Tag Archives: review

Getting Things Done (GTD) vs. First Things First (FTF)

Stephen Covey’s First Things First (FTF) will help you examine priorities and focus on what is important. It won’t help you end procrastination when it comes to lots of important things vying for your time. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) is a more systematic approach to task fulfillment when there are a myriad of important but not urgent projects on your plate.

FTF sets out two really good principles of time management. The first is the idea of the Ladder. We’ve all heard about the corporate ladder – the stages of professional advancement in the world of corporate executives and lawyers. There are equivalent “ladders” in other professions, of course. The academic world has a ladder toward tenure; the political world has a ladder toward elected position; the list goes on. The ladder is the set of steps leading to a particular kind of success. FTF stresses that the First Thing should be to determine if the ladder is “leaning against the right wall.” That is to say, the success at the top of the ladder is not necessarily the best life for any given person. Since it takes a lot of time and effort to climb such a ladder, the success at the end had better be of the right kind.

The second thing that FTF does really well is to split all activities according to a 4 part matrix. Tasks are split according to their importance and according to their urgency. FTF points out that most people get focused on urgent things, sometimes at the expense of important things. An approach to life that will have an effect consistent with a person’s goals is one that focuses on things that are important to those goals. That’s sort-of a tautology. But what’s frustrating is that lots of times tasks and interruptions present themselves as urgent and critical even though doing them won’t actually create progress. Getting focused on important things is the most important message of FTF.

So, assuming you have found an appropriate goal and you are prepared to focus on things that are important to achieving those goals, how do you actually go about the day-to-day business of that? There are a few suggestions in FTF, like setting aside scheduled time for non-urgent tasks on a weekly basis. I can certainly see that being useful for a manager or executive with lots of interruptions. Setting aside an hour for private time to work through a strategic plan might be the only way he could actually have time to do that. For those of us in more free-form enterprises (like science or studying) that’s not so relevant. In a life filled with urgency, I’m sure setting time for non-urgent activities is critical, but my life is not filled with urgency.

I have 6 hours a day to do whatever I feel is important. There are not schedules, no interruptions. That’s great, but writing down in my planner that I want to spend an hour on strategic work during those 6 unscheduled hours seems arbitrary and I seldom make good on the plan. It’s a lot easier to procrastinate when there are no obligations than when there are. When I had classes, I would demand that I plan out the time between them so I could use it effectively. Now I have no classes, and such plans tend to get pushed aside for the importance of the moment (as opposed to the urgency of the moment). Now, that’s not great, because it means I’m not working from pre-planned priorities. I’m “winging it.”

The FTF mentality doesn’t help avoid procrastination when there is no urgency and many important tasks are doomed to failure. That’s science in a nutshell. Often there’s no hard deadline, since we all know it’s impossible to predict how an experiment will go. Although scientists know that it’s important to do the next experiment, without a deadline or any particular assurance of success, it’s a motivational nightmare. Science is all about the Q2 activities, but among Q2 activities it can be hard to discriminate. Reading the Literature, having ideas, surfing the ‘net looking for motivation all can conceivably be classed as Q2 activities, so how do we get pumped to actually get the experiments done?

This is where GTD shines. It won’t help you put the ladder against the right wall. It won’t help you cut out the Q3 distractions. But if you have those issues more-or-less settled, then you can get a lot from the GTD mentality.

The GTD mentality is a lot like a Virtual Assistant. The idea in hiring a Virtual Assistant is that this person will take care of certain things so you don’t have to stress about them any more and can really focus on the tasks at hand. What kinds of a things could a virtual Assistant take care of? Well, he could call you to make sure that you got to appointments on time. He could go through your inbox and make sure that all of the appointments to which you were committed were in the list of appointments about which he would remind you. He could parse emails and phone calls into the bare bones questions and flag them for you to answer. And he could tell you what was the next thing to do between right now and your next appointment so that you could use that time effectively and make progress on longer term projects.

Hiring a person to do all of that for you all the time is rather expensive (though with the connected nature of the world, you can hire a person to do the job at a long distance for a lot less than a personal executive assistant). GTD lets you do all of that efficiently for yourself.

The system works like this (or at least this is my boiled down version): you put everything in a trusted receptacle (like email inbox, phone, Thunderbird Task List, etc.). Call this your “bucket.” You have to make putting things in your bucket a really consistent habit or you won’t trust your bucket. If you don’t trust it, you might as well not waste time creating it. But once you trust it to have everything important inside, start the following loop:

When there is a lull (as when you have completed a task) check the bucket

Look for upcoming time critical appointments and set a timer (unless your bucket beeps at you, like my phone does)

Do any task you can do in 5 min immediately, this includes things like delegating, filing away for long term, short emails, or triaging a task as no longer mission-critical.

Do the thing on the top of the list until your next time critical appointment, or until it is done as much as it can be at the time. Add the next step in this project (and only the next step) to the bucket.


The most important thing about this is that you must trust your bucket to have everything in it. If it is a trustworthy bucket (if your habit of adding things to the bucket is good enough) then you will never be blindsided by an appointment you forgot about or a deadline that came out of nowhere.

Both the GTD and FTF systems remind their readers to re-center once a week. Process everything, prioritize, decide if projects are worth continuing. FTF organizes this according to “roles and goals” which is a fine way to do it, maybe a little more systematic than the “altitude analogy” treatment in GTD.

Hope that’s useful to you all.

P.S. David Allen did a Google talk where he talked about his method. That might explain it better if you have 45 min. Alas, he’s not as polished a speaker as S. Covey, but it’s still a fine talk.

New computer hotness: Fedora kills Vista

I bought a new Presario C700US laptop recently. I purchased it from Newegg, the place I like most for these sorts of things. It came with Vista on board. I bought my fiancee a computer about 4 months ago and spent 2 months getting all of the bloatware off and another month trying to make Vista stop “taking walks” while I’m working. I disabled all of the annoying visual “features” that I could in an effort to free up processor cycles for things like music and movies and (god forbid) word and data processing. I didn’t want to do that again, so I installed Fedora Core 10. I have my student version of Mathematica, and experience tells me that it generally gets about twice the available memory in Fedora compared to XP. I don’t even want to guess at how little is available in Vista. It is amazing to me that free software is now more functional than software I can’t avoid paying for. This article will be pretty detailed (read: boring) so that anyone who wants to repeat what I did can get some help.

For people in the academic world who are considering Linux, I suspect the big hurdle is MS Office. Microsoft Word is the mainstay of the academic establishment, so  that had to work. I actually bought Office 2003 a few years ago, and it turns out that it installs really well under WINE. So that’s great. Unfortunately EndnoteX, my reference manager, is not so amenable.

I found a much better solution. Zotero is the new hotness when it comes to reference managers. It manages a searchable database of references along with associated files like the PDF, captured fulltext HTML, notes, links to other references, abstract. It also builds a smart bibliography, formatted to whatever specification you want, it makes MS Word compatible citations and also integrates into OpenOffice Writer… basicaly it does everything but massage my feet.

I had about 2 days of frustration with Fedora. Compared to 90 days of frustration with windows. There are still some bugs. If I plug my USB headset in, Skype doesn’t automatically switch its input and output over to the new device. But I can do it manually, and Skype works fine. Alas, my Dino-Lite AM311S does not work at all.

Here are some things I managed to get fixed.

I had some trouble with audio skipping, but a quick google search told me that I can fix it by updating /etc/pulse/default.pa and changing

load-module module-hal-detect


load-module module-hal-detect tsched=0

I had an issue with the power icon not updating sometimes, so I turned SELinux to permissive mode… since I don’t have any server services running, hopefully that will be OK.

Another thing I like to do with my computer is to enable multiple monitors so I can have lots of desktop space. Unfortunately, Fedora comes preconfigured to support a desktop of only 1400×1400 pixels. So when I would try to use the desktop resolution applet to change to dual monitors, it would just not do it. No error message, just nothing. So after some digging, I found out that I needed to create an xorg.conf file (it didn’t exist at first as, evidently, defaults were OK) using an automatic configurator then add  “Virtual 2048 2048” like this:

SubSection “Display”
Viewport   0 0
Depth     24
Virtual 2048 2048

I also managed to get my unlocked cell phone with AT&T’s GO Phone (pay as you go) service to dial like a modem and connect to PPP internet; that was not too hard following the settings in a buried protocol on AT&T’s website: “Create a Dial-Up Networking Connection…“. I also needed to update my unlocked Nokia 7610 phone to be able to talk to the data network. AT&T is calling their data product MEdiaNet… so all of my searching for GSM and GPRS turned out to be in vain. I just needed to google “nokia 7610 medianet” and I found what I was looking for. It was impossible to find with the ATnT support pages.  I also called their  611 service number and bought 1 mb of MEdiaNet service. I was pleased that they didn’t charge me for the call. I don’t know if that helped or not… it seemed like the contract indicated that MEdiaNet was there by default, but who knows.

Getting the phone to connect to the MEdiaNet was actually harder than getting linux to dial the phone’s modem.  Fedora comes with wvdial already installed by default, and although I had to write the configuration file myself, that was easy given some examples I googled. Once that was done, I just execute wvdial as root. This is the wvdial.conf file that I got to work:

[Dialer Defaults]
Modem = /dev/ttyACM0
Baud = 115200
SetVolume = 0
Dial Command = ATDT
Init1 = ATZ
Init2 = ATQ0 V1 E1 S0=0 &C1 &D2 +FCLASS=0
ISDN = 0
FlowControl = CRTSCTS
Modem Type = Analog Modem
Password = CINGULAR1
Phone = *99#
Stupid Mode = 1

So, if you are struggling with any of those, I hope this was useful for you. Have a look at our archives! We aim to please.



Short Review of "A Culture of Conspiracy"

A Culture of Conspiracy” by Michael Barkun is by far the most coherent, scholarly material I have ever read on the contentious issue of “stigmatized knowledge.”

It is not a book written to “expose of the TRUTH” about the hidden reality of… whatever. It is also not a debunking of the conspiracy theories that abound about everything. The problem with the fringe, as I have said, is that the stuff out there is contradictory, so at best one of the competing voices is right… and it’s a lot easier to generate that crap than it is to debunk it. A definitive volume that debunks every conspiracy theory would be impossible. And the people to whom it would be the most use would denounce it as more propaganda from the conspirators anyway.

Barkun’s book is a sort-of natural history of crazy memes. The results are fascinating. The world views that people hold are… amazing, really. There are people in our midst battling literal demons in the moments leading up to the end of the world. That’s right now. Not fiction. They are living it. And it feels important to them.

Barkun sums up nicely: “A growing number of people believe that a super-conspiracy commonly referred to as the New World Order is on the verge of consolidating world domination, possibly in collaboration with malevolent aliens.” Or, I would add, in collaboration with the Devil. “The conspirators allegedly operate through so wide ranging a network of confederates that they have co-opted authority figures in every sector of life. Through this control, in turn, they shape the information available to the general public and thus conceal the conspiracy’s existence and activities.”

Well, that presents some epistemological/metaphysical problems for the rest of us.

Dean argues that there is no longer a “consensus reality” according to which contested questions of fact can be resolved.  She suggests that on such subjects as alien abduction and political conspiracies, there are multiple contending realities, which keep contested issues from being decided…Dean’s position, while extreme in its suggestion of epistemological anarchy, is sufficiently reflective of the material considered here that it must be taken seriously.

So, can we all live in radically different parallel realities? Do we need a consensus reality? Who would get to enforce it if we do need it?

That’s the real philosophical question at the heart of this strange stuff. It underlies the “culture wars” and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. I think it’s an issue we’re going to be dealing with a lot over the next century. What I’m afraid of is that the conspiracists and the orthodoxists (I just made up a word!) will get the limited attention of the intelligentsia and the fundamental issue will get overlooked. Or, worse, The Jester is right and nobody cares at all.


On TED talk and Book about The Blank Slate

As soon as I get to read Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I’ll give a more complete review. But I wholeheartedly agree with at least two of his points. First is the basic premise that people are born with a ‘first draft’ of their attitude toward life already built in. Secondly, and related to this, is his assessment of the ‘decline of the arts’. It’s bullshit. The arts are alive and well. What is declining is an interest in pedantic pseudo-intellectualism in the arts. We’re getting back to a more grounded artistic sensibility that actually takes into account what people actually like. That seems unsophisticated. Sophistication for its own sake had its heyday. It’s over.

But sophistication can come back. Sophistication now should be about bridging discipline gaps. Instead of intellectual masturbation, (forming connections to yourself) artists need to go study neuroscience and learn how to make people tick. Or make connections to other sciences or history and try to teach people something beautiful in a way that is beautiful. Forge new connections. We all need to bridge Snow’s Two Cultures. This is meaningful. It will give birth to new ideas. It’s intellectual procreation.



Sam Harris, reason, the common agenda, discussion of Deep Topics

Sam Harris gave a speech to the American Athiest Alliance about how he doesn’t think atheists should identify themselves as such.He wants atheists to be champions of reason, maybe, but campaigners against belief?No.He makes an interesting case. I think the video would be interesting for any person who thinks about these things. Sam Harris, by the way, wrote The End of FaithOne of Sam Harris' books and Letter to a Christian NationOne of Sam Harris' books, of which I have read neither.

There are some really subtle issues here that surround the contention that atheism constitutes just another religion.The idea is this: there are a lot of people who identify themselves as atheists, and they have a social agenda based on their stated and committed belief.Based on this, they form a de facto religion.The fact that the core belief of this “religion” is that there is no god is somewhat irrelevant; if the group of people take up the structure of a religion, so the theory goes, so it should count as one.

I can see the logic in that argument, but most atheists I know are not that kind of atheist.They don’t belong to an atheist club and they don’t see themselves as ascribing to an external social agenda.They don’t commit themselves to the belief that there is not a god; they simply don’t care.It might be better called Apatheism (apathy-ism). That’s different again from agnosticism, which holds that the issue might be important, but we just don’t have an answer.

Apatheism can’t be called a religion in the same way that the American Athiest Alliance can be called a religion, even in the superficial sense.The point is that, on the whole, the agenda of thinking, caring people is not served by anyone representing themselves as anti-religion. For people who care to talk about these issues like truth and morality (the non-apatheists) the common ground is the desire for reason and understanding what is going on.Those desires are served by people being kind and reasonable to each other.

And when it comes to intellectual pursuits, intellectual honesty and integrity are things upon which people of any creed may insist.Even people without any other creed can insist on intellectual honesty and integrity.And that’s enough to accomplish our shared agenda.Nobody needs to insist on anybody giving up a belief as long as it is either (1) held up to standards of reason, or (2) held only as a private conviction and not as a social standard.

Reason is the cornerstone of a civil social space for a diversity of opinion and perspective.The Big Upshot is that I am not going to insist that people agree, but in the interest of a discussion I insist only that they be reasonable – that is that the views that they contend that I should also hold must be internally consistent and consistent with the observations of the world which we can all share.And even then, I certainly acknowledge silence as another option.

Thanks for reading.