Scatterbrained

I’ve been having a lot of trouble keeping track of everything I need to do in order to keep my life from falling apart. I mean, I have no idea when I did laundry last, I think it’s been over a month since I’ve vacuumed my room (and my allergies are starting to show it), and I’m sort of blundering about the “learning how to use my new computer” process without any sort of plan. I’m usually very good at these things. I’m a list-maker. I have systems so that things don’t go unnoticed or forgotten and my lists stay useful and up-to-date. Mostly that system follows the Getting Things Done philosophy (GTD for short).

pic from Wikipedia

The problem with my system right now is that my interface is gone. All of my lists – not only their content, but their organization – were on my iPod. Which was stolen. I know I keep bringing up the theft thing, but seriously, with all the things that were taken my life came to a screeching halt and it will be quite some time before everything is back to normal.

Sadly, this is not the first time this (the list system failure, not the theft) has happened. When I first started using GTD I was low-tech and managed it by manually typing out lists on the computer and printing them out to stick in my planner (I still get catalogs from DayTimer…at first it was funny, now it’s just sad.) The printing process quickly became tedious and wasteful though so I slowly started migrating everything to the computer. I used OneNote to organize my lists at that point. There were lots of internal links to other pages for project notes and what not, and it was a little complicated to set up, but it worked pretty smoothly once it was. As long as I kept up with it, that is. If things started to get out of date and links weren’t updated properly it would quickly spiral out of control and I would have a godawful mess to untangle before the lists would be remotely functional again.

OneNote – the first in a long line of applications I fell in love with
pic from jackcola.org

See, the brilliant thing about GTD is that if you do it well then you will have a detailed to-do list for EVERYTHING you could possibly want/need to do at any given moment, but only have to look at a small portion of that list based on whatever was actually feasible for you to do at the time. That way you wouldn’t have to remember anything, EVER. You’d just look at a list and get to it. The problem with GTD is that if you do it well, you have a massive amount of things in those lists, and if you do it REALLY well, once those things are on the lists, they exit your brain. 

So, when my computer had a problem and needed to be restored to a previous backup, erasing at least a month of changes to my lists, the whole system collapsed. The lists were polluted with things that were already completed, nothing that I had added to the lists were there and I had a hard time remembering what all was supposed to be there, all of the links to other pages were messed up and out of date, and IT WAS AWFUL. To make matters worse, somehow in the restore process the folder organization I had been working on for all of my documents and pictures and such during the missing month were fine. They didn’t get wiped out at all. The problem is, the OLD mess of folders that I had had BEFORE I organized them all got restored on top of the new organization in a weird tangled mess. I had duplicates everywhere and it would be quite a lot of time and effort before I could track them all down and sort out the proper organization again. I still don’t understand how this happened.

NextAction – mobile lists are great, but not on such a tiny screen…
pic from s4bb.com

At that point I sort of gave up on the whole OneNote organization and started fresh with Next Action! on my BlackBerry. I really wanted something more mobile anyway. For a while it was perfect! All of my lists were nice and tidy and with me at all times. I was a bit nervous about what I would do if my BlackBerry went belly up since I really didn’t trust that the backups you do on those things would actually back up any of the list contents – especially after seeing how well the backups on my computer had gone. As I fleshed out the lists more and more though I started to have problems navigating through them. One important component of the GTD system is being able to review your lists regularly and with the length of some of these lists I was really having trouble getting through it all on that tiny screen with half of the names cut off. For many of the actions I would have to click on each item individually in order to see the full text and know what in god’s names I was supposed to do.

As time went on and more things were added I noticed a new problem – there seemed to be a limit to how many things you could have on the lists and still have the program function efficiently. To be fair, I’m a bit taxing on these lists. I keep track of a lot of stuff. On page 41 of the book David Allen writes that most people are likely to have fifty to 150 actionable items on their to-do lists at any given time. I laughed so hard at that, and still do every time I think about it! Who ARE these people who lead such uncomplicated lives?! Seriously, at any given time I’m likely to have HUNDREDS of actionable items. I mean just the chores alone could top 100 actionable tasks I could be doing right now. So the fact that the program was starting to slow down under the weight of my own ambition wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing.

I started to ease off on the list managing and stopped keeping track of certain categories of things, like my crafting. It made me uncomfortable, but at least I was less likely to forget what needed to be done craft-wise out of apathy.

The slickest app I’ve used yet! RIP iPod.
pic from itunes.apple.com

Then I got my iPod. My blessed iPod. And I found a new program called Action Lists which synced with an online program called Toodledo. Any lists you made on the iPod with Action List would be backed up online on Toodledo, so you could access it even without the iPod and if something happened you’d still have your lists! Action Lists was SO SLICK. It was so much easier to navigate than anything on the BlackBerry (part of that has to do with the whole Apple interface being easier to interact with) and it even had the ability to do REPEATING TASKS!! Holy efficiency, Batman! Instead of having to re-enter “vacuum my bedroom” every week after I finished it, all I had to do was set the task up as a repeating event, and every week the task would end up in my inbox again reminding me “hey, it’s been a week since you vacuumed, perhaps you should wage war on those dust mites once again so you can continue to breathe.”

I had two wonderful months with that program before it was ripped away from me. It wasn’t enough time to fully test out whether the system could withstand the sheer volume of tasks I wanted to throw at it, but at that point it functioned so much better than anything I could ever get on the BlackBerry I didn’t care. If I really needed to I could probably set up a separate list on the computer for the crafting so I didn’t tax the iPod too much. I also hadn’t had time to check out Toodledo and learn their system AT ALL. I was too distracted by the shiny new iPod.

Everything I had in the Action Lists program is safely backed up on my Toodledo account, I checked. However, at first glance their set-up is confusing and I really didn’t want to spend hours in my sister’s never-been-dusted-or-vacuumed-death-trap bedroom on her slower-than-molasses-and-buggier-than-the-Amazon computer figuring it out. Also, it felt too much like the OneNote fiasco all over again and I Just. Couldn’t. Handle. It.

Now that I have the MacBook Pro to work with, and my brain is starting to fall apart under the weight of all the things I’m trying to remember to do, I think I’m ready to find a new interface for my to-do lists. Sadly the Action Lists program for the iPod does not have a Mac equivalent, so I can’t just go back to that. So, I made a list of things I need from my list interface based on my past experiences:

  • ability to do repeating tasks (this was such a great feature I’m afraid it’s going to be a deal-breaker for any programs without it)
  • need to be able to sort tasks by context (at home, errands, etc.)
  • ability to add due dates for tasks
  • ability to attach tasks to a project – bonus points if that project can have future tasks that are triggered by a particular date or by a previous task being completed
  • be able to add notes to a task or project
  • lists should be internet accessible and automatically backed up or synced in case of technology failure
  • bonus points if it can sync with other devices like an iPhone or iPad (which I don’t have yet, but someday…)
  • bonus points if tasks that are due to start will show up in the Notifications on the MacBook

With this list in mind I started to do some research to find a suitable successor to Action Lists. So far I’ve come up with a few possibilities.

Door #1 – OmniFoucs
pic from macworld.com

OmniFocus

Pros:

  • It’s one of the programs recommended by the GTD people – they even have a GTD set-up guide for OmniFocus
  • Has an inbox feature for general brain dumps when you don’t have the time or energy to figure out what is actionable and what isn’t and where it should go (nothing I’ve used so far has had a good way of dealing with this)
  • Will sync with other devices
  • Said to be very customizable for however YOU work best
  • There are all sorts of resources for figuring out how to optimize your workflow with this program – there is a rabid fan base and even a whole book on the subject – Creating Flow with OmniFocus
  • I’ve heard of it before, and only heard good things about it until I started looking at reviews for 2Do comparing it to OmniFocus.
  • Has ability to attach tasks to projects, and have tasks with due dates.
  • Can sort tasks into contexts.
  • Says you can set task recurrence schedules, though I would like to know more about how it works
  • Offers a 14 day trial – though I’m not sure that’s enough time for me to properly vet it.

Cons:

  • It’s pricey – $79.99
  • It won’t sync with Toodledo and I didn’t find any other info on how to back up the system. There may be a way, but it wasn’t obviously advertised.
  • Some people complain that the program is too “bloated” to be efficient. Interface may be overly complicated.
  • Some complain that there is a serious learning curve, and considering there are set-up guides and books on the subject, I believe it.

Door #2 – 2Do
pic from itunes.apple.com

2Do

Pros:

  • Syncs with Toodledo, so all of my previous lists will be saved! Also future lists will be backed up safely online.
  • Will sync with other devices
  • Has repeating tasks
  • Has nested tasks for projects – now I’m not sure exactly how that would work – would it automatically add the next task after the previous one is completed? – but it sounds promising
  • Will show up in the Notifications center
  • Can sort tasks into contexts
  • Can add due dates to tasks
  • Offers a 14 day trial – though I’m not sure that’s enough time for me to properly vet it.

Cons:

  • This is the first I’ve ever heard of this program, so I’m nervous about shelling out $30 for a product I’m not sure will work for me. It’s way less than $80, but still…
  • Doesn’t seem to have an inbox feature like OmniFocus
  • Claims to have a simple interface, which always worries me because lists like mine can suffer from being too simplified
  • There is a way to organize tasks into projects, but it looks a bit clunky.

Aaaaand that’s as far as I got before my brain started to shut down. I turned the TV on to watch some curling and fell asleep to sounds of rapid ice-sweeping and dudes screaming “HARD! HARDER!!” in delightful Canadian accents. Seriously, it’s the funniest sport ever.

Epic pants.

So I haven’t made a decision yet. Should I go with the more expensive and more complex system that may take a while for me to figure out, but will almost certainly meet most of my needs? Or should I go with the much cheaper, much easier to learn, but possibly over-simplified system that also sounds like it will meet most of my needs? Or should I keep looking for more and more obscure programs (these were the most popular options) and hope my brain doesn’t explode? Also, exactly how comfortable with using my Mac should I be before I bother downloading the free trials? I don’t want to waste precious vetting time figure out how to use basic Mac functions on top of trying to figuring out a new application…

My brain can’t do this anymore, HALP!

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11 thoughts on “Scatterbrained

  1. in terms of all this technology and it’s organization – sorry, can’t help you. As far as I can determine you are light years ahead of me… I do, however, have a full-proof, rob-proof, technology-crashing-proof system. I write stuff on paper. Ah, but how do I keep track of the paper? THAT’s the problem.
    And seriously. What is with those pants…

    • I used to be a die-hard paper advocate, but so much of my life is spent on technology now it’s getting harder and harder for me to keep track of a piece of paper for more than 12 hours. That and the amount of time I would spend physically organizing, revising, rewriting, and recycling my paper lists makes the shift to technology worth the risk for me.

      THOSE PANTS. I’m fairly certain those were worn during the last Winter Olympics by a team from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I remember being mesmerized by harlequin patterned pants during the curling event, and when I did a Google image search for curling, there were THOSE PANTS right on the first page of results. Hilarious.

      • Well, I’ll leave the technology to you and take my hat off (this is me, taking my hat off).
        As to THOSE PANTS – what a tragic state of affairs for such an underwhelming sport. Very funny and isn’t that sad?

  2. I’m going to have to see if the library has a copy of that book – I’m always a little leery of things that expect you to have hundreds of things on lists because of my delightful combination of ADHD and anxiety, but if it’s as “stress-free” as it claims, it might work.

    I am also a pen-and-paper sort of gal, because I’m the archetypal kinetic learner, and my ability to remember things I haven’t written down is truly abysmal. If having an exhaustive list is what works for you, though, paper might be more of a hassle than its worth.

    I’m getting a new MacBook Pro on Tuesday, so maybe I’ll have a few more insights once I’ve started browsing the App Store. I’ve used Journler (which was freeware for 10.5) in much the same way you used OneNote. It’s much more like a journal (hence the name), but it had a few perks – audio and video recording into your notebook was pretty cool, I tend to talk things out with large wavy gestures.

    • I don’t have ADHD, but I do have massive anxiety and panic attacks and the system has REALLY helped with that (until it all falls apart on you – backups are a must!) It can totally be done on paper, and that’s exactly how I managed it at first, though my lists did tend to get a little out of hand. Your mileage may vary 😉

      The idea with having the extensive lists is that you don’t want to be keeping track of anything inside your brain, which can be a very unreliable place to store information long term. If you can empty your brain of all the nagging thoughts of all the stuff you could/should/want to be doing then you can really focus on actually DOING those things instead of worrying about them. Then there’s a lot of stuff on helping you manage those huge to-do lists so that you’re not confronted with a giant wall of checklists and can focus on only the things you have the tools to do or are in the right environment to do at any given time.

      For example, if you are at home and aren’t heading out any time soon, you wouldn’t need your to-do list cluttered up with errands such as “deposit check at the bank” or “pick up milk” and can focus on more plausible activities like “do laundry” or “knit a swatch for socks”.

      My only caveat for the anxiety-impaired is that I had A REALLY hard time with the initial set-up. In the book he recommends collecting all of your action items in one go – over a weekend or something – and he’s really pushy about it, but with the paralyzing anxiety I get sometimes when confronted with massive projects, it was very difficult to stay focused for more than a few hours at a time. I imagine ADHD may pose a similar problem.

      You can definitely give it a try, but if you’re having trouble staying on task for the whole set-up, then ignore that part. Learn how the system works and set it up at your own pace. The book is geared towards CEOs and the like too, so unless that’s you, it’s not like a whole company is going to collapse if you happen to forget about that one very important email while you’re still working on implementing the system.

  3. My dear Nikki, you are a little bit full of crazy and I am a little bit filled with awe. I had no idea you were this ridiculously organized about your list-making! I just make lists of thing to do on a particular day on a piece of paper folded in half sometimes and keep a basic assignment notebook. but I totally get the impulse to write it down so you don’t have to worry about remembering it–and to have a list that you can check things off of when you complete a task. i do so love to check things off lists. 🙂

  4. For implementing GTD you can use this application:

    Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

  5. Toodledo is a pretty nice service, inexpensive for the Pro version with subtasks, and you can turn certain fields on or off in preferences as you intend to use them. It’s web-based but there are a lot of sync tools on a variety of platforms that will synchronize with it. They have a list on their site. And a forum with a lot of folks discussing how they use it (many for GTD). I personally like both the Toodledo iPhone app and Appigo’s Todo iPhone app, both of which sync with the Toodledo website. The Appigo app has a lot of repeat/copy/paste/duplicate options that are pretty advanced and uses subtasks for Projects. Toodledo mimics the website more closely but is pretty feature complete (and the website is quite powerful). But there are certainly alternate options out there. I’m more of a Windows guy but I’ve heard good things about OmniFocus. I like to sync though!

    Found your post because your Toodledo screenshot was one I created of one of my todo lists that you pulled from my blog from a post I wrote in 2008 🙂 (I don’t mind.)

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