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App Review: Wunderlist is a Cross Platform, Easy-To-Use Task Manager

App Review: Wunderlist is a Cross Platform, Easy-To-Use Task Manager

    If I’ve learned anything in my quest to become a productive person over the years by using technology tools it is the following two points.

    1. Love the tools you use.

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    If you find something wrong with your productivity tool within the first 5 minutes of using it, chances are it won’t stick. There are a ton of list making and action tracking apps out there. Find one that has the features you want and is fun to use.

    2. Your tools have to be everywhere you are.

    The GTD guru, Mr. Allen speaks of making sure that you have a “ubiquitous capture tool” wherever you may go. I tend to take that one step further: you should have a ubiquitous set of tools wherever you go. This holds especially true with how much mobile computing has exploded in use and popularity over the past few years. We are all mostly connected via our smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.; we should have our productivity systems with us.

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    Like I said before, there are a ton of “GTD” apps out there that promise you how productive you will be and how easy they are to use. While there is no “best GTD app” out there for everyone, there are some that come close and can be highly recommended. The new kid on the block is Wunderlist (by 6Wunderkinder), a cross-platform “easy-to-use task manager” that is available for Windows, OS X, iOS (iPad and iPhone), Android, and the browser that includes over the air syncing across all apps. It sounds pretty awesome, huh?

    Today we are going to look at how Wunderlist stacks up as a productivity tool.

      Simplified task manager

      The thing that I like the most about Wunderlist is that it is dead simple. There are some task management apps out there that have folders, tags, contexts, priority, locations, subtasks, etc. Wunderlist isn’t like this; it gives the user the choice to create a bunch of list groupings (think contexts in GTD) and under each of those grouping a list of tasks. It appears you can have as many contexts as you want and as many tasks in each context as you want.

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      Your tasks can have a due date, reminder, a note, or a star. They also can be dragged to any list grouping that you want (Windows, OS X, and web versions) or the list can be changed in the details of the task (iOS, Android). There is also a set of filters at the bottom of the desktop and web apps where you can see all tasks, starred, completed, and tasks due today, tomorrow, next 7 days, later, and without a date. One thing that bothers me about these filters is that when you press any option you get a blob of tasks with no indication of what list grouping they are in.

      Cloud syncing

      You can also set up a Wunderlist account and have all your data sync with the Wunderlist cloud which allows you to keep all of your devices synced up. In general this works well and is faster than any sync I have experience on a desktop task-managment app (I’m looking at you OmniFocus). I have an installation on every platform that is available and the sync seems fairly reliable. What I mean is that sometimes when deleting tasks or marking them complete, the mobile versions on Android and iOS have trouble updating list counts. This can be remedied by exiting and starting the app again but it does happen more often than not.

      Other features

      Other features include being able to print your current task lists from the desktop and web versions, publish your list “to the cloud” where you are given a “secret” URL to share with friends or colleagues, or email your tasks. And of course, what would Wunderlist be without its beautiful choices of background images? As far as I can tell you can’t add any background or your own without doing some “tweaking” of JavaScript which brings me to the last killer feature; Wunderlist is open source and therefore just begging to be added on to. It is made of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS and can be accessed via github to have your geeky way with.

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        Cross platform goodness

        One of the other best things about this application is that it is truly cross-platform and for someone like me who is using Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, and Linux this is a major feature. All the versions of the apps seem to be similar in features and look-and-feel, and I have to say that 6Wunderkinder did a good job of porting this app to all platforms without totally changing the user experience. The mobile apps are great, but there is still some room for improvement of the UI and possibly utilizing location by providing location based contexts or tasks. But, for a first start that has only been available for a couple of months, Wunderlist hits the major features needed for a good GTD application on all platforms.

        Pros and Cons

        To wrap up let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Wunderlist:

        Pros

        • Cross-platform support: Windows, OS X, web, Android, iOS
        • Fast “cloud sync”
        • open source
        • Beautiful backgrounds
        • Easy task management including due dates, reminders, star, and list groups (contexts)
        • Search
        • Email, print, and “cloud sharing” options for tasks lists
        • Free!

        Cons

        • Sync can be unreliable on mobile devices at times
        • No options for subtasks or subcontexts
        • No start date or repeat options for tasks
        • No utilization of location on mobile apps

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        CM Smith

        A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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        Last Updated on March 17, 2020

        A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

        A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

        Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.

          Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

          Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

          The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

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          According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

          He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

          Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

          Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
          where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

          A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

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          “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

          This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

          Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

          Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

          There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

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          Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

          This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

          There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

          The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.

          Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

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          The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.

          I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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          Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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