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Hacking a GTD Moleskine

I’ve always been apprehensive to join the almost-fanatical cult of Getting Things Done. I’ve heard more about it from the blogosphere (as well as non-blogger co-workers) for the greater part of a year and a half now, with massive blogs dedicated to bringing the GTD gospel to the masses of unenlightened IT workers and friends alike. Something about the GTD system seemed more than organised: it tiptoed the line of absolute obsessive-compulsive disorder. It seemed like the kind of thing a super-organised parent would use.

Ironically, my super-organised parent called me the other day to see how I was doing, and I explained how I was juggling freelance stuff, what was left of my undergraduate education, this site, and my social life, falling behind in the others when I focused on one. While I thought – and still think – that my existing form of time management has been extremely successful to date, my mother seemed to disagree fully. Writing off my parent’s comments about my lack of time management as those words that no child ever really listens to, I continued on with my day. The same day, some friends and colleagues of mine also told me that I needed to clean up my time management system. Some of them were just punctual by nature; others were members of the Church of GTD. Obviously, something was wrong with my being nearly thirty minutes late on regular intervals, my absent-mindedness toward group assignments, and my utter inability to maximise my productivity in a given day. It was the ultimate in economic hypocrisy: here I was, three months from officially being an “economist,” and I was about as organised as I had been when I started college. Something needed to change.

I had tried to convert to the GTD discipline before, using my Treo 650, Shadow Plan and the built-in To Do system, but it felt clunky and hacked-together. I then tried the Kinkless GTD system that so many übergeeks have raved about only to find it equally complex. Half of the actions that GTD was tailored to had little to no relevance to my life, but I was stuck with them anyway. I found myself trying to process tasks into increasingly weirder Projects. My Someday/Maybe list was almost nonexistent. On the paper end of things, I had seen multiple variations of the whole Hipster PDA device, only to find it lacking any grace or aesthetic beauty. It seemed that no matter where I went, the GTD system just wasn’t for me; I’d lose the 43 folders somewhere in my apartment, index cards would appear crumpled and ugly, and the digital solutions had terrible or too complex interfaces.

I felt as if I was missing something; if GTD was so spectacular, why did it seem to be so awful? After a bit of research and a bit of creativity, I decided that I’d just build my own GTD-based system from scratch using a Moleskine Ruled Pocket Notebook and inspired by the Hipster, the PigPog, and a bit of my own interaction design to make it as intuitive as possible for me to use. Considering there’s such a huge GTD community, I decided to publish my own Moleskine Hack for people to use. And, with that, I present the official Eston Bond GTD System.

Building the Base

It doesn’t take a lot to build this setup; it cost me under $20 for everything. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • One (1) Moleskine Ruled Pocket Notebook
  • Seven (7) Post-It® Tabs, at least three different colours (I used the tabs because they’re easier to grab onto in a rush as well as large.)
  • One (1) Extra Fine point Sanford Sharpie or other permanent marker
  • A pen of some sort to use with the Moleskine. This is a pen that you’ll need to keep around with the system all the time — I constantly carry a Lamy Vista fountain pen, so that’s what I’m using.

Once you’ve rustled up the necessary materials, it’s time to start hacking.

Preparing the Moleskine

In all honesty, calling this a GTD “system” is kind of a misnomer, as it’s more closely related to the PigPog system than GTD: it cuts all of the organisation of GTD and pares it down to its task process. In this case, the Moleskine takes care of task Inboxing, Processing, Project outlining, and the Someday / Maybe list. “Hard calendar” events, such as doctor’s appointments and meeting times, are handled electronically by my Motorola Q. I’ve cut out the 43 Folders jazz and actually don’t use any type of foldering system at all; the folder in the back of the Moleskine is used for storing business cards (both my own and others’ cards.)

1. Date the outside, right edge, in the bottom right upper corner.

You should date the Moleskine with the date at which you plan on beginning its use; when the Moleskine is full, you will write the finished date underneath it and prep a new one. This way, you’ll always have a running archive of your tasks.

2. Add your contact information to the inside cover.

The Moleskine has a section for contact information for a reason; on the Moleskine that I write blog entries in, there is even a fairly large cash reward. If the book is of considerable value, don’t hesitate to assign a dollar value to it — any promised incentive will increase the chances of you getting your book back. It may also be wise to include alternate contact information or emergency contact information to this page if you carry it with you daily.

3. Number the odd pages of the book.

Starting with the first ruled page, number the page in the lower right corner with the number 1. Your last numbered page will be number 191. Don’t worry about numbering the other pages; the time it takes to number them is fairly useless considering your search accuracy will be within two pages with the odd-numbered system. You’re also probably not prone to looking at the even page numbers, considering they’re on the back of the sheets.

It’s tabs time

Once you’ve got the Moleskine prepped for use, it’s time to label your tabs. Take the Sharpie you used to mark the side of the book and write on your tabs. For two of the tabs (preferably of the same color,) write INBOX / NEXT PROCESSED. For another two, wrote PROJECTS. For yet another pair, write SOMEDAY / MAYBE. These tabs will give you direct access to the proper sections of the Moleskine.

What about that last tab? Label it SPECIAL PRIORITY. It’s entirely optional, but having a special priority tab allows you to mark a Project or Task as taking priority over everything else. I’ve got the tab more for putting priority on social things than business things, as I tend to forget key social events more than I do key business ones.

Once you’re done labeling, put the spare INBOX, PROJECTS, and SOMEDAY tabs, as well as the SPECIAL PRIORITY tab, on the last page of the Moleskine. The last page of the Moleskine is card stock, so it holds the tabs well and is pretty useless for writing GTD content upon. Take the remaining three tabs and place them on the upper parts of the page, as close together as possible. Put INBOX on Page 5, PROJECTS on Page 123, and SOMEDAY on Page 189. If you tend to have more Projects, you’ll probably want to put the tab on a different page and increase the space available to Projects; this goes for the other sections as well and this is just a general guideline.

If you look at my Moleskine head-on, my tabs seem tangent to one another on the y-axis. I’ve done this in accordance with an extrapolation of the old interaction design principle of Fitts’ Law, which states that a speed-accuracy tradeoff exists in a pointing atmosphere. In a more intuitive sense, having these tabs close together allows you to quickly flip between sections of the Moleskine with very little movement.

Formatting the Moleskine sections

After much deliberation, I came up with a format for listing tasks which seems in some ways to be fairly complex at first glance, but it’s awfully intuitive to me (and my own intuition was the priority here.) At the top of the section, label it with the section name and then a small legend for formatting. For example, in the INBOX / NEXT PROCESSED section, the first two lines (pictured at left) are written as such:

INBOX/NEXT ACTIONS
DATE TASK(REF)(ITERATION) [PROJ.] WAIT?

The legend may seem fairly cryptic at first, but here’s what it stands for:

  • DATE: The short date (e.g., 05/31) of the time the task was entered. If you don’t process tasks daily, this gives you an idea of the age of the task at hand.
  • TASK: The actual task. This can span multiple lines if need be, but leave at least a half-centimeter margin on the right side for the WAIT? boolean (which I’ll explain in a second.)
  • (REF): A reference number. If this task was moved forward in the list and not dumped into a project, you can then reference the page of the original task here. If you’re really obsessive-compulsive, you could do something like page:line where the page number and line number correspond to the task.
  • (ITERATION): An iteration number for tasks pushed forward. This gives you an at-a-glance look at how many times the task was moved forward; it also gives an idea to the degree of “stubbornness” of the task. You increment this value every time you process tasks and push them forward.
  • [PROJ.]: Put a page number in square brackets when processing a task to denote that you’ve spawned a project off of the task. In this case, you get a reference number to a page in the notebook’s PROJECTS section, so you can track where the Project was created and why that might’ve been the case.
  • WAIT?: If you’re waiting for a response from somebody, simply put an X in this “column” of the page. If you followed the above rules, this is a constant margin down the side of your page. This way, on processing tasks for the day, you have a quick visual cue to all of the tasks you’re waiting for someone or something else before you can take action.

Format the PROJECTS section like the INBOX session, but devote a whole page to a project when a project is started. For the SOMEDAY / MAYBE section, I simply wrote a section header, as task metadata is not important to me in this section of the notebook.

What about those first five pages? Title Page 1 PROJECTS INDEX, and underneath write the legend NAME, PAGES. The first five pages exist to build a quick-access Table of Contents for your PROJECTS section, more of which will be explained in the next section of this article. Once you’re done formatting, you’ll be good.

Using the GTD system

At this point, you’re good to go — well, at least from the construction part. There are a few things to remember while using the system to maintain its efficiency and effectiveness.

1. Use the Moleskine’s fabric bookmark to record your current active position, and move the Inbox tab accordingly.

The Moleskine’s built-in bookmark should always be set to your insertion point – that is, it should always rest on a page where there is space for you to Inbox tasks in the INBOX section. It’s the easiest thing to grab onto and flip open in a rush. Once you’ve processed tasks up to the active point, move the INBOX tab up to the last page where tasks have been processed. If you’re staying on top of things, your INBOX tab should rest on the same page as the built-in bookmark daily.

2. Record Next Actions as being Next Actions. Reference their parents.

I mark Next Actions with a left arrow (-> ) before the task name to signify that it is the next action taken on a previous task. In the (REF) parentheses, I write the page number of the original task that the next action corresponds to. Whenever I am creating a new action, the (REF) is set to an empty set (ø) and the (ITERATION) is set to zero (0).

3. When moving a task forward, increment its iteration.

When I move a task forward, I copy all of its original properties and then increment (ITERATION) by 1. If a task lasts for more than three or so processes (three iterations), it is seemingly becoming more stubborn and I should probably either defer the task to SOMEDAY or get it done.

4. Mark the waiting for column if you’re stalled.

This column exists to provide an easy visual cue to the tasks you’re stalled on due to other circumstances. If you fail to mark the column, you’re losing that quick-scan functionality of what you’re waiting on.

5. When dumping a task to a project, mark it with the project page.

If you’re dumping an Inbox task to a Project when processing, mark it with the proper [PROJECT] markup. This way, you’ll know what page (and what project) it went off to.

6. When creating a new Project or a new page for an existing Project, update the Project Index.

The project index is useless unless kept up to date. Whenever a new project is created, add it to the Project Index. This goes for pages, too; if your project ends up colliding with another and has a disjointed page, marking the index with FREELANCE WORK, 124, 130 allows you to remember that the Freelance Work Project contains data on both pages 124 and 130.

See you in January

And with that, I’m off to try the GTD system until January 2007, when I’ll write a follow-up post to this one. We’ll see if the GTD system actually works out for me this time; with this much planning and eagerness to be more efficient, I’m optimistic that it’ll work this time. Maybe all I needed was to revert back to the basics of pen and paper. It seemed to work for Bruce Chatwin and numerous generations before us; I’ve got little doubt that it will work for me as well.

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