I have been GTDing for three years. I started in Excel. I quickly migrated to Outlook, then the Netcentrics Outlook Add-in. I stayed with the Add-In for more than two years. My goal has always been to get things done, not to have the latest system with the neatest gadgets. From time to time I would read some enthusiastic review of this or that application and become curious. I would visit the website and decide that I didn’t need the latest bells and whistles to manage my NA and Project lists. The Outlook add-in was serving me just fine. Simplicity trumps complexity in my calculus unless complexity delivers significant benefits.
I always had some nagging reservations about Outlook, however. For my typical activities, Outlook with the add-in was sufficient. But there were occasions where I had to direct very complex projects that extended for months—like finding supplemental warehouse space and moving into it—where Outlook with the add-in just did not cut it. There was a Pareto Principle situation here. Eighty percent of my tasks were either projectless or parts of very simple projects. Twenty percent of my tasks were parts of complex projects. But those complex projects constituted 80% of the value of what I do. Eighty percent of the value of my system came from managing the 20% of my tasks that are involved in complex projects.
My past involvement with such projects had taught me that project management software, like MS Project, was quite useful for managing complex projects. My GTD nirvana (yes, I know, it doesn’t exist) was the integration of Outlook with Project. The problem with Project is that there is no good way to track NAs. It is best for more coarsely grained outcomes than for fine-grained actions. The problem with Outlook is that, even with the add-in, it is not set up for complex projects.
In late 2005 and early 2006 my thinking began to evolve. There were two major forces that moved me away from Outlook. First, there were some fascinating threads on this forum about integrating project lists with NA lists in a hierarchical structure. Second, I read in the Microsoft Outlook blog Microsoft Outlook blog that fewer than 2% of Outlook users use Tasks and, therefore, Microsoft had no intention of adding hierarchical tasks to Outlook.
I weighed the pros and cons of integrating projects and NAs into a hierarchical structure. On the pro side, multilevel outlines are consistent with the fundamental underlying GTD principle to get stuff out of my head. In classic GTD, there are multilevel project plans in one folder, and flat NA lists in other folders. The link between the NAs and the projects is made in my head. By integrating the multilevel projects with the NAs I am getting stuff out of my head, freeing my mind to be more creative. (I believe kewms was the first to make this argument.) On the con side, I quote Robert Peake , Chief Technology Officer of David Allen Co.:
The temptation to endlessly nest list items as a way of "organizing" your ideas or projects almost always ends in confusion, frustration, and an aversion to looking at those lists. Unless you want to start losing faith in your system, steer clear of nesting and numeric prioritizing. These are almost always surefire signs that you are slipping -- perhaps because you don't have a complete inventory or haven't stuck with the process long enough or diligently enough to trust you are on top of your game yet. Ultimately, I decided to take the risk and test whether nesting my NAs under projects, subprojects, or even subsubprojects would lead to frustration.
After making my decision, I sought my software. My two requirements were that the software allow me to create an outline structure for projects, with NAs under projects, and that it synchronize with Outlook. I wanted the Outlook sync so that I could get my NA lists onto my PDA. I currently use a Blackberry and have used a Palm before that. Who knows what I will use six months from now. But I figured, whatever PDA I use, I’ll make sure it syncs with Outlook.
The software I chose was Achieve Planner from Effexis Software. This software appears to be aimed primarily at Franklin-Covey and Tony Robbins followers. Nonetheless, I have found it eminently usable as a GTD tool.
Achieve Planner has a number of features that have increased my efficiency. It has separate places for 30K, 40K, 50K foot planning (it calls these Goals, Dreams, and Wishes). When I am doing my Weekly Review, I like having these higher altitude commitments at my fingertips.
David calls the 20K foot level “Areas of Focus” or, sometimes, “Areas of Responsibility.” Achieve Planner allows me the option to group my projects and NAs under an Area of Focus. I love this feature. Among other things, I run a business with 60 employees. I can look at all the projects and NAs I have that fall under my Human Resources responsibility, for example. Likewise for Purchasing, Facilities Management, Finance, Father, Fitness, etc.
There is one feature that Achieve Planner shares with Outlook but Achieve Planner makes much easier. Every task in Outlook has a field for Contact. In Achieve Planner I use this field a lot, especially for my Waiting Fors. Instead of having an @Agendas context, I enter the contact’s name when I create a task or project. If Ms. X calls me in the middle of the day, I quickly filter the Contacts field for “Ms. X” and instantly have a list of all the actions I am waiting for from Ms. X. I have found this to be a great way of staying on top of other people.
Achieve Planner brings in all of Outlook’s contacts and calendar appointments, if you want it to. It has its own calendar and contacts list.
Achieve Planner is a lot like GTD. It takes some time to get up to speed with it. It is a heavy-duty program with a fair degree of complexity. Recently, there have been postings from people who wish to implement GTD Lite. Regular GTD is too burdensome for them. I wouldn’t recommend Achieve Planner to someone who wants to do GTD Lite. Achieve Planner is not for everyone, only those who need the capability to track complex, ongoing, projects. Then, like GTD, Achieve Planner will reward you with greater efficiency and a greater sense of control over your life.
[For the record, I have no connection with Achieve Planner or any business connected with it. I am merely someone who has been happy using it for the last three months.]