Monday, August 22, 2016

How To Get Things Done: Thoughts on Task Lists for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

Charts for the Chief, requests from Patrol supervisors, inquiries from neighboring agencies and information requests from the public, all of these and more are seen by crime analysts in the course of their work week. In fact, with all the things that come at a crime analyst it becomes important that you develop a systematic approach to managing your tasks.

When I first became a crime analyst I quickly recognized that I needed to adopt a system of task management. I needed to track incoming tasks, keep up with due dates, prioritize those tasks and ensure that nothing slipped through the cracks.

About this time I heard of a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done. Allen’s book outlines a system for managing tasks in order to be and stay productive. Allen’s book and system became so ubiquitous especially in the tech world that it became known simply as GTD and attained near cult like status. I got a copy of the book and ended up reading it twice and underlining many of it’s passages. In a nutshell, GTD consists of Five Steps.

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Reflect
  5. Engage

Let’s look at what the Five Steps entail one by one.

Capture - In this step, you designate a place for an Inbox, either physical or electronic. All your incoming tasks, projects, etc. are first gathered here.

Clarify - Now, you’ll review the items in your Inbox one by one. Is it something you need to do? If not, trash it or file it. Next, if you can do and item in two minutes or less, then do it right then. Else, you need to determine if you can delegate it or to put it on your list.

Organize - Sort your tasks to appropriate lists. Calls, emails, projects, etc.

Reflect - Set a regular time to go back over lists and determine what to do next, update items with changing priorities, etc.

Engage - Do what’s on your lists.

There’s more to GTD that I can cover here so I would highly encourage you to get and read the book for yourself. That said, let me give you a peek into how I implement GTD for my crime analysis workflow. But a couple of notes before I do. One, while GTD is very popular with tech oriented folks, you can implement a system of GTD in a variety of mediums, using a computer, a notebook or as it was originally incarnated, with a series of folders. Don’t think that you have to use a specific method, just use what you are most comfortable with.

Also, don’t think that you have to do GTD exactly like David Allen does or anyone else for that matter. For instance, I don’t break my task down into lists for phone calls, lists for emails, etc. I also don’t separate projects (tasks with multiple sub-tasks) into a list separately from tasks that consist of a single step. I just don’t need that level of granularity.

Let’s peek at how I implement GTD.

I am very comfortable on the computer. In fact, I am the kind of person who would rather get and receive emails as opposed to phone calls. For this reason, I have implemented my GTD system into Microsoft Outlook. In addition to the main Inbox folder for incoming email, I have added additional folders for Working, File and Wait. An email comes into the Inbox and several times a day I then Clarify those emails by moving them into these folders.

An item that gets moved (Organized) into the Working folder also gets assigned a priority and if necessary a Due Date. If you right click on an email item you can set these easily. Then you will also see these items in your Outlook Tasks (you may need to change your Outlook options to see these in your Outlook Tasks). I also sort the Task list by Due Date so I can see where I stand at a glance.

Items moved to the Filed folder will be then filed appropriately periodically. Items that get moved into the Wait folder are for those items that will come in the future. For instance an email about an upcoming meeting or a task that I might be waiting on someone else to complete.

For those items that don’t come in via email, I create an Outlook Task. I use Due Date, Priority and the notes field heavily.

I’ve also found it somewhat helpful to keep some separate hanging files with the same labels on them. The reason being is that at least one person will generate a piece of paper associated with a Task such as a form to complete. I will create an Outlook Task for that item and then stick the piece of paper into the corresponding hanging file for completion when I complete the Task.

I have also found it convenient to send an email to myself when I am away from my desk when I need to add something to my Task list. For instance, if I am in a meeting and someone assigns me a task to complete I can use my smartphone or iPad to send an email to my office email account. That way, when I get back at my desk the item is in my Inbox (Captured) for later Clarification, Organization and ultimately Engagement.

GTD is just one way to organize your tasks. Whether you use GTD or something else, the most important thing is to have a system to handle the myriad of tasks that will come your way. Find a system, refine it and stick with it.

How do you manage your workflow?

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