Saturday, November 27, 2010

How to get things done: Review everything at least once a week

Now you’ve got your organizational system set up, and it includes:

  • a lists of projects you want to tackle
  • a way of reminding yourself about things that are coming up (your calendar, a tickler file)
  • a list of next actions to take

But this isn’t the sort of thing you do once and then forget about it. You’ll always be having new ‘stuff’ coming in: emails, appointments, news that ranges from surprising (your mum’s in town) to life-changing (your flat is being sold).

The trick, then, is to set aside an hour or two every week to catch up on everything that’s new in your life. You’ll have to review that new stuff (and look over your existing obligations and items on your to-do list). The idea behind this weekly review is to make sure that you know everything that’s going on in your life; the consequence of that is that you’ll feel confident that the things you’re deciding to do right now are the best possible uses of your time.

I’ve come across a couple of philosophies about what to do with the realizations that come out of your weekly review: they boil down to (a) schedule fixed amounts of time into your calendar to deal with particular issues or projects, or (b) rely on checking your to-do list to figure out what your next action should be.

I’ve tried (a) for a while, especially in a work context, but at the moment I’m more a fan of (b) … playing things a little looser is feeling both easier to maintain and easier to adapt to changing situations.

There’s a couple of deeper level reviews that you can do as well; the only one I’ll mention in any detail is that after I finish my two ‘New Things’ – the projects that I’m especially focusing on at the moment, I review my projects lists and goals for the year, to decide what my new New Things should be.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How to Get Things Done: List out all your projects

This is the third of four posts about How to Get Things Done, a book by Dave Allen that shows you how to set up a system to feel more on top of everything in your life.

Today I want to talk about the one element of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system that I resisted for years: having a complete list of all of the projects you want to do.(*) Through a combination of OOS/RSI and scattering information about my projects in handwritten notes spread through 10 different manilla folders, I found it really difficult to review everything that was going on in my life, or that I wanted to do.

* Allen defines a project as anything that 
needs more than 2 actions to complete.

My series of posts on 'The New Thing' started to change my mind though. I've come to the conclusion that I can really only consider two things at any time as being my main priorities. What I needed to do was figure out how to present all of my commitments and things I wanted to do so that I could easily choose what to focus on. Here's what I've done (and this is still a work-in-progress, liable to be refined) ...

Two massive Word documents: Vital and Wild

I decided to divide my projects into two categories. First, there are the things I consider to be vital; they're either urgent, necessary, or they feel essential to my growth as a person. Second, there are the things I'd like to do, the wild and crazy ideas I've had, the things I'm not sure about yet, the goals that once seemed really inspiring but now I'm left a little bit cold by them.

What I've done is created two Word documents (one called 'Vital' and one called 'Wildcards') and put very brief descriptions of each project into them, like this:

  • Buy a new cellphone (*)
  • Digitise my CD collection

The (*) indicates that that project has some supporting material attached to it; sometimes I write down some notes or brainstorm some ideas about a project, and I want to keep it for when I finally start to work on it. I store these in two manilla folders in my filing cabinet (one for 'Vital' and one for 'Wildcards').

Sometimes I'll write down the next action I want to take with the project, just as a prompt:

  • Learn how to edit on Adobe Premiere: ask Norman for footage

I'm storing these files in Dropbox (and I should totally set up a project to figure out how to make the files automatically sync every time I make a change).

A list of the projects I'm actively working on

Out of all of those possible projects, there are going to be somewhere between 8 to 100 that I'm working on at any one time.(*) I record these in a notebook I've set specifically aside for my list of 'Active Projects'.

* 'Up to 100' is Allen's number; so far 
I've found it sets between 5 to 20.

Each of these Active Projects has a manilla folder filled with all the supporting material I need for them, and I store these in a separate drawer of my filing cabinet, for easy access.

As part of my Weekly Review (which I'll talk about in the next post), I make sure that there's at least one item in my to-do list that tells me the next action I need to take for each project.

Why am I going to all this trouble? It's simply so I can feel like I'm aware of everything I've got responsibility for and I can easily spot if anything's falling between the cracks. The end result is simply that I feel on top of stuff, and I'm confident that I'm moving stuff forward and finishing things.

Focus on two things

Finally, to make sure I'm making progress, I choose two things and work on them for 20 minutes first thing in the morning, and first thing when I get home. Mark Forster calls this the 'current initiative', and I've found it a great technique.

Only once I've completed both of those 'things' do I choose what to do next.

One more post. In this one, I'll talk about how I use all this stuff (the Weekly Review, which I mentioned above).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Apollo 13: Mission Control is a must see

I am still recovering from how good a time I had at Apollo 13: Mission Control on Saturday night. This is a play at Downstage recreating the Apollo 13 disaster: audience members play members of Mission Control and have to perform vital tasks throughout the night in order to bring the astronauts back home again safely (I’ll talk a bit more about this merging between being an audience member and a performer in a few paragraphs).

Here’s who I think should go see this: Jenni, Lee, Norman, Luke, Sam, Matt, Debz, Mike Sands, Bryn, Jacqui, Karen, Malcolm, Donna, Sophie, Simon Shuker and anyone else who thinks it might be quite cool to pretend to be part of Mission Control for a couple of hours.

Without going into spoilers, I totally got to be a hero during the course of the evening: identifying a potential danger on the ship; representing Mission Control during a TV interview with Walter Cronkite, and (eventually) taking charge of Mission Control itself for about 5 minutes – which meant I was spotlighted on stage with about 200 people watching me as I averted a complete and total meltdown.
(Actually, I just re-read that paragraph and I reckon there are spoilers in there, so ... inviso-texted).

Fracking brilliant.

The Audience / Performer Split

Talking about it with Jennifer afterwards made me aware of something I hadn’t considered about attending an ‘interactive theatre experience’.(*) She said that she never forgot that she was an audience member, watching a performance. I, on the other hand, really got into it; I took my role as Guidance Comms Officer really seriously and totally brought in to the drama of the mission.

                                                                                                 (*) It’s basically a LARP.

In some ways, it’s like the observation that people play games for different reasons: some people play to hang out with their friends; some people play to win; in the case of role-playing games, some people play to stay in-character while others play to construct a challenging story.

Your reason for being there and what you want out of it will give you a completely different experience from someone sitting right beside you who’s there for different reasons.

In my case, taking it seriously and buying in to the reality of the show had the benefit of getting me “into character”, so that when I was chosen to take part in a live interview on TV with Walter Cronkite(invisotext), I was totally in the zone and able to entertain the audience with my answers. I also, seriously, wanted to win: I have no idea if you can ‘fail’ Apollo 13, but I wanted to do everything we could to help it succeed; in effect I was trying to clock the performance.

Digging in to why it was so good

I had no idea, when I arrived at Downstage, that I was going to have one of the best creative experiences of my year to date. I expected to have heaps of fun, and I fully intended to get into it as much as I could … but to have it affect me this much?

So, it’s resonating but I’m not sure why. There are a lot of different factors at play here: my life of science-fiction and space flight; taking charge in a crisis; being in the spotlight; acting; a bit of improve and script-writing.

It seems important to me to dig into this a bit deeper to try and figure out exactly why I’m so stoked by this. If anyone wants to help me figure it out, please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Some advice to myself

I’ve just handed in an application for a NZFC Talent Award (one of the goals I set myself earlier in the year when I was posting about the New Thing). It’s at moments like this that it’s easy to rest on my laurels (n. an honour won, in a field or achievement).(*)
(*) I thought it meant ‘arse’.

But: working on the assumption that the future is, you know, whimsical, here’s some advice I gave someone earlier this year; hopefully I can take it too:

If you're interested in applying for this Talent Award again, my advice would be to start writing for it now. It will come around sooner than you think, and your projects will be much stronger if you've developed them for 6 months.

I'd also suggest actually working on your projects, developing them (and making some of them). That’ll strengthen the case for giving you an award next year.

Get your ideas to peer reviewers early. My suggestion: in your head, make the deadline two months earlier than it actually is. That'll give you a chance to really reflect on and incorporate any feedback you're given.

I have follow-up goals from making this application; I’ve decided not to share them (taking on board that advice about how telling other people about your goals – as if you’ve already achieve them - makes you less likely to do them). But things are moving.

Friday, November 19, 2010

How to Get Things Done: Write Everything Down

I'm talking about How to Get Things Done, a book by Dave Allen that changed my life by showing me how to set up a system that captures everything that's going on in my life, helps me figure out where it all fits, and then gives me a way to prioritise what to do next.

Capture everything

If you're like me, you have a crapload of stuff going on in your life: things to write; people to see; obligations to fulfil; (hopefully) holidays to plan; kids to raise; emails to send; bills to pay; and more, and more, and more ...

The theory behind the Getting Things Done (GTD) system is that you need to write everything down and review it. Writing it down means you've gotten it out of your head. If you've gotten the idea out of your head and you can trust yourself to review it, then your brain becomes a lot calmer and stops thinking about the idea over and over again.

I've had this happen to me many times when I can't sleep because I'm thinking about something. If I just take the time to turn on the light and write it down, I usually find I pop off to sleep five or ten minutes later.

If you've known me for a while, you'll know that I write everything down in a hipster pda that I carry around everywhere. This is why - I want to capture every idea and look at it later to see if it's worthwhile or something I want to commit to doing.

Here's how to build a hipster pda:
  1. cut up a bunch of paper or get a bunch of 3"x5" file cards
  2. clip them together with a binder clip
  3. there is no step 3

There are other sources of information I have to collect from as well:
  • my intray
  • emails
  • texts and phone messages
  • meetings and conversations

Organise Everything

Once you've captured everything, the next step in the GTD system is to figure out where it goes. Is it something you should do right away? Is it something you need to think about for a while? Is it a project, and if so is it urgent or more something you might do someday?

There's a place for everything in the system, and How to Get Things Done goes into quite a bit of detail about how to set up a filing system, use a calendar, and set up something called a tickler file (which effectively allows you to 'post' things to yourself):

Every item you've captured will go somewhere: into your to-do list; into a list of actual or potential projects; into your calendar; into the trash.

Next up, I want to talk about those project lists - because that's something I resisted doing for years ... and I was wrong.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How to Get Things Done: What's the Next Action?

There's an observation in my previous post about economics that really sticks with me: most people are too busy dealing with the day-to-day tasks in their life to lift their heads up every once in a while and see the bigger picture. I've certainly felt like that, and its that feeling - coupled with setting up a new organisational system at my work - that's motivated me to talk about one of the books that really literally changed my life.

How to Get Things Done by Dave Allen is a book that - at its most basic level - is about how to set up a filing system. But really its about how to set up a system that captures everything that's going on in your life, helps you consider where it all fits, and then gives you tools and routines to help you prioritise what to do next.

I've been using it since 2005, and I only now feel like I'm beginning to apply some of the deeper lessons from it (and that's after doing some extra reading and thinking about it).

What I'd like to do in the next few posts is talk about the basics of the version of the system I use. Perhaps it'll be helpful; most of it will probably be similar to (or an extension of) things you're already doing.

The Next Action List

Over the last few years, I have shifted to a single to-do list, which captures everything that's going on in my life.

However: the items on this to-do list are all written using one of two basic principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system; each item describe, in very specific terms, the next physical action I need to do. For instance, it doesn't say:

  • Sell spare clothes to the Costume Cave.

Instead it says:

  • Call Costume Cave (385-9682)

The item before that might have said:

  • Google 'Costume Cave' and find out phone number.
The other basic principle is that if an item can be done in under 2 minutes, do it then and there. You'll make more progress, and it'll be easier and faster than writing it down and revisiting it.

I've tried a lot of systems for organising my to-do lists but the best version I've found is called 'Autofocus', developed by productivity expert Mark Forster. There's an online demonstration of how it works, here.

Essentially, I have one to-do list stored in a 1B5 notebook. In the next post, I'll talk about how things get into that notebook.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Books: April to June

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in a trilogy of young adult novels. It should be right up my alley (which is a reference that seems much more relevant to me now that I've moved to an apartment in an alleyway): the series is set on a world that's been colonised by people from Earth, who have had a nasty conflict with the indigenous species, and as a result been infected with a disease that has given everybody uncontrollable telepathy. Coupled with that, the protagonist is trying to escape from the village he lives in, a village populated only by men, most of whom are homicidal patriarchal fascists.

But the book really bugged me. While the author made me care about the main character, he also stuck strongly to a first person POV coupled with a few 'unreliable narrator' tricks. As a result, I felt cheated by the frequency with which information was withheld that the main character knew (or should know), and annoyed at how often the author had to knock the main character out in order to advance the plot.

I've been on the fence about trilogies for many years now - reluctant to read them because for the most part I think they're padding. At the end of Knife, I decided not to read the next two books in the series: while the main character was trapped, indebted to the men he'd spent the whole book trying to escape - an army of men who'd just taken over the whole planet - I wasn't particularly interested in how he would get out of this situation. I just expected he would, and felt no obligation to read two more books to find out how it happened.

It took a few months, but Jenni changed my mind about this (more to come in the next book review post) ...

Reading Knife also reinforced my hatred of modern dust jackets on books. Sure, the design work that goes into a contemporary book is top notch, but I swear that the blurbs give away plot spoilers up to about page 200. It's infuriating.

Jenni lent me What's the Worst that Could Happen? It's her novel about a super-hero whose power is that she can see the worst case scenario for every course of action. I enjoyed reading it, and quickly saw the potential in it. Jenni blogged about our feedback session.

Then I organised a trans-humanist science-fiction death match. I got out two books from the library, read the first chapter of each and then chose which one to continue.

I chose Newton's Wake by Ken McLeod because its Scottish protagonist seemed to have more of an edge. It's a fairly interesting soap opera about the aftermath of a war with AIs and first contact with a distant colony, but by the end, the story was a little confusing and felt like a failure.

Then, when I switched back to Glasshouse by Charles Stross, I was impressed by how smart it was. Our hero needs to go into the 30th century equivalent of witness protection. He signs up for an experiment to recreate 20th century society, where our social and moral codes are enforced by a points system. Things quickly deteriorate as the experiment's participants decide to play to win (and ignore the fact that there's a darker agenda going on). A great examination of how our culture ticks, and a tight little thriller.

In my last book review, I mentioned that there was a book that scared me. Kindred by Octavia Butler is it. It's the story of an African-American woman from the 1970s who's thrown back in time about 150 years to the Antebellum South. What I realised is that I can watch trashy horror films and read Thomas Ligotti short stories all I like, but this story - about this character who seemed very real and very human, thrust into absolutely the worst environment for her - well, this story didn't feel safe. After the first two chapters, I had no idea where it was going or how far it could go, and I ended up putting it down.

I switched, instead, to The Bohr Maker, a science-fiction novel about nano-technology, that felt ... superficial to me in comparison to Kindred (which I was still thinking about). The story follows two protagonists - well, one of them's mostly just a character who things happen to for the majority of the book, and the other is so unsympathetic that I wouldn't have been unhappy to see him/it fail entirely. Perhaps that's a good technique ... it certainly kept the outcome I wanted the book to have alive and in question for me, but made The Bohr Maker a bit of a tough read

Afterwards, I went back to Kindred, and read another two or three chapters. Just when I thought it was settling into a predictable groove, Butler threw a massive curveball into the situation, one that I found very compelling.

After reading to see how that resolved, I had to decompress for a while. I ripped through Roadside Picnic by Stanislaw Lem. My memories of this have faded now, but I found this a tight, fast read infused with melancholy and a sense of transcendence. Actually: recommended. It felt like good Philip K. Dick.

Finally, I finished Kindred and was satisfied with how it all wrapped up. If you're familiar with the RPG Steal Away Jordan, Kindred is one of the media inspirations for that game.

The Sparrow is a definite contender for the best book I've read this year. It's a first contact story: humanity has picked up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The story follows (and deals with the aftermath of) an expedition funded by Jesuit priests to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music. What struck me most about this story was its sense of humour, the lightness of touch and sense of truth in its characterisations and the way it deals with issues of guilt, celibacy, the nature of God and faith - all wrapped in a vivid writing style. Jenni, Helen R: you might like this one.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Have Done List: September to October

Here's some stuff I've done in the last month and a half that I think's notable:
  • defriended a couple of people on Facebook (if you're reading this, you're unlikely to be one of them)
  • gave feedback on Jenni's novel
  • asked Matt if he would digitise episodes of lovebites for me (which he very kindly did)
  • decluttered, massively

  • got an exciting comment about people who are interested in playtesting Left Coast

  • got good feedback from Jenni about my feedback on her novel
  • bought a desk and assembled it myself

  • broke a desk
  • went on holiday
  • stayed reasonably dry in the middle of a three day storm
  • re-learned how to build a fire

  • introduced Jennifer to story games

  • cleared all of my emails (believe me, this is a big thing!)
  • fixed a desk
  • broke a filing cabinet
  • threw a temper tantrum (which fixed the filing cabinet)
  • set up an filing system at work 
  • deposited 20 boxes of emails and script notes from the lovebites TV series at the Film Archive (closure, baby! Yeah!)
  • learned how to give effective feedback in a personal/non-literary context (Describe when it occured; Describe exactly and objectively what happened; Explain the impact it had on you).
  • Decided to write a scholarship application in 24 hours
  • Had a lot of fun with Jennifer on Halloween weekend, including becoming a raving fan of the pies at Sweet Mother's Kitchen
  • Inspired mcdaldno to write more of his game: Monsterhearts.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Characters need a "Thing"

While reading Scriptshadow's review of 'Retreat', a Dead Calm-esque thriller on an isolated island, I came across a great little insight. (One of the great things about Scriptshadow's review format is the little insight at the end of each review; quite often there's something that sticks with me.)

Anyway, this idea is relevant to the work I want to do on Left Coast, making the supporting characters that surround the lead character as real and pro-active as possible.
[E]very character should have a “thing” going on.

Everybody’s got a “thing.” My friend Dan’s thing is that he’s obsessed with women, to the point where it’s ruined a marriage and a couple of other great relationships he’s had. My friend Claire’s thing is that she refuses to rely on other people for help. She has to do everything herself, even when at times it’s impossible.

Kate’s thing [in this script] is that she can’t forgive her husband for putting his work before her.

Think about all the friends in your life. You can probably break all of them down into having that one “thing” that identifies them. This “thing” is what you use your screenplay to explore. Sure this [script's] concept is about a deadly virus that could potentially end human existence. But really this script is about a woman trying to come to terms with what her husband did to her, forgive him, and move on.

OPost Optionsnce you identify what your main character’s “thing” is, you can use your screenplay to explore it. If you’re not doing that, I got news for you, you’re going to have a hard time writing a good screenplay.