getting things done, round 5

years ago i read getting things done by david allen (gtd), and found it incredibly simple and sensible. since then i’ve tried many tools to maintain my gtd habit.

i’ve tried:
1. microsoft one note. pro: freeform editing allows quick access. con: only accessible from one pc, inaccessible from smartphone.
2. tiddlywiki and its variants. pro: supports the gtd syste. con: again, local pc only, and slow once it gets big.
3. tiddlywiki + foldershare: same as above but solves the roaming problem from other pc’s. still no phone access though.
4. vitalist or other online todo lists. pro: great for tracking, accessible from phones and pc’s alike. con: slower, too structured.

(see bottom of post if you want to know the details of each system that I’ve tried)

recently though, i found something i really like. it’s called taskpaper, by hog bay software. (sorry, mac only.) i’ve used their earlier product before, a word processor called writeroom, which is so retro-simple that there’s no toolbars, no menus, and have the look of a text only terminal back in 1980’s, with green text on black background. writeroom’s m.o. is to strip away everything that isn’t necessary for focused writing. and so instead of worrying about all the gadgets, formatting, etc, you just focus on the text you are writing. it worked like a charm for me, and i adored the minimalist philosophy.

well taskpaper takes that philosophy and applied it to gtd. it’s a stripped down editor, with only two features distinguishing it as a gtd enabler: it allows a simple “:” or “-” character to designate a line as either a project or a task, respectively, and format the item as such. now you can quickly glance and know which line is a project grouping, and which is a task under that project, something that’s not so easy in notepad or textedit. the second feature, which is equally if not more genius, is the simple automation of tags. if you type “@text”, then the word “text” automatically becomes a tag. you can use it to group tasks together, as in the gtd system of contexts, such as @call, @computer, @errand. but you can also create your own system by just naming tags the way you see fit. once tags are created, you can quickly filter down the document to show only those of a particular tag. and so you can quickly bring up all the items that are “@call” and make your phone calls.

oh, and for tasks, they give you a checkbox for each task so that you can tick things off as completed, in which case you get a satisfying strike out effect for that task. mission accomplished.

and that’s pretty much it. that’s the entire feature set. add one more thing and it’ll probably start to feel rigid or bloated. remove one feature and you may as well be using an editor. and yet, everything is easily accessible via a single key, be it “:” “-” or “@”, making things super quick and lightweight.

i really like it after a week of daily usage. right now i’m using it as a scratchpad for brainstorming, and still uses vitalist for tracking given its reminder functionality. but it’s already allowed me to think through a project’s many steps and capture it quickly, which means i’ll be more prepared to make progress on all these projects.

if the developer jesse grosjean is reading this, i do have two requests:
– autosave the taskpaper without making me hit ctrl-s. that’s one of the best innovation of one note.
– i’d like to see a “back” button in addition to the “home” button. Sometimes I click on a tag filter and wants to undo it, but hitting home doesn’t quite feel right.

various systems that i’ve tried:

first, i tried simply using microsoft one note, and while it’s incredibly flexible, it completely lacks any structure and is a pain to keep track of everything manually. plus the fact that it doesn’t roam beyond my laptop, which is a major inconvenience. i tried supplementing it with paper+pencil, but never having one place where every action is collected is a major drawback. eventually i stopped doing it altogether.

then i tried tiddlywiki (and its many variations, some dedicated to gtd), which is a single page wiki that’s entirely implemented using javascript. it allows some automation with tags and project names, which solved the manual organization problem of using essentially a text editor in one note. but, the one page local .html file that is the tiddlywiki doesn’t roam between work and home.

and so i supplemented it with foldershare, which was a microsoft acquisition that synchronize folders across machines, mac or pc. tiddlywiki + foldershare turns out to be a pretty good tandem: i’ll add an action to tiddlywiki at home, which creates a new version of the html file. foldershare then dutifully copies that html file to my other machines, and so i can go into work and still have my latest gtd list.

this combo lasted me about 1-2 years, until i tried some of the tiddlywiki variants because of the allure of even fancier automation around @contexts, dashboard views, etc., and found that to get the automation I seek, the javascript for the automation has become incredibly slow. for stuff that is supposed to help me be more productive, it’s ridiculous to expect people wait for the tool to do its work. after a round of trying 3-4 variants of tiddlywiki, i gave up gtd again. which means my productivity went to pieces.

when i found that i really needed to get organized again, i had upgraded to a smartphone , and now have the capability to be online pretty much constantly. i thought it’s time to try some web to-do list solutions and get rid of foldershare as a crutch of synchronization. at first i tried remember the milk, which was kinda clunky. lifehacker pointed me to vitalist, which adopted the gtd system and have many support for it. it turns out to be a good choice because its ui is pretty sweet, reliable, and they do a good job supporting mobile web browser. i paid up and became a subscriber, and have been using it for last 3 months to good effect.

but one thing i didn’t like about vitalist, or for that matter any hardwired gtd system, is the ability to quickly create a list in a free-form way. when i was using one note, i could create a task as easily as typing in some text in a bulleted list. the ease with which I can add, delete, edit, and cut-n-paste the lists was great, and really facilitated me in flushing out a list. with vitalist, however, it’s a few ajax moves to create a new item, and it just isn’t as speedy as typing. as a result, i have every immediate action tracked in vitalist, but often beyond a week out i’d have no idea what i need to do next to complete any given project.

so, again, i’m finding myself needing to supplement my gtd system under vitalist. i need a scratchpad of sorts that’s simple, quick, and lightweight, to brainstorm the steps of a project so that i can lay out the steps in one spot. sure, i can use a text editor, but i have to format things myself, which i hate. and there’s no tagging of items, no relationship between items. it’s just too raw.


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