June 21, 2004

Work avoidance

Back awhile ago I read David Allen's Getting Things Done. I've been toying with his organization system and while it hasn't changed my life at this point it has led me into some changes that I think are for the better.

At work I spend all day every day working on a windows pc with the company-mandated Outlook as my mail client. Allen has contracted with a company to produce a plugin for outlook that facilitates the stuff-processing methodology he promotes. I gave it the 30-day trial and decided to buy the software (despite the outrageous price). It adds the concept of projects so that you can associate tasks and emails and appointments with a project. It lets you take an incoming email and decide whether it's actionable; if it is, you can morph it into a task (with the original message saved and linked to it for reference) or an appointment (hardly ever valid in my case).

In practice the system is working like this for me now:

  • login and find a box full of email
  • make a fast pass deleting or filing everything that's not actionable
  • make another pass answering everything that I can give a quick response (Allen says under 2 minutes. I'm using 5-10 otherwise the overhead of creating tasks would make me crazy.)
  • finally make tasks out of everything that's going to take more time
  • box is empty

So that's pretty groovy for the intake phase of the process. After working like this for about 6 weeks I've currently got a list of about 40 outstanding projects (things that take more than one step) plus a couple dozen other single tasks. I'd like to say that that's everything, but there's a bunch of stuff hidden off in our bug-tracking system that I haven't taken into this system yet. Anyway, it's not as bad as I thought it might be.

The other thing I've added to my stable is another outlook plugin called Lookout. I've often repeated a joke I heard somewhere that goes "why is it that google can search the entire internet in under a second, but it takes outlook half an hour to search my mailbox?" Lookout is an okay answer to that question. It's an indexed search engine for your mailbox. It rebuilds its index periodically in the background so whenever you want to search you just type in your keywords and bang you have a list of messages that match. It's not as good as google at guessing which ones are the most likely since it doesn't have the rich linking context that google enjoys in the web, but it's way better than the builtin outlook search tools.

Between those two tools I now have much higher confidence that I actually know what's lurking in my zone of control. I'm much more able to see the array of things I'm putting off and so I don't have that gut-clenching feeling that there are things I'm forgetting about.

So far so good. The problem now is that while I now know what I'm supposed to be doing I'm still having a hard time actually doing any of it. I haven't quite nailed down why that is. Some of it is my natural tendency (or long habit (what's the difference?)) towards avoiding work. Some of it is that I don't see the value in a lot of the work I'm supposed to be doing.

Some of it is that it's much easier to read blogs than figure out how to do my stuff. For that and some other reasons I've moved my entire blog roll into blogrolling.com to make my usual timesuckers a little less accessible. That killed half the day ;-) Probably won't help, either, but I wasn't happy with the old organization anyway.

Maybe I need a tool that will let me register my work-avoidance programs and administer some form of reality check (popup? beep? electric shock?) if I seem to have spent too much time using one of those programs.

This reminds me of the random activity checks in the experiments conducted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that led to his books Flow and Finding Flow. Maybe I should go read those again.

I wonder if anyone has written a Palm app to do random activity checks? If I was going to use one I'd have to get a new palm with a vibrating alarm cause I can't hear my Palm beep.

Got a problem? Need a new gadget.

Maybe I'll just go back to Getting Things Done and remind myself what's supposed to happen once you've got everything in the system.

Posted by jeffy at June 21, 2004 06:29 PM

I've been avoiding work too. It is easier to read blogs! I like your blogroll...it looks nice! I think it's great that you have implemented as much as you have, and tried to become more efficient. I'm trying to get back on the bandwagon...what you wrote has added to my current inspiration...

Posted by: Julie at June 24, 2004 03:36 PM
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