Drowning in To-Dos? Get Organized!

Thursday Dec 29th 2005 by Charlie Schluting

If keeping your network humming is getting harder, it might be time to take a look around and figure out new ways to get things done.

Though not strictly aimed at network administrators, the fruits of the "getting things done" (GTD) craze certainly provide useful tools for us Unix and Cisco geeks. GTD, a work and time management strategy outlined in David Allen's book "Getting Things Done", really applies to everyone: Office workers and admins alike have been horribly dependent on their restrictive Outlook calendars for ages. We'll examine a few methods and tools, freely available, designed to help you organize your things, your time and your thoughts.

There are plenty of websites and blogs dedicated to helping people get things done. It appears that everyone is looking for a way to get organized, which indicates that the messy sysadmin's cubicle isn't as abnormal as the non-techie employees tend to imply. The whole idea is to be more organized, to become more efficient, and get (more) things done.

What can we learn from this uprising? Most tips and tricks are focused on elaborate organization schemes using technology. Some people preach the use of simple 3x5 index cards, but we'll just focus on the technology-related aspects.

Your Stuff
Admins will typically invent their own strategy for organizing information within directories, perhaps something akin to: POs/, boss/, Tech-Docs/, patches/, etc. The GTD people have something to say about that. There's quite a bit of discussion about folder/directory organization available at various websites, like 43folders.com and various message boards where people discuss GTD and other organizational techniques. There are various schools of thought, but the general consensus is that you'll have to try out the various methods available and see what works for you.

We all have a large number of URLs stored in our browser bookmarks. Links are very important, especially the ones that take a while to dig up with Google. Most everyone has probably heard of del.icio.us by now. You create an account, and then store all of your links on their website. You can create notes, tag your links, and even share them with others. Del.icio.us.com is a tremendously popular service, and a great time-saver. No longer do you need to be using your main computer's Firefox bookmarks to find that link to the Sun StorEdge 3510's hardware manual; the link is on a website, where you left it, right in plain sight! Second thoughts about del.icio.us's permanence (and suitability as a storehouse for all your bookmarks) might be offset by news that it was acquired by Yahoo! earlier this month.

It doesn't end there. Flickr.com allows its users to store photos on its website, and backpackit.com has combined links, to-do lists, notes, photo storage, and even file storage into one easy-to-use and free service. The concept is much like a wiki, in that you create a website for each topic, but backpackit.com is designed for one person's organizational well-being, as opposed to collaboration. Backpack is quite powerful on its own, and there's also a huge fan-base that enthusiastically provides "hacks" and tips for using the service more effectively.

Your Time
Many people spend at least an hour each morning reading and sending e-mail. Some people are much worse off in this regard. What would happen if you could spend a significantly smaller amount of time on mail? Assuming you could, and if you chose to embrace your newly acquired time, you'd get a lot more stuff done! The GTD people have been talking about e-mail productivity for a long time. They're constantly coming up with great ideas for the most basic, yet time-consuming task of the day. Something as simple as "turn off auto-check, or set it to every 30 minutes" (from 43 Folders' five email tips ) has reportedly helped many people. Everyone, especially IT supervisors who are forced to deal with their underlings and sales people on a daily basis, can benefit from a few email productivity tips. They may seem simple, but that's the way it works. Five minutes here and there add up to an extra hour to get things done.

Arguably, the most important thing you can do to aid in getting things done is to create an effective to-do list. People carry around PDAs or notepads all the time, scribbling incomprehensible notes in random order that just end up taking more precious time to decipher. "Getting Things Done" author Allen outlines a few sure-fire ways to get to-do lists under control, and shape them into something meaningful.

One approach that works very well, but doesn't strictly follow some schools of thought in this matter, is to make various time-sensitive to-do lists. The whiteboard in my office has three columns: HOLD, SOON, LONG-TERM. The "hold" section lists major tasks that need to be completed, but are waiting on someone else's action; and the required action is listed. The "soon" section lists major tasks that need to be completed within a few weeks, and "long-term" means basically "don't forget, we're working toward doing this." The GTD book says that you should have very focused and specific tasks in a to-do list, but just introducing this level of organization can tremendously improve the productivity of a to-do virgin.

Efficiency tools
From countless OS X dashboard widgets to Windows freeware, a plethora of "convenience applications" flood the market. Most GTD-focused websites have a section dedicated to talking about the latest offerings. Many are plugins to your favorite email or web-browsing applications, but some take it to an entirely different level.

The single most noteworthy application is Quicksilver, and happens to be for OS X. Quicksilver is difficult to describe, but its aura simply emanates "productivity." Quicksilver users profess to being rendered quite useless when they're forced to use a computer without Quicksilver installed – it's that powerful. The most mind-numbingly involved feature of Quicksilver is the ability to append (or prepend) text to any file with just a few simple keystrokes. Of course, it also allows you to launch applications very easily, search through files and filenames, and even has a clipboard viewer. The learning curve is high, but once your muscles are trained, you'll wonder how you ever functioned without it.

Everyone's been interested in efficiency for a long time now. Only recently, though, have personal organizers and efficiency software become widespread. If they seem like they're taking up a lot of your time and returning very little in the way of productivity, take advantage of the surge in interest in Getting Things Done by browsing some forums, websites, and blogs. Learning some new organizational tricks might be time well spent.

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