What Are The Ideal Getting Things Done (GTD) Contexts?

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I’ll skip a never-funny-always-in-poor-taste Kool-Aid joke and just say:

If GTD is a cult, sign me up. 

Reading David Allen’s book earlier this year was like stumbling on a full, cold Brita after days of crawling through the desert.

My brain had been so burdened by trying to remember everything I needed to do, all the open loops, that I’m surprised it worked at all.

Relief was at last in sight.

The implementation has had its difficulties, though I suppose this is natural.

I have a slightly mismatched gadget setup of Mac computer/iPad/Android, which made the otherwise obvious choice of Apple-only OmniFocus less appealing.

So I went with Zendone, an online-only GTD  system that auto-syncs with Google Calendar (by which I live and die ), and Evernote (with which I’m still at the “ape rubbing the monolith” stage ).

Zendone been useful, though I don’t yet have the completely watertight GTD system that Allen dangles as the reward for applying all his wisdom.

For one, Allen emphasizes the need to put absolutely everything into your GTD system, which is a challenge.

More specifically, I feel like I’m under-utilizing the GTD idea of contexts, the tags that identify tasks by the conditions you predict they will require to get done.

Currently my contexts are:

  • Computer (internet required)
  • Computer (offline)
  • Outside (i.e. out of my office)
  • Deep focus
  • <30 minutes
  • <10 minutes
  • Don’t even think about it during work hours

These account for most if not all the physical and mental states I find myself in over the course of a day.

If you use GTD, what are your contexts?

A Timeless Lesson From John Caples, Part 2

Let’s continue with John Caples’s Readers Digest- informed breakdown of ways to open copy or interesting articles.

2. The Shocker

Closely related to the interrupting idea is an opening that is even more striking and can be described as ‘the shocker.’”

First off, you snickering kids in the back can go to the principal’s office right now.

Caples is spotlighting the “get their attention, even if you have to be a little crude” approach. (See the Office video up top, if you haven’t yet.)

Citing Reader’s Digest, Caples gives four examples including:

“A Frenchman is rarely seen drunk, but France has the highest rate of alcoholism in the world.”

I suppose this inadvertently illustrates how, to quote Jane’s Addiction, “Nothing’s Shocking” anymore.  Would it shock you to know that there are many French alcoholics?

Perhaps the shock lies in the juxtaposition–on the outside they’re all class, but behind des portes closes (closed doors)…

(And for what it’s worth, Moldova is now pacing the world in alcohol consumption… which must also mean alcoholism?)

The first more “modern” example that springs to mind (and this is a headline, where The Shocker is even more effective), is the Bottom Line Personal chestnut:

What to never…ever eat on an airplane!

Though it’s not all that modern. Good luck getting any food on today’s planes.

Still, the shock effect remains strong, infused with a mega-dose of curiosity. That one’s a keeper.

There must be a line that gets crossed eventually, where you’re just too shocking.

Where do you reckon it is?

The Essence of a Clause

In casual reading of OPW (Other People’s Writing), I’ve been known to let “its”/”it’s” and “your”/”you’re” slide.

(Increasingly so, because the cause is starting to seem hopeless.)

But the one I can’t let go–the mistake that bothers me most–is the bungling of that and who.

“I’m the kind of person that complains about other people’s grammar mistakes while making tons of my own.”

“Only readers that have the perfect mix of gullibility and four or more credit cards qualify to buy this product.”

No. People WHO. Gullible readers WHO!

That isn’t the topic today, though.

(It will be one day soon. And there will be blood.)

Today we’re looking at something closely related: That versus which, and the scary, dark, churning river that runs beneath them:

Essential clauses and nonessential clauses.

My reading this afternoon comes from The Associated Press Stylebook:

“Both types of clauses provide additional information about a word or phase in the sentence.”

No problem. We’re writing about X. There is more to say about X. Why start a whole other sentence to say it?

“The difference between them is that the essential clause cannot be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence — it so restricts the meaning of the word or phrase that its absence would lead to a substantially different interpretation of what the author meant.”

So the key is whether not saying the additional thing we want to say about X would irreparably damage the information.

I have two cats: A tuxedo, and a six-toed tabby.

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One day I leave to get the mail, and when I come back my tea is spilled:

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I come to a fast conclusion about what happened, based on past knock-overs. 

“The cat that has the long whiskers and the bow tie on his face did this.”

The whiskers and bow tie are essential to my accusation. They’re how I identify the culprit. Essential clause. And I identify it as such with “that”.

Let’s go back to the text:

“The nonessential clause, however, can be eliminated without altering the basic meaning of the sentence — it does not restrict the meaning so significantly that its absence would radically alter the author’s thought.”

So returning to the scene of the crime, I further conclude that:

“The six-toed cat, which is too lazy to cause any trouble, has been napping on the armchair all day.”

Maybe this isn’t a perfect example. But the fact that the innocent cat is historically too lazy to cause any trouble isn’t essential to my point.

It’s nonessential. So, “which”.

The necessary part is that I believe he’s been on the armchair all day and therefore couldn’t have made the mess.

So I scold the tuxedo, clean up the mess, and get on with things.

Later I check the security camera reel and see the truth:

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My house is a house of false accusations.

There are two other interesting points here: One about how comma placement can affect a clause’s essential-ness. And one interesting addendum about “who” vs. “that”, as they relate to “an inanimate object or an animal without a name.”

I think we’ll revisit this in two weeks.

Book Review: “Positivity” by Barbara Frederickson

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A coach-type recommended this to me as a building block of better work habits and personal progress.

I finished it feeling better than I did when I came to it (and was able to draw enough links between my feeling better and the content of the book), so I consider it time well-enough spent.

The big proposition here: Having at least three positive thoughts for every one negative thought is a tipping point at which your mental state goes from frustrated, malaise-ridden and inefficient to success-optimized for whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

Frederickson makes sure to state that having some negative thoughts is important, so as not to be lumped in with the “positive all the time” crowd (whose continued existence in today’s oh-so-cynical world I doubt at least a little).

Recently, the data–which another scientist gathered and analyzed–that led Frederickson to trumpet 3:1 as her golden ratio has come under heavy fire .

I say, who cares?

Yeah, yeah, science, numbers, rigor, accuracy, whatever. Lobby UNC-Chapel Hill for the revocation of her tenure if it makes you feel better (919-962-2211).

The fact is that the fuzzy math doesn’t make this book significantly less helpful to those of us who are weighed down by negativity.

Specific goals are good for the daily improvement of our habits, even if the “real” ratio for is 2:1 or 4:1 or 4.5:1.

I suppose the question hangs as to whether there is a magic tipping point *at all*, and if there isn’t, then the positivity rocket Frederickson is selling seats on is–ahem–challenged.

But I come to a book like this wanting to feel better, and for now, striving for 3:1 is making me feel better. Again, a specific goal glues everything together, even if it’s not the precisely “right” goal.

If the heavens don’t open up once I hit the ratio, I’m not going to feel cheated.

Now, there is the fact that in “Positivity”, Frederickson–whose writing is at times a little too chirpy and cheerful–loves to repeat how she’s a data-obsessed scientist, how empiricism and math are king, etc…

…Almost to imply “this is why you should trust me over those Pollyanna-ish laypeople spouting empty platitudes.”

So the big problems with her data are pretty funny seen in that light, but shouldn’t blow the house of cards down for someone coming to this book for help rather than academic enlightenment.

Another issue is that most of the techniques prescribed for increasing positivity are not terribly original: Meditating, deliberate kindness, avoiding depressing news and violent entertainment, and related tips that have been repeated for decades or longer.

Frederickson does promote (heavily) an original “Positivity Self Test” survey that we are encouraged to complete every day to track our progress and identify useful patterns of positivity and negativity.

Which is a good idea, but for those of us who habitually consume books and programs like this (the target market, I’d wager), our dockets of daily check-ins and journaling are already overflowing.

Parting shot: I generally dislike sub-titles on non-fiction books. I understand that a book needs to state its case before the would-be buyer puts it back on the shelf.

But “Top-Notch Research Reveals The 3 to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life” is one of the worst ones I’ve ever seen.

For shame, Random House. Hire a good copywriter to come up with your sub-title next time.

When Life Gives You The Pomodoro Technique, Make Ketchup

I do better, more focused work when I’m applying the Pomodoro Technique. 

Have you tried this? Twenty-five minutes on, five minutes off.

Here’s my timer:

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Analog to the max.

It has a magnetized back that sticks to my whiteboard. But not very well. When it rings it slides down and almost off.

The best thing?

It ticks and tocks. Loudly.

It’s a constant reminder that time is tangible and precious. I haven’t found the app that can do this nearly as well.

Physical reminders like this are important. Dan Kennedy wrote that he has a hangman’s noose in his office to remind him of deadlines. Intense, but I guess it works.

My first forays into Pomodoro-ing were fifty minutes on and ten minutes off. At that time I didn’t even know it was a thing lots of people did.

Let alone the cool name.

I thought I had come up with it myself. Which I guess was true, but yeah…

A few months later I noticed I wasn’t doing it anymore.

I picked it back up  recently–doing the proper 25/5–on Brennan Dunn‘s suggestion. I started getting a lot more done. 

The reason the Pomodoro Technique works for me is that it creates clearly-defined “compartments” in my workday.  I think of it a little like playing hopscotch–I can see the square, I just need to get my foot into it.

The more clear chalk lines I can draw in a day, the farther away I get from “winging it”.

“Winging it” is that awful state of sitting down at the desk with no plan or rules or goals and hoping it’ll all work out somehow.

If clear chalk lines make our day a fun game of hopscotch, winging it is a derelict weedy lot strewn with garbage and broken glass.

And we’re barefoot. OK, your turn to hop.

I wish all the school I consumed over the years had taught me some version of this.

You can’t time-manage five minutes into six minutes, but things like the Pomodoro Technique and GTD do a lot to make the minutes our friends, not our enemies. 

I love time, don’t you?

A Timeless Lesson From John Caples (Part I)

Did you know that Reader’s Digest used to be the world’s largest-circulated publication?

I just learned that on p. 104 of Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples.

And it turns out, according to Wikipedia, RD held the distinction of America’s Most Circulated  straight up to 2009.

I haven’t picked the old gal up in a while. The laundromat I used to go to when I was living on eastern Long Island usually had some tattered copies in a dirty plastic magazine holder next to the detergent vending machine.

I’d turn to the puzzle page and usually find them all 1/3 to 1/2 completed in pen.

The articles I remember  were  mostly about diets and health hacks… rounded out by some random-seeming travel, personal finance, and general “better living” tips.  They were all very short, many lists–sort of like webpages on paper.

I’m on their website now  trying to go through a slideshow about apple cider vinegar and I’m getting absolutely massacred with pop-ups. 

But it used to be such a pillar of quality and success that a top ad man like Caples used its articles as inspiration for how to communicate effectively.

Ever the data-amasser, Caples studied many issues and found six fundamental ways that heyday Readers’ Digest articles began.

They’re all great and I want to discuss all of them, so I won’t dare try to stuff them all in one post. Today the spotlight is on the Interrupting Ideawhich is:

“(A) startling statement or a novel twist that breaks through the boredom barrier that often exists in the mind of the reader.”

And among the examples he pulls is this brilliant one:

“While we humans think that penguins look and act like people, there’s sobering evidence that they think of us as just big penguins.”

My boredom barrier is obliterated, how about yours?

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The value of a good interrupting idea has to be higher than ever today.

Boredom or whatever you call the glazed-eyes task-switching zombie-scanning that characterizes how we read stuff online needs a major kick in the face to free our attention.

Been interrupted by any good ideas lately?

P.S. Here’s another pair of Caples gems, from his New York Times obituary:

“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ‘only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.’ He also advised copywriters to ‘use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader’ because ‘the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.”’

Living in a Material(ized) World

When something “materializes”, what happens exactly?

If I’m on the spot, I’ll say something goes from a state of being invisible or nonexistent to visible or existent.

But there are a lot of gray areas there… magical, even spooky stuff.

There’s a nice fat usage note on “materialize” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Let’s break it down:

“In its original sense, materialize is used without an object to mean ‘to assume material form,’ as in Marley’s ghost materialized before Scrooge’s eyes…”

Scroooooooge….

*chains rattle*

*materialize*

So it sounds like back in Dickens’s day, the word was reserved for the literal description of an invisible thing reverse-fading (is that what you call it?) into visibility.

What have we done since then?

“But these uses are probably less common nowadays than the two extended senses of the verb. In the first, the meaning is roughly ‘to appear suddenly,’ as in No sooner had we set the menu down than a waiter materialized at our table.

I like the idea of “extended sense”. Isn’t extending sense how language evolves?

The waiter wasn’t a chain-lugging ghost who emerged from some ether to take a mozzarella stick order.

He just walked over to the table. But as far as the hungry, distracted diners were concerned, he may as well have pulled a Jacob Marley.

Not everybody is happy about this:

“Some critics have labeled this use as pretentious or incorrect, but it has been around for more than a century, appears in the writing of highly respected writers, and seems a natural extension of the original sense.”

Have these critics ever succeeded in shutting down a change to English? I’m imagining  Gandalf and the Balrog: (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!“)

If you know of such an instance, please let me know in the comments.

One more step in the evolution of materialize:

“Materialize tends to be applied to things or events that have been foreseen or anticipated, and usually occurs in negative constructions: The promised subsidies never materialized. It was thought the community would opposed the measure, but no new objections materialized.”

So we’ve ended up at materialize referring to: Things that never existed continuing to never exist.

And even if they came into existence–objections, subsidies, whatever–they would still just be intangible words or numbers.

I’d say this is fitting in our increasingly digital world of bitcoins, blog posts, information products, et al. What can we still touch?

The tangible is fading, like Jacob Marley back into the fireplace.

What does the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come have to show us tonight?

Book Review: “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman

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I bought this book because I want to sharpen my ability to focus, and also because I have a lot of respect for Daniel Goleman’s important work on emotional intelligence.

I finished it a little bit disappointed, feeling like I knew some interesting facts about how focus works and can work, but without much in the way of useful information about how to increase my own focus.

I already knew that mindfulness is a good and valuable skill to train. I already knew that certain video games targeted at brain functions could train the brain in good ways rather than bad–I’ve used Lumosity, an online arcade of “good” video games since 2012 (with inconclusive results).

And I needed a couple of days to recover from Goleman’s report of the shocking “Dunedin Study” which basically showed that without willpower, there is a very good scientific chance a person is screwed for life–poverty and depression at best, criminality at worst.

Definitely plausible, but very hard to swallow as a person who has struggled with willpower for thirty years.

But perhaps that’s unfair–perhaps I came to it with too much expectation that it would provide me with neatly-packaged self-help platitudes and programs.

Goleman is a deep-thinker type, with his motivation for writing split–I’m speculating–30%/70% between actively improving readers’ lives, and passively sharing some really interesting thoughts and research.

And some of it is indeed really interesting. The analysis of “top-down” vs. “bottom-up” brain processing is applicable many times over the course of every day. (Although it’s also covered in slightly different terminology in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”).

Also good–though like Dunedin, also worrisome to anyone who’s not a superstar at something–is his discussion of how the value of practice is largely negated if the practicer is daydreaming or doing whatever it is imperfectly.

Finally, there is the funny meta-problem that many reviewers on Amazon rightly point out, that the book itself is somewhat unfocused.

It seems to roughly follow a “small to large” progression, starting with the inside-the-brain processes, and ostensibly “zooming out” to look at how focus works on larger scales like person-to-person, then analyzing large data systems, and so on.

But the transitions between sections are far from smooth or intuitive, and there were a couple of times when I wondered if I was still reading the same book. Then again, maybe I wasn’t focusing.

And while this isn’t an issue for me, Goleman concludes on a slightly political note by arguing that the highest form of focus humankind could muster right now is to stop doing things like harming the planet and increasing the wealth gap.

These may indeed be very important to deal with, but it seems incongruous with a totally even-handed look at “The Hidden Driver of Excellence”.

Books, grammar, usage, copywriting, productivity.