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  • Mark 9:05 pm on November 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Bullet Journal, , getting things done, , organisers, , , , task managers,   

    Some thoughts on the bullet journal, omnifocus and getting things done 

    I’ve been curious for a while about the Bullet Journal system. As an obsessive practitioner of Getting Things Done, I can’t see myself starting a Bullet Journal but its framing as ‘the analogue system for a digital age’ has intrigued me since I first encountered it. The video below provides an overview of how to keep a bullet journal:

    The basic ontology of a bullet journal incorporates tasks, events and notes. These are incorporated into an organisational structure built around four core modules: index, future log, monthly log and the daily log. The bullet journal enables you to “track the past, organise the present and plan for the future” by providing a framework through which future plans become present commitments and past actions. If I understand correctly, it’s basically a funnel through which your plans over a six-month window get cashed out as monthly and daily priorities. The importance accorded to reflection ensures that commitments can be dropped along the way. It is a “customizable and forgiving” system for self-organisation, built around a hybrid journal which is a combination of “to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary”.

    I find it hard not to wonder if some of the appeal rests on paper-fetishism. This certainly plays a role in how Bullet Journal markets itself. For instance this video frames notebooks as a “creative playground” through which we “breath life into ideas”:

    I can see the appeal of having an artefact like this. Externalising your commitments into an application like Omnifocus can be a hugely effective way to organise your time, once it has become a habitual process. It can be enormously practical as well, if you’re liable to lose your bullet journal, write indecipherably or otherwise fail to exercise the physical care in relation to an artefact which a system like Bullet Journal requires. But you can’t hold your Omnifocus. You can’t flick through it. Much of this lack is aesthetic. Reliance on a digital system precludes certain experiences which an analogue system facilitates.

    I wonder if there are also practical losses as well. Could some modes of reflection be foreclosed by the insubstantiality of the system? Getting Things Done as a system relies on the series: “a number of events, objects, or people of a similar or related kind coming one after another”It reduces all our projects to the same basic ontology: an interlinked series of actionable steps through which we cumulatively bring about a substantial outcome. This reduction is what makes it so powerful. The value of Omnifocus lies in it giving us powerful tools through which to calibrate this reduction. But it also carries the risk of eviscerating the lived meaning of these projects, particularly when enacted through a digital system. This problem is inherent to the moral psychology of the to-do list:

    This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list.


    Might Bullet Journals help preserve the relational richness of our projects, opening out powerful modes of engaging with them while closing down the conveniences which digital systems afford? I’d be curious to hear what others think. Particularly anyone who has used Omnifocus and/or GTD before moving to a Bullet JournalMy hunch is there’s a basic trade-off here between convenience and reflection. It’s easy to slip into using Omnifocus/GTD in an unreflective way but the brute physicality of the Bullet Journal renders that largely impossible. Many might stop using their notebook as a Bullet Journal but if you stick to the practice itself, it more or less ensures you use it in a reflective way.

    • Bill Chance 12:30 am on November 22, 2017 Permalink

      Really nice entry. A bullet journal fits the GTD philosophy exactly. Remember that bullet journalling is a process, not a set of rules. Be flexible.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • Mark 7:12 pm on November 25, 2017 Permalink

      You think? I can’t see how you could do GTD in a bullet journal, beyond the simple fact of capturing everything & doing a review process

    • Bill Chance 9:30 pm on November 25, 2017 Permalink

      I have pages or areas for various contexts – email, phone, desk at home, drive home etc – and list things that I need to do under the various contexts.

      Now I do use a loose-leaf bullet journal system, so as things drop off I move them to an archive system.

      The bullet journal idea is very flexible and seems to be a good way to implement GTD, at least to me.

    • Mark 1:53 pm on November 26, 2017 Permalink

      That’s interesting to know, thanks

    • ferhmo 1:28 pm on September 28, 2018 Permalink

      I am GTDer, I also use Omnifocus and Evernote. I think they are the most powerful tools for the GTD methodology. I have 20 days trying Bullet Journal and you can not really do GTD there, it is not designed or thought for that, I think that going to Bullet Journal also involves changing the methodology with which we process the information. A notebook can not compete with Evernote, nor will a list by hand ever compete with Omnifocus. But I can not deny the peace, the tranquility and the satisfying silence of writing by hand and remember exactly in which part of the notebook I wrote it, because I am a visual person. So far Bullet Journal has been working for me, even though I have +70 projects at Omnifocus. Maybe I’ll stay in Bullet Journal, maybe not. But I am enjoying the test.

  • Mark 10:39 pm on August 29, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: getting things done, goal streaks, , , , , self-organisation,   

    Not scheduling my academic life at all – reply to @raulpacheco 

    I really enjoyed Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post yesterday on how he schedules his work life ‘to the very minute’ so I thought I’d offer my own reflections. I’m intellectually fascinated by how people organise their everyday lives for both personal and academic reasons. I used to have massive difficulties with procrastination and focus. I still do really but in a different way. It’s hard to convey how much I identified with Raul’s description of his experience: “I learned early in my life that I had a really broad range of interests, and that if I didn’t rein in my own impulses, I would be scattered and disorientated before long”. He seems to have learned this a lot earlier than I did though.

    I rely on two pieces of software: Goal Streaks on my iPad and OmniFocus on my iPad, iPhone, desktop and laptop. The former keeps track of things that are important to me but not urgent (stuff like going to the gym, blogging, meditating etc) which otherwise get squeezed out by the exigencies and distractions of everyday life. It’s based on the so-called ‘Seinfeld Method’ of instilling habits by marking the daily completion of associated tasks on a calendar by crossing out that day. Thus you measure ‘streaks’ and compete with yourself to surpass your ‘best streak’. The psychological assumption underlying this is that you’re much less likely to avoid the task in question (“I don’t want to go the gym today, I’m tired and it’s raining outside” or “I don’t want to write 1000 words today, I’m travelling for four hours and the seats on London Midland trains are really uncomfortable to type in”) if you have a visual representation of your past completion of the task for X number of days. I have no idea if this is universally true but it certainly works for me. Habits you seek to form are what Charles Taylor would call second-order desires i.e. “I want to want to go to the gym”. Goal Streaks gives added weight to the second-order desire by visually embedding it in a representation of progress over time. In doing so it avoids the familiar (akratic) situation of the first-order and second-order desire being in direct conflict e.g. I don’t want to go to the gym but I want to to want to go to the gym.

    OmniFocus has the steepest learning curve of any software I’ve ever used. It took me well over a year to learn to use it properly but I now couldn’t imagine living without it. It’s based around the principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system which in essence amount to: (1) write everything down (2) regularly process what you’re written down (3) either discard what you’ve written down, file it for future reference or turn it into an actionable task. The software allows any idea to be immediately captured wherever you are. I find this is often on my phone and, given my continued inability to type accurately on an iPhone, it’s usually in garbled short hand. The point is to distinguish having the idea from evaluating it and working out how to put it into practice. It’s easy to distinguish these as cognitive tasks but, in practice, they often run together – OmniFocus allows you to file fringe thoughts (as C Wright Mills might say) and stray ideas in a reliable inbox, accessible from anywhere, which can be revisited later to evaluate the ideas and draw out their practical implications. It can sound very sterile when written about in the abstract but my experience of the process is one which can facilitate an intensely creative orientation towards ideas. In an important sense GTD is what I’d call a ‘reflexive technology’ (i.e. an ideational construct which serves to augment our capacity for reflexive deliberation) and OmniFocus is the technical means through which this is accomplished on a practical day-to-day level. I used to do much the same thing with a notebook but it was pretty messy and ineffective compared to using OmniFocus.

    My point is not to sing the praises of OmniFocus and GTD (though I do like doing that with both) but rather to try and illustrate how I seem to have an equal but opposite approach to Raul. I’ve tried scheduling everything down to the minute in the way he does and it just doesn’t work for me – I rapidly become preoccupied by whether or not I’m doing the thing I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing at a given moment (usually I’m not) and the constructed order soon starts tumbling down around me. What I love about OF + GTD is the flexibility it affords – it incorporates a similar degree of organisation but it decomposes the rigidity of a intricately planned schedule into concrete tasks. So for each day OF produces a to do list based on the tasks, projects and start/end dates I’ve entered into the software (building from the inbox where the ideas go). Some tasks are recurring (e.g. updating the various websites and twitter feeds I manage), some are one off but many are sequential aspects of an overarching project §. The software lets you plan a project in terms of detailed step-by-step tasks and then only shows you one task at a time. The database might contain thousands of discrete tasks but it only shows you a small number at any given time – I rarely have more than 6 or 7 items on my to do list for a given day. What makes the software so hard to get to grips with is the challenge of making sure the small number of tasks it shows you at a given moment in time are the right tasks. The software simply offers tools for registering, organising and representing what you want and might want to do. It doesn’t answer the attendant questions for you but it does force you to think them through in a way which you are otherwise unlikely do.

    • Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD 12:28 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Dear Mark,

      I am glad that you have something that works for you. I am also fascinated with academics’ workflows. I will fully admit that scheduling my life to the very minute is something that I did since I was a child. My Dad was a child of a military physician so I learned to live a very regimented (and integrated) life.

      I will have to check OmniFocus 🙂

      Thanks for the linkage and the great post!

    • Michelle Kelly-Irving 7:38 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      I had no idea about these new ways of organising the lives of hyperactive people! Thanks for the tips…

    • Tracey Yeadon-Lee (@theterriergirl) 10:05 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Some good tips here – I use notes on my iphone a lot but I agree it gets messy after a while.I’ll try this software, thanks 🙂

    • Mark 10:28 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      It’s worth persisting with even if it’s tricky to get the hang of initially!

    • Mark 10:30 am on August 30, 2013 Permalink

      Oh that’s interesting – intriguing to think of biographical reasons for workflow preferences. Yep I think OmniFocus could work for you even with a different system – it can be integrated with iCal in extremely clever ways!

  • Mark 9:31 am on July 26, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: , getting things done, ,   

    The Sociology of Productivity 

    Following up on what I was writing about Getting Things Done (GTD) and reflexivity last night – the further I get into David Allen’s second book, the more aware I am of the countless empirical claims he makes about how internal conversation and reflexivity operate. I agree with many of them and, given the foundations of the system in his own experience as a management consultant and feedback from GTD users over the years, it’s not surprising that many of them are accurate. However I’ve got good empirical grounds for saying that some of them aren’t. Furthermore he doesn’t acknowledge the variability of reflexivity, nor the potential reasons for this or its implications for the practice of GTD. This opens up an intriguing prospect: a sociology of productivity. He’s put the infrastructure in place but many of the specific claims on which GTD rests demand further empirical investigation and conceptual scrutiny, albeit in a way which is ultra sympathetic to the form and content of GTD as a whole. Convinced there’s an awesome book in this idea, sad I have to finish my bloody thesis first though.

  • Mark 10:54 pm on July 25, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: , getting things done, , ,   

    Getting Things Done & Reflexivity 

    I increasingly find myself obsessed by David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. In part this is because, through the almost indescribably useful Omnifocus and Omnioutliner software package, its introduction into my life has started to diminish a near constant feeling of information overload (and sometimes emotional disorientation) which had developed over two years of juggling an array of very different roles and commitments (PhD student, university teacher, freelance researcher, website editor, private tutor, researcher). However my interest also stems from the increasing realisation that GTD, as well as the extent of its popularity, actually deals with the themes of my PhD research in a more direct way then pretty much anything I have come across outside of an academic context.

    My research is a longitudinal study of the internal conversations of 18 undergraduate students over two years. Drawing on the recent work of Margaret Archer, I’m interested in internal conversation because it is the medium through which human beings exercise their most characteristic (and yet under researched) faculty: reflexivity, understood, with Archer, as our capacity to evaluate our selves (desires, emotions, concerns, commitments) against our contexts (structural, relational, cultural) and form plans of action. Part of being human is working out what matters to us, what practical consequences are entailed by this and putting these into practice in an environment which intrinsically eludes our capacity to plan or control it.

    Giving conference presentations on my research has sometimes been a bit tricky because Archer is getting at something very specific here and, within an academic context, it has rarely been studied in its full specificity. In the context of empirical research, once you get a grip of the concept, you soon realise quite how analytically powerful it is: it gets to something omnipresent which is at the heart of human experience.

    It is not human agency as such but rather the cognitive (and non-cognitive) processes which undergird that agency and make it possible. Her work argues that this trait is universal but not uniform. Different people exercise it in different ways (e.g. for some it depends on trusted interlocutors to talk through ‘issues’ and decide what to do, whereas for others it is largely an internal and private focus) for complex reasons relating to the structural and social circumstances they encounter throughout life. Our practice of it changes throughout life but not in an entirely plastic way, as a result of many different sorts of factors, with causal consequences that impact at different levels of the human person in a way that is inherently temporal.

    Furthermore, as a corollary of this, different societies at different points in time will tend to give rise to different balances of reflexive practice amongst the populace. When there’s a great deal of contextual continuity – similar circumstances and similar day-to-day experiences giving rise to similar mental topographies – the easy availability of capable interlocutors (those who understand our internal conversations because theirs are broadly similar and thus the effort involved in translating between inner and outer thought is minimised) gives rise to a more dialogical practice of reflexivity. Whereas in the increasingly differentiated, hyper-mobile, culturally diverse conditions of late capitalism, there’s an ensuing tendency towards the practice of monological reflexivity, often shaped by the ideas we have taken on board and made our own as we cut our own pathway through both low and high culture. Furthermore, the pace of social change undermines the possibility of habitual responses to everyday life: if the choices we face in daily life aren’t routine, such that ‘tradition’ and ‘common sense’ provide easy and practical guides to action, then we’re increasingly thrown back on our resources to decide what to do, how to live and who to be. A big aspect of my research is the emotional burden this places on individuals, particularly the adolescents who are the topics of my research, as well as the sources of guidance they turn to in their attempts to negotiate a satisfying and sustainable path through a social world increasingly characterised by flux and uncertainty.

    I’ve long been interested in ‘self-help’ books on this level, with the massive expansion of the market (and its transformation into an enormous global industry) being, in my view, a reflection of the increasing necessity of autonomous reflexivity in conditions of modernity. I’ve seen these as ‘reflexive technologies’, tools designed to aid and support the increasingly necessary practice of reflexivity in everyday life, distinguished from older formers of moral & existential guidance with their tendency to either turn away from the stuff of daily life and/or offer what are frequently ossified traditions inapplicable to the questions of daily life.

    What fascinates me about GTD is that it’s the first reflexive technology which directly concerns itself with reflexivity as such:

    It is “not a system but a systematic approach” which addresses itself to a “desperate need to learn how to manage – not information but rather what things mean and how they all relate to each other”. The desperate tenor of this need stems from “how frequently everything is new”, as widespread “adoption of new technology has permitted al kinds of things to be landing in [our] e-mail and [our] voice mail, any of which could undermine what [we] think [our] priorities should be”. The unceasing flow of novel experience, the pace of human communication, makes it difficult to sustain life projects and plans simply because the inputs we rely on to formulate them tend to have much shorter time horizons than has ever been the case. GTD offers itself as a means to “deal with it in a positive, sustainable way, without it simply overwhelming you and your systems, and that you can integrate what it means to you as you recalibrate all of your commitments on the fly”. It is quite simply a blue print for precisely the sort of autonomous reflexivity which the circumstances many face in late modernity demands to live life in a productive, sustainable and satisfying way.

    Will probably blog some more on this to get the thoughts out of my head. Not sure how clear the above is but at present am completely preoccupied with both how much GTD (at least as David Allen is presenting in his last book) deals explicitly with reflexivity but also how explicitly he sees the system as geared towards overcoming precisely the sort of pathologies (what I write about as the emotional burden of reflexivity) which my PhD is looking at empirically.

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