When I started doing GTD, I kept my next action list on a paper notebook in my pocket. (Or, at work, on a pad of paper on my desk.) I did this partly out of a certain technological conservatism and partly because, at the time, I didn’t have any suitable electronic devices that were always with me. The latter changed when I got my iPod Touch (combined with my migrating more and more to Macs as my primary computing platforms, giving me a location to sync with that I would reliably use daily); and I found that, as my paper lists aged, it became increasingly hard to pick out the few undone items on a page amid the sea of items that I’d finished.
So I used my job change as an excuse to try switching my work next action lists to something computerized. I took a look at Things, OmniFocus, and The Hit List; The Hit List didn’t have an iPhone counterpart, OmniFocus seemed a bit heavyweight, so I gave Things a try.
And I ended up rather liking it. At first, I was somewhat taken aback by not being able to map the (to me quite important) GTD concept of waiting items directly to it. But once I decided not to get hung up on that, I enjoyed the program: it’s easy to use, it’s great to be able to pull up a quick entry box to get ideas out of your mind, and the clutter problem that I’d been having with my paper system has completely disappeared.
Things also has one very nice feature that isn’t a standard part of GTD (though it is part of the pomodoro technique): it encourages you to flag actions as ones you’re planning to do today. For several months, I’d been making a tentatively daily plan at the start of the day at work, and I really like the results: it means that I rarely have to refer to my entire next action list during the day, and it makes it easier for me to take care of items that are important but not urgent or ideas that, for some reason, my mind is resisting doing.
In fact, that last point is important enough that I’ll go on a bit of a digression on it. (Partly in hopes that I’ll figure something out, because I don’t claim to have all the answers here.) Too much planning is bad: plans go stale as reality marches on without them (and, in particular, unexpected events can cause priorities to shift quite quickly); and planning takes time, which has a real cost. But avoiding planning entirely isn’t good, either: our lives are too complicated for us to always be able to make the best choices even about a narrow area on the fly, and without plans, it’s too easy to get buffeted around, chasing the urgent over the important.
So you need to balance these two forces. (Or, better yet, come up with a synthesis.) GTD’s next action concept is a great step in that direction: you do just enough planning in advance to be able to make a bit of concrete progress in a project, but you don’t overplan by committing to when you’ll take that next action or by committing to the details of later actions on that project.
That one useful way to ease to this tension: you focus yourself on a single project and are a bit vague about time. But today lists provide an orthogonal easing of tension, this time focusing on a single slice of time but looking across projects. To get them to work, you make sure to have a few minutes of quiet at the start of the day (when walking Zippy when I get up, after checking my e-mail when I show up at work) when you can look across the existing list of next actions on all of your projects and see what might be a good idea to work on next. But you don’t commit to actually doing all of that (surprises can always arise), and if you don’t finish an item on one day’s list, it’s just fine to remove it from the today list when the next morning rolls around. Done well, it only takes a few minutes, it makes it very easy to figure out what to do next, and it helps you make progress across a range of important projects.
So, once the evaluation period ended, I paid for a copy of Things, installed it at both home and work, and bought the iPhone app as well. (Which I sync with my home copy.) And I’m quite happy with my choice; aside from the reasons mentioned above, the iPhone version is quite usable, and it’s made my weekly reviews at home go a good deal more smoothly, for reasons that are idiosyncratic enough to not be worth elaborating on here. It’s not a perfect piece of software—I’m still not convinced by its handing of waiting items, and some of the concepts that it has aren’t sufficiently orthogonal (e.g. there are actions you can do on standalone tasks that you can’t do for tasks that are part of projects)—but it works more than well enough for me.
It’s also changed my GTD usage. For one thing, it has the notion of Areas of Responsibility; that’s a part of GTD that I’d never spent much time with, but once I had software that mentioned it, I started thinking about it a bit more. And I realized that some things that I’d been thinking about as projects (e.g. read books, take care of tasks around the house) are actually areas of responsibility, and are best managed as such. The other thing is its use of tags: that’s the way Things handles GTD contexts, but putting a tag on an item you’re creating on the iPhone version adds just enough friction to be a slight annoyance. And, once I realized that, I also realized that, in fact, GTD contexts are never useful to me! (I’m not saying they’re a bad thing, just that my life isn’t complicated enough in ways where they are helpful.) So now I’m moving away from using tags as GTD contexts, instead just keeping around a few special-purpose tags with other meanings.
I’m very happy with the results, and plan to keep this system for the forseeable future. I still have my paper notebook around, e.g. to take notes about blog posts, but all in all moving the portable part of my system to my phone and the non-portable part to a piece of dedicated software is working nicely.
This post has not been revised since publication.