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The Search for My Ideal GTD App

The Search for My Ideal GTD App
The Ideal GTD App?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking for an online service to help me stay organized. My system at the moment is a patchwork of paper, desktop apps, and willpower that has worked well enough in the past but has begun to come apart at the seams as I take on a growing number of responsibilities. Since I work at several different locations, I need to be able to access a single source where I can access tasks, files, and reference information — from wherever I happen to be.

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I’ve yet to find the system that works best for me, although there are plenty of slick apps that look promising until I actually get down to working with them. After a few days of excitement, I find myself coming up against barriers to productivity — some of them because of poor design, some because of differences in philosophy between myself and the programmers, most because I’m simply not the target client — and find myself spending time looking for workarounds to make the system work rather than actually getting stuff done.

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Looking at and evaluating all these applications has forced me to consider what exactly it is that I’m looking for in an ideal GTD app. Here are a few of the features I think are important:

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  • Supporting materials should be bound to projects: Most of my projects involve the creation of documents, and many of them have associated reference materials as well. I would like to be able to look at a project, or a task under a project, and with a click create or open an associated document. For instance, I’m working on a long academic article for a book; I’d like to have all of my notes, PDFs of research materials, drafts, and other materials available whenever I open that project. Foldera does this in a way, but I’ve found it difficult to work with, and it is geared more towards business collaboration than towards individual task management.
  • Document editing: I want to be able to create and edit documents from within the same interface that I use to look at my projects and tasks. Whether this uses an internal document editor or a link to a third-party service like Google Docs or Zoho doesn’t matter, as long as the document is saved back to the project it belongs to. So using the above example, if I am working on a draft of my article, I want to be able to open the document, write, and save the document back into the project it belongs to.
  • Bulk upload: Why on earth do so many online apps allow you to upload documents only one at a time? What I’d really like to see is a desktop app that would allow me to synchronize files, perhaps by flagging them on the desktop in some way, and then upload them in the background — but I’d settle for a file manager that either allowed me to drag and drop multiple files or ctrl-select them to upload all at once.
  • Integration with desktop tools like Outlook: I’d like to be able to work in Outlook or other desktop apps and have the work appear in my online space — and vice versa. So when I check a todo list item “done” online, it’s also marked “done” in Outlook. Several online apps do one-way imports from Outlook, and a few do manual syncs — I don’t see why this couldn’t be automated.
  • Integration with mobile tools: For me, like many others, a PC isn’t the only tool I work with. I use a Treo, and others use iPhones, Blackberries, and even Windows Mobile devices (it’s true!) when a PC isn’t handy. Yet few online apps try very hard to integrate with them. Even if access can’t be “live”, it would be nice to have work show up at least when the device is synchronized. What I’d really like, though, is integration with my smartphone’s apps, or third-party apps like Google’s — Google has shown that it’s possible to make sophisticated online apps that work on a variety of mobile devices.
  • Automatic promotion of future tasks: When I develop a project outline, I generally write down a list of tasks that need to be done to complete the project. But when I look at my todo list, I just want to know what to do now. Most of the apps I’ve seen dump all the todos from all my projects into one master list, which is useless to me — how can I revise the first draft of an article when I haven’t even been to the library to check out the books I need to research it yet? I want my GTD app to promote the very next action to my todo list whenever I mark the item right before it as finished.
  • Links to other services: I’d really like to see a way to pass data back and forth between online services, but barring that I’d like at least to add links into the interface to other online services. It’s surprising to me how many GTD apps don’t have anywhere to put links.
  • No-nag tasks: I like to schedule time or set reminders for things that I only need to be reminded about once. For example, driving time — I schedule my regular commute in my calendar, and sometimes I do need a reminder (“hey, you gotta get going, buddy!”) but if I miss the reminder, that’s because I’m probably already driving. I’d like to be able to create a category of reminders that go off once and if I’m not there to respond to them, they just disappear.
  • An exit strategy How I get my data out of an online app is at least as important as how I get it in. My needs are bound to change in the future, or the programmers may decide to change something in a way that no longer meets my unchanged needs — or the company that hosts the service may go out of business or cancel the service. If my data is trapped in their system, I’m screwed. I need a way to bulk download everything in their original formats (for documents, files, etc.) or in documented web standards (xml, RSS) that can be ported to a new system, or at least opened on my desktop so I can transfer information over manually.

What about you? What features are you looking for in a GTD app? What services do you use, and what would you change to make them suit your needs better? Is there a great out-of-the-box service out there that I’m missing? If you could design your own perfect online service, what would it do?

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Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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