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ATPM 18.05
May 2012





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Next Actions

by Ed Eubanks Jr.

The Last Action

When Your Task List Is Empty

I think deep in my subconscious I saw it coming.

A few weeks ago, Michael Tsai, who has faithfully and relentlessly led the efforts to publish ATPM every month for, well, I think always, sent out an e-mail announcing that the leadership was agreed that the time had come to bring the publication to a close. Sad news for all; I’ve been writing for ATPM for about six years, and while regular readers will recognize that it has been a long time since my last installment, I still consider my column active. I’ve had several new articles in various stages of planning for months, and it is my time—not my interest or ideas—that are lacking for the new content. It seems I’m not the only one with the problem of having more ideas than time to write them; I had noticed the trends that Michael and the others cited leading up to the decision. Still, a lack of surprise on my part doesn’t mean I’m happy about it!

So, with a certain amount of dazed grief, I’ve been thinking about what I might write for a final article for the last few weeks. Truth be told, I’ve considered writing a farewell piece for some time, and allowing the Next Actions column to go dormant or inviting someone else to take it over. There’s some relief in this: that the items on my task list which have been “on hold” can now be cleared off, and after this submission that part of my writing tasks will be empty.

Continuing With GTD

As I consider the life of this column (and my interaction with this subject matter preceding my time with ATPM), it seems to me that the GTD principles and processes remain consistently useful and applicable in daily and weekly usage. It’s been 10 years since I first picked up David Allen’s book, and I continue to marvel at the simplicity and timelessness in its wisdom. While adaptations are needed for a culture of changing technology (and thus the rationale for this column in the first place), my sense is that Allen’s GTD will appeal to my children’s generation as it has our own.

Nevertheless, if you’re like me, you find that your GTD practice can start to slip…slowly at first…then suddenly you realize that you haven’t done a review in days, or even weeks. Or maybe you look down and see your physical tickler file is still on last month, even though you’ve done pretty well keeping up the digital tasks. And at times over the past several years, my week-by-week duties and tasks were so routine that I simply didn’t need a task list; simply knowing what day of the week it was told me 95% of how I would ordinarily spend the day—and the 5% variations were so impromptu and high-priority that they didn’t need to be recorded on a list.

That’s not the case anymore, though. I’ve re-entered the GTD fray in full force, and I’ve found the Web site RestartGTD to be a great help in re-entry. If you struggle (occasionally or perpetually) to stay on the GTD wagon, I recommend this blog to help you when you’ve fallen off.

My goal in this column has always been two-fold: first, to offer reflections on how computer users, and especially Mac/iOS users, might utilize the principles and practices of GTD in a digital context; and second, to consider (in an ongoing manner) the software tools that are available to do this more fully, and how those tools have evolved. I like to think that I’ve been able to do that, insofar as time and energy has allowed me to do it. I hope that, like David Allen’s book, the few thoughts I have had here might have a usefulness that outlasts publication date. To that end, I am grateful that this body of work—and the many, many other helpful articles and reviews in the ATPM archives—will in some way continue to be available online.

A Last Look at the Landscape

When my first article in the Next Actions column appeared in February of 2007, it was a thrilling time for a geek like me to be watching and considering the technology innovations that made GTD more efficient. It seemed like a new application, Web-app, or scripted document appeared on the scene almost every week, and the diversity of these tools seemed to offer something for nearly every level of GTD user. At the same time, most of the software tools that are prominent today were not yet available. The Omni Group’s OmniFocus, for example, wasn’t even a twinkle in Ethan Schoonover’s eye, though his elaborately scripted OmniOutliner document, entitled Kinkless GTD, was popular, mature, and an important precursor of what was to come.

Leaping forward five years, now many of those tools that along the way appeared (to me and others) to be the best options for GTD on the Mac have either faded into obscurity (witness Frictionless, Ationtastic, Ghost Action), absorbed into other projects (Kinkless GTD, iGTD), or somehow never quite delivered on their promises to continue innovation and updates (Midnight Inbox, Mori/mGTD). Others have seized opportunities to span across platforms and have surprised me with their emergence into prominence (like Remember The Milk and ToodleDo). And, of course, new tools have come onto the scene.

I could be wrong in my read on this—after all, my attention to the ongoing development of all of these apps has waned severely over the years—but it seems that today’s useful GTD software ecosystem needs at least three things going for it: it must have a certain capacity to allow flexible, easy, and relatively streamlined use in daily/weekly practice; it needs a presence on one or more mobile platforms (iOS, Android, etc.), the more the better; and it has to be able to synchronize tasks, notes, completions, assignments, etc. across these different iterations. Important, also, is that development must be ongoing at all levels, at least as far as support for new OS releases and features go.

While the “master list” would still be quite long, the volatility and competition of the “early days” (maybe 2005–2007?) seems to me to be long-gone. In terms of stand-alone applications, I believe that most (80–90%) Mac users who are doing GTD are probably on one of three ecosystems: Hog Bay Software’s TaskPaper (for the barebones, scaled-down approach), Cultured Code’s Things (a highly “Mac-like” and more elaborate, but not more complicated approach), and The Omni Group’s OmniFocus (for the all-out, high-powered and full-featured approach). All of these offer both Mac and iOS versions, and in each case synchronization among devices is pretty seamless. I could be wrong about my percentages, as this is based merely on anecdotal evidence; feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments!

As for me: I’ve tried to dodge discussing my personal preferences for software for the 5+ years I’ve written this column, as I wanted to avoid any appearance of, well, preference. It won’t hurt anything to state them now, though. I’ve tried almost all of the applications and Web-services available, if only for an hour or two to get a feel for them and be able to summarize them adequately; some of them have impressed me enough to try them further. Very early on, I landed on EasyTask Manager and used it exclusively for a while, before switching to Kinkless GTD. At one point I tried to go all-in with Midnight Inbox, and later with iGTD. And for the sake of fairness, I have used both Things and TaskPaper as “my system” for a couple of weeks. Ever since it has been out, though, I’ve kept coming back to OmniFocus, and it is what I’ve committed to for now.

I love OmniFocus’s cross-platform ecosystem: I do my weekly reviews and project planning in the desktop version, as well as task management when I’m using my Mac (probably about 65% of my workday, typically). I love having my lists with me on the go with my iPhone, and I use the quick-entry and task inbox fairly extensively there, in addition to checking off completed items when my MacBook Pro isn’t in-hand. Then I use the iPad version for daily reviews and occasionally for more in-depth re-organization, and also when I’m in meetings. For me, OmniFocus (in all of these versions, and with the toolset that it offers) is everything I need, and it can be—and is—almost always with me.


Finally, I want to offer my warmest and most sincere thanks to all of you readers, including my fellow ATPM staffers, and especially to Michael Tsai and Chris Turner as the Publisher and Editors. Thanks, also, to Paul Fatula for facilitating many review licenses and other delights. Chris L., Linus, Ellyn, Brooke, and Lee, your work in polishing and preparing my column and others’ has been invaluable and deeply appreciated. All of you have made our time together as a writing staff always educational, always gracious, always hospitable, and always a true pleasure. Readers, thank you for your time, attention, and frequent input. Staff, I hope that all of your writing endeavors may be as rich and favorable as ours has been with ATPM, and I look forward to the hope of possible future collaborations together. Blessings to you all.

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Reader Comments (2)

George G. Garrett · July 2, 2012 - 13:57 EST #1
I too love and use OmniFocus, but I also love Toodledo for its iPhone app and its huge range of features and flexibility (and availability on Windows machines). And I am now very excited about Workflowy, not as a substitute for either of the ones I mentioned, but as an excellent outlining and focusing tool. It has great search and can use tagging to quickly find the next action. I only wish Ted Goranson's ATPO column for ATPM had lasted long enough so that he could share his thoughts on this amazing outlining tool.
Nic Nelson · September 13, 2012 - 09:18 EST #2
I feel like the guy who walks into a party just as the last guests are giving their goodbyes to the host! But as an utter newcomer to the whole GTD thing, I must say that this post has been the most helpful article I have found in the last two weeks, about GTD-on-Mac-and-iOS.

I will fiddle around with all three of the apps you mention here, and Toodledo too because of George's comment. I hope this website remains active for years to come as a reference for those of us who need all this accumulated wisdom. Looking forward to browsing those past articles here...
Thanks for blazing the trail so well!

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