The Return of the Hipster PDA

Years ago, when I first started using GTD, the work/life management system pioneered by David Allen, my first cut at a GTD implementation was the Hipster PDA. The HPDA (called hipster more because it fits in one's hip pocket, rather than because it's beloved of node.js developers in Shoreditch) is the ultimate in lo-fi technology. It's nothing more than a bunch of 5x3 index cards, a binder clip, a biro and optionally a highlighter.

I stopped using the hipster when I bought my first MacBook. Beguiled as I was by shiny new technology, tags, search, and multi-device synchronisation, I abandoned my index cards and went digital! I've been digital more or less ever since. My main tools have been Things and Omnifocus, although, as an avid Emacs user, I did also have had a brief flirtation with using org-mode for GTD. Here's the thing: on reflection, I'm no better organised, no less stressed, and no more productive with these digital tools than I was with my trusty hipster. If anything, I would say I've been less productive, on the whole. This isn't a criticism of GTD itself - I'm much much less stressed, better organised, and more productive than I was before I put GTD into practice. It's just that these days I'm not so sure that going digital was really such a smart move, for me.

Let's back up a few steps and review the core required components of a GTD system. What we need?

  • A way to reassure our brains that each incomplete item has been captured in a trusted system somewhere where we will see it again
  • Somewhere to write lists
  • Somewhere to capture appointments what GTD calls 'hard landscape'
  • Erm... that's it

So hang on: we don't need tags, reminders, multi-device synchronisation, search, pretty formatting, a beautiful UI, or any of the frippery electronic tools offer us. Note – I'm not saying that these additional features don't offer value. What I am saying is that they most definitely aren't required. That is, we can be perfectly, or even optimally, productive with nothing more than a pen, paper, and diary. What's more, I have reason to believe there may be significant advantages to the lo-fi approach.

One of the great temptations with a digital tool is to fill it up with data. Unchecked, what really needs to be no more than a one line definition of next action, or project title, soon becomes a dumping ground for ideas, actions, notes, and other gubbins. Now, one might argue that this is a great place for what GTD would call project support material. I'm unconvinced. Most projects, under GTD terms, are pretty simple. If they need more planning or project support, there's no reason not to create either a physical folder for them, or an electronic one, with supporting documents, spreadsheets, pictures etc. To my mind this is a separate thing from the core infrastructure of simple lists. It's all too easy to dump stuff in the project or action and never see it again.

This brings me to my second disadvantage of a digital tool. I haven't settled on an appropriate word for this phenomenon, so I'll just try to describe its characteristics. When using an analog, lo-fi, manual process, for example pen and paper, or indeed (and it's noteworthy that this phenomenon applies equally to the world of kanban/scrum) a wall packed with sticky notes, we are gifted with the very tactile benefit of being forced to both see and feel the extent of our commitments - internal or otherwise. I have a friend with more than 1000 open items in Things. I think I can fit about 15 items on one side of a 5x3 index card, if I keep my handwriting very very small. So that's 30 if I use both sides. I think by the time I had 33 cards in my pocket, I'd be doing some pretty brutal pruning and someday/maybe populating. The thing is, digital backlogs just don't feel that burdensome. You don't get the pressure-valve effect, the feedback that tells you you need to stop and rethink. Besides, there's just something joyously present about a pocket full of cards - I tend to review them, shuffle them and become intimately familiar with their contents. And there's a manner in which the weekly review process of spreading a bunch of cards out on a desk, or the floor, that's just undeniably both rewarding and tremendously fun!

OK, so I'm romanticising - of course I am. There are disadvantages of a manual approach. Disadvantages that are often the very reason that computers became so popular, and which account for the attractiveness and pervasive use of tools like Things or Omnifocus. The most pressing one is 'backup'. One's GTD system is vitally important. It's the epicentre of one's ability to be productive. If one were to lose it, one would be, so to speak, 'screwed'. Now, with a modern, digital tool, of course one could lose one's phone, ipad, or even bag containing computer, but, the data is often automatically synced between devices or to a 'cloud' service. Basically, one's data is pretty safe.

Now, in days of yore, my backup procedure was a photocopier. Once a week, at review time, I'd photocopy all my cards. It was primitive, clumsy even, but it worked. Furthermore, because I knew that if I lost my HPDA I'd be screwed, I was very, very assiduous in my weekly backup, and thus weekly review. Additionally, I made absolutely sure I never, ever, ever lost the HDPA. For all my careful backups, I never needed to use them. By contrast I've lost my phone more than once and have friends who have been unlucky enough to be the victims of theft. An iPhone5 is somewhat more desirable and therefore a rather more stealable item than a wadge of index cards and a binder clip! Furthermore, there's no rule that states that a lo-fi, analogue hipster-pda user can't use modern digital technology as well. With applications such as Evernote, and hardware such as a Doxie, making regular backups of index cards is now remarkably easy. So while there does seem to be at least a superficial data security issue, I'm not convinced it's actually a deal-breaker.

Another obvious advantage of a digital GTD system, or if you prefer, disadvantage of the HPDA, is the speed of capture. With a single keypress, I can be typing and entering an open loop into my system. Obviously this is an order of magnitude faster than getting out my pile of cards, finding the right ones, finding my pen, and writing down the thought I had. The speed of capture is even greater if the trigger was something I was reading online, or an email I received. A simple highlight of relevant text, and a copy and paste is enough to capture your incomplete. But... this speed of capture is deceptive, in a couple of ways. First, the capture is so quick and easy, it disables any cognitive filtering. If I have to get out a pen and card, and write something down, that 1 to 2 second delay (and let's be realistic, we're not really talking about minutes versus milliseconds) is often enough for me to think: do I really have or want a commitment to this? Am I really going to action this? Can I just let this thought go? Should it go into a someday/maybe with no immediate action? Or can I just wait and see if this thought returns with more intention?

Relatedly, ease of capture with electric system can lead to some bad habits. I don't know whether it's because my formative GTD habits were built on lo-fi technology, but if I capture an incomplete using my hipster, I'm very very likely, nearly certain, to think about and capture the next action at the same time. I tend to find that with the electric system, the combination of the removed cognitive filter, lack of context switch, and the sheer ease of capture, results in me creating several dozen open loops, without an associated action, and suddenly, by the end of the day, I have a list of 30 ill-defined partial thoughts on a list called inbox. This is starting to look a lot like David Allen's amorphous blob of undoability. I thought this was exactly what we were trying to escape!

Another interesting side effect of the relatively slow speed of capture is that when I have to go through the tactile, manual step of finding the two cards (open loops and context) and capturing the project and next action, I am far, far more likely to exercise the two-minute rule. There just seems to be something about the process which kicks my brain into thinking: you're going to write this down in two places, and spend a few seconds working out what the next action is, when the next action is probably not much more of an effort than you'll spend tracking this action. How about you just do it now?

So, from my perspective, as a seasoned GTD practitioner, I truly think there is a significant amount of experiential evidence, and theoretical justification, to support the return of the HPDA. Please understand – this is in no way an anti-digital tirade. My experiences will not match yours, my mind doesn't work like yours, and quite likely you have your own hacks, workflows, processes, and disciplines to help you make your digital systems work perfectly for you. As for me, I'm going to try to switch back to lo-fi, and analogue, and I'll report back in about a month and tell you how things went. Bye for now!