43 Folders

Listening to Tim O’Reilly’s talk on Alpha Geeks, he mentions something that I found very interesting: he says he got started on his long, strange journey by simply documenting something that was largely an oral tradition - what it meant to be ‘root’ on a Unix system. By simply writing down what had been passed on verbally from one admin to the next, he started the ball rolling on what has become one of the largest, most successful and best-respected tech publishing houses in the world.

It’s hard to read Merlin Mann’s 43 folders and not think of the same thing. Here, Merlin is simply writing down what others have taken for granted – their productivity habits – and sharing them with others. In most cases, people don’t really appreciate just how effective their habits can be. Or perhaps they just don’t see them as significant enough to share with others. Whatever the case, I can only voice my support for 43 folders (and Danny O’Brien’s slow-coming life hacks), and hope that my self-discipline allows at least some of these habits they are suggesting to seep into my daily routine.

Right now, my routine in work is this:

  • Each day, we have a team ‘huddle’ which, as sexual as it sounds, is remarkably useful, we remind each other of what we were supposed to do yesterday, and announce our plans for today
  • Once the huddle is over, I immediately open up ~/work/TODO.otl in Vim
  • .otl files are Outline files, which work well with the Vim Outliner.
  • I give each actionable item a topic by itself, and each sub-action gets another sub-topic
  • I try to give each action at least one line of a description as to what is involved
  • Once an action is completed, I update it with what was done (e.g. text from an email I sent, a snippet of code I wrote), and ‘collapse’ that item. Because I’ve set Vim to give ‘collapsed’ items a different background, I can quickly scan over it and see what still needs to be done.

Here’s what an entry from last week looks like:

`2004-09-14 Machines for Customer Conference | handed off to JohnB Asset Register for Eamon Service Pack 2 screenshots from Ouzo Mailman archives for Andrew | MHonArc: http://www.mhonarc.org/archive/html/ | Smart Archiver: http://smartarchiver.sourceforge.net/ | Mailman2rss: http://taint.org/mmrss/`

Within the Vim Outliner, this is displayed in a easy-to-follow, colour-coordinated format, and makes a lot more sense.

This still needs a lot of work, but thanks to people like Merlin Mann and Danny O’Brien actually writing down all these things most people take for granted, I’m coming up with all sorts of new ideas as to how I can make myself more productive.

Update October 4th

Okay, so it’s been a couple of weeks. And in those couple of weeks, I’ve been playing about with a few different systems for Getting Things Done. Things like TomBoy and Ecco have both grabbed my attention in a big way (Ecco is so nice, I’m thinking of writing a post about it). But still I keep coming back to my Vim Outliner.

What I’ve discovered

I really only started using Vim since I started my current job. Before then, I used nano, because I mainly wrote text instead of config files and large, unweildy shell scripts. So I’m starting to discover and harness some of its power.

Linking files

My TODO.otl still follows the same format (although I’ve written a shell script to “archive” off the top few entries, so I’m not left with a gigantic text file. However, I’ve found that I can link to external files by wrapping them in square brackets. This has proved remarkably useful for larger projects, ones that go on for a while, with a set of tasks so long that I can’t really keep importing them into my current day’s worklist.

So now, it looks something like this 2004-09-22 Finish Asset Register [AssetRegister.otl] Install laptop for John Doe [JohnDoeLaptop.otl] Remove machines from domain | use PHPLdapAdmin - http://xxxxx Investigate LDAP password policies

To get to the external documents, I simply place the cursor between the square brackets and press Ctrl+], which opens it. Once inside the new external document, I put a [TODO.otl] at the top, so I’ve got an easy route back to my TODO list. This way, I never really have to leave my task list.