Up until January 2008, I was a devoted Palm Treo user. To keep track of all the things I needed to do, I used a nice, simple, and useful app called DateBk by Pimlico Software. It never occurred to me that there might be other, possibly better software (though even now, I’m pretty sure that DateBk was nearly ideal for me at the time).
Then, in January 2008, I bought my first iPhone. I had to give up DateBk and find something else. I tried a few of the simpler – and more economical – task managers and list apps, but they just weren’t enough. Then I found Appigo’s ToDo, which I’ve written about before. It had just the right balance of simplicity and functionality, and it synced with a free web service to ensure a functional copy of my tasks were available elsewhere.
Toodledo implements Getting Things Done (GTD), the very popular personal time management system developed by David Allen, but of which I’d not heard till then. Naturally, I became interested in understanding GTD, and while I didn’t find GTD entirely satisfying, it had many interesting features.
So I started downloading other task management apps that implemented some or all of GTD, looking for one that gave me just the right function set. Considering how cheap iPhone apps are, there was no reason not to try lots of them. Eventually, I settled (at least for now) on Pocket Informant (which I’ve also already written about elsewhere).
As I read about GTD, I found that many people tweak the standard GTD method to suit their particular circumstances. (Try googling “tweaking GTD” to find out more.) This gave me hope that I could come up with my ideal system, one based on GTD but better suited to my specific needs. (Which raises another prickly question: what exactly are my needs?)
…But wait! When exactly did I become so fascinated with time management that I wanted to develop my own system? And doesn’t that mean I have no life? Would I start waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I was dreaming that I was a complete dweeb? Or, even worse, hopelessly disorganized?
Well, no, actually, because keeping organized really does give me more free time, and because this is really a design problem: I want a better balance between the work I do, the way I manage my time, and the “meta” work of improving how I manage my time.
Let me emphasize that first reason, because it’s really important. The real reason I keep myself organized is that I’m basically lazy. Many of the things I enjoy doing most involve my wife and kids, and also a lot of sitting around, preferably under strong sunlight, and with something cold to drink near at hand, not far from one of my notebooks or my iPhone in case I am suddenly inspired. By staying organized, I have more time to do things well but without rushing, and still have free time left over to watch TV, play with my kids, go out with my wife, and generally veg.
That is, I stay organized because it helps me live better. In my opinion, that’s the only reason to worry about staying organized. This is, I think, a good way to check and make sure you’re not obsessing over your time management system: if you’re using time management to schedule things like “play with the kids,” you are, in my humble opinion, in deep trouble.
There’s something else, though, that eggs me onward: I’m an academic and a designer. The way I naturally look at things is from a design point of view. Is a thing well-balanced? What does it do well, and what does it do poorly, and why? Things work poorly because they aren’t well-balanced in use. And that’s the rub: I’m drawn to design something better because that’s the way I am.
So will I be going head-to-head with David Allen or Mark Forster? No, not at all. I’ve got a job and I don’t need another one.
On the other hand, design is a service: one designs for the benefit of others, so putting my ideas “out there” is not only natural but also quite necessary for a designer like me. (Although how exactly I shall do that is not yet clear.)
My designerly sense of all of this may be a benefit; but it’s also a hindrance because designers create specifics, not generalities. David Allen, Mark Forster, and others who develop time management systems, are trying to build systems that are in some ways very general so that they work for as many people as possible. But my training keeps pulling me to design specific solutions for specific (groups of) people.
The problem is that I don’t have anyone for whom to design – except me. This works out well because I started all this wanting to keep my self organized. But it also means that what I come up with is unlikely to work well for others.
Again, we’re back to the question of balance. How do I balance designing a time management system that works well for me with my designer’s instinct to design for others?
My solution is to capture the process I followed (indeed, am still following) to build my system, and to present it in a way others can reuse to develop their own time management system. I’m using the process to develop my own system. Someone else using the same process might develop an entirely different system.
I don’t know if people will cotton to this idea – having to develop their own system – but as I see it, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Either you have to learn someone else’s time management system, possibly tweaking it over time and without any particular guidance, or you have to invest time up front to work through a process with guidance on decision-making, and then start using a system that is, in principle at least, finely tuned to your specific needs. The advantages of weaving your own system using a process are that there’s (a) more assistance where most people need it (at the process level), and (b) less change of having to backtrack and rebuild things because your own tweaks weren’t as successful as you’d hoped.
In the end, perhaps it’s all a rationalization: I’ve long gone off the deep end, and I’m just trying to reconcile my extreme nerdiness. We’ll see once I get things sorted and posted somewhere.
In the meantime, you can take this post as a case study in how design and balance can fit in to nearly any situation.