How to get things done

The whole concept of consolidating one’s thoughts into a list is something that fascinates me.

Why? Because I’m not a listy kind of person. I’m very much an improviser in life, I don’t like to be tied-down to systems or structures, I love to see how things go before I commit – but I still find myself having to write lists.

Herein lies a paradox, and here is the crux of this paradox: because I don’t naturally tend towards structure, and because my brain is so disorderly, and because I am not a natural multitasker, and because I think too much all of the time, (and because the number of clauses in this sentence reflects how my brain works), the only way of getting through my day is to write a list.

It’s a battleplan for actually getting things done.

Otherwise, I am easily overcome with the small things clouding the bigger picture.

This is something I realised a while ago, and so I started to read about the formalised concepts of GTD (getting things done) proposed by David Allen, became a friend of the 43 folders concept, and investigated list-making websites and programs.

Like any true list junkie, I had to feed my habit. This started, aged 18 (that’s 11 years ago), with an unhealthy dependency on using Microsoft Outlook tasks, and since then I have been a slave to the Palm Pilot (2 different models), early days of Nokia mobile phone tasks, the smartphone in 4 different flavours (Windows Mobile introduced synchronisation of my lists from Outlook to a mobile device – wow!), cloud-based services like Gmail’s task lists, synchonisation of lists across a number of different pieces of technology, not to mention the shunning of all the above and the purchase of the entire range of Moleskine notepads (I was feeling renaissance).

Now I come to think of it, I once spent three weeks trying to find the perfect digital audio dictation device that was waterproof so that I could pin-down the ridiculous number of thoughts and bright ideas that my brain has when I am in the shower, as well as driving in my car. No kidding. What a geek.

Invariably, however, after my foray into this new-fangled paper and pen thing, I came back to technology to help me get productive. How old-fashioned. And of late I have downloaded (and spent too much money on) a few good GTD applications for the iPhone.

I have pondered how much money I’ve invested over the years on systems to help me get things done (Things, TapForms, DropBox, Evernote, Done, Outlook, Pocket Informant, and more), and whether or not this investment has matched the gain in productivity I have encountered. Of course, it hasn’t.

But it has made me feel better. I therefore conclude that everyone needs a hobby, and because I don’t fly kites or own a cat, mine is “finding the perfect way to organise my thoughts”.

Like a junkie, I get excited when I sign-up for a new productivity enhancing website. I get excited when I find out the website will sync with my iPhone so that I can always never forget to not forget to Remember the Milk at all times, always, wherever I am.

Then I’m left high-and-dry 6 months later because I discover one TINY piece of functionality that another application has invented which my favourite To-Do list system doesn’t have.

Such is the curse of perfectionism. No, scrap that. Such is the curse of consumerism.

At this point in my life, I have identified the problem. The problem is me.

I am a fickle consumer of things that could potentially make my life more efficient and better.

Is it really me? Or has the perfect system – at least perfect in my mind – just not been invented yet?

You see, in my head there is a specification for what makes the ultimate list application. (This is like the ‘ultimate hit’ for junkies.)

  • Quick to enter thoughts. I mean, from the moment you have a thought, there should be zero delay in recording it. This also covers the requirement to enter lots of thoughts in succession.
  • Clear delineation of functionality from other apps. A good GTD app should not be my calendar, but because I am task-oriented and not time-oriented, I require some kind of time-based aspect. For example, I want to remember to do something in the future but not to have it cloud my list for the current day.
  • Needs to have multiple lists or contexts. (One for work, one for admin, one for home, etc.)
  • Needs to have multiple views and list types that transcend these contexts. (Things for ‘today’, things for ‘someday’, things for a project, things for a meeting, etc.)
  • Needs to act as a record or log for old thoughts / to-do items. I want to track what I was doing this time a year ago. This time 4 years ago. Therefore it must have an export function, to export to a common format, if and when I move on to another system.
  • Coupled with the above point, it needs to export items so as to be platform-independent. I love my iPhone, and will probably settle on it for at least a few years. And I currently use a PC. But what about in 20 years, when we are commanding computers built-in to coffee tables and the like? Tech has changed so much in the last 10 years, and this will only accelerate in the next 10.
  • Back to the now: needs to sync between different devices, and the cloud. My laptop and desktop PC are used when I need to expand thoughts, and my iPhone is my all-in-one that gets taken everywhere. Ideally, this sync should be done via the ‘cloud’, so everything is backed-up, and so I’ve access even when I lose or forget my laptop or phone. I use the Google cloud, because it’s free, and highly available, and resilient. This allows me to store and sync files, email, you name it. Too many of the best apps are written for Mac and iPhone only. No good for me right now.
  • Needs to be pretty. And ingenious. I can’t handle an ugly bit of software.

It turns out there are a tonne of apps out there that do most of the above, but not all. Perhaps that’s why I keep changing apps, not because I’m a junkie.

The best ones seem to be apps that are not quite as platform independent. Things for iPhone, OmniFocus for iPhone – great apps, but if you want to sync with PC or the cloud, they are limited. And they aren’t that ingenious in terms of their user interface.

Remember the Milk for iPhone, great, but you need to sign up for a subscription to their package.

My latest download is an application for iPhone called Today To-Do by Spielhaus.

The fact it’s my latest indicates it’s my favourite in the evolution of GTD on the iPhone so far (that small sentence betrays a lot of enthusiasm for the application right now), but it doesn’t quite fulfill the whole of the above hit-list… at least not yet.

The first application that does so gets a full, detailed review!

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