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Hitting your Productivity Targets

It took David Allen about 250 pages to explain his Getting Things Done productivity system. You’ll have to read each page at least twice to understand it, spend several hours wondering how to make it work and fiddle around with 43 folders before realizing you don’t need a book to teach you how to procrastinate.

The UNO system provided by Metrostate University comes free on two PDF pages. It will take you about three seconds to figure out and unlike GTD, you might actually use it. It’s a perfect example of how often the simplest designs can bring the biggest benefits.

UNO, which stands, a little ambitiously perhaps, for Universal Organizer, consists of nothing more than a series of four concentric circles divided by lines radiating out from a central bulls-eye. It looks like a dartboard but with only six numbers (or sections).

Graduating from College
The organizer was designed to make it easier for students to plan their college papers, and the instructions still place an emphasis on essay-planning when explaining how to use UNO. The center circle, it says, is where you put the topic or title you want to write about. Each section in the first inner ring would contain one key point the essay would discuss. Sub-points continue in the middle ring while support information and details would be added to the outer ring.

A summary of the inner ring then, would be the introduction in which you describe what you’re planning to say. The sections of the middle rings become paragraphs or sections of the essay, while information in the outer rings would help you to flesh out the details.

Using a highlighter to mark the ideas you’ve already covered should help to keep your ideas ordered as you write and see how much work still needs to be done.

So far so simple, especially for students. But if UNO was only good for college kids wondering how to make sense of Sociology 101, it would have limited appeal. Other recommended uses though include project-planning, website design, goal-setting and preparing presentations.

It’s not too hard to see how that would work. Instead of using a tree structure to plan Web pages for example, it would be possible to print out a copy of UNO, use the concentric rings to show how users surf into the site and indicate the sort of content each of the pages should contain.

Similarly, distant goals can be made more concrete by a planning process that indicates each of the skills that would have to be acquired and challenges met along the way. Highlighting each of those in turn would be particularly satisfying.

For example, a designer planning an online travel store for a client might write “Flights,” “Hotels,” “Packages,” and “Car Rental” in four of the inner circles to indicate the main sections of the site.

In the middle circle under “Flights,” he could put “Search” and “Special Offers” to remind himself what would appear under the Flights tab. And in the outer circle, he could add “Purchase and generate ticket.”

The structure itself is also meant to be flexible. There’s no need to fill the entire diagram if you don’t need to and subdividing sections and creating more rings requires nothing more than adding a line. It’s even possible to break out complex sections into “satellites” that provide even more detail.

Altogether, UNO is a pretty neat tool that has all the benefits of simplicity while combining segmentation and priority.

UNO, the Limits
It’s not perfect though. The limited space in each sector of a circle means you can never do more than write a word or two to remind you of what you need to do. There’s no room for detailed notes, and breaking out too many satellites could start to make things very messy very quickly.

That could be a pretty big limitation. It restricts users from thinking too deeply about their plan, restricting preparation, and it could hide problems until the implementation process is well under way.

Similarly, while the concentric radials indicate priority, they don’t reveal order. A circle doesn’t have a beginning, so you’d have to make sure you knew which main topic you wanted to start with and where you’d want to go next, especially if you wanted to re-order the content. Adding numbers to each inner circle could help.

Nor, despite its name, is UNO a universal organizer. It’s a useful planning tool but it’s not going to organize your life, help you sort out an overflowing inbox or turn your life from a mess of missed deadlines into order and stability.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of UNO though is the characteristic that’s also its strength: the diagram’s simplicity. It’s so easy to reproduce that no one is ever going to make any money marketing it. David Allen certainly has it beat there.

[tags] productivity, gtd. uno [/tags]


  1. graft Says:

    the concept is ineresting, but it's similar to mind-mapping and other "web" diagrams. the examples in the UNO PDF file show that there isn't an ideal way to sort the information in the way that is intended. the close proximity of the polar coordinate graph lines also make it hard to fit complex ideas (or even big words) into the suggested format. overall, i'll stick with writing my target concept in the center of the page and drawing a big spiderweb away from that point. i can do the same thing as UNO but without the spatially restrictive grid.

  2. Catten Says:

    I've always had a very hard time figuring out how to organize my ideas. Paul Borzo showed me UNO and literally changed the way I write. I am a technical writer and it's vital to produce complete manuals. With this tool, I am sure I haven't missed anything. I've also used it to lay out Web sites, write articles, and best of all, pull my Master's thesis together. Thumbs up!

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