The Efficient Mac User

Getting Things Done: 9 Online Task Management Solutions

- 2006.10.03 - Tip Jar

As I mentioned in my iCal series, I employ David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (a.k.a. "GTD") method of organizing tasks and projects. Actually, I'm gradually implementing this approach, and this fall is the time when I intend to get all of the digital (read: Mac-based) aspects of my workload into the GTD system.

And as I also mentioned in my iCal series, I've been a fan of the "Kinkless GTD" (kGTD) solution, which takes the outlining power and elegance of OmniOutliner Pro and uses a well-conceived set of AppleScripts to sync that data with iCal. I love the Omni products, and I think the basic concepts of the kGTD model are wonderful.

In fulfillment of my goal to get my digital act together, I blocked apart a chunk of time this morning to get it going.

Two hours in, and I was making great progress: I had worked through most of the projects that were on the horizon between now and, well, almost as far out as I have projects planned for.

Oops, It Isn't Kinkless

Great - time to sync, then go get some lunch. Oops! Kinkless lost about one-third of the tasks and actions I had entered over the previous two hours! What happened?

It turns out that I am not alone in my surprise; a number of others have encountered the same problem. And apparently the developer of Kinkless has been aware of it for more than a month - and hasn't addressed it. Suddenly my confidence in kGTD, at least in the way I use it, has dropped substantially. (Note: It's clear from the comments on the Kinkless forum that many have figured out the culprit elements of kGTD and are successfully working around them. If that works for you, kGTD is probably still the best option going. But those solutions eliminate my methods for GTD organization, so it doesn't work for me any longer.)

In light of that, I went on the hunt for a new GTD application. What follows is a roundup of what I've found, and my thoughts on which suits me best.

GTD Overview

If you're new to the idea of Getting Things Done, here's the scaled-down version: Your productivity is limited by all of the other things on your mind and competing for your attention. You'll therefore significantly increase efficiency and effectiveness by getting those things out of your head and into a genuinely trusted system of organizing them with the confidence that you'll have them on-hand when you need them (so you don't need to keep them in mind until then).

Following this central concept, Allen unfolds a brilliantly simple plan for unloading your brain and keeping it focused on the next actionable task, all the while organizing the rest of your tasks, projects, and other information into that trusted system. It boils down to three basic steps:

  1. collect all data
  2. process it into projects, single tasks, and archives
  3. review/plan/do, which entails reviewing what needs to be done, planning when and how to do it, and then doing it

That's the oversimplified thumbnail. For more information about the system itself, check out David Allen's website, Merlin Mann's 43Folders website (named for the 43 folders involved in the GTD system), or read the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. You'll also enjoy Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life, also by Allen, which is a collection of snapshots of GTD at work from his newsletter.

What I'm looking for in a GTD solution is a basic set of tools that will fit into my existing workflow. I'm already committed to iCal and Mail, as well as DevonThink for my digital reference files and archives.

The missing link is in the task and project management area. I want a solution that will allow me to process my projects into actionable tasks, then organize them as I execute. I want something that can allow for creating new tasks one right after the other without a lot of troublesome menus or mouse clicks. I want one that will interact with iCal - specifically, one that has a bi-directional synchronization with iCal's task list.

I also want an application that is a stand-alone solution, one that I can keep open all the time. Naturally, I'd also like it to be very Appl-icious; I love the way good Mac applications work, and if I can find something that fits that mold, all the better.

Okay, I admit it: I basically just described Kinkless GTD. But since I've lost confidence in Kinkless, I'm hopeful that I can find something with similar features and function.

Web or Browser-based Options

GTDTiddlyWiki employs the flexibility of a wiki with the straightforward approach of GTD. An open-source solution that is fully customizable, the GTDTiddlyWiki is a popular and useful option.

King Design's Tasks is another online implementation, though this one is not explicitly designed to be a GTD application. It is GTD-compatible, though, and a free level of service is available. It can work in collaboration with iCal, allowing you to keep a localized version of your projects on your Mac. It will also send you email reminders of the tasks on your list for that day and can help you track billable time if you need it to. To get the permanent function of the regular version requires a paid subscription or purchase of a server-installed setup. There is also Tasks Jr., a locally hosted, browser-based system, and Tasks Pro, which is a multi-user (almost "enterprise") version. Tasks is a pretty good step in the right direction for a GTD setup, particularly given its multilevel options.

iCommit is another online option, something like a wiki but without the hassle of setting up. It's gotten a lot of good reviews (see GTD wiz Merlin Mann's affirming words in iCommit: PHP app for doing GTD) but has the downside of being "first-come, first-served" on the developer's private server.

30Boxes is an Ajax option online, 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 apps. It has a calendar, task list, and limited Gmail interaction. The interface is nice, with a familiar feel - it has an OS X-style "dock" on the side to navigate between sections.

Tasktoy is one more online option. Tasktoy has a simple interface, but it lets you categorize by context or project. You can also attach notes to tasks. I haven't played around with Tasktoy as much as the others, but from what I can see it is basically another similar concept to Tasks (but with fewer features).

MyTicklerFile is another online application specifically designed to work with GTD, though this one works with a broader concept in the GTD system. It has more explicit synching with iCal (and 37Signals' Basecamp, by the way) and will email your upcoming tasks to you weekly for a GTD-style "weekly review". It costs money for a subscription, though, if you want to manage more than one project or the full set of tickler files.

Tracks is another open-source, browser-based solution, though this one comes with a web server that allows you to run it locally if you prefer - or have it hosted online through tracks.tra.in. Tracks doesn't exactly work with iCal, but it does offer calendaring functions - so maybe it could be an iCal replacement.

37Signals' Basecamp and Backpack are both very capable project managers, and both have iCal integration. Even better, both have varying degrees of localization - dashboard widgets, at least, and PackRat works as a localized companion to Backpack. Some are convinced that Basecamp (see Getting Hicks Done) or Backpack (see Backpack and GTD and Backpack: New GTD Implementation Ideas) are the final answer for GTD applications.

(I know - there are other similar services, like Sproutliner, HiveMinder, and Remember the Milk. My take on these is that they are simply smaller-scale, less popular versions of Backpack; thus, they probably have about the same potential for GTD implementation.)

And then there are the more general-purpose online tools by our friends at Google: GMail and Google Calendar. Gmail has been adapted into a GTD system (see GTD with Gmail Whitepaper) and even improved upon (see A Better Way of Using Gmail for GTD). Similar work has also been done with Google Calendar (see GTD with Google's New Calendar).

I can understand the appeal of these systems as GTD implementations, especially if you use more than one computer often - as in one machine at work and one at home. My setup is more straightforward: I use a single laptop for 95% of my computing, and I have it available even when I'm using another machine.

Also, I don't always have an Internet connection - and even if I did, I'm not sure I want to do all my work in a browser.

Backpack offers the most in terms of localized companion software (between PackRat and the Backpack widget, it's about as good as it gets) without a lot of advanced setup (sure, Tracks can be installed locally, but it requires knowing your way around Ruby on Rails to set things up). And I'd like a bit more ability for notes and contexts attached to tasks than Backpack allows. And as much as the MyTicklerFile approach appeals to me, the cost of a subscription is a bit prohibitive for me.

I'm not sure that any of the browser-based solutions will do what I'm looking for. Check back on Wednesday for my look at applications and solutions that run on your computer and don't require Internet access, small and large. LEM

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