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GTD’ing with Reminders and Quicksilver

April 3rd, 2013 2 comments

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 10.21.20 AM

A quick post today on integrating iOS and OS X’s reminders app into your GTD workflow, with the help of our friend Quicksilver.

GTD relies heavily on the concept of the “tickler”.  A folder that serves as a place for you to put everything that you need to do in the future.  If you want more details on the tickler, you can read about them here.  The intent here is to take Reminders and have it act as a digital substitute for your tickler.

First, if you haven’t installed Quicksilver, do so.  It is fantastic, and will save you time even if the only thing you ever use it for is to launch programs.

Second is the easiest step – setting up Reminders as a tickler.  While I have used apps like Remember the Milk to create complicated solutions to my tickler in the past, I have found that they’ve fallen by the wayside because of the overhead they require.  For our purposes, we want Reminders to be as lightweight as possible.  Here are the rules that we follow to create that:

  • create a reminder (with a day and time) for everything that needs to be done this month.  Any hard appointments (requiring a specific time and date – ie, a calendar appointment) should be in your calendar, and not your tickler;
  • for everything that is to be completed in one of the following months, create a reminder for the first day of that month; and
  • at the start of each month, review each reminder for that month and reschedule with a day and time.

Simple right?  That’s our game.

Third, we want to be able to add reminders efficiently, and with a minimal number of clicks.  To do so, we start by adding a Quicksilver script.  Download it here.  Save the unzipped file in ~/Library/Application Support/Quicksilver/Actions/.

If you are unable to find this directory in Finder, you may need to change your settings. You can do so by launching Terminal and entering the command:

chflags nohidden ~/Library/

Once you’ve done this, you can close Terminal.  The folder should show up in your Finder window right away.  If you want to hide the folder again afterwards, simply open Terminal again and enter the command:

chflags hidden ~/Library

Before we restart Quicksilver, there’s one final change we need to make.  First, identify the name of your list in Reminders.  You can do this by opening up Reminders and checking the left side of the app.  My list is called TODO.  Yours might be called something else.

Fourth, we need to update the script with your list’s name.  Navigate to the script you just put in to ~/Library/Application Support/Quicksilver/Actions/ and edit it using either Textedit or Applescript Editor.  Right toward the top of the script is a line that says:

showlistlistname

Where listname will be the default list name.  Change this to whatever the name of your list is (mine now says showlist “TODO”).  Save the script and exit (you don’t need to compile it).

Now, restart Quicksilver.  At this point, you should be able to load up Quicksilver (using command-space, or whatever hotkey combination you set), and enter natural text reminders, such as “Remind me on may 4th at 9am to call julie”.  The complete workflow now looks like this:

  • command-space to bring up Quicksilver;
  • Type “.” to begin typing in text
  • “remind me to call julie on may 4 at 9am”
  • [Tab]
  • Type “Reminder”
  • [Enter]

Boom, new reminder added, from anywhere on your computer, regardless of what you’re currently doing.

Lastly, I find Reminders integration with Mail.app to be super useful.  Whenever I have an e-mail that requires some kind of action in the future, I drag that e-mail onto Reminders’ app icon in the Dock.  It will create a reminder for me which includes a link to the original e-mail.  I can fill out the rest of the details and then archive the e-mail, knowing that it sits in my trusted system.

Good luck with all your GTD’ing needs, and feel free to post if you have questions.  Follow me at @adamquiney and @evergrowthadam, and my professional blog at evergrowthcoaching.com for productivity tips beyond the realm of tools.  Lastly, a big thank you to @LoveQuicksilver for providing this handy Reminders script.

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A new way of budgeting your time and productivity

May 10th, 2011 No comments

Time budgetSchool started proper again yesterday, and that means that the makeup of my days will change radically from that of the previous four months.  Although I’m writing today, the frequency of my posts will decrease drastically once work really gets underway.

I made the decision to take on a fair number of items this term, including:

  • Continue to be a good husband (yes, continue);
  • Continue to do well in school;
  • Devote a non-trivial amount of time to an application I’m working on with some colleagues; and
  • Teach weekly dance classes with my friend Jesse at a studio we’re renting in town

All of these items require substantial amounts of my time, and inconsistently to boot (meaning that I won’t get to choose when one of these items will need more attention – there will be peaks and troughs for all of them).  I believe that I’ve got the skills and ability to meet all four of these goals while maintaining my own sanity.  However, it will require planning to ensure that I’m ready when the storms start to strike.

This is a pretty short post, but if you’d like to jump to the summary, you can do so here.

A new way of looking at my available productivity

Because of these competing demands, it’s very important that I figure out the best way to maximize my productivity.  If I waste my opportunity to be productive, things will start to get backed up, and I’ll quickly find myself with too many things to do and not enough time to do them in.  Something will necessarily fall by the wayside (and if I’m being honest, I suspect it will be item #1 – it’s often easiest to let things slide with the person around which we’re the most comfortable).

Rather than try to plan everything down to the hour, I took a new approach to scheduling my productivity this term.  To start, here are my assumptions:

  • I can achieve what I’m setting out to do.

This is the most important assumption because it’s the starting point for everything else.  If I don’t believe this, then I should return to my list above and remove one of the items.  (If you don’t get this, ask yourself why you are planning to try and accomplish something that you don’t actually believe you are capable of achieving?)

  • I was apathetic the previous term and often felt myself wasting time playing video games instead of studying.

While I found the feeling of apathy generated stress, my grades did not suffer and I exceeded the standards I had set for myself.  This suggests to me that I had additional spare time that could be put to better uses.

  • I don’t want to spend any time this term feeling bored.

That is an indication to me that I currently have too much spare time.  Relaxing and just cooling out is one thing, but sitting around literally feeling bored is off the books.  If I find myself feeling this way, I should be looking to engage myself with a different pursuit.

  • I can be more efficient if I’m able to divide my time across multiple tasks.

Like most of us (all of us?), I experience diminishing returns the longer I spend working on any one particular task.  If I can divide my time across a number of tasks related to the different projects I’ve set out for myself above, I should be able to avoid the fall off that results from working on only one task for too long.

  • I have, roughly, between 3 and 5 good bouts of productivity in a day.

On really good days, I can get my process started first thing in the morning, and also find a second wind after the post-lunch tiredness.  On a bad day, I can’t seem to get the gears turning until 11AM, take a break for lunch, and only just manage to accomplish things by the time 5PM rolls around.

  • My bouts of productivity cannot easily be divided up into “clean” blocks of time.

Just like I don’t know what kind of day I will have until I find myself at the end of it (or mid-way through at least), I don’t know beforehand how long I will be able to stay in my flow for, nor how long it will take to read a particular set of readings.

Creating a workable system

So, with the above assumptions in mind, I set aside a couple of hours on the weekend to devise the system by which I would plan out my time and stay on track this term.  That system is based on the concept of productivity units (PUs from here on in).  PUs are what I call the blocks of productive work that I am talking about above in items 5 and 6.

Based on my assumption in #6, I don’t think that it’s a worthwhile exercise to try and map a PU to a specific amount of time.  In fact, it’s clear that I don’t usually think that’s possible.

Taking my range from item #5, I estimate that on any given day, I can probably accomplish about 4 PU worth of work in any given day, with no other demands on my time.

What does this actually mean?

So, what does it actually mean to accomplish one PU worth of work, if you can’t map the block reliably to an amount of time?

Here are some examples of what I would consider a PU worth of work:

  • Complete a set of readings for one of my classes
  • Spend some time writing out a few pages of a paper
  • Sit down and clear out my inbox, processing everything there and responding to any necessary e-mail
  • Spend some time working on my development team’s wiki, organizing everything and ensuring that all of our recent thoughts have been captured and stored somewhere for later reference
  • Attend one class

It is important to understand that these are the benchmarks I have drawn for myself.  Based on what you see above, you could probably estimate that one of my PUs probably roughly translates to 1 to 2 hours worth of work.  This is reasonable.  However, this will not always be the case, and there are times when it will take two PUs to finish a set of readings, or only half of my available energy to complete something.

The important part of my system is that it is adaptive, flexible, and dynamic, as these are all characteristics that I wish to imbue in the work that I do.  If my system does not embody the same traits that I myself wish to, there’s going to be conflict (which generally leads to the system being discarded and returning to old ways).

Your mileage may vary – you may find that you prefer to work in smaller chunks, but fit more of them into a day.  Whatever works for you is what you should do.  For me, this provides a clean and lightweight way in which I can rapidly estimate how much work I can accomplish each day.

This approach also provides me with a metric by which I can determine whether or not I should really be feeling upset that I’m not being maximally productive.  Let me explain.

I have no classes on Tuesday, which means that this is a wide-open day.  However, I have no shortage of work, and so ideally, I’d like to get 4 PUs in on Tuesday.  If I’ve finished one PUs worth of work, it’s currently 3PM, and I’m sitting on the couch playing video games, things probably aren’t going too well.  I should be kicking myself back into work.  But, if I find myself in the same situation, having completed 3 PUs worth of work, I’m actually doing pretty good.

Why is this distinction meaningful to draw – isn’t this pretty obvious and intuitive?

No – it isn’t.

These kind of separations are always obvious to us when we’re external to them, having them explained to us or reading about them on someone’s blog.  It’s easy to divide everything into bright clean lines when you don’t have anything at stake and you’re not in the middle of all of the chaos and demands placed on your time.  However, when you do find yourself in the middle of everything that’s when you will most need to be able to determine if the way you are feeling is due to something legitimate or simply a pressure external to yourself that actually doesn’t matter.

Thinking in these terms provides a quick “escape ladder” that can be used if I need to pull my head up from the mess and figure out if the way I’m feeling is really something that requires my concern.

The honest truth is that sometimes you’re going to feel guilty for taking some much needed time to recharge.  It doesn’t matter that that is the best thing you could do – your psychology will play games with you and tell you that you could not possibly take the time off from working on that paper!

Dividing my time up into these kind of chunks is a convenient way for me to check the way I’m feeling and determine if I really need to get the gears turning again, or can relax knowing that the break I’m taking is well-deserved (and will actually make me more efficient on the whole).

The view from my desk

Here’s the example that I’ve created, to provide you with some context.  My class schedule roughly looks like this:

  • Monday: 3 classes
  • Tuesday: 0 classes
  • Wednesday: 2 classes
  • Thursday: 1 class
  • Friday: 1 class

On Monday, I also run a dance jam down at Centenniel Square in Victoria, which eats up a decent chunk of time.  In short, I don’t have any additional PUs available for Monday.

Tuesday is wide open, and so I can aim for my maximal goal: 4 PUs.  The plan going forward will be to divide this time between reading/studying and the necessary time required for me to continue PMing the project I’m working on.  I have my time loosely divided in half between the two, but I can be flexible and if needed, I can devote all 4 separate PUs to studying (though I would rather not, as that will increase the diminishing returns that I experience).

Wednesday I have two classes, which means I have about 2 PUs remaining.  Likewise, Thursday and Friday each have one class, so I have 3 PUs for both of those days.  Just at a glance, this way of looking at my spare time gives me a rough idea of how much time I will have available to devote to the demands on my time.

If things get panicky or packed in tight, I may need to adjust my schedule, or attempt to squeeze an extra PU out of my day.  While this may be possible for brief bursts of time, I’m skeptical that that would be a sustainable practice.  Being productive for 10 of my 16 waking hours, on an extended basis, intuitively feels like I would be pushing the limits of my mental, emotional and physical health, not to mention my marriage.

Rehash

That’s all I’ve got for today.  In general, writing a blog post is probably about 1 or 2 PUs worth of work.  It requires writing (a task unto itself), then polishing and editing before publishing.  I’ve finished three sessions worth of reading, and completing this entry makes a total of four PUs.  That means that I can now devote the rest of my day to relaxing and pursuing hobbies that are less intensive, and ignore any guilt that may pop up from time to time trying to tell me I should actually be working harder.  Not only should I not be working harder, I’m not convinced that my yield would be worth the extra effort.

Here’s the summary of what we’ve covered:

  • To maximize your productivity, break your time up so that you can focus your energy on multiple things throughout the day;
  • Breaking your time up into productive units, or PUs, can provide a convenient way to get a loose handle on what you can realistically accomplish in any given day;
  • Your PUs may be different than mine, and that’s fine – do what works for you;
  • If you’re feeling lazy or like you should be doing more work, check in to see what you’ve accomplished in terms of your PUs, and ground the way you feel based on that.  Sometimes you need to kick your ass back into gear.  Sometimes, you need to relax.  Both of these things will be equally hard to accomplish at different times;
  • A system doesn’t need to schedule or track every last available minute you have for it to work for you; and
  • Check in with yourself from time to time to see if the way that you’re feeling is a reaction to your circumstances, or something external (eg, unrealistic societal pressure that you can or should be productive for every single minute that you’re at work).

Productivity quickie: Use RTM tags to keep your errands distinct from other tasks

April 29th, 2011 2 comments

Most of us know that life can’t all be hard work and no play, but few of us realize that it’s our own responsibility to ensure that this is the case.

 

Some of my @RTM ListsI’ve just completed an incredible term working in Vancouver.  I’m in the middle of a retrospective that I want to post, but I’m suffering from mild writer’s block in that department.  Rather than hammer my head against the wall, I wanted to publish something and keep the creative flow going.

Accordingly, instead of a retrospective, today I’m going to show you how to I use Remember the Milk’s tagging functionality to keep my errands and tasks distinct.

Are they actually distinct?

Where you draw the line between an errand and any other kind of task will be subjective.  For me, an errand is any task that requires me to be out of the house, and generally with some degree of transportation available to me (bus, bike, car).  Sometimes that transportation is specific to the errand (to get groceries, I usually -but not always- need a car).

While I assign a time estimate to every task that I enter (it sounds cumbersome but once you make it part of your process, you stop noticing it), I don’t usually bother doing so with an errand.  This is because errands generally happen when I’m doing other things at the same time (I try to do errands in batches).  There’s also a lot that I can’t account for: traffic, running into acquaintances, getting held up somewhere, etc.

Also, because of the nature of errands, there’s no sense in me having them clutter up my attention when I’m planning to spend the next four hours getting work done at home.  At that point, they are simply noise, getting in the way of my signal, and increasing my risk of information overload.

RTM?  Tagging?

If you’ve gotten lost, let me refer you back to my original post discussing what Getting Things Done (GTD) and Remember the Milk (RTM) can do for you and how to leverage them here.

However, here is a brief summary:

Remember the Milk is an application that allows you to manage any number of lists, and is very flexible.  When you combine that with the GTD methodology for managing all of your stuff (information, todo items, chores, etc. – everything that is on your plate, every day), you have a pretty good system for avoiding information overload and staying on top of life.

Tagging in Remember the Milk

Everytime I enter an item into my GTD list, I record the following things:

  1. Due date (when do I want it to start showing up on my TODO list)
  2. Time estimate (5 mins, 10 mins, 1 hour, 1 day, etc.)
  3. Any relevant #tags

Tagging is a skill in itself, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get (subtext: don’t get discouraged because it seems overwhelming.  Just do it and allow your system to evolve around you).  I have two kinds of tags:

  1. Those based around a context
  2. All other tags

Tags that are based around a context are tags that let me know, at a glance, what kind of environment I need to have around me in order to complete a task.  For example, if I need to follow-up with someone about a task at work, that will generally require email.  So, for that task, I would include #@email as a context tag.  Assuming that that task also requires that I email Bob specifically, I would include #@Bob as a tag too.

All of the other tags are simply keywords that apply to the task.  If you want to start out simple, you can ignore this part for now and just focus on including a context.  If you are ready for more, this is the place to build from.

The only rule for these tags is that you generally don’t want them to represent context – those tags get a ‘@‘ in front of them.  Your other tags don’t.  That’s all.

Some examples would be:

  • #boring
    • It sounds silly to record this information, but if that’s what pops into your head as you’re entering the task, include it as a tag.  It’s better to have too many tags than too few (I think), and maybe you’ll notice that you accumulate a lot of #boring tasks that don’t get done.  (It’s always good to have a place to focus your improvement).
  • #chore
    • Many of these tasks might also be tagged with #@home – many chores need to be at home to accomplish.
  • #vacation
    • If you have a lot of tasks that relate to your vacation, this is a very convenient way to enter them and be able to find them quickly later on.  You can even create a quicksearch to get all posts tagged with vacation (“tag:vacation”).
  • #fun
    • Most of us know that life can’t all be hard work and no play, but few of us realize that it’s our own responsibility to ensure that this is the case.  Tagging items with fun is a good way to divide up your tasks wisely.  With this approach, you can make sure that you do something that is enjoyable in between the lame stuff.  Think of it as a reward for completing the boring tasks.
      • Example: Bay and I have always had fun grocery shopping together.  So, even though it’s an #@errand, it’s also #fun.

Putting it all together

So, the only other step in putting tagging to use for you is to create and save some searches.  Based on the two lists I mentioned at the start, we’re going to want to create two lists:

  1. One list displays all tasks that are tagged with #@errand
    • Search is: tag:@errand
    • (Each of these tasks requires the errand context to be completed)
  2. One list displays all tasks that are NOT tagged with #@errand
    • Search is: NOT tag:@errand
    • (None of these tasks requires the errand context to be completed)

Once you’ve performed your search, you can save it by clicking on the save tab in the upper right corner of the web interface and naming it:

Saving an RTM search

It’s up to you what you call the smart list.  I try to choose names that are as intuitive as possible, to save myself time later trying to figure out the clever naming scheme I’d come up with.

I find the most intuitive thing to do in this case is to the corresponding context tag as the name.

Thus, our first list is @Errand, and our second list is @NoErrand.  (Note that this second name is not an actual tag that we’ve created.  Just the name of our list.  I find this makes the most sense to me, but if you find it confusing, by all means try out a different naming scheme).

Now that you’ve completed that, you’re set.  With just a glance at your system, you can now determine what errands you can do while you’re heading in to town.  Or, if you’re stuck at home for the next two hours, you can determine what chores you may be able to take on (without having to wade through the mental clutter of all your errands).

My Errand List in RTMMy No errands list in RTM

Note that my lists also contain a bunch of other search criteria – this is specific to my system and will likely not be relevant to your own.

Let’s be real

Don’t be discouraged if this stuff sounds complicated.  Find one thing to try and improve upon in your routine, and focus on that until you are satisfied.  The less you can succumb to information overload, the better you’ll be able to devote yourself to your own progress (that blog idea just got added to RTM, tagged with #blogidea and #listitem).

As I mentioned earlier, I’m feeling a little bit of writer’s block trying to capture the massive bowl of thoughts that the past four months represents in my head.  I’ve absorbed so much that I’m having trouble dispensing it in any articulable fashion.

Having said that, I have another week off before classes start up proper, so I have a line in the sand within which I plan to complete the task.  Once classes begin, I anticipate being extremely busy.  I am currently working on an application with two other very capable people and we’re seeing a lot of synergy and dynamism that is very exciting.

In addition to that, I’m also renting a studio with a very good friend and will be teaching dance classes there on a weekly basis.  I am very much looking forward to this development and am very excited to see how it continues to progress (I will post more information here soon – we’re meeting to pound out details this weekend).

With all of these items on my plate, my posting frequency will necessarily slow down – it gets difficult to write creatively when I spend all of my days studying and writing papers.  However, I will post when I have the time, and as usual, my posting frequency will increase again in four months, once my next workterm starts.  You can bet that I will have a lot to report after the coming four months.

Hang in there and stay tuned.  Life is an exciting journey, and if you’ve been reading these entries, hopefully you’re experiencing some of what that looks like through my eyes.

RTM and GTD – Acronyms to change your life

August 28th, 2009 2 comments

One of the projects that I had decided I wanted to take on during my break was to review the web application called Remember the Milk (RTM), and see how it would integrate with my existing GTD (Gettings Things Done) workflow.  I am being far from original by writing about GTD and RTM at this stage in the game, but what I can provide is a narrative that may help you in getting yourself more organized, and provide some insight into how you may be able to migrate your own tasks or current system into something similar to this.

My GTD system at home has evolved organically, and partially through my love of aesthetics.  There, I said it – I like things that look pretty.  That’s fine, as long as it doesn’t hinder any of the more important things.  Although my system looked nice and was functional, it felt like it was limited in scope and what I could accomplish with it.  If I wanted to quickly get a view of what tasks I needed to do based on some new arbitrary criteria that I hadn’t thought of before, I would either need to manually search through all of my lists, or create a new list to redundantly store all of the items that fit this new criteria (and in doing so, manually search through all my lists in the process of creating this new one).  Although I liked the way the system worked, I always had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I could do so much more with a system that was designed from the ground up with GTD in mind, rather than what I was currently using.

Since converting everything over to RTM and making a go of it for one week, I am sold.  The application is very efficient, and integrates perfectly with my GTD workflow.  In fact, it synergizes with it, providing me with many new ways to use my database of TODO items much more effectively than I ever did before.

Remember the Milk has a couple of things going for it.  First of all, it is a web application, which means that my lists and tasks can go with me wherever I am.  I don’t need to check in before leaving the house and copy anything I may need onto paper in order to reference when I’m out.  If I’m working on a computer other than my own and an idea pops into my head, I can put in all of the work up front, adding an item to one of my lists and filling out the relevant details.

In addition to this benefit, RTM is simply a much more comprehensive tool for the job than using an ad hoc system like the stickies.  What I mean is that RTM has been built with the concept of creating lists of tasks and TODOs in mind, so it provides many options for capturing the pertinent details relevant to things you need to get done.  As an example, instead of simply entering in the name of a task, I can enter the name, add any relevant tags (@errand, @home, etc.), provide an estimate for the amount of time required (more on this later), and assign an item a due date.

I can also add any number of notes for a given item, which are then displayed sequentially in a separate view.  This is especially handy for capturing any ideas or stray thoughts related to a particular task, and allow for a very organic workflow that can include mini brainstorming sessions related to a given task.  With my previous ad hoc system, I would simply add any notes underneath the main item’s name by indenting and adding more text.  That attempt would quickly grow out of hand for any item that had more than a few notes, as it would scroll the rest of my items off the screen.

Migration

Once I’d made the decision to try out RTM, the first step was to get an account and convert all of my existing stickies over to this new system.  For now, I left everything in the sticky system as it was, simply copying across.  This way, if things didn’t work out, I could just shut down my RTM account and pick up where I left off, albeit with the necessity of migrating a few new items back.  Still, not too much hassle.

RTM’s system of employing lists that hold a set of items translated pretty nicely to my existing groups of tasks and lists, so it was especially simple to copy these notes across.  For example, my previous sticky that held a list of gift ideas for Bay was moved across by:

  • Create a new list called Gift ideas for Bay
  • For each item in my previous list, create a new item in this new list

Okay, so that’s a pretty trite example, but we’re easing in here, so lay off.

Transferring most of my lists was the easiest task, as this had a one-to-one correlation with RTM’s native state.  Once I started working on converting my TODO and project lists, I ran into a few snags.

The biggest catch was related to contexts and the division of lists.  As of late, I have started to capture contexts for all of the items on my TODO list.  The concept behind a context is that it is a quick reference to determine who, what, and where you have to be in order to accomplish a task.  If I have a task that is Blog about RTM and GTD, I will assign that task the context @web (GTD uses @ as a shorthand to indicate a context).  The reason for this is that I need web access in order to fully public a blog entry.  In truth, I could break this task up into two parts: Write Blog Entry (for which the context would possibly be @laptop, or really just @computer), and Publish Blog Entry (for which the context would be @web).  In this example, I have them together, as I usually accomplish the two parts in the same sitting.

I will explain more on how contexts can enable you to be more effective within RTM shortly, but for now, the main point is that moving these over into RTM presented my first speed bump.  The real hurdle was simply that I actually needed to sit down and think about what contexts and tags I needed to capture in my system.  Nothing is worse for functionality and searching than having a bunch of similar but different tags or metadata in your system, as you then end up searching for something like “All tasks that have tag:@web”, but end up missing the tasks that have the tag:@internet.  Although it required a little extra time on my part, one of the steps of my migration process (in fact, one of the first tasks I entered into RTM) was sitting down and planning out what contexts and tags I would actually need.

The other item that I wanted to be able to move across was my status
tags.  With the sticky system, I created places on my TODO list to hold
items for which I was waiting on something else (typically another
person).  Whenever a TODO item was no longer in my control, I would
move it down into the Waiting For section, and go from there.  But, how
did I make sense of this concept in the new system?  Did I move an existing item into a new list whenever it left my control and passed to someone else?  This was certainly one option, but I decided that I wanted to interact with lists as minimally as possible (ideally only having to work with this part of RTM/GTD when initially entering a task) and instead mainly interact with my tasks by changing the tags and other types of metadata associated with them.

Lists

One of the first things I did was look online for some ideas as to how to effectively order all of my tasks into lists.  As you can tell from above, I was having a hard time getting a feel for where the distinction between tasks and tags lay, and how I could make good on my goal to work minimally with lists, and maximally with tasks.  The first blog entry I came across was this one here, featured on the RTM Blog.  In this entry, the author recommends creating lists for every project you have, dividing them up into personal, work, and school by prefacing each list with the tags ps, wk, and sc, respectively.

This approach is nice because it allows you to maintain but keep separate multiple sets of lists for different pursuits.  I don’t have to look at ps lists when I’m under the gun at work or school, and can solely focus on items within those lists.

The author also recommends creating a na to assign to any task that is immediately actionable.  This tag indicates that there is nothing that you need to accomplish before you can start work on this task – an important part of GTD, as we want to capture as many steps of a project as possible, but when it’s time to work, we want to focus solely on the next steps.  It is a pointless exercise to focus on something that is currently bottle-necked waiting for something else to finish – we should be focusing on the task that is bottle-necking things!

My first iteration ended up following a lot of this author’s advice.  I created the appropriate lists, and assigned the ns tag to all of my actionable items (I prefer ns for “next step”, rather than na for “next action” – simply a matter of preference).  For any project, you should have a minimum of one actionable item.  If not, you should be asking yourself why you do not have an item you can act upon.  If it’s a lack of motivation, you should either delete this project, or move it into the Someday/Maybe list (see below).

I also really liked the author’s recommendation that you assign a “goal task” for each of your project lists.  Create your project, and make the first task you enter take the following format:

.. [Goal of Project]

This will, in theory, do two things: This task will sort to the top (when sorting by name) due to its preceding two periods, and will provide you with an immediate idea of the aim of this project when you are performing your weekly review.  Having this information readily available will make your life easier when you are reviewing your lists, and thinking about the underlying goal of a given project is a great way to ensure that you are on track (and stay on it) when you initially start entering a project. 

It will also get your brain engaged in the process of brainstorming tasks when you initially enter a project.  Sometimes you may be surprised simply by the process of writing down the goal for a given project (“Okay, so I want to have the TV on the wall.  …  Hmm, why do I want that?  It won’t actually look prettier..  Am I only doing this for the coolness factor?”).

I also made it a point to assign a priority of “1” (the highest priority) to all of my Goal tasks so that these sort straight to the top of my list no matter what.

What are you waiting for?

We still haven’t covered something I mentioned earlier: items we’re waiting on.  The author of the above blog recommended creating a list for all items that you are waiting on, and moving those items into the list.  However, I didn’t like this idea for a couple of reasons.  First off, this approach would require interacting with lists more than I want to.  More of an issue though, is that, currently, the lists are the way that I can identify the project for which a given task pertains to.  If I move a task called Crop Photos from the list ps – Wedding Photos to Waiting For, I lose the information that that specific is a step in the Wedding Photos project.  How do I know which list I move it back to when I am no longer waiting for something?

No, this wouldn’t do.  I made a mental note that I would need to find a better approach to accommodating these items, and moved on.

The last step of the process was creating a Someday/Maybe list for each of my personal, work, and school tasks.  The Someday/Maybe lists contain items that may be cool to take on someday, but don’t really fit in with your current objectives, goals, or time-commitments.  This is the place for any task like Go Skydiving or Learn Spanish.  If you intend to complete these projects now, then they should be in their own list.  However, if these items are currently just passing fancies, then they go in the Someday/Maybe list, and you capture only the general idea (for these items, it is not yet valuable enough to brainstorm tasks and steps to achieve them).

Productive graffiti

After completing the initial set up based on the blog entry mentioned above, I was still not satisfied.  The items I had that I was waiting for were still nagging at me, and I felt like I could put tags to a more effective use.  I searched further and found this excellent blog entry at SheenOnline.  This author’s approach differed from the previous in that tags were used exclusively to denote that a given task belonged to a given project, as well as indicating that I was waiting on something.

This seemed a more practical approach to me, as I could have a task that was both part of a proejct, and marked as waiting for something.  I went through all of my tasks and this time reclassified them using the system outlined in the blog entry.  Specifically, you use the following special tags:

  • Tags preceded with a @ are for context: @Home, @Downtown, etc.
  • Tags preceded with a – are for status: -NS, -WF
  • Tags preceded with a . are for project names: .FixSink, .FrameWeddingPhotos, .RedesignBlogLayout, etc.

In addition to these special tags, you can apply any other tags that you like to your projects.  Once you have completed this process, you will have a large number of tasks that have specific contexts, some that will have a status (those that don’t will typically be tasks in a project that need something else to happen first), and lastly, a set of tasks without a project name tag (daily or ad hoc tasks) and those that do belong to a project.

The contexts that I am using are: @Web, @Laptop, @Home, @Downtown, @Phone, and @Errand.  In RTM, you will want to assign any physical context (a specific location) as a location rather than a tag (these behave almost the same way, except that locations integrate with Google Maps, allowing you to quickly search for everything you can accomplish within 10km of your current location).

The statuses I use are: -NS, and -WF.&nbs
p; A task is either an actionable item (-NS) or not (in which case it does not have an -NS tag.  Additionally, a task can be waiting for someone or something before I can complete it (-WF).  Avoid the temptation to assign -WF to every task that is not an actionable item.  -WF should be reserved for those tasks that have been delegated out to someone else.

The projects I have.. are too numerous to bother mentioning, and will not coincide with your own anyhow, so we can leave that one as is.

Smartlists and Handy Searches

Now that you’ve got everything tagged, you can begin creating smartlists.  Smartlists are simply saved searches.  One of the strengths of RTM is its comprehensive searching functionality, allowing you to search for any number of criteria and combining them to create effective lists.  For each project tag that I created in the step above, I also created a smartlist to display all tasks with that tag.  This gives me a way to quickly determine what steps are left on a given project (important for the weekly review). 

Whenever you add a new task within the context of a smartlist, RTM will automatically assign that task with the appropriate tags, provided that the search saved for the smartlist is unambiguous.  What this means is that any task created within the context of a smartlist with a search like this: tag:.becomeNinja AND tag:@Home will have both the .becomeNinja tag and the @Home location assigned to it.  However, a task created in the context of a smartlist with a search like this: tag:.becomeNinja OR tag:.becomePirate will have neither tag assigned to it, as it is ambiguous which tag should be assigned.

What about the more interesting searches though?  Some of the searches I have saved as smartlists are:

  • Errands – “tag:@errand AND status:incomplete AND tag:-ns AND NOT tag:-wf”

This list displays all errands that I’m currently able to run.  I define an errand as any task that I need to accomplish when I’m out of the house.  Groceries, picking up drycleaning, buying a new set of squash shoes, all qualify as errands.

  • Waiting – “tag:-wf AND status:incomplete”

Nothing complex here, but this is an important part of the weekly review.  With this list, I can quickly assess who and what I am waiting on, and determine if I need to follow up with anything.  This helps ensure that nothing slips through the cracks.

  • Quickies – “timeEstimate:”< 1 hour” AND tag:-ns AND NOT tag:wf”

This is a very handy list to have.  If you’ve created time estimates for your tasks as you’ve entered them (and you should get in the habit of doing this, as you won’t bother after you initially enter them), you can use a list like this to determine what you can accomplish quickly when you find yourself with a desire to get something done and only 30 minutes before you need to go and do something else.  I often find myself referencing this list before I go play squash and before bedtime.

  • No Due Date – “status:incomplete AND tag:-ns AND due:never”

This list allows me to assess all of the next steps for which I have not yet assigned a due date.  These are items that are likely to slip through the cracks, as they will not show up in my main TODO list (see below).  The items in this list may or may not be legitimate.  Legitimate cases are the ones where I have planned out the tasks for a project and identified what the next steps are, but have not yet made the decision to actually commit to working on the project.  If an item stays in this state for too long, I will eventually move the project into the Sometime/Maybe list (or just delete it if I no longer want to do it).  This list is always checked as part of my weekly review in order to determine if I’m ready to commit to a new project, and to make sure I have no tasks that I have accidentally neglected to assign a due date.

  • Completed Today – “completed:today”

I created this list when Bay came home one day and asked me what I’d done.  I couldn’t tell her immediately, but quickly typed in this search and was able to show her everything that I’d accomplished (seriously, my marriage is more exciting than this makes it sound).  Being able to quickly assess what you’ve accomplished in a given day is good for your psyche and will help you on those days when you feel like you haven’t been able to get anything finished.  Don’t underestimate the value of this list.

  • Todo Next – “status:incomplete AND tag:-ns AND (dueWithin: “1 week of today” OR dueBefore:today)”

This is the main list that I work from on a daily basis.  It contains all items that are not yet completed, are next steps (ie, actionable), and that are either due within 1 week of today, or are overdue.  The list is ordered based on due date, so that I can work through from top to bottom, closing out tasks on my plate, and getting a feel for what the coming week looks like at any moment.  This list currently contains items that I have tagged as waiting for something and I am not yet sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  As this list essentially acts as a daily tickler file, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing being reminded that a given task is approaching a due date but that I am still waiting for something before it can be completed.  If this becomes bothersome, I will simply update the search to remove all tasks that are waiting for something, and rely on my weekly review in order to ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks.

Additional Lists

In addition to everything mentioned above, I use RTM to manage and maintain any lists that exist outside of my GTD system.  By this I simply mean lists that are just.. lists.  Gift ideas, ideas for dates, ideas to blog about, etc.  None of the items in these lists are specific tasks that I need to act upon, and the beauty of the above set up is that nothing in these lists will show up.

Trick out my RTM

One thing I noticed is that RTM’s interface is a little spartan, and at times, cluttered.  It becomes especially cluttered when you are running a large number of lists, as you will have the tendency to do if you are using it for GTD in this manner (every project ends up being its own smartlist, adding to the smart and regular lists I’ve just mentioned above).  I went searching for ways to alleviate and improve the look and feel of this interface within Firefox.  I’m using Firefox because Safari is my main browser, and I needed a application to remain persistent on my machine and allow for as much customization as I wanted.  Firefox is a bit of a memory hog, though I haven’t noticed any real problems.

In order to make this a persistent part of my system, I ended up doing the following:

  • Set Firefox to open and sit in, by default, my first virtual desktop.

 I use six virtual desktops – one contains my GTD system, one contains my browser, one my mail, one my music, etc.  This simply provides an easy way to mentally and visually separate my windows, and is functionality that is supported by default on Mac and UNix/Linux machines.  Windows users can download third-party applications to support this (though I don’t know offhand what they are).

  • Set the home page of Firefox to be three tabs: My RTM home page, A page showing the list of keyboard shortcuts for RTM, and a page showing a list of search criteria that can be used in RTM.

This gives me a quick s
et of reference pages to jump to whenever I can’t quite remember how to search for a specific thing, or if I am trying to learn a new keyboard shortcut

In order to improve the layout of RTM, I followed a number of the suggestions in this lifehacker article.  The significant changes are:

  • Show keyboard shortcuts next to each item

This removes the guesswork for keyboard shortcuts, and will help you learn the appropriate shortcuts much faster.  Using keyboard shortcuts is a must if you want to get the most out of your system, as I find mousing around horribly inefficient when you can click on key and jump straight to the appropriate spot on screen, ready to enter your text.

  • Longer search box

Nothing is more annoying than trying to review the search you just created to ensure that it’s correct, and having to arrow-key through 15 characters of text.  This improvement simply makes the search input box larger so you can see most (if not all) of what you’ve entered.

  • Widescreen layout

This simply optimizes the RTM interface for a wider screen, allowing you to view more at once.

  • RTM Greasemonkey Script

Greasemonkey is an add-on for Firefox allowing you to add custom user-scripts to the application.  These scripts can be applied globally, or specifically for a given site (in this case, for RTM).  This tweak is the most important one, as it moves all of your lists from tabs to a much cleaner look on the left side of the screen.  It also creates some much needed shortcuts (Control-Shift-J and -K to move up and down the lists on the left side, Control-G to jump to a given list, and Control-M to move the currently selected task(s) to a given list).

Quicksilver

I also installed the Quicksilver plug-in for RTM, which allows you to rapidly add a task to your set of lists from anywhere using the familiar Quicksilver interface.  As much as I love Quicksilver, I haven’t actually found the need to use this plugin, as my process for adding a task is typically: Control-1 (switch to virtual desktop #1, which contains RTM, and only RTM), hit T to create a new task, fill out pertinent details).  I also like to have the context of the RTM system when I’m entering new tasks, which you lose when you enter a task right from the Quicksilver interface.

So that’s about it.  This project has been a significant success, and I’m excited for the opportunity to put the next evolution of my system to the test in two weeks when school starts.

Lastly, most of my purpose in blogging is as a way of tracking and documenting my own personal growth.  However, it is also my own manner of publishing and establishing my credibility as an expert in certain fields, such as productivity, and project management.  I won’t ask this often, but from time to time will mention that if you find any of these articles helpful, please do me a small favour and share them in Facebook, Google Reader, Twitter, pass them along to people you know that may derive benefit from them, or whatever else you deem appropriate.

That’s all for now – if you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment and I will address.

Saiyonara

August 14th, 2009 No comments

Well, I’ve finished my last day at work.  As a result of the fact that I’ve cleaned up all of my loose ends, I’m left with very little to do today – that will no doubt be a completely different story from my life a month from now.  

The timeline for my last day was:

Last day of work:

8:00 Last day arriving at work

8:10 Pour last cup of coffee

8:30 Login and go through morning routine last time

9:30 Fill out timesheets for the last time ever

9:45 Last scrum at Refractions

10:00 Last coffee with Graham at work

1:15 Last JV lunch (while working at Refractions) downtown with Bay

3:30 Sent out goodbye e-mails to co-workers

3:45 Deleted archived e-mails from my computer

4:00 So long Refractions

While cleaning up my desk this week, I came across two of my logbooks that I had maintained when I first started.

 

I originally started maintaining a logbook when, during my first review, Paul Ramsey (the former president of Refractions, and someone for who I have a great deal of respect) mentioned that he noticed I worked better under pressure and when there was a lot on my plate.  He recognized that that he too operated in this manner as well, but that something to work on would be to track what I was working on and to try and maintain a more consistent pace.

 

The logbook was my first attempt to do this, and really, my first attempt to begin any kind of system.  About three years back, I realized that although I was now twenty-seven years old (thirty now!), with both a high-school and a university education, no one had ever taught me any kind of system for managing my tasks (really, for managing my life, both at work and at home).  Before I even made this realization though, I knew that I wanted to pursue Paul’s advice.

 

The logbook was the first attempt to accomplish this.  Looking through the book is a bit nostalgic: projects that I’ve long since forgotten, and that have long since died.  Attempts at organization that I now recognize as convoluted and problematic.  Lists of TODO items that remain unchecked to this day (did these ever actually get done?).  Even with all of these flaws, I still recognize the value that these first attempts brought me.  They provided me with a starting point.  They set me down a path, and gave me a base from which I could start evolving my own system.  You can never go for a run if you don’t take that first step, and that’s exactly what this book was.

 

I scanned in some representative pages from each month, along with an appendix that I had created at the back, so that you can see how I started progressing along the path towards a full-fledged system like GTD, and get a feel for the missteps that it’s okay to make as you attempt to get yourself organized (if you choose to).  Let’s repeat that one more time – it’s okay to make mistakes.  Take that first step!

 

January.png

February.png

The first two images are simply scans from the month of January and February.  Although the domain and context of what I was working on isn’t relevant, you can see from the way I was taking notes that there was still much to be desired.

The first scan shows an action item at the bottom, but with nothing to differentiate it from the rest of my notes.  How would I know at a glance that this is something that I have to act upon, versus something that I can just use as reference for later on?  What about the state of this action item?  Did I ever actually complete this task?  Did I just neglect to complete this?  Did it simply stop being necessary?  There’s no way to tell what happened here.  While I’m sure that I did in fact complete this item, you can see that it is important to create ways in your system that allow you to determine the answer to these questions quickly and at a glance.  Otherwise we’re just taking up valuable mental cycles that could be devote to more valuable tasks.

Unfortunately, I only realized now that I scanned in the wrong pages from my appendix, so I no longer retain the code I used to mark up the pages.  The main colour used were blue and green.  Blue items indicated discussions I had with co-workers, while green items indicated useful information or knowledge to reference back to later.  Orange  indicated important TODO items.  Whenever I had a page where I had created one of these items, I would colour the top or bottom corner (or both if I had multiple items on a page), allowing me to quickly determine if I had something that needed to be referenced on a given page.

This system quickly got out of hand, as it is impractical to flip through pages of a book trying to find the correct coloured corner that corresponds to a piece of information I need.  There is no ability to categorize a given piece of reference information, as it sits forever on a page in the book.  I have no folder that I can put the information in, and no ability to search through the book, other than sequentially flipping through each page.  Obviously this system left a lot to be desired, but it was a starting point.

Once I started PMing projects, I moved away from a static book and to a system that was more focused on the GTD approach to managing tasks, using looseleaf paper, and folders to organize it.

That’s the end of my time spent PMing.  Onwards to new challenges!

The end of one story, the beginning of another

July 18th, 2009 2 comments

On Friday of last week, I handed in my notice to let my employers know that I would be leaving the company in one month’s time.  This action is a milestone indicative of plans that have been underway for over a year.

I try to be a fairly risk-verse person, and as a result, I do my best to avoid counting my chickens before they have hatched.  Going to school to pursue law is not a decision to be taken lightly, and they system helps ensure that by putting into place a number of hoops that the potential candidate needs to jump through.
About 18 months ago, Bay and I took a trip island for brunch in Nanaimo.  Brunch was nice, but the real value was the opportunity to talk to each other about where we both currently felt in our respective jobs.  The end result of this trip was that we came back with a concrete set of next steps to act upon in order to making something that had previously only been fanciful into a reality.  Bay made the decision to return to school to get an MBA, and so, came home, registered to write the GMAT, studied for the GMAT, and began stressing out about the GMAT. 

I began the process of looking into what it would take to start writing the LSAT, what entry requirements existed, and figuring out how to break the news to my parents (further education is no doubt exciting, but it does come with a hefty price-tag, of which we would no doubt be hoping to borrow some money from Mum and Dad to make ends meet).

Writing the LSAT was no peach, and I guess they make it fairly excruciating to weed people out.  Although I’ve got plenty of experience writing tests under a time limit, I was not used to this format.  I found myself writing as fast as I could and scrambling to get every question completed in time (and correctly), only to put my pencil down, take a breath, and be told that our time was up and we needed to move on to the next section.  By the end of that day, I was exhausted and didn’t want to consider what it would mean if I didn’t get a reasonable grade and had to rewrite.

Fortunately my score was pretty good, and my undergraduate GPA was also good.  I wrote the admissions officer at UVic to ask if she felt my chances were reasonable that I would be offered a position.  It was with a big sigh of relief that I checked my e-mail last Summer while we were in Nova Scotia and read that if I had correctly calculated my GPA, I would most likely be receiving an offer.

That is a massive if, so I probably spent the next three months recalculating it over and over to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken.  When you hear things like that, your mind starts to play games with you.  Bay and I were willing to move to Vancouver or out East to pursue school if that was necessary, but it would be nice to stay in Victoria for at least a few more years.  I didn’t have any choice but to wait to hear from UVic, and to begin preparing applications for other universities in the meantime.

In time, I did receive an e-mail from UVic letting me know that they were in fact offering me a position to start Law in the Fall, and that I could stop shaking and sweating.  Huzzah!

After that, it was simply a matter of hurry up and wait.  It is never easy to sit still when you have a new pursuit and direction, and this is especially true for individuals like myself, that thrive on growth and overcoming challenges.  The remaining months of work have been difficult.  Not because the work itself has been challenging or hard to accomplish, but because I know that I have reached the end point for my interest in this path, and that I have a new path to pursue.

That brings us full circle back to the beginning of this post, as I have now provided my notice of departure, and am tying off all remaining loose ends.  Five years is a very long time to be at one company, and I’m not certain whether or not I will find myself in a similar position again.  It is almost impossible to accurately ascertain that until you actually come face-to-face with the same situation.

During my tenure here, I have learned a great number of things.  Many of them related to the various aspects that make a software project come to fruition, but also many related simply to the act of effectively managing both projects and people (and believe me, the majority of project management is about managing people, not the project itself).  I’ve also learned a good deal about HR, both good and bad.

I’ve met some good friends through work, and have learned a large number of skills that I’m confident I will be able to apply in whatever field I eventually end up working in (GTD anyone?).

It is difficult to say whether or not I will return to the role of managing projects in the future.  I know that I have a knack for the role, and possess many of the innate skills that are needed to effectively manage a project, but, my biggest concern would be that I be able to find new aspects of this kind of work that continue to challenge me.  Regardless, I’m not the sort of person to mentally shut doors on anything, and if an opportunity presents itself that I think will be rewarding, I will be willing to go for it.  I don’t really know of any other way to live life.

Revealing the fact that I’m returning to school to pursue Law has been met with an interesting range of reactions.  Many of my closer friends usually say “Ah yeah, that makes sense” (with the implication that I argue too much and am generally a heartless prick – maybe I’m inferring that).  People that are not particularly close with me, or with which I have a strictly working relationship, generally react with “Really?  That’s a big shift!”.  I suppose that in some ways it is, but the ability to discern what rules we are currently constrained by, and how we can operate and find a solution within those rules is really the crux of both the project manager and the lawyer.  The rules just happen to be defined differently (one by competing business and political interests, the other by codified laws and our bill of rights).

For those curious, I am initially drawn to intellectual property law, and for a number of reasons.  First of all, I think that my background will serve me well in this field, as I have a good deal of experience not only with managing and directing efforts in this realm, I also have a very strong understanding of the entire procedure, from start to finish (requirements, all the way up to implementation and delivery).  This field of law is also particularly interesting these days, as our technologies are opening up more and more doors every day, and challenging existing copyright laws that have previously been bound and determined by some fundamental principles (such as “reproducing something like a book is difficult to do, and thus not an offence that will be committed frequently”).

I think that’s a sufficient update into my professional life.  Next up is an update on dancing.  Keep it locked.

The art of humble confidence

May 18th, 2009 2 comments

Project management is an interesting discipline to work in.  It’s natural for people, over time, to gravitate upwards and towards roles that involve management.  Gaining a deep knowledge of a given domain, and the ability to perceive how it will be affected over the long-term is naturally an important trait to possess when managing people that work within that domain.  However, this alone is not enough to be an effective manager (although, too often, it’s the only qualification that is considered).

Today I’m writing about one of the more intangible skills that I think are important in an effective project manager.  I call the skill humble confidence.

Yin and Yang

A lot of the people I’ve talked to find the concepts of confidence and humility to be at odds with each other.  Why would someone that is confident bother being humble?

Isn’t humility really just about being someone that admits defeat and accepts that they cannot accomplish a bunch of things?

Humility is an under-rated virtue, and part of the reason for that is this line of thinking above.  Being humble means having the ability to accept that there are things that you are not the best at.  Not only are there things that you’re not the best at, there are things that you plain aren’t good at, and there are things that you downright suck at.  It’s easy to say that out loud without ever having it touch down beneath the surface.  The humble man can reflect, turn his sights within, come to the conclusion that he’s not good at something, and be alright with that.

For those that watch The Office, David Brent and Michael Scott are perfect examples of characters completely lacking humility.  They’ve both got every reason in the world to actually be humble, but neither of them can admit or accept that they are poor at doing a single thing.

True confidence comes from the ability to accept and understand the fact that you are good at some things, and poor at others.  Being aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are will give you the ability to approach situations with full knowledge about how you can affect them positively, as well as how you may end up making mistakes if you tread in areas for which you are ill-suited to assist.

True confidence comes from having a solid dose of humility, which will allow you to look inwards with honesty, and determine the things that you can really do well.  False confidence is that which is possessed by Michael Scott and David Brent.  Some other warning signs of false confidence are an inability to admit when you are wrong, the inability to agree to disagree, loud opinions without substance to back them up (typically being loud is used to drown out anything that might lead to questioning the assumption that the speaker is correct), and never being able to accept blame.

The confidently humble project manager

Project management is a position in which you need to be okay with the fact that your claims and suggestions are going to be questioned frequently.  Why is that where our budget is currently at?  Why can’t this project be completed by that date?  Are you sure that your recommendation will work?  (No, you’re not, since it’s almost impossible to be sure about anything when we’re managing people and moving priorities and deadlines).

Effective project managers need to be able to handle having their advice, assumptions and recommendations questioned.  In fact, they need to be able to do this themselves beforehand, because that way they can be confident in what they’re saying.  Not only is it important to be able to handle questioning, it is important to be able to listen to those questions with humility.

Project managers that don’t possess adequate humility will dismiss legitimate questions to their proposals out of hand, missing the opportunity to refine their approach, attitudes and suggestions, and alienating their clients.  Project managers without adequate confidence will find themselves getting caught on every question that a client has to ask, lending too much weight to the slightest uncertainty, succumbing to the trap of analysis paralysis and exposing their team to constantly changing priorities.

The man who knows nothing

Being able to accept the fact that you are not an expert on everything provides you with a valuable ability: to rely on the experts that compose your team.  A project manager that believes themselves to be an expert on everything automatically raises a couple of questions:

  • Why do we have a technical architect and a business analyst if the project manager is capable of all this?
  • Why are these other people being pulled into meetings with the project manager if they are not needed?
  • Is the fact that the project manager doesn’t let the rest of the members of his team volunteer information an indication that they are incompetent?

None of these implications are attractive or co-operative.  One of the most important things I’ve learned over time managing projects is that it’s okay for me to tell a client that I don’t have the answer to their question.  I can’t answer that question, but my Senior Developer can and I can check in with them and get that answer. Better yet, if they’re there with me, I can turn the question directly over to them.

There’s an important distinction here between a good and a bad project manager.  A good project manager will rely on his team for their opinions and advice. A bad project manager will rely on his team for scapegoating and passing off blame for poor results.  Don’t let yourself fall into the second category.  Those in the know are aware that poor results from a team are generally the result of poor management by the project manager.

The project manager that understands the values of humility and confidence is able to accept that they are not the expert on everything, and listen to a question without taking it personally.  Is this a valid question?  Have I actually accounted for this? Listen, consider what is being asked, discuss with your team as appropriate and respond.

By allowing yourself the benefit of being an imperfect human being, you will find that you are much more open to opportunities to learn and to improve the project that you are working on.