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Guest Post: Advanced GTD with Remember The Milk

Friday, May 30, 2008 by Emily Boyd

I'm happy to introduce a guest post from Doug Ireton, who's written a fantastic guide to Getting Things Done with RTM. Doug is a Sr. Platform Engineer on the Windows Server team at Nordstrom, a luxury clothing retailer based in Seattle, Washington. He is an avid Remember The Milk user, and after almost a year has finally stopped fiddling with his RTM setup (mostly). Using RTM for work and personal tasks and projects, he has achieved Inbox Zero (at least at work…). He lives in a small Craftsman-style house in Seattle with his wife and two kids. Thanks for sharing your insights, Doug!

Remember The Milk has all the features required to be a great web-based task manager for Getting Things Done (GTD) but its sheer flexibility means it can be daunting to build a well-oiled GTD machine. In this post I’ll show you how to use RTM Lists, Tags, Smart Lists, and Locations to create a full-blown project and task management system based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

A good GTD system should:

  1. Allow you to keep track of daily tasks (e.g. “pick up dry cleaning”) and projects (e.g. “create web site”)
  2. Make the weekly review as easy as possible, allowing you to brainstorm tasks for each project and identify Next Actions, Waiting-For and delegated tasks
  3. Separate tasks (a.k.a. Next Actions) into Contexts, such as Work, Home, Calls, Grocery Store, etc., so you only see the tasks you can do at any given time.
  4. Keep you focused on the most important tasks you need to do today

The GTD system has five workflow phases: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do. By following the steps below to set up Remember The Milk, you’ll have a seamless system which supports the complete GTD workflow by getting all of your projects and tasks out of your brain into a trusted, organized system. More importantly, you will complete more tasks by working from your Smart Lists (saved searches) which display only the tasks you must do today separated into the appropriate context: Work, Home, Errands, etc.

The setup below should take about 30-40 minutes. Once you have it set up, a Weekly Review, adding tasks as you think of them, and occasionally adding/removing project lists will be all the maintenance required to maintain your system.

Create Lists for Personal and Work Daily Tasks

Start by creating two lists, “ps-Daily” and “wk-Daily” to keep track of day-to-day personal and work tasks, respectively. You’ll use these lists to track all of your miscellaneous, non-project personal and work tasks, such as “Pick up dry cleaning”, “Take Fido to vet”, or “Submit April cell phone bill to boss for reimbursement”. Only tasks not associated with a project should go on these lists. You will keep track of project tasks on separate project lists. (For now, don’t worry about the blue tags after each task in the screen shot below; I’ll address those later.)

Personal and work daily tasks

Create a List for Each Project

Next, create a list for each personal and work project you have (for example, “Buy House” or “Create Budget”). Don’t think of a project as a complicated team effort requiring a project manager. A project in GTD is any multi-step effort that is not easily tracked with a single task. For our purposes, a project should entail three or more tasks. For projects with fewer than three tasks, just create the tasks on your “ps-Daily” or “wk-Daily” lists. Prefix project list names with “ps-” or “wk-” to sort your personal and work project lists together with their respective “ps-Daily” and “wk-Daily” lists.

Project lists

For each project list, create a goal statement, preferably a S.M.A.R.T. goal. Creating a goal statement as an RTM “task” ensures you will always have your goal in front of you when you view your project list. For example, if your goal is to buy a house before summer, create a “ps-BuyHouse” list, with a goal statement such as “.. Purchase 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in Greenwood Park neighborhood.” Pre-pending the goal statement with “.. ” ensures it will sort to the top of the “ps-BuyHouse” list. All project tasks should flow from your goal statement.

Brainstorm Project Tasks and Tag your Next Actions with “na”

Now that you have created your project lists and written a goal statement for each list, each week (or as you think of them) you can write new tasks on your project list until you have captured all tasks required to finish the project. From this list of tasks, you will identify during your weekly review and tag with “na” the Next Action(s) with no dependencies. Completed tasks are automatically filtered out by RTM. Each week, as tasks you’ve completed drop off the list, you’ll identify and tag new Next Actions from the list.

For example, in the list below, I’ve identified five tasks for my “ps-BuyHouse” project. Only two of them are Next Actions with no dependencies, so I’ve tagged “Email friends…” and “Close unused credit card accounts…” with “na”. Once I’ve completed “Email friends for real estate agent recommendations” and have a list of agents to email, “Email real estate agents to set up interviews” is the Next Action and I’ll tag it with “na”.

Tagging next actions

In traditional GTD, you write down only the Next Actions during each weekly review so it’s easy to forget dependent tasks later on when it’s time for them to become Next Actions. In contrast, writing down all tasks as soon as you think of them allows you to freely brainstorm and keep track of all the tasks for a particular project on one list. Tagging the Next Action tasks on the list allows you to identify the next thing(s) you need to do to move each project forward.

Next you will use RTM Tags and Locations to label your tasks with their appropriate GTD Contexts. Then I’ll show you how to create Smart Lists (filters) to display only your Next Actions grouped by Context (@Home, @Work, @Errands, etc) for laser-like focus.

Use Tags and Locations to Create Contexts (@Home, @Work, @Web, etc.)

Contexts are one of the key concepts of GTD and allow you to filter your Next Actions so you only see the tasks you can work on at that moment. For example, when you are downtown, you can pull up your list of downtown tasks. On Saturday morning, you can look at your “@Errands” Smart List to decide which errands to do. At work, you only have to look at your “@Work” Smart List.

Physical contexts such as “Home”, “Downtown”, or “Work” should be created as RTM Locations, which have the added benefit of Google Maps integration. You should create a location for each place you will be working on tasks on a regular basis. My locations include @Home, @Work and @Downtown.

Logical contexts such as “Web,” “Calls,” or “Errands” should be implemented using RTM tags. You create new tags automatically by typing into the “Tags” field on the Task details tab, separating multiple tags with commas. Some people go crazy with Context tags but I find the following to be the most useful: @web, @call, and @errand.

Task with context

The image above shows Task details with “@call” and “na” Tags and “@Work” as the Location. Even though this is a personal task, created on my “ps-Daily” list, I set the location to “@Work” since I want to make dinner reservations during my workday as soon as the restaurant opens.

Task cloud

Both Locations and Tags automatically show up in the RTM “tag cloud” (image above), so you have an easy way to display all the tasks for a given context just by clicking on the location or tag in the “tag cloud.” An even better way of seeing only your Next Actions by context is to create a Smart List for each context.

Create Smart Lists to Separate Tasks Into Specific Contexts

Your daily and project-specific lists support the first four phases of the GTD workflow process (Collect, Process, Organize, Review), getting all projects and tasks out of your brain into a trusted, organized system. RTM Smart Lists focus your attention on the final and most important phase: doing your tasks.

RTM Smart Lists are saved searches with an amazing array of search operators that allow you to filter and group your tasks in meaningful ways. Just as project lists are useful for seeing all tasks for a given project, Smart Lists can be used to show you only the Next Actions you need to work on at Home, Work, or on the web.

Errands Smart List

For example, the image above shows my “Errands” smart list. The List tab on the right shows what the Smart List is showing: tasks tagged with “@errand” and “na”. So this list only displays errands that are Next Actions.

Work Smart List

My Work Smart List is a more complicated example. I want it to show work Next Actions and, since I work downtown and run errands during lunch, any personal tasks which I need to do downtown, such as “Pick up dry cleaning”. The List tab in the image above shows the Smart List query: tag:na AND (location:@work or location:@downtown) AND NOT dueAfter:"2 weeks from today". I use the AND NOT dueAfter:"2 weeks from today" to exclude any tasks due more than two weeks from today to keep me focused on near-term tasks.

Notice that “Pick up dry cleaning” shows up on both the Errands Smart List and the Work Smart List since it is an errand and a downtown task. Smart Lists give me the flexibility of doing the task during my lunch hour at work, or on Saturday when I look at my Errands list.

Recently, I also added a @Work-MIT Smart List to show only my Most Important Tasks. When my list of work Next Actions gets too overwhelming, I just work from this Smart List. As you can see in the table below, the @Work-MIT Smart List shows priority one and two work tasks due this week. Once I complete all tasks on the @Work-MIT list, I go back to my @Work Smart List.

Here are the Smart Lists I use on a daily basis. Notice that they all include “tag:na” to show me only my Next Actions.

Smart List name Smart List Query
@Home tag:na AND location:@Home
@Calls tag:na AND tag:@call
@Errands tag:na and tag:@errand
@Web tag:na AND tag:@web
@Work tag:na AND (location:@work or location:@downtown) AND NOT dueAfter:"2 weeks from today"
@Work-MIT tag:na AND (location:@work or location:@downtown) AND NOT dueAfter:"1 week from today" AND (priority:1 OR priority:2)

Waiting-For and Someday/Maybe Lists

Some tasks are dependent on other people, but you still need to track them to make sure they are completed. For example, you may be waiting on a co-worker to finish the new logo design for the website project you are working on. Or you may be waiting on your tax refund deposit before you buy an iPhone. Or you might be waiting for a third bid on your landscape project before deciding on a landscaper. All of these tasks are Waiting-For tasks, and should be tracked separately from your Next Actions. Instead of tagging these tasks with “na” for Next Action, you should tag them with “wait” to indicate they are Waiting-For tasks.

Waiting-For Smart List

Any tasks you delegate to others should be treated as Waiting-For tasks and tagged with “wait”. I also tag delegated tasks with the delegatee’s name, e.g. “k” for my wife, “Aaron” for a co-worker, etc. The delegatee’s name tag, e.g. “Aaron”, shows up in the Tag Cloud so I can click on it and see all tasks I’ve delegated to Aaron. This is especially useful if I have an upcoming meeting with Aaron.

Smart List name Smart List Query
Wait-Personal tag:wait AND NOT location:@work
Wait-Work tag:wait AND (location:@work or location:@downtown)

Finally to round out your GTD system, create a ps-Someday and a wk-Someday list to keep track of your personal and work Someday/Maybe projects, e.g. sail around the world, read War and Peace, redesign internal web site, etc. These two lists should be created as Lists, not Smart Lists.

Move any existing “Someday/Maybe” projects/tasks to these lists to hold them for the future. Be sure to remove any “na” or “wait” tags so tasks on your ps-Someday and wk-Someday lists don’t show up in your Smart Lists (e.g. “@Work”). You’ll need to review the ps-Someday and wk-Someday lists during your normal Weekly Review and move any Someday/Maybe projects and tasks that you are ready to work on back to the appropriate lists (and tag them with “na” if required).

Your ps-Someday and wk-Someday list are your trusted holding places for projects and tasks you want to put on hold but don’t want to forget about. Optionally you can also set a reminder on any Someday/Maybe projects if you want to be reminded on a specific date, e.g. six months from now. In this way, your Someday/Maybe lists can work as a Tickler file.

Other Lists and Smart Lists to Complete Your System

I use a few other Lists to keep track of things:

  1. an iTunes list of songs I hear on the radio that I want to buy
  2. a Books List of books to read, and
  3. a Lent/Borrowed List to keep track of items I’ve lent to friends or borrowed from friends and coworkers. Use the due date to remind you when to return them or go get them back.

Finally, I created a Work-WeeklyStatus Smart List to automatically generate my weekly status report of tasks I’ve completed in the last week. Now if only RTM would email my manager a nicely formatted version of this Smart List every week…

Smart List name Smart List Query
Work-WeeklyStatus completedWithin:"1 week of today" AND location:@work AND NOT list:ps-Daily

Bringing it All Together

As you process your Inbox to zero every day, any longer-than-two-minute tasks should be added to the appropriate List in RTM and tagged. I move any project-related email messages to a separate email folder with the same name as my RTM list. When the project is completed, I just delete or archive the RTM project List and the corresponding email folder. If you use Gmail, I highly recommend the RTM Firefox extension.

You should also be doing a Weekly Review, which is probably the hardest GTD practice to do consistently. It’s the glue that holds your system together. Use your Weekly Review to brainstorm new tasks, identify and tag Next Actions for each project, move those tasks you’ve postponed 10 times to Someday/Maybe, create new Lists for new projects and archive or delete completed project Lists. You should also review your Wait-Personal and Wait-Work Smart Lists to see if you need to follow up with anyone.

Once you have written down your tasks and identified your Next Actions, you are ready to start working from your Smart Lists. Select the Smart List for your current context, e.g. @Work, and start working. You can do tasks based on what’s most important today, what you have energy for, what you have time for, or pick a random task. It’s up to you. Each task completed is another step toward completing one of your goals.

Remember The Milk is by far my favorite web-based task management app because it supports the five GTD workflow phases (Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do) in a seamless, automatic way. Its simple but powerful features allow me to focus on doing my work instead of endlessly fiddling with the system, moving my life forward, one step at a time.

Posted in: Tips & Tricks