Monday, February 12, 2007
As someone who has worked at many jobs in which it is part of the job description to be interrupted incessantly, whilst at the same time having, as part of the same job, work that needs careful planning, reflection and sustained concentration to execute correctly, I've had many problems with the usual time-management approaches. Most of them seem to have been conceived in some middle-management Utopia back in the '50s, a place where everyone has an office with a door, the closure of which was sacrosanct; a time before email, pagers, cellphones and Blackberries; a society where "getting up in someone's face" was a social crime rather than a standard business strategy.

That said, you can't let your life be run by random events and dropping everything to work on whatever the customer who shouts the loudest wants. You need some sort of system, and I've found the system popularized by David Allen, which he calls by the arcane, obscure name of Getting Things Done, works best for me. It's a simple system. I can try to summarize it by saying that it's about collecting all the things you have to do in your life into a single system, then classifying them into what you're going to do, how you'll do it and when you're going to do it. There's a fair bit more to it than a single sentence, but that should give you the gist. It's also a system that is very usefully managed using computerized methods. Computers know what date and time it is and are great at reminding you about things that are due. They're also great at sorting and categorizing lists. Those two functions are necessary tools for organizing a task list, but the precise way in which the functions are presented to the user can make a huge difference between a system that works for you and one that gets ignored.

I do all my information management on a Macintosh, and I've tried a good selection of Mac applications that work in the GTD way. For the longest time, this meant what I think was the very first "application" in that field, Ethan J. A. Schoonover's Kinkless GTD (kGTD). I've put "application" in inverted commas because kGTD is actually a suite of AppleScript scripts that act on OmniOutliner Pro. I don't want to belittle Ethan's mammoth effort in creating this system; as anyone who's tried to develop in AppleScript knows, doing anything significant is hard work. I just want to be clear that in order to benefit from Ethan's hard work, you need to own OmniOutliner Pro too. A large number of Mac customers received OmniOutliner (standard) with their machines - I know I did when I bought an iMac G5 and a PowerBook G4. kGTD needs the Pro version and at present the upgrade cost is $29.95. While I appreciate the immense effort Ethan put into this system, he's the first to admit it's not perfect. I had a big problem with it when out of the blue, it decided to blow away all my tasks during a synch with iCal. After that I disabled the iCal integration, which halved its usefulness for me. Luckily just about then, Ethan and OmniGroup announced that they were going to work together to produce a proper, Cocoa GTD application called OmniFocus. However that was a while ago, and it's another while before it's available to buy and use.

In the meantime I looked about for a replacement. I tried ActionTastic, Midnight Inbox, and Thinking Rock. I didn't get on with any of them well enough to adopt them as a permanent replacement for kGTD. Then Alan Fleming mentioned Ghost Action to me. When I first looked at it, I was convinced that ActionTastic had been renamed, because the UI of the two products is very similar indeed. However the products are in fact different, not least because Ghost Action is being developed in a very interesting way - it's using the RubyCocoa Framework, and its code is written in Ruby, a modern, flexible and object-oriented scripting language. Ruby is very powerful at doing Perl-like things but using this framework, it's very clear that it's also able to produce 'proper' OS X applications with equal facility. Ghost Action maintains three views of your actions: Contexts, Projects and a full list of all your tasks under Actions. This fits with Allen's tenet of 'planning in projects, acting in contexts'. It also has seemingly flawless sync with iCal, which seems to have been a stumbling block for other apps I tried. The sync is two way, and creates a calendar for each context in iCal, prefixed with @ - so that your 'Calls' context becomes a calendar called @Calls. It also appends the name of the project where each action belongs to the name of the action, for clarity.

The developer, Jacob Wallström, is accessible and responsive - I updated it to a new version one morning and found a crasher bug immediately, because I like to use all applications that require data entry using only the keyboard, and this bug was to do with tabbing into and out of fields. I reported this immediately and by the afternoon, Jacob had pushed out another update fixing the bug. He also replied to my bug report personally and also took on board a couple of usability suggestions I'd made.

If you're looking for a quick and simple way to implement the GTD approach in software on your Mac, why not give Ghost Action an outing? There's a free 14-day trial period, after which purchase is $19.95 or local equivalent.

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Alan Fleming said...

I'd been round the same loop of GTD apps before settling on Ghost Action - for me, it was the first one that treated itself as the input point rather than the viewing point, and that's what sold it to me.

One tip - I don't use its context calendars in iCal for anything other than tasks. Because the contexts may change in time and I don't want to lose calendar info as I delete a calendar. So I've grouped them to reduce their view. For calendar items, I use a set of similarly-coloured master calendars.

OK, two tips - I've extended the use of those colours to Finder and Yojimbo labels too. So now I've a common colour-coding scheme across all the information I need to use in order to do tasks.

Simon said...

Agreed about the task-only calendars.

For Outlook users it may seem unnatural to have lots of calendars instead of a single calendar with multiple categories, but I can't think of a downside to this myself.