Don’t Panic

“Don’t Panic” appears on the front of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the book of the same name, a balm to soothe the hysterical intergalactic traveler.  Once, trapped in a walk-in freezer at work, I read Don’t Panic” in big red letters – right beside incomprehensible instructions on how to escape the icy prison.  I think that it is key to note at this point that the words “Don’t Panic” have no meaning when you are locked in a walk in freezer at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon.  You become very certain that you are going to die, cold and alone, surrounded by many frozen lab samples.  Finally, in Disney’s Toy Story (an excellent film), at one point, Buzz tells Woody that this is no time to panic. Woody replies that “this is the perfect time to panic.”

Today, right now seems like the perfect time to panic.  My team must process 75 computers in 4 days.  Two new databases launch on Thursday.  A new website launch depends on a successful database launch.  On Sunday, we change mail servers and domain names and must embark on a process of migrating over 100 users.  Then, teachers must be trained on new systems.  Tablets must be distributed.  Over 1000 people must be given log-ins.  I must prepare to teach a new subject.

But, strangely, there is no panic.  I have GTD – I know exactly what needs to be done and by when (learn more about my GTD systems).  There is a plan and when the unexpected happens, we alter the plan and keep going.  David Allen uses the phrase “mind like water” to describe a state in which an event affects you like a stone affects a glassy-smooth pond.  There are a few ripples and then the system returns to equilibrium. At present, my mind is like water; still, calm, and ready to absorb any change that comes my way.

Now, I just have to stay this way until Labor Day.


GTD – electronic

After getting my iPhone almost a year ago, I decided to give electronic management a new chance.  Another key factor was attending Jason Ramsden‘s great session at the NCAIS tech conference in early 2008 about using Outlook to implement GTD.  Jason recommended a great program that plugs in to Outlook called ClearContext, which has been an amazing tool for me for the last year and a half.

The first key has been to stop using my email Inbox as a to-do list.  David Allen talks about getting all of your to-do’s in one place.  By mixing new email and old email that needs action, you simply have to touch every email multiple times and make a decision about what to do with it each time.  The beauty of ClearContext can click a single button to convert any email to an Outlook Task or an Outlook Calendar item.  This makes it incredibly easy to keep the Inbox clear of items that are actually To-Do’s or are needed for a specific time.  Even if you don’t get ClearContext, you can accomplish a similar result by copying the text of an email into a newly created task or event.  Or, you can use the “Attach Item” feature to attach the message to a task or event and then safely delete it from the Inbox.  That said, ClearContext has other fabulous features, but these two buttons alone make it worth the purchase.

Another time-saving habit has been to attach all the documents for a meeting to the calendar event.  Interviewing a candidate?  Attach the resume to the calendar event.  Meeting a vendor?  Insert the contact information on the event in case you need to reschedule.  Visiting another school?  Insert the directions to the school.  Things become easy to find and with the search feature, you can easily pull up the resume even if the interview was months ago.

Outlook categories aren’t something that I use extensively, but I do find them helpful in one key area.  To any Task that I cannot complete until someone else gives me information, I assign the “Red” category.  This places a small red square next to the task which signals me to “Stop” until I get what I need from the other person.  Another useful feature of ClearContext, is that you can have it signal you with a “Follow Up” if you do not get a response to an email in an amount of time that you specify.  This really takes the pressure off of you, as you don’t have to hold that “how many days ago did I ask Joe for that report” in your head.

What does one do with all those little pieces of information that are needed quickly, but don’t fall into the Tasks/Email/Events categories?  Outlook Notes has been my answer.  When I need the account number for our corporate AT&T account, it’s in the Notes.  Need my library card number to log in and renew my books?  That’s a Note.  These Post-It like snippets work perfectly in the Notes and save lots of digging for the last AT&T bill or my frequent flier account number.

A last tool has been Jott.  With Jott, I call an 800 number, specify an individual (or myself), and leave a voice message. Jott translates the speech to text and sends it to the email associated with the person specified.  This is incredibly useful in situations where a 15 second phone call is easier than trying to type in a to-do item.  Once the message hits my email, I convert it to a task via ClearContext and it is in my tracking system in under 30 seconds total.

Those have been the key areas where I have implemented GTD via Outlook.  One last note is that all of this is made easier and better by the ActiveSync connection to our Exchange server that I have through my iPhone.  My mail, calendar, and contacts are synced constantly.  My notes are synced through iTunes’ Outlook Sync.  Tasks (and this is my main complaint with iPhone/Exchange integration) don’t move through ActiveSync.  Instead, I use Toodle-Do to move them from Outlook to my online Toodle-Do account and from there to my iPhone via the Toodle-Do App.  Not ideal, but it works well enough.  This combination enables me to keep my email, tasks, schedule, and key information with me at basically all times.

This is the end of my GTD series for now.  Again, if you haven’t gotten a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen, it is well worth your time and money.  Go get it now.  Right now.  Stop reading and go!

GTD – notebook

Until recently, I hadn’t had any luck with electronic organizers or using a Filofax.  So, when I started trying to implement GTD, I didn’t want to invest a lot of cash or energy in the device.  I knew that I didn’t want to go with something as simple as the Hipster PDA either, as I needed to carry certain papers regularly.  So, for just a few dollars at Office Max, I put together my own planner.


Items need:

  • 1/2 inch, 3-ring binder
  • Avery peel-and-stick tabs
  • Sharpie Ultra-fine marker
  • Clear, 3-hole-punched folder to hold papers
  • Card stock for dividers
  • Loose leaf paper (I like gridded paper)

With these “ingredients,” I put together a thin, easy to carry notebook that held all my To-Do’s, Waiting For’s, Major Project Materials, and various Lists.   It worked very well for me until I started using my current method of Outlook/iPhone.  But, more about that tomorrow.

This notebook represents my first go at GTD and I can say enough how much the principles in this book helped me fight feeling overwhelmed by all that needed to be done.

GTD – filing

For my second post on my adventures with GTD, I’m talking about filing.  Prior to reading Getting Things Done, my file cabinet was very tidy, but not really easy to navigate.  Each draw held a category of file and trying to keep the pop-in tabs of my hanging files staggered was impossible.  David Allen recommends a simpler method that includes straight alphabetization and skipping the staggered tabbing.  I won’t give away too much from the book, but these are some of my files now.


Not only can I find everything, but I can tell someone else exactly where to find a specific file – what drawer, what the label it is under and in some cases whether it is in the front or back of the folder. This came in handy during my recovery from surgery recently when members of my team needed essential files immediately.

This paper management system has been extremely helpful.  Beyond that, I’ve stared down the road of digitization when my school got new copiers with high-speed scanning to PDF.  Many essential files are now scanned to PDF and stored electronically.

Tomorrow, I’ll share how I started GTD with a paper system for about $5.  After that, I’ll share how that system has morphed into an electronic system that incorporates Outlook and my iPhone.


If you haven’t read Getting Things Done by David Allen, go get it now.  I love to organize and I love to find ways to be more efficient and aid others in doing the same.  However, many books on organization and “time management” are so corporate in their focus that they simply can’t help those of us in the non-profit and education world.  After reading so many books that encouraged me to focus on my company’s bottom line and didn’t take into account that I had to schedule my day around class, assemblies, chapels, and other meetings that I can’t control, I was fed up.  Enter David Allen.


Getting Things Done is based on the idea that you must have a fool-proof system for tracking to-do’s, including those that other people are to-doing for you.  The book gives you a way to design your own system, using any tool – analog or digital, that you believe will work best for you.  It has truly made a difference in my life.


If you are serious about getting a handle on your day, week, and month.  Seriously, stop reading this blog and go get a copy (but then come back and finish).  While you are out, get an electronic label maker, a few pens you like, and a nice latte (or green tea or whatever floats your boat).  Read the book once before trying to implement the practices David Allen outlines.  Then, get ready to take control of your inbox.


For the next couple of days, I’ll be sharing some of the successes that I’ve had implementing GTD, including revamping my file systems and getting a better handle on my to-do list.