Tuesday, July 31, 2012

gtd best practices

Cross-posted on Google+: http://goo.gl/vXfvV

Don't organize: Search.

This is my own collection of best practices that I have developed and adapted from the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology. For background on GTD, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done

The thing I have found most important about using GTD is to be flexible. I have created my own implementation of GTD, and I'm not afraid to bend the rules when necessary. I also try not to get bogged down in process, because GTD should make things easier, not more difficult.

Information Management

I used to carry a pen and paper to all of my meetings. I would take notes, and then file those papers in a folder for the relevant project. But I had a hard time locating those notes months or years later when I needed them. This, and working at Google, taught me that if data is not searchable, it's not very useful. 

Now, I always attend meetings with my laptop. I have instant access to all of my information that way. I take meeting notes directly into an e-mail which I send to myself. Its searchable, permanent, universally accessible (anywhere, any device), and minimizes clutter. Hard copy documents get scanned and attached to e-mail with relevant (searchable) subject lines. 

All of the documents that I used to have in my hardcopy reference files are now in soft copy, in a handful of folders on Google Drive (folders organized by project). They're searchable, and I don't have to spend extensive time categorizing them by topic.

My workflow is in a web browser (Chrome) where I have Gmail and Google Calendar open at all times.

E-mail Management


1. My inbox should generally be empty. 
2. No e-mail should go to or remain in my inbox unless I need to take action on it.

Incoming e-mail is either:
1. Automatically filtered
2. Read and archived immediately
3. Deleted (spam, announcements, etc.)
4. Acted upon (responded to or forwarded to someone who can address the issue)

I aggressively use and train Gmail's Priority Inbox to filter important email from unimportant email. If an e-mail needs more attention than I can give it at that time, I create a calendar entry or a task list entry to act on it later.

I only use the defaulte-mail labels: Inbox, Starred (for follow-up), Drafts, Sent, Read/All. I do not have individual labels/folders for projects. The sorting took too much time, and I can put my fingers on whatever e-mail I need using search queries.

Read the unimportant email as infrequently as possible. Choose “select all”, scan through the subject lines, and uncheck anything that looks interesting, then press delete (or archive) to remove the non-interesting messages.

Put Data Where It Is Best Accessed

My computer (a MacBook Pro 13") has no data on it. Only a web browser. I don't have to worry about back-ups. This also makes using a chromebook or tablet much easier, although I'm most comfortable using a laptop.

Move everything to the cloud (use Google Docs, online photo storage like Picasa, SmugMug, or Flickr, etc.).

Minimize junk: Do a clean-out and donate all the clutter to charity (there are a number of really good websites on minimalism that discuss this).

Go paperless: All paper records should be scanned and shredded.

Task Management

My task management methodology has varied over time, as described below.


Email - I'm in email constantly, so it makes sense for email to be my primary tool.
Calendar - For recurring events, meetings, and when I need to block off time to work on a project.

I keep a task list in Google (https://mail.google.com/mail/help/tasks/) and I use Android Tasks (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=ch.teamtasks.tasks.paid) to sync task lists with my Android phone. I have two main lists: Personal and Work. Additional lists can be added for special projects, etc.

Task syntax: 
  • Each task item starts with a "(1)", "(2)", or "(3)" to indicate priority.
  • Urgent tasks are preceded by an asterisk: "(*1)" to promote the priority
  • I add a "w" before the number if I am waiting on someone else to take action ["(w1)", "(w2)", or "(w3)"] to demote the priority.
  • I add an "r" after the number ["(1r)" or "(w2r)", etc.] if it is a recurring task, to remind me to reset the task for the next iteration.
Because Google Tasks sorts alphabetically in the Google Calendar view, this filters the highest priority tasks that I need to take action on to the top of the task list.

     Task Management

I use a labeling system for task tracking in Gmail.  I set up filters to auto-sort into the task labels:

  • Now - username+now@gmail.com - Items that need immediate action - this is the primary task list
  • Later - username+later@gmail.com - Items that are being deferred to the near future - Review weekly
  • Wait - username+wait@gmail.com - Items that I am waiting for someone else to take action on.  Check daily
  • 1-1 - username+1-1@gmail.com - Items for discussion in 1-1 with manager
Set up filters to Skip inbox, archive, set label.  Do not mark as read.  Show label only if unread, except for Next Action, which should always display.

Add aliases using the above email addresses to contact list. Name the contact "+now Now" for example.

On mobile, make sure Next Actions label is syncing (phone; tablet syncs all labels).  Create a Gmail widget to the +now contact to send a quick Now note to yourself.

Consider day-specific labels (Mon, Tues, Weds, etc.) to assign tasks to specific days

Larger projects will each have their own tag label in addition to the above system.

career advice for starting at "big-4" firms

Cross-posted on Google+: http://goo.gl/6qxpQ

In the fall of 2000, I started working for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), fresh out of law school. I started work in the dot-com-bust economy, when finance and legal jobs were difficult to find and keep. I stayed for nine years, leaving after I was promoted to Director. I was lucky, in many respects. I have some friends who are starting their legal and finance careers in the Big-4 firms this year, so I wrote the advice below for them. 

Some context for those not familiar with the first few years at a Big-4 firm: It's tedious work, with very long hours, and a high level of frustration around long-term career paths. When the economy is bad, low performers are quickly targeted.

Go to work with an attitude that you are willing to do anything, even outside what you want to do. You want to be the go-to person with the positive attitude. Offer to help, understand what is needed, and deliver the best product you can.

Every task is an opportunity to learn, even if how to operate the copy machine more efficiently. Take every opportunity to develop strong tax technical skills in many areas. Those skills will pay off many times over. Learn broad concepts first, then go for more depth in areas that will offer the best long-term potential.

Get to know your coworkers, especially those above you, and even if they seem out of reach. Good quality mentors at the higher levels (including partner) are the key to your success. Seek feedback from them often. At any time in your career if you lack good quality mentors, find new ones. And when you are in a position to mentor others, treat them well. Be friends with the administrative folks, they know how to get stuff done.

Some days you might feel lost, overwhelmed, and frustrated. You might feel like you don’t see the future career you want to embark upon. You may not feel that the opportunity you have is very good, or pays very well. You will want to quit. To quote a YouTube meme: It gets better. If you are focused and take advantage of the opportunities you will be given, it will get better, fast. But you will have to be patient the first few years during what will be a difficult learning curve in a sometimes painful environment. Stick with it, because the opportunities you will have in your career will be beyond what you are currently expecting.

Stay focused on your objectives (the stuff above). Don’t be distracted by administrative crap like the goals you will be asked to set (they are rarely the goals you should be focused on); stressing about chargeable hours (do well and the hours will come to you); the silly policies the firm will set (just a distraction); and the load of other administrative crap you will experience. Your success will never be determined by how well you do administrative crap. Just do it quickly, and move on to what your success will be determined by: Providing high quality, deep technical service to internal and external clients.

collection of favorite quotes

  • "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." - Michael Pollan
  • "What could you do if you had no fear?"
  • "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." - Dr. Seuss
  • "With no power comes no responsibility." - Kick Ass
  • "Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes. ... Everyone does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands." - Judge Learned Hand, Gregory v. Helvering (1934).
  • "Tell me something complicated that I don't already know." - Sergey
  • "If you don't have any shadows you're not in the light." - Lady Gaga
  • "If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." - Albert Einstein
  • "I would like to lock the fundamentalists of all the world's religions in a stadium together with some baseball bats." - Eric Crandall
  • “Act like a new employee every day.”
  • The teacher asked the class to write a concise essay containing the following elements: 1) Religion 2) Royalty 3) Sex 4) Mystery. The winning essay was: "My God," said the Queen, "I'm pregnant. I wonder who the father is."
  • "And if you didn't do your homework, the teachers would beat us." - Jung, about growing up in Korea
  • The three Wise Men are on their way to visit Mary, Joseph, and their new baby. The three Wise Men enter the stable, and the first wise man steps right into a pile of warm donkey dung. "Jesus Christ!," he exclaims. Mary said, "Oh Joseph, that is a perfect name for our baby!"
  • John: "Travis, do you check facebook daily?"
    Dale: "Daily?! He's responsible for half the content on Facebook!"
  • "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." - Leonardo da Vinci
  • "I just had an interesting conversation with a smart person, in my line of work - it's very hard to come by." - A waiter
  • "About to speak at conf. Spilled Coke on left leg of jeans, so poured some water on right leg so looks like the denim fade." - Tony Hsieh, Zappos.com
  • "Contemplating new email strategies. Current practice (responding to most of them) not scaling. Interested in doing other stuff." - Evan Williams
  • "Hunter-gatherers in the Australian outback today live on 800 varieties of plant foods. Modern Americans live principally on three: corn, soy and wheat."
  • "I swear to God you work in an amusement park."
  • "Dance like the photo's not tagged... Love like you've never been unfriended... Tweet like nobody's following..."
  • "Fraud. That's when you've got problems."
  • "Please do not stand on the toilet seats. Use the paper protectors instead."
  • "I don't know anybody under 30 who has ever looked at a classified advertisement in a newspaper."
  • "Is this Chinese food? It tastes like Szeshuan beef, but there's a salad and dinner rolls."
  • "The statement that the plaintiff is a 'Dumb Ass,' even first among 'Dumb Asses,' communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation." -- Sixth District Court of Appeal, State of California, 3/24/05, H024448. - Thursday, March 31, 2005
  • "When the spaceship lands in your backyard and the door opens, you just get in."
  • "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen." -- Conan O'Brien ("Work hard. Be kind. Amazing things will happen.")
  • "I'm burning out like a Supernova here." - Coworker
  • "I try to be aggressively ignorant about accounting issues."
  • "If you'd like to take a break from the copying..."
  • "I don't think it's not unreasonable."
  • "No, oatmeal isn't made out of rice, it's made out of oats. And don't keep putting meat in your oatmeal. That's wrong."
  • "Let's rejigger the books." -- Manager at work
  • "Ok everyone, tell us your name, where you're from, and your favorite tax code section."
  • "It took you three months to screw this up. Don't expect me to fix it in one week." -- Me
  • "The conference call was going very well, until the Howdy Doody music started playing in the background and we had to switch to a different dial-in." - Travis 
  • "Remember the difference between a boss and a leader; a boss says 'Go!' - a leader says 'Let's go!'" - E.M. Kelley 
  • “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary." - Steve Jobs, 2005 
  • “They just need to die. Off. They need to die off." - E.S. 


Is this thing on? Testing.  1.  2.  3.