Category Archives: GTD

Getting ‘Getting Things Done’ things done

At the start of 2012, one of the things I stated I would do was get a handle on my personal time and project management through implementing a definitive GTD process. Twelve months later, I was still looking… or rather, I had decided the only solution was to roll my own. Back then it was running on Laravel. A few months later, reworked in CodeIgniter for greater development speed, I can honestly say it is up and running.

I’ve been using Ruck for the last couple of months to manage most of my work. I’m also re-reading David Allen’s book again, and the combination of discovering what works and what doesn’t in the alpha app, plus identifying the aspects of the GTD process that are missing or not quite implemented in the right way, is developing into quite a buglist.

Design-wise I was fairly happy with the layout I had worked up a couple of months ago, but as time has gone on I’m finding it more and more inflexible or just plain ugly to live with for much longer. I’ve sketched up some replacement ideas, but I hope this isn’t the first sign of the same endless redesign itch with which my blog was infected. It’s hard to avoid the standard Mac-style “menu on the left, large content area” layout, but I’m not convinced it’s the most efficient way to display different types of content together. Allen says that “hard edges” are important; keeping a clear delineation between your calendar items and other ‘next action’ tasks — to me, that suggests the UI should reflect that separation in a clearer way than just splitting a list with a header.

Once the UX is finalised I think I should be able to get through the various tasks I’ve set myself fairly quickly. The biggest annoyance right now is the delay-after-click that comes from using an online application. Pages have to load, database queries have to fire, and it’s enough to make you feel less than 100% efficient. I did briefly consider starting with a native application, and even got as far as spending an evening reading Objective-C documentation, but common sense prevailed — much better to have a working app that I can use and finesse, than spend six months struggling to make Xcode do what I want it to. When the HTML5 version is done and dusted I’ll move on to converting it for the desktop (and iPad, iPhone and whatever else looks like fun).

Resolutions, 2013 edition

January 2012 seems impossibly far away now. Moving house will do that to you — a previous life feels distant and remote, despite the year flying by in a rush of travel, holidays and new projects.

The two biggest changes in my life are causally related. In June I handed back the keys to our life in Amsterdam and returned to a decidedly quieter life in our little Fenland village. Exchanging a bike ride through the Dutch parks for a packed commuter train (or an even more packed easyJet flight) has altered the rhythm of my days, as has moving from an open-plan office of 150 to an office of six. I have much greater freedom to focus now, whether that be on reading during my commute, or headphone-insulated work in my private corner of the office.

The other change is also work related. I’ve moved, albeit temporarily (allegedly) to work on improving usability and the tools we provide to our extranet users. After three years of working on the frontend website for Booking.com, having to think about an entirely different set of users and their very specific needs and issues has been great fun, and — as the only designer on the team — I’m enjoying the freedom to make use of more modern techniques and tools than was possible on the frontend.

 Resolutions, 2012: Let’s see what you could have done…

Exactly a year ago, I published my three New Year’s resolutions. It seems apposite to revisit them and assess my success or lack thereof.

Firstly, I planned to find a GTD solution that worked. I ended up using Nirvana for most of the year, but when they moved out of beta and started charging I renewed my search. I’m temporarily using Remember The Milk at the moment, but finding it very clunky. So much so, that I’m taking steps to fix the problem once and for all. More on that later.

Secondly, I wanted to create more stuff. Unfortunately this has been an unmitigated failure; I continued to take hardly any photos (Instagram doesn’t count), left several web app ideas barely started, and failed to do much more than start a couple of new blogs. Again, more on that later.

Lastly, I promised to stay fit. That, at least, I can apparently do; I ran two half-marathons in 2012, and intend to keep going in 2013. So, more on that later. Or, well, now.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

  1. More, but varied, fitness. Regular running is all well and good, but the scenery round here can get pretty repetitive. This year I’m going to try a change in tempo — cycling, weights and swimming are all relatively cheap and easy to take up for some variety in calorie burning.
  2. Finish what I started. Over the last year I started building a GTD app (with Django), then a lifestream app (with Kohana), and finally the GTD app again (this time with Laravel). This year I intend to actually get something into a releasable state.
  3. Read more, write more. I haven’t been reading as much as I could, and I could certainly stand to up the variety of my reading material. Equally, despite thirty posts on this blog and starting two new blogs in the latter half of the year (book/film reviews on This Reviewer’s Life and daily writing exercises on Ten Minutes of Prose), I’d like to maintain a regular output — including sharing more technical stuff. I’m still receiving emails asking for help with a tutorial I wrote in 2005, so at the very least that needs updating. And the technical blog at work could also do with some design input as well.

So, in summary, not a lot has changed. I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about 2013; there’s nothing big on the horizon, and things are fine. Here’s hoping they stay that way.

My GTD wishlist

I like Getting Things Done. I really do. But, ever since reading the book and subscribing to the philosophy, I’ve had trouble nailing down a process that entirely works for me.

At the core of Allen’s recommendations is this idea of a “trusted system” and it’s that aspect that I have struggled with. I’ve tried everything from plain text documents to the flavour-du-jour piece of software, but nothing has ever really felt quite right. I sat down and wrote a list of the features that I crave:

  • Access across multiple devices. I want to be able to pull up my projects and lists at home, at work, and when out and about on my phone.
  • If it’s a web application, it should also be able to work offline – I don’t want to be rendered impotent due to the internet going down.
  • It should do “proper” GTD, and not just be a fancy to-do list manager. That means regular reviews, tickler files, the whole works.
  • Capture should be possible through a variety of different means – at least email, but anything else is a bonus: voice, calendar, or integration with other apps such as Evernote.
  • The ability to function as a mini project management tool as well – somewhere to write notes, a scratchboard, lists of links and future plans other than in a list format.

Reviewing the options available, it’s extremely hard to find something that ticks all my boxes. Plain text (or even pen and paper) is a little tempting, but I’d much rather rely on some form of automated reminder system than my own memory. Wunderlist, which is what I’ve been using for the last few months, is okay but little more than a to-do list tool, lacking even a built-in way to manage contexts – and because of the flat structure, you can’t even create fake contexts as pseudo-projects, because each task can only live in one place. In fact, the only application I’ve really found that is explicitly a GTD enabler is Midnight Inbox, but every time I’ve attempted to use it it’s either been too fiddly and sensitive to setup in a way that works for me, or horribly buggy.

At the moment, my shortlist (and reservations) looks like this:

  • Nirvana: Web application with offline support and add-by-email, and reasonable note-taking and tagging facilities. Lacks full GTD features.
  • Midnight Inbox: Beautiful native application, sync-able with Dropbox, and a real GTD process. Has notes plus a “reference” filing area, and planned iPad and iPhone versions – but no Android! It also seems to have really stupid bugs every time I download a new version…
  • Firetask: Another lovely looking application, although again mostly a glorified to-do list. Costs money.
  • The Hit List: I was using this earlier in the year, and got on reasonably well with it – excellent notes area for every task, really well-integrated GTD aspects like adding contexts when entering tasks (but no actual GTD process). The main drawback with this one is no mobile access unless you use their iPhone app and pay a monthly fee.

Obviously the lack of a GTD process isn’t a real problem. Weekly reviews and filing is simply a set of habits I need to get into, and would not be all that hard to implement with some basic recurring tasks and folders in any of these applications.

One final option is of course to roll my own, a solution which of course comes with the freedom to add or leave out whatever features I like. I actually started putting together a GTD-meets-Scrum personal project management tool last year as an excuse to use Django, but it kind of stalled when I reached the limits of my Python programming abilities (or perhaps the limits of the book I was learning it from). I have to admit it’s tempting me again, although probably safely back in the reliable arms of PHP; building a simple to-do list manager would be an extremely fast exercise, then layering on functionality and features would be driven by my actual use of the setup on a daily basis. It might also prove a great opportunity to jump into some new tech, with things like offline and email-as-input method to figure out.

For now, I’m using Nirvana, despite the fuzzy border between contexts and tags they employ, and the weird addition of ‘Focus’ as a third meta-property of tasks and projects. But the more I think about it, the more making my own – and therefore controlling all my own data – sounds like the most attractive option.