camping (that I'll never forget again!). There are, of course, a bunch of projects related to my day to day work.

As of today I have 151 projects and 733 actions. About half the projects are in motion and half are stalled out waiting on a future date or waiting for someone to get back to me.

OmniFocus Screenshot

Doesn’t this take a lot of time?

It does and it doesn’t. The initial payoff is mostly immediate and it gets better the more you invest in it. If you have a personality like mine it's also really fun.

More Reading

For more details I suggest buying the book.

The book describes how to do this on paper, which is kind of antiquated, so you might want to use OmniFocus instead. OmniFocus is awesome because it syncs between my Mac and my iPhone, so my external GTD mind is always with me. Practical advice on using OmniFocus can be found in the book Creating Flow with OmniFocus.

If you really want to make sure this sticks I find that continual exposure to the ideas helps me. I get all my inspiration from Merlin Mann’s excellent podcast Back to Work.

Tue, Jan 22, 2013

I’ve been measuring a bunch about my life for around a year now. People often ask me how to get started and what to buy. These are my recommendations.

#Set and Track Basic Goals

You’re probably measuring your life because you want to change something. As a first step toward change I recommend using 42 Goals. Set up a very simple boolean (yes or no) goal like “opened a book,” “went for a walk” or “went to sleep by 11 pm”.

If the goal is successful for a day make sure you give yourself a positive reward image — my favorite is the picture of the hamburger. If the goal doesn’t work out don’t give yourself a negative checkmark — just move on. Don’t punish yourself for missing the goal and treat each day as a new one.

Along with your first goal I also recommend setting a meta-goal of “Checked into 42 Goals.” Stick that in your calendar or as a reminder on your phone for a few weeks to make sure you’re doing checking in every day. Once the habit starts you can layer all kinds of minor positive lifestyle modifications into the system.

I try to check into 42goals every morning and review the previous day. Right now I’ve got 19 “goals” but all of them are just minor behavior modifications, and only a few of them do I really make sure I hit daily.

Credit for using 42Goals solely goes to my friend Will Benjamin who helped me set all of this up back in 2011. It’s become an amazing part of my life.

#Measure Your Weight

The biggest payoff I’ve seen is from tracking my body weight every day. There’s something really powerful about having quantitative evidence showing where you are, and even though body weight isn’t a perfect measurement it’s a really good one. When I started doing this my mind had tricked itself for months that I was losing weight. Once I bought my Withings Scale and laid down a few months of data the evidence was pretty clear that not only was I not losing weight, it was actually going up. (How I lost weight is a topic for another day.)

You might start with the Fitbit Aria scale. It’s cheaper than the Withings scale and it probably syncs with other Fitbit data.

#Count Your Exercise

There are a bunch of devices for measuring exercise but the only ones I’ve owned are the Jawbone UP and the Fitbit Ultra (no longer sold, the best current product is the Fitbit Force which is delayed 2-4 weeks for shipping. The Fitbit Flex is almost the same thing but without a clock.).

The UP is great for tracking sleep and exercise and has a nice app, but not many people have the device and it lacks a website. It’s also frustrating that the UP is a computer I wear on my wrist that lacks a clock.

The Fitbit Ultra is my favorite of the two. I just leave it in my pocket all week, it syncs wirelessly to my computer, and the battery rarely needs to be charged. Mine has even been through the clothes washer and survived. Fitbit is building a pretty large social network around exercise. Living in San Francisco makes me an outlier but I have 15 friends on their network and it’s cool to compare step counts.

Fitbit seems to have nailed the gamification of exercise and is now sending me push notifications when I hit or am close to my goals. For 2012 my average daily steps were just slightly over my goal of 10,000 — this tells me Fitbit is doing a great job keeping me exercising.

If I had to buy one device today I think it would be the Fitbit Flex. It looks like the Flex combines the best aspects of the UP and the pocketable Fitbit (frustratingly it also lacks a clock…). The Flex is available for preorder.

#Sleep

Tracking sleep is new for me and I’ve only been doing it since December. My best recommendation is the app Sleep Cycle. You just slip the phone under your pillow and it wakes you up within a specified 30 minute time range in the morning.

For me this means running an extension cord from the wall to my bed with a small iPhone charger next to me at night.

Once nice feature is you can program in questions about your day that get asked every day before bed. Mine include whether I ate late, took Melatonin, went for a walk, went to the gym, drank coffee, drank Red Bull, meditated before bed, or had a “stressful day”.

Sleep Cycle’s statistics page gives basic time series of total time slept, time to bed, and the impact of different sleep notes on sleep quality. I found a few months ago that drinking Red Bull destroyed any chance I had of getting a good night’s sleep and propagated tiredness into the next day — so I largely cut it out of my diet. Things that help me sleep are going to the gym, eating late, and meditating before bed.

Another thing Sleep Cycle can do is ask your mood every morning. This data is not super actionable yet. Sleep Cycle lets you export to CSV and I’ve found no relationship between my time in bed or my “sleep quality” and my mood in the morning.

Ironically I think I sleep better on nights when I’m not tracking my sleep. I’ll have to dig into this more later.

#Pictures and Video

This is bonus points. I use the app EveryDay to take a daily snapshot of my face. This was really cool in early 2012 when I lost a bunch of weight and could see my face melt away in the exported video. More recently it just shows me what clothes I wear habitually (I was once prone to wear the same shirt every Thursday).

Tying these systems together: I’ve had a goal in 42 goals since last March to take my EveryDay picture.

A bunch of my friends are using One Second Everyday to create videos of their lives. I haven’t gotten into the habit of taking a daily video.

#Summary

I do a lot of this measurement and have more planned. Mostly I find the historical aspects of the data most interesting, they help me remember the story of my life. My data acts like a black box and makes it easier to remember what night I stayed out late, what day I took a long walk, and what day I did nothing. The data lets me put my life and goals in context and figure out which ones I’m progressing on and which ones are stalling.

Honestly the crux of the whole system is 42Goals. It keeps me accountable for minor healthy habits (meditation, eating salads, going to the gym, opening OmniFocus). Without this anchor of binary goal tracking most of the other stuff would fall apart.

Sun, Jan 20, 2013

Yesterday I tried a new way to clean my apartment:

  1. I walked around and found everything that was not in its right place. I took all this stuff and piled it onto my coffee table. My coffee table became a big pile of trash, dishes, clothes, books, newspapers and electronics.
  2. I dug through the pile on my coffee table one item at a time. I threw away all the garbage and broken things, stuck the books and clothes I don’t want into a bag to donate to charity, and put the things I want to keep back where they belong.

That big pile of stuff was important for two reasons. It freed me to collect the junk from all around my apartment without thinking about anything other than that it wasn’t where it needed to be. This was a lot easier than trying to move things to where they belong one at a time.

Once the pile was built I was surprised to see so much garbage and old things I don’t need all in one place. It turns out most of the stragglers sitting in dark corners were just junk I hadn’t dealt with. This was my inspiration to purge. Now I’ve got two big trash bags in the dumpster and two bags of clothes and books headed to charity.

This is adapted straight out of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and I think it will make a lot more sense if you try it. I’ve used OmniFocus for years but is my first time doing GTD in the physical world. The results are great.

Sun, Sep 2, 2012

Shooting pictures of fish in an aquarium is remarkably easy. The challenge here was that I was using a new camera, the Fuji x100, which had slow autofocus and a lens that doesn’t zoom.

If you want to take a beautiful picture I recommend jellyfish exhibits. These are always really well lit, and the fish are slow, strange and beautiful.

In this situation everyone crowded the bigger aquariums and made it really hard to take pictures of the fish. I stepped back to take pictures of the whole scene of people and with their cameras and phones snapping pictures.

Fri, Jul 30, 2010

#Sunset on the pond

#Leeway cabin

What great-grandparents built and where my grandparents met.

#Indoors with my niece