Easy GTD with Outlook and the Palm Treo
Posted Friday January 25, 2008 in Productivity
Almost no matter what you want to do with it, it’s tough to bend Outlook to your whims. This goes double if you follow the precepts of Getting Things Done. There’s the high-powered but somewhat obtuse GTD Outlook Add-in of course, but that loses a lot of fidelity once you go to the ubiquitous smartphone. Because I can’t be separated from my Treo, I set up my system to be low-fi, while still providing a reliable inbox and review set-up.
The first step, of course, is to get all of your info into Outlook — that’s the only way you’ll trust it. I use a series of keyboard commands to capture all of my to-dos, contacts, and appointments instantaneously.
Tasks vs. Appointments, and The Dashboard
David Allen makes a good point in Getting Things Done — Appointments are for things that must happen at a specific time, tasks for things that can happen anytime. I find that adding one small wrinkle into this very sound approach really lets me take advantage of what Outlook offers: I have tasks associated with dates, too.
It makes sense to associate some tasks with dates — take out the garbage on Thursday if pick-up is on Friday, pay Sales Tax on the 15th if the Board of Equalization expects it by the 20th — so, some tasks get dates. But they don’t get alarms, because, if you have to do them at a specific time, then they’re appointments, not tasks.1
Dated tasks don’t fall by the wayside, even without alarms. That’s because Outlook provides a great dashboard for daily work: the Calendar. In the Calendar view, I turn on the TaskPad, and set TaskPad View for Active Tasks for Selected Days. By right-clicking on the TaskPad column headers, I set a Custom View that only shows with Due Dates that exist, and tasks that don’t have the @Waiting or @Holding categories that I use to mark tasks that aren’t active.2
The result? Every day, I can drop right into the Calendar and see what I have to do that particular day. If I get all that done, it’s over to the Task view (more on that later). Most people live in the Inbox, but, if you’re doing GTD right then that’s empty! Living in the calendar helps make this compelling.
The Power of Notes
Now, most tasks come from projects. I’ve tried a variety of ways to plan and track projects, but none has worked so well for me as just keeping them in the Notes. I have a template I use for every project:
Note that every project has clear objectives — always useful for focusing thought. Every project also has tasks. If the task has a “+” next to it, then that’s a sign that task is actually a separate project, broken out in another note. While the exceedingly basic Notes tool in Outlook doesn’t provide any linking or outlining tools, outlining projects like this is surprisingly effective — and, best of all, makes it easy to create new projects and edit existing projects on my Treo.
By prefacing every project note with the word “Project:”, I’m able to filter my notes to show only project plans, not other notes I’ve taken.
Categories & Contexts
I like to break down my tasks, contacts, and appointments by category, so that I can know what part of my time goes to Sales, Marketing, Finance, HR, etc. Outlook is totally freeform with its categories so I use them for both categories and contexts. Contexts are simply categories named with the standard GTD-style “@”prefix. Setting the Tasks view to group tasks by category lets me view tasks by context or by category. I additionally get a lot of mileage by coloring each category distinctly — although Outlook is very weak at this, with the limited set of colors it offers compared to similar tools on the Mac.
Outlook lets you assign multiple categories to a task — use that. As an added bonus, my Treo supports multiple categories to a task too, so I can use each category as a view to find the right task to do when I’m on the road. However, since the Treo doesn’t support more than 12 categories altogether, I can’t have a single category for each project. Instead, I preface the name of the task with the name of the project. That’s not as convenient as a link inside the task, but it does link the task to the project in my mind.
The key to making the Tasks view work is to filter what it shows into useful views. Outlook fortunately has very powerful, if somewhat obtuse, filters.
This shows a basic filter that I use: All Active tasks. As I said in the Dashboard section, the calendar is for dated tasks; the Task view shows only undated tasks. So I make sure that all of the views there hide tasks with Due Dates. Then I have a lot of ways to break it down from there. Since I assign multiple categories to each task, I can filter my view in multiple ways. Hide @Holding and @Waiting tasks, or view them; hide personal (@Home) tasks; even see only the Sales tasks that I can do @Office. This way, when I finish my daily tasks and look into my Task list to pick something to do, I can break down my view to show me only what’s relevant right now.
The place where filtering really shines is in the Weekly Review. I filter my tasks to show me what I completed in the last week, to see if there are follow-ups I missed; to review @Waiting and @Holding tasks; and even to look at tasks that have been sitting on my to-do list for a long time, to double check if they’re worth doing.
That’s a little peek into my GTD world, and how Outlook helps me work with my Treo. Hopefully some of these simple techniques will help you too.
1 Obviously, I think of tasks as “do sometime during the day” activities, and appointments as “do a specific time in the day” activities. What about recurring tasks? Some day-related activities — for instance, take out the Garbage every Thursday — recur on a specific day; those, you can set a recurrence on a specific day for (Outlook has pretty powerful tools for this). But many other tasks — grocery shopping — don’t have to be done on specific days. For these, set the task to recur a certain amount of time after completion of the previous task. For instance, I set my plant-watering task to recur every two days after I finished the task the last time. That way, if I get behind and don’t water the plants, I don’t have several incomplete watering tasks; there’s just the one, and, when I check it off, it appears again two days from now, just when my plants need another drink.
2 @Waiting means it’s waiting on someone else, @Holding means I’ve put off the task — a worthwhile distinction to make. Of course, I have to sweep both in my weekly review.