This week's article is a second in a series of articles about personal productivity.
In a GTD workflow, all the "stuff" in the InBox gets processed into one of 7 destinations -
- Trash - for things that require no action and hold no value as reference (ex. junk mail)
- Someday/Maybe - for things you might want to consider doing later (ex. that idea for that Costa Rica trip you scribbled on a napkin)
- Reference Filing - for things you'll need to refer to later but require no action at this time (ex. bank statements)
- Waiting For file - for things that you asked other people to take care of (ex. asked spouse to pay home cable bill)
- Next Actions List - for things that require action (ex. pay home cable bill) organized by contexts you can do them in (@home, @work, @calls, etc)
- Calendar - for things that require action by a certain time (ex. pay home cable bill by Tuesday)
- Project Plans - for things that require more than 1 action to complete (ex. build shed in back yard - buy lumber, take inventory of necessary tools, buy or borrow missing ones, etc)
There are some advantages to incorporating a computer into this system of organization, in particular for the calendar and the NextActions List - or as people refer to them commonly - the Todo List.
For one thing, almost all of us carry a small computer around with us - the smartphone. That makes the Todo list something portable, that we can add to and check things off of on the fly. To make this possible the computer solution we use to manage our todo list just needs to be able to synchronize the list across multiple devices - computer, tablets, smartphones - something most todo applications commonly do.
Many professionals are already tied to a task management system through work - maybe work supplied laptops and computers have Microsoft Outlook installed on them, through which all work must flow. GTD author David Allen purposely does not mention a software solution in his book because GTD is a set of organization principles that can be applied to any software solution.
Today, we'll briefly introduce using a plain text file for managing our Todo lists.
What's a plain text file? How do you use it to organize todos?
Plain text files are files with the extension .txt
Text files are almost as old as personal computing itself, and any operating system - Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, etc - can view and edit them without any added applications.
To the right, we see a sample of such a text file containing next actions.
How it's formatted and laid out is your personal agreement with yourself, but in the text file to the right, it's formatted like this:
Projects are indicated by a colon : at the end of the line.
Tasks belonging to that project, or not (they were just put under the inbox "project") are indicated by a dash in the front of the line.
@home, @work, @phone, @calls, etc indicate the context when these things can be done and are added at the end of the line.
Why would you use a .TXT file over a prettier special designed application for managing tasks like that one above?
The most important reason was mentioned above - a .TXT file can be opened on any computer running any operating system. Combined with cloud sharing services like DropBox, OneDrive or GoogleDrive, it can be accessed on any device. Many todo apps maintain proprietary file formats and data bases, that can only be opened where you have the application installed.
To the above, you see a screenshot of a very powerful and well regarded task management application, Omnifocus (available on iOS and Mac). There are several problems I personally have with this application (which you might not share, in which case this is a great application to use for GTD).
- It's available on Mac and iOS only. Some of the best task management applications are not available on Windows, while a vast majority of us have to use Windows computers at work. There is Outlook, which is fairly costly unless it was supplied to you at work, but the proprietary data is difficult to synchronize over to mobile phones and other computers.
- A more fundamental problem is that these applications are very feature packed. Many mistake this for powerful, while it's really just slow. When you want to cut a steak, you need a good specialized knife, not a swiss-army knife. The application can be well written and run zippily on your computer, but all the visual distractions and drop down menus and fields to click on and fill in makes entering your tasks a big task in and of itself. The point of the todo list is to record the things to do, quickly and efficiently before you forget them, and in a way that is easy to find when the time comes to do them. The list doesn't have to have colored circles and a mini calendar and other visual distractions. Omnifocus is a beautiful and feature-packed app many people swear by. It even has an option to fill in the address of the things you have to do, so when the phone recognizes by GPS that you're there, it'll pop a reminder.
In personal use, I found it's Apple-only nature limiting, as well as I was too easily distracted by trying to fill in every field and making my list beautiful. Sometimes, by the time I filled in all the accessory information for the task, I forgot the next one I wanted to write down. Sometimes, form gets in the way of function.
Keeping a todo list on a plain ol' TXT file is fast because the files are tiny in size and the applications written to handle them are simple.
When you double click the file, it pops up on an editor more quickly than almost any other app, and you can just start typing away all the things you can think of, dumping it on the computer-equivalent of a empty sheet of paper. Because thoughts, especially thoughts about chores and tasks we have to do, are fleeting, faster is better. The less mouse-clicking you have to do, the more likely your list of todos will contain all the things you have to do.
Once we can consistently trust that our Todo list is complete, meaning if we completed everything on that list, we have nothing to do, we can be free from that nagging feeling that you forgot to do something - because you can forget it and still find it on the list.
Almost all text editors have a search function, where various @tags like @work and @computer can be searched for. That way, when you're in front of the computer, and search the long list of todos for things you need to do in front of the computer, they'll show up.
Later on in the series of articles about GTD, we'll look at some online services like DropBox and various editing programs you can use on mobile phones and computers to make the TXT file tasklist more powerful.