I wish I could touch-type. When I first started using a keyboard, it was with a ZX81, which had a smooth, plastic surface to type on, and each key needed a good hard push. I developed a way of typing pretty fast, and it has stayed with me. The problem is that now, as my job seems to involve having multiple IM conversations, it lets me down. My technique means that I still type pretty fast (it certainly makes an impressive typey sound), but not fast enough. I also make a lot of errors, which I frantically correct, contributing to an impression of rapidity not supported by the output.
This is a pretty good metaphor for a lot of things in my life: no formal training, I learn things as I go along, and spend a lot of time wishing I had more time to learn things properly. I suspect anyone over 35 who uses technology in their job feels the same way. There was no way to learn about HTML when I was at school. It didn’t exist.
The problems really arise when you have to go up a level, rather like a piano player who picks out tunes by ear suddenly being asked to play a Beethoven sonata.
Which is how my job feels at the moment. For the first time, I am working from home, not surrounded by people working on the same projects. If I forget something, there is no-one to ask, and no-one to make sure I am keeping focus. I have to know where any of twenty-five projects stands at any moment, and my tried and tested method of relying entirely on my memory does not work any more. My technique has collapsed.
I am sure this kind of predicament is very common: people who are perfectly organised gradually taking on more and more until they implode. And most of us have a self-taught self-organisation technique, because until recently no-one tried to teach it.
Hence the cult of GTD: like touch-typing for the mind, it promises to teach a method where you no longer have to look at the keys (metaphorically speaking) and just focus on what is being done.
To me, GTD has always sounded too good to be true. I keep everything in my head because that is how I have always worked best. That way it stays neat. As soon as I write things onto paper – do the complete Dave Allen mind-dump – my career becomes an illegible and depressing mess that makes me want to cry and take up lunchtime drinking.
Looking for a short term fix during a particularly frantic week, I downloaded a trial version of OmniFocus (a GTD friendly bit of Mac software) to help me get my ducks in a row. Initially it was quite frustrating and unintuitive. I found lots of material to help me use it, but that just annoyed me even more. I am used to working out how to use software by reading the preferences and menu items. Who needs manuals, right?
Then, a thought struck me. I remembered how computer games 20 years ago used to come with big, thick, manuals. You were expected to read them in their entirety before you could play them, and I used to do it gladly. The thicker the manual, the more absorbing the game. It also gave you something to do while the game loaded.
So, there I was, trying to keep on top of dozens of complicated things, all of which were very important, but expecting any helpful tools to be so simple that I could work out how to use them in 30 seconds. As if the problem with learning to play the piano was that it had too many keys. Cut it down to three, and we could all play it in minutes – but the music would not be very interesting.
So, I persisted, and I am so glad I did. OmniFocus is really, really good. So good, in fact, that I don’t use many of it’s features, but realise that I should. It’s like having a gnarled old pro telling you what you should be doing to make your life easier. Not always saying what you want to hear, but being right most of the time.
It even gave me the confidence to add an item to my someday/maybe list: learn to touch-type. Which I will do. Someday. Maybe.