Maintaining Order: Tools and Tips

I’ve had a couple of questions come up about how I organise my life around work/study. I can’t promise all the answers, but I can relate what I’ve done over the last 18 months. Pretty much all the other certifications I’ve studied for were trivially easy compared to CCIE, or I was studying full-time, as in the case of my degree. This one was different. Far more time-consuming, and I had to organise things better if I was going to get through it. The other challenge I had was changing jobs about a year ago. Previously I was working at one place, so I had one list of tasks to do. Now I work in more of a consulting role, and I’m often in quite short-term engagements. That means multiple lists of tasks, for multiple clients. My previous methods weren’t keeping pace.

First piece of advice: Find a partner that will support you in everything you do, and make sure that you discuss your plans with them. If you’re going to invest a lot of time in something, you need to make sure that those around you understand when you will be busy, and when you will be available. Without their support, it doesn’t matter what else you do – it will end in tears.

Task Management - OmniFocus

Now for some specifics around managing tasks. I worked out that my challenges came down to keeping track of all the things I promised I would do, and making sure I was getting through my study plans. So I started looking around to see what was out there in terms of A) Strategies, and B) Software that could help.

After a bit of investigation, I settled on using a version of the Getting Things Done system by David Allen, also known as GTD. I certainly don’t follow all his steps exactly – I use a modified version, based in good part upon the writings at Asian Efficiency. These writings proved extremely helpful, both in providing general strategies, and specific instruction around how to use the software package I settled on – OmniFocus.

You can have a read of the strategies at Asian Efficiency yourself, but some of them I try to use are Eat That Frog, and the Pomodoro Technique. The first one means: That task you don’t want to do? Get it done first thing, and then the rest of the day is easier. The second one is about how to divide your time into manageable chunks of time, with scheduled breaks. Another strategy I’m working on (not always successfully) involves not checking your email first thing, but spending the first part of the day doing things like exercise, and planning your day. They have a series of posts on how to use OmniFocus, and how to integrate it into your life.

I chose OmniFocus for its reputation for power and quality, and because it works across the systems I use – MacBook Air, iPad, iPhone. OmniFocus is a tool for “staying on top of all the things you need to do.” It works well with the GTD system, and it has clients for OS X and iOS. These all synchronise, so updates on my phone show up on my laptop. The only problem is the price – it’s not cheap, especially if you buy all three of the apps – one for OS X, one for iPhone and one for iPad. But I’ve gone down the path of using it, and I think it’s helping.

Any new tasks that come up get added to OmniFocus. Initially they’re not sorted – that gets done once per day. Tasks are grouped by various projects – e.g. each of the customer projects I’m working on, or CCIE study. They can also have a “context” applied – so I can quickly find all the tasks for a specific project, or all the specific types of tasks – e.g. chores around the house. Tasks can also be set to recurring. I can add a task for getting a haircut, and set it to re-occur 4 weeks after it is completed. The task comes up as due, I get a haircut, mark it as complete, then it disappears for 4 weeks. You can play around with how things re-occur too – some will come up again every week, regardless of if you completed it last week or not – e.g. paying rent. Others will only come up again a specific period after you completed it. Haircuts fall into that category – if you leave it a couple of weeks, then the next one is due 4 weeks from when it actually got done, not 4 weeks from when it should have been done. Tasks can have start times, and/or due times. They may not have any specific due date. Some things I note down simply because it’s something I would like to do one day, but there’s no pressing timeframe. That way it doesn’t get forgotten.

An example of the way I use these systems is that I have recurring tasks set up, where every morning I need to review my calendar, and choose my most important tasks for the day. This ensures that I don’t forget the meeting I scheduled weeks ago, and that I go through my list of tasks, and give myself 3-4 to do that day. Now I have a plan of attack, and I know where I’m going to spend my time that day. As I finish tasks, they get marked complete in OmniFocus. Every evening, I check to see what tasks I’ve added during the day, and make sure they get correctly categorised.

It does sound like a bit of work, and it is a bit, but you can do the steps pretty quickly. It’s no more time than would be spent on managing paper lists, but this is far more flexible, since I can assign dates to things, re-categorise them, shuffle them about, etc. And since it’s synchronised across my iDevices, it means I can almost always readily access my list of things to do.

Using OmniFocus for Study

When studying, I would add separate tasks for each of the sections I wanted to study. I would also have daily tasks set up for reviewing flashcards. This made it far less likely that things would slip. By having everything written down, it also takes it out of your head, and means you’ve got one less thing to worry about.

I guess it’s just another one of those ways that CCIE study has changed me – it’s not about the technologies, it’s about the methods, the strategies, the techniques – these are things I can apply to anything else I do in life.

More Efficiency Overall?

Am I an Efficient Asian? Perhaps not yet, but it’s a work in progress, and I continually aim for better. I actually need to sit down and see how far my current practices have diverged from the recommended ways of doing things. Anyone have any thoughts they’d like to share on how they manage their life?

One more thing to add about productivity – I have been Facebook-free for some time now. Very liberating.