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Outlook, The GTD Add-In and project planning - how do you use them?

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  • Outlook, The GTD Add-In and project planning - how do you use them?

    I've been GTDing for about 6 months and I still regard myself as a novice. An area in which I need to strengthen my GTD habits is that of projects: recognising them, breaking them down into steps then doing the actions at the right time and place, and in the right order. I have found the GTD Add-In for Outlook to be helpful (it's not perfect - but makes Outlook much better for the purpose) but I have not yet settled on a definate way to use it for projects. Somehow, the process does not flow easily.

    What I tend to do is this:
    1. Identify the project and define it in the past tense.
    2. Create a next action.
    3. List future next actions (that I can think of now) in the Project Notes section of the Add-In's project window.
    4. When I complete the next action (try and remember to) refer back to the notes section to pick up the next, next action - or think of another one if this is more appropriate.

    I have MindManager too but have not really got around to using this on a routine basis.

    There seems to have been a great deal written in the forum about next actions for projects but, even after reading a lot of this, the whole process still feels rather unfamiliar and non-instinctive - even using the tools I've mentioned.

    Does anyone have any successful step-by-step routines for implementing projects that they can share?
    Last edited by Howard; 06-02-2007, 03:45 PM.

  • #2
    The GTD Add-In, Outlook 2007, MindManager & OneNote

    Originally posted by Howard View Post
    Does anyone have any successful step-by-step routines for implementing projects that they can share?
    Nope. Don’t believe such a thing exists. Because projects vary so much in scale and scope—because under the GTD definition a project is anything that requires more than one next action—I conclude that there is no one tool or approach that is appropriate for all of them. Until I came to this realization I was frustrated that David Allen’s wonderful little book didn’t offer what I thought should be more concrete steps for tackling projects. Now, I think I appreciate the greater wisdom in what he wrote.

    I don’t understand why you would choose to list all of the actions (steps, tasks, etc) in the Project’s notes section. That mimics a hack that many have used for what Michael Linenberger calls “mini-projects” in his “Total Workday Control” book. Create a project as a Task in Outlook—perhaps preceded by “P:” or “Project-“ to identify it as a project—and list the action steps in the notes section. Pick one of those as the next action and then, when completed, go back and select the next- next action. I suppose this works fine for simple projects like the one that is often proposed as an example in these forums: the “buy new tires for the family hupmobile” project. (Next action: Call the tire store.) But seriously: How much ‘project planning’, and how many over-heated neurons, does it take to get that sucker done?

    There’s been a lot of angst in these forums over the appropriateness of defining more than one action for a project. What you are basically proposing is the only-one-next-action-for-a-project approach and there is a certain logic to this line of reasoning. Multiple project action steps quickly clutter up your action lists, make it difficult to quickly identify which is the next action, and risk numbing you to your lists to the point that you won’t use them. This doesn’t apply to you, however, since you’re using the Netcentrics GTD Add-In. Instead, go ahead and create as many tasks or “actions” for the project that you can identify and tag them for that particular project and (if applicable) sub-project. But don’t assign an @context action for them, unless they truly are a next action. All of them will appear where it’s most useful for you to see them—with all the other tasks in the Project Detail view for the particular project—but they won’t be cluttering up your @action lists. Long experience has shown me that laying out a clear path ahead—i.e. identifying beforehand the steps I will need to take—is the best way to avoid dead-ends and endless runs down rabbit trails.

    (Parenthetically, I don’t use context lists much. The David Allen Company folks we tend to here from are genuine road warriors who have islands of “weird time”—between connecting flights, between meetings, in hotel rooms—where the @context concept makes good sense; and the same is true for many of their clients and probably many who read these forums. But like Levenger founder Steve Leveen, I have everything at hand when I work—telephone, computer, etc—whether at home or at the office. So for me, the Project and Time parameters are usually more relevant.)

    The Project Detail view is new in the latest version 2.5 release (You are using it are you not? It is a free upgrade.) and a very welcome feature. In that one view, it’s possible to see all of the tasks (actions) and/or e-mail messages and/or appointments and/or journal entries relevant to a particular project, a tacit recognition that projects usually involve more than a list of tasks.
    Projects often require the gathering of (often vast quantities of) information and non-actionable items. “Project Support Materials”, in other words, which in an earlier time would likely reside within a physical file folder (or series of folders) or in project notebooks, as David Allen himself has used.

    Every quarter I commit myself to a few Big Hairy Audacious Goals (projects)—see Michael Hyatt’s The 90-Day Challenge)—although I have yet to experience a quarter when I’ve managed to complete all of them. Some of these have so many tasks and levels of tasks that they become unwieldy in the Project Detail view of the GTD Add-In. That might be different if Netcentrics saw fit to design a view with a tree-like display of tasks and sub-tasks, branches of which could be expanded or collapsed as needed and moved around and re-organized by drag and drop. It could then scale to much larger projects, but I don’t believe Netcentrics has ever considered the Add-In to be a primary project management tool. (I wish they would change their mind on this point.)

    The Big Hairy Audacious Project that’s front and center for me right now is “Create a New Web Site”. A bit more complex than the “buy new tires for the family Hupmobile” project, it will be a new e-commerce web site for my fledgling business. It needs to have a secure shopping cart and will be a static site when first launched but will need to quickly evolve into a dynamic, database-driven web site. There will be more than 200 products on the site in the first iteration, each of which needs to be properly photographed (preferably in more than one view) and all of the appropriate product information needs to be gathered and word-smithed. The images need to be scanned and manipulated as necessary. Accounting codes need to be assigned. All of the different page categories need to be designed and templates built. Then the web pages themselves need to be coded in xhtml and css.

    A reasonable-sized organization would assign a team of people to do this and they would probably hire outside agents to do some of the work. They might use something like Microsoft Project to keep everything on track and within budget. In my case, since I’m an “accidental entrepreneur” (i.e. wearer of many, many hats), I’m the team of people plus outside agents. And…. did I mention that I’ve never actually built a web site before? So I will need to learn some new skills along the way.

    What do I need to do? How long will it take? Assuming I can devote four or six hours of quality time to this one project each day, seven days a week—and do everything else I need to do in the remaining 18 hours—can I launch the new web site before my fledgling business craters? The project started in the GTD Add-In but the lists have become too long to view sensibly. Since the overhead of maintaining the system becomes too great when managing a team of one, Microsoft Project is ruled out. So I’m in the process of migrating the project to MindManager and OneNote.

    I don’t know if David Allen uses the GTD Add-In himself, but apparently he does quite a bit of his own project brainstorming/planning in MindManager. In a Mindjet webinar of a few months ago (still viewable at the Mindjet web site) he mentioned that he has something on the order of 150 active maps, which is several times as many as I’ve ever had. If he uses it, perhaps I should to.

    I also have a MindManager add-in called JCV GanttPro, which I purchased after a mention of it in these forums. It turns MindManager maps into Gantt Chart- type timelines, thereby providing an answer to the question: How long will the “Create a New Web Site” project take? I usually work in pretty broad strokes at the outset, but it gives me targets to meet and a schedule to keep. And since my project is not in just one map but rather a collection of nested and hyperlinked maps, I can look at it with greater granularity if and when I feel compelled to.

    MindManager provides an overview of what I need to do (and the ability to drill down into as much detail as needed) but OneNote collects and organizes most of the relevant project information. Since so much information comes at us digitally these days (e-mail messages, web-clippings, notes, spreadsheets, etc.), OneNote is the best place I know of for holding “Project Support Materials”. I had already dumped a fair amount of miscellaneous “Create a New Web Site” project information into OneNote and I’ve now set up its own notebook (multiple notebooks is a new feature in the 2007 version). It’s wonderfully flexible and the interface is so intuitive that perhaps the greatest downside is that it’s too easy to start using it without taking the effort to learn how to use it well.

    I’ve found it instructive to read blogs from managers of Microsoft’s OneNote development group describing how they use OneNote to manage their own projects (i.e. use OneNote to manage the further development of OneNote). They—who surely must know OneNote more intimately than anyone—are quite ebullient in their praise for what OneNote allows them to accomplish.
    Of course one of the really great advantages of OneNote is its tight integration with Outlook, especially with the 2007 version. I’ve been working with the new 2007 versions of both Outlook and OneNote for the past few weeks and Outlook’s new Calendar view, flags and To-Do Bar—and integration and synchronization with OneNote—are changing the way that I work for the better. I only wish that Mindjet saw fit to integrate MindManager with OneNote. What a powerful combination that would be! I can, for example, link a MindManager branch to a section in OneNote, but I can create a shortcut from the desktop or an Outlook item to an individual page or even a paragraph in OneNote. I’m using MindManager 6, but I don’t see that the new version 7 is any different in this reagard. Too bad. Mindjet’s really missing the boat on this one.

    Much more could be said about how the OneNote-MindManager-Outlook combination might work together but I’ve already gone on way too long, and probably without answering your basic question. Sorry. By clarifying my own thinking, I may be the only one to benefit from these remarks. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I don’t know what I think until I’ve said it. I don’t know what I know until I’ve written it.”


    • #3
      Originally posted by smithdoug View Post
      As Thomas Jefferson said, “I don’t know what I think until I’ve said it. I don’t know what I know until I’ve written it.”
      Interesting post. Are you sure this quotation is from Jefferson? I can't find it. Can you give me the source?


      • #4
        One statesman's quotation for another

        Hi Doug

        Since you have quoted Jefferson in your tour de force of a post here is one by Churchill:
        "It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see."

        It seems to me that, if we try to control the process of project planning too much, it becomes too unwieldy and inflexible. That is one reason for keeping only next actions in the context lists - the new version of the GTD Add-In helps a lot here by allowing future actions to be stored away from the lists. I agree with you that its project planning facilities are quite limited and I would only want to use it to plan the simpler ones. OneNote goes further - I've got it on order along with the rest of Office 2007.

        But the thing that I need to have flowing more naturally is the easy use of multi-step projects for the more simple processes. It still feels unnatural but I guess with practice it starts to drop into place.

        Thanks for your piece - a very interesting read.

        (And good luck with the new business)