Stepping back to jump forward

Monday, December 12th, 2005
Lotus Notes and GTD; productivity combination or curse? If you frequent the Getting Things Done forums you'll find many posts on this topic with differing both points of view.

As I have written before, I believe that the ideal solution for getting things done involves both the technology and the methodology of productivity. It does not matter if you use a napkin, pencil and paper or a powerful tool like Lotus Notes; if you don't have a logical method for organizing your projects and actions any system will become equally dysfunctional. Likewise, if you do have a good methodology in place for getting things done, then you may wish to consider any of a number of tools, including, pencil & paper, a napkin, or even Lotus Notes. I've used all three and I find that each offer key strengths. This blog post however, is about using my current favorite, Lotus Notes, as a tool to support the GTD methodology. (At the end of this post, I've included a link to some helpful information on using NOTES & GTD.)

Lotus Notes and GTD

For the past fours years, I've been using a custom template that I developed to support my use of Notes to manage my lists of projects and actions. Gradually, I've added to or improved upon many of the features of the standard Notes forms and views to make it easier for someone familiar with the GTD methodology to jump into using Lotus Notes as their information management tool. (Note that I did not say that the other way around. if you already use Notes and do not understand the GTD methodology, my template will not necessarily make you a better organized person, though it may help. If you are unfamiliar with GTD, I recommend that you consider this book.)

Given the nature and level of my work, I'm somewhat removed from the challenges that many people face trying to implement GTD in vanilla Notes. Migrating from Palm Desktop or Outlook or even a paper-based system like Time Design into Lotus Notes can be a frustrating experience both due to the new way that work is done and the need to create new habits. I spend so much of my day using my eProductivity template for Notes that I sometimes forget that Lotus Notes out of the box is not as intuitive as it could be for managing projects and actions with the GTD methodology. In short, I want to re-experience what it is like to move to and use vanilla Notes to manage projects and actions. I want to revisit what does not work, what's improved since I last did this and what still works well. I believe that the only way I can truly do this is to jump in with both feet.

Why am I stepping back?

Two reasons: First, I'm preparing to release the next version of my eProductivity Template for Lotus Notes and I want to reacquaint myself with the experience (and the challenges) of implementing the GTD methodology in vanilla Notes.  Second, I'm presently working with several client organizations that are migrating from a variety of systems to Notes for their project and action management and I want to be more sympathetic to their needs as they go through this process. I believe that this experience will make me a better consultant and it will ultimately will make my template a better potential solution for their toolbox.

Fortunately, in Lotus Notes, it's as easy to apply a new template to a database as to remove an old one. I have decided to uninstall my eProductivity Template for Lotus Notes and revert my mail template back to the vanilla Notes 6.54 mail template to manage my projects and actions. I know it can be done - I did it for years, but I know it will be a big step back for me. From this experience I hope to gain new insight into ways to assist my corporate clients as they move from system to system. I know that these insights will also show up as new features in the next release of my eProductivity Template.

Jumping forward

Stephen Covey likes to say, "often the greatest breakthrough's are actually break-withs," that is, moving away from something to look at doing things differently. It's easy to become entrenched in managing projects and actions in a particular way; it's even easier to come to think that this is the only way or the best way. For that reason, I like to shake things up. If you read through my action management story (see link at bottom of page) you'll see that every significant jump in my productivity (or related products) came as a result of a breakwith in thinking. I expect this experience to be no different. I plan to keep a journal of my experience so that I can learn from the process. Once I've collected my thoughts, I'll summarize them and consider how what I've learned can be applied to the way that I work. Can I improve upon the existing template? Is there a better way to do things altogether? I'm confident, based on past experience, that whatever I come up with, it's likely to be a significant improvement for me and for my clients.

UPDATE: Why Lotus Notes?

I get asked this question often, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts. Lotus Notes, out the box, offers many productive benefits that I find particularly useful. Most important to me are: replication, rich text, doclinks, and custom forms and views. I use Note's built-in replication features to allow me to keep all of my information up-to-date across all of my computers. In fact, using tools from iAnywhere and CommonTime, I've even extended this replication model to a number of PDA's. I like the fact that I can pick any PDA or use any of my computers and have everything I need in one place. Notes Rich-Text is a feature that allows me to store anything in a Notes document - including other documents. What this means is that I can easily organize my supporting material in one place. Support for example, I have an action: "review project proposal." In the body field of that action item, I can place the URL to the project proposal, excerpted text from the proposal (perhaps a portion of a web page that I've snipped on my Tablet PC) and even a file attachment. I can even store doclinks. Doclinks are pointers to other notes documents views or databases and are a powerful way to cross link information in the same way that we use URL's to cross-link web sites. Doclinks allow me to focus on my work - the doclink remembers where the information came from and how to connect back to it. Finally,  the fields, forms, and views that are used to organize information in Notes can all be customized for specific purposes. What this means is that if you need a feature or a field or a view, these can easily be added to your Notes desktop. For people who are unfamiliar with programming or who simply want to implement features written by others lotus notes offers a feature called "templates" to allow one database to inherit the features of another. It is this template capability that I use to extend how vanilla Notes works and to transform it into a powerful tool for getting things done.

Related reading:

5 Steps to using Lotus Notes as a support to for the GTD methodology
Using Notes for Action Management
My Action Management Story

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