On systems and breakdowns

David Allen’s Getting Things Done is no small part of what got me through my dissertation, and I’ve been using it ever since. I was introduced to the system and philosophy by the postdoc I shared my office with. (A.J. Brush, who has continued to get things done—if you are reading this, thanks again!)

However, I won’t say I apply it perfectly. I experience breakdowns pretty regularly, which means reflecting on my tools or routines to figure out what to change to make it work again.

When I was a new faculty member at Grinnell, I had a semester where I triple-booked my calendar not once but three times within a span of weeks. This led me to switch from my grad school Hipster PDA to a new iPhone and Google Calendar. In moving from paper to the computer, I also adopted the personal task manager OmniFocus, which my husband had started using when he adopted Getting Things Done.

For a long time, I printed out my calendar each week, posted it outside my door, and allowed students to sign up for office-hours appointments. Similar to the Hipster PDA, I had a clever paper, pencil, and glue solution for the sign-up forms that I had a lot of fun with. While it may not have been the best use of my time, it forced me to walk through my calendar weekly and plan ahead in some detail. I quickly learned that students would sign up for any open time, whether it was an official office hour or not, so I’d better have something on my calendar all the time. That meant I really thought through how I would use my office time. And with my office near all my classrooms, it was handy to be able to walk a student from the classroom to my office and ask them to sign up for an appointment.

The problem was I now had multiple copies of my calendar that could get out of sync. I could schedule a last-minute meeting on my phone, and forget to check whether a student was already signed up for office hours, or forget to mark those office hours as canceled or rescheduled. I also asked students to email me if they needed an appointment outside of office hours, which was an exercise in frustration. Although I asked students to give me three possible meeting times, this rarely happened in the first email. And sometimes there was a slip between my email and my calendar (or the students’), resulting in missed appointments.

During my last sabbatical at Grinnell, I adopted ScheduleOnce, a tool for online appointment scheduling. It does everything I had been trying to do by email before, and replaced my printed public calendar as well, since it is easy enough to mark my office hours as “free” so that students can schedule appointments during those times. There are still sometimes minor breakdowns when I haven’t put something on my calendar, but ScheduleOnce lets me easily reply to those requests with a quick “Please choose another time.” More difficult are the times when a student requests a meeting and I just don’t want to be interrupted; I need to get more aggressive again about marking those times as busy.

I had hoped to put a tablet computer outside my office so that my calendar would still be visible to students and so that they could still make an appointment at my office door. That project has been on the back burner for about three years. But, thanks to OmniFocus, it’s still there waiting for me to get to it.

I was delighted to find that Whitman had adopted Google Tools for institution-wide use, which meant I could assume students and colleagues have access to Google Calendar. I’ve used Google’s native meeting request tool much more since arriving here—albeit often preceded by a 3-way email handshake to find a suitable time to request. What surprised me was that I started getting email from students asking why we had a meeting scheduled for some odd time like midnight or 2 a.m. Working with tech support at ScheduleOnce, I figured out that these email reminders were coming not from ScheduleOnce but from Google Calendar, and that these students had never set the time zone on their Google Calendar. I raised the issue to Mike Osterman, our head of Enterprise Technology. He configured Whitman’s Google Tools setup so that new accounts automatically have their time zone set to Pacific. But there was no way to change existing accounts, so this issue still crops up from time to time.

I had another calendar breakdown in my first year at Whitman. Last spring I scheduled my office hours to end at 4 p.m., a common time for meetings involving faculty. I was teaching CS 210, Computer Systems Fundamentals, a project-intensive course which I had to teach without a student assistant since the class had never been taught at Whitman before. (John’s class mentor this spring was well-utilized.) In short, office hours kept me hopping. I often found myself in the lab at 4 p.m. with several students still waiting for help. I rarely had my calendar with me, since most of my clothes don’t have pockets that comfortably hold a smart phone. It was easy enough to say, “Well, I know I have a meeting at 4, but no one will notice if I come in late,” until that one time when the meeting was with only three other people—two colleagues and a job candidate. When I realized what I’d done, I was mortified. I decided I needed to find a way to have my calendar with me at all times, so I not only know when I have a meeting but what and where it is. I decided to buy an Apple Watch last summer, and I’ve been very happy with it. (Bonus: I always have a timer with me for in-class time management—not to mention brewing tea.)

Enough on calendars. Back to Getting Things Done. There are two aspects of the system that I struggle the most with: The first is the idea that you should not have a daily to-do list, but instead choose tasks from all those available based on your energy and context. The second is the weekly review, a ritual of reviewing all of your inputs and “open loops,” the principle being that this regularly-scheduled maintenance ensures all your work is in your system and lets you not worry about the work you are not doing the rest of the time.

There are times when I can do without a daily to-do list, but not for the reason that David Allen intended. I can do without a daily to-do list when I am too busy to need one; when my days are completely filled with work that is urgent and routine, and therefore I know what I need to be working on without much further thought (class prep, teaching, office hours, scheduled meetings). I also can do without a daily to-do list on those rare occasions when I can devote a whole day to one or two projects, so that all my tasks are drawn from those projects.

On the days that are in-between, I need a plan, or I will drift aimlessly. While I appreciate the idea of choosing tasks based on one’s energy or context, and I do this to a certain extent, there is just too much stuff in my system to have it all available all the time. It’s overwhelming.

In contradiction to David Allen’s advice, I use OmniFocus to set fictitious due dates on tasks, so that they show up in my “Today” view for that day. The good thing about this is that tasks that are somewhat urgent stay visible. OmniFocus makes it easy enough to push tasks from today to tomorrow without guilt. But it does mean I have to be careful to note hard deadlines, and it requires a certain about of mid-week curation to keep the list for each day from becoming overwhelming.

Am I misusing OmniFocus’s due dates? I’m honestly not sure. I’ve heard others, including my husband, say that they use due dates the same way, and that it is utterly impractical not to assign tasks to particular days for getting them done. But OmniFocus also lets you set a “defer until” date, and I suppose I could experiment with using that feature to get tasks to show up in the “Today” view and make the list of available tasks more manageable. I worry, though, that if I don’t accomplish those tasks on the “defer until” date, they will disappear into the aether until my next weekly review or until the actual, hard deadline. Maybe this is something to experiment with over the summer.

Some days I need a to-do list, on paper, in front of me, to remind me what I’m supposed to be doing. For days when I need some extra planning and structure to get anything done, I make a 1-2-3 list (adapted from the 1-3-5 rule, but with fewer tasks because 9 is too many). Weekends my husband and I make a shared paper to-do list. I think paper works well for the weekend because it is visible to both of us, it can include tasks from each of our personal systems, and it includes the ephemeral tasks that rarely make it into our systems and that either or both of us can do, like laundry and grocery shopping.

Finally, I use my calendar to block out time to accomplish some specific tasks. I can’t recall for certain, but I believe this is something David Allen actually recommends. For example, I tend to leave recommendation letters to last minute, but I’ve gotten really good at writing a letter in no more than an hour. So I block out an hour on my calendar on the day it is due, and it is certain to get done.

I always block out 30-60 minutes before each class for class prep. It tends to be what I’m thinking about in the hour before class anyway, even if it’s supposedly already done. Mostly I’ve managed to avoid scheduling meetings during that time, and mostly I’ve managed not to bite the heads off students who knock at my door 15 minutes before class.

“Scholarship” has been a regular item on my calendar since I started at Grinnell, usually taking up one entire morning on a day of the week that I am not teaching. While others can write for 15 minutes a day, I’ve tried this and never been able to keep it up for long. I feel better working in “project mode” where I can focus for at least an hour. That scholarship time is not inviolate—for example, I have used it to write blog posts or, in dire circumstances, to catch up on grading—but it at least the time is uninterrupted.

I should probably try blocking out calendar time for grading this fall.

My so-called “weekly” review is what really suffered this spring, and many other semesters. It’s the recurring task that I’ve kept in OmniFocus for the longest. It’s an important part of the system: you need to know that everything has been safely written down so you don’t waste time and energy trying to remember it. I also use the weekly review as a time for choosing goals/projects/tasks to focus on in the coming week.

David Allen recommends early Friday afternoon as a good time for a weekly review, because that gives you time to wrap up a few small tasks or follow up with colleagues before you go home with a clear conscience and a plan for next week. That’s a good theory, and some semesters it has worked well. Other semesters I have managed to complete on Friday the administrative tasks best done in my office (e.g., checking mail, processing my paper inbox, updating my calendar), and left the reflective part of the review (e.g., setting goals) to the weekend. This semester, nothing worked. At the time of my last ‘”weekly” review, it had been about eight weeks from the previous one, and my inbox was daunting to say the least.

What went wrong? Looking back:

  • I did not block out any time on my calendar for the weekly review. When I’ve done that in the past, it’s worked, at least enough to get started. I need to start doing that again.
  • I often had a meeting with a student scheduled outside of my office hours. See above. (That said, I like Friday afternoon office hours; the relative openness of the weekend makes Friday afternoon a good time for distant-horizon topics like careers. But those conversations should not take over the entire afternoon.)
  • It was hard to do weekly reviews on weekends. First, it meant going to my office, since I hadn’t already started on Friday. Second, the weekends were the best/only time I found for grading Software Design project assignments, which were time-consuming to say the least. I work on weekends, but only so much.
  • I experimented with shifting my weekly review to Monday, which should have worked since I didn’t teach on Tuesdays this spring. But I did not block out time on my calendar for it. See above.

Conclusion: I need to block out time on my calendar for weekly reviews.

2 thoughts on “On systems and breakdowns

  1. EarthSciProf

    Thanks for a really timely post. It’s also been ~8 weeks for me since a weekly review. While my semester has ended so I don’t feel so frantic, a serious sit down and review of my to do list will help me focus and prioritize heading into summer.

  2. EarthSciProf

    Also, I should take your idea and schedule my review into my calendar (and probably hard schedule more things (like grading) into my calendar.


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