Finding a System: Interview with Michael Sliwinski

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  • May 8, 2017

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It’s no secret that I am a proponent of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system to keep me organized and efficient. One of the most powerful tools in that arsenal is Nozbe. Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down with Nozbe’s founder, Michael Sliwinski, to learn what inspires him, how he uses Nozbe himself and why he’s motivated by the GTD system.

Michael’s from Gdynia, Poland, and learned to love computers early from his father, who was an electronics technician. He holds two degrees: one in Business Economics from the University of Gdansk and another in Marketing from Fachhochschule Stralsund in Germany.

In college, Michael discovered Getting Things Done by David Allen, and it changed his life.

Here at Learning House we have a program called the Unstoppable Course, where we’ve implemented GTD and Nozbe as the primary productivity system. What led you to the GTD system?

In college, I was a mess. It was hard for me to get organized; I realized that I had some potential, that when I was organized, in these moments of brilliance when I was organized, I could deliver cool things, and I could come up with great ideas. But I was a mess. I would just, you know, not deliver things on time, and I would just blow deadlines. So I wanted to be better.

The first thing I did, I started learning about Stephen Covey’s First Things First and then Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. These books were really great, but they were high-level thinking: What’s your mission? What’s your five-year plan? For me, when I was a student, it was hard to grasp because I wanted to get through college quickly. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.

Then, a friend of mine suggested that I should read Getting Things Done. What I liked about Getting Things Done, when I read the book, I was like, “Yeah, this is more down to earth, more like practical tips that I can apply now to get through college faster and better, and then hopefully figure out what I want to do with my life.” I was just blown away. I knew it was something I wanted to implement. GTD was just more practical.

Even David Allen, I think, somewhere wrote that … there’s a saying: If you’re climbing a ladder fast, but the ladder is against the wrong wall, it’s not really productive. On the other hand, if you know how to climb a ladder fast and you realize it’s against the wrong wall, you just put it against the correct wall, and you climb fast anyway, because you already have the skills to climb fast. So for me, I think what drew me to GTD was the fact that I wanted to get the skills — get the skills to get organized and then later figure out what I really wanted for the big picture of myself.

There aren’t many different systems out there that help you get organized. There are a lot of task-management tools; there’s Outlook, and there are a million apps for this stuff, but there aren’t really many systems like GTD. How did that affect Nozbe?

Yeah, that’s true. There are quasi-systems, like recently there was this new book by Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better, and I think he’s trying to do a similar thing. The thing is, with GTD, you don’t have to apply the whole thing. You can just start with the basic things. For example, when I was building Nozbe, what I did was I focused on just three things.

The first was how to write things down fast, so you can really add tasks quickly, because the idea was to free your mind, to put things in your system. Many existing systems were very complicated. To add a task, you’d have to fill out a form of I don’t know how many fields. I wanted to add a task very quickly. So for me, making it quick and easy to add tasks to Nozbe was really important, because that way I could just get it out of my brain and put it in Nozbe.

The second thing was projects. You can put tasks in very quickly and easily, but to do something more complicated, you have to follow several steps. It was important that I be able to create a project quickly, then add tasks to it quickly, then figure out my priorities. You have to be able to know: Which are your next actions?

Then last was the concept of contexts, or categories. In Nozbe, you categorize tasks based on the place or the tool that you want to get them done with.

But, apart from that, I didn’t implement the whole thing. I didn’t implement the weekly review part. I didn’t implement lots of other small concepts of GTD, because with these three concepts, it was already helping me tremendously. I thought, you know, if people grasp these concepts, they’re going to be fine.

One of the things I love about Nozbe is that it lives in the cloud. I travel about four days a week, and I have two different offices and a number of devices I work on. I love that Nozbe is ubiquitous on these devices, in pretty much the same exact format. Was that intentional?

You don’t know how many discussions we had over this. Initially, if you remember, when the smartphone came around, the idea was to put a simpler application on the smartphone and then the more complicated, full application on the computer. But smartphones are just computers. So, we had a debate over this in our team, but finally we decided we wanted to unify the experience.

There are still many differences, as you know, when you use them. We try to adjust the mobile version to be more mobile, the web version to be more web-based and the desktop version more desktop. We try to get the best features for each platform, like keyboard shortcuts on the desktop, but the idea is that people should feel at home whatever option they pick. They should feel that they know what they are doing, they know where they are, and they know what they’re supposed to do.

You’ve alluded to this a little bit, but can you give me an example about how GTD has impacted your own productivity?

The first thing is the two-minute rule: When you can do something in less than two minutes, just do it now. This concept, for me, is very good because it just frees my mind.

The second thing would be just this habit of writing things down. So, when you cannot do something in two minutes, write it down right away. Don’t procrastinate; write it down right away. Don’t count on your mind remembering it. In Nozbe, we try to make doing this really easy. On the iPhone, you can push and use force touch to add to inbox very quickly, and we have the Share Sheet, we have the widget. So we are trying to, on all these platforms, accommodate this idea to make sure that people get in the habit of writing things down right away.

Have you ever thought about building some of GTD’s weekly review functionality into Nozbe?

We’re still thinking about it. If we did, we could maybe make it easier for people to review each project one by one — maybe create a special mode for Nozbe that would guide people through the process. I don’t know yet; we are investigating things, but yes definitely we want to help people to do the weekly review, because we know for a fact that, if you do a weekly review, then the next week will be easier.

We have this policy in our company, the TGIF policy, that on Fridays everybody has to do weekly review and then everything else is optional, like the whole Friday is optional. After you’ve done your weekly review, you can do whatever you want, so basically you should focus on learning and developing your skills, but you don’t have to do day-to-day stuff on Fridays. On Fridays, you should do the weekly review and then learn something new.

At Learning House, we’re just learning how to use GTD within the company. What advice would you give to other companies around implementing GTD?

This is actually our next focus for Nozbe. What I discovered is that people in our company are still using different tools to get things done. Something I really don’t like for people to do is use email to manage projects. What happens then is you cc people, you don’t cc people, somebody gets an older attachment or a newer one. It’s a mess. So what we discovered is that when people, for example, start using Nozbe company-wide and start creating projects, invite people to projects, create tasks, delegate tasks, comment in tasks, then things are not as messy anymore, because when you have access to a project, you just go to the project. You see the overview. You know who’s responsible for what, because in Nozbe if something is delegated to somebody, instead of a tick, you see the avatar of that person, so you know that somebody has this task and is supposed to be working on that.

With action-based communication, it’s more efficient, because whenever you add a comment, you add a comment to a specific task, so it’s related to that task. The conversations are more focused, and people get the hang of it. Then when they start doing the weekly review, they start adding their own personal projects or their own private projects and then adding their own tasks. So they start learning by doing.

So my advice for many companies would be to start using a tool like Nozbe and share a few projects, or just one project, with a few people and see how this goes. See if people grasp the idea of delegating tasks, of adding comments to the tasks and commenting around tasks, because what we discovered in our company is that it’s really helpful. It’s more focused. It helps us organize our company, and when we have new hires, people who are new to Nozbe, they get the hang of GTD and Nozbe very quickly thanks to just jumping right in and participating in projects and adding tasks.

What’s next on the horizon for Nozbe?

Nozbe was born 10 years ago as a personal productivity tool for me, just to get my things done. But now, I realize I have a bigger mission here, and as my company’s growing and we are more than 30 people now, I realized that companies need the same thing. They use email, they use other tools to get things done, and they are coming back to Nozbe because they want to get organized.

So, for me, I think for the next 10 years of Nozbe, the team productivity part will be our next big thing … studying different industries, seeing how they work and helping them create more productivity.

We have this saying internally, in the Unstoppable Course: What mindsets, what skills and what tools do you need to become unstoppable? Is there any advice that you’d give to our audience around being unstoppable and being the best version of yourself each day?

Keep learning. Keep improving. I’ve been doing this 10 years, and I’m still learning so much from the community and from everyone, from you. I’m really hungry to be better, to learn more. For example, as you know, I run triathlons. When I train, I listen to audiobooks, I listen to podcasts, because I want to learn new things from other people.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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