Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I've gotten a little out of practise implementing GTD properly because it hasn't really been necessary until recently. As such my system has become very adhoc which poor management of categories and a rather slapdash approach to doing reviews leading to a loss of control on my part. The new job is not so familiar to me and requires a different way of thinking; using broad labels such as work or home have made it hard for me to create the focus of Next Actions that I have really needed. Some distinctions within categories and inboxes have become blurred making it harder for me to manage even basic requirements for acheiving. The net result of all this has been greater stress within the context of an environment that I can do little about.

After reading this article on DIYPlanner I decided to attack the problem at source and I cracked open Freemind in order to work out my goals and categories across both work and home and take a look at what has been working and what has failed.

Using a mindmap I was broke things up into distinct categories based on my current needs for Work and Home. Under Work, there is Teaching, Admin and Attitude. These are then further broken down into relevant subcategories (see the mindmap below). I then broke these down further, either with extra categories or tasks that I need to complete, to get as much down as possible and to help highlight which of these categories are important and which are not.

On the Home side I used the Physical, Spiritual, Social and Cognitive categories suggested in the DIY article. Under these topics I began to list some of the things that I wanted make sure I find the time to do, like Writing under Spiritual or Reading and GTD under Cognitive.

With this work done it was time to see about putting it into practice. I have a long list of inboxes at the moment so I decided to focus on getting that down to just two, on the computer, which can then be supplemented by more mobile methods, like the hipster, later.

I began by looking again at Remember the Milk for ToDo lists instead of using an offline application such as Outlook so that it is easier for me to manage and check my lists wherever I am. As I've mentioned before RTM also has some good features and is fast to use.
My previous categories were area-based, such as Home or Work, but there was no way to highlight what needed to be done immediately. I began by setting up some new lists and renaming old ones. The lists that I have currently settled on are:
  • @NextActions
  • @Waiting
  • Home
  • Shopping
  • Writing
The @s are to make those appear first on the list. Everything begins life in the @NextActions list and can then be moved if it's more appropriate that it go somewhere else. However I then found that I wanted to be able to categorise items further so that I could keep everything I need in the @NextAction category but still be able to look at a particular area, such as Curriculum. To resolve this I took the list of categories I'd worked out in the mindmap and applied them as labels. For example, "Amend Curriculum Plan" is tagged with Admin and Curriculum. Admin is the big label but Curriculum helps to refine it. (I can also assign names under tasks too, especially useful for @Waiting items). RTMs Overview page includes an section that combines Lists and Labels in a single box with items displayed in a cloud with items at different sizes depending upon how many items are in them making it easy to see lists and projects that have a lot to do (see screenshot above). Finally I printed out a copy of the mindmap of labels which I can keep on my desk for easy reference when creating new items.

Once I was happy that that was in place I started to tackle my email. I still like the gmail interface so I saw no reason to change from that. It's fast and flexible and available whereever I have internet access. The first thing to do was to separate my work email from my personal mail. Work email in my personal space depresses me because it makes me feel like I have to deal with it even when I'm not at work. I have already set up a work email account which I have begun to encourage people to use but not everyone does and stuff just gets through. So I have set up a filter on the worst offenders to forward those messages on to the work account and label them huamao so that I can remove them from my personal mail account during review. I then went through and deleted the work messages from my email account so that it is now just for me (after forwarding ones I needed to keep to the work address).

The next step was then to redo the labels. I have never used labels in Gmail effectively. Some, like "Scotland" (set up to bring together info about a trip to Scotland 3 years ago) could be deleted while others, like Parents' holiday (to track details of bookings for my parents' trip to China at the moment) I've renamed. I also created two new categories, @Reply and @ToRead, for marking those emails that require further action. All others can be archived or deleted. Emails requiring further response are also starred so that there is a single quick click I can do to see what outstanding emails I have. And best of all it leaves me with an empty inbox. My new list of labels in gmail (remember, this is for personal use) is:
  • @Reply
  • @ToRead
  • computer - for anything related to computing such as MS newsletters
  • family - messages from my family
  • friends - message from my friends
  • huamao - messages to do with my current job
  • info - basically a reference tag, for information like password reminders, flight details, etc.
  • jobs - contacts and other mails that I may need when looking for work
  • writing - stuff to do with writing, selling it or doing it
My work email account (also gmail) basically mirrors all of this but with slightly different categories based upon the RTM ones.

So, after spending a few hours rebuilding my GTD system I am feeling more in control of things than I was. There is a tendency when you feel like you have too much on your plate to sit back feeling sorry for yourself and just try to ride it out while getting more and more stressed. Now I feel like I'm in a position where I can at least be in control of what I need to do, even if the other problems with the job (or, rather, the management) are something that I am just going to have to accept for now.

My error was to be sloppy about reviews which led to poor and ill-thought categories and lists as well as extending the number of collection buckets I was "using" beyond a level that was maintainable. This kind of rebooting has made me feel much happier about what I need to do and reminded me that the most important things for me to keep the system going are the Next Actions and the Reviews.

Assuming, of course, I even stay in this job....

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Went to Shanghai last weekend. Ningbo is reasonably developed but is still lacking in a lot of areas - the shops are pretty monotonous, there aren't many bars and mostly it's just the same people out every week. Which is nice but it's good to experience something different for a change, especially as I've been feeling stressed. And Shanghai is very different. It's a truly modern city, with a fast, reliable underground, bookshops with good supplies of English novels, shops of a dizzying variety (everything from specialty kilim shops to Ikea), and a busy but relaxed vibe that makes London seem very quiet.
Mostly I wanted to buy a couple of books, and I ended up getting five. For those who are interested:
  • Umberto Eco - The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
  • China Mieville - Looking for Jake
  • Liz Williams - Banner of Souls
  • Mark Gatiss - Vesuvius Club
  • Murakami - Norwegian Wood
We stayed in the Metropole as all the cheap places were booked up and we hadn't put a lot of thought into planning it. Still, it's a nicely decadent place, very reminiscent of the 1930s and our room had views over the Bund and a balcony looking over the rest of Shanghai.
Went to the Gongdelin vegetarian restaurant and had a couple of beers in a bar on Saturday. On Sunday I went to meet Victor, a guy I've been in occasional contact with as we share an interest in GTD and moleskines. We had a delicious Xinjiang meal and chatted about computers and time management. He's a nice bloke and I look forward to having the opportunity to meet up again.
After that I met up with Zak who had been looking at violins. As well as walking up and down a street filled with musical instrument shops we also headed to the Yu Gardens area but didn't really do much else before getting the train back to Ningbo.
It seems strange to me that I haven't been to Shanghai for the weekend before now, but I think I'll definitely be heading over again in the next month or so.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Well, term started last friday and it's been something of an interesting week. Some has been good and some has been bad. The good is the actual job, and the small amount of teaching I do, is very enjoyable. I also like getting to know the Chinese staff and generally although there are things that are just plain not working there isn't a lot that I can do about that and I have to just keep pushing while letting things happen. The key example here is the attitude towards hiring more teachers. They are reluctant, still, to talk about paying for advertising or increasing teachers salaries to make it happen. But without more teachers we face a problem with existing parents and also with the fact that we simply cannot expand and get more students. Which brings us to the bad. Last night I got phonecalls from two parents who screamed at or threatened me down the phone because their kids had told them that a new pupil would be starting on Monday. That isn't even true - we had a visit from some parents who are keen to get their child in to the school but it isn't going to be on Monday. Even if it was true we would still have less than 10 children in a single classroom. The problem is that there is a wide range of ages in that classroom, from 5 to 10, and they believe that this is unacceptable. Now, I have spoken to the classroom teacher, Ann, and she maintains that teaching that range is well within her capacity. I am also teaching two of the older students for science and SOSE/History so that all the kids have guaranteed teacher time. Of course, the situation is not ideal and we desparately need another teacher but the parents' behaviour in all this is unacceptable.
I've also been out a couple of times this week with work. The first was on Monday for a meal to celebrate the start of term. This involved my boss, the acting principal Mr Cai, ganbei-ing everyone around the table. Ganbei means empty glass and is like "cheers" except that you do have to empty your glass. In this case, red wine. I was required to go around the table as well so I was thoroughly drunk by the time I got home.
Next, Friday night, we went out for a meal again for the Teachers Day Holiday but the drinking was a lot more subdued as everyone was saving themselves for the KTV afterwards. KTV is kareoke, which I have managed to avoid so far but not any more. The KTV club is basically lots of private rooms for groups to sit around on a sofa and enthusiastically applaud each other for singing. Yes, I did sing one song. But the strangest thing was when I went to the toilet. I was standing at the urinal when suddenly the attendant placed a hot towel on my neck and started giving me a head massage! To say I wasn't expecting it is understating the matter although I've been so tense all week that it was probably a good thing. Anyway, after KTV Zak and I headed into Laowaitan to meet some friends at a bar called Le Cargo, and I got very drunk for the second time this week.
On a non-work related theme Zak and I went to a very nice Lebanese restaurant on Tuesday. We had humus and aubergine dip and grilled chicken and meat with spices. It was great. And there's no alcohol served in the place which was even better.