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Revolving workflow strategies

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I've been using GTD principles for over three years now, mostly with good results. I believe the concepts are generally the best productivity approach for knowledge workers. There are times, however, when I think the model must be expanded to get the best results in a given situation.

There is no doubt that tracking every moving part of every commitment you have is a powerful foundation for productivity. Choosing what you work on at any given moment can get a bit nerve-wracking, however, when you may have hundreds of actions on any given context list.

I have set up my action contexts based on literal physical context. For example, I have an @Computer context. Yes, I spend 98% of my time in this context. Others in this boat have suggested making further sub-contexts, such as @Programming or @Email to account for the fact that @Computer is too ubiquitous for programmers. I use real physical contexts because, to me, that distinction is the reality behind grouping by context in the first place; i.e., can you perform this action in your current physical context? I do place actions to be done at a computer in @Office or @Home if the *only* computer these actions can be done on is in one place or the other (very few actions end up like this, but there are a few).

I've tried coming up with a lot of "conceptual" contexts instead of real physical contexts, but the small friction of this additional up-front labeling seems counterproductive to me, especially since I bundle relevant communication with any given action. For example, when I complete a programming task, I don't then make a separate action to email the client about it; I just go ahead and email the client (if necessary) as part of completing the action. The exception is when I might complete an action in the middle of the night and the next step is to call the client for discussion. Since I can't call the client in the middle of the night, I make an action for the follow-up call. Why I might be working in the middle of the night is a topic for another day.

Anyway, the point is that I move to other criteria when choosing actions to complete from a very long list of @Computer actions. In the book (p. 192 in the hardcover), David tells us that context is only one of four criteria to apply when choosing actions. The other three, in order, are time available, energy available, and priority. I don't generally track these in any formal way, but I do use the criteria intuitively, although I steer clear of priority for the most part. If I have agreed to do something, I need to do it, and setting priorities on actions tends to create a false order (for me). I intuitively know how to discern a real crisis from pedestrian actions anyway. This all works fine, as far as it goes.

I've recently noticed some patterns emerging from how I address actions, and I thought it might be nice to formalize them somewhat for my own use. These are essentially approaches to a day's work, and I think of them as workflow strategies, in the sense of temporarily "prioritizing" the long action lists that confront me every day. These could be an expansion of the "threefold model for evaluating daily work" (p. 196 in the hardcover). David's list is:
  • doing predefined work
  • doing work as it shows up
  • defining your work
My own patterns suggest the following strategies. While they could be rotated throughout a single day, I am finding I like to commit to a single approach early in the day and generally stick to it for the day (possibly choosing a second approach at night). I don't plan in advance what tomorrow's strategy will be, because a lot of it is based on external factors like the number of new client requests I might receive in the morning. These are certainly nothing beyond common sense, and many of them are even laid out in the book and elsewhere, but it has helped me to list them out and think about which I am using at any given time.

alternate projects
Let's see how many different projects I can "touch" today. While I might not make significant progress on any project, completing next actions for as many projects as possible ensures that they are moving forward.
big chunks of time on certain projects
Very nice for nights and weekends, when interruptions are at a minimum. Big chunks of time are necessary for making significant progress on certain projects, and ideally this strategy can be used at least once or twice per week.
complete as many small items as possible
Sometimes it's those little actions that pile up and cause undue amounts of stress based on their sheer numbers. I think of these as "mosquito tasks." Occasionally, it's nice to spray the yard and keep their breeding to a minimum. This strategy is essentially focused on reducing the number of actions on your list.
oldest first
Actions that age too long can cause problems. They can morph into crises, client dissatisfaction and other ugly foes. By going through actions in this order, you are decreasing the effects of or preventing a backlog. Please use this strategy generously if you get any complaints about your turnaround time. The next strategy can also help with managing perception of your turnaround time.
newest first
I use this strategy when it's evident that it's going to be one of those days when I am bombarded by client requests. Somehow there are just days when all clients, even ones dormant for years, emerge from the woodwork, or all active clients simultaneously decide that this is the day when they must unload all of their requests. I tend to have a "newest first" day at least once per week, and it's the strategy I most infrequently choose of my own accord. Luckily, it's usually pretty obvious early in the day if it's going to be that kind of day. The benefit of this strategy is that you are providing quick response and preventing a new stratum from being layered onto your action lists. This strategy might also be "newest and shortest first," because it is only really effective if the new items coming in won't take eight hours each.
squeaky wheel
I am reluctant to advertise this strategy, as I'd hate for everyone to become more squeaky, but sometimes you just have to put the grease in the place that squeaks. If a certain client is upset, anxious or just antsy, this approach can help smooth the situation. Note that it's not a bad idea to diagnose why there are squeaks at all.
goal driven
In theory, all your actions should be supporting some goal or another. In reality, there are plenty of actions that you must do that are entirely unrelated to your goals. For example, I've got to renew my driver's license this month. I guess "continue to be able to operate a motor vehicle" is a sort of goal, but it's a pretty bland and uninspiring goal at best. Client work also tends to be only indirectly related to goals; usually goals are about internal operations or personal matters. So, there are times that you want to focus on the actions that support the goals that are exciting to you. When all is quiet on the client front, I'll use this strategy for a day.
There may be others that emerge as I continue to observe myself in these patterns. These patterns certainly won't apply to everyone, but they have been useful to me for providing an extra dimension to being able to quickly decide which pre-identified action to do next.

Posted by murt at 6:24 PM


Blogger daan said...
Very useful; thanks. It's good to explicate and list one's strategies, it's better if someone else does it for you...
The only two strategies I missed were 'most nagging first' and 'avoiding most nagging'
4/26/2005 4:47 PM  

Anonymous Peter Flaschner said...
I'd add one more:

Most Guilt Inducing!
4/27/2005 10:06 AM  

Anonymous Ricky Spears said...
Great article, Chris! I just posted my comments on my site. Since you don't have trackbacks turned on, I'll post my commentary here as well:

Chris Murtland presents some strategies for attacking your next actions list(s): alternate projects, big chunks of time on certain projects, complete as many small items as possible, oldest first, newest first, squeaky wheel, and goal driven. I actually use these myself, I had just never really thought about it as organized as this. Usually I will take the first hour or two each morning and try to complete as many items as possible. This gets a lot of small things off my list and gets me going for the bigger things. Then for the rest of the day I try to focus big chunks of time on certain projects. If I have time during processing I will sometimes try the newest first approach. A couple times a month I try to hit the oldest first. If I have a really long stretch of time to use I will use the alternate projects approach to make at least a little progress on everything on my current projects list. I try not to use the squeaky wheel strategy too often, but sometimes you just have to drop everything and deal with the complainers.

I would add at least a couple more to this list: what am I most resisting? I got this one from Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster; and the converse of that what do I most want to do?.
4/30/2005 10:48 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I splice Covey's work to GTD and maintain a list of next actions by urgent and important, urgent, important, and easy. I review key projects first thing to make sure nothing is missed then I work against the aforementioned list...
11/09/2005 6:06 AM  

Anonymous Katy said...
You raised some good points here, however I feel that if you go down the "newest first" route you can open yourself up to all sorts of problems. Once you've done something quickly once, a client always expects you to do something that quickly again!
2/21/2006 12:15 PM  

Blogger murt said...
Katy, that's a good point. Of course, just because you finish something really quickly doesn't mean that you have to immediately notify the client about it. Granted, depending on the work and how closely they monitor things, they may be able to tell anyway.
2/21/2006 12:28 PM  

Blogger Michele said...
Great post - I struggle with massive to-do lists as well and find it just isn't practical to go through them all on a regular basis so I just need to put out the fires, pick the next few things and get moving.
4/08/2008 2:26 PM  

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