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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 January 13, 2020

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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