In part 1 I explained how Obsidian is a tool I use in support of the methods I employ that make up my system to process incoming information as well as track and do my work.

I started using Obsidian to make better notes (Notions as I call them), and link them together where I see relevance. This is a networked type of use. For my daily work and for logging that daily activity I use a folder structure, which is a hierarchical approach. My personal knowledge management system is based on the interplay of those networked and hierarchical perspectives, which allows emergent insights and putting those insights to action or keep them until they can be used.

Folder hierarchy

To kick-off my more detailed description of using Obsidian, I will start with that hierarchical perspective: the folder structure. I will also explain how I make daily and week logs, as well as what I call ‘month maps’

Obsidian allows you to use multiple ‘Vaults’. A vault is a folder tree structure that is perceived as a single collection of notes by Obsidian. The tool tracks connections between only those mark down files in that folder tree. I currently have only a single vault, as I want to be able to link between notes from all my areas of activity. I can imagine you might use separate vaults if one of them is meant to be published, or for instance if one is a team effort. As there is no such division for me, I am building a personal system, I have a single vault.

Within that vault I have a folder structure that currently looks like this:


Main folder structue in my Obsidian vault

That list of main folders is a mix of folders for each of the areas I’m active in, some folders that I use to manage my own work, or that I have/had as Notebook in Evernote to keep their contents apart from other things, and the folders that contain the notes and notions that led me to start using Obsidian.

Areas (a component in the GTD method) are things like my company (4TGL), family and health, home, my voluntary board positions, and websites/automation. Within each area there are projects, specific things I’m working on. Projects all have their own folder in an Area. Some of the projects may have subfolders for (sub)projects taking place within the context of a client assignment for instance.

Examples of folders for managing my work are 1GTD12WY which contains things related to my longer term goals and 3 month planning cycle (combining elements from Getting Things Done and the 12 Week Year methods), and the 2Daglogs folder which contains day and week logs, and month maps.

Evernote notebooks like travel related material (bookings, itineraries) en digital tickler files (also part of the GTD method), and Network (where I keep contextual notes about people, as LinkedIn etc e.g. stores nothing about how you met someone) also have their own top level folder at the moment.

The actual folders for notes are Notes (for notes made from information coming in) and 0GardenofForkingPaths (why that title?), which contains my Notions, the conceptual Zettelkasten-style notes. Those two folders internally take a networked perspective and have no subfolders.
Some folder names start with a number to ensure them being shown at the top end of the list. One folder Z-Templates contains, well, templates, and is called Z so it is always last. Templates can be copied into new notes for those notes where you want to keep a specific structure.

Whenever I start a new project I run an Applescript that after asking me the project name, the area it belongs to, the description and project tag, creates the right folders and in them the right notes I need to start a project (albeit a client project, an internal one, or something else). That script used to create those structure, tasks and notes for me in Evernote and Things, but now creates them in the filesystem within my Obsidian folder. Each project e.g. has a ‘main’ note stating the projects planned results, to which goal(s) it contributes, main stakeholders, budget and rough timeline.

Day and week logs, month maps

Within the folder 2Daglogs I keep day logs, week logs, and month maps. Day logs are ordered in monthly folders, all weeks in a year are in one folder, as are all month maps. Day and week logs are for the now and looking back (they’re logs), month maps I use to look forward to the month ahead, at the start of each month (they’re surveying the coming weeks).


Folder structure that keeps day/week/month files

The first thing I do in the morning, is start the Day log. I do this by clicking the ‘tomorrow’ link in the day log of the day before (after glancing at what I did yesterday). Then in the new note I hit the keyboard short cut /dnow which (through Alfred) adds date tags (like #2020- #2020-10 #2020-1025) and links to the day logs of yesterday and the (as yet not existing) one for tomorrow. See the screenshot below. During the day I add activities to the log as I’m doing them. I also mention thoughts or concerns, how I think the day goes etc. I link/mention the notes corresponding to activities, e.g. things I wrote down in a project meeting. I started keeping day logs last April, and they are useful to help me see on days that seem unfocused what I actually did do, even if it felt I didn’t do much. That helps spot patterns as well.


Example of a day log with the links to other days shown, beneath a bullet list of things I mention during the day

Week logs are notes that collate the day logs of a week. (Since I restarted doing weekly reviews, a week log is accompanied with a note that contains review notes.) Collating is done by transcluding 7 day logs into one note. I add links to the previous and next week on top. I use the week logs in my weekly review on Friday, to write hours in my timesheets at the end of the week, and to write my Week Notes blogpost on Sunday.


A week log is a list of transcluded day logs. Above in edit mode, below in preview mode

Monthmaps are something I make at the start of each month, they are a mindmap of the coming month, hence the name (the Dutch word for month, ‘maand’ sounds a bit like the English mind in mindmap). It’s a habit I started 4 years ago. I list every area (see folder structure above), and within those areas I list every project where I see I might hit a snag, where I have concerns or urgencies are likely to pop up, or where activities are in store I know I usually try to evade or postpone. I add easy actions I can think of that will help me deal with such barriers. It’s a way to confront underlying hesitations or anxieties and prevent negative consequences from them. I refer to it during the week, to see if barriers indeed popped up, or what I had planned to deal with them when they do. I go through it during weekly reviews as well.

In the next part I’ll take a look at how I’ve replaced my todo-list app Things with simple markdown files in Obsidian.

I’ve been using Obsidian a little over 100 days now. So, with over three months of daily use it’s good to review the experience. I will do this in some detail, and it will span several blogposts. To explain both the evolution over time, as well as how I currently work with Obsidian in practice in a more detailed way, as Frank (rightly!) requested.

My system leads the use of tools

First off, a key point to make. I am using a system for myself to plan and do my work, maintain lots of things in parallel, and keep notes. That system consists of several interlocking methods, and those methods are supported by various tools. What I describe in my review of 100 days of using Obsidian, is not about Obsidian’s functionality per se, but more about how the functionality and affordances of Obsidian fit with my system and the methods in that system. With a better fit with my system and methods, I can reduce friction in my methods, and reduce the number of tools I need to use in support of those methods. At the same time, the use of a new tool like Obsidian influences the practical application of methods, it creates a different daily practice. Those shifts are of interest as well.

What I started with

The image below shows you how my overall system of work and taking in information looks. It’s a personal knowledge management system, that both takes care of the networked nature of making sense of new information and evolving interests, as well as the more hierarchical nature of working on projects and executing tasks. Both start with my general notion of where I want to be headed (‘goals’).

I used different tools for different parts of that image:

  • Excel (orange) for: listing goals (3-10 yrs out), the 3 month planning cycle I keep (along the lines of ’12 week year’), the habits I want to maintain or introduce, and tracking of those habits and project progress/fulfillment.
  • Things (red) for: areas of my life I’m active in, projects within those areas, and tasks in those projects.
  • WordPress (darkblue) for: daily logs (which I started keeping end of April this year, on an internal WP instance), week logs (internal draft blogposting), and of course for public blogging itself.
  • Evernote (blue) for: a list of all my current interests/favourite topics, all types of note taking, related to my work/projects and my information diet.
  • Other tools (grey) come into play for feedreading (Readkit), blocking time (Nextcloud calendar in Thunderbird), book reading (Kindle, Nova2), keeping references (Zotero since June, Evernote before that)

While evaluating my system, I tried Obsidian

In the spring I had started evaluating my system. I found I was not keeping up several parts of it, had fallen out of practice with a number of elements, and had changed some of my practices without adapting the flow in my tools. It had therefore suffered in its usefulness. Being at home because of the pandemic allowed me to allocate some time to take a better look, and to start testing some changes. On the tool side of that evaluation, I want to get rid of Evernote (as a silo and single point of failure) since some years.

One change in my system I was experimenting with, was keeping better atomic notes about the core concepts and key elements in how I work. Late last year I thought a bit about atomic notes, i.e. cards with individual snippets, and bringing those collections of snippets and the process of curating them and threading them into e.g. a blogpost or a line of argumentation. In January I came across Zettelkasten and took a closer look, in the spring I read a book about Zettelkasten and knew I wanted to adopt parts of it into my system (linking notes first and foremost, and storing references in a better way). That’s when I started using Zotero to keep references, and stopped doing that in Evernote (Zotero can take website snapshots and store them locally, something I used Evernote for a lot. On top of it if you give Zotero a reference it will find and store a PDF of a scientific article, very useful to read more deeply).

I started to keep atomic notes, sometimes called ‘evergreen notes’ which I to myself now call Notions, capturing concepts from my work (so not work related notes, but conceptual notes) first in both WordPress and Evernote simultaneously. WordPress (a local instance on my laptop, not online) because I already used it for day logs since April, and it allows relatively easy linking, and Evernote because it is much easier to keep notes there than WP, but linking in Evernote is much harder. I also played with some note taking tools, and that’s when I came across Obsidian. It immediately felt comfortable to use it.

How after 100 days Obsidian has covered my system

After over 100 days of Obsidian my use of it has expanded to include a much larger part of my system. Along the way it made my use within that system of Things, Evernote and almost Excel obsolete. It also means I sharpened my system and practice of using it again. This is how the tool use within my system, with the use of Obsidian in green, now looks

Obsidian now contains some 1200 mark down files. 500 are Notions, atomic notes almost exclusively about my own concepts and other core concepts in my work, in my own words. Mostly taken from my own blogposts, reports, and presentations over the years. The other 700 are some 115 day log / week log / month maps, about 100 proto-notions and notes that contain conceptual info to keep from other sources, and some 500 work and project related notes from conversations and work in progress. This sounds as a very quantitative take, and it is. I have in the past months definitely focused on the volume of ‘production’, to ensure I could quickly experience whether the tool helped me as intended. I think that monitoring the pace of production, which I’ve done in the past months, will no longer be relevant by the end of this year. I used the quantity as a lead indicator basically, but have been on the lookout for the lag indicators: is building a collection of linked notes leading to new connections, to more easily creating output like blogposts and presentations, having concepts concisely worded at hand in conversations to re-use? And it did. One very important thing, central to the Zettelkasten method, I haven’t really tried yet however, which is to use the current collection as a thinking tool. Because I was more focused on creating notions first.

On Obsidian as a tool

There are four things in Obsidian that are to me key affordances:

  1. it is a viewer/editor, a fancy viewer/editor, on top of plain markdown text files on my laptop. It builds its own local database to keep track of links between notes. Whatever happens to Obsidian, my data is always available.It being ‘just’ a viewer is important because Obsidian is not open source and won’t be. There is a potential open source alternative, Foam, but that tool is not yet developed enough.
  2. being ‘just’ an editor means using regular text files, it feels like coming full circle, as I have for the most part been note taking in simple text files since the late ’80s. Textfiles always had my preference, as they’re fast and easy to create, but it needed a way to connect them, add tags etc., and that was always the sticking point. It means text files are available outside of Obsidian. This allows me to access and manipulate notes from outside Obsidian without issue, and I do (e.g. on mobile, but also with other software on my laptop such as Tinderbox that I used for the images in this post).
  3. it makes linking between notes (or future links) as simple as writing their filenames, which is supported by forward search while you’re typing.
  4. it shows graphs of your note network, which to me is useful especially for 2 steps around a note you’re working on.

I use Obsidian as simple as possible; I do not use plugins that are supposed to help you create notes (e.g. the existing Zettelkasten and Day log plugin), because they make assumptions about how to create notes (how to name them, which links to create in them). I created my own workflow for creating notes to avoid functionality lock-in in Obsidian: day logs are created manually by keyboard shortcuts using Alfred (previously TextExpander), as are the timestamps I use to create unique file names for notes.

Timeline of three months of Obsidian use

Below is a timeline of steps taken in the past months, which gives you an impression of how my use of Obsidian in support of my system has evolved.

November 2019 I discuss the concept of cards (i.e. atomic notes), curation and writing output

January 2020 I first looked at the Zettelkasten method and some tools suggested for it. I mention the value of linking notes (possible in Evernote, but high friction to do)

May 2020, read the book about Zettelkasten by Sönke Ahrens, adopted Zotero as a consequence.

7 July started with deliberately making Zettelkasten style atomic notes in WordPres en Evernote in parallel, to move away from collecting as dumping stuff in your back yard. Atomic notes only concerning my concepts in my work.

8 July started using Obsidian, after having just started creating ‘evergreen’ notes

15 July having made 35 atomic notes, I make a new association between two of them for the first time.

28 July I’m at 140 conceptual notes. I named the collection Garden of the Forking Paths. I switched my digital tickler files (a part of the GTD method) from Evernote to Obsidian. I had stopped using them, but now it felt normal again to use them. The post I wrote about this, was made from atomic notes I already had made beforehand.

5 August I find I haven’t used WordPress anymore for my day logs ever since starting with Obsidian, and that I also added week logs (an automatic collation of day logs), and monthmaps (a mindmap at the start of the month listing key upcoming things and potential barriers). My Evernote use dropped to 4 notes in 4 weeks, whereas it was 47 the 4 weeks before it. After almost a month of Obsidian, I am getting more convinced that I am on a path of ditching Evernote.

12 August I renamed my ‘evergreen’ notes, that contain my concepts mostly, to Notions, as the generic word notes doesn’t make a distinction in the character of some the things I’m putting into notes.

12 August I write a first long form blogpost made from Notions

13 August Added Nextcloud synchronisation of the note files, allowing mobile viewing and editing of notes

31 August I keep track of tasks in Obsidian and drop Things. There was a time I always did such things in straightforward text files. Being able to do so again but now with a much better way of viewing and navigating such text files and the connections between them, makes it easy to ‘revert’ to my old ways so to speak.

13 September I am at 300 Notions. These first 300 notions are mostly my notions, the things that are core to my thinking about my own work, and the things I internalised over the past 25 years or so, of doing that work. I expect that going forward other people’s ideas and notions will become more important in my collection.

13 September I describe how I make notions and notes

September / October I increasingly use my conceptual Notions as reference while in (online) conversations.

5 October I gave a client presentation (about the Dutch system of base registers) pulled together completely from existing Notions.

7 October added a ‘decision log’ to my note keeping.

16 October 100 days in Obsidian, 500 Notions and about 700 other types of notes.

16 October reinstated a thorough Weekly Review (a component of GTD) into my system.

21 October I gave a brief presentation Ethics as a Practice, the second this month pulled together from existing notes.

This all as a first post looking back on 100 days of Obsidian.
Part 2: Hierarchy and Logs
Part 3: Task management
Part 4: Writing connected Notions, Ideas, and Notes
Part 5: Flow using workspaces
Part 6: Obsidian development vs my usage

Recently Stephen Downes linked to an article on the various levels of sophistication of AI personal assistants. He added that while all efforts are currently at the third level of those 5 he sees a role in education for such assistance only once level 4 or higher is available (not now the case).

AI assistants maturity levels

Those five levels mentioned in the article are:

  1. Notification bots and canned pre-programmed responses
  2. Simple dialogues and FAQ style responses. All questions and answers pre-written, lots of ‘if then’ statements in the underlying code / decision tree
  3. More flexible dialogue, recognising turns in conversations
  4. Responses are shaped based on retained context and preferences stored about the person in the conversation
  5. An AI assistant can monitor and manage a range of other assistants set to do different tasks or parts of them

I fully appreciate how difficult it is to generate natural sounding/reading conversation on the fly, when a machine interacts with a person. But what stands out to me in the list above and surrounding difficulties is something completely different. What stands out to me is how the issues mentioned are centered on processing natural language as a generic thing to solve ‘first’. A second thing that stands out is while the article refers to an AI based assistant, and the approach is from the perspective of a generic assistant, that is put to use into 1-on-1 situations (and a number of them in parallel), the human expectation at the other end is that of receiving personal assistance. It’s the search for the AI equivalent of a help desk and call center person. There is nothing inherently personal in such assistance, it’s merely 1-on-1 provided assistance. It’s a mode of delivery, not a description of the qualitative nature of the assistance as such.

Flip the perspective to personal

If we start reasoning from the perspective of the person receiving assistance, the picture changes dramatically. I mostly don’t want to interact with AI shop assistants or help desk algorithms of each various service or website. I would want to have my own software driven assistant, that then goes to interact with those websites. I as a customer have no need or wish to automate the employees of the shops / services I use, I want to reduce my own friction in making choices and putting those choices to action. I want a different qualitative nature of the assistance provided, not a 1-on-1 delivery mode.

That’s what a real PA does too, it is someone assisting a single person, a proxy employed by that person. Not employed by whomever the PA interacts with on the assisted person’s behalf.
What is mentioned above only at level 4, retained context and preferences of the person being assisted, then becomes the very starting point. Context and preferences are then the default inputs. A great PA over time knows the person assisted deeply and anticipates friction to take care of.

This allows the lower levels in the list above, 1 and 2, the bots and preprogrammed canned responses and action, to be a lot more useful. Because apart from our personal preferences and the contexts each of us operates in, the things themselves we do based on those preferences and contexts are mostly very much the same. Most people use a handful of the same functions for the same purpose at the same time of day on their smart speakers for instance, which is a tell. We mostly have the same practices and routines, that shift slowly with time. We mostly choose the same thing in comparable circumstances etc.

Building narrow band personal assistants

A lot of the tasks I’d like assistance with can be well described in terms of ‘standard operating procedures’, and can be split up in atomic tasks. Atomic tasks you can string together.
My preferences and contextual deliberations for a practice or task can be captured in a narrow set of parameters that can serve as input for those operating procedures / tasks.
Put those two things together and you have the equivalent of a function that you pass a few parameters. Basically you have code.

Then we’re back to automating specific tasks and setting the right types of alerts.

Things like when I have a train trip scheduled in the morning, I want an automatic check for disturbances on my route when I wake up and at regular intervals until 20 mins before the train leaves (which is when I get ready to leave for the rail way station). I want my laptop to open up a specific workspace set-up if I open my laptop before 7 am, and a different one when I’m re-opening my laptop between 08:30-09:00. I want when planning a plane trip an assistant that asks me for my considerations in my schedule what would be a reasonable time to arrive at the airport for departure, when I need to be back, and I want it to already know my preferences for various event times and time zone differences w.r.t spending a night before or after a commitment at the destination. Searching a hotel with filter rules based on my standard preferences (locations vis-a-vis event location and public transport, quality, price range), or simpler yet rebook a hotel from a list of previous good experiences after checking if price range e.g. hasn’t changed upward too much. Preference for direct flights, specific airlines (and specific airlines in the case of certain clients) etc. Although travel in general isn’t a priority now obviously. When I start a new project I want an assistant to ask a handful of questions, and then arrange the right folder structure, some populated core notes, plan review moments, populate task lists with the first standard tasks. I only need to know the rain radar forecast for my daughter’s school start and finish, and where my preferred transport mode for an appointment is bicycle. For half a dozen most used voice commands I might consider Mycroft on a local system, foregoing the silos. Keeping track of daily habits, asking me daily reflection questions. Etc.

While all this sounds difficult when you would want to create this as generic functionality, it is in fact much more simpler in the case of building it for one specific individual. And it won’t need mature AI natural conversation, merely a pleasantly toned interaction surface that triggers otherwise hard coded automated tasks and scripts. The range of tasks might be diverse but the range of responses and preferences to take into account are narrow, as it only needs to pertain to me. It’s a narrow band digital assistant, it’s the small tech version.

Aazai

For some years I’ve dubbed bringing together the set of individual automation tasks I use into one interaction flow as a personal digital assistant ‘Aazai’ (a combination of my initials A.A.Z. with AI, where the AI isn’t AI of course but merely has the same intention as what is being attempted with AI generally). While it currently doesn’t exist mostly as a single thing, it is the slow emergence of something that reduces digital friction throughout my day, and shifts functionality with my shifts in habits and goals. It is a stringed together set of automated things arranged in the shape of my currently preferred processes, which allows me to reduce the time spent consciously adhering to a process. Something that is personal and local first, and the atomic parts of which can be shared or are themselves re-used from existing open source material.

Last week I have made changes in the way I process email. Adapting it more towards ‘Getting Things Done’, which I had avoided doing for years, and making some changes in daily habits around it. Now that I made the change, I can’t quite understand what kept me from doing it, even though before I thought my needs would not be met with a new routine.

Resisting change
As I use Gmail and have the notion I really shouldn’t, I mentally postponed changing my routines until ‘after replacing Gmail’, assuming I would otherwise either increase the cost of leaving Gmail (by having routines more deeply connected to its functionalities), or I’d find a replacement that already contained a better flow by default, making designing change now a waste of time. I know, neither make much sense upon closer consideration. Likely the real reason I made the change now, is having come back from a long vacation, and not many obligations yet as most clients are still away themselves. That, and receiving an external trigger right at that moment.

The trigger
That trigger was getting a message from Martin Roell, that one of his colleagues, Rob van den Brand, is offering a free download of how to deal with email. I downloaded it ouf of curiosity to see if it contained anything new in terms of suggestions. At first glance it didn’t, it was the GTD style approach I already knew (using the 2 minute rule, sorting into piles to reply, read, do and other etc.). Then a few days later a follow-up arrived with a few behavioral tactics to help make the mechanism work. The first one was unsubscribe to a lot of stuff, which led me to review my automated filtering, which led to re-evaluating the original GTD method, which led to implementing it……

The old routine
Over the years I kept all my e-mail in my inbox, always. Piling, never filing (tagging I do). The original reason for that was that my first mobile e-mail app would not let me easily access and search archived mail, only what was in my inbox would be readily available. The first step of my mail process is usually on my mobile.

From the newly arrived mail, I would ‘star’ those I thought would need some sort of follow-up. Things that don’t interest me I would leave unread but not throw out. This would be my basic triage method. I also have various filtering rules that label incoming mail (apart from ‘starred’) according to what part of my professional activities they represent (my company, my fablab stuff etc.) Using Gmail’s multiple inbox feature, those stars and labels were presented on my laptop screen as separate lists next to the main inbox.

At some point during the day I would open my mail (Gmail’s web interface) on my laptop and:

  • mark all remaining unread mail as read
  • work through the starred items
  • look at/answer mail while working on a specific professional context (1 of the inboxes)

The problem with this was that a starred mail could still mean many things (migh be interesting, immediate action, little or lots of work, read, keep in mind etc.) I basically needed to reevaluate every single mail, every time I opened up the ‘starred’ list. Over time that list would grow with unprocessed items from the past, becoming a ineffective mental drag, except for the recently starred messages. Also some of the multiple inboxes had survived beyond their waned usefulness due to changing focus and activities, and I had difficulty putting them to new good use.

The new routine
My current mobile app (the place where I do my first mail triage) fully supports labeling messages and accessing archived mails. Functionality I wasn’t putting to good use. So that makes it possible to do more detailed and better triage on incoming mail. I now, following the GTD material I mentioned above:

  • use many more filtering rules to automatically process and label incoming mails, alerts, mailers etc.
  • have unsubscribed a wide range of mailers connected to long time ago interests
  • have moved some quarter million mail exchanges of the past years from the inbox to the archive
  • label the remaining few mails that still reach my inbox with 1_reply, 2_todo, 3_toread, 4_waiting and other assorted relevant labels (such as ‘bookkeeping’, ‘opendata’, ‘acquisition’ etc.) so they can be more easily found back when needed
  • create new filtering rules when a mail arrives that warrants a filter
  • empty the inbox by moving all labeled and remaining unlabeled mail into the archive

The original multiple inboxes I now show below new mail, in stead of to the right where I had them for the past years. The multiple inboxes now show the reply/todo/read/waiting labels. That looks like this:

mailinbox

Key take-aways and needs
Changing my mail process and method of triage turned out to be easy. It moved the decision what to do with an e-mail forward 1 step, and made it part of the triage. (Before I would only star a mail and then decide later). This makes my normal daily time slot for mail sufficient to actually deal with the contents of that mail.

Main ‘win’ is that my mail interface is much less noisy, both due to heavier automated filtering and removing processed messages from the inbox. Before I would see whatever was left over from ‘before’ and always have a full page of messages in front of me. That clutter is now 5 short lists, with only one of those lists needing attention at any given time. All other stuff from mailing lists are available under a label/tag, when I decide I want to catch up but never clog up the inbox.

My main demand, being able to do triage ‘on the go’, is still being met (and more automated than before). The reduced clutter also feels like it might be a benefit when I move out of Gmail.

The only thing to still do is to much better connect the list of mails labeled to-do to my actual task management tool (Things, by Cultured Code) and making sure they get the right follow-up that way. I could probably automate that, but haven’t figured out how to do that yet. This may mean that the to-do part of the mail flow will actually disappear from my gmail altogether.

Working with a Getting Things Done system in the past 9 months or so leads to a few thoughts I’d like to share.
Because it seems to me there is a systemic weakness in the concept of GTD. This does not mean GTD is not bringing me benefits, on the contrary. It does limit its scope of effectiveness though.
GTD, what it does
GTD is about making lists, more effective lists, to manage your time/life better.
The biggest benefit in GTD, as I understand it, is in not asking you to attach priorities or times to activities in your list, as time management systems generally do. It assumes that once you have good lists you will know what to do, based on time and energy available, as well as your own sense of urgency. This is a true diamond, as it trusts you to be human, and doesn’t demand the conveyor belt mindless behaviour other time management systems ask for (“once you have the right list, you’re on mindless autopilot”)
The other big benefit of GTD is its multiple feedback loops. The short one, shared with other time management systems, informing you about tasks, and tasks that are waiting for someone else. The longer feedback loop(s), the reviews, allow you to step away from the task units, and look at your goals if they are still valid, and if your tasks still serve those goals. This helps you prevent to be running because you are busy, without knowing why you’re busy and what it’s all for. Doing good reviews (both back and forward looking, so review is a partly misleading term), and doing them regularly however is not easy.
GTD, what it does not
The biggest problem of GTD is that it is based on lists. Because list making is an old and time-honoured information strategy. GTD in essence says: if your inbox and the amount of tasks is growing and your life is getting more complicated make better lists.
That amounts to, when someone does not understand you, repeating yourself saying it LOUDER. In stead of choosing different words to convey your message. GTD is trying to apply the list making strategy better, in response to a failing list making strategy.
However when I see what I and others are trying to do with GTD it is navigating an increasingly fragmented and complex environment. The root causes are quantitative rises in the connections between people (small world), the speed of change (world becoming a metropole), and the amount of information (information abundance). The internet, and other preceding media, as infrastructure play a very big role in these quantitative shifts.
Quantitative changes, qualitative answers
These quantitative shifts are by necessity begetting qualitative answers, because conventional methods (like making lists) stop scaling. Web2.0 tools have some of those qualitative answers (active sharing and sense making, social relations as information filter, networks of meaning) as design principles. Other qualitative answers are becoming part of our information skills (pattern recognition, knowing when to stay focussed amidst distraction, knowledge as being connected/networked, learning as building networks).
I find I apply those qualitatively different information strategies before I can get to the level of things where GTD lists make sense. I hunt for patterns in my RSS feeds, and then those patterns become inbox items. The RSS feed items themselves are not suited to treat as inbox items, simply because the items themselves are not the relevent units of information for me.
I already have marked 90% of my incoming e-mail as read without reading them, before I get to seeing them as true inbox items that warrant a decision to respond to, put on my task list, send to someone else, or delete.
I also find that a very important piece of my work does not get affected by GTD at all: staying aware of my social network and context. Keeping track of the people I know and the communities I am part of is my premier source of learning, of landing projects, of bringing my goals closer, and it is all to a very large extent based on peripheral sense. It is based on not looking directly at it, nor on focussing on it, but glancing at it,. Like the way you keep track of what is happening in a pub by glancing around, while you are actually focussing on the conversation with the person in front of you. Or like the way in the dark you see more out of the corner of your eye, than right in front of you. Like with my RSS feeds this is pattern hunting. And only the patterns I find ever reach my inbox where I focus on them to decide what to do next. Tuning my antennas on my surroundings, and pro-actively define what type of patterns I am currently especially interested in also takes a large chunk of time and energy.
This creates a scope where GTD is effective but only after the problems caused by the size, fragmentation and speed of the world around me have already been dealt with using other strategies. GTD gives me very effective lists, but only after I have created a qualitatively better ‘inbox’ myself. GTD can deal with complicated stuff very well, but I have to deal with complexity myself first.
How GTD could be better
One way in which the GTD method could become more valuable is if I could get patterns from it about what I do, that became inbox items again. Another if I could shape my GTD reviews to help me tune my antennas for the peripheral vision better as I described above. Something to think about further