Plotting 2012 – aided by Covey, Milk, and synchronization

(This post also appeared at PenWarriors.com)

It’s January and I’m plotting my life in 2012. As with most tales, there’s a backstory:

  • SETTING: Vanessa’s newly remodelled study. Fresh paint, new carpet, several years of hoarding cleared out. Time: mid-December
  • GREMLIN (Vanessa’s internal critic): Here it is 2012 and you’ve got a todo list the size of the Grand Canyon. Get organized, woman!
  • VANESSA: I visited the grand canyon back in 2011 and I KNOW it’s a mile deep. Maybe I can sort this mess into a stack of smaller piles.
  • GREMLIN: You need a system.
  • VANESSA (sorting):
  • GREMLIN: Look at that heap of TODOs! I suppose you think you’re Superwoman now?
  • VANESSA: Shut up. I’m setting goals.
  • GREMLIN: Hah! You cleaned out your office last month, now you’re going for world’s worst task hoarder!
  • VANESSA (looking for lethal weapon): Kill the gremlin … kill the gremlin.
  • GREMLIN: You need a syst–No! No! Don’t shoot! You– (GREMLIN slinks out of room, slamming door and leaving blood behind on new carpet)
  • VANESSA (Locks door behind GREMLIN, then starts looking for a system…)
  • CRITIC (whispers through door): I told you so!

Obviously, this story is never going to hit the bestseller lists, but thankfully as December rolled towards January, I embarked on a search for a … (okay, GREMLIN, you win) a system for managing my Grand Canyon sized TODO list. Back in October (see Necessary Lies, Stephen Covey, and This Writer), I resolved to follow Stephen Covey’s suggestion of focusing on those important but not urgent tasks that build towards future goals (Quadrant II goals). I succeeded in putting First Things First for ten days and spent the first part of each day on my novel, NECESSARY LIES. On the eleventh day, unfortunately, NECESSARY LIES got buried by a pile of important AND urgent tasks, and GREMLIN woke up.

  • GREMLIN: How can you call yourself a writer, if you’re not writing? You’ll never finish that book.
  • VANESSA: Yes, I will, but other things are important too! I just need a system that keeps the most important things in front of me.
  • GREMLIN: System, smystem. You gotta USE your system. Every day. Like brushing your teeth.
  • VANESSA: Well … yeah.
Gremlin isn’t supposed to win arguments … or sneak through locked doors.
So I went looking for a system that would help me focus on important goals while keeping my life under control. My requirements were:
  • keep Quadrant II goals in front of me each day
  • remind me of urgent-but-not-important commitments (Quadrant I)
  • give me a way to record (and remember) time-sensitive commitments
  • allow me to access both urgent and non-urgent goals and tasks on my iPhone, iPad, and any computer I use.

At least one of my goals had been achieved – with my wonderful husband’s help, we’d transformed my study from a hoarder’s hell into an inviting study. Now it was time to organize my goals and my life. Over Christmas, I tried out a few ideas:

  • I read the Michael Hyatt article, “Is that task important or merely urgent?” which mentioned using Priority Matrix  to emulate the Covey 4-sector organizer. I downloaded Priority Matrix (for Mac, iPad, and iPhone). I installed the software and put my  TODO list into Priority Matrix sectors. Here’s a simplified version of what I did:
  • Priority Matrix + Covey trial: I found Priority Matrix flexible, and definitely easy to work with using Covey’s 4-quadrant model on my Mac, and I was pleased to find that the Apps for the iPhone and iPad synchronized well. (I also learned that Priority Matrix is in alpha development for Windows.) By Christmas I had realized that while I loved the 4-sector view and synchronization features of Priority Matrix, for the system to be effective, I needed to visit it every day. The best way too make sure I did that was to use the same application for appointments, other time sensitive commitments,  and goals. Priority matrix didn’t have the scheduling and reporting features I needed.
  • Getting Things Done Remember the Milk – Over Christmas I talked with my son about his experience using David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system with Remember the Milk, a Web/Android/iPhone app. GTD sounded too high-maintenance for me, but if you’re a GTD fan, check out Advanced GTD with Remember The Milk, and also take a look at the simplified version described in Monk to Done.
  • Covey + Remember the Milk –  If Remember the Milk could work with GTD, maybe I could make it work with Covey’s First Things First model. I decided to try out the free version of Remember the Milk (RTM) and soon realized that this friendly, flexible application could:
    • be used on in all common Web browsers, Android phones, iPhones, and iPad
    • synchronize across all installations, i.e. phone, tablet, Web (daily sync is free, more frequent sync requires upgrading to the pro version)
    • have separate lists for different category tasks (achieved by setting task “category” and adding your own lists and/or modifying RTM’s default lists. Some of my categories are WRITING, RESEARCH, PROMOTION, BUSINESS TASKS, PERSONAL) Tasks can be viewed by category, or in a big list of “All Tasks”
    • optionally set due date and time, specify repeating intervals for regular tasks, plus time commitment for tasks (I’ve set Quadrant II goals I want to visit every day to “repeat: every 1 day”)
    • prioritize (priority 1, 2, or 3), categorize, and tag tasks
    • create saved searches using  lists  (I Googled “rtm + Covey” and found links to a number of posts on RTM’s website (the Google search gave me better results than RTM’s own internal site search)
    • send a daily list of tasks, and also a 15 minute reminder of individual tasks, to my phone.
    • It would be wonderful if RTM allowed me to choose either its Priority 1, 2, 3 system or a Covey quadrant model of priorities, but many RTM users have found ways to make Covey’s First Things First and RTM work together.
  • Result = RTM + Covey. I tried using RTM’s priorities, but I couldn’t get the result I wanted. When I read  Using the “First Things First” Paradigm with RTM  and got the idea of simplifying the author’s system and tagging items as “important” to flag them for my Quadrant II list, then using the Due Date to determine urgency. I then created 2 saved searches based on Due Date and “important” tag status, and named them Q1 and Q2. I’ll probably refine the searches over time. I can see from what others have done that there’s lots of room for tweaking the system.

The beginning of a New Year is a great time to be playing with plotting the year ahead, and I’m pretty happy with how my new system is shaping up. I’ve been using Remember the Milk for about a week now. I spent the first day getting enough tasks and appointments into the system to allow me to experiment with searching, tested that the syncing was working well across my iPhone, iPad, and computer (Web). Then upgraded to the Pro version to allow unlimited synchronizing.

Alright, Gremlin. I’ve got a system I like and I’m USING it. It’s even got a name I like – Remember the Milk has a friendly casual sound. I’ve got my January appointments recorded and RTM sends my iPhone reminders of important-to-me, time-sensitive things like my daughter’s birthday dinner yesterday, while giving me a way to track less urgent, but still important items like this blog and a commitment to myself to write every day (tag: important and repeat:every 1 day) .

So there, Gremlin! I can too do this.

Vanessa

Check out my new release: Storm – the Author’s Cut, now available on Kindle

Necessary Lies, Steven Covey, and this writer…

This blog first appeared at PenWarriors.com

The novel I’m now working on – Truth to Tell (TTT) – has surpassed all my other books by having the longest gestation period on record. I conceived of the idea over two years ago when I wrote a couple of scenes, then stalled and put it aside to work on other priorities. Months later I picked the project up again and realized that I had a good character, but the story needed work.

I brainstormed TTT at a Red Door retreat with with the PenWarriors, and came up with a story that seemed fine–but I didn’t touch it again for months. When I did finally return to TTT, I realized my heroine needed a completely different story – and finally the story caught fire for me.

OK, now we’re cooking!

Part of the problem has been that in my other life as a university faculty member, I’d become involved in a long-term project that took most of my writing energy. A continuing stream of time-sensitive tasks had exhausted my creative energy.

On August 1st I started a 1-year research and program development sabbatical, which should mean that I have time for both R&D AND writing. My husband and I decided to take this chance to tour some parts of North America we’ve wanted to see, complete with my books and computer but away from my telephone so that I can focus on both the R&D and my writing.

It worked pretty well during August. I finished and published a new short story, The Broken Gate, and formulated a plan for the last few chapters of TTT. September I devoted to R&D tasks and getting started on our trip. October–

Hmm. October wasn’t looking so good last Friday when I tried to set some goals for the next week. They looked something like this:

  1. Read and critique a story for a writer friend
  2. Write four modules for the course under development
  3. Write this blog
  4. Get back to TTT

Once again, I realized, my writing had fallen to the back of the queue. When would I get time to finish TTT?

The horrifying thing was that back in mid-August when I was working on the book, I came up with a new title that was a much better fit – and I’d forgotten what it was!

I feared TTT would never get the attention it needed, but items 1, 2, and 3 were time-sensitive commitments that mattered. There was ALWAYS something urgent to get in the way.

Staring at the list I’d written, I could see that I’d fallen into the time management mess Steven Covey talked about in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where long-term projects of importance get pushed to the back of the queue because they are not as urgent as more short term and often less important tasks.

The trouble was, back when I read 7 Habits, I didn’t have a time management problem, but I certainly do now! I get a lot done, but things that are very important to me get neglected – like TTT, the book whose new name I can’t remember

First things first, says Covey’s 3rd Habit. If I don’t put long-term-core-value things that reflect my purpose and values first, they’ll never get done.

The solution: turn the task upside down. So, last Friday I rewrote the list of this week’s goals:

  1. Every day, first spend half an hour on TTT. Use a timer.
  2. Read and critique the story
  3. Complete one module for the university program each day
  4. Write the blog for Monday

Almost magically, my task list became manageable.

When would I get TTT written? First thing every day.

I’m on day 4 now and I’m amazed – it’s working! I get up early and walk the dogs with my husband, then happily settle in to work on TTT (this is my time!) – which, my Scrivener file tells me, is now tentatively retitled Necessary Lies. I give myself an hour, because 30 minutes felt too rushed. Then I make a cup of coffee and start working on R&D – I’ve completed two modules in four days, slower than my goal, but I should be able to get the targeted 4 done this week.

I read and critiqued the story Friday evening – great story. I enjoyed it. Now here I am Monday doing the blog. I just realized I’m one day late on that, because this is Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and I got Sunday and Monday mixed up.

I’m in touch with my book, I’m getting other tasks done, and afternoons and evenings I still have time for some sightseeing and other odds and ends – like posting character name searches from my 60,000 name database to my Twitter feed. A habit doesn’t get formed in only four days, but I’m committed – and not to a mental institution!

First things first. This week the system works for me.

I’ve got my A-I-C (a-ah-butt in chair) and it’s fun. Necessary Lies is alive for me and I don’t feel guilty about the other stuff. I realize that my time management has been suffering from “first things last” for a long time. This feels like a miracle!

Vanessa

Check out the free sample of my short story, The Broken Gate
 from Amazon.com
This story will also be appearing in the upcoming PenWarriors anthology of short stories, It Happens at Midnight