An assessment of my morning information gathering and capture mechanisms

Information is all around us

I’ve likened it to wifi or mobile network radiation. It’s there, but you are not really aware of it most of the time. Most of it will be completely irrelevant to your activities of that given day, or even your life. Some of it will be indispensable. But how to know which is which?

It gets even more complicated. We live in a day and age where we have the luxury, the opportunity, to tune into the stream of consciousness of the planet at will.

Think about this for a minute: at any one time you can gain access to what’s top of mind for a lot of people you admire, as long as they are online.

A Catch-22?

There is a very big risk in that it may be the only thing you do, all day long. It can be an excellent excuse not to actually do some real work. But, on the other hand, if you don’t tune into the right information flows from time to time, you may miss some very interesting ideas that are being born and shared. Again, how do you know when you need to do what?

So is this a catch-22? The answer may not please you, in that it is not a resounding “no.” Rather, the answer is, as those are, more complicated. Let me illustrate by going through my daily information gathering and the capture mechanisms I employ to deal with that info. Be aware that I do not have the best possible solution to these problems, but I try my best to be both in tune with the planet (right) and in charge of my life and work. A delicate balance, sometimes.

My daily morning routine

Waking up

When I get up in the morning, around 6.15 AM, I usually need about 30 minutes to really wake up. There is no better way to do it than with a cup of coffee and Reeder, which I use as my RSS feed aggregator on both my iPad and my Mac. I scan through what the blogs decided to deposit on my little stretch of mental beach.

So what now Google has announced the killing of of Google Reader, I hear you ask. I have a vivid imagination. The short of it is “Feedly”, the long of it is I am waiting for Reeder to come up with a viable solutions. Tick Tock …

Some of the information I pass without even looking, some of the information I think may be relevant but not really urgent gets pushed to either Instapaper for reading or Pocket, which I use for videos I want to look at later. Most of these are, in Steven Covey’s parlance, PC or production capability related.

Some information is likely to be relevant for me during the day, either to share with colleagues (ODI articles or any blog article by Chris Blattman) or related to my own production during that day. These get pushed to Evernote. They all get pushed to my Evernote “Today” folder, which is another inbox but one that gets visited every single day.

Going through the today folder, which I do at work, mainly involves tagging in Evernote. Feasible from my laptop but also from any of my i-devices. I recently started to use a good trick which I blogged about earlier. I’ve set up my home iMac (online all the time) to run an AppleScript on an 15 minute basis using Python. Marking the article with a review tag in Evernote generates an Omnifocus entry with a link to the Evernote clipping. The information finds its way into my todo list with limited intervention from my side.

Overall, I achieve this initial phase of gathering stuff into inbox items with a minimum of friction and resistance. And it wakes me up.

On my way to work

I shower, kiss my wife and kids goodbye, and I’m off to work. My podcast feeds have been synchronized the prior evening using Downcast’s excellent location based updates so in my commute between home and the train station I’m listening to some of the podcasts I try to stay up to date with. Depending on the nature of the podcast, the podcast information either gets pushed to Instapaper or to Evernote. I consciously switch off the podcasts on the train. The train is for reading or writing. I use Notability in a workflow I described earlier. I switch back to the podcasts once we pull into the station, as I have a 10 minute walk to the office. In case there is some interesting stuff on the podcast, I can forward it easily to my OmniFocus Maildrop and deal with it when I get to that inbox.

In the office

When I get into the office, I usually try to get one big rock done before I open my email program. During my weekly review I try to assign one to two big rocks, activities that take one or two 45 minute segments, to each of my days of the week, and plan accordingly. This is not cast in stone, but I try to get something concrete done before I deal with the nitty gritty of my inboxes. It may seem trivial, but to me it is anything but. Getting at least one thing done that aligns with a higher altitude GTD goal really helps me in focusing on the doing. I keep that quote on Zuckerberg’s desk, “Keep focused and keep shipping” in the back of my mind. Wish someone would build a nice wallpaper for my iPhone 4 for it … I’ll keep looking.

After the first big rock, I deal with the inboxes. Typically these are business mail (physical and email), Evernote and OmniFocus, in that order. It takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to go through that stack, on a daily basis. This is what happens, closely following David Allen’s prescriptions:

  • Physical mail gets thrashed or scanned and thrashed. Scans are sent to Evernote, to my Today box.
  • Email gets deleted, dealt with (2 minute rule) or sent to OmniFocus. I change to subject line to a concrete next action or a PR + a title, indicating I need to create a project.
  • Evernote Today files get deleted, filed for reference or sent to Omnifocus for further processing. I change the title to something appropriate, again either a concrete next action or a PR + a relevant title if I need to create a project.

Note that while I try to apply a “Touch every bit of information once” approach, this does not always work. When it interferes with my routine, I chose to not comply with the canonical GTD approach and adapt to what works for me. Once I realized I could do this (and so can you) it made my life a whole lot easier!

  • OmniFocus next actions get treated last, but not least. Here I prune mercilessly. If I assign it to a project, it needs to add value by leading to the achievement of the clearly defined outcome of that project. If it does not, I kill the task. This activity also allows me to ensure appropriate phrasing of either next actions or projects. I simply built two textexpander snippets based on the correct verbs to define next actions and projects. This way, I ensure I create relevant next actions and relevant project descriptions. For your information, I check on a weekly basis whether new projects have the appropriate outcomes defined. If not, I think hard about what I want the end-state of the project to be. I also question whether or not I can realistically achieve this end-state with the means at my disposal. If I cannot, the project gets terminated.

This way, I have learned to say “no” to a lot of things. They do allow me to say yes to those things that matter, such as my family, and time with some wonderful people I have had the pleasure of encountering.