Getting things not quite done

Cleaning the mess on my desk has made me more aware, again, how much stuff one can accumulate in such short time. Getting things done is quite difficult when you have the stuff on your desk. On the other hand, if you don’t have a proper inbox, that’s what you opted for. Hmm. Increasingly I find that the method I’m currently using is not really working out for me. One of the problems is too many inboxes, a fatal accident waiting to happen to the followers of the True Way. So far that accident is waiting to happen because I have a rather diverse work environment. There’s the computer at work, the laptop, the home computer, meetings, babysitting in the park, in the train or when visiting friends and relatives. Well, not that diverse, but diverse enough to end up with more than one inbox. One on the work computer, one on the home computer and one in a paper notebook I keep around. I like the paper notebook, because I have a readable handwriting, you can scribble, and it has nice in-the-bright-sunlight-in-the-park properties and friends and relatives don’t really mind when you scribble something in your paper notebook thingy. Start using a laptop on that occasion and people are seriously upgrading your geek status.It would appear I’m not alone in this.

But paper notebooks have one main setback, you keep repeating yourself. Entering stuff from email into the paper notebook doesn’t feel like you’re accomplishing something. When you have two pages of to-dos and notes it looks quite neat. Start doing things and crossing things off (Feel good moment) it starts to look rather messy. So, after a while, you rewrite your list to get a good overview. But hey, I’m not in this world to rewrite my to-do list for the umpteenth time.

I thought about getting a nice iPhone 3GS, but that sort of appeals to my geekness more than to my I want to get stuff done-ness. Other than that, I have a hard time believing that it has the nice properties a paper notebook has.

Maybe the future will bring something like a Kindle which you can write onto and then organize it. Maybe I should get a scanner, that would at least save the rewriting. That’s two maybes that may rank a bit too high on the ‘wishful thinking scale’.

For the time being I see no other option than to muddle forward in this way.

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Getting things done with software

I’ve been steadily improving my efficiency by using the Getting Things Done method, way of Life, something like that. One of the first recommendations is to have a single inbox. One way to have a single inbox is by using some piece of software to do that for you.

So far I’ve used TaskPaper, OmniFocus, Things and the recent newcomer (only in Beta) The Hit List.

Taskpaper is quite simple, it has the minimal set of features to manage your inbox. You can do most things, like selecting everything with a certain tag. However, it’s not too easy to organize everything by deadline. My final conclusion is that TaskPaper is too basic to fill my needs.

Things is much more advanced. What I like are the ‘Focus’ boxes in the sidebar. They make it very easy to change your focus to what should be done today, which tasks are available to do next etc. What I absolutely don’t like is that you can’t (or, at least I can’t) create sub-projects. As I found out, it’s a number one requirement for me. Further the number of tags grows quite rapidly for me and that makes it inconvenient to use. But, in retrospect, I may have been misusing the tags functionality a bit. If I’d have used it more as the list of contexts it might have been more workable. Things did not quite cut the cake, right now. Today I’ve also looked at the 1.0rc and it has 100% eye-candy, but I have not seen subprojects yet.

OmniFocus is the software I put my money in. It had all the features I needed, like subprojects. What it hasn’t got is eye-candy. It’s not quite as ugly as a baboon’s backside, but nearly there. I’ve been using it for the last month as I should. The things I use most are:

  • Recurring tasks (both recurring after completion as on a fixed deadline).
  • Subprojects. In this respect I almost use Omnifocus to do the outline of the project, now if only the output could be shown as a Gantt chart… One thing you cannot do is put a subproject on hold.
  • Emailing new ideas to my inbox via the Apple Mail integration. Nice.
  • It’s easy to spot which tasks are available next, and what tasks are due any time soon. It’s only configurable for all taks, whereas Things allows you to enter this information separately.

The Hit List is in semi-private beta since December 23rd and I’ve been using it on-and-off (not fulltime since it’s a beta and I have serious doubts if I like to reenter all the items from omnifocus again in THL, since there is currently no import/export functionality, also, THL does not have recurring tasks, which is necessary for me for THL to be a OmniFocus replacement. But do I like what I see so far?

  • It looks good, very good.
  • It’s stable.
  • You can organize your projects (why does the menuitem say ‘List’ btw?) in any way you want. Tagging can be done in any way you want, for contexts as well as ‘ordinary tags’.
  • There are shortcuts for just about anything to speed you up.
  • You can approach the tasks in the list as the project-breakdown, but also as a ‘card’ (with shuffle-eye-candy when going from one task to the next). This invites you to create more extensive notes. Since I use the note to describe the result of the task, I think this way of viewing a task is a plus.
  • You can time the duration of a task.

But there are some things I think should be added:

  • I couldn’t find how you can create a list of ‘next’ tasks. But, for this to be useful, you have to be able to specify that a (sub-)project is parallel or serial.
  • Make it scriptable, so you can hook it to mail via mail rules.
  • Make a task that is due more obvious than making it bold.
  • If you have subsubtasks it’s not obvious from the card-view for the task. Ideally the top project card would show a gantt chart of the subtasks. Featuritis, I know.
  • Create an import-feature for plaintext or any of the competitor’s file formats.
  • Due times could be displayed as ‘in 3 days’ like Things has. That’s quite nice.

The Conclusion for me is that it’s going to be either THL or OmniFocus.