Getting Things Done 16 years later

The last time I wrote about David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done (GTD) was 16 years ago. Lots has changed since then, but the one thing that’s remained pretty much constant is that I’ve never stopped using GTD.

The main idea behind GTD is that: if you get the things you need to do out of your head as soon as you think of them then review and organize them later, you’ll worry a lot less and get more done. That’s really all you need to know, but if you want more, this is my more-in-depth GTD review after a decade and a half.

If you get the things you need to do out of your head as soon as you think of them then review and organize them later, you’ll worry a lot less and get more done.

As soon as I think of something to do, I add it to my inbox. The inbox is a general purpose list that makes sure that a task isn’t forgotten. It should be super easy to add to your inbox. I use OmniFocus to track todos but, the default Apple Reminders app is also surprisingly capable. Whatever you choose, make sure you know how to use it well and trust it. Don’t over-complicate.

Once I’ve got time to organize my todo list, which I try to do every couple days, I move tasks out of the inbox and into specific projects.

I use lists in a very broad, contextual way rather than grouping tasks by lots of projects. By that I mean that my “work” list is just called “work,” even though I’m always working on a lot of different projects at work. Similarly, “home” is the only list I have for stuff around the house. If I need to filter down to a specific project, I’ll either nest tasks, or filter by tags to narrow in focus.1

Every couple weeks (I should probably do it more), I review all my lists, clean things up and re-prioritize. If any task I encounter takes less than 2 minutes, I do it right then.

That’s pretty much it. And it works.

A final reminder, be careful to avoid introducing micro-frictions that more complicated systems and software introduce. Start with an easy system, then iterate it over time.

1The GTD book has a much more involved system using Contexts and Projects, but I’ve found that the above is enough most of the time.


The way

It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down. When that time comes, you could round up everyone you could find and pay them to hold the tree up, but they wouldn’t be able to do it. It would still come crashing to the ground…. But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask the third son of Mr. Chang, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” And after three or four more strokes stopped again to ask the fourth son of Mr. Li, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no different for someone who is practicing the Way.

Zen master Hakuin Ekaku as quoted by Robert Greene in Mastery


The labyrinth is thoroughly known

Joseph Mallord William Turner – Death on a pale horse

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Joseph Campbell – The Hero With a Thousand Faces


My beautiful partner gave me Mary Oliver’s book of poetry Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. The title poem is one of my favorites:


Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –an armful of white blossoms,
a perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
a shrill dark music, like the rain pelting the trees like a waterfall
knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
a white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Mary Oliver – Swan
A Trumpeter Swan photographed on Lake Washington in February 2021

3 Types of Creativity

As defined by Margaret Boden in 1992:


Taking two disparate ideas and bringing them together to form something new. In a sense, I think of this type of creativity as the realm of metaphor extended beyond the explanatory realm and into the realm of realization. It’s maybe more hegelian (I’m a little out of my league here) in that it’s two ideas coming together to form something higher.

Exploration of conceptual spaces

Creativity loves constraint. This type of creativity happens within, or expands upon, a cultural framework. A bladesmith inventing a new design for a sword. An architect a new design for a home. A new strategy in Chess or Go. A programmer discovering a new algorithm.


Take the conceptual space we just mentioned in exploration and expand upon or change boundaries or constraints of the space itself. This is the realm of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a new type of poetry a la e.e. cummings. It’s going from linear books to Choosing Your Own Adventure.

More here.


On the Loss of Tribe

In suburban America we generally interact with our neighbors only at a surface level. Most interactions are limited to waving hi as we walk by or occasionally we stop for sidewalk chats. Sometimes we visit for longer at annual block parties.

In the book Ikigai, the authors share several conversations they had with Japanese people who live in small towns and villages noted for their longevity. The interviews almost universally mention the importance of easygoing but deliberate and frequent hangouts with neighbor friends.

Similarly, Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe speaks about the comradeship he felt as a soldier and its distinct absence when he got home. He’s spent the rest of his life deliberately making life decisions that will bring that sense of community back.

Years ago I moved with my wife and son to Uruguay. There, even though we were in a suburb to the capital city Montevideo, it felt like drop-in friendships formed naturally. Having a friend spontaneously show up at your door to chat, or planning an impromptu asado with neighbors was not uncommon. As cliché as it is to say about Latin American culture, the pace of life was slower and people seemed genuinely more connected because of it. I really miss it.

It’s not that this never happens here in suburbia, but it feels like when it does, it happens in spite of our culture instead of because of it. It reminds me of A Pattern Language (pdf). The book is about the impact that patterns used in architecture and community planning have on our lives. It feels like the patterns that we’ve built most American neighborhoods around, combined with our productivity culture, whether by accident or otherwise, are completely antithetical to fostering that easygoing hangout culture.

What a loss.

A few years ago at work I had a good group of co-workers who became friends. Most mornings we’d hang out just chatting for a half hour or on some days longer. I was lucky to have one co-worker, you know who you are if you’re reading this, who was great at fostering that type of environment as well as a boss who was very tolerant. (For what it’s worth, we were also a very productive team). At the time, I didn’t think much of it but I really miss it now. Especially since Covid and Zoom have essentially erased any potential for those types of hangouts.

In Concrete Cowboy, a movie based on the book Ghetto Cowboy about urban horse culture in Detroit, there are scenes of a group of people sitting around a fire talking. The feeling, at least in the movie, was that it wasn’t at all unusual to sit around at the end of the day, as the sun went down, enjoying each other’s company. Talking about the difficulties life brought each other, and observing how the world was changing brought a sense of place. Of belonging.

Yes, it’s just a movie, but we’ve all seen this type of easygoing hangout happening and we’ve all been part of them at times. The lamentable part is how they now feel exceptional to everyday life.

Online hangouts and the cozyweb are nice and have their a place for sure.

Formal get togethers and parties are also nice and have their place as well.

Neither are substitutes for the feeling of “tribe” though.


Shorebird Migration

Shorebirds are beginning to migrate South for the winter. Along with ducks, shorebirds are my favorite bird photography subjects. Here are a couple photos from this year’s migration here in the Seattle area:

Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs (very similar to Greater!)
Sanderling – one of the more numerous shorebirds around here.


Proof of work vs. proof of stake

Disclaimer: I’m not a crypto expert. Please feel free to correct me in the comments.

Proof of work

Proof of work describes how new cryptocurrency coins are created, how cryptocurrency transactions are validated, and it determines how quickly new cryto coins are created. For this article, we’ll discuss proof of work in terms of bitcoin, however there are many other proof of work cryptocurrencies.

At a high level, to generate, or “discover”, new bitcoins, computers do puzzles that generate hashes. Hashes are long strings of characters, like this “81019284c2f9615e20a6825c…”. Once a computer running the bitcoin software has successfully generated a hash, called “mining”, the hash is checked to see if it happens to be a valid bitcoin. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it isn’t.

The work done to create the new hash also has the important side-effect of validating transactions on the blockchain. In addition to potentially generating a new block, miners are paid transaction fees to validate transactions. At some point all 21 million bitcoins will have been mined and no more will be created. At that point, transaction fees will be the sole incentive for miners to continue validating transactions.

To modulate the speed of coin creation, the difficulty of the work that’s necessary to mine a bitcoin block automatically gets adjusted to be more difficult when miners generate hashes faster. Conversely, the work is adjusted to be easier if the overall rate of coin creation decreases. For example, the difficulty decreased recently when China banned bitcoin mining and lots of mining computers went offline.

So when you generate a new bitcoin, you’re “proving” that you did the work to create it. This is what allows bitcoin to be decentralized–anyone can create one if they do the work, no one can create one without doing the work.

Some people consider the energy used to create new bitcoins to be wasteful. I won’t try to argue for that one way or another, but because of this, many other types of cryptocurrencies use other types of proofs to create new coins. The most popular alternative to proof of work is what Ethereum 2 uses, which is called proof of stake.

Proof of stake

Proof of stake also describes how some new crypto currency is created. The main benefit is that it uses significantly less energy.

For proof of stake to work, an initial quantity of the cryptocurrency has to be somehow distributed to a lot of people first. This process, which we’ll call bootstrapping, can happen in any number of ways. For example, the cryptocurrency can be given away or, in the case of Ethereum, it can be mined using proof of work for several years, then switched to proof of stake later.

In some proof of stake cryptocurrencies, no new coins are created in the future. Proof of stake is only used to validate transactions being added to the blockchain. I’ll explain how that works shortly.

Once the cryptocurrency has become proof of stake, if the currency does create new coin, they’re generated without the requirement to generate hashes by solving puzzles. The newly created coins are instead given to everyone who already holds some of the cryptocurrency as long as they’ve “staked” the currency.

To stake the currency, you have to lock it so it can’t be spent or transferred for a specified period of time. Then, when new coins created, anyone who has staked coins will automatically get more coins in an amount proportional to the amount they have staked.

For example: If Bob stakes 10 blogcoins, a fake proof of stake currency, and Maria stakes 20 blogcoins Bob will get 1 new blogcoin and Maria will get 2. In the end, neither is richer or poorer relative to each other than they were before. They just have a larger number of coins.

If neither Bob or Maria gain anything, why create new coins at all? It’s mostly to increase the total number of coins. If you want to sell 20 people a slice of a really big pizza that’s only sliced in 10 pieces, you’d need to cut each slice in half first to “create” 20 slices. You’re not generating more pizza out of thin air, you’re just making it possible to distribute the existing pizza to more people.1

The other function of staking is, as mentioned above, to verify transactions. When you stake your blogcoins, you’re saying “I’m going to validate this block of transactions in exchange for a fee. If I falsely validate it, I understand that the blogcoins I’ve staked will be taken from me. If I validate it correctly, in addition to not losing my staked coins, I’ll get a small reward for doing the validation.” Staking is a way to incentivize good behavior.

Just like energy use is the downside of proof of work, proof of stake’s downside is that it’s less proven in the real world and, as such, potentially less secure. It also could be that it staking results in less liquidity since the incentives to keep your coins staked is very high.

So, that’s a high level summary of why proof of work and proof of stake are different. There’s much more to be said on the subject, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

1 Because of the way staked coins are distributed, it isn’t inflationary in the same way as a fiat currency like the US Dollar. When new dollars are created they’re not distributed proportionally to everyone who already has dollars. The recipients of the new dollars are the winners, and everyone else loses because the dollars they’ve saved decrease in value.


Photo: Pied-billed Grebe Family

A mother Pied-billed Grebe sitting on her nest while her three chicks beg for food.

This grebe’s nest wasn’t too far from the shore of a small pond in Seattle. To get a clear view of it, I had to slide out on a log that was mostly submerged in the mud. I sat still on the far end of the log for about half an hour, long enough for the birds to become accustomed to me. Once I could tell that my presence wasn’t going to bother them, I slowly scooted close enough to get a photo with a 600mm lens.

The grebes seemed to pass their entire day doing the same thing. One of the parents would stay on or near the nest with the chicks while the other left to search for fish. Every 5 or 10 minutes, when the fishing parent came back with a meal, the chicks would get super excited while they were fed. Then, after a quick 10 or 15 second visit, the parent would go back to fishing and the chicks back to waiting for the cycle to begin again.


Creative robots, transpilers, & carnivorous plants

Can Artificial Intelligence truly be creative? It’s starting to seem like it. Some of the recent GPT-3 demos feel like they’ve moved beyond being derivative and into the realm of actual creativity. Marcus du Sautoy wrote The Creativity Code to explore the question and its existential implications. He calls the test of whether an AI is creative “The Lovelace Test” in reference to the Turing Test and in homage to Ada Lovelace. Check out Michael Harris’ review of the book here.

Languages that compile to Javascript seem to be here to stay. I spent a lot of time in the past writing Coffeescript, but if I were to do it again, I’d probably start with either Elm, here’s a recent write up on it, or Imba. Both make web programs less error prone and ostensibly more fun to write.

No-code platforms and languages are also still going strong. I’m very skeptical about these because in the past they’ve almost never seemed to amount to much and always fizzled out after not too long leaving their users to start over writing code. Even so, some of the more promising ones I’ve come across are Bubble as a general purpose no-code environment, Judo for mobile apps, and Retool for internal tools. Whether they can surpass their predecessors remains to be seen.

Edward de Bono, the famous creative thinker and the man who coined the term “lateral thinking” recently passed away. Here’s a great obit with many of his life’s achievements.

It’s no secret that China has been tough on its own tech companies recently. Why? Here’s an article by Noah Smith arguing that rather than focusing on distracting social media and shopping, China is instead concerned with doing real things in the world. An interesting and very plausible take.

Instead of simply letting local governments throw resources at whatever they think will produce rapid growth (the strategy in the 90s and early 00s), China’s top leaders are now trying to direct the country’s industrial mix toward what they think will serve the nation as a whole.

Recently, here in the Pacific Northwest, a plant was newly discovered to be carnivorous. The western false asphodel captures bugs on its sticky stem rather than in its leaves. Hopefully I’ll find one of these plants out yonder some day.

And, to finish it off, here’s a picture of what’s universally considered by everyone to be The Best Duck on the planet. The Bufflehead.