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Writing, Fieldstones, and GTD (long)

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  • Writing, Fieldstones, and GTD (long)

    I've mentioned in the past that I'm fine tuning my system, and a couple of people have asked for details on the latest incarnation. For your reading pleasure...

    One of the most common misconceptions about GTD is the idea that you should *only* have one Next Action per project. While DA imposes no such limit, it's true that the focus on finding The Very Next Action does suggest that one is enough. More than one is okay, but once you've found one you can safely move on to planning other projects.

    For large projects, though, there might be dozens of possible actions that could move a project forward. If I'm writing a book, there might be dozens of people I could interview, hundreds of things I could read, thousands of facts I could check or paragraphs I could fine tune. In order to keep the list tractable, it's natural to break it down to subprojects, but should I really turn down a good interview opportunity because I won't need the material for three more chapters? Should I force myself to power through material that I find boring, or take a break and tackle a different subject "out of sequence?"

    Not to mention the somewhat amorphous handling of Someday/Maybe projects. Part of the early development of a project involves non-directed information gathering, seeing if there's enough stuff to make something interesting. It requires a kind of watchful awareness more suited to active projects, not the "out of sight, out of mind" holding area of the Someday/Maybe list or the Tickler file. Still, such research is very low priority, far below that of true active projects. The need for it informs decisions -- "Gee, there's a documentary on Venice on" -- but doesn't drive them.

    GTD handles these kinds of fuzzy decisions better than most other systems, but still not particularly well. Several months ago I found myself struggling to keep a large project and several smaller ones on track simultaneously, and as a result found myself rethinking many aspects of my system.

    I tried index cards, one task or project per card. Intended as a temporary solution, it worked well for that purpose, but fumbling with the cards turned out to be too clumsy for long term use.

    I tried OmniFocus. I was very impressed -- it's a well-designed piece of software--but was soon reminded of all the reasons why I prefer a paper system. (Detailed at length elsewhere.) (All software mentioned in this post runs on the Mac, and much of it is Mac-only.)

    So back to paper. Before all this started, I centered my system around a pair of Circa notebooks, with letter size pages for projects and junior size pages for context lists. I found it was too big and bulky, took too much space on my desk, was too difficult to carry around.

    After much prowling through stationary stores, I settled on a grid-ruled Moleskine. Good quality paper, low-profile binding, aesthetically inoffensive. Inspired by http://www.jerrybrito.com/2004/11/22...gtd-tabs-hack/ I set it up with four sections: Next Actions, Projects, Someday/Maybe, Writing ideas, and Client information. It also serves as my Ubiquitous Capture Tool, with the "inbox" starting on the last page and working forward.

    Context lists are a big weakness for a bound notebook, since you don't know how many pages each context will need. I've merged all office-based contexts (@phone, @email, @computer) into a single list, which I keep on the right-hand pages. Other contexts (@home, @errands, mostly) go on the left-hand pages, which works fine because these contexts are smaller.

    All of this was an improvement, but still didn't address the fuzzy planning challenges I mentioned at the start of this post. For those, the insight came when I read Gerald Weinberg's book, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method.

    His central idea is that writing is like building a fieldstone wall. You collect lots of stones -- which can be anything from small pebbles of individual facts to giant slabs of chapter excerpts. You might have a general idea what sort of stones you need -- pointy granite chunks vs. rounded river sandstone, say. Until you start building, though, you won't know which stones will actually fit or how they'll line up. Since there's a lot of serendipity involved in finding the "right" stones, it's good to keep several stone piles going at once. And since figuring out how to fit them together can require patience, thought, and experimentation, it's good to have a way to keep moving even when a particular angle of attack is blocked. (Have you ever heard anyone complain about mason's block?)

    Which in GTD terms translates to having more than one Next Action for a project. I started by challenging myself to come up with at least ten, but the ideal number would probably depend on the size of the project. These go in the Project section of my notebook, on left-hand pages. (The project list is on right-hand pages) That seemed like a good compromise between overwhelming the main Next Action list and hiding these tasks away in the project support materials.

    The other challenge is organizing all the "stones." Index cards are cheap and easy to shuffle around, but not searchable and not big enough to hold more than a few sentences. My approach is still a work in progress, but involves a parallel set of paper and electronic tools. On paper, I start with a system loosely based on the PileOfIndexCards described at http://pileofindexcards.org/wiki/ind...itle=Main_Page Larger ideas get larger pieces of paper, but with a similar strictly chronological organizing system. Electronic ideas go into the DevonThink Pro database for a particular project or interest, or into DevonNote for topics that don't yet have their own database. (DTP is a freeform database with tools for organizing and searching large amounts of information. DN is sort of DTP-lite, with a smaller array of tools but also a smaller system footprint. DN also serves as an inbox when DTP isn't open.) Ideas that have evolved into truly active projects get Scrivener projects as well.

    For both paper and electronic tools, the most important characteristic is simplicity. I've tried most of the notebook/information capture tools for the Mac, and learned that it's almost impossible to structure information as I gather it. Tools that force me to do so -- wikis, PersonalBrain, mindmapping software, most notebook software -- are annoying enough that I tend to just abandon them. On the other hand, I will need to create structure at some point, so purely flat tools (text files, but also things like Evernote) don't work either. And because "stones" come in many different sizes, I need a solution that's as comfortable with ten pages as with a paragraph.

    This approach is only a few weeks old at this point, so very much a work in progress. Comments and other experiences welcome!

    Katherine
    Last edited by kewms; 08-26-2008, 03:25 PM.

  • #2
    This is the second reference to Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method I've come across in as many weeks. I'll have to read it.

    Context lists are a big weakness for a bound notebook, since you don't know how many pages each context will need. I've merged all office-based contexts (@phone, @email, @computer) into a single list, which I keep on the right-hand pages. Other contexts (@home, @errands, mostly) go on the left-hand pages, which works fine because these contexts are smaller.
    Smart. I abandoned the Moleskine after running into the problem with allocating the right number of pages per context. That would have helped. Are you keeping the subheadings of your office-based contexts on a single page, or do you literally mean a single-threaded list?

    Index cards are cheap and easy to shuffle around, but not searchable and not big enough to hold more than a few sentences.
    Not speaking from experience here, but have you tried accordion-folding heavy-stock paper into card-size sections (keeping them closed with, say, paper clips)? You would be able to use regular index cards for the "stones" that are inherently small, and the foldable ones for adding more content.

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by Andre Kibbe View Post
      This is the second reference to Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method I've come across in as many weeks. I'll have to read it.
      Really only 1.5 references. I couldn't find the post that inspired me to read it, but I think it was linked from this forum.

      On one hand, I was already working in a similar way without having a neat metaphor to describe it, so the book didn't give me any brilliant new ideas. On the other hand, it was very helpful to see a thinking process so similar to my own laid out so clearly. The Ah Ha! moment was the recognition that the method is fractal: it can be used at any level, from single paragraphs to complete works.

      Smart. I abandoned the Moleskine after running into the problem with allocating the right number of pages per context. That would have helped. Are you keeping the subheadings of your office-based contexts on a single page, or do you literally mean a single-threaded list?
      A single list, spanning multiple pages. When a page gets down to only one or two items left, I recopy those to the end of the list and cross the page out.

      Not speaking from experience here, but have you tried accordion-folding heavy-stock paper into card-size sections (keeping them closed with, say, paper clips)? You would be able to use regular index cards for the "stones" that are inherently small, and the foldable ones for adding more content.
      Wouldn't work for me, for two reasons. If I need a bigger piece of paper, it's because I need to see more: folding it up small defeats the purpose. Plus the card stock folding part would exceed my (very low) tolerance for futzing.

      The size issue hasn't come up much so far, so I'm not sure how annoying it will be. I suspect that larger "stones" will end up naturally migrating to my electronic system, in part because they'll be more closely tied to specific projects.

      Katherine

      Comment


      • #4
        re: Handling Big Projects - Especially Writing Projects

        re: Only One Next Action

        According to David Allen any project component that can be acted on now should have the next action defined and put on the next action list (or Tickler or Someday-Maybe list as appropriate). But it really comes down to whether having a big next action list overwhelms to the point of avoiding the list. Everyone is different. My next action list averages between 280-300 and it doesn't bother me. I just review it and get done what I can when I can. And if the list does seem to get stagnate I comb through it and put things into the Tickler or Someday-Maybe list. But two things that help me with that comfort level are that my system marks all tasks connected with my top three projects for that week as well as any tasks with due dates. They all get appropriate colors so I can see at-a-glance which tasks on my list need to be reviewed first.

        re: Really Big Projects

        Big projects have to have a way of being broken down. When I started developing my own system on the mac I realized that I needed a way to break down multi-step project components (i.e. sub-projects) and give them the same level of clarity as all of my main projects. The solution I came up with works very well and I'm convinced that any other implementation has to have some similar way of dealing with sub-projects. There's not enough space to detail the solution here, so here's the tutorial on YouTube 'What About Sub-Projects?" for anyone interested.

        re: Index Cards

        I don't know that index cards are the best way to do project planning but I have found them to be perfect for general collection. The best way to get around the loose nature of them -- which is really their only downfall -- is to get a nice leather index card holder like the ones at Levenger. What 3x5 cards have over notepads is that they lend themselves better to the one-idea-per-card; and this makes for easier processing.

        BUT…
        The best idea I've read for the use of index cards and projects was someone who used post-it notes to write down the next actions and then attach them to a single 3x5 card (layering them down each side). This would allow him to rearrange them as necessary and get rid of them when complete. So you could try something like that and see if it helps.

        re: Writing Projects

        I think this is the real issue. Everything GTD becomes more nuanced when the kind of thing you spend most of your time doing is writing projects. I've written elsewhere about the Six Unique Demands for GTD and the Academic, but I've found some new tools that are helping me a great deal now.

        I have been using 3x5 index cards for collection when I am reading for my various writing projects. Anytime I have an idea or find a citation in a work I need to use I write it on a 3x5 card and toss it in the David Allen office supplies envelope that comes with his file folders set.

        But the "new discovery" I've made has been the program Scrivener for the mac. The program is perfect for the fuzzy decision making involved in planning for big writing projects. Let me explain how I've tailored the program to work for me and it may help others:

        (1) You make new folders on the left for your chapters and sections -- that layout the main contours of your writing project. You can add new notes to them as you like.

        (2) There are two pop-up windows on the right side that you can "customize" any way you like. I've customized one as "colored labels" and assigned the following color-structure for my writing:
        (a) Yellow - Research Further
        (b) Green - Enter Quotations
        (c) Brown - Name Main Elements
        (d) Blue - Freewrite
        (e) Purple - Follow Discussion
        (f) Aqua - Develop More
        (g) Red - Separate Out
        (h) Pink - Polish Up
        (i) Black - Done

        And the second one I'm currently using as "Rating" -- so I rate my notes from 1-5 stars (using the asterisk symbol ***** = 5 stars).

        You can customize these however you wish. So you can add or subtract or make your own categories. But here is what is so wonderful about Scrivener and writing projects. First, it lends itself to the 3x5 card collection method -- it actually makes each of your notes into individual cards you can rearrange how you wish. But second, once you've collected and input your handwritten notes from your 3x5 cards into their digital equivalent in Scrivener, you can label each one based on the color and rating schemes above. So, for example, all of my "Research Further" cards are colored yellow. And I can search for all of my Research further cards and see tham at a glance. Here is everything I still need to research for this writing project. And based on the color scheme, I can also see all of the folders and notes -- the skeletal structure of the project -- with each of its components in certain colors. What a great way to see your entire project and what sections still have more work to do -- and by color, I can know immediately what kind of work I need to do on that section (e.g. whether I need to Freewrite or whether I need to Polish it up).

        This new color-coding setup in Scrivener has greatly refined the collecting and planning elements of my writing projects. And I'm loving it. I highly recommend trying this for some of your writing projects and see what you think.

        Hope some of this helps.
        Last edited by Todd V; 08-08-2012, 01:19 PM.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Todd V View Post
          rhere's the tutorial listed under 'What About Sub-Projects?" for anyone interested.
          All of your links just go to the top page for Ready Set Do and nothing is listed that indicates any way to get to an article or helpful info at all. Backing out the URL gets to pages with passwords set that the public can't access.

          Do you have any real info or are you just sending us to the Software page with no real data?

          Comment


          • #6
            Surprise!

            Originally posted by kewms View Post
            .... For your reading pleasure...
            Katherine, I appreciated you style in the past. Few words to answer to the people! So, I'm surprised how wide you were in your post!

            Anyway, I'm also trying my way but I don't feel so forward like you.

            In this moment, my way arrived at:
            an index card 3X5 appr.(always with me) @Stuff to collect all
            when it's possible, I introduce all the stuff in the Laptop Outlook tasks and then I print them as an index card so I can keep all together

            ...it's really a pleasure read your posts!
            Claudio

            Comment


            • #7
              Your links don't work for me either. Could you try again, please? The glimpses you provide are interesting.

              One of the challenges for any writing-oriented collection system is the sheer volume of data. If I'm truly following the common advice to "write everything down," it's not unusual for me to go through several hundred blank cards a week. Hawk, the developer of the Pile of Index Cards approach, "counts" his cards using a postal scale. So I tend toward utilitarian rather than aesthetic storage.

              That's also why simplicity is so important. On one hand, I'm generating a huge volume of notes. On the other hand, most of them are transitory, with little value beyond a specific project. Any system that requires much more overhead than scribbling on an index card will just get in the way.

              I'm a huge Scrivener fan also, but haven't actually used its labeling and keyword features much. The issue is that I spend lots of writing-oriented time in other programs as well -- particularly DevonThink -- so I'm skeptical about a To Do list centered on one program. But thanks for the suggestions.

              Katherine

              Comment


              • #8
                re: Links to Helpful Info

                Originally posted by Oogiem View Post
                All of your links just go to the top page for Ready Set Do and nothing is listed that indicates any way to get to an article or helpful info at all.
                The 'What About Sub-Projects?' tutorial is now available on YouTube.

                The Six Challenges for GTD & Academics can be found here.

                I would link to the downloads for the documents but people prefer not to click a link and have it automatically start downloading something. So that's why the links connect with the webpages.

                Hope that helps.
                Last edited by Todd V; 08-08-2012, 01:16 PM.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Todd V View Post
                  The 'What About Sub-Projects?' tutorial is a quicktime movie listed on that page with that title.

                  The Six Challenges for GTD & Academics is at the bottom of the RSD Xtras page under 'GTD & Academics Blog'

                  I would link to the downloads for the documents but people prefer not to click a link and have it automatically start downloading something. So that's why the links connect with the webpages.

                  Hope that helps.
                  I downloaded nearly 7 MB of video so that you could tell me to flatten the hierarchy and put sub-projects at the top level? Okay...

                  The GTD and Academics piece was useful, though. Thanks for the pointer.

                  Katherine

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by kewms View Post
                    Really only 1.5 references. I couldn't find the post that inspired me to read it, but I think it was linked from this forum.
                    Commenter Francis Wade mentioned the book on my blog post, linked to from here earlier, though not as recently as I thought.

                    Wouldn't work for me, for two reasons. If I need a bigger piece of paper, it's because I need to see more: folding it up small defeats the purpose. Plus the card stock folding part would exceed my (very low) tolerance for futzing.

                    The size issue hasn't come up much so far, so I'm not sure how annoying it will be. I suspect that larger "stones" will end up naturally migrating to my electronic system, in part because they'll be more closely tied to specific projects.

                    Katherine
                    What about just filing larger notes and "linking" to them with a footnote on an index card? Then you could have scalable nodes of equal size that are easy to manipulate.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Fieldstone method

                      Katherine,

                      Thank you so very much for turning me on to Weinberg's book. I am only on page 54, and most of it was "read" in a very distracting, noisy environment. But this book is dripping with GTD. I am going to have to go back to David's book, when I am in a context where I can, and see if David lists Weinberg in his Acknowledgments section.

                      I have always believed that what lies at the essential core of GTD is a theory of human creativity. The entire GTD notion of limited psychic RAM requiring the use of a ubiquitous capture device to exist as an effective human being in contemporary culture is a method for translating nonmaterial thoughts and ideas into material entities. You have a thought or idea and you write it down. GTD tells us that any thought or idea that passes a low threshold of significance gets written down. This is the core of the creative process. This is the way that effective knowledge workers work, this is the way effective painters work, this is the way effective musicians work.

                      And this is the core of what I've read thus far of Weinberg about the way that writers work. The entire book thus far is a riff on the metaphor that ideas are stones. Writing down ideas is collecting stones. Creating a poem, article, or book is compiling stones.

                      Katherine, you have told me before I started reading that a stone is a NA. By stating this, you have accomplished something grand: you have reframed one of the the biggest criticisms of GTD into one of its biggest advantages. How many times have we read on this forum--and how many times have we felt ourselves--that our NA list was overwhelmingly large? It was too daunting.

                      But, if we've formulated our NAs to be sufficiently granular, that criticism of GTD disappears. It's good, as Weinberg states, to be involved in multiple projects simultaneously. We can all get bogged down at some point on a project. That's when it's a great time to switch gears and do a NA for a different project. Weinberg gives a schedule of his day. Note that by "schedule" I do not mean a list of activities written in advance. Weinberg's schedule was a log, written after the fact. He works on a writing project until he doesn't want to anymore. Then he picks up on another project.

                      This is pure GTD. I don't decide today that I will work tomorrow from 9-11 on the widget project and from 1:15 to 2:45 on the skyhook project. Each day has its own contours, its own rhythm, and I follow it. I stay on track with my weekly review, but I maintain enormous flexibility in my minute-by-minute activities.

                      As I said, I'm only on page 54 and I haven't scanned ahead. But from what I've read thus far, this should be required reading for GTDers.

                      Thanks again.

                      moises

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by kewms View Post
                        For large projects, though, there might be dozens of possible actions that could move a project forward. If I'm writing a book, there might be dozens of people I could interview, hundreds of things I could read, thousands of facts I could check or paragraphs I could fine tune. In order to keep the list tractable, it's natural to break it down to subprojects, but should I really turn down a good interview opportunity because I won't need the material for three more chapters? Should I force myself to power through material that I find boring, or take a break and tackle a different subject "out of sequence?"
                        I solve this problem by listing a Next Action of "Schedule one interview [Write a Book Project]." Then I keep a list of all possible interviews and can choose from that. This keeps my Next Action list correct but not unnecessarily swamped.

                        Even though all the Next Actions will say the same thing, I still make it a point to check this off when an interview is completed and re-writing it as a task, to give myself a sense of accomplishment.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          A caution about Weinberg's book. He's a writer, but an unusually successful one. As a result, he has an enormous amount of control over what he writes and when. As far as I could tell, he works under little or no outside pressure, including deadlines. It's not yet clear to me how compatible his methods are with a more externally-driven workload.

                          Katherine

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