One of the highlights of last week’s New Adventures conference, which I attended as part of Booking.com’s recruitment away-team, was Robbie Manson’s talk on mindfulness. His thoughtful presentation, coupled with a laconic, deliberate delivery made him sound like the smartest Scot you’ve ever met.
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.
2011 was an odd year. I’ve been bouncing back and forth to my hometown for fifteen years, moving away then moving back in ever-decreasing circles, but until last year I’d always stayed in the UK. And yet, to claim that our move to Amsterdam in April was something of a big deal is put to shame by the similar stories told by so many other people in the city. Flying across the North Sea, even when accompanied by three small children and two cats, still seems small-scale when compared to relocating from India, New Zealand or Brazil.
Some things have been unexpectedly easy. Finding a school and getting the kids settled was probably our biggest worry, but they’re now virtually fluent (although curiously have not yet taken to conversing in their new ‘secret language’ at home). Signing on with a doctor was also a simple process, and – like the school – is just a few minutes away from our apartment.
Other things have not gone so smoothly. While we still have three children, we are down to just a single cat now; Tigger died in late summer, providing me with the first opportunity to try out my ‘telling the kids their beloved pet has died’ routine. They took it fairly well – it was at least thirty minutes before I heard: “Can we get a puppy?”
Living so close to the centre of a vibrant city is a balancing act at times. Both work and the city itself offer so many diversions and entertainments that it might be easy to feel one is missing out by staying home and early nights, but it’s also true that the best aspect of our move has been the greatly increased time I now have to spend with my wife and children. No more two-hour-a-day commutes and no more freelancing has translated into long walks in the nearby parks, trips into town and many more family moments; I think not having a car also contributes too, as the children have enjoyed both family cycle outings and solo trips on the tram.
The year ended with the most deranged New Year’s Eve we’ve ever experienced. The Dutch apparently have no words for such concepts as “health and safety” or “a safe distance,” and from our third-floor balcony we were treated to a deafening display as the neighbourhood set off as many explosives as they could find, mostly right outside our front door:
With Christmas and New Year falling on a weekend, I’ve only had a paltry nine days of unfocused, alcohol- and food-fuelled laziness; back to work tomorrow and time to think about some goals for the coming twelve months.
Further refining GTD
Over the last year I’ve tested many different GTD solutions or combinations of services, but the final result I’ve been living with for a few months, Wunderlist, still feels like settling for adequate when perfect is out there. A combination of occasional minor bugs (mostly sync-related), poor UI choices (task notes not easily accessible, no sub-lists), and just generally not using it at times when in theory it should be front-and-centre in my process leads me inexorably to the conclusion that my setup just isn’t working properly for me.
So, NYR #1, then:
Embark once more into the murky waters of GTD tools and techniques to find the perfect solution.
I should probably get around to finishing the damn book, too…
Be more creative, make more stuff
I have accumulated many gadgets and bits of software with which to be creative. Nothing which I’d be so arrogant as to call ‘semi-pro,’ but there are an embarrassing number of expensive toys gathering dust about the place. Like (it seems) virtually anyone daring to call themselves a web designer these days, I fancy myself a not entirely incompetent photographer, filmmaker or musician – and, possessing the tools to realise these pursuits, it seems wasteful to while away (all of) my free time bouncing between a handful of the same websites or killing dragons.
Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities to be more creative in my chosen field. I made a couple of abortive attempts to build semi-useful web apps last year; I’d like to either pick those up again, or perhaps some other new idea. The 12412 project is tempting, but personally I’d rather get good (or better) in one particular area than learn a little about a lot.
Use the tools and skills I have to create something (or several things) new.
One project in particular that I hope to launch in January should stretch my writing muscle on a fairly regular basis, and of course I intend to keep posting here when the urge strikes. Who knows, I might even write something about the web one of these days.
Get fit Stay fit
I’m ending the year fitter than I’ve ever been (at least in adult life). I completed the marathon in October, and since then have explored new areas of the city each week while building up to a respectable distance once more.
So, while the rest of the world is setting goals to get themselves fit, my aim is simply to maintain my current and very enjoyable level of fitness. NYR #3:
Stay fit and keep running.
So, no work-related resolutions, because who knows what this year will bring. I have the same problem filling in those “where do you see yourself in five years” questions on self-appraisal forms. At the moment, I’m happy, productive and relaxed – and I hope to be able to sustain this feeling well into 2012.