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Getting Things Labeled


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
September 10, 2007

My first encounter with the cult of organization was during my waning days at General Electric. One of my putative bosses discovered Franklin planners and required that everyone of consequence below him attend a full-day seminar to join the Franklin cult.

To keep travel expenses to a minimum, our Franklin instructor came to us. He was a nice enough guy who showed obvious signs of wanting to move up in the ranks of motivational speakers, in other words, he was a bit smarmy. We got workbooks that encouraged us to go beyond our comfort zones and were issued Franklin planners with a month's worth of pages for them and order forms for more. We were then told how we were to put everything in the planners and that we had to take them with us everywhere. I imagined that the speaker had a waterproof pouch surgical implanted onto his hip so that he could take his trusty Franklin planner into the shower. The toadies of our crowd at GE carried their planners with them for several months until the whole thing was forgotten when the next management fad arrived, while the rest of us immediately chucked them. Another Dilbert moment at GE.

The Franklin people never faded away entirely. They had a messy marriage with the Covey folk and I still see them from time to time on my more upscale adventures in retailing, it's just that they are not worth writing about. I am not about to link to themyou can guess their URLand the handy store locator on their sites indicates that there are no Franklin Covey stores in the entire state of New York, which probably tells you something. The day that I purchase an inspirational poster about teamwork is the day before the day that the men in white coats come for me.

Now let's fast forward to the present. One of the first podcasts that I subscribed to back when podcasts were new was Merlin Mann's "43 Folders," a major podcast in the world of "lifehacking." It is there that I discovered GTD, which is short for "Getting Things Done," which also happens to be the title of David Allen's book about his trademarked organizational system.

Before we go any further, you must understand that I am for organization in a big way. I was an early adopter of Ready!, GrandView, PackRat, Ecco, Outlook, and OneNote. My hard drive is organized, my books are organized, my files are organized, and my fish named Alpha is organized. The only thing is that I do not belong to any organizational cult. I just pick and choose good organizational ideas cafeteria style, which is what lifehacking is all about.

I read the GTD book in an attempt to pick up the trendy organizational tips to and see what all the excitement was about. It was one of those hot and lazy July weekends where my other project was to go through all my electronic junk and various gadgets, throw most of it out, and organize what was left of it in see-through plastic bins from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. (Consumer advice: Do not buy those cheap Sterilite bins, ever.) The psychic impact of this exercise was the disgust I felt for having spent so much money for lots of stuff that was now utterly useless.

The GTD book has some good ideas in it, and one idea resonated with my inner gadget freak. Mr. Allen suggested that to help one organize one's stuff that one should purchase a label maker and stick labels on things. I paid Amazon and Newegg (the subjects of next month's commentary) a visit and discovered that one could purchase loads of label-making capability for $50 or less. (Label makers are very much like razorsthe real money is in the blades, which in this case are the label refill cartridges.) Aside from the fact that I had just tossed a bunch of old gadgets, there was a major issuewhat to put labels on. Long ago, I would run special Avery file folder labels through my laser printer, but then I discovered that the hassle of setting this up meant that things would go unfiled for months, defeating the whole idea of filing. Being unencumbered with OCD, I now simply write on file folders with a Uni-ball Vision Elite pen to label them. Ultimately, if a bought a label maker, I would make only a single label that would read "Label Maker" and several years from now I would feel badly about having purchased it when I would ultimately throw it out.

GTD nonetheless presents a perfectly rational and reasonable method for reducing the chaos in one's life that is a tweaking of the song the Franklin planner guy was singing to us at GE. There is, however, a major problem with both systems. The philosophy behind GTD makes sense: in order to have a sense of flow in your life you should get all of the trivia in life out of the way (via organization) so that you can concentrate on the "important stuff." This requires both eternal vigilance and just possibly the aforementioned surgically implanted pouch. That is because when you have moved your organizational capacity out of your mind and onto paper, a PDA, a computer, or all three together, you had better get everything right, especially if you kept things obsessively neat by throwing out all original documents. If one instead goes through life with a "mental picture" of what is going on, it is far more difficult to mess up appointments and deadlines than if one commits everything to external planning devices and does not subject them to appropriate reality checks. In tech terminology, the GTD system is brittle by design. One little mistake and you are in Cleveland on Christmas for that big meeting that is scheduled for January 25. (In Outlook, all months look alike. You have been warned.)

Ultimately, organization is a personal thing. Good short-term and long-term memory make organization a lot easier. Also, there is a certain kind of uncharted "intelligence" that helps with organization and people lacking in this intelligence are perhaps doomed to disorganization regardless of how many self-help book they read, even if these books are clearly targeted at disorganized people with limited memory and intelligence. (Especially since people with limited memories are prone to buying the same book multiple times.)

The most disappointing thing about GTD, especially when one considers its popularity in the blogosphere, is its limited embrace of technology. Sure, the more expense labelers come with USB ports, but real technology, like Microsoft OneNote 2007, is changing people's lives and GTD has little to say about it. (OneNote is still very rough around the edges, but can be a great organizational tool once one figures out what to with it.)

A high-quality, sheet-feed scanner costs as much as several dozen labelers, but it can also make a world of difference. As long as one has plentiful monitor real estate, PDFs with OCR'ed text are a lot easier to work with than the original documents in most applications. (Paper still has an edge for quick scanning and for staying out of trouble in airport restrooms.)

In closing, it is worth noting that there is a very good reason that personal planning has all the earmarks of a cult. For the persistent few who actually get organized, one thing soon dawns on themthe organized pay the price for the other people in their lives being disorganized, especially other people in positions of authority, like bosses (or, heaven forbid, professors). Perhaps the GTD book is best read as a utopian novel rather than as the latest and greatest self-help book.

Copyright 2007 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to