Drinking from the Firehose

As our first week draws to a close I have realized, quite jarringly, that my existing systems for task and information management are dreadfully inadequate for dealing with this kind of volume. I’ve worked as a professional web designer and developer for five years, in small companies at various levels of authority, and even spent a year or so running my own freelance web design business.

As a web director at my last job, I managed a project for completely overhauling, recoding and migrating the website and commerce engine for the largest windsurfing and kiteboarding shop in the United States. The project launched on budget, and three months ahead of schedule. I know how to manage tasks. I know how to get things done.

But I don’t know how to do this.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree I had a computer. I didn’t have a laptop. I didn’t have a cell phone. I had a Palm Pilot, which was a great way to waste a lot of time and maintain an awkward mass in my pocket. I would receive only an email or two a day, mostly from my parents. Students took it as a personal affront when professors would send an email to the class. If a professor were to announce an assignment via email, there would have been riots.

There was no OnCourse. There was no online syllabus. Professors had their personal websites, many of them striking a decidedly GeoCities pose, but it was rare for a class itself to have a website. For handling tasks, it was perfectly manageable to keep everything in a weekly planner. All my readings and all my assignments would arrive in the classroom. This single, unidirectional information stream, this was something I could handle.

I didn’t go to college in 1970. I went to college in 2003.

A lot has changed since then, and I’m not so sure it’s all for the better. The wireless networks are more stable, the average walk-up computer is far more powerful, but the biggest problem I’m experiencing is this relentless onslaught of information, coming at me from every side in every possible medium. My calendar alone is freakish in nature.

My organization and task management has improved since graduating from college, which is good considering that managing a commercial commerce rebuild in a personal weekly planner would have been sheer lunacy. I would argue, however, that managing personal tasks is a far different beast than managing a group project.

After this first week I’ve realized that my weekly planner, the means of personal task organization that I associate with school, may not be the answer to my organizational woes. Fortunately, for the last two years of my life I have been using a casual, stripped-down implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. At its most basic, I attempt to collect every single task that is assigned to me, every single thing that may demand my attention, and localize them all in a single inbox.

These task items range from “water the plants” to “renew health insurance” to “pay rent” to “get an internship”. I will collect tasks in my inbox throughout the day, copying stuff from my email inbox, writing down things from conversation, or things that I need to do that suddenly popped into my head. A couple times a day I will “process” my inbox, whereby I go through all my tasks, get a taste for what needs to be accomplished soon, what can be postponed, and what needs to be broken down into further tasks.

That last point is important. A monumental task like “get an internship” is meaningless until you break it down into near-term achievable components. In this case, I will break down “get an internship” into “finish and print rough draft of resume”, “schedule meeting with career center”, and “begin collecting items for portfolio.” Any die-hard GTD fans out there may chide me for not implementing the full-blown system, and perhaps my life is suffering as a result. Indeed, the sudden increase in task volume has already strained my system.

Ironically, for being a tech-savvy person who’s pursuing a degree with “computer” in its title, I am not easily convinced that technology is always the best solution for a problem. Up until a month ago I kept my entire task list on a series of small legal pads. Historically most GTD applications have been awful, as they focus more on categorizing and organizing tasks rather than actually checking them off.

I’ve recently started using Things, which is the only GTD app that I believe gets it right. It retreats to the background and is open enough, while still organized enough, to adapt to your personal strategy. Plus, the new version of Things will sync with the Things application for your iPhone, so you can have your task list wherever you go. If the movers ever arrive and deliver my primary computer, I’ll be able to set this up.

However, over the last week it has become apparent that I will need to develop a task list where I can quickly and efficiently capture ten times the activity than I was encountering before our program started. With all these new avenues for incoming information, from class to email to websites to blogs to forums to OnCourse, I will need to overhaul my system soon, or it will buckle under its own weight.