Getting the Hang of Collection/Gathering
Prepping for this article proved more difficult than I anticipated. This is due primarily to the fact that my first article, a survey of GTD solutions, missed a number of good solutions—and several have emerged on the scene since then. In GTD parlance, you could say that I’ve been stuck in a “collection/gathering” stage and haven’t been able to move on to processing and doing. In light of that, it seems appropriate to give attention to how to handle the collection stage of GTD on the Mac.
Those who have read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done will remember his discussion of getting started, which begins with a whole-life collection stage. Allen describes how this can take an entire work-day, and result in a huge pile of things to be processed (he also discusses how the processing can take another full day or more). One of the keys to sticking with GTD is to continue collecting; this is obvious in one sense—the obvious, hard-edged actions and tasks are one thing. The more ambiguous actions that are hiding behind other information are another thing altogether, and a well-implemented GTD system will accommodate these regularly as well.
I’m not going to try to teach you how to maintain this collection process beyond this one reminder from Allen: “Give me as many buckets as I need, and not one more.” I’ll assume that you have put this advice into practice and have sufficient buckets for the different motions and contexts of your life. The important thing is that collection is done consistently and often. Collection isn’t limited to the daily or weekly reviews, but should be done throughout the day (otherwise, it stays on your mind). Most people have a number of ways to do this. Maybe you use a traditional planner (DayRunner, Franklin-Covey, etc.) and you’re comfortable with what it offers, or you’ve committed to a PDA and that serves your purposes. Maybe you carry a Moleskine notebook or a Hipster PDA. Maybe you spend so much of your time in front of your computer that you don’t need an external bucket, or maybe you simply keep a pad of Post-It notes everywhere you will be. In the spirit of GTD, I’m not worried about what tools you use, but how you use them—and how they will integrate into your digital implementation of GTD.
How do you move from collection in the various buckets to one streamlined action list in your Mac? There are a number of different approaches that the various applications take. I’ll focus only on those that apply to the Mac directly; things like PDA entry won’t be considered here.
Nearly all of the solutions have a distinct inbox for collecting directly within the application. (All of them have a means of creating a new task or list item.) This works well in many situations, and could be all that is needed. For example, when I process my physical inbox (including my Moleskine notebook) during my daily and weekly reviews, I keep this part of my GTD application open and use it to build new tasks and projects. Some solutions do this part particularly well; Thinking Rock, for example, has a very good collection system, and makes building new tasks a breeze. EasyTask Manager, Actiontastic, and Vortex also have real strength here. For those who work well with multiple applications at once and who spend 90% or more of their time at the computer, this may be a sufficient collection apparatus.
That’s not how I work—and I suspect that most people cannot afford for this to be the only bucket they utilize. Even if I’m at the computer, I like to have multiple options for collection.
This is one major reason why I believe that iCal integration and/or synchronization is an important feature for GTD applications to include. Why iCal? Because Apple has built into it (and into the OS itself) a handful of ways that iCal can effectively serve as central headquarters for task management. Sync Services, for example, is built to tie things like PDA and smartphone synchronization to iCal—so if you use one of these as a bucket, you can automate a significant part of the regular collection process. Most people figure out, however, that iCal is by no means the final answer for most task and project management efforts—and certainly not for the committed GTD user. So having a separate application for processing (to be covered in another column) that is tied to iCal in some way—one that can at least pull tasks from iCal, if not a two-way sync—is a good way to make collection and processing simpler, which makes more time for the tasks.
iCal as a Bucket
iCal’s centrality in OS X makes it an ideal bucket—and this will only grow with Leopard, since plans are in place for somewhat more global entry of to-do items, starting with Mail, and hopefully expanding beyond that.
Tools already exist for adding tasks to iCal from Mail. AppleScripts like Fuhgeddaboutit and some of those found in Mail Scripts make creating iCal to-dos from Mail straightforward. And Indev’s free plug-in MailTags 1.2 can also do this, with a more developed interface. Combine MailTags with Indev’s free Mail Act-On and you can do it by a simple keystroke. (It’s worth noting here that MailTags 2.0, currently in beta, has a more robust interface still, and can create both tasks and events in iCal; it is a paid-for version, and costs $25 in pre-release.)
You can also add to iCal from anywhere with AppleScripts for iCal Events and To Dos [Warning: link is a download.] These were originally designed to be Quicksilver triggers (more on these in a moment) but can be used independently through FastScripts or set up as independent actions through the Script Editor.
I mentioned ZooDo briefly in the last article; it is essentially an iCal to-do creator in a stand-alone utility. It also works with Mail, or independently.
Not everything works with iCal—and there are times when it would be cumbersome if they had to do so. Other ways of getting new things into the virtual inbox, either directly or indirectly, are also helpful, and perhaps necessary for some users.
One of the most popular utilities for hardcore Mac users is Quicksilver, which is characterized as a launcher, but has a lot more function than this. Many of the GTD-specific applications have good Quicksilver support, including Kinkless, Frictionless, Actiontastic, and EasyTask Manager. With the combination (and when “Advanced Features” is enabled in Quicksilver), a few quick keystrokes brings up a text box in Quicksilver, into which you type the information about the new task. Another couple of keystrokes enters it into the designated application. This makes on-the-fly entry easy at any time, no matter what application you are currently using.
Other solutions are available; a couple of applications brought droplets or bookmarklets as options, which means you can drag selected text onto these and create new tasks. I don’t know how useful this is, broadly speaking—I’d be interested in hearing feedback on this.
One of the benefits that all of the online “Web-applications” have is that they allow entry from anywhere, whether you are at your Mac or not. As a laptop user, this option is almost a non-factor for me, since anytime I have Web access I probably also have my MacBook with me. For those whose Macs are desktops, who work on multiple Macs, or who do a good bit of work on other peoples’ computers—consultants, for example—I can certainly understand how valuable this option would be.
Many of these also support remote entry of new tasks through e-mail. This could be huge if you use one of these solutions. You don’t even have to open your browser to create an entry—just pop off a quick e-mail. There are ways to make this even faster, such as putting an alias to that e-mail address in the dock, or using Quicksilver to launch a quick composition to the address. Neptune, Backpack, Basecamp, and Remember the Milk all offer this feature.
If this option is attractive but you use a local application—and that application syncs with iCal—CyBeRHQ has an AppleScript that will work with Mail’s rules to create a new iCal to-do based on a few criteria; you simply e-mail yourself a message with the prefix TODO at the beginning of the subject line, and it will automatically be added to iCal. Pretty smooth. (And if you’re a bit averse to using interfaces like MailTags or manually selected AppleScripts like Fuhgeddaboutit, try Will Henderson’s Note to Self in combination with the CyBeRHQ AppleScript rule to accomplish the same thing from within Mail.)
One of the more promising GTD applications, Midnight Inbox, will actually do more than provide a standard collection-stage interface; it will actually do some of the collection for you. Inbox aims at being an always-open, everything-connected headquarters for all task and project management. It will collect desktop files, text documents, recent e-mail, new bookmarks, and new events and to-dos from iCal automatically when you enter the collection window and enable collection.
Inbox does a good job with this, and settings allow you to specify what you want collected—from today only, from yesterday and today, the last week, month, or for all time. It tries to do this dynamically; after enabling collection, I created a basic new to-do in iCal, and Inbox recognized it, but only showed it as “New To Do” even though I had given it a title. As Inbox develops, this should improve.
For the right users, this could save a lot of time. For anyone, this allows one of the key principles of Getting Things Done to reign: get it out of your head. What better way to get it out of your head than to truly forget that you added that bookmark when researching, or created that meeting appointment for three weeks away—only to be reminded of it when you go to review? This is a good feature, though it may not fit into every workflow.
As I mentioned, the collection phase for this column continues to be a substantial piece of the project. Even as I write this, new tools have come to my attention: Nexty, Scrybe, Propel’r, Gravity-GTD (at press time, the link was no longer working), Toodledo, ActionItems, and myLifeOrganized will all be covered in future New Finds. For now, here are the ones that I’ve had an opportunity to look at seriously.
gtd-php is a PHP application designed to be locally installed. It is a fairly simple interface, with tabs across the top for changing views. It is designed for GTD, and includes capture and process stages, as well as a weekly review, in addition to mere project management. It is currently at version 0.7 (last updated September 2006), and is free.
Mojonote is not specifically designed for GTD, but gives the options for multiple lists in addition to basic task lists. Reminders by e-mail and SMS are available, and lists can be shared with others. A free account gets five lists, five notes, and 10 reminders; $5 per month upgrades that to 100 of each.
Neptune is another Web-based task management application designed around the GTD principles; it includes a collection “inbox” and both context- and project-oriented task management panes, as well as storage for inactive (Someday, Waiting, etc.) projects and tasks. Daily e-mail reminders help with keeping track of tasks, and new tasks can be added by e-mail as well. Data may also be exported by download in XML format. Neptune costs $10 per year, with a 15-day free trial available.
Nozbe is a more complex implementation of GTD Web applications, with “complex” meaning that it has a stronger feature set. Task lists and setup include markers for which action in a list will be the next action, and a time estimation is allowed for each. Contexts are always visible, and easy to identify with custom icons. And quick access to creating new tasks and projects from any view makes it easy to collect and process quickly. The youth of this Web-application is apparent, however: it has already changed servers in the first month, and I had difficulty accessing the sign-up and login in pages consistently. Still, Nozbe is free to sign up.
SimpleGTD works like many other Web-based GTD implementations, with tabs for next actions, contexts, projects, and done actions. SimpleGTD distinguishes itself with drag-and-drop task organization (drag from one context to another) and easy “un-doing” of tasks mistakenly marked done. It wants to be the option for those who find Backpack too complicated, and it may reach that goal; currently it is still a little buggy. Launched in mid-January 2007, SimpleGTD is still young but shows promise.
TaskFreak is another locally-installed PHP solution, and includes categories/contexts, priorities, due dates, and a progress scale that is a useful feature (and one that is surprisingly absent from most GTD applications). Another interesting feature is the large number of user-contributed plug-ins that expand the function and capability substantially. Single-user (for both MySQL and SQLite) and multi-user (for MySQL) versions are available, and are free. The current version is 0.5.7.
Vitalist implements a wide-scale GTD system, with collection, project management, recurring actions, and tickler files. It includes a mobile edition for Palm, Windows Mobile, or BlackBerry; iCal and RSS feeds; and e-mail and SMS reminders. A “premium” (paid) version also includes security encryption, collaboration, file attachments, and (soon) calendaring. The premium version also removes sponsorship ads. Premium accounts cost $5 monthly. Vitalist was released in January 2007.
Zenlists is not designed for GTD, but is simply a task list manager. However, it does have the capacity for setting up categories or contexts for task lists, and therefore would adapt fairly easily if a list manager is all that is needed. It is in active development, but there is no indication of what, if anything, will be added to the current feature-set. Zenlists is free.
iKog (an acronym for “it keeps on growing”) was designed to be ultra-portable, so any computer with Python installed can run this application off of a flashdrive. It is a pretty straightforward way to manage lists, though the all-text, low-GUI interface will throw some people off. iKog is free, and currently at version 1.85.
PyGTD is a Python GTD implementation that boasts a strong feature list. Apart from the normal necessities for a task list, PyGTD includes start dates, contingencies, effort required, subtasks, and project notes. PyGTD seeks to combine the strengths of Steven Covey’s prioritization principles (taking both urgency and importance into consideration) with the essence of GTD. The interface is clean and simple. PyGTD is free.
Vortex has a simple interface with a two-panel view for all options, giving a left-hand column for choosing between contexts, projects, someday/maybe tasks, and review. New tasks, projects, or waiting for items can be created with a simple button for each. Vortex includes contingencies and dependent actions, so it is easy to set up a series of actions that automatically triggers the next “next action” when the first is completed. It also includes indices for time and energy requirements in addition to priority assessment. Vortex is currently version 1.0.10, and costs £25 ($48.70 US).
What To Do is designed as an explicit GTD application, but is effectively a simple and straightforward task manager. Three distinct views are offered: context view, project view, and priority view (which hardcore GTDers will recognize as non-canonical). Drag and drop makes organization very easy. Current version (1.0.3) costs $29.
Even as new solutions come onto my radar and/or onto the scene, existing ones continue to develop. My first list was organized according to which ones I felt were the most “GTDish” but I’ve re-organized the list alphabetically.
30Boxes is an AJAX creation, which means that it is an active application that runs within your browser in the same way that Writely and other similar applications do. 30Boxes is lean and fast, which gives it an advantage over some AJAX applications. It has a calendar, task list, and limited Gmail interaction. It also has RSS and iCal feeds, SMS function, and sharing with others. The interface is nice, with a familiar feel—it has an OS X-style “dock” on the side to navigate between sections. 30Boxes is in beta, and is currently free.
d3 is a TiddlyWiki solution, a single-file wiki that you store locally (or you could run it from a server, if you preferred). Thus, this and other TiddlyWiki solutions combine the flexibility of a wiki with the straightforward approach of GTD. Currently at version 1.1.0, and open-source (free).
GTDGmail is a Firefox extension that brings GTD into integration with Gmail. Pre-packaged labels and a fast method for applying them. Also includes a Review process, allows specialized searches within Gmail, has a quick-entry method for new tasks, and a printable format (3×5 index card). Current version, 1.31, is open-source; requires Firefox.
GTD TiddlyWiki is the original TiddlyWiki solution for GTD. Current version is 1.0.6 (updated September 2005); open-source.
iCommit is browser-based; it runs online (and cannot be locally installed). Like a wiki without the hassle of setting up. Currently at version 1.9.0, free but first-come, first-served.
MonkeyGTD, like d3, is another TiddlyWiki implementation that uses the newer version. (The latest revision of TiddlyWiki is 2.1.3, released in November 2006). MonkeyGTD is currently at version 1.0.10, updated January 2007.
MyTicklerFile incorporates a broader concept in the GTD system. Includes explicit syncing with iCal; e-mails your upcoming tasks to you weekly for a GTD-style “weekly review.” Costs $9/month for 15 projects, 150 reminders, and an unlimited number of Ticklers; $19/month doubles that. (1 Project is free.) News: Current version is 2.1, last updated in February 2007.
Park takes the TiddlyWiki idea and localizes it, adding a few more features: part note-taker, part task-planner, it includes Spotlight support. Park is free, and is currently beta at version 0.9.
Tasktoy lets you categorize by context or project. Allows attachment of notes to tasks; focuses on low-resistance task building with repeatable tasks that are easy to set up; also mobile device compatibility through the mobile service provider’s Internet access. It isn’t GTD-specific, but was designed to be GTD-friendly. It is free as a beta version.
Tracks comes with a Web server that allows it to run locally, or have it hosted online through tracks.tra.in. It is fast, lean, and pretty. It doesn’t work with iCal, but offers calendaring functions of its own; it also has a multi-user component. Tracks is open-source, and currently at version 1.043 (last updated August 2006).
Web or Browser-Based Solutions—Not GTD-Specific
37signals’ Basecamp and Backpack are both capable project managers with iCal integration. Both have varying degrees of localization. For a simpler scale, you might also check out 37signals’ Ta-Da Lists, a basic task list manager. Basecamp and Backpack both have free and paid versions.
HiveMinder has a “brain dump” feature, a one-click task creator. It also has RSS feeds, iCalendar feeds, and printing features. Searchable, shareable, has a Task Review, and can be set up to e-mail tasks to you. HiveMinder is free, but ad-supported; they plan to offer a paid-for version in the future which will eliminate the ads.
Remember the Milk offers many input and output options: online, e-mail, SMS, RSS feed, Web-enabled PDA or smartphone, and instant messenger. Can create tasks through e-mail. Remember the Milk is free, and beta.
Sproutliner is a task list with some hierarchy and context management. It is open-source, and they say it is “beta” (last updated May 2005).
King Design’s Tasks is GTD-compatible, can work with iCal, and will send e-mail reminders of the tasks on your list for that day. New version 2.7 update includes tags, RSS feeds, and customization. Version 2.7 (recently updated) costs $30, while version 1.7 of Tasks Pro ranges from $125 to $500. Tasks Jr. (version 1.9.1) is free.
Action Tracker is a FileMaker Pro document, and a well-designed GTD environment. It serves as an interface for your project management: in addition to a task and project management element, it also organizes notes, contacts, and other files related to the project, and it can create iCal events as well. Action Tracker version 1.3.1 is free, and if you don’t have a FileMaker Pro license, a runtime version is available.
Actiontastic is a simple yet capable task manager, offering views of the inbox, projects, or contexts. Creating new tasks is straightforward, and the inbox serves the purpose for collection, while a “Process Inbox” engine will help you through the processing phase. There is also a Quicksilver plug-in, and ActionTastic will sync your tasks to iCal or an iPod, as well as working with Mail and MailTags. It is currently at version 0.9.3. News: While this application is still in beta, the developer has just announced that he is making it free and open-source for all future development. He is also planning a companion Web site, called Actionatr, that will sync with the local application.
EasyTask Manager manages only tasks, which can be sorted by project or category, and assigned due dates, priorities, and notes. It syncs with iCal, and it’s easy to perform regular daily and weekly reviews, while the drag-and-drop ability makes for easy sorting and categorization in process stage. It has some maturity, with version 1.8.2 available for $20. News: upgrades have jumped from 1.7.6 since the last article, and some nice new features are present: printing (including Hipster PDA support) has been added, syncing improved, and a new online sync is available for free, so you can track your tasks (and sync them) when away from your local computer, or sync multiple copies of EasyTask.
Frictionless is possibly the most thoroughly GTD of all of the GTD applications. New tasks go immediately into a flat file of actions, which can be organized into a hierarchy of projects and sub-projects. A Next Actions window is ready to give context-specific counsel about tasks, and the This Week window allows for very easy weekly reviews. Frictionless also has Quicksilver integration, and it has an AppleScript that allows an action to be created directly from Mail. The current (free) version is 0.8.4.
Ghost Action sports a simple, single-window interface with tabs for Contexts, Projects, and Actions. It syncs with iCal and .Mac, and will also sync with a PDA or phone through iSync. News: Ghost Action is now in release status, at version 1.1, and costs $19.
KinklessGTD isn’t itself an actual application, but an elaborate template and AppleScript set for OmniOutliner Pro. It allows you to view by Project, Context, or Next Actions. It syncs with iCal after some modest setup, and also can receive input through Quicksilver, and therefore has an Inbox view that lets you organize stray tasks into a project or context. KinklessGTD is free under the GNU public license, though it requires purchase of OmniOutliner Pro, which costs $70.
The mGTD plug-in, made for Hog Bay Software’s Mori, is a “digital notebook” complete with Spotlight functionality, AppleScriptability, and brings a thorough GTD system into Mori. The mGTD plug-in (current version: 1.2 “pre-final”) is free, but Mori (current version: 1.4) will cost you $40.
Midnight Inbox is a top-to-bottom implementation of the GTD system. It gathers events and tasks from iCal, messages from Mail, and other documents, bookmarks, notes, and other files and allows you to process them through the GTD model: collect, process, review-plan-do. You can monitor your progress, archive projects that are completed, and and organize your work patterns. It’s currently at version 1.0.5, with a price of $35.
Ready-Set-Do! is not a task manager per se, but instead functions like a virtual version of the paper method of collecting, processing, and review-plan-do-ing. Ready-Set-Do! is an extensive set of AppleScripts that transforms your Mac’s desktop into a GTD processing station. It integrates with iCal, and allows a “whole system” approach that isn’t possible with any of the other GTD applications. Currently at version 1.1 and costs $20 for a single-user license.
Thinking Rock has a distinct operation for each of the three main steps; it is easy to enter lots of new tasks at once. As a Java application, it is portable. Version 1.2.3 (last updated December 2006) is free.
Local Applications—Not GTD-Specific
DoIt (formerly “ToDo”) is low-profile but still packs a fair amount of punch with a Quicksilver plug-in, limited integration with Address Book and iCal, .Mac support, and AppleScriptability. Also supports file attachments and categories for lists. Version 2.3 is donationware.
High Priority is a system preference pane and creates a menu item in the menu bar that lets you create and update your iCal tasks. It’s currently at version 1.11 and costs $6 for a personal license (family and business licenses are available).
iClock offers a menu bar–based method of managing task lists. iClock is at version 3.0.5, and costs $20.
Life Balance offers “meta-feedback” about tasks: how much time are you spending in different areas of your life (i.e., work, family, hobbies, etc.), and are you keeping it balanced? Life Balance for the Mac costs $65, or $80 if bundled with the Palm OS version. Currently at version 3.2.9 .
Stapler is a combination notepad and to-do list manager with creation date, notes, and a checkbox for completed items. Tasks can be color-coded based on a low-level preference setup. 7.50€ (about $9.70) gets you version 1.1.
To-Do X will import tasks from iCal, but has no further interaction with it. It offers categories, priorities, and attached notes. Version 2.1 costs $15.
ZooDo is a basic task-creator for iCal, serving as a “collection bucket.” Version 1.0 is free.
Also in This Series
- The Last Action · May 2012
- Master List, April 2011 · April 2011
- GTD for iOS/iPad · February 2011
- E-mail Tricks and Tools · August 2010
- Master List, May 2010 · May 2010
- Inbox Overload · April 2010
- Master List, February 2010 · February 2010
- Getting Back on the GTD Wagon · December 2009
- Master List, June 2009 · June 2009
- Complete Archive