Plotting 2012 – aided by Covey, Milk, and synchronization

(This post also appeared at

It’s January and I’m plotting my life in 2012. As with most tales, there’s a backstory:

  • SETTING: Vanessa’s newly remodelled study. Fresh paint, new carpet, several years of hoarding cleared out. Time: mid-December
  • GREMLIN (Vanessa’s internal critic): Here it is 2012 and you’ve got a todo list the size of the Grand Canyon. Get organized, woman!
  • VANESSA: I visited the grand canyon back in 2011 and I KNOW it’s a mile deep. Maybe I can sort this mess into a stack of smaller piles.
  • GREMLIN: You need a system.
  • VANESSA (sorting):
  • GREMLIN: Look at that heap of TODOs! I suppose you think you’re Superwoman now?
  • VANESSA: Shut up. I’m setting goals.
  • GREMLIN: Hah! You cleaned out your office last month, now you’re going for world’s worst task hoarder!
  • VANESSA (looking for lethal weapon): Kill the gremlin … kill the gremlin.
  • GREMLIN: You need a syst–No! No! Don’t shoot! You– (GREMLIN slinks out of room, slamming door and leaving blood behind on new carpet)
  • VANESSA (Locks door behind GREMLIN, then starts looking for a system…)
  • CRITIC (whispers through door): I told you so!

Obviously, this story is never going to hit the bestseller lists, but thankfully as December rolled towards January, I embarked on a search for a … (okay, GREMLIN, you win) a system for managing my Grand Canyon sized TODO list. Back in October (see Necessary Lies, Stephen Covey, and This Writer), I resolved to follow Stephen Covey’s suggestion of focusing on those important but not urgent tasks that build towards future goals (Quadrant II goals). I succeeded in putting First Things First for ten days and spent the first part of each day on my novel, NECESSARY LIES. On the eleventh day, unfortunately, NECESSARY LIES got buried by a pile of important AND urgent tasks, and GREMLIN woke up.

  • GREMLIN: How can you call yourself a writer, if you’re not writing? You’ll never finish that book.
  • VANESSA: Yes, I will, but other things are important too! I just need a system that keeps the most important things in front of me.
  • GREMLIN: System, smystem. You gotta USE your system. Every day. Like brushing your teeth.
  • VANESSA: Well … yeah.
Gremlin isn’t supposed to win arguments … or sneak through locked doors.
So I went looking for a system that would help me focus on important goals while keeping my life under control. My requirements were:
  • keep Quadrant II goals in front of me each day
  • remind me of urgent-but-not-important commitments (Quadrant I)
  • give me a way to record (and remember) time-sensitive commitments
  • allow me to access both urgent and non-urgent goals and tasks on my iPhone, iPad, and any computer I use.

At least one of my goals had been achieved – with my wonderful husband’s help, we’d transformed my study from a hoarder’s hell into an inviting study. Now it was time to organize my goals and my life. Over Christmas, I tried out a few ideas:

  • I read the Michael Hyatt article, “Is that task important or merely urgent?” which mentioned using Priority Matrix  to emulate the Covey 4-sector organizer. I downloaded Priority Matrix (for Mac, iPad, and iPhone). I installed the software and put my  TODO list into Priority Matrix sectors. Here’s a simplified version of what I did:
  • Priority Matrix + Covey trial: I found Priority Matrix flexible, and definitely easy to work with using Covey’s 4-quadrant model on my Mac, and I was pleased to find that the Apps for the iPhone and iPad synchronized well. (I also learned that Priority Matrix is in alpha development for Windows.) By Christmas I had realized that while I loved the 4-sector view and synchronization features of Priority Matrix, for the system to be effective, I needed to visit it every day. The best way too make sure I did that was to use the same application for appointments, other time sensitive commitments,  and goals. Priority matrix didn’t have the scheduling and reporting features I needed.
  • Getting Things Done Remember the Milk – Over Christmas I talked with my son about his experience using David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system with Remember the Milk, a Web/Android/iPhone app. GTD sounded too high-maintenance for me, but if you’re a GTD fan, check out Advanced GTD with Remember The Milk, and also take a look at the simplified version described in Monk to Done.
  • Covey + Remember the Milk –  If Remember the Milk could work with GTD, maybe I could make it work with Covey’s First Things First model. I decided to try out the free version of Remember the Milk (RTM) and soon realized that this friendly, flexible application could:
    • be used on in all common Web browsers, Android phones, iPhones, and iPad
    • synchronize across all installations, i.e. phone, tablet, Web (daily sync is free, more frequent sync requires upgrading to the pro version)
    • have separate lists for different category tasks (achieved by setting task “category” and adding your own lists and/or modifying RTM’s default lists. Some of my categories are WRITING, RESEARCH, PROMOTION, BUSINESS TASKS, PERSONAL) Tasks can be viewed by category, or in a big list of “All Tasks”
    • optionally set due date and time, specify repeating intervals for regular tasks, plus time commitment for tasks (I’ve set Quadrant II goals I want to visit every day to “repeat: every 1 day”)
    • prioritize (priority 1, 2, or 3), categorize, and tag tasks
    • create saved searches using  lists  (I Googled “rtm + Covey” and found links to a number of posts on RTM’s website (the Google search gave me better results than RTM’s own internal site search)
    • send a daily list of tasks, and also a 15 minute reminder of individual tasks, to my phone.
    • It would be wonderful if RTM allowed me to choose either its Priority 1, 2, 3 system or a Covey quadrant model of priorities, but many RTM users have found ways to make Covey’s First Things First and RTM work together.
  • Result = RTM + Covey. I tried using RTM’s priorities, but I couldn’t get the result I wanted. When I read  Using the “First Things First” Paradigm with RTM  and got the idea of simplifying the author’s system and tagging items as “important” to flag them for my Quadrant II list, then using the Due Date to determine urgency. I then created 2 saved searches based on Due Date and “important” tag status, and named them Q1 and Q2. I’ll probably refine the searches over time. I can see from what others have done that there’s lots of room for tweaking the system.

The beginning of a New Year is a great time to be playing with plotting the year ahead, and I’m pretty happy with how my new system is shaping up. I’ve been using Remember the Milk for about a week now. I spent the first day getting enough tasks and appointments into the system to allow me to experiment with searching, tested that the syncing was working well across my iPhone, iPad, and computer (Web). Then upgraded to the Pro version to allow unlimited synchronizing.

Alright, Gremlin. I’ve got a system I like and I’m USING it. It’s even got a name I like – Remember the Milk has a friendly casual sound. I’ve got my January appointments recorded and RTM sends my iPhone reminders of important-to-me, time-sensitive things like my daughter’s birthday dinner yesterday, while giving me a way to track less urgent, but still important items like this blog and a commitment to myself to write every day (tag: important and repeat:every 1 day) .

So there, Gremlin! I can too do this.


Check out my new release: Storm – the Author’s Cut, now available on Kindle

Taking a hit – a writer’s toolkit for rejection

Laura Tobias’  Mars, Venus, and the Rejection  at the blog is a humorous reflection on the impact rejections make on a writer.

Of course writers aren’t alone – everyone experiences rejection at one time or another. Those of us who put our personal creations out to the world – whether they be stories, songs, dances, or paintings – are inevitably going to be judged on those creations. That judgment may be harsh, approving, or indifferent. I’ve sold 29 novels to major publishers, and one book on writing. I’ve also received my share of rejections. Some rejections haven’t had much of an impact while others have been devastating. A couple of times I’ve had works that I thought were my best rejected, and those rejections hit harder than others.

Usually I’ve been able to learn something from the rejections, sometimes a valuable lesson in craft or marketing. One rejection that came marked the beginning of a period when I had a lot of trouble believing in myself as a writer. I realize now that the rejection probably hit harder because it came shortly after my mother’s death, although I didn’t make the connection at the time.

Every human being gets rejected and it’s difficult for us to avoid taking the “no” as a denial of personal worth. The thing about rejection is that it’s often out of our control. No story will please every reader, and we can’t control the realities of publisher’s balance sheets, marketing research, and editorial opinions. All we can do is tell the best story we can, in the best way we can, and get it out there for people to read.

I’ve gathered a collection of tools to deal with my own crises of confidence. Here are the things that work best for me:

  • Sharing: My first instinct is to keep the rejection and my reaction inside, but I’ve learned how important it is to share it with trusted people. My husband is a great help because he believes in me when my own confidence falters. I know my friends will offer support and realistic advice, and they’ll usually share some of their own experiences, which helps me remember I’m not alone.
  • I treasure these books:
    • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. This little book of essays is a treasure filled with humor and wisdom!
    • The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression by Eric Maisel. Amazing wisdom and excellent advice based on the experience of many other creative people, and Maisel who is a great creativity coach. Maisel has a number of other books that give practical, inspiring advice to empower yourself and your creativity.
    •  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. One of the most valuable things I learned in this book is to focus on my circle of influence, not my circle of concern. Basically, this means to put my energies where I have power, not on the things that are out of my power. I can’t control what a publisher does, but I can make sure I write the best book I know how, work on my skills, and get my stories out there where people can read them.
  • Remind myself that many excellent authors have had amazing, great stories rejected, then later famously published
    • Stephen King nailed all the rejections he got for Carrie (his famous first novel) to a spike in his bedroom. One of those letters read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”
    • J. K. Rawlings’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (laterSorceror’s) Stone was rejected by 12 publishers before the daughter of Bloomsbury’s CEO begged her father to publish it.
    • Read about these and other rejections of famous, successful authors
Now, if I can just remember all this the next time I get a rejection!